Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine.
OF THE estimated 70m deaths due to famines in the 20th century, at least 40m occurred under communist regimes in China, the Soviet Union, North Korea and Cambodia. The precise number of deaths remains uncertain, as do the causes, owing to the difficulty of disentangling the effects of war, revolution, and disease, as well as those regimes’ isolation and secrecy. Even low estimates, however, are damning: what clearer illustration could there be of socialism’s impracticality than its repeated failure to feed its own people?
In her powerful account of the famine in Soviet Ukraine in the early 1930s Anne Applebaum, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer (and a former journalist at The Economist), tells an even more sinister story. Far from an unintended result of ill-conceived policies, she argues, the roughly 4m deaths from hunger in 1932 and 1933 were part of a deliberate campaign by Josef Stalin and the Bolshevik leadership to crush Ukrainian national aspirations, literally starving actual or potential bearers of those aspirations into submission to the Soviet order. As her book’s subtitle says, Stalin was waging “war on Ukraine”, the Soviet Union’s strategically and economically most valuable republic after Russia. War, as Carl von Clausewitz famously put it, is the continuation of politics by other means. The politics, in this case, was the Sovietisation of Ukraine; the means was starvation. Food supply was not mismanaged by Utopian dreamers. It was weaponized.
As Ms. Applebaum notes, this is not a new argument. Émigré survivors of the famine said as much in the 1950s. They were largely dismissed, however, as right-wing conspiracy-mongers is driven by anti-communism and Ukrainian nationalist hatred of Russia. Thirty years later, though, a documentary film, “Harvest of Despair” (produced by members of Canada’s Ukrainian community) and Robert Conquest’s book “Harvest of Sorrow” began to change minds. For the first time, the word Holodomor (Ukrainian for “killing by hunger”) began to reach large audiences.
With the disintegration of the Soviet Union in 1991, scholars gained access to an enormous trove of historical documents, not least in newly independent Ukraine. No evidentiary smoking gun has yet emerged demonstrating orders from the Kremlin to impose famine. What has come to light, and what Ms. Applebaum synthesizes in lucid and vigorous prose, is a devastating circumstantial case. “Red Famine” presents a Bolshevik government so hell-bent on extracting wealth and controlling labor that it was willing to confiscate the last remaining grain from hungry peasants (mostly but not exclusively in Ukraine) and then block them from fleeing famine-afflicted areas to search for food.
The book’s most powerful passages describe the moral degradation that resulted from sustained hunger, as family solidarity and village traditions of hospitality withered in the face of the overwhelming desire to eat. Under a state of siege by Soviet authorities, hunger-crazed peasants took to consuming, grass, animal hides, manure and occasionally each other. People became indifferent to the sight of corpses lying in streets, and eventually to their own demise. Stalin was not only aware of the ensuing mass death (amounting to roughly 13% of Ukraine’s population). He actively sought to suppress knowledge of it (including banning the publication of census data), so as not to distract from the campaign to collectivise Soviet agriculture and extend the Communist Party’s reach into the countryside—a campaign Ms. Applebaum calls a “revolution…more profound and more shocking than the original Bolshevik revolution itself”.
Known for her sharply critical previous books about Stalin’s gulag and the Sovietisation of eastern Europe after the second world war, Ms. Applebaum is not shy about suggesting parallels between Stalin’s war and Vladimir Putin’s campaign in Ukraine today. “Eighty years later,” she writes, “it is possible to hear the echo of Stalin’s fear of Ukraine—or rather his fear of unrest spreading from Ukraine to Russia—in the present too.” “Red Famine” claims that Ukraine’s current “pathologies”—including political passivity and tolerance of corruption—can be traced back to the famine. Those qualities, however, can be found in nearly every country that emerged from the Soviet collapse, including Russia. While stressing Stalin’s goal of crushing Ukrainian nationalism, moreover, Ms. Applebaum passes over a subtler truth. For along with its efforts to root out “bourgeois” nationalisms, the Kremlin relentlessly promoted a Soviet version of Ukrainian identity, as it did with most other ethnic minorities. Eight decades on, that legacy has done even more to shape today’s Ukraine than the Holodomor.
Stalin’s assault on the Ukrainian peasantry marked the third in a series of attempts to modernize the inherited agrarian order, following the emancipation of the serfs in 1861 and prime minister Pyotr Stolypin’s attempt in 1912 to transform former serfs into yeoman farmers. With searing clarity, “Red Famine” demonstrates the horrific consequences of a campaign to eradicate “backwardness” when undertaken by a regime in a state of war with its own people.
Consistently foretold the coming ruin and have sought to dissociate themselves from it. And that party is either the Left: and then God help us! for it will lead us to complete destruction – to Bolshevism, or else it is a party of the Right which at the last, when the people are in utter despair, when it has lost all its spirit and has no longer any faith in anything, is determined for its part ruthlessly to seize the reins of power – that is the beginning of resistance of which I spoke a few minutes ago. Here, too, there can be no compromise – there are only two possibilities: either the victory of the Aryan, or annihilation of the Aryan and the victory of the Jew.
– Adolf Hitler
- The National Socialist Movement, on the contrary, will always let its foreign policy be determined by the necessity to secure the space necessary to the life of our Folk. It knows no Germanising or Teutonising, as in the case of the national bourgeoisie, but only the spread of its own Folk. It will never see in the subjugated, so-called Germanised, Czechs or Poles a national, let alone Folkish, strengthening, but only the racial weakening of our Folk.
– Adolf Hitler
To put it quite clearly: we have an economic programme. Point No. 13 in that programme demands the nationalization of all public companies, in other words, socialization, or what is known here as socialism. … the basic principle of my Party’s economic programme should be made perfectly clear and that is the principle of authority… the good of the community takes priority over that of the individual. But the State should retain control; every owner should feel himself to be an agent of the State; it is his duty not to misuse his possessions to the detriment of the State or the interests of his fellow countrymen. That is the overriding point. The Third Reich will always retain the right to control property owners. If you say that the bourgeoisie is tearing its hair over the question of private property, that does not affect me in the least. Does the bourgeoisie expect some consideration from me?… Today’s bourgeoisie is rotten to the core; it has no ideas anymore; all it wants to do is earn money and so it does me what damage it can. The bourgeois press does me damage too and would like to consign me and my movement to the devil.
Historically, Zionism and Communism have been closely linked, but it is a complicated history. Some of the early Communist leaders, notably Trotsky, were Jews, and that may have contributed to the idea of connections between Zionism and Communism. The early Zionists themselves imagined a socialist Jewish state — the terms socialism and communism being roughly interchangeable until the early 20th century — and drew directly on Marxist ideas in planning that state. Many Communists, however, especially in Palestine, were openly hostile to Zionism.