Why Stalin Starved Ukraine

History is a battleground, perennially fought over, endlessly contested. Nowhere does this aphorism hold true more than in Russia. A majority of Russians recently voted Joseph Stalin the “most outstanding person” in world history (followed, naturally, by current President Vladimir Putin). No longer the monster of the gulags and purges that killed millions, Stalin now looms in the national consciousness as the giant who defeated the Nazis in World War II. Meanwhile, not only has Russia annexed Crimea and destabilized Ukraine’s eastern regions, its military adventurism has also extended to Syria. Putin, who once described the collapse of the USSR as “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe” of the twentieth century, looks determined to avenge the humiliations of Russia’s post-Soviet implosion. Integral to this endeavor is not just to flex the country’s geopolitical might in the present but to re-write its past.

It is this point that makes the historiography of the USSR—a subject worthy of deep study in itself—so relevant today. Pulitzer-prize winning historian Anne Applebaum is one of the world’s pre-eminent chroniclers of the crimes of the Soviet Union. Her previous works, notably Gulag: A History, which detailed the horrors of the Soviet prison system, and Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956, which analyzed the USSR’s imposition of communism in Eastern Europe, have played their part in bringing to light the full extent of Soviet oppression. Her new book Red Famine—a masterpiece of scholarship, a ground-breaking history, and a heart-wrenching story—turns to the horrors of Soviet policy in Ukraine, specifically Stalin’s mass starvation of Ukraine from 1932 to 1933. Such was the famine’s devastation that Ukrainian émigré publications coined a new word to describe its barbarity: “Holodomor,” a combination of the Ukrainian words for hunger (holod) and extermination (mor).

At least 5 million people died from starvation in the Soviet Union between 1931 and 1934—including 3.9 million Ukrainians. And, despite the contentions of certain historians of the Soviet Union, Applebaum argues that these deaths were no accident. As she notes at the beginning of the book, “The Soviet Union’s disastrous decision to force peasants to give up their land and join collective farms; the eviction of “kulaks,” the wealthier peasants, from their homes; the chaos that followed”—these policies were “all ultimately the responsibility of Joseph Stalin, the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party.”

Moreover, they were—along with the persecution of intellectuals and officials who had even the flimsiest connection to Ukrainian nationalism—part of a systematic assault not just on Ukraine, but on the very idea of Ukraine.

Collectivization of the farmlands of Ukraine began in 1929. Stalin wanted the country, with its hugely fertile black soil, to be the breadbasket of the Soviet Union. He wanted to feed the important party officials and to export its grain abroad to fund his vast industrialization projects. It was an unmitigated disaster. Farmers were no longer paid for their produce but worked according to a ration system based on their productivity. In reality it made them beholden to the party, which, controlling their finances, was able to control all aspects of their lives. And they were no longer able to buy food.

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