When Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) died on March 5, 1953, the Soviet Union embarked on a change of course under its new leader Nikita Khrushchev (1894-1971). While the majority of government policy remained in effect, a “thawing” took place where the old ways of Stalin were slowly repealed. However, many secrets remained buried as the Politburo sought to maintain its public facade of a progression under communist ideology. Among those secrets was the deadly famine that engulfed the Ukraine between the years of 1932-1933. In history courses, the famine is not discussed and it remained a hidden secret to the west for decades after it ended. The death count stands at a minimum of three million people. The true number may never be known. But what is certain is that the famine was no accident and the product of disastrous and delusional planning from Moscow.
Anne Applebaum, a Pulitzer-Prize winning journalist and author, dives into the tragedy of the Ukraine famine head first with an accurate and riveting account of how and why the famine developed. But before the reader can understand the famine, it is first necessary to understand the complicated history between Russian and the Ukraine. It is a history of violence, distrust and the animosity was on full display in 2014 when Russian military units invaded the small nation. Russia, has never relented in its quest to reclaim the Ukraine, once part of the U.S.S.R. The history of Ukraine in the story at hand begins with the Russian Revolution of 1917. The new found political spirit did not end in Russia but crossed the border into the Ukraine as Ukrainian Bolsheviks launched their own cultural revolution. The culture, language, laws and traditions of the Ukraine were blacklisted and criminalized as the Bolsheviks sought to erase all traces of the Ukrainian way of life. Their seizure of the country set the stage for the deadly path of destruction the Soviet government would later embark on.
What I noticed as I read through the book was how much of a premonition the famine was for later communist governments that made the same mistakes. Stalin’s policy of collectivization, embraced by both Chairman Mao and Fidel Castro, was an utter failure just as it was in the latter mentioned regimes. Moscow’s refusal to change the policy, even in the face of reports coming back from the field, is horrific and ultimately mind-boggling. Malnutrition, distrust, resentment and crime evolved out of the doomed policy and reduced the people of Ukraine to a mass of bodies pushed to the extreme. Millions did not survive and for those who did, they carried the mental and emotional scars from a famine that could have been handled if not for a ruler dogged by paranoia and drunk on power.
Applebaum tells the story the way it should be told with the reasons and methods used to rid the Ukraine of those intellectuals who had the potential to lead it in a new direction. The smear campaigns and murders approved by the OGPU, predecessor to the KGB and FSB, removed anyone who Moscow believed to be a threat to its supreme rule. The common people, often referred to as the kulaks, suffered immensely and trust between neighbors and acquaintances became rarer than a solid meal. Like puppets on strings, Moscow played with the lives of millions of Ukrainians, doomed by their culture and religion as antisemitism and anti-Ukraine sentiments prevailed.
Today there are many sources of information about the famine that was once firmly hidden behind strategically placed propaganda. But not everyone was fooled. In fact, Nazi Germany was firmly aware of it as it invaded Ukrainian territory during World War II. The German occupation is a topic for another book as Applebaum mentions but it highlights the despair and hopelessness that Ukrainians found their selves subjugated to. Following the war, things were far from improving and it would not be until the administration of Mikhail Gorbachev that the truth began to come to light. His policy of glasnost, helped repeal the curtain of secrecy in the Soviet archives. The door became slightly ajar but authors such as Anne Applebaum have now kicked it wide open with the full story of one of the world’s deadliest famines. This book is key to understanding the tragedy and the tense relationship between Russia and the Ukraine.
Today, sixty-four years after his death in, Joseph Stalin (1878-1953) remains one of the most polarizing and studied figures of the 20th century. As the leader of the Soviet Union during the Second World War, he enforced the legendary Red Army as it fought off a German onslaught and helped the Allies put an end to Germany’s Third Reich. Following the war, tensions between the United States and the USSR escalated giving birth to the Cold War. In 1991, the USSR collapsed and today Russia is under the control of Vladimir Putin, undoubtedly one of the world’s most controversial figures. Stalin’s reign may seem to be in Russia’s distant past but it was less than one hundred years ago that Stalin ruled with an iron fist, striking fear into the hearts of not only his enemies but those closest to him. Rumors have surfaced over the years regarding everything including his love life, health, mental state and bungled policies. But who was the real Joseph Stalin? Born Ioseb Jughashvili in Gori, Georgia on December 18, 1878 to Besarion “Beso” Jughashvili (1850-1909) and Ketevan “Keke” Geladze (1858-1937), few could have imagined that the young child would grow up to rule an entire nation. His life in later years became mysterious to those inside and outside of Russia. Misconceptions and falsehoods have spread, causing even more confusion about the truth. Stephen Kotkin has takes on the late leader’s life in a multi-part definitive biography that is simply outstanding.
Kotkin’s compendium is extensive, totaling over seven hundred pages of text. And from what I have seen, the second volume, due to be released in November, 2017 will be slightly larger. But contained within the pages of this book, is the incredible story of the life of Joseph Stalin from his birth until the year 1928. The book was exhaustively researched and at times, is heavy on historical figures, places and dates. At first it may seem challenging to keep track but as the book goes on the, the figures reappear to remind us of their importance. The beauty in the book is that Kotkin deeply examines all situations that require explanation. And in his writing, he is neither for or against Stalin. He simply shows us his life and who he was, based on his own statements, transcripts of Party Congresses and documents that have survived from the era. For history lovers, this is nearly heaven on earth. History textbooks tell some of the story of the Russian Revolution, but here we have an inside look into the movement that catapulted Stalin, Vladimir Lenin (1877-1924) and Leon “Lev” Trotsky (1879-1940) to eternal fame and later condemnation. The subsequent Russian Polish War and escalation of tensions between Russian and it’s allies Germany and Britain following Lenin’s death, highlight the fractured foreign policy enacted employed by the Bolshevik party.
As Kotkin showcases, Stalin’s rise to power was based on fear, intimidation and deception. Even those closest to him, never truly knew what he was thinking or how to approach him at times. His first wife Yekaterina “Kato” Svanidze (1885-1907) died only a year into their marriage but his second wife Nadya Alliluyeva (1901-1932) witnessed first hand his unpredictable nature and abrasive moods. And for those that were enemies, they often face exile in Siberia, where Stalin himself was once confined to during the First World War. Trotsky, Grigory Zionviev (1883-1936) and Lev Kamenev (1883-1936) would find this out firsthand. His NEP or “New Economic Policy” was supposed to be the plan that saved Russian but instead propelled it towards disorganized collectivization intended to balance the economy as Stalin moved further to the left. But as we see in the book, the Bolsheviks had steep learning curves in many areas. The results of their shortcomings are tragic having resulted in the deaths of over seven million people. Famine spread like a virus forcing many to eat things unmentionable and unimaginable. And throughout the crisis that arise, Stalin comes off as a cold machine unaffected by anything and driven by ideology. As we re-live the past through Kotkin’s words, we see the deep level of seriousness and vindictiveness that composed the former Soviet dictator.
Stalin took with him to the grave, answers to many questions that have puzzled researchers for years. And although we have documents that have been graciously preserved, some parts of his life are lost for good. Perhaps some day in the future, more information about him may be discovered but with Kotkin’s work, we have the first part of what could be the best biography of Stalin to date. It is one of history greatest stories and filled with historical figures such as Pyotr Stolypin (1862-1911), Maria Spiridonova (1884-1941), Fanya Kaplan (1890-1918), Gavilro Princip (1894-1918) and Nicholas II (1868-1918) among others. Students of Russian history have been presented with a gift in this book and I am sure it will find its way to the bookshelves of many.
Ideas are more powerful than guns. We would not let our enemies have guns, why should we let them have ideas” – Joseph Vissarionovich Stalin