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  • Writer's pictureClay Anderson

Review of Red Famine by Anne Applebaum

In Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine, Pulitzer Prize-winning author Anne Applebaum provides a meticulously researched and compellingly recounted history of the horrific famine that befell Ukraine in the early 1930s. Known as the Holodomor, this famine was not merely a consequence of poor weather conditions or economic mismanagement, but a brutal and deliberate act of genocide orchestrated by Joseph Stalin and his Soviet regime.

Applebaum, a renowned journalist, historian, and expert on Eastern Europe, brings her vast knowledge and distinctive narrative style to this tragic chapter in Ukrainian history. She painstakingly presents how the famine was engineered by the Soviet government as a means to suppress Ukrainian nationalism, reshape the Ukrainian identity, and secure the USSR's control over a region that was historically resistant to Moscow's influence.

The book opens with an overview of the historical context of the period, providing a clear understanding of Ukraine's complex relationship with Russia and the socio-political dynamics within the Soviet Union. Applebaum adeptly outlines how Lenin's New Economic Policy left the Ukrainian peasantry relatively well off, leading to a sense of Ukrainian nationalism that threatened the unity of the Soviet state.

In response to this perceived threat, Stalin initiated a series of policies that would lead to the Holodomor. The author details these policies, including the forced collectivization of agriculture and the ruthless seizure of grain from Ukrainian farmers. These strategies were accompanied by a campaign of cultural suppression, where the Ukrainian language, literature, and history became targets of the Soviet regime.

One of the book's strengths lies in Applebaum's ability to humanize the staggering statistics. She does not shy away from the grim details of the famine. The reader is confronted with stories of families forced to eat pets, leaves, and in the most desperate of situations, other humans, to survive. Applebaum's skillful storytelling makes these accounts all the more harrowing, as she provides vivid, personal accounts of the suffering endured by ordinary Ukrainians.

The author also demonstrates an impressive command of various primary and secondary sources, drawing upon a wealth of recently opened archives, oral testimonies, personal memoirs, and previous scholarship. These sources enhance the credibility of Applebaum's arguments and provide a multi-faceted view of the Holodomor, allowing the reader to understand the events not only from a historical perspective but also from a human perspective.

Applebaum makes a compelling case for treating the Holodomor as a genocide, a term that has been the subject of much debate among scholars and politicians. She argues that the famine was not just a result of economic mismanagement or a consequence of the Soviet Union's industrialization drive, but a deliberate act of mass murder. This argument is supported by ample evidence, including the Soviet government's refusal to accept international aid and its efforts to conceal the famine from the international community.

A thought-provoking aspect of the book is Applebaum's exploration of the long-term effects of the Holodomor on Ukrainian society. She observes how the famine extinguished the flame of Ukrainian nationalism, at least for a time, and left a deep scar on the collective memory of the Ukrainian people. The author also discusses the Soviet Union's subsequent efforts to rewrite history and erase the Holodomor from the national narrative.

Applebaum's Red Famine is a powerful and necessary contribution to our understanding of the Holodomor. It is a chilling reminder of the lengths a regime will go to maintain power and suppress dissent, and a testament to the resilience and spirit of the Ukrainian people. This book is not an easy read, but it is a necessary one for anyone interested in understanding the complexities of Ukrainian history and the darker aspects of the Soviet Union's legacy.

One minor criticism that could be leveled at Red Famine is that, in focusing on the political machinations of the Soviet Union, the book may not delve as deeply as it could into the experiences of the Ukrainian people. While Applebaum does make an effort to include personal testimonies and anecdotes, these could arguably be given more space.

In conclusion, Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine is a profoundly moving and deeply researched exploration of one of the most tragic events in Ukrainian history. Applebaum's unflinching look at the brutal realities of the Holodomor and the political machinations that led to it is an important reminder of the horrors that can be inflicted in the name of ideology. This book is a significant addition to the study of the Soviet Union, Ukraine, and genocide studies, and it is a must-read for anyone interested in these topics.

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