Alexander Wienerberger and Samara Pearce

A peasant girl during the Holodomor, Ukraine’s Stalin-era famine, Kharkiv, 1933

On December 14, 1932, Joseph Stalin and Vyacheslav Molotov, the former as head of the Communist Party, the latter as premier of the Soviet government, signed a decree titled “On the Procurement of Grain in Ukraine, the North Caucasus, and the Western Region.” The country was in the midst of a food crisis that had already caused widespread hunger, but the decree was not concerned with the famine. Its purpose was to mobilize party cadres to continue extracting grain from the countryside so that, among other things, it could be sold abroad to pay for Soviet industrialization. Procurement quotas were not being fulfilled, and the collectivization of agriculture was in trouble, as were the reputation of Stalin and his team and ultimately their chances of staying in power.

The Soviet leaders demanded that their underlings in Ukraine and the North Caucasus—two of the three main grain-producing areas of the USSR—fulfill the grain-procurement quotas for 1932 by January–February 1933. The decree of December 14 ordered the arrest and, if necessary, the execution of collective farm heads and local officials who fell short. Some of the “saboteurs” were mentioned by name: fifteen regional officials were to be sentenced to hard labor for five or ten years—the decree gave the Soviet judiciary a modicum of flexibility in that regard. In the Kuban region of the North Caucasus, the inhabitants of the Poltavskaia settlement were accused of sabotaging the procurement campaign, and the secret police were ordered to deport its entire population to the Soviet north. The village would be resettled by Red Army veterans from central Russia.

But Stalin was not after grain alone. The decree of December 14 also dealt with the politics of culture. All the “saboteurs” listed by name were Soviet cadres from Ukraine, and the Poltavskaia villagers happened to be overwhelmingly Ukrainian as well. The decree ordered local officials in Kuban to change the language of their official correspondence and of public education immediately from Ukrainian to Russian and to stop publishing Ukrainian-language newspapers and journals. It also demanded that the republic’s leaders establish strict control over the “Ukrainization” policy instituted in the 1920s to promote the development of Ukrainian culture, as well as to purge nationalists and agents of foreign powers.

The December 1932 decree turned Stalin’s all-Union grain-extraction campaign into a direct assault on the Ukrainian political elite and the cultural foundations of Ukrainian nation-building, thereby distinguishing the famine in Ukraine from that in other parts of the USSR. Now known in Ukraine as the Holodomor (killing by hunger), the famine of 1932–1933 claimed the lives of close to four million Ukrainians, more than half of all those who starved to death in the Soviet Union during that period. It dramatically changed Ukrainian society and culture, leaving deep scars in the national memory. It also produced a vast literature on the subject, and since the Soviet regime refused to admit the very existence of the famine, its recognition was hotly contested in the last decades of the cold war. Subsequently it became a matter of dispute between Ukraine and Russia, with the Ukrainian government defining the famine as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people and the Russian government stressing that the disaster affected the entire Soviet Union.

Anne Applebaum walks into the minefields of memory left by Stalin’s policies in Ukraine and multiple attempts to conceal, uncover, interpret, and reinterpret the Holodomor, bringing a new determination to set the record straight and new evidence that has become accessible since the fall of the Soviet Union. Red Famine is the most important study in English of the famine since Robert Conquest’s Harvest of Sorrow (1986) and stands out for its persistent focus on Ukraine as the place where the history of the famine not only took on its salient characteristics and conclusions but also where it began. Applebaum recognizes and states repeatedly that the famine was not limited to Ukraine and was caused by policies that grew out of considerations and circumstances broader than what she defines as Moscow’s “Ukrainian Question.” But she is no less persistent in pointing out the uniqueness of the Ukrainian situation and the political and cultural factors—the strength of Ukrainian nationalism, the stubborn peasant resistance to the Communist regime in Moscow, and, last but not least, the fertility of the soil—that made the Ukrainian famine the deadliest of the Soviet famines of the time.*

The time frame of the book is unusually broad for a history of the Great Famine. While the events of 1932–1933 are central, Applebaum presents a brief survey of Ukraine’s history before the twentieth century that illuminates her approach to the “Ukrainian Question.” She also covers in detail the prehistory of the famine, starting with the revolution of 1917, and her epilogue brings the interpretation of the Holodomor up to the present. This broad perspective helps to explain its importance for the perennial historical debate on the Russian Revolution, understood in the book as comprising a number of national revolutions, for the history of Ukraine, and for the history of Russo–Ukrainian relations, which are so hostile today.


Ukraine’s rich black soil has produced grain for international markets since the days of Herodotus, and the country became known as the “breadbasket of Europe” long before Germany occupied it in 1918 to feed its army and home front. The Bolsheviks were there before the Germans came. Applebaum documents the Bolshevik obsession with Ukrainian grain in striking detail. “For God’s sake, use all energy and all revolutionary measures to send grain, grain and more grain!” wrote Vladimir Lenin to his commanders in Ukraine in January 1918. “Otherwise Petrograd may starve to death. Use special trains and special detachments. Collect and store. Escort the trains. Inform us every day. For God’s sake!” Lenin’s troops were waging war against the socialist government of the Ukrainian Central Rada, allegedly to crush counterrevolution, but at the top of Lenin’s agenda was grain, without which the Bolshevik regime was doomed. The villages, especially the Ukrainian villages, were to be robbed and exploited: Communist colonialism was taking shape.

The Bolshevik regime survived civil war and economic collapse not only by being ruthless but also by making concessions to forces that its leaders were initially unprepared to tolerate, including Ukrainian nationalism and the Ukrainian peasantry. The first was appeased by the policy of Ukrainization, which offered support for the Ukrainian language and culture in exchange for giving up aspirations to political sovereignty. The second was pacified by the New Economic Policy, which allowed the peasants to keep the land they had acquired in the revolution and put an end to requisitions, introducing elements of the market.

Ukraine, or rather the eastern and central parts of today’s Ukraine that comprised the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic during the interwar period, benefited from both policies, but the Bolsheviks considered them temporary. Their long-term objective was the transformation of the peasantry into the working class and the elimination of ethnic and national differences. “The national question is purely a peasant question,” declared Mikhail Kalinin, the nominal head of the Soviet state and one of the very few Bolshevik leaders with a peasant background. “The best way to eliminate nationality is a massive factory with thousands of workers.” The connection established by the Bolshevik rulers between the peasant and nationality questions created policies that cost Ukraine millions of lives.

The Soviet Union entered the 1930s with a new sense of insecurity that prompted a drive to accelerate the revolutionary transformation of the economy and society. The Soviet leaders’ hopes of using the Russian Revolution as a spark to ignite world revolution, first in Europe and then in the colonial East, never materialized and were replaced by their determination to build socialism in one country. The survival of the regime in a hostile capitalist environment necessitated a strong industrial base to arm and mechanize the military, while mobilizing the population in defense of the “socialist motherland” required an ideology with deeper local roots than Marxist internationalism. The regime looked to the villages to provide human and agricultural resources for industrialization and to Russian nationalism as a source of legitimization—which promised nothing good for Ukraine.

The villages were the first to feel pressure from Moscow. Stalin’s policy of forced collectivization, implemented in the fall of 1929, singled out Ukraine for especially rapid conversion to the supposedly more efficient model of agriculture. The collectivized farms were to produce more grain and sell it to the state for rock-bottom prices, providing resources for building industry and the military. Those who questioned the new policy were declared to be kulaks (in Russian) or kurkuls (in Ukrainian)—a term that meant a wealthy peasant and exploiter and cast the most entrepreneurial peasants, who had everything to lose from collectivization, as agents of counterrevolution. But eventually the regime began to apply the term to almost anyone who opposed it. In March 1930 Moscow ordered the arrest of 15,000 kurkuls and the deportation to the north of over 30,000 kurkul families from Ukraine alone. The goal was to remove the potential opponents of collectivization from an important grain-producing area and soften the peasant resistance to government policies.

A Soviet poster from 1930 depicting a wealthy peasant being surrounded by collective farmers. The text reads: ‘We will smite the kulak who agitates for the reduction of crop land.’

The Ukrainian villages, with their record of armed resistance to the Bolsheviks, rebelled. Two thousand “mass” protests were registered by the secret police in Ukraine by the end of March 1930. Peasants in the Pavlohrad and Kryvyi Rih areas—the home base of the strongest warlord of the revolutionary era, Nestor Makhno—formed detachments but were soon outnumbered and outgunned by the regime’s security forces. In areas neighboring Poland, whole villages marched to the border in a futile attempt to cross it and leave the collectivization nightmare behind. Stalin sounded a retreat, blaming excesses in collectivization on overzealous local cadres. Peasants forcibly enrolled in the collective farms were allowed to leave them. That gave them an incentive to work on their plots and, coupled with good weather, helped produce in the summer and fall of 1930 a record harvest in Ukraine. It was a victory for the peasantry and a defeat for collectivization, but Stalin interpreted the good harvest differently.


With the harvest in the silos, Stalin moved his shock troops of party and Young Communist League activists and secret police officers back into the countryside to push once again for collectivization and to collect the grain. With rebel leaders of the previous year imprisoned or exiled and villages cleansed of kurkuls, the peasants returned to the collective farms, but they did not change their attitude toward the government and its policies. They were not eager to grow more than was needed for themselves and their families. The record harvest of 1930 would never be equaled again. Stalin and his aides in the Kremlin decided that peasants were simply hiding what they had grown. In the fall of 1931 they ordered requisitions that brought famine to Ukraine in the spring of 1932. Hardest hit were the sugar beet–producing areas south of Kyiv, where the authorities tried to collect what was not there. The famine, limited at that point to Ukraine, had begun.

As people began dying en masse in central Ukraine in the late spring and early summer of 1932, the government in Moscow sent the republic new quotas for grain procurement in the fall of 1932. As there was no sowing in regions already affected by famine and the rest of the collective farms were in disarray, Ukrainian party officials sounded the alarm, pleading with Stalin for the reduction of quotas. He refused. Keeping the 1932 quotas in place and maintaining pressure on the peasantry, Stalin opened a new front in his war on Ukraine. His enemies were the Ukrainian party and government officials who were trying to defend the peasantry instead of following the party line and extracting grain no matter what.

The attack on the Ukrainian political leadership, allegedly for colluding with the kurkuls in the countryside, was first conceived in the summer of 1932. Doubting the loyalty of the cadres in Ukraine, Stalin accused them of sympathizing with Ukrainian nationalism, which he associated with Symon Petliura, a Ukrainian leader of the revolutionary era. He also suspected them of leanings toward Marshal Józef Piłsudski, the leader of Poland and Petliura’s former ally. “If we don’t make an effort now to improve the situation in Ukraine, we may lose Ukraine,” wrote Stalin to his right-hand man, Lazar Kaganovich.

Keep in mind that Piłsudski is not daydreaming…. Keep in mind that the Ukrainian Communist Party includes more than a few rotten elements, conscious and unconscious Petliurites as well as direct agents of Piłsudski. As soon as things get worse, these elements will not be slow in opening a front within (and without) the party against the party.

Stalin wanted to purge the party leadership and top echelons of the Ukrainian secret police not only to facilitate increased grain requisitions but also to cleanse the party and government apparatus of cadres more loyal to their people than to their boss in Moscow. In November 1932 he sent into Ukraine as a plenipotentiary a senior secret police official, Vsevolod Balytsky, who was experienced in combating Ukrainian nationalism. In the following month Stalin opened one more front in his Ukrainian war, this time against the cultural elite. The decree signed on December 14, 1932, signaled the start of his offensive on all three fronts: against the peasantry, the local party elite, and the Ukrainian intelligentsia. It linked the failure to fulfill grain-requisition plans with kulak resistance to the regime, the alleged nationalism of the elites, the subversive activities of foreign governments, and policies to promote the Ukrainian language and culture. The political conditions under which the Great Famine of 1932–1933 would unfold were now fully in place.

On New Year’s Day 1933 Stalin sent a telegram to the Ukrainian party bosses ordering them to apply a recently adopted law on the theft of collective farm property to prosecute those who did not fulfill grain quotas. From now on, all grain found in peasant households could be considered stolen from the collective farm and thus from the state. As the procurement brigades, composed of party cadres from the cities, police officials, and local activists, moved from one peasant household to another, confiscating grain and often taking all available food supplies as “fines” from the starving peasants, they left in their wake a devastated countryside bracing itself for the inevitable new famine.

The first cases of mass death from starvation were recorded that January. Especially hard hit were regions of central Ukraine that had not recovered from the famine of 1932. They were too weak to do any sowing in the spring and had little to harvest in the fall. Peasants there died at a higher rate than anywhere else, with the administrative zones of Kyiv and Kharkiv accounting for losses of over one million each. According to the latest estimates, most of the nearly four million people who died from starvation in Ukraine perished between March and June 1933, when food supplies were exhausted and early crops turned out to be too difficult for shrunken stomachs to digest. Government assistance arrived too late and was insufficient to stop the death spiral. It was distributed exclusively to the collective farms and shipped predominantly to the main grain-producing areas in southern Ukraine. People in the most severely afflicted areas of central Ukraine were left to die. As in the Gulag, the subject of Applebaum’s earlier book, the regime was prepared to feed those still able to work.

As the peasants died of hunger, Stalin intensified his war on Ukraine on the two other fronts: against the party elite and the cultural intelligentsia. The charge was led by his plenipotentiary Pavel Postyshev, who arrived in Ukraine in January 1933. Tens of thousands of Ukrainian Communists were purged from the party during Postyshev’s first year in Ukraine. In the commissariat of education, close to four thousand teachers were dismissed, and repressive measures were taken against most school administrators. Ukrainian writers were targeted for especially severe persecution. In May 1933, on hearing of the arrest of his friend Mykhailo Yalovy, Ukraine’s leading Communist writer, the poet and novelist Mykola Khvylovi committed suicide. “The arrest of Yalovy—this is the murder of an entire generation…. For what? Because we were the most sincere communists?” wrote Khvylovi in his suicide note.

In July 1933 Mykola Skrypnyk, an old Bolshevik and architect of cultural policies in Ukraine, committed suicide to avoid imminent arrest. By that time, teaching and publishing in Ukrainian in the Kuban and other regions of the Russian Federation settled by Ukrainians was already banned. The largest ethnic minority in Russia was wiped out culturally. In Ukraine itself, the promotion of Ukrainian culture among non-Ukrainians was stopped in its tracks, ensuring the dominance of Russian culture in the Ukrainian cities. Stalin’s three-pronged assault on the Ukrainian peasantry and the country’s political and intellectual elite produced a new Ukraine—subdued and silent but refusing to forget.

Applebaum tells the story of the Great Famine not only with compassion but also with precision, using a wealth of official documents and oral testimony to reconstruct the events and reveal the thoughts, concerns, and feelings of those involved, both perpetrators and victims. Analyzing the famine from multiple political, economic, ethnic, and cultural perspectives, she avoids reducing it to a chronicle of ethnic suffering or turning it into something it was not.

“Stalin did not seek to kill all Ukrainians, nor did all Ukrainians resist,” writes Applebaum in her conclusions. “But Stalin did seek to physically eliminate the most active and engaged Ukrainians, in both the countryside and the cities.” The Holodomor, she suggests, does not conform easily to the definition of genocide set forth in the United Nations convention of 1948, which “came to mean the physical elimination of an entire ethnic group, in a manner similar to the Holocaust.” The UN convention, Applebaum explains, was shaped in large part by Soviet delegates who were eager to limit the definition of genocide to acts committed by proponents of fascist and racist ideologies.

But the Holodomor readily fits the definition produced by no less a figure than the father of the concept, the lawyer Raphael Lemkin: “Genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation…. It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.” In his unpublished lecture “Soviet Genocide in the Ukraine” (1953), Lemkin emphasized that the Soviets attacked the Ukrainian political and cultural elite because they were “small and easily eliminated, and so it is upon these groups particularly that the full force of the Soviet axe has fallen, with its familiar tools of mass murder, deportation, and forced labour, exile and starvation.” Applebaum leaves it to readers to draw their own conclusions on the issue.

Red Famine, a book about an enormous tragedy, ends on a positive note:

In the end, Ukraine was not destroyed. The Ukrainian language did not disappear. The desire for independence did not disappear either—and neither did the desire for democracy, or for a more just society, or for a Ukrainian state that truly represented Ukrainians…. When they were allowed to do so, in 1991, they voted overwhelmingly for independence.

Applebaum suggests that Stalin, who succeeded in forcing the Ukrainian peasantry into collective farms and crushed the Ukrainian national renaissance of the 1920s, failed in the long term: “A generation of Ukrainian intellectuals and politicians was murdered in the 1930s, but their legacy lived on.” So did the memory of the Holodomor. “As a nation, Ukrainians know what happened in the twentieth century, and that knowledge can help shape their future,” reads the last sentence of the book. Red Famine helps the world at large to understand it as well.