Starving out resistance: Anne Applebaum on Stalin's deliberate famine in Ukraine
Historian Anne Applebaum is the winner of the 2018 Lionel Gelber Prize for her book, Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine. It tells the story of how Stalin's collective farming policies in the early 1930s induced starvation among 3 million Ukrainian peasants. The book argues that this act was no byproduct of bad policy decisions, but instead a deliberate effort to crush Ukrainian nationalism and resistance — with repercussions that extend into our own era of Russian-Ukrainian tensions.
When Anne Applebaum worked as a foreign correspondent in Poland in 1990, the country right across the border remained something of a mystery. There were parts of western Ukraine not much known to outsiders. But the journalist found herself intrigued by hints of a growing nationalist movement there. So a year later, when Ukraine declared independence from the USSR, Applebaum was thoroughly fascinated by the place and its history.
Despite it being a major grain producer, she knew that Ukraine had suffered a devastating famine in 1932-33, when many millions died across the entire Soviet Union, and particularly in Ukraine. In the eighties, Robert Conquest famously wrote a history of this Ukrainian famine. But with the past decade's release of new archival materials, Anne Applebaum decided that there was more to tell. She gives a detailed picture of this era: one of great ideological significance to both Ukrainians and Russians today, and a source of their tensions.
This is a famine that took place for political reasons. The Soviet Union was trying to eliminate the Ukrainian national movement. It was trying to eliminate many peasants- Anne Applebaum
Applebaum's book Red Famine makes the case that Soviet leader Josef Stalin had been obsessed with Ukraine for decades. He had seen a Ukrainian national revolution grow in 1917, and produce a bloody anti-Bolshevik uprising by peasants there. As a dictator who eliminated enemies near and far, a politician obsessed with his own control and power, he was not going to allow his vision for a mighty and industrial Soviet state to be destabilized by Ukraine.
The USSR effectively divided the (Ukrainian) countryside. They described wealthier peasants as ' kulaks ' and targeted them for elimination...Over time it came to really mean any peasant who objects to Soviet power, or, later, any peasant who objects to collectivization.- Anne Applebaum
Collective farms were established to centralize power, and had the effect of making rural Ukrainians dependent on the Soviet state for work. But additionally, Ukrainian farmers were made to hand over grain and food to the state, and feed cities across the USSR. This went further when activist teams were assigned to confiscate animals, vegetables, and grain — any food — from people in the Ukrainian countryside. Red Famine contains horrifying witness accounts of these teams using long hooked poles to search under floorboards and down wells for any hoarded food supplies. The Ukrainian peasants were literally left with nothing to eat. They starved and died on their doorsteps, or sometimes went mad and cannibalized weaker relatives.
The famine finally ended with the late summer harvest of 1933. Workers were imported to collect it, and the peasants who'd survived were finally allowed to keep some food. Anne Applebaum argues that this is proof that the Ukrainian famine was an artificial one, with a crushing political intent that came straight from Stalin. He sought to cover up what had happened by suppressing the census statistics. Though the stories of starvation and suffering were told inside families, the Ukrainian people only began to publicly discuss this aspect of their history in the late 1980s, as they headed toward independence.
Even now with the ongoing Crimean situation — it seems Moscow sees Ukraine as a threat.
Putin insists on seeing Ukraine as a potential enemy… His animus is toward a Ukraine led by a democratically-elected president (who) seeks good contacts with the West. He sees that as a personal challenge.- Anne Applebaum
Anne Applebaum is an historian, writer, and professor based in Warsaw, Washington, and London. In addition to receiving the 2018 Lionel Gelber Prize for Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine, she won a Pulitzer for her 2004 book, Gulag: A History, and the 2012 Cundhill Prize for Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1946.
Further Reading & Related Websites:
- Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine, Anne Applebaum, Penguin/Random House, 2017.
- Ukrainian Canadian Research and Documentation Centre
- Economist Amartya Sen's book on the politics of famine
- More on Gareth Jones, Welsh journalist who spread Ukrainian famine news internationally
- Anne Applebaum's Washington Post columns on current politics and foreign affairs