In her recently published book Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum explores the cause and effect of the early 1930s Soviet man-made famine.
Called the Holodomor in Ukraine, the famine is one of the most tragic chapters of the country’s history. An estimated four million Ukrainian peasants died of starvation as a result of Stalin’s forced collectivization policy.
This event was officially honored around the world on November 25.
According to Applebaum, one of the most shocking aspects of the Holodomor is the level of indifference among Soviet society at the time.
“Most people knew there was a famine. People in the cities knew, people in Russia knew. And yet there was never any reaction to it. There was never any attempt to commemorate it. And the people who’d carried it out never paid any price for it,” Applebaum says.
Today, 85 years after Holodomor, this is no longer the case. The legacy and devastation of the Holodomor are ever-present in the Ukrainian national consciousness and the famine is commemorated nationwide.
Furthermore, Applebaum believes that this legacy should serve as an important reminder of the need for a strong Ukrainian state. She told Hromadske, “In my view, the best thing you could do to commemorate the victims of the famine is to build a society where this could never happen again.”
Hromadske’s Nataliya Gumenyuk sat down with Washington Post columnist and Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Applebaum in Kyiv to talk about the legacy of the Holodomor, modern Ukrainian society, and US President Donald Trump.
We discussed the book itself. People are asking how you are writing it, as someone who covered and reported on all these horrors of the 20th Century, for the particular event we have remembering this week. What really shocked you? What for you, as a historian, was something new you revealed and uncovered while reading this history of the Holodomor?
There are some things that surprised me or interested me as a historian. One of them was the way in which in 1932 Stalin is still so focused on the civil war. This was revealing to me how bothered he was by the Ukrainian revolution and by the rebellion of 1918-19 and how much this was still part of his thinking twenty years later. I suppose though if I understand your question, you’re asking what’s shocking about the famine story, and of course, there are a lot of things that are shocking about it. It’s a very difficult story to write. For me, it’s even more difficult than Gulag, which is another book I wrote. Because gulag, people left, they wrote very beautiful memoirs, people have learned something, or they learn about human morality and they can write something. The famine, there really nothing good you can say about it. Nothing. It’s a terrible tragedy, it ends awfully. A lot of peasants die. I suppose the most shocking thing is you realize how indifferent most of society was. Most people knew there was a famine. People in the cities knew, people in Russia knew. And yet there was never any reaction to it. There was never any attempt to commemorate it. And the people who’d carried it out, never paid any price for it. So the famine, as you know, wasn’t caused by chaos, it was caused by people going into the homes of peasants and taking their food. And so there were some people who did this. They were the activists who went from house to house and confiscated food and they were indifferent to having done that, they were never punished for doing it. There is no evidence there was any terrible moment when they felt guilty and it’s this indifference that’s probably the most shocking.
Especially today when you read the book and you look at the geography of the famine, you hear about the eastern part of the country, there are towns which are now in the Donbas… Modern history of Ukraine is always about dividing it between Eastern and Western, Central and Russian-leaning and western-leaning. In that regard, how universal to Ukraine was everything that happened? Maybe you would also explain how you worked with an archive from different places. You have this topology from Zaporizhya to Chernihiv to Cherkasy…
It’s true that the famine, unlike other famines in Ukrainian history, the worst affected areas were in what was then central Ukraine. So this was at that time Kyiv and Kharkiv districts and there was much higher death rates there. But you’re right, it’s also true that these collections…because again, the famine is caused by requisitioning. It’s caused by people going and taking food. This did happen everywhere and there were deaths from that in every single part of the country. It’s not like the East was somehow an exception. I suppose Donetsk is a little bit different and Donbas is a little bit different because so many people there worked in factories. And the factories were a kind of escape. People could escape from the villages, certainly in the first part of the famine to the factory towns and get jobs there. And also people working in the factories could send food and help home to people in the countryside. But other than that, it affects everybody in Ukraine; it doesn’t matter if you’re western or eastern or whether you’re Russian-speaking or Ukrainian-speaking.
How do you think this event, in particular, influenced the identity and the psyche of the nation? It was concealed but everybody knew. At the same time, there is a feeling of victimhood.
I think you’re right. The secrecy is very important. The fact that it was covered up and people weren’t allowed to talk about it and that meant and probably added to the sense that you’ve had in Ukraine for a long time of this mistrust for the state and this feeling that the state is somehow alien. You know, that we don’t trust it, whatever they say is a lie, we don’t believe it and this feeling that we are the people over here and the state is over there. This is a problem in today’s Ukraine. How do you create a sense of patriotism if you have people who don’t trust their institutions? And on the other side, how do you make the institutions feel that they are responsible to ordinary people? The source of corruption in Ukraine and in other places is this lack of sense of responsibility. People who have political power feel that that entitles them to steal. Some of this feeling dates from this period, both because of the famine and because of the assault on the intellectual class that accompanied it.
You said that it was very difficult not to know. Was it really possible not to know what was going on if you were living in the cities, and in other areas not directly affected?
There were food shortages everywhere. There were food shortages in Moscow. And people were talking about food and how to get food and there were queues everywhere. And this is, of course, one of the causes of Stalin’s great anxiety about the famine. So many people could see it and knew about it and he was being told about it by so many people. So I think certainly at the time, people knew about the problems. You couldn’t avoid it. Years later it was possible not to know. By the 1940s, the 1950s or if you were born in the 1960s-70s you might not know. I had a very senior Ukrainian official recently tell me that he didn’t know as a child growing up. He was probably born in the 70s. Later it was possible, but I think at the time everyone knew.
I would be interested to know how you work with the archives and memoirs and how you were writing this kind of history. It’s always really hard to have the memoirs, but how was the information documented and collected? What do we really have? What is available and how did you work with it?
The memoir material, a lot of it was collected by these projects that were launched by the Yushchenko government, to collect and compile all of the different kind of testimony in these big books, memory books that have been published by each of the different parts of Ukraine. I used all of these. And those have different kinds of testimony from all kinds of people. I had one very good researcher help me go through some of that material and in a way try to organize it a little bit. There were certain kinds of themes and topics I was looking for. I was looking for stories about survival, I was looking for stories about the church. There were particular themes I looked for in the memoirs and then organized the quotations and the excerpts around those themes and then I was able to put them in the chapters where they belonged. Working with archives was a little bit different. In this case, this is a little bit different from my earlier books. I was trying to establish a kind of timeline, what happened in particular in the years
1932-1933, when were the decisions taken, and to document exactly how that happened. In a way, I had two kinds of research. One was to work with these memoirs and try to understand what kind of patterns are in them. And the other was to establish the archival timeline so that I can explain that as well.
What are the particular Soviet strategies to make it happen, to make the societies so indifferent, they have the support of its own population, that the tragedy is possible?
The kind of Soviet propaganda against the peasantry and in particular against kulaks begins already in the 1920s, I mean at the time of the civil war. And in the late 1920s at the time of collectivization it becomes extreme. It’s constant. And the argument from the state is that these kulaks are standing in the way of the revolution. And all of your problems, you the proletariat, and you people in Kyiv and in Kharkiv and Moscow, all of your problems, the reason you are poor is because these people are stealing your food. And these old, illiterate, backwards peasants are keeping the food for themselves and that’s why we’re all so hungry. And this line is repeated over and over again. And at the same time, inside villages, there are these very sharp divisions are made. Favoritism and help and so on are shown to those peasants who will cooperate with authorities and those ones who won’t cooperate or who won’t join the collective farms or who are more wealthy or more successful, they are kulaks. And the policy is to both make the cities hate the countryside and also to make inside the villages these two different groups fight against each other. So it’s the deliberate creation of what we would now call partisanship. And this division of the country into parts, and this creation of hatred between different groups. And it was very very successful.
Is it something unique, or we can compare that particular way that the system worked with something else?
Look, this is how partisanship works now. You can look at modern Ukraine, you can look at lots of other countries. There are politicians who seek to unify people and seek to create a message that will bring a country together and then there are politicians who seek to divide people and speak only to their constituency.
This is how Donald Trump won the election in the United States, by speaking to one group. This is how Yanukovych sought to win elections here. If you can divide people and if you can make your group of activists really angry and support you and back you, then you can win power. It’s a tactic that we see in a lot of places.
In your previous interview, you mentioned that the differentiation between the de facto what you would consider genocide, what is the legal term and what is the most important thing to understand about what had happened for Ukrainians rather than to prove it was genocide. Still in all the international communication, especially with the Russians or with the post-Soviets, there is this question. Was it, why are Ukrainians pushing. Why do you think this issue is still so irritating to a lot of people in Russia in the way we communicate and in particular the Holodomor? It’s such a tragedy, why deny it? In the case of the Holocaust, you don’t deny that something bad happened. And that’s exactly what’s happening to the Holodomor.
I think it’s because there is, in the end, a deep connection. The Holodomor was connected to, it was partly an attack on the Ukrainian national movement. Stalin wanted to repress the peasants in order to prevent this flowering of an independent and sovereign Ukraine. And then I think it’s the case that the Ukrainian national movement in the late 1980s and early 1990s, also began to talk about the Holodomor once again. And I think the Russians dislike it because it’s connected in their heads to the drive for Ukrainian sovereignty and independence. And it’s one of the aspects of history that makes the Ukrainians different from the Russians. There’s a Russian narrative about Soviet history, ‘We were all in this together, and we fought Hitler, and we constructed the Soviet Union, we rebuilt Kyiv in the 1950s,’ and so on. And this was something that we all did together. And the Holodomor is a story that shows there were, in the end, actually some differences inside the Soviet Union and there were different experiences. And I think that bothers particularly this Russian government, which—fear isn’t exactly the right word, but really dislikes the example that Ukraine is setting— is afraid of having protests in Russia of the kind that you had here on the Maidan. And I think they connect the famine and the arguments about the famine to that story.
What do you think is the way to remember the Holodomor? There is this feeling of victimhood and it’s a legit feeling in that regard. And at the same time, you can’t only be a victim. We can look at different historical cases of how the nations who lived through the tragedy tried to commemorate it. It’s up to the Ukrainians, of course, to decide how to do it. But looking at someone who researched the other tragedies, you see what are the traps in this kind of victimhood. What are the other ways not to deny it but still remember?
I’ve said this today a couple of times. In my view, the best thing you could do to commemorate the victims of the famine is to build a society where this could never happen again. To think about, when you talk about Ukraine and what kind of country you want to live in, think about building a society where this is impossible. This is really the best thing you can do. Of course you should teach people the story and of course you should argue about the story. There are very good Ukrainian historians who’ve been writing very well about it. I don’t know how well it’s taught in schools or how much debate there is about it. It should be a part of civic education as well as a part of history education. Here is a disaster that happened in our country, teaching people and talking about how to make sure…What are the institutions? What are the ways we need to make sure it doesn’t happen again? This is the best thing you can do.
Looking at the 20s and early 30s, and that time Ukrainian Communist leadership, in a way there is this discussion about authenticity of part of the communism that was in this country in particular. It was not just brought by Lenin here; Ukraine had its own communists. A lot of had this tragic destiny committing suicide after they knew what happened in the 1930s. At the same time, we are now having this chaotic process of decommunization. Other people would say, ‘let’s forget about them.’ You were working with this archive. How would you differentiate or describe this Ukrainian communism within the Soviet? For Ukraine, what are the challenges researching and talking about that?
There were Ukrainian communists. There was a group of Ukrainian so-called national communists, who believed that through communism the nation would realize itself. And who believed in speaking Ukrainian and teaching in Ukrainian and so on, but at the same time, they were Marxists who wanted to belong to the Soviet Union. And that was one argument that was made at the time and actually a lot of those people were killed in 1934 and if not in 1934 then in 1937, as Stalin purged the party and made it a much more Stalinist-type communist party. But I think for Ukraine, a very interesting part of the debate and something to understand is not just these communists at the high level, but to understand the activists at the village level. Because at the village level, there were two kinds of people in these activist groups. And some of them were people from Moscow, people from Kyiv, or Bolshevik leaders who came down to collect grain from the villages, but some of them were local people. So there were also Ukrainians, other Ukrainian peasants who cooperated, who stole the food from their neighbors in order to give it to the state, and knew that they were allowing people to die. And of course you have to understand that many of these people were doing this because they were hungry or because they thought, ‘if I don’t do this, my children will die.’ Or because they were afraid and they thought they didn’t have choices. But nevertheless, putting them back into the story and understanding how this was not only…Of course this was imposed from Moscow, of course, this was a Soviet plan and of course, it would have never happened without Stalin, but how did Stalin get collaborators? Both in the Ukrainian Communist Party but also these village-level collaborators. It’s very important to understand that story, to think about it, to digest it. Not so much in order to lay blame or to make judgments—I think it’s pointless talking about who was good and who was evil 80 years ago. But just to understand where that behavior came from. It would be a very useful thing to do here.
Were there the stories which had… we started with that. It was difficult to write that because there is nothing really good about that and it’s about human nature, it’s about the physiology of the people who were hungry. It’s something different. This is about a physical stage of them. Were there any stories that kind of inspired? We always try to find in any tragedy, otherwise, it’s…
There are good stories. There are stories of how people saved one another. A lot of stories have to do with very interesting... Another reason this is not a black-and-white and story, a lot of the people who were able to save people from the famine were Soviet bureaucrats. Teachers who worked in schools were sometimes able to get food to children who they saw were from families that were hungry. Or doctors who worked in hospitals. Or somebody who was inside the party bureaucracy, who could go and help his cousin or his uncle, who was able to get food to them. A lot of the sort of heroes were people who were somehow inside the system but were able to use their positions inside the system to help people. And that’s another complication of the story but those are the optimistic stories as well, the people who tried to help from inside.
You’ve done a book tour in the US, you started this book early still while Yanukovych was there. Not a coincidence but the case that Russia and Ukraine is on the map, there is more interest from the western audience. Regarding the questions you were asked, regarding the fact that this story wasn’t really told to the Western audience, compared to even Gulag, compared to the overall Soviet history. Especially in this context, what are the people interested in? What is the US audience or the British audience…
It’s funny, it’s not national differences, it’s the kind of audience it is. So I’ve had a lot of really lovely meetings with the Ukraine in the diaspora; people in Toronto, in Chicago, in New York. And they have one set of questions and interests because they do know the story. And the things that they don’t like about my book and they want to discuss some points. Then there’s a different audience which is an academic audience. And so people who are students or professors of Russian history and sometimes they want to argue or debate my historical arguments. Actually these general audiences—I did a lecture at the New York public library which is a big venue in New York where all kinds of people show up. And then you get this huge range of people wanting me to talk—a lot of people want me to talk about modern Ukrainian-Russian relations.
They want me to talk about the war today, they want to know more about older parts of Ukrainian history. The book creates a lot of questions in peoples’ minds; it’s a part of the world they don’t know very well. They want to know how it relates to the present, what’s Ukraine’s role in World War II. It’s almost like they read this book and they say, “Ah! There’s this missing piece of the puzzle. The history of Europe. How does Ukraine fit? How does Ukraine fit now? How does it fit into the war? How does it fit into the past?” Very different kinds of audiences.
But it’s true, it’s not up to the Ukrainians to feel offended that some people don’t know their history…
How much do you know about the history of Portugal?
I still remember 1974 but it’s still rare. But this is the point, we don’t know and sometimes Ukrainians are complaining without knowing the other tragedy.
To make you feel better, there’s certainly much more knowledge of Ukraine now then there was five years ago, or really ever. Ukraine is now a subject, it is discussed in Washington. you talk about it in Congress, people debate it at the House of Commons. It has a presence on the world stage that was never there before.
At this stage, you were always learning about Russia, learning this region. We were always a bit fed up with the conspiracy theories which are often discussed in Russia about the way the world is governed. And what’s happening now, sometimes when you now watch the US television, when you really read a lot of papers, you just against speaking about all these conspiracies, collusion. How do you feel about that? You’re writing and commenting a lot about Trump. In the end, it’s still the same story, it’s somehow clear, there’s no evidence about Putin and Trump relations. How can we get and report and talk about that?
The strange thing about this Trump story, although it’s a very weird story, and very different from anything else, there’s no kind of precedent in American politics. We do know a lot. Now there’s 30-40 different meetings that people from the Trump campaign had with Russians. There are multiple emails, there’s lot of witnesses. It’s gone well beyond conspiracy theory; it’s pretty well-evidenced. We’re talking about something that’s real. The strange part of it is the fact that he denies it. And we have never had a president, who lies like this one lies, and he lies blatantly, he lies all the time. He lies about stupid things like how many people come to his inauguration. He’s capable of saying one thing in the morning and then denying in the afternoon that he’s said it. So I think this is the things that makes the United States feel so weird right now is really that. It’s the strange behavior of this president; we’ve never had one who is so constantly dishonest all the time.
At the same time, why is it so difficult? Even with the Mueller investigation. He started with the story of Manafort, we reported a lot about that. But then there was what we would consider the hardcore evidence of Papadopoulos referring that he’s talked to a professor, who was exaggerating a lot and had an odd personality...
Well, all these people are odd.
They’re all odd in the end. And it’s lasting for so long…
It will last for a long time because Mueller is not trying to prove that it happened, he’s trying to indict them. He’s trying to put people in jail. And so that requires a lot of evidence in our system. That’s why it’s taken so long. Proving that there was contact between Trump and the Russians, we’ve proved that already. We know. Now there’s lots and lots of stories, we have confessions and evidence and it’s all true that, but Mueller is trying to prove that they broke the law. So that’s much harder to prove and that’s going to take a long time.
At the same time, because you have the knowledge of this region in particular and on Russia, and you’re commenting a lot on the US and the geopolitical part of it, isn’t it true that a lot of people in the US voted for Trump and if you travel, this is a strange movement. It’s maybe 25% of the population, it’s maybe 20. It’s not half of the population but some people are overdoing their suffering, it’s not every white working-class person has no job and saying their life is not as great as they want. When you travel in the US and talk, you really understand that there are things that are broken into the system. How would you look, and how could those things be fixed? When you talk to the Democrats, it still feels like they are licking the wounds and are trying to explain what happened.
It’s true the Democrats need to move forward and come up with a positive message that can unite people again. It can’t be a message about racism and it can’t be something that divides people again according to what identity they have. I think there’s actually quite a lot of good democratic politicians, even in the Senate and in the House, there are some very good people. Nobody’s yet emerged as the new leader of the party but that might only happen closer to the time of the next election.
We recently have Russia Today and Sputnik registered as the foreign agents. How effective is that? How necessary was that?
I think it’s a bit silly. I don’t think it makes any difference whether they’re registered as foreign agents. If it were me, I would have wanted a different arrangement. I would have said that if Russia Today and Sputnik are to be allowed to continue to broadcast in the United States, then Voice of America and Radio Liberty should be allowed to broadcast in Russia. This is your government television, this is our government television and our government radio. And of course they can’t broadcast, they’re very hard to obtain them in Russia and I would have made the deal something about that. I’m not sure I see what the point of doing that was. I suppose it stigmatizes them a little bit, maybe people will think twice before appearing on them and that’s probably good.
Finally, we have more solid discussion on the way that not only the fake news works but how the propaganda in social media works. At the same time in Ukraine, it’s a bit tiring for us to talk about fake news for the last four years. Now it’s everywhere, 427 Russian accounts in London, some were connected to Brexit. Yet what is interesting for me is how we work with the big tech companies. For you as a journalist, as somebody who understands the media also, there are two sides of the story. These huge companies are not that accountable. I’ve been in the Senate listening to them, it looks like there is not much effort for them to do something about that. At the same time, you really don’t want the Senate or Congress being so much involved in defining… What are your thoughts about that?
I agree with you that the tech companies have a long way to go and you know, a lot of very simple things we could do. For example, in America we have laws about political advertising. And transparency laws. If you have a political ad on the television, you have to say at the end of the ad: this ad was paid for by somebody. So why can’t we have the equivalent of that on the Internet? Why can’t we have more transparency about where websites come from? If you see a website called, I don’t know, immigrants go or immigrants out, let’s know who paid for this website, where does it come from, there should be some way to check that, why not? That’s what you’d be able to do if that was a television program or if it was a newspaper article. And I think simple rules about transparency could do a lot; I mean this isn’t censorship, it’s transparency.
If the tech companies won’t do that themselves, then yeah, at some point it will be necessary to introduce regulation. We have regulated very difficult things before. We regulate international capital markets which are unbelievably volatile, very complicates and involve a lot of people who try to cheat.
People from all over the world and yet we manage to do some kind of regulation that some of the time works. So why can’t we find ways of regulating this space as well? I think the problem is that most people took the tech companies that there were. The tech companies have always argued, look Facebook says, ‘we’re not a media company, we’re just space, we are a public space, anybody can be in a public space, we’re not in charge of policing it.’ And we accepted that argument. And I think that’s ridiculous. Of course they’re a media company. They’re publishing. They’re publishers, and publishers do abide by rules and they do abide by liable laws and other kinds of laws and I don’t see why Facebook shouldn’t too.
I understand it’s a short time for you in Ukraine but your general impression. We are living through the fourth anniversary of the revolution so it’s always a time to compare to what was there.
On the fourth anniversary of the revolution, actually, if you look back, quite a lot has been achieved. Given how chaotic things were four years ago and also how there was a moment in 2014 where we thought the Russians might march into Kyiv and maybe farther. Given the very black scenarios that we saw at that time, it’s impressive how much has been achieved and how stable things are. I know it’s very difficult when you live here and even from the outside, it feels like there’s two steps forward and one step back. This is what it looks like. And also I can see that a lot of things have started but then the question is whether they’re irreversible. You can begin a reform but until it’s completed, until people support it, you know that you can always role it back. So I imagine that there’s a lot of fear that that will happen. If you want to end this conversation on an optimistic note, think how frightened we were in March and April 2014 and what we thought might happen and it didn’t. We’re all here, it’s stable, it’s secure, the economy’s recovering, there are a lot of good things to celebrate.