Ukraine's Forgotten Holocaust Told In 'Red Famine'

KIEV, Ukraine -- The Ukrainian famine, or “Holodomor,” of 1932 to 1933 killed between 5 to7 million people. Little known to the wider world until the 1980s, the Holodomor looms large in Ukrainians’ collective memory, particularly coloring their fraught relationship with Russia.

The Holodomor was entirely manmade and completely preventable.

It resulted from neither drought nor pestilence.

So why did it happen?

In her new book “Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine,” the eminent scholar and journalist Anne Applebaum tries to answer this question, embedding her analysis in a richly detailed account of Russian-Ukrainian co-existence from czarist times to today.

In one account, the famine resulted from a massive mistake: the misguided “collectivization” program that forced peasant farmers to relinquish their individual plots.

Collectivization was intended to increase production (through efficiencies of scale) but it also targeted affluent, autonomous-minded farmers, or “kulaks,” many of whom were arrested and executed for sabotaging the program.

Confident that collective farms would produce more than enough to feed the Soviet people, Stalin committed to export large quantities of grain.

Not only would this bring in hard currency, it would show the world that communism was working.

But collective farming actually decreased agricultural production.

Nonetheless, authorities seized the harvests to feed urban populations and industrial workers, and then to sell on international markets.

Nothing was left for the Ukrainian farmers, who starved.

Using heartbreaking oral histories, Anne Applebaum vividly depicts the unimaginable suffering of Ukrainians caught between desperate hunger and the violence of the Soviet state.

And Stalin, recognizing the scope of the disaster, refused to authorize any relief, as to do so would be to admit publicly that collectivization was at fault.

But this was also because, Ms. Applebaum concludes, the famine was a feature, not a bug, of collectivization.

Russians had long viewed Ukrainians as a subject people.

Communism only exacerbated this, for the solidarity of the international working class outweighed any petty nationalisms.

Still, during the 1920s Ukrainian intellectuals tried to nurture a cultural identity that also advanced the communist cause.

Stalin, though, would have none of it.

Ever paranoid, he saw “Ukrainization” as a threat, and purged the Ukrainian Communist Party of any independent voices.

In wiping out millions of Ukrainians, the famine strengthened Stalin’s control of the region, and served as a lesson to any other potentially restive nationalities within the USSR.

Far from a tragic blunder, the famine was intentional.

The famine also allowed Stalin to cultivate the prison-camp system that would flower during the Great Terror five years later.

A 1932 law mandated that taking any amount of grain from a collective farm without permission would result in a minimum of 10 years’ hard labor.

Ms. Applebaum notes that a mere six months after the law went into effect, 100,000 people were serving time in labor camps for violating it — and 4,500 had been executed.

In just two years, she adds, this single law nearly doubled the population of the Gulag, from 260,000 to 510,000.

Soviet authorities tried to prevent news of the famine and crackdown from reaching the rest of the world.

Applebaum highlights the courageous or foolhardy Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, who made several unauthorized trips on foot through the Ukrainian countryside (accompanied, once, by Pittsburgh’s own Jack Heinz II) and shared the horrors he had seen with the world’s press.

But Western journalists helped Stalin cover up his crime by taking official denials of the famine at face value.

Vladimir Putin has said that the collapse of the Soviet Union was the “greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the 20th century, and has fostered a resurgent admiration for Stalin.

He has also moved politically and even militarily to undermine Ukraine’s independence.

Ms. Applebaum’s book makes it clear that that any reconciliation between the two nations will require not just that Putin cease his interference, but that Russians and Ukrainians alike honestly and fully confront the legacy of the Holodomor.

Source: Pittsburgh Post-Gazette