Red Famine, by Anna Applebaum

33864676For decades, knowledge of the Holodomor was suppressed or dismissed as a hoax. In Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, 1921-1933, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anna Applebaum was able to take newly available archival and oral material and build on the work of previous scholars’ work to create a throughout history of what Sovietization did to Ukraine. It is a harrowing read because all of the suffering and death could have been avoided if Stalin had bowed to reality and reversed his impossible grain policies.

Applebaum begins her history in the nineteenth century. Her argument in Red Famine is that Russia, and later the Soviet Union, had an established policy of squashing any Ukrainian nationalism, culture, and language. From the 1800s, the Ukrainian language was banned. Russian and Russians were preferred. Ukrainians had a brief chance at establishing an independent republic after the October Revolution. The Soviets, the Black Army, and others, however, had other ideas. After the Soviets won the Civil War, they set about imposing their version of Communism across the country. The early Soviet attempts at collectivism (along with political repression, chaos, and bad weather) caused famines in 1921, 1928-1929, and then another in 1932-1933 that took millions of lives.

Ukraine has been fought over for centuries because of its fertile soil. It’s part of Europe’s breadbasket. Because of this reputation and because of his determination to ramp up production everywhere (regardless of reality), Stalin demanded impossible amounts of grain for export. When party officials were unable to come up with the millions of tons of grains, they began to confiscate grain, livestock, and other food from the peasantry with official approval. Internal and external pressure led the Soviets to reverse their policies in the early 1920s, but nothing stopped Stalin in 1932. Applebaum lists policy after policy enacted that lead to inescapable mass starvation. And yet, even in the depths of the famine, farmers would write to Stalin asking for help. They didn’t know that Stalin not only didn’t care, but that the famine he created was also a tool to make Ukrainians surrender any hopes for independence.

A few months ago, I read A Square Meal about how food changed in America as a result of the Depression. Some politicians fought against direct relief, but the New Deal and other programs gave food, money, and jobs to people who struggled with poverty. The situation was almost the exact opposite in Ukraine. It was as if Stalin and his circle were deliberately trying to starve the entire country to death. As soon as the peasants found a way to make a bit of money or get a bit of food, there would be a policy blocking that route. It’s heartbreaking to read.

Applebaum concludes with a few chapters that discuss how Soviet officials, then, during the Cold War, and Russian officials now, manipulated demographic data and called the famine a fascist hoax. Only after Ukraine became an independent country in 1991 did many Ukrainians openly talk about the Holodomor and its aftermath.

In Red Famine, Applebaum gives voice to so many Ukrainians, Volga Germans, Cossacks, and Russians who haven’t been heard until now. By letting these voices speak for themselves after decades of silence, Applebaum has crafted a very human history of a tragedy in clear, undeniable language.

I received a free copy of this book from the publisher via NetGalley for review consideration. It will be released 10 October 2017.

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