Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine, 1921-1933 by Anne Applebaum

Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine, 1921-1933

From the author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning Gulag and the National Book Award finalist Iron Curtain, a revelatory history of one of Stalin's greatest crimesIn 1929 Stalin launched his policy of agricultural collectivization—in effect a second Russian revolution—which forced millions of peasants off their land and onto collective farms. The result was a catastrophic famin...

Title:Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine, 1921-1933
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Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine, 1921-1933 Reviews

  • Susan

    Although this book is about the ‘Holodomor’ (the word is derived from the Ukrainian words, ‘holod’ or ‘hunger’ and ‘mor’ or extermination) or famine of 1932-33, it is actually about much more than that. It is about the repression of the Ukrainian intellectual and political class, of the Sovietisation of Ukraine, the collectivisation of agriculture and the attempts to wipe out Ukrainian culture and language.

    Ironically, it was the fertile soil and relatively mild climate of Ukraine, which led to

    Although this book is about the ‘Holodomor’ (the word is derived from the Ukrainian words, ‘holod’ or ‘hunger’ and ‘mor’ or extermination) or famine of 1932-33, it is actually about much more than that. It is about the repression of the Ukrainian intellectual and political class, of the Sovietisation of Ukraine, the collectivisation of agriculture and the attempts to wipe out Ukrainian culture and language.

    Ironically, it was the fertile soil and relatively mild climate of Ukraine, which led to them becoming so valuable to the Soviet Union. The country had two harvests a year and was responsible for feeding far more than their own region. The author takes us back to the revolution of 1917 and traces how the period of upheaval saw optimism for Ukraine, but, by 1918, Lenin was making plans to occupy the area. In fact, the first half of this history looks at the various uprisings, uneasy periods of peace, discontent, crisis and rationing, which led up to the events of 1932/33.

    By 1930, collectivisation of farming led from what had been a loose organisation of farming, by the Soviet Union, to tight control and grain requisitioning demands which were impossible to fulfil. There was pressure on the agricultural peasants to send more and more grain outside Ukraine, but the farmers themselves lost control of their lives – and lost enthusiasm for working the land. However, Stalin’s policies led to famine across the grain-growing regions of the USSR and nowhere more than Ukraine. Not only was the country under pressure to keep producing – and yet not keeping - enough crops to keep them alive, but anyone caught stealing food faced many years in a labour camp, or death. By the end of 1932, over 100,000 people had been sent to camps and 4,500 were executed.

    The author then goes on to the actual famine period which is terrible to read about. All grain now was t be collected to fulfil Russian demands and no excuses were accepted. However, although activists swept through villages; taking not only grain, but fruit, seeds, vegetables, flour – indeed everything from crusts on the table to the family cow – there was no sympathy for the Ukrainian people. It is clear that Soviet newspapers presented the starving population as unpatriotic; arguing they did not care about the workers or the 5 year plan.

    Although this is a serious historical work, it is not dry or dull in any way. There can be nothing about this book which fails to move you – reading of children who die during lessons at school, of the distrust, suspicion and lack of empathy as witnesses became indifferent to the suffering around them, is both tragic and horribly real. Yet, this is as much about the attempts by the Ukrainian people to retain their culture and language, as it was to resist the government’s attempts to starve their nation. I must admit I knew little about Ukrainian history, but this was an eye opening read about a terrible period of history and of a people who survived against the odds.

  • Joseph

    Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum is the history of Russian-Ukranian relations from 1917- 1934 centering on Russian atrocities. Applebaum is an American journalist and Pulitzer Prize–winning author who has written extensively about communism and the development of civil society in Central and Eastern Europe. She is a visiting Professor of Practice at the London School of Economics, where she runs Arena, a project on propaganda and disinformation. She has also been an editor a

    Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine by Anne Applebaum is the history of Russian-Ukranian relations from 1917- 1934 centering on Russian atrocities. Applebaum is an American journalist and Pulitzer Prize–winning author who has written extensively about communism and the development of civil society in Central and Eastern Europe. She is a visiting Professor of Practice at the London School of Economics, where she runs Arena, a project on propaganda and disinformation. She has also been an editor at The Economist and The Spectator, and a member of the editorial board of The Washington Post.

    The Ukraine is the birth place of the earliest Russian settlements. Kiev is called the mother of Russian Cities or a cradle of the Rus'. The historic flux of borders and conquered lands and peoples had created friction between the various nationalities that became apparent with the fall of the Romanov dynasty.  Ukraine saw it was time to break from Moscow's rule or rather St. Petersburg's rule.

    Instead, Ukraine found itself in the middle of a battle ground. The Bolsheviks wanted the territory. The White Russian Russian army defended but without much care for the Ukrainians. The people were pummelled by both sides. With the defeat of the White armies, The Bolsheviks systematically slaughtered tens of thousands of Cossacks. The Bolsheviks saw Ukraine as their bread basket. Quotas on wheat and forced collectivization created chaos and mass death. Peasants fought against losing their land, live stock, and possessions. Although there was resistance, it was far from organized and effective. Later, Stalin's paranoid mind saw any resistance real or imagined as a threat to the USSR. Many were executed for a variety of "crimes." Many simply just disappeared.

    The wheat taken from the Ukrainian farms was not just taken and sold back to the farmers as bread or even used to feed Russia.  It was exported for hard currency.  The five-year plans and quotas existed independently of reality.  When yields were lower than required Moscow took actions like limiting communal tractors forcing more manual and (disappearing) animal labor.  Instead of finding solutions more restrictions were added.  By the time of the 1933 famine, there was not enough healthy or living people to plant and harvest.  There was no carrot and stick only the stick.  The Springtime brought with it not the smell of flowers or new life but the decay of rotting bodies. 

    Famine is perhaps not the most accurate word for the human catastrophe in Ukraine.  There was food but it was for the consumption others outside the Ukraine and even Russia.  People were dying in front of rows of grain.  Stalin feared Ukrainian nationalism as a threat to Soviet power.  Lenin recruited Ukrainians under the guise of Soviet unity rather than Russian unity.  Stalin, however, simply wanted to crush any resistance from organized threats to women and children stealing a handful of wheat.  It is estimated that three million Ukrainians died, mostly of starvation,  in 1933.  Applebaum also describes the process of starvation on the body and the mind.  Using declassified records and documents along with first-hand hand experiences she captures the systematic terror and suffering that is one of the worlds mostly forgotten tragedies.  When the world was not looking, Stalin waged war on people in his own country killing millions with systematic starvation.  Red Famine details the atrocities, failures, and indifference that allowed the senseless slaughter of millions. 

  • Paul

    Red Famine – Stalin’s War on Ukraine

    As someone from a Polish family who before the Second World War lived in the Kresy (East Poland now in Ukraine) it has always surprised me how little of this war against Ukraine and her people is not widely known in the West. My Grandfather often used it as an example of how evil Stalin was in the way he allowed policy, to kill people and relieve him of a troublesome part of the country of its affluence.

    As a child, he lived in Podwołoczyska, a border town on t

    Red Famine – Stalin’s War on Ukraine

    As someone from a Polish family who before the Second World War lived in the Kresy (East Poland now in Ukraine) it has always surprised me how little of this war against Ukraine and her people is not widely known in the West. My Grandfather often used it as an example of how evil Stalin was in the way he allowed policy, to kill people and relieve him of a troublesome part of the country of its affluence.

    As a child, he lived in Podwołoczyska, a border town on the river Zbruch, and when playing alongside the river he often heard the machine gun fire of the Soviet border guards killing Ukrainians trying to escape, in order to feed their families and themselves. He would often talk of his childhood and the knowledge that on the other side of the river Zbruch, evil things were happening to Ukrainians. After 17th September 1940, my family would also feel the wrath of Stalin.

    Following rural unrest in 1932, the harvest in the Soviet Union dropped by 40%, and between 1928 – 1932 the livestock fell by 50%. One of the reasons being the peasants would rather feed themselves and their families instead of handing the cattle to the Communists.

    All this from Stalin’s New Economic Plans which enforced collectivisation on the people, brought resistance, the liquidation of kulaks and a famine which would extend across the Soviet Union. Better known to Ukrainians and many East Europeans as the Holodomor, since independence has meant that this episode of cruelty and killing can become better known in the West.

    Stalin knew what was going on in Ukraine, and what some readers might find hard to understand is that the Holodomor was completely man- made. It was his decisions, and that of his ministers that led to the famine, through the collectivisation of land and the eviction of kulaks, identified as enemies of the Revolution.

    There are some historians who dispute the fact that the famine was man-made, I happen to agree with her assessment. Like Katyn, the Holodomor was the great unmentionable, Ukrainians could not talk about or acknowledge until 1991. Now is the time to tell the world and remind it what happened and not allow Stalin to be rehabilitated.

    Anne Applebaum is not afraid to investigate and write about controversial parts of history, and the world is a better place for the light being shined into the dark corners. This is an excellently researched, well written book, this is not a dry history, this is a book that draws you in, and the writing keeps you captivated. I hope this book gets a wider audience, as it is compelling and tackle the ignorance that exists.

  • Beata

    Ann Applebaum does not disappoint. A thorough account of the most terrifying times in the history of Ukraine. Superb panorama and the background. Ms Applebaum presents us with not just the several years of the famine itself but also explains in detail the reasons behind the tragedy of millions of innocent people. The Author colleced accounts by ordinary people, and some are truly horryfing, making us aware of the fact that often our own suffering makes us immune to the suffering of others.

  • Chrissie

    This book has two interrelated themes - Ukraine’s path toward independence and the famine that occurred there 1932-1933.The history of Ukraine and Russia must be viewed together, and so the Bolshevik Revolution, the Civil War that followed, first Lenin’s and then Stalin’s reign are discussed too. The book starts in 1917 and concludes in the present. The famine that occurred 1921-1922, and for which international aid

    given, came to be followed by the Great Famine of 1932-1933. The latter fami

    This book has two interrelated themes - Ukraine’s path toward independence and the famine that occurred there 1932-1933.The history of Ukraine and Russia must be viewed together, and so the Bolshevik Revolution, the Civil War that followed, first Lenin’s and then Stalin’s reign are discussed too. The book starts in 1917 and concludes in the present. The famine that occurred 1921-1922, and for which international aid

    given, came to be followed by the Great Famine of 1932-1933. The latter famine came to be known as the Holodomor. This word in translation means “to kill by starvation”, thus inferring that the famine was not simply due to natural causes but was instead purposefully instigated, an act of genocide led by Stalin. In an epilog, the author discusses if the latter famine should be classified as genocide. In any case, be that so or not, to understand the relations between Ukraine and Russia today, the past must be understood. It is this that is the purpose of the book. A clear and succinct introduction explains all of this. Knowing at the start that the genocide question will be discussed at the end, a reader reads with this question prominently at the fore.

    The book begins with the first Ukrainian War of Independence,1917 to 1921. The February Revolution of 1917 led ethnic groups in the Russian Empire to seek increased autonomy and self-determination. The Ukrainian National Movement was formed. In June 1917, in Kiev, the Ukrainian People's Republic was declared, a sovereign state to be governed by the socialist-dominated "Central Rada". But it was short-lived. Year by year we follow events - collectivization, blacklisting, deportations, the famine of 1920-1921, liquidation of the kulaks and then unrealistic grain, livestock and vegetable requisitions imposed on a people without food. Travel restrictions so people could not flee.

    The first half of the book, covering the years before the famine, were a struggle for me. I was seriously considering putting the book aside. The background information

    essential, but dry in its presentation. Too many examples to prove one point. Too repetitive. Not engaging.

    The famine is heartrendingly depicted. Physical and psychological effects of famine are documented. What was eaten when no “food” was available. What was done with the dead. Personal experiences are told. People who lived through the famine are quoted. There is however little reference to source material. We are told “a memoirist” or “multiple witnesses” or a “Polish diplomat” claim …… but why are we not give the names of those making these statements?! Yet I do not doubt the validity of the claims made or the horror of what occurred.

    Thereafter follow chapters devoted first to a discussion of death statistics and then the years after the famine. The absence of international aid, resettlement programs, Russification, purging of Ukrainian officials and destruction of evidence that the famine had occurred. Stalin claimed the 1937 census to be invalid! It showed all too clearly how many had died. These chapters were not dry. Finally, the epilog. It presents a straightforward analysis of whether the famine should or should not be considered a genocide. Well, it all depends on whose definition one goes by – Raphael Lemkin (1900 – 1959), who coined the word “genocide” and who initiated the Genocide Convention signed on December 9, 1948

    the United Nation’s Convention on the Crime of Genocide itself. Lemkin referred to the mass killing of Jews in the Second World War, the killing of Armenians by the Turks and the Great Famine of 1932-1933 as genocide, but the Convention, which today constitutes the basis for international law, states that genocide is a state sponsored assault on an entire group of people or on a whole nation. That not all Ukrainians were targeted means the famine should not be classified as genocide.

    To properly judge the events that took place in the Ukraine one must compare these events with what was happening elsewhere. I wish more had been spoken of the famine in the Volga region and Kazakhstan. There is some information, but not enough.

    I very much liked the narration by Suzanne Toren. The reading is clear and at a tempo that allows listeners time to think. Many Russian names are given in the book’s first half; these are too often hard to distinguish. This is no fault of the narrator, but it does make listening more difficult than reading. I do not like that her intonation and pauses emphasize which events are evil. I am perfectly capable of figuring this out myself! I have given the narration four stars.

  • Hadrian

    "It is strictly forbidden to bury people here." -outskirts of Kharkiv, 1933

    This is not the first original volume in English on what is now called the Holodomor, also called the 'Terror-Famine'. That would be Robert Conquest's study, 'The Harvest of Sorrow', which saved it from sliding down the memory hole. While that first book was seminal in its time, this new study builds on it with archival research, new memoirs, further testimonies, (and the work of a small army of Ukrainian historians), now

    "It is strictly forbidden to bury people here." -outskirts of Kharkiv, 1933

    This is not the first original volume in English on what is now called the Holodomor, also called the 'Terror-Famine'. That would be Robert Conquest's study, 'The Harvest of Sorrow', which saved it from sliding down the memory hole. While that first book was seminal in its time, this new study builds on it with archival research, new memoirs, further testimonies, (and the work of a small army of Ukrainian historians), now the third book in Applebaum's series on Soviet atrocities.

    The deaths of approximately four million people from 1931 to 1934 were a targeted famine. They were an assault on Ukraine and Ukrainians. It was, in a twisted way, a continuation of the Tsarist policy of Russification towards the Ukrainian territories - forbidding the teaching of their native language, forced resettlement, book banning, etc. The area, while amenable to socialism around the time of the Russian Civil War, bristled at Bolshevism and the outside intervention.

    The famine proceeded in stages. The 1920s were a period of temporary relaxation of the Russification policies, and intellectuals were free to write in and teach Ukrainian to a new generation of students. But by 1929, volunteers from the Russian areas of the Soviet Union came to preach the virtues of agricultural collectivization - first by persuasion, then by coercion, or agitation against foreign elements or 'liberalism'.

    After this was a campaign against 'kulaks', a broadly defined group which might have implied rich peasants, but instead singled out those with two cows instead of one, or anyone who simply resisted too loudly the previous collectivization campaigns. The records of the secret police show that not everyone went along quietly. The regime would not move a step back, and then neither would the peasants - they hid their grain, or killed their livestock to prevent confiscation. Stalin, remembering the chaos of the Russian Civil War, implemented mass deportations.

    The final stage, and the one which was directly responsible for the greatest human suffering, was forced requisitions, often from the poorest segments of the peasantry. As part of a crash industrialization drive, Stalin felt compelled to raise grain exports. The only way to do this, he felt, was the use of terror. Search teams ravaged the fields and the barren shacks, searching for grain stores that never were gathered or sown. They shot at scavengers picking grain from the side of the road, and food theft was made punishable by death or exile to the gulag.

    The food was gone by 1933, and starvation followed. Here Applebaum's perspective moves from the political to the personal. I won't go into it too much. They ate grass and tree bark, and the cities were littered with the corpses of those who wandered in from the countryside in search of food. Kyiv and Kharkiv districts, which were the centers of rebellion during the Civil War, were especially targeted. By 1934, whole villages were depopulated, with wolves scavenging in the abandoned huts.

    Ukrainian farms were not the only places that experienced poor harvesting conditions - Kazakhstan under the 'anti-nomadic' campaigns and the Northern Caucasus were also heavily affected. But Applebaum demonstrates that Soviet policy was targeted towards exacerbating the food situation in Ukraine.

    Then, and now, it was denied. The dead were buried in mass graves under the cover of night. A few Western reporters were able to publish articles, but they were protested by useful idiots or paid agents. Applebaum makes hay of the case of Walter Duranty, a New York Times reporter who tried to seek out 'both sides' of the crisis and coveted access to the Soviet leadership for further articles - sound familiar? Reports filtered to what embassies were left, but other governments kept mum, and others needed allies against Hitler. The cover-up worked as propaganda often works - not in creating an entirely new narrative, but by sowing doubt. Those who spoke out against it were derided as conspiracy theorists or Cold Warriors pushing some agenda.

    Applebaum takes a technical approach in her conclusion. While the definition under the Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide may leave some ambiguity - after all, it was only ratified with Soviet approval - under the original definition of the word 'genocide' proposed by Raphael Lemkin, the result is an unequivocal yes. The Soviet Union, at multiple levels, carried out deliberate policies exacerbating the effects of the ongoing famine with the effect of depopulating Ukraine.

    Now, this history is a battlefield. In 2014, demonstrations overthrew the pro-Russian president, Yanukovych, and as a direct result, Putin invaded Crimea and the Donbass. Ukraine is still shorn of its territory, and caught up in an expensive and destabilizing war, and Putin decries all his enemies as fascists and weaves webs of pro-Western conspiracy. Attempts within the UN to publish a statement on the Holodomor were denounced as, incredibly, 'Russophobic'. In this way, the debate over history is a background for ongoing conflict.

    Applebaum's history is a powerful, even-handed study of a humanitarian catastrophe that is too often overlooked. It is superb. I recommend it not only as a study of history, but also one of disaster and malice.

  • Theresa

    Anne Applebaum's Red Famine is an important history of the Ukraine (and USSR by default). Applebaum provides meaningful context beginning with the 1917 Ukrainian Revolution, famine of the 1920s, Stalin's agricultural collectivation policies of the late 1920s and early 1930s, and Ukrainian nationalist sentiment and peasant resistance prior to focusing on the terror famine known as the Holodomor occurring between 1932 and 1934. Holodomor is a term derived from two Ukrainian words for hunger and ex

    Anne Applebaum's Red Famine is an important history of the Ukraine (and USSR by default). Applebaum provides meaningful context beginning with the 1917 Ukrainian Revolution, famine of the 1920s, Stalin's agricultural collectivation policies of the late 1920s and early 1930s, and Ukrainian nationalist sentiment and peasant resistance prior to focusing on the terror famine known as the Holodomor occurring between 1932 and 1934. Holodomor is a term derived from two Ukrainian words for hunger and extermination. This famine was not created by crop failure or poor weather, it was a man made famine created by Stalin's agricultural policies, grain quotas (and associated penalties, including food confiscation inside homes, for not meeting those policies), etc. Ukrainian peasants, especially the Kulaks, that exercised resistance, were treated especially harsh. At least five million died during this famine, the vast majority in the Ukraine. Despite this tragic history and subsequent struggles, the Ukraine stands today as an independent nation.

  • Chris

    A wrenching and thorough account of the way Stalin created the famine that killed easily 3.5 million Ukrainians, and maybe far more. The eyewitness testimonies of the starvation are devastating. The last chapter is an especially interesting discussion of where the famine fits in the history of Genocide. For anyone interested in the history of the first decades of the Soviet Union, this is a must-read.

  • Mandy

    Superb authoritative examination of the famine in the Ukraine. Meticulously researched, detailed, accessible and often shocking, this is essential reading for anyone interested in Ukraine and Russia, the relationship between the two countries and the current tense situation.

  • Marks54

    This is a wonderful book on a really horrible subject - the famine in the Ukraine in the early 1930s (1932-33 in particular). The argument is that this was not just a matter of bad luck for the millions who died but a matter of murderous state policy on the part of the USSR towards the population of Ukraine - that this was a case of genocide in its original general meaning. Given the history of the Ukraine having resisted the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War and having resisted collectivizati

    This is a wonderful book on a really horrible subject - the famine in the Ukraine in the early 1930s (1932-33 in particular). The argument is that this was not just a matter of bad luck for the millions who died but a matter of murderous state policy on the part of the USSR towards the population of Ukraine - that this was a case of genocide in its original general meaning. Given the history of the Ukraine having resisted the Bolsheviks in the Russian Civil War and having resisted collectivization, the move to collective farms, the Soviet Government’s policies towards the Ukrainian people represents an effort to eliminate Ukrainian nationalism as a political threat to the Bolshevik state. This is nothing less than a case of purposeful mass starvation used as a political weapon against millions of political opponents. This is difficult material to read and it is easy to get numb to the extent of the crimes involved here. Ir is a common feature of books on famines of the last two centuries, whether the focus is on Ireland, India, China, or Russia. The numbers of people involved is truly staggering.

    The Ukrainian famine has been controversial. The Soviet Union refused to acknowledge its existence for decades and the story did not really come out until the 1980s with the publication of Robert Conquest’s book “Harvest of Sorrow”. Telling the full story as richly as Applebaum has done here only became possible with the opening up of archives with the demise of the USSR. Along with Conquest’s book, this famine was a central part of the story that Timothy Snyder told in his book “Bloodlands”. The famine is central to an understanding of the current conflicts between Russia and Ukraine and is thus a central item in contemporary affairs that is affecting the US as well. What is the big deal about Russia, Ukraine, and the US elections? It is a long story. It is tempting to imagine an account like this as being tied to conservative US politics but that is not the case and the horrors of the famine can be appreciated independently of political party affiliation.

    Applebaum is a marvelous writer and historian who combines a sharp macro level perspective with an almost limitless access to heartbreaking case studies of how the famine affected people. She brings multiple levels of analysis together here with a style that seems effortless. This is all the more amazing once one realizes that Applebaum literally wrote the book on the Soviet Gulag and the Soviet regimes in Eastern Europe after WW2.

    There is only so much of this that I can take at a time - and the 100 year anniversary of the Russian Revolution puts that to the test. This is an important book and well worth reading despite the really horrible subject matter.

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