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.