n the middle decades of the bloodiest century in human history, new technology made it possible for civilian men, women, and children to be murdered in the millions simply for who or what or where they were. The Armenian genocide of 1915, the Holocaust of the 1940s, the Great Leap Forward of the 1950s, the Cultural Revolution of the 1960s, and Pol Pot’s slaughter of the Cambodian urban population in the 1970s are the most notable on the list. But, as Anne Applebaum shows in her beautifully written and deeply disturbing new book, Red Famine, Stalin’s deliberate starvation of millions of Ukrainian peasants in the early 1930s fully deserves its place among these, the worst infamies in human history. Applebaum, a columnist for the Washington Post and the author of highly regarded books on the history of Eastern Europe after World War II and the Soviet Gulag, has written a profoundly detailed but never boring history of this vast human tragedy.
In the histories of nations, geography is often destiny, and Ukraine is both fortunate and unfortunate in this respect. Its rich soil, ample rain, and low-lying topography, make it, like the United States Midwest and the Argentine Pampas, one of the world’s great breadbaskets. But that fact also makes it a highly desirable target for foreign aggression, and Ukraine largely lacks defensible borders. The Carpathian Mountains are on its southwest border with Moldova and Romania, but otherwise Ukraine is very difficult to defend.
And invade its neighbors did. After the breakup of the Kievan Rus in the early 12th century, much or all of what is now Ukrainian territory came under the control at one time or another, of Lithuania, Poland, the Ottoman Empire, Austria-Hungary, and, of course, Russia. In the 19th century, as nationalism as a political force in much of Europe grew, Russia tried hard to Russify Ukraine. It dismissed the Ukrainian language as a mere dialect of Russian, despite a rich literature in that language, and forbade its use in schools.
In 1876, Czar Alexander II outlawed books and periodicals in Ukrainian and even in musical libretti in theaters. By 1900, only one-fifth of the population of the capital of Kiev spoke Ukrainian. As Applebaum explains, “this meant that Ukrainians who were politically, economically, or intellectually ambitious needed to communicate in Russian.”
When the Bolsheviks took Russia in 1917, Ukraine had a brief period of freedom and the Ukrainian language flourished. Between 1917 and 1919, 59 books devoted to the language were published, compared with only 11 in the previous century.
In 1918, the Bolsheviks invaded Ukraine and seized control. The Russian contempt for Ukraine, which Russians called Southwest Russia, was combined with the Marxist contempt for peasants, who were the vast majority of Ukrainians. Marxists saw class as the great explainer of human history, and so they hated nationalism, a political force unrelated to class. Many Communists, including Stalin, thought that the peasantry was the fount of nationalism. Destroy the peasantry, thought Stalin, who was the early Communist government’s commissar for nationalities, and you destroy nationalism.
The Red Army was desperate for food to feed its troops fighting the civil war, while Lenin’s government put the need to keep the workers of Moscow and Petrograd well fed above any other interest. “For God’s sake,” Lenin telegraphed, “use all energy and all revolutionary measures to send grain, grain, and more grain!!!” But unlike in Russia, where land was often held communally, most Ukrainian peasants were independent farmers, some owning a significant amount of land. The Bolsheviks soon arbitrarily divided them into three classes: bedniaks, or poor peasants; seredniaks, middle peasants; and kulaks, wealthy peasants. The term kulak was little used before the Revolution and meant only someone who was doing well or who could afford to hire some extra hands. The Communists, like all tyrannies, needed an easily identified scapegoat and soon made the term a purely political one.
A considerable famine swept through Ukraine and southern Russia in 1921–23 as production plummeted and adverse weather made it worse. Needless to say, the needs of the peasants came last. “No matter how heavy the requisitions can be for local inhabitants,” a procurement commissar wrote, “state interests must always come first.” Lenin ordered the requisition of all grain, including the grain the peasants needed to avoid starvation and even that needed for the next year’s planting. This first famine was qualitatively different from the great famine that would erupt in the 1930s. It was not kept secret, and some attempts to help the starving were undertaken.
In the famine’s wake, Lenin’s “New Economic Policy” allowed limited markets while enforced requisition of grain was stopped. The peasants, who had had little incentive to produce, now began to produce again. But when Stalin took over after Lenin’s death in 1924, this came to an end. Stalin noted that the better-off peasants were more productive and more able to take advantage of new technologies, such as combines. But allowing a class of rich landowners was unthinkable under Communism. To achieve high productivity, the peasants, both rich and poor, had to give up their land and join collective farms whether they liked it or not.
Show trials started at this period, including one of Ukrainian intellectuals. It was declared that the collectivization of the grain-growing regions of the Soviet Union would be accomplished within three years. And demands by Moscow to “eliminate the kulaks as a class” grew ever louder. Heavy taxation, often retrospective, and impossible grain quotas were imposed on those who resisted joining the collective farms. Between 1930 and 1933 over 2 million peasants were exiled to Siberia, Central Asia, and elsewhere, their land seized.
The peasants fought back as best they could, slaughtering their livestock rather than turning it over. The total number of livestock in the USSR fell by half or more. Peasants refused to bring in the harvest, letting it rot instead. The ones who had, like it or not, been placed on collective farms worked little if at all.
Stalin ordered that if Ukraine did not fulfill its quota, which it could not, then the collective farms were “to ship, without exception, all collective farm reserves, including sowing seeds.” Grain shipments to the West, needed to earn the hard currency necessary for industrialization, fell by half in 1932, to 1.7 million tons, enough to have alleviated the famine. It fell again in 1933 and in 1934.
Desperate peasants tried to flee to cities in hopes of finding food and to places like Georgia in the Caucasus. Others simply died in their beds or even on the streets. Those who stayed were shot for gleaning in harvested fields. Millstones were broken to make sure they could not grind grain even if grain could be found. By the end, simply being alive was treated as evidence that grain was being hoarded. In the end, the land had been collectivized. The dead amounted to at least 3.2 million people.
Red Famine tells an awful tale with great skill and literary grace that shows us just how monstrous humans are capable of being—and how many are willing, for the sake of their own skins, to follow monstrous orders.