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Book review: ‘Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine’

A new account of Ukraine’s 1930s ‘Holodomor’ is a disturbing but enlightening read.

As was true of her other recent blockbusters: ‘Gulag: A History’ and ‘Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe’ - the publication of Anne Applebaum’s ‘Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine’ (Allen Lane, £25, ISBN 9780241003800), which to my mind is the strongest of the three, could not have been timelier.

Only last night, I was listening to the blood-chilling Radio Liberty reports from the ongoing war in my native Ukraine, the eastern part of which, close to the city of Kharkiv where I was born and grew up, had been invaded by Russian troops, camouflaged as separatists.

More than ten thousand Ukrainians have already perished in that undeclared proxy-war. And although Applebaum does not try to establish direct connections between the present-day military conflict and the Holodomor (the Ukrainian word for the devastating 1930s hunger that was engineered in Ukraine by Stalin and his factotums), the link is not hard to trace, for both the former and the latter were direct results of the Kremlin’s attempts to crush Ukraine’s independent spirit.

I have known Anne Applebaum for over 20 years since her time as deputy editor of the Spectator magazine, to which I was then contributing. I also had the pleasure of meeting her husband Radek Sikorski, a distinguished freedom fighter and former Foreign Minister of Poland. Just like Mr Sikorski, Applebaum fully deserves to be called a freedom fighter, with her main weapons being thorough painstaking research, accessible and lucid writing style and - most importantly - her acute sense of history and social justice.

All of those are reflected in full in ‘Red Famine’, chronicling one of the 20th century’s biggest humanitarian disasters, the history of which continues to remain a battleground for Western historians. Starting with the pro-Stalinist American journalist Warter Duranty in the 1930s, there have been (and still are) attempts to minimise or to deny outright the facts of the Moscow-engineered massive starvation in the 1930s Ukraine, where, according to different sources, between three and seven million people perished (some sources quote a figure as high as 15 million).

I knew an academic in Australia who had built his whole career on ‘Holodomor’ denial. Listening to his ramblings, I could hardly contain my rage, for still as a teenager and then a student in Ukraine I heard dozens of direct witness accounts of the hunger. One elderly lady told me with tears in her eyes how desperate peasants, driven out of their starving villages by Bolshevik grain requisitioners, had to walk to the nearest town or city in search of food, only to be met with the Red Army’s machine-gun fire. She was still a child then and among the lucky ones who survived. Yet, indeed, in the Soviet Union, the truth about the catastrophe was carefully silenced and there was no mention of it in our school history manuals.

What makes ‘Red Famine’ particularly poignant for me is that the book often focuses on the enforced collectivisation in my native Kharkiv region, including numerous photos of the resulting bread queues in Kharkiv itself and the bodies of the starved people in city streets which I could still recognise.

‘Red Famine’ is not a book to skip through lazily near a fireplace on a leisurely Sunday morning. It is a very disturbing, even riveting, read. I would make it compulsory in British and American schools, for – like few other sources – it uncovers the anti-human and cannibalistic nature of Stalinism and of totalitarianism in general. We all need to know the truth, no matter how tragic and heart-breaking it can be, for in the words of Anne Applebaum herself, “that knowledge can help shape ... the future”.

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