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the majority of government policy remained in effect, a “thawing” took place where the old ways of Stalin were slowly repealed.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.