Which episodes in the 20th century is it reasonable and useful to bracket alongside the Holocaust? Armenia in 1915? Rwanda in 1994? What about Ukraine in the early 1930s?
That several million died of starvation on and around Ukraine’s fertile soil is not disputed by reputable historians. Whether it was technically a genocide, as some Ukrainian nationalists insist, is more debatable. In Ukraine, it has become known as the Holodomor (meaning death by hunger).
Perhaps we should not get hung up about the semantics. Anne Applebaum, an American writer currently a visiting professor at the LSE, has meticulously set out the grim details of the mass starvation in her new book, Red Famine (Allen Lane).
Stalin’s first Five Year Plan of 1928 ordered the collectivisation of farms. Production levels immediately began to fall. Peasants preferred to consume their crops and eat their livestock rather than lose them to the state. On the first day of 1931, suspecting a conspiracy and sabotage, the Soviet leader ordered that farmers who were caught hiding grain be prosecuted. Those farmers who failed to hand over their reserves were arrested. Not only were they deprived of food, they were prohibited from moving to the cities.
The book details the inevitable results, the children who died at their school desks, the roads littered with bodies. Those who survived did so by eating whatever they could, horses, squirrels, ants, boiled toads, the bark of oak trees, acorns, dandelions, even the flesh from human corpses.
The subtitle of the book is Stalin’s War on Ukraine. For even if Stalin never intended to wipe out Ukrainians, Applebaum makes clear that there was a specifically Ukrainian component to Stalin’s murderous intent. His aim was to crush the (largely imaginary) power of the wealthier land-owning peasants, the so-called kulak class, throughout the Soviet Empire. But he specifically feared the rise of Ukrainian nationalism: to that end, Ukrainian nationalist leaders were murdered, the use of the Ukrainian language suppressed.
Red Famine is the latest book by Applebaum to chronicle the monstrous brutality of the Soviet Union — previous works focused on the gulags, and the repression of Eastern Europe at the beginning of the Cold War. Raised in Washington DC, in a middle-class family which she described to the JC as “extremely reformed”, Applebaum has been following Russian affairs since the late 1980s. She has a very personal involvement in the region. The Pole she married in 1992, Radek Sikorski, went on to become Foreign Minister.
An articulate, influential and hawkish commentator on the politics of present-day Russia, Applebaum is one of those who has warned that the current state of relations between Russia and the West is akin to a new Cold War; in her words, “history is back”. Putin’s thuggery is well-documented — the harassment, even the murder of opponents. Some Russian specialists accuse her of exaggerating the threat Putin poses to the rest of the world. But she argues that he’s hell-bent on destabilising the West, widening pre-existing fault-lines within societies and undermining institutions. He’ll cynically support any individual or movement to advance his goals, she says — be it anti-EU movements in Europe (including the fascistic National Front in France) — or the anti-NATO Donald Trump. And he’ll sink to almost any tactic, including the spreading of false news through the internet.
It’s a reading of Putin, she tells me, informed by her studies of the past.
“My knowledge of Soviet history affected how I saw Putin from the beginning: I first became aware of him when, as head of the FSB, he started rehabilitating the KGB. And his decision to re-politicise history, to revive a positive memory of Stalin, was my first clue that he was taking Russia in an authoritarian direction. I think it’s really important to see him in a historical context, because he wants to be seen in a historical context himself.”
The rehabilitation of Stalin’s reputation is both extraordinary and repugnant. But even if we accept Applebaum’s analysis of Putin’s agenda, the West can take solace in at least one thought. In geopolitical terms, Russia today is a mere shadow of the former USSR. Putin may see himself as the latest in a long line of Russian strong men but, if so, he is a strong man over a much enfeebled nation.
David Edmonds works for the BBC and Oxford University’s Uehiro Centre for Practical Ethics.