Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine 1921:1933 by Anne Applebaum is a book that looks at the first and second great famines in Ukraine that were brought on by Communism and Stalin. It’s a remarkably good book about an important topic.
In 1921 the Communists started to take much of the grain harvest and the idea of having any grain sown taken without compensation coupled with bad weather led to a collapse in the grain harvest. After this happened, there was some going back on Communist ideals and small farms were owned by the peasants. They again succeeded in producing grain. However, success made farmers ‘kulaks’ who were deemed anti-revolutionary and the cause of insufficient grain being harvested.
However, even this limited private ownership this was deemed incompatible with Marxism and taxes were raised and then peasants were forced to join collectives where the main incentive was to take as much as possible and do as little as possible. As insufficient peasants were joining the failing collectives voluntarily taxes were drastically increased, leading to a collapse in production that then resulted in outright confiscation of any food that seemed surplus. The confiscation then became taking food from anyone who had any at all.
The application of Marxism led not to a workers paradise but to a country that was poorer ten years after the revolution than it had been in 1917. I didn’t actually know this and thought that Soviet mechanisation had been fairly successful quite rapidly but this is not the case.
Also, Ukraine was a nation within the Russian Empire that continued to exist. During the revolution various groups had hoped a great liberation of Russia would lead to more independence for Ukraine. The Soviets however were determined to crush this and saw nationalism, other than Russian nationalism, as something to be destroyed.
The combination of anti-Ukrainian feelings by Stalin, the failure of the Communist system and a desire for hard currency from grain exports led to a terrible, deliberate, government directed famine that killed at least 3 million people in Ukraine. In the rest of Russia similar efforts also starved millions but it was worst in Ukraine.
Remarkably, some brave, honest reporters managed to cover the story, in particular a Welsh journalist Gareth Jones. He put together an amazingly accurate report that was published in some English newspapers. However, Walter Durant, the Pulitzer Prize winning New York Times writer trashed the report and said it was all nonsense. Due to the sympathy for Marxism in Western intellectual circles he was instead believed. Interesting, many other countries were also aware of what was happening. However, honest reports were not made to the citizenry of these countries because of the desire for influence with Stalin.
After the famine accounts did appear under the brief and murderous occupation by the Germans of Ukraine but they were again not promulgated in the West due to fear of offending Stalin.
The Soviets continued to suppress the record of what had happened but it was so large scale and so awful and there were enough survivors who united in Ukrainian ex-pat communities that the truth eventually got out. But it was not until the 1990s and the fall of Soviet Communism that the famine was openly and honestly accounted for.
The book is surprisingly very readable for a book about an awful mass death event driven by totalitarianism. Applebaum has written a great book about one of the biggest tragedies of the twentieth century that has been lied about and effectively suppressed until the last 25 years. It’s a great achievement and very much worth reading.