In March 1932, Communist Party officials in Ukraine’s Odessa province heard rumors of hunger in outlying villages and sent a medical team to investigate. The doctors found empty cottages, corpses lying in the lanes, and the surviving inhabitants gnawing on carrion, boiled bones and horsehide. Local apparatchiks, the horrified medics reported, were doing their best “not to notice the incidence of starvation, and . . . not to speak about it.”
The dead were early victims of the “Holodomor”—literally translated as “hunger-extermination”—an artificial famine inflicted on the Ukrainian peasantry by Stalin in the years 1932-34. The best estimate of the death toll is 3.9 million, or 13% of Ukraine’s population. Up to an additional 2.5 million died in famines elsewhere in the Soviet Union at the same time.
Denied by the Soviet authorities almost until communism’s fall, the Holodomor was first documented by the British historian Robert Conquest in his ground-breaking 1986 book, “The Harvest of Sorrow.” Compiling census data and émigré memoirs and interviews, he demonstrated both the scale of the famine and the fact that it was not the result of drought or economic upheaval but of food confiscation, deliberately and violently enforced. Since then, a mass of new evidence has become available, on which Anne Applebaum draws—with generous acknowledgments to Ukrainian historians—for “Red Famine,” a lucid, judicious and powerful book.
The Holodomor was created in three overlapping stages. First, in the winter of 1929-30, came “collectivization.” Teams of activists were dispatched to the countryside to persuade peasants to hand over land and livestock to state-controlled farms, where they would work as day laborers for payment in kind. Villagers remembered how out of place the visitors looked, tiptoeing through the mud in polished shoes. One even mistook a calf for a colt, brushing aside correction with the declaration that “the world proletarian revolution won’t suffer because of that.”
Unsurprisingly, the anticipated wave of volunteerism failed to materialize, and the activists fell back on violence and intimidation, supported by local thugs and the police. Primed by years of indoctrination, even the more idealistic participants had no difficulty rationalizing their methods. “I firmly believed,” remembered one, “that the ends justified the means. Our great goal was the universal triumph of Communism, and for the sake of the goal everything was permissible—to lie, to steal, to destroy hundreds of thousands and even millions of people, all those who were hindering our work or could hinder it, everyone who stood in the way. And to hesitate or doubt about all this was to give in to ‘intellectual squeamishness’ and ‘stupid liberalism.’ ”
A few months later, the Kremlin launched a parallel drive to evict and deport “kulaks”—a term that in theory referred to wealthy peasants but in practice meant community leaders and anyone, rich or poor, who resisted collectivization. Targeted were teachers, clerks, store keepers, millers and tanners, as well peasants who owned two cows rather than one or whose huts were roofed with tin rather than thatch. Vicious propaganda, Ms. Applebaum notes, equated peasant farming with treachery and criminality: “Kulak-White-Guard-bandits” were said to be hoarding grain, sabotaging the collectives or plotting with the Poles to overturn the Revolution.
Not everyone submitted quietly. Police files reveal thousands of riots, shootings, raids on food stores and arson attacks on government buildings. One report, covering unrest in 16 Ukrainian districts, records 35 police and activists killed and an additional 314 beaten. Peasants’ most immediate form of protest was to slaughter their animals before they were confiscated. But though widespread, resistance was not organized enough to force the regime to backtrack. Instead, the regime hardened its position, fearing a repeat of the anti-Bolshevik risings of the Civil War. In the Soviet Union as a whole, more than two million peasants were deported between 1930 and 1933, mostly to Central Asia or the far north. Many died during the journey (in closed cattle cars, without food or water) or during their first winter in exile. At least another 100,000 went straight to the Gulag.
On their own, Ms. Applebaum argues, collectivization and “dekulakization” would not have led to outright famine. What tipped Ukraine from hunger into mass death was food requisitioning. Launched in the summer of 1930 in a drive to raise grain exports, it descended over the next two years into a sadistic pogrom, with no economic rationale at all. Tasked with fulfilling impossible quotas, search teams raided homes at night, smashing chests and cupboards and probing cellars and wall spaces with pointed metal rods. Cautiously, Ukrainian Party officials warned Moscow of growing hunger. “We have greatly overdone it,” reported one investigator. Face to face with desperate villagers, he had felt “like a carp squirming on a frying pan.”
But the Kremlin pressed on. In August 1932, food theft was made punishable by death or 10 years’ imprisonment, sweeping thousands more into the Gulag. Requisitioning brigades snatched fruit from trees, seedlings from gardens, soup from cooking pots. They killed dogs and smashed millstones. Children were shot at by mounted guards as they crept into the fields to glean fallen grain.
By New Year’s 1933 there was no food left, and full-scale famine took hold. Firsthand accounts are not as rich as those in Ms. Applebaum’s superb “Gulag: A History” (2003)—peasants were less likely to record their experiences than the middle-class professionals who filled the prison camps. But they are vivid enough: the eating of bark and weeds; children’s bird-like necks and wizened faces; ubiquitous, unremarked corpses; cannibalism. By the time Stalin finally called a halt in 1934, millions lay dead and thousands of villages stood empty.
At the time and for more than 50 years afterward, the Soviet authorities denied that the atrocity had ever happened. Doctors falsified death certificates. Students and soldiers sent to gather what there was of the harvest were told not to speak of what they saw. Not a whisper of it appeared in the press. In the cities—overflowing, despite roadblocks, with emaciated refugees—the dead were buried at night in unmarked mass graves. Notoriously, the Moscow-based Western press corps colluded in the coverup. Ms. Applebaum retells the shameful story of Walter Duranty, the New York Times correspondent who privately acknowledged the famine but publicly denied it so as to stay in with the regime. The American and British governments knew the truth from their embassies but, given trade requirements and Hitler’s rise, preferred to turn a blind eye.
Though far from complete—a few journalists reported honestly at the time, and eyewitnesses washed up in the West at the close of World War II—the coverup worked, in the sense that it sowed doubt. The Holodomor’s sheer wastefulness (why deport your best farmers and kill the rest?) made the Ukrainian diaspora’s claims “seem at least highly exaggerated, even incredible,” Ms. Applebaum writes. The authors of slightly amateurish émigré publications “were easily dismissed as ‘Cold Warriors,’ telling tales.”
Today the Holodomor has been politicized anew. In Ukrainian eyes it was a genocide, aimed squarely at the destruction of Ukrainian nationhood and the Ukrainian people. Its commemoration is a keystone of national consciousness and public life. In Russia, by contrast, it seldom enters public discourse, and when it does it is presented as part of an undifferentiated Soviet-wide tragedy, inseparable from similar famines elsewhere. Moscow has blocked attempts to have it recognized as a genocide by the United Nations and denounces the term Holodomor as Russophobic and “immoral.”
Ms. Applebaum takes a nuanced version of the Ukrainian line. “Step by step,” she writes of the Kremlin’s deadly decrees of 1932, “using bureaucratic language and dull legal terminology, the Soviet leadership, aided by their cowed Ukrainian counterparts, launched a famine within the famine, a disaster specifically targeted at Ukraine and Ukrainians.”
Occasionally she over-simplifies. Calling Ukraine a “Russian colony,” for example, is rather like calling Scotland a colony of England: It implies too stark a divide. Nor does she explore in depth the interplay between the Holodomor and the famines on the Volga, in the North Caucasus and in Kazakhstan. Kazakhstan’s famine in particular deserves its own book. In 1932 somewhere up to 1.5 million people—an extraordinary third of all Kazakhs—died of hunger and disease, having been stripped of their herds, an atrocity that has not registered abroad to this day. Scholars think it may have provided the blueprint for Stalin’s assault on Ukraine the following year.
But overall, the argument that Stalin singled out Ukraine for special punishment is well-made. Ms. Applebaum points to harsher food requisitioning in Ukraine, to the closure of its borders with Russia and Poland, and to the “black-listing” of hundreds of villages, making it illegal to provide them with manufactured goods, including even kerosene and matches. “After the ban went into effect,” she dryly notes, “any peasant who might possess food would soon have great difficulties cooking it.” She also details Ukraine’s early purges, which eviscerated the urban intelligentsia. Around 200,000 doctors, lawyers, engineers, teachers, curators, writers, students and priests were arrested between 1930 and 1932, a loss that some argue is still felt today.
Russian-Ukrainian relations leapt to the fore in February 2014, when mass demonstrations in the Ukrainian capital toppled a corrupt pro-Russian president. Vladimir Putin’s response was to invade Ukrainian-ruled Crimea and (via proxies) the eastern coal-mining district known as the Donbass. Three years on, Ukraine remains shorn of its territory and stuck in a low-level but destabilizing defensive war, with no end in sight. Mr. Putin’s propaganda themes—the equation of Ukrainian patriotism with fascism, the invocation of invented Western plots—hark back to the 1930s, as do his bald denials of obvious facts on the ground. What has also resurfaced is the reluctance of even liberal Russians to accept that Ukrainians have their own history and now their own state. Western commentators afflicted with the same mind-set should read this excellent and important book.