The Candle of Memory

The Candle of Memory

A new history of the Ukrainian famine illustrates the perils of using the past in service of today’s politics.


In central Kiev, on a grassy hill high above the Dnieper River, stands a nearly 100-foot-tall white tower topped with a stylized flame. This is the “Candle of Memory,” erected to commemorate the millions of victims of what Ukrainians call the Holodomor, or “death by hunger,” the famine caused by Soviet collectivization and repression in 1932–33. The memorial opened in 2008, following a 2006 parliamentary vote to recognize the Holodomor as an act of genocide against the Ukrainian people.

Holodomor memorialization was a signature achievement of the administration of then-President Viktor Yushchenko, who promised to move Ukraine away from Russian influence and toward Europe and the United States. Part of this project was the establishment of a specifically Ukrainian history, one that could help the country cast off the mantle of Russian and Soviet domination. The project presented certain political risks, however. Some nationalist-minded Ukrainians cast the Holodomor as a Russian—as opposed to a Soviet—act of genocide against the Ukrainian people, and have cited it as evidence of innate Russian villainy. The new centrality of the Holodomor in Ukraine’s official historiography angered Russia as well as some members of Ukraine’s sizable Russian-speaking minority, which is concentrated in the eastern part of the country and in Crimea. After one member of this community, Viktor Yanukovych, was elected president in 2010, he took some measures to reduce the prominence of the Holodomor in Ukraine’s national memory. During the 2014 Maidan Revolution that deposed Yanukovych, and then in the ensuing war, competing historical narratives have taken center stage, with the Holodomor serving, on the Ukrainian side, as evidence of the recurring Russian urge to drive Ukraine and Ukrainians out of existence.

Commemoration can consolidate national feeling through celebration or mourning. It can remind a country of its gravest mistakes, or it can whitewash them. Evolving national historical narratives turn defeats into victories and villains into heroes, and vice versa. Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, a new history of the famine, illustrates the perils of using the past in the service of today’s politics. Drawing on archives opened after the fall of the Soviet Union, newly available oral histories, and recent scholarship, Applebaum provides an accessible, up-to-date account of this nightmarish but still relatively unknown episode of the 20th century. Her historical account is distorted, however, by her loathing of communism and by her eagerness to shape the complicated story of the famine into one more useful for the present: about a malevolent Russia and a heroic, martyred, unified Ukraine.

In 1928, Joseph Stalin’s Soviet Union had a food problem. Because of policies that gave farmers little incentive to sell their grain, the state could no longer feed the urban population. Stalin became convinced that counterrevolutionary “kulaks”—a mostly imaginary class of fat-cat capitalist peasants—were hoarding grain. He ordered requisitions that angered the peasants and discouraged production, leading to further grain shortages, which in turn were followed by even more requisitions. Stalin had quickly made his own suspicions come true: Peasants began to hoard and hide grain—in protest and as a means of survival.

In response to this crisis, the Communist Party’s Central Committee decided to collectivize agriculture in 1929. Collective farms were to function like state-owned agricultural factories, with peasant farmers transmogrified into workers. The fantasy was that scientific innovations would vastly improve productivity, providing bountiful food for the cities, with plenty left over to export in exchange for the hard currency needed for rapid industrialization.

Though some high-ranking members of the party (notably Nikolai Bukharin) opposed forced collectivization, Stalin chose to employ the most coercive and violent methods available to him. He began by having millions of “kulaks” deported to distant collective farms, depriving them of the ties to community that would aid them in a rebellion. Many peasants chose to destroy their crops and slaughter their livestock rather than turn them over to the state; some of the more religious ones came to believe that the Soviet Antichrist was ringing in the end of the world. Others, more accurately, saw collectivization as a form of “second serfdom.” Peasants lynched and murdered Soviet officials and volunteers in charge of collectivization.

The result of Stalin’s policies was a man-made famine of terrifying scale. By the spring of 1932, peasants in the grain-growing districts of Ukraine, the northern Caucasus, the Volga region, and western Siberia were starving. Applebaum draws on oral testimonies and memoirs that offer a vivid look into the transformations wrought by famine. One Ukrainian survivor described his brother as “alive but completely swollen, his body shining as if it were made of glass.” An activist from Russia remembered Ukrainian children looking “all alike: their heads like heavy kernels, their necks skinny as a stork’s…the skin itself like yellow gauze stretched over their skeletons.” Some parents abandoned or even killed their children, unable to bear watching them starve to death. There were instances of cannibalism, usually necrophagia. Though this horror was the result of Soviet policy, the police arrested those who succumbed to it. Applebaum quotes a Polish woman who wrote in her gulag memoir about being transferred to a prison island populated by “Ukrainian cannibals”:

They described how their children died of hunger, and how they themselves, very close to starvation, cooked the corpses of their own children and ate them. This happened when they were in a state of shock caused by hunger. Later, when they came to understand what had happened, they lost their minds.

People died in the streets, and no one had the strength to bury them. Peasants were forbidden to enter the cities in search of food, and the areas most affected, including Ukraine, were closed off. Policemen and party activists searched village households and confiscated any remaining animals or food they saw, even crusts of bread. Harsh penalties—execution or 10 years’ hard labor—were imposed for any kind of theft. By the end of 1932, less than six months after the new law had been passed, 4,500 people had been executed for violating it, and more than 100,000 had received 10-year sentences.

Party members, ordinary people, and cultural figures like the author Mikhail Sholokhov wrote to Stalin, describing the horrendous situation and imploring him to help. Moscow party boss Martemyan Ryutin released an opposition platform denouncing the Soviet leader and aggressively criticizing coercive collectivization and the anti-kulak terror; he and his family were soon arrested and executed. Members of the Ukrainian Communist Party pleaded with Stalin to lower the quotas and provide food aid; some quit in protest. Many paid for these protests with their lives, and others committed suicide.

In May of 1933, the Soviet authorities finally approved substantial food aid, sent in workers to help bring in the harvest, stopped the arrests of peasants (in part because the prisons and camps were overflowing), and ended the policy of food confiscation. Grain quotas were reduced. But the damage done was almost unimaginable: Between 1931 and 1934, at least 5 million people starved to death across the Soviet Union.

The question of how to politically mobilize peasants, and how to understand them as a political group, was a vexed one for the revolutionaries of the Russian Empire. After the emancipation of the serfs in 1861, urban progressives had “gone to the people,” hoping to rouse the peasants to revolution. These efforts were met by political repression from above, but also by a marked lack of enthusiasm among the peasants themselves, who were suspicious of these idealist interlopers. In the years leading up to 1917, a number of socialist parties worked to garner peasant support, most notably the Socialist Revolutionaries, who won the elections in November of that year.

But the Bolsheviks quashed the Socialist Revolutionary Party, along with any hope for socialist democracy. They were focused on the urban proletariat, the factory workers who had brought revolution to Petrograd. The Bolsheviks had a low opinion of the peasants, who fit uneasily into a Marxist framework and were widely considered to be backward: political deadweight, or worse. (Postrevolutionary land redistribution did, however, mean that there were almost no landless peasants by the time collectivization began.) This mistrust of the peasants was reinforced by multiple waves of peasant revolt, some of it organized with the help of the Socialist Revolutionaries, from 1918 on.

The peasant question overlapped with another contentious issue: that of the Soviet Union’s “national minorities.” By far the largest “national minority” was the Ukrainians—who also farmed one of the largest and most fertile areas in the USSR. This meant that a war on the peasants was, to a great extent, a war on Ukrainians. Nearly 4 million of those who died between 1930 and 1934 because of famine were Ukrainians, according to the most recent estimates; 3.5 million were from rural areas. This constituted about 13 percent of the population of the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. (It’s important to note, however, that the peasants farming Ukrainian land were not always Ukrainian. Some were Russian, and Polish and German farmers in Ukraine were among the earliest targets of “dekulakization.”) The one ethnic group with higher proportional losses were the Kazakhs; more than a third of Kazakhstan’s population died during collectivization. The great majority of the victims were Kazakh nomadic herders, rather than the Russians who lived in the Kazakh Republic’s cities.)

The Bolsheviks viewed nationalism and the very idea of the nation-state with distaste; once the workers of the world had united, the idea went, communism would spread across the globe, and there would be no need for nation-states. National feeling would be a thing of the past, along with the wars that capitalist states waged against one another for profit, using workers as their soldiers. That said, the Bolsheviks recognized that national feeling could be an important tool in mobilizing rebellion against capitalist imperialism, which was, in early Bolshevik thinking, even more loathsome than nationalism. The Bolsheviks also recognized that imperial Russia had viciously repressed many members of its empire’s ethnic minorities; the equality of ethnicities and races (and of the sexes) was an important part of Bolshevik rhetoric.

When the Bolsheviks saw that many members of the ethnic minorities preferred national independence to internationalist revolution, they realized that they would have to find a way to present the revolution as a victory not only for the proletariat but for oppressed ethnic groups. Lenin was shocked by the unwillingness of many Ukrainians to join the Bolsheviks during the Civil War, and he grew even more alarmed when they formed multiple factions, of many political persuasions, to fight the Red Army and win Ukrainian independence. This contributed to a Bolshevik animus against Ukrainian nationalism, but also to the policy of “indigenization,” which was intended to neutralize national demands by providing a degree of self-rule by whatever ethnic group formed the majority in a given region.

In Ukraine, that meant “Ukrainization”: the standardization and use of Ukrainian in government and education (the language had long been suppressed by the czars, along with movements for Ukrainian independence) and the appointment of Ukrainians to important governmental and cultural roles. The Ukrainian Communist Party was filled with Ukrainian speakers who pushed for “national communism,” which allowed a measure of self-determination and national identity within the framework of communist principles. There was a brief blossoming of Ukrainian culture, including a remarkable modernist movement. But around 1927—just before the onset of collectivization and then famine—Stalin, obsessed with a supposed counterrevolutionary conspiracy among Ukrainian nationalists, embarked on a campaign to annihilate the country’s intelligentsia and the leaders of the Ukrainian Communist Party. Even the Ukrainian language was purged—of a too-foreign letter and of words planted by “terminological wreckers.”

The Soviet authorities went to great lengths to conceal the famine, both internally (to the extent that this was possible, with starving peasants swarming the train stations and dying in city streets) and on the international stage. They were abetted by foreign correspondents who were well aware of the famine but knew that they would likely lose their privileges if they reported on it. The Soviet authorities destroyed records; when the 1937 census produced undesirable numbers, they executed the statisticians. International guests of the period, such as George Bernard Shaw, were easily hoodwinked and reported home that the rumors of famine were merely anti-Soviet propaganda.

The Ukrainian diaspora’s subsequent efforts to publicize the famine, and to have it recognized as an act of genocide, were often met with skepticism, given the inaccessibility of Soviet archival evidence, the understandably partisan position of the diaspora, and the vicissitudes of Cold War politics. It was only in the 1980s that Ukrainian activists succeeded in bringing the famine to international attention, with crucial help from the historian Robert Conquest’s The Harvest of Sorrow, a landmark work written, like Applebaum’s book, in cooperation with the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute. In 1985, the US Congress established a commission to investigate the famine, in order to “provide the American public with a better understanding of the Soviet system by revealing the Soviet role” in it.

As its subtitle, Stalin’s War on Ukraine, suggests, Red Famine depicts this gruesome historical episode as a calculated assault on the Ukrainian nation, rather than as a war on the peasantry or a war on multiple groups that Stalin perceived as threats (peasants, Ukrainian nationalists, Kazakh nomads, Cossacks). The devastation that Stalin visited upon Ukrainian bodies, culture, and land is undeniable, and Ukraine (along with Kazakhstan) clearly bore the brunt of his attacks. But viewing all of the period’s events through a Ukrainian lens can be misleading, and at times Applebaum seems to impose her desired meaning on ambiguous evidence.

In Applebaum’s account, the diverse political factions fighting against the Red Army in Ukraine during the Russian Civil War become a “Ukrainian rebellion…. the first and most damaging appearance of the anti-Soviet ‘left.’” She describes the anti-Soviet violence of 1930 in Ukraine as “well organized and nationalist in character,” though she presents little evidence that the peasants were fighting because of their nationalist commitments rather than because they were frightened and angry at the prospect of impoverishment and starvation.

Applebaum’s eagerness to show that Ukrainian peasants and intellectuals formed a unified nationalist front puts her in the strange position of giving credence to Soviet secret-police reports that attributed all of the resistance to collectivization—including the desperate protests of Ukrainian Communists—to “counterrevolutionary nationalism,” a typically Stalinist way of writing off the peasants’ legitimate fury at being robbed and starved and the Ukrainian Communists’ opposition to an appalling and destructive policy. Applebaum’s desire to depict a purely Ukrainian event can lead her to baffling distinctions, such as when she asserts that the deportation of 2 million peasants between 1930 and 1933—which was obviously a part of collectivization but doesn’t appear to have singled out Ukraine for punishment—“is separate from the story of collectivization and famine.”

Red Famine is Applebaum’s third book about the horrors of Stalinism. As in her previous two, the Pulitzer Prize–winning Gulag: A History and Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944–1956, her project is polemical as well as historical. In the introduction to Gulag, Applebaum makes her political agenda clear: She wants the world to recognize that Stalinism—and, by extension, communism—was just as bad as Nazism. She voices justifiable indignation at the Western leftists who refused to believe the reports of Soviet repression, or who dismissed it as a necessary evil when it became too well-documented to deny. But she also expresses disgust at leftist sympathy for any part of communism at all, including “the advantages of East German health care or Polish peace initiatives.” For her, the worst part about American McCarthyism was the bad press it brought to the fight against communism, which she describes as a “threat to Western civilization.”

In Red Famine, Applebaum’s anticommunist zeal prompts her to make statements like: “[T]he methods used to collectivize the peasants destroyed the ethical structure of the countryside as well as the economic order. Old values—respect for property, for dignity, for human life—disappeared.” While it’s certainly true that, as the historian Lynne Viola puts it, “the party aimed at nothing less than the eradication of peasant culture and independence,” and that the death toll caused by collectivization vastly exceeded that of any single event under the czars, peasant life was hardly idyllic before the revolution: It was plagued by violence against the poor, against women and children, against ethnic minorities. It is also telling that Applebaum puts “respect for property” first on her list of the cherished “old values.” Describing the Bolsheviks before the 1917 revolution, she writes disdainfully that they were “unsuccessful by any standard. If they earned any money, it was by writing for illegal newspapers; they had been in and out of prison, they had complicated personal lives, they had no experience of government or management.” The Bolsheviks, in short, were losers: no homeownership, no 401(k)s, no MBAs.

Applebaum’s departure from the standards of academic history is most obvious in her frequent use of the concepts of “evil” and “morality.” In Red Famine, for example, she writes that the urban activists sent to enforce collectivization were “disappointed fanatics” whose “powerful belief” in the counterrevolutionary tendencies of the peasants “enabled them to do things that ‘bourgeois morality’ would have once described as evil.” While no work of history is completely impartial, such overt value judgments hinder the reader from entering into the reasoning of the period under study.

This problem is particularly acute in her discussions of Soviet ideology, since Applebaum treats Marxism as a kind of mental illness rather than a political philosophy. She cannot or will not grasp that the Bolshevik rejection of nationalism was based in internationalism and was not simply a form of Russian chauvinism, writing:

Disdain for the very idea of a Ukrainian state had been an integral part of Bolshevik thinking even before the revolution. In large part this was simply because all of the leading Bolsheviks, among them Lenin, Stalin, Trotsky, Piatakov, Zinoviev, Kamenev and Bukharin, were men raised and educated in the Russian empire, and the Russian empire did not recognize such a thing as “Ukraine” in the province that they knew as “Southwest Russia.”

Applebaum never addresses the fact that Stalin was an ethnic Georgian who spoke Russian with a heavy accent throughout his life; or that the ethnically Jewish Trotsky grew up in southern Ukraine speaking a mix of Russian and Ukrainian; or that Zinoviev was Jewish and Kamenev half-Jewish. One can criticize these figures for many things, but none of them can be credibly depicted as hapless victims of Russian imperial brainwashing. Internationalism was a central part of early Bolshevik and Soviet thinking and a crucial element of Trotskyism.

In Red Famine, Russia plays the villain to Ukraine’s hero, and communism is set in opposition to nationalism. While she explicitly rejects ethnic nationalism or populist chauvinism, Applebaum has long advocated for a strain of nationalism that she characterizes as the patriotic love of one’s native country and its history and traditions, and that she views as a necessary prerequisite for a healthy democratic state. Despite her stated admiration for human rights, Applebaum displays little faith in the idea of universal values that transcend national boundaries, or of working on behalf of one’s fellow human beings rather than one’s compatriots.

In an article in the New Republic in May 2014, when Ukraine’s Maidan Revolution had been followed by a war between the Ukrainian government and Russian-backed separatists in the country’s eastern regions, Applebaum argued that nationalism offered Ukraine’s only hope of salvation. She blamed political apathy on the lack of “national identity” in post-Soviet Ukraine, a place where, for example, a half-Polish husband and his Russian-Jewish wife—two acquaintances who hosted Applebaum during a visit to Lviv—could look upon the removal of a statue of Lenin with a dismaying lack of enthusiasm. “Only people who feel some kind of allegiance to their society—people who celebrate their national language, literature, and history, people who sing national songs and repeat national legends—are going to work on that society’s behalf,” Applebaum claimed. Of war-torn eastern Ukraine, she wrote: It “is what a land without nationalism actually looks like”—though Russian nationalism played an important role in the conflict in the region. She also criticized eastern-Ukrainian noncombatants there—the often impoverished civilians who, over subsequent years, would see their homes destroyed, their neighbors killed in artillery attacks (some by their own government), their sick or elderly relatives dead due to a lack of medical care—for “watching the battle passively.” Applebaum called them people who “live where they do by accident…who have no attachment to any nation or any state at all.” And yet, even if they didn’t feel a special allegiance to the dysfunctional Ukrainian government, which has remained severely corrupt and oligarchic even after two popular revolutions, many of these “rootless” eastern Ukrainians were attached enough to their homes to refuse to leave, even when their lives were in danger.

Across Europe and around the world, stark economic inequality and the capture of political and legal systems by the ultra-rich have fed popular anger and resentment. In Ukraine, as elsewhere, this anger can be misdirected—often intentionally, by self-serving politicians—into a populist nationalism that encourages hatred and exclusion rather than economic and political reform. Instead of asking why power has been concentrated in the hands of a corrupt elite, nationalists put the blame for social problems on migrants, minorities, and foreign influence. Relatively small groups of extreme nationalists can help stymie political reform. In opposition movements, they can imperil nonviolent protesters. Over the years since the Maidan Revolution, it has come to light that right-wing nationalists not only physically attacked unarmed leftists at the protests, but helped to initiate the turn to violence that led to the deaths of some 100 protesters at Maidan Square. Since the revolution, right-wing nationalists have been able to take important positions in government, manipulate policy and the judicial process, push forward a blockade that helped cause a humanitarian crisis in eastern Ukraine, and harass minorities with impunity. Having witnessed a torchlight march of hundreds of balaclava-clad nationalists from the Azov Battalion in Kiev last year—their insignia was a modified Wolfsangel that, they claimed, represented the initials of the phrase “national idea”—I am not convinced that more nationalism is what Ukraine needs.

By far the weakest section of Red Famine is its epilogue, in which Applebaum discusses the famine’s impact on contemporary Ukraine. She asserts that

even three generations later, many of contemporary Ukraine’s political problems, including widespread distrust of the state, weak national institutions and a corrupt political class, can be traced directly back to the loss of that first, post-revolutionary, patriotic elite…. [T]he state became a thing to be feared, not admired; politicians and bureaucrats were never again seen as benign public servants. The political passivity in Ukraine, the tolerance of corruption, and the general wariness of state institutions, even democratic ones—all of these contemporary Ukrainian political pathologies date back to 1933.

But when had Ukrainians—or anyone in the Russian Empire or the Soviet Union—become accustomed to “benign public servants”? The Russian Empire was corrupt, authoritarian, and often brutal; so was the early Soviet Union. The “political pathologies” that Applebaum lists are endemic to virtually all of the post-Soviet states and common in dysfunctional states around the world—to call them direct consequences of the famine (horrific and destructive though it was) is ludicrous.

Applebaum believes that the Soviet destruction of Ukrainian national identity has caused Ukrainians to have “mixed and confused loyalties,” which “can translate into cynicism and apathy.” She argues that ”[t]hose who do not care much or know much about their nation are not likely to work to make it a better place.” But “mixed loyalties”—which could also be called, less pejoratively, “multifaceted identities”—aren’t inherently bad; in fact, they are part of what has made Ukrainian culture so rich and, arguably, what has kept the country relatively open and democratic despite acute corruption and oligarchy. Nationalism in Russia, on the other hand, has fed bigotry and neo-imperial sentiments that seek to restore Russia to its great-power status at the expense of its neighbors. In Hungary and Poland, right-wing nationalism has promoted anti-Semitism, sexism, xenophobia, and authoritarian tendencies. In the United Kingdom, nationalism contributed to Brexit; in France, it has played a central role in the rise of the Le Pen family and the National Front. The problem isn’t a lack of national identity in Europe and the West today but the perverse insistence, in a globalized age, that citizenship should be rooted in a single ethnic, linguistic, and cultural identity.

Today, we are witnessing the painful demise of strains of liberal cosmopolitanism that simultaneously tolerated socioeconomic inequality and celebrated cultural difference. We shouldn’t give up on the ideal of multicultural societies that protect mixed loyalties while promoting economic equality. Most countries are already multicultural and multilingual societies, and likely to stay that way.

It’s a good thing that in contemporary Ukraine, a Russian-speaking Jew or a Crimean Tatar can identify strongly with Ukrainian independence, and that Hungarian, Romanian, Slovak, Romani, and Ukrainian dialects can coexist in Carpathian villages. Single-minded loyalty to Ukrainian nationalism and Ukrainian folk culture should not be a requirement for responsible citizens of a modern European country.

An open, democratic society should aim to improve the lives of all its citizens without asking them to kneel before the flag, and the historian’s goal shouldn’t be the enshrinement of national enmities. Anne Applebaum’s new book provides an accessible account of a historical tragedy that needs to be studied, understood, and remembered. But by attempting to reduce a complex story to a simpler one about Russian chauvinists and Ukrainian victims, about evil communism versus noble nationalism, Red Famine promotes the kind of narrative that is helping to tear Europe—and not only Europe—apart.

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