American journalist and Pulitzer Prize–winning author Anne Applebaum spoke on Monday about her new book, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, which covers the 1930s genocide in Ukraine, and how it has impacted the history and modern politics of the state.
“In subsequent years the state became a thing to be feared, not admired. Politicians and bureaucrats were never seen as benign public servants, and the current political passivity of Ukraine and the tolerance of corruption, all of these political pathologies date back to 1933,” she said.
The event took place in the McMullen Museum of Art and was sponsored by the Clough Center for Constitutional Democracy and the Department of Russian and Slavic Studies.
Maxim Shrayer, professor of Russian, English, and Jewish Studies at Boston College, introduced Applebaum, speaking briefly about Applebaum’s career as a distinguished author, historian, journalist, and public intellectual. Applebaum is currently a Visiting Professor of Practice of the London School of Economics, where she runs a project on analyzing propaganda and disinformation.
Some of her well-known books such as Gulag: A History, which won the Pulitzer Prize for nonfiction in 2004, are taught as part of the curriculum in classes at BC.
“Applebaum has written with passion and intellectual honesty about some of the most shocking events and periods in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union,” Shrayer said.
Applebaum began the talk by giving a brief description and timeline of the man-made famine in 1930s Ukraine, the genocide that is now referred to as the Holodomor (derived from Ukrainian for “killing by starvation”).
She recounted the history starting from the spring of 1932, a time during which peasants in the Soviet Union were beginning to go hungry and entire families of Ukrainian peasants were dying at alarmingly increasing rates.
Joseph Stalin instigated and used the policies of collectivization as a means to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty and also win an internal power struggle inside the Communist Party in the early 1930s.
“All of these policies created a huge amount of chaos and disruption in the agricultural economy,” Applebaum explained.
Stalin received letters from Communist Party leaders in Ukraine, informing him about the starvation that was resulting from the failed efforts of collectivization in the region. Applebaum said that Stalin could have alleviated the famine by asking for international assistance, halting grain exports, or stop demanding grain from the peasants who worked on the collectivized farms in Ukraine.
In the autumn of 1932 however, instead of assisting the starving population in Ukraine, the politburo took a series of decisions that widened and deepened the famine, especially in the Ukrainian countryside, Applebaum said.
She spoke about how the Stalin regime and more directly the OGPU, the Soviet secret police at the time, ruthlessly exacerbated the famine at the height of the crisis, by taking away everything edible—potatoes, beets, squash, beans, peas, farm animals, sometimes cats and dogs, money, and clothes.
A concurrent aspect of Stalin’s scheme to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty was the attack on leading intellectuals in Ukraine. Applebaum explained that as the famine spread, the OGPU launched a campaign of slander and repression against Ukrainian intellectuals, museum curators, professors, writers, artists, priests, bureaucrats, anybody who had been connected to this short-lived Ukrainian republic.
Soon after, thousands of churches, historical, cultural monuments and buildings, and other aspects of Ukrainian history were destroyed.
“Art was confiscated, even Ukrainian dictionaries were altered. A letter was dropped from the Ukrainian alphabet, in order to make the language seem closer to Russian,” Applebaum said.
Applebaum believes that both the Holodomor and the repression of political and cultural elites to have brought about the Sovietization of Ukraine.
Applebaum also reflected on the long-lasting ramifications of the Holodomor, saying that the genocide continues to shape the thinking of Ukrainians and Russians to this day, and offered examples of how contemporary political problems in Ukraine can be traced directly to both the loss of the patriotic post-revolutionary elite and the men and women who died as a result of the genocide.
“Those who led Ukraine in the aftermath of the famine were frightened into silence and obedience, they were taught to be very weary, and careful, and cowed,” Applebaum remarked.
Taking a step back to further explain the roots of Bolshevik animus toward Ukraine, Applebaum spoke about one of the revolutions that happened in 1917, which was heavily influenced by Ukrainian intellectuals of that time. They demanded Ukrainian sovereignty in the aftermath of WWI, as countries such as Czechoslovakia and Poland were declaring their independence.
On the subject of the FSB, another Soviet secret police,, Applebaum talked about how the intelligence agency continues to demonize its opponents through propaganda and disinformation in today’s world.
“As in the past, the Kremlin still uses language to set people against one another, to create first and second class citizens, and divide and distract,” Applebaum said.
Applebaum also spoke briefly about a few contemporary issues that have been shaped by the 1930s genocide, mainly the belief among the current Russian leadership that a Ukraine that is integrated within the European Union poses a threat to Russia.
Although the overall subject matter of the talk was somber, Applebaum ended on a hopeful note. In the end, the famine did fail, Ukrainian culture didn’t disappear, and the desire for a better and more just society didn’t disappear either.
“Years of terror left their mark, but millions of people do discuss this and speak about it today, as we are now, and that is something we can hold onto for the future,” she said.
Featured Image by Myroslav Dobroshynskyi / Heights Staff