tue 24/10/2017

Anne Applebaum: Red Famine review - hope around a heart of darkness | reviews, news & interviews

Anne Applebaum: Red Famine review - hope around a heart of darkness

Anne Applebaum: Red Famine review - hope around a heart of darkness

Horrifying detail on Stalin's Ukrainian genocide made bearable by sharp prose

Starving family on waste ground, Kharkiv province 1933

Hands both sensitive and surgical are needed to guide a reader into the heart of the 20th century’s second biggest genocide and out again. Anne Applebaum is the right person for a queasy and difficult task, never turning away from the horrifying details of the man-made famine that caused nearly four million deaths throughout Ukraine in 1932-3 but also giving it a context of before and after that ends on a positive note for the nation’s sovereignty. At last, it seems, a new intelligentsia is rising up in the country to replace the cultured Ukrainians wiped out in the 1930s, whose absence led to so long a history of corruption and chaos in the country.

Any single-issue history worth its salt will give us a clear oversight of the general picture, too. Applebaum finds the past in the present, a past that stretches back to Imperial Russian repression of the breadbasket it so condescendingly called “Little Russia” as well as to the chaos of the post-revolutionary civil war, the brief nationalist flourishing of the 1920s and an earlier famine in which Lenin's regime did, albeit belatedly, call upon outside help. In 1932 it was different. Heading towards the heart of darkness, Applebaum gives a cliffhanger intensity to the will-he-won’t-he moment in which Stalin could have conceded failure, or at least flaws, in his policy of forced collectivisation – a desperate enough saga of appropriation which led to another peasant uprising.

Red FamineThen you just have to steel yourself for the stomach-churning details of a famine that went from bad to worse even while the USSR was still exporting vital food supplies to pay not just for its defence but also for the insane targets of its five-year industrial plan. There are the results of a new law whereby “the theft of tiny amounts of food…could be punished by ten years in a labour camp”; the brutality and torture inflicted by the collectors upon the peasants – all of whom could acquire the label of “kulak”, a term originally meaning a weathier landowner which had already begun to be indiscriminately applied in 1919; the phases of starvation, unsparingly but never salaciously described, and the cannibalism of parents eating their own children.

Unbearable as it is, the essential horror stops with a change of policy. But then there’s the one dimension that makes the Holodomor – derived from the Ukrainian words for “hunger” and “death” – worse than the Nazi holocaust: the forced suppression of the truth. In 1945 a Ukrainian woman who had kept a diary “because after 20 years the children won’t believe what violent methods were used to build socialism” was sent to the Gulag for a decade by the court to which she made this appeal.

Anne ApplebaumParadoxically the Nazi occupation of Ukraine had led to several honest reports being published; before that the young Welshman Gareth Jones, who wrote about what he saw travelling off-piste in March 1933, was outgunned by the international Moscow-based press, alarmed at the thought of losing their privileges. Another disgraceful byway of the Holodomor story, in which the much more influential Walter Duranty (“conditions are bad, but there is no famine”) silenced the integrity of Jones, might well be the subject of a screenplay on the theme. Tragically, Jones was murdered by bandits in Mongolia the following year.

He could have lived to see his story vindicated in the 1980s. Applebaum is razor-sharp on the path to Ukrainian independence, the role of Chernobyl and Gorbachev’s volte-face on Soviet guilt in 1986, the courage of Yushchenko and the disaster of his succession by the Russian-backed Yanukovych. She is also rightly generous to the scholarship that went before her, with Robert Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow leading the way - and also supported, like the publication of Red Famine, by the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. In the last few pages, Applebaum does – rightly, I think – let her indignation at the ongoing Russian disinformation campaign colour the picture. But in every respect her research and the beautifully expressd results are worthy of admiration, the book itself irreproachably proofed and well designed. The truth, at last, is here to stay.

The young Welshman Gareth Jones, who wrote about what he saw in March 1933, was outgunned by the craven international press

rating

Editor Rating: 
5
Average: 5 (1 vote)

Share this article

Comments

Anne's "Gulag" was the definitive book on the Russian Death Camps and this book will be the definitive one for this earlier genocide

Add comment

Subscribe to theartsdesk.com

Thank you for continuing to read our work on theartsdesk.com. For unlimited access to every article in its entirety, including our archive of more than 10,000 pieces, we're asking for £3.95 per month or £30 per year. We feel it's a very good deal, and hope you do too.

To take an annual subscription now simply click here.

And if you're looking for that extra gift for a friend or family member, why not treat them to a theartsdesk.com gift subscription?

newsletter

Get a weekly digest of our critical highlights in your inbox each Thursday!

Simply enter your email address in the box below

View previous newsletters