In her latest book, Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum tells the story of the 1932-1933 Ukrainian famine, known as the Holodomor. Drawing on archival material, as well as memoirs and oral history, Applebaum aims to recount the story “from the point of view of people who lived in it and lived through it.”
Hromadske sits down with Anne Applebaum to discuss her new book, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine.
Applebaum begins her story in 1917, when peasant resistance to the establishment of Soviet power in Ukraine “nearly led to the end of the whole revolution.” She argues that this experience shaped Stalin’s perception of Ukraine as an existential threat to Soviet authority.
In the midst of a general famine orchestrated by Stalin across the Soviet Union in the early 1930s, he took the opportunity to “focus it on Ukraine” with an aim to “weaken Ukraine as a political entity.” Millions of Ukrainians died of starvation while others were killed during mass arrests.
“I think there's no question that it was a genocide,” Applebaum says, weighing in on one of the most controversial aspects of the Holodomor story.
Applebaum also believes the Holodomor provides key background for understanding events in contemporary Ukraine. “When [Putin] saw Ukrainians waving European flags on the Maidan in 2014 and shouting anti-corruption slogans and calling for rule of law, he saw that as a threat,” she says. “This was a threat to Russia, and not Russia as a country, but Russia meaning his regime.”
She argues that Putin’s reaction, the annexation of Crimea and invasion of Ukraine’s Donbas region, were prompted by this perceived threat. “The reason why he reacted that way is because he has inherited some of that fear of Ukraine,” Applebaum explains. “That Ukraine as a problem is not a minor problem, Ukraine is an existential problem for Russia.”
Hromadske talks to Anne Applebaum, columnist for The Washington Post and author of Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine.
My first question: you wrote books about the Cold War and the Gulag, and now about the Holodomor. Why is this topic interesting for you?
I felt that the Holodomor was an unfinished subject [...] certainly in English. I felt there was still room for a book that could really just tell the whole story from the beginning to the end.
Let me then ask, there are books that we know in Western scholarship like by Robert Conquest or Timothy Snyder or Andrea Graziosi, in which way is your book different or new?
So I used the research done by all three of those authors and other authors, and particularly Ukrainian authors. And what I did was to provide all of the archival work that's been done, with all of the memoirs and all of the oral history that's now available. So I used these many, many books, these accumulated oral history collections that had been collected by the Ukrainian government over the last couple of decades, to put together a story that told the famine, not just from the historian's point of view and not just from a political point of view but also from the point of view of people who lived in it and lived through it. I actually looked for memoirs from all sides and as much testimony as I could find from different kinds of people, in order to tell the whole story. I think the other thing about my book that's maybe different from some previous books is that, as I was working on the story of 1932 and 1933, I pretty quickly realized that I needed to go back further, and the book actually starts in 1917. It starts with the Ukrainian revolution of 1917 and it explains why that revolution and the civil war that followed were so important in shaping Stalin's thinking about Ukraine a decade later.
Can we say that your book is also a kind of attempt to translate this oral history collected by mostly Ukrainian authors to the West and to an international audience?
Yes, I mean, that's a large part of what I was doing. You in Ukraine know most of this story. Either you know it from school, but many of you know it from your parents, you know it from your grandparents, you know you've heard stories passed down in your families. But people in the West don't know those stories and you would be surprised how many people actually find the Ukrainian famine to be a brand new subject. They haven't heard of it before, they know nothing about it. And the value of being able to transmit the famine, the stories of ordinary people, being able to explain those to a western audience, you know, I think you can't even measure it. It changes the way people read a book.
You tried to draw a broader history, coming to 1917, for example, and to connect the Holodomor to Ukrainianization and the repressions against Ukrainianization. For you, [was] Stalin's war on Ukraine, on Ukrainian peasants a war mostly because they were Ukrainian or because they were peasants?
My argument about the famine, about the Ukrainian famine, is that Stalin caused a general famine and crisis all across the Soviet Union, after collectivization, by disrupting the agriculture system, by throwing people off their farms. If you like, that was a kind of war against the peasants. But then once that began in 1931 and 1932, it was almost as if he saw an opportunity to use that famine to focus it on Ukraine. His goal was not to destroy all Ukrainians, but his aim was to weaken Ukraine as a political entity. To make sure that there was no sovereign Ukraine, there was no Ukrainian national movement, that the Ukrainians did not have an identity that was strong enough to challenge the Soviet Union. And the reason he did that was that he remembered from the Civil War what had happened when the Ukrainian peasant rebellion in 1918 had thrown the Bolsheviks out of Ukraine. How dangerous that was, how it very nearly led to the end of the whole revolution, and he feared another peasant revolution. He feared Ukrainian nationalism. He feared these things because they were a challenge to the authority of the Soviet Union.
And by the way, it's important to note and remember, and I explain this also in the book, that the famine was only half of the story and the other half was the mass arrest of Ukrainian intellectuals, artists, cultural figures and actually, many many members of the Ukrainian communist party who were arrested in 1932, 1933, 1934, at the same time by the same people. Remember the secret police were focused both on organizing the famine and also on organizing the mass arrests at the same time, and that was part of the same desire to get rid of this problem in Ukraine, this challenge from Ukraine.
Let me come to a topic which you also discuss at the end of the book, I mean the topic of genocide. You are discussing the history of the concept from Raphael Lemkin onwards. Do you think we can describe the Holodomor as genocide? And do you think, if yes, Ukraine and the international community has to fight for its recognition as a genocide?
So, yes I do believe it was a genocide. If you look at the way the term was defined originally by Lemkin and by others, there's no question that the famine fits into that category. In other words, that it was an attempt to destroy a definable group of people and to eliminate their culture, and to erase and weaken them as a national entity. You may find that it's more difficult to have it recognized as a genocide legally, and this I explain is because the legal definition of genocide, and the way the term has been interpreted in international law, was very heavily influenced by the Soviet Union. The Soviet Union was there, it was part of the United Nations in the 1940s when the convention on genocide was being discussed, and the Soviet Union was very insistent that it be defined in a very specific way. In a way, that essentially implied that the only kind of genocide that could be legally recognized was more or less something that resembled the German Holocaust. So it's difficult to recognize internationally.
It's a decision for Ukrainians to make. I don't know that it's the most important thing about the famine. You know, one of the things I worry about the genocide debate, is that it distracts from people understanding the real history and what happened.The history of it, what happened, why it happened, who carried it out and why, all of those questions are really interesting and important and they have all kinds of ramifications today. And the question of whether or not the UN says it’s a genocide seems to be secondary. I mean, for Ukrainians that's not so important. What's important is that you understand it. What's important, of course, for the world is that we all understand it so that we understand these processes and how they happen.
Comparing the Holodomor and the Holocaust, I know that this is a very difficult thing to say, to compare, but do you think there are similarities between the two and, if yes, what are the key differences?
In the most basic sense they are similar, in that they were both attempts by the state to kill people and to kill people not because of something they'd done, not because they were even prisoners of war, but to kill them for who they were. So, by definition, the state was trying to kill Ukrainian peasants because they were Ukrainians peasants, and that's similar to the German state wanting to kill Jews because they were Jews. So yes, at that level they are similar. You know, there were of course many differences. The Soviet state was not trying to kill all Ukrainians, and as my book explains, there were Ukrainians who were members of the activist brigades who carried out the famine. So as you know, the famine in Ukraine was not the result of chaos. It was organized by groups of people who went into the peasant villages and removed the food, so there was no food available, and who then blocked the roads so that the peasants couldn't leave and get into the cities or leave Ukraine to beg for food. There were Ukrainians who were members of those activist brigades. So you can't talk about an attempt to kill all Ukrainians. Whereas Hitler, at least in theory, although again in practice it’s more complicated, wanted to kill all Jews. All that tells us is something about the different ways that people thought in the Soviet Union and the way that people thought in Nazi Germany. And if you step back and you look at the more broadly, they are both instances of mass murder, organized by the state, aimed at a national group in order to eliminate them in the name of some broad, utopian, political goal.
Do you think that the Holodomor is a very important element in understanding what now happens? I mean the Russian aggression in the east, the annexation of Crimea etc. Do you think it should be part of the narrative in which we try to explain what's happening now?
The one thing that is and does strike me as important is understanding what I was speaking about a moment ago. Namely that the way in which Stalin saw Ukraine not just as a small problem but as a kind of existential problem. You know, a challenge from Ukraine could upset the whole revolution, Ukraine was dangerous. And I think there's a way in which Putin, with his kind of KGB background and KGB understanding of the world, has a similar view of Ukraine. It's an internal problem for him. When he saw Ukrainians waving European flags on the Maidan in 2014 and shouting anti-corruption slogans and calling for rule of law, he saw that as a threat to himself. This was a threat to Russia, and not Russia as a country, but Russia meaning his regime. His oligarchic, autocratic dictatorship is threatened by that kind of language in Ukraine. And so his reaction to it, which in many ways was disastrous, I mean the invasion of Crimea and of eastern Ukraine has been terrible for Russia. It's not good for the country. It led to this boycott and sanctions and a backlash, but the reason why he reacted that way is because he has inherited some of that fear of Ukraine. That Ukraine as a problem is not a minor problem, Ukraine is an existential problem for Russia. Ukraine can challenge Russia, Ukraine can undermine the Russian regime, and I think that some of that Soviet thinking about Ukraine remains in the Russian elite today.
How do you see this environment, how do you see your audience? Is there growing interest in Ukrainian dramatic, tragic history, meaning the Holodomor? And do you think that your book is just helping people interested to understand it?
The funny thing is that when I started working on this book, Yanukovych was the president of Ukraine and Ukraine was not an important story. And of course since then the Ukraine story has become much better known. And in a way, the reason why it's become better known is thanks primarily to the actions of Ukrainians. As I said, it was the Maidan demonstration, it was the language that young people in Ukraine were using, it was this desire for democracy, it was the amazing ability of Ukrainians to organize this civic action that suddenly drew the world's attention to the country. I think my book, fortunately, will help that and, I hope, give people some of the background to help them understand what happens in contemporary Ukraine.
READ MORE: Anne Applebaum on Trump-Putin Meeting
/ Interview by Volodymyr Yermolenko
/ Text by Eilish Hart