Book review: Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine

Anne Applebaum's latest book outlines the casual cruelty that Stalin displayed towards an entire nation


Anne Applebaum’s two previous histories of Soviet atrocities — Gulag: A History and Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956 — have established her as the leading writer in this field. Drawing on official documents and witnesses, she has a recognisable style, channelling both the hyper-detailed and the bigger picture into a (very) readable narrative revealing the relentless weight of evidence.

In doing so, she outlines with shocking clarity the sheer inhumanity of communism. Her latest book, Red Famine (Allen Lane, £25)  is in the same vein and is equally compelling for that. She makes it clear beyond debate that the Holodomor (the Ukrainian word for “death by hunger”) was a crime comparable with anything committed by the Nazis — a view that has caused some controversy but is so patently obvious after reading her book as to make the controversy seem ridiculous.

Red Famine begins with an account of Ukrainian nationalism and its relationship with Russia that is deeply resonant today — indeed there is so much in the book that resonates, at a time when those who defend communism are now at the heart of one of our main political parties.

In the 1930s, Joseph Stalin set about ensuring that Ukrainians died. Food was simply taken from them. If any were found to have food at home, it was seized. Houses were searched by the authorities for food. Even stale bread crusts were taken. His intention was not to kill them, but he was insouciant to a murderous degree regarding their death.

Driven by the need for grain for export and to feed Russian workers, he believed Ukrainians were deliberately not producing enough, in order to sabotage Russia. He was also convinced they were hoarding — again, to frustrate Russia. As a consequence, four million Ukrainians were starved to death by Stalin.

Applebaum describes how Ukrainians were forced to make “potato cakes” out of grass and how they ate manure, along with cats, dogs — and the flesh of family members who had died of starvation. Some even killed their children to eat.

The collectivisation of farms failed in Ukraine as it failed elsewhere, but with even worse consequences. When owners resisted, they were branded “kulaks”.

And so, when the harvest failed — as it had to since the Russians had taken the grain seed on which it depended — the accusations of sabotage ratcheted up still further.

And, all the while, Stalin stuck to his guns as ever greater numbers of Ukrainians died.

Stalin was an unspeakable monster in so many respects. But the casual manner in which four million Ukrainians were simply wiped out as a consequence of his delusions, and his lackeys’ inability to correct those delusions, stands on a pedestal of infamy..


Stephen Pollard is the editor of the JC. Anne Applebaum will be appearing on October 15 at the Cliveden Literary Festival in discussion with Simon Sebag Montefiore and an expert panel on the subject of Russia 1917-2007

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