The Holodomor (a Ukrainian word literally defined as “death by forced starvation”) advanced Stalin’s policy of collectivisation, in which peasants were forced from their land and on to collective, government-controlled farms. Part of Stalin’s goal was to stop the nationalist movement in Ukraine, where 80 percent of the population worked the countryside, and while millions were starving to death, the Soviet Union was denying the famine and exporting enough grain from Ukraine to have fed the entire population.

The famine, then, was built upon a lethal combination of dwindling food supplies and ideological dogma. Ukrainian peasants faced life-and-death choices because of the contradictions in agricultural policy. If they worked hard and grew large crops, they were deemed kulaks, “enemies of the people”. Lenin called them "bloodsuckers, vampires, plunderers of the people and profiteers, who fatten on famine". Government officials seized kulak farms and killed resisters. Peasants understandably grew less and went hungry.

Life became either paralysing poverty or dangerous prosperity. As Applebaum records, even the ambiguity of the term “kulak” kept people in a state of terrifying uncertainty as to whether they were class enemies in the eyes of their oppressors. A kulak might merely be a peasant with a few more acres or cows than their neighbours. The poorest peasants were branded as such merely for refusing to join a collective farm.

Moscow had been hostile since the 1800s towards national groups that challenged the unity of the Russian empire. In Ukraine, the Romanovs had begun a programme of accelerated Russification, suppressing local languages, gutting civil society and depositing outsiders from remote parts of the empire into Ukraine’s towns and cities.

Stalin continued the violent attack in this quest for hegemony by Russia. The targets were not only the peasantry who resisted collectivisation but also intellectuals, politicians, writers, priests and public officials, namely the agents of the nation’s moral and political order. As his tsarist predecessors had done, before their demise in the bloody events of 1917, Stalin linked national awakenings to the peasantry.

In 1925 he declared that “the peasantry constitutes the main army of the national movement . . . there is no powerful national movement without the peasant army”. Seven years later, in regions such as Kiev and Kharkiv – which had mounted the greatest resistance to the Bolsheviks in 1917 and then to Stalin’s revolution in the countryside – the repression was harshest and death rates highest.

Applebaum writes that this was “a political famine . . . created for the express purpose of weakening peasant resistance, and thus national identity”. The author says the intellectual driving force of the famine is obvious. Stalin’s obsessive belief in Marxist theory saw him conclude that the peasantry “would have to pay ‘tribute’ to the workers’ state”. Otherwise he would teach Ukraine’s farmers a lesson they would never forget.

Political leader Nikolai Bukharin argued for voluntary collectivisation and raising the price of bread as an alternative to the idea that forced collectivisation would improve agrarian output and Soviet grain procurement. But Stalin’s “faith in the efficacy of terror” made forced collectivisation appear necessary and inevitable. Apart from mass starvation, the results were epidemics, psychological disturbances and cannibalism.

According to Polish-Jewish legal scholar Raphael Lemkin, who coined the word “genocide” in 1944, the Holodomor was the "destruction of the Ukrainian nation" and the "classic example of Soviet genocide". He pointed out: "The Ukrainian is not and never has been a Russian. His culture, his temperament, his language, his religion, are all different . . . to eliminate (Ukrainian) nationalism . . . the Ukrainian peasantry was sacrificed . . . a famine was necessary for the Soviet and so they got one to order.” The famine was an instrument of targeted mass murder.

In “Red Famine”, Applebaum debates whether the term “genocide” applies to the famine, concluding that the Holodomor does not meet the UN criteria for genocide adopted in 1948 but does fit perfectly within Lemkin’s original definition, as the systematic destruction of a nation or people.

For 50 years, surviving generations were by the Soviet Union forbidden to speak of the Holodomor, until the USSR was near collapse. Applebaum’s “Red Famine” is not the first book to chronicle this appalling tragedy. In 1986, “The Harvest of Sorrow” by Robert Conquest documented the “terror-famine”, bringing the devastating episode to wider remembrance. Post-1990, Applebaum has had greater access to Soviet archives, drawing on a mass of material and first-hand testimony only available after the break-up of the USSR.

It includes accounts of the famine by those who survived it, and shows how the Soviet state ruthlessly used propaganda to turn neighbour against neighbour so as to expunge so-called “anti-revolutionary” elements. It also records the actions of extraordinary individuals who did all they could to counter and relieve the suffering. Maps and photos accompany the narrative. This compelling account may well be the definitive account of “Uncle Joe’s” warped revolutionary vision.

(Echoes continue today, courtesy “Uncle Vladimir”, in eastern Ukraine, which is in its fourth year of fighting with Russian-led separatist forces. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.)

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