CAMBRIDGE, Mass. – Pulitzer Prize-winning author and journalist Anne Applebaum spoke to a packed auditorium at Harvard University’s Center for Government and International Studies (CGIS) on the topic “The Holodomor Reconsidered: The Bolshevik Revolution and the Ukrainian Famine.”
The talk was part of a retrospective series of special events sponsored by the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute (HURI) that takes a new look at “Ukraine in the Flames of the 1917 Revolution.”
Much of the material used in Ms. Applebaum’s presentation on October 23 was drawn from her new book “Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine,” which was released earlier in the month in the United States by Doubleday and for which Ms. Applebaum is completing a two-week nationwide book tour. During her trip to Cambridge, Ms. Applebaum took time to thank the scholars and staff of HURI and the Ukrainian Studies Fund for supporting her original research on the history of the Holodomor.
Accompanied by Serhii Plokhii, Mykhailo Hrushevskyi Professor of Ukrainian History and director of the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard, Ms. Applebaum entered the packed auditorium at CGIS.
After introducing the author and listing some of her accomplishments, including her position at The Washington Post and the London School of Economics, Prof. Plokhii went over a brief list of her major publications and talked about the fact that her first book, “Gulag: A History,” won a Pulitzer Prize and was translated into some 25 languages.
Prof. Plokhii then spoke about “Red Harvest: Stalin’s War on Ukraine” and pointed out that it was unique among historical works in tracing the roots of the Ukrainian Holodomor back to the Russian Revolution of 1917 and also in tracing the ongoing relations between the two nations to events that occurred during the various revolutions in 1917. Relations were exacerbated by the brutality that occurred during the Holodomor and the wave of arrests and executions in the years immediately following it.
Ms. Applebaum began her talk by pointing out: “In the late 1920s Stalin and the Politburo made a decision to take control of the peasantry and eliminate their independence, particularly in Ukraine. Stalin vividly recalled what had happened in 1919 and was determined to crush any possibility of Ukrainian separatism once and for all. Schemes of collectivization of all agricultural farmland throughout the Soviet Union were introduced, and the aim was to turn the peasant farmer into part of the collective proletariat. Stalin believed that this process could be used most effectively as a tool to break the Ukrainian peasants, who were the main source of resistance to the new order and also formed the main pool of memory of Ukrainian language and traditions and culture.”
As the new system was imposed and land was taken away, the farmers responded immediately as best they could. Many refused to join the new collectives, others refused to hand over their grain and foodstuffs, still others who did agree to work on the collectives worked poorly and slowly. As a result, food production throughout the country decreased dramatically. Shortages appeared and famine followed, she continued.
In the fall of 1932, the Soviet Politburo took a series of decisions under the command of Stalin that widened and deepened the Famine in Ukraine, Ms. Applebaum related. They increased the state’s demand for food in Ukraine, they refused to halt the export of grain, and at the height of the crisis they organized teams of police and party activists to enter villages and peasant households and seize everything edible – they took farm animals, they even took pets.
“The results were catastrophic,” Ms. Applebaum said. “Within six months more than 4 million Ukrainians died. But famine was only half the story. While peasants were dying in the countryside, the Soviet secret police, the same people who were organizing the Famine, simultaneously launched an attack on the Ukrainian intellectuals and political elite. All of these people, including professors, museum curators, writers, artists, priests, theologians, public officials, bureaucrats and anyone who had promoted the Ukrainian language or history or had worked for Ukrainian independence were publicly vilified, jailed, sent to labor camps or executed.”
This concern of Stalin with Ukraine reached all the way back to 1917, Ms. Applebaum pointed out. “In Moscow there were two revolutions. In Kyiv there were three. The Ukrainian national leadership under Mykhailo Hrushevskyi was spearheaded by a group of intellectuals and from the first moment that they appeared, the Bolsheviks sought to undermine them.”
“They did so because the leadership was also revolutionary but not Bolshevik. Their economics were radical, and included the demand for the compulsory redistribution of land: Ukraine, remember, was still a largely peasant nation, most Ukrainian speakers were peasants and the Ukrainian revolution was carried out with them in mind,” she noted.
“Their politics were radical too,” she continued. “As imperial Russia collapsed, Ukraine’s leaders demanded to be part of the spring of nations that blossomed across the region. Within months, Poland, Czecho-slovakia, the Baltic states and others would all gain statehood and international recognition, and Ukraine wanted to join them.”
“But this desire ran immediately counter to the Bolsheviks’ priorities – and even to their understanding of the world,” Ms. Applebaum emphasized. “As men educated in the Russian empire, they had difficulty imagining a sovereign Ukraine; for them, the territory of Ukraine, long a Russian imperial colony, was a region they knew as south Russia. As Marxists, they had mixed feelings about peasants, whose revolutionary credentials they doubted. And as revolutionaries who knew that the tsar had been toppled by bread riots, they had no mixed feelings at all about the loss of access to Ukrainian grain.”
Lenin called on his people in Ukraine to organize special daily grain shipments by train to Petrograd, and he wanted regular reports. Stalin, who was then directly responsible for Bolshevik policy in Ukraine as people’s commissar for nationalities, was more sensitive to this demand than anyone else, denouncing the Ukrainian declaration of sovereignty and following up with active measures to destabilize the government in Kyiv, the author explained.
After lengthy fighting, the Bolsheviks seized Kyiv and most of Ukraine in February 1919, establishing a secret police force, carrying out mass arrests and sending out soldiers into the countryside to requisition food. The result of all this was a massive, violent peasant uprising, probably the largest ever to take place in Europe.
“The rebellion destabilized everything,” Ms. Applebaum said. “The Bolsheviks, the Ukrainians, the economy. Ukraine collapsed into chaos. In the course of 1919, Kyiv was occupied a dozen times by various forces. At the height of the anarchy, White Imperial Russian forces under the command of Anton Denikin advanced into the Donbas, Kharkiv and Odesa. Eventually, they marched north, coming within 200 kilometers of Moscow.”
“Because Denikin failed to make common cause either with the Ukrainians or the Poles, he eventually lost, but for a brief, terrifying moment in the autumn of 1919, the Bolsheviks were frightened. Suddenly, it seemed that Moscow would fall. It did not – but the Ukrainian peasant uprising had brought the counter-revolution to the brink of success,” Ms. Applebaum said. “This close call was long remembered at the highest levels of the Soviet regime. The ‘cruel lesson’ of 1919 was often debated and discussed for years after and led to milder policies in Ukraine for a time in the 1920s.”
“However,” Ms. Applebaum stressed, “fear of another rebellion never really was far away. Kulaks and the ‘rural bourgeoisie’ were looked on with suspicion and the same fears always haunted Stalin himself.”
“For Stalin,” Ms. Applebaum said, “the loss of Ukraine was impossible.”
“Raphael Lemkin, the Polish-Jewish lawyer who invented the word ‘genocide,’ spoke of Stalin’s assault on Ukraine as the ‘classic example’ of his concept,” she underscored. “It is a case of genocide, of destruction, not of individuals only, but of a culture and a nation.”
Ms. Applebaum continued, “Because it was so devastating, because it was so thoroughly silenced, and because it had such a profound impact on the demography, psychology and politics of Ukraine, the Ukrainian Famine continues to shape the thinking of Ukrainians and Russians, both about themselves and about one another, in ways that are both obvious and subtle.”
She pointed out that an entire generation of Ukraine’s elite was wiped out and even today, three generations later, that loss is still felt. The fact is that the post-Famine leadership lived through the mass arrests of the late 1930s and was frightened into silence and obedience; the state became a thing to be feared. A tolerance of corruption and a general wariness of state institutions also developed and persists until today.
“Stalin tried to destroy the Ukrainian national identity and the Ukrainian language,” Ms. Applebaum said, and complete Russification as a policy was maintained in the Soviet Union until its collapse. As a result, many Russians do not treat Ukraine as a separate country with a separate language and a separate history. To divide and conquer in the 1930s the Russians used a form of “hate speech to set one class of Ukrainians against another, and they are using the same tactics today.”
“However, Stalin ultimately failed, although his fears are still very alive in the current Russian leadership and elite, and they insist on believing that a sovereign, democratic, stable Ukraine, a Ukraine tied to the rest of Europe by links of culture and trade is a threat to the interests of Russia, or rather to the interests of Russia’s elite,” Ms. Applebaum said.
“In the end, the Famine failed. Ukraine was not destroyed,” Ms. Applebaum pointed out. “The Ukrainian language did not disappear. The desire for independence did not disappear either – and, more importantly, neither did the desire for democracy, or for a more just society, or for a Ukrainian state which truly represents Ukrainians.”
“In the end Stalin failed too. A generation of Ukrainian intellectuals and politicians were murdered in the 1930s, but their legacy lives on. The national aspiration was revived in the 1960s, it continued in the underground in the 1970s and 1980s, it became open again in the 1990s. A new generation of Ukrainian intellectuals appeared in the 2000s,” she pointed out.
“Millions of people were murdered, but the nation remains on the map. The memory of the Famine was suppressed, but Ukrainians today can discuss and debate their past. Census records were destroyed, but today the archives are accessible. The years of terror left their mark. But although the wounds are still there, millions of Ukrainians can – all of us can, for the first time since 1933 – finally begin to heal them,” she concluded.
After her talk, Ms. Applebaum spent almost an hour taking questions from the audience.
After the question period, Prof. Plokhii introduced Paul Rabchenuk, vice-president of the Boston branch of the Ukrainian Congress Committee of America and head of the organization’s Holodomor Committee, who presented Ms. Applebaum with a citation and a medallion that was inscribed: “Honoring Anne Applebaum for Giving Voice to the Victims of the 1932/33 Holodomor/Genocide UCCA-Boston 10-23-2017.”
Ms. Applebaum then proceeded to greet people who attended her talk and to autograph copies of her book which were made available by the Harvard Coop Bookstore.
Other appearances in Boston
Ms. Applebaum gave a similar talk at Boston College, where she spent almost 90 minutes. She then proceeded to WBZ-Radio/TV (Boston’s CBS affiliate), where she spent about an hour. WBZ is the second oldest radio station in the country and it has a very powerful signal that reaches 33 states, three provinces of Canada and Bermuda.
At the station, the author was interviewed for 20 minutes primarily about Ukraine, the Holodomor, how the Holodomor impacted current Russian-Ukrainian relations, the Russian seizure of Crimea, the Russian invasion and war in eastern Ukraine, and finally Vladimir Putin and Donald Trump, and Russian meddling in the American elections.
These questions were followed by a second series which were in a different vein and were intended not for the news but for a feature piece on “Women’s Watch,” which airs six times a day and plays intermittently over a two-week period. Ms. Applebaum was asked about her family life; her husband, Radoslaw Sikorski, who was Poland’s foreign affairs minister and speaker of the Sejm and now heads a private European think tank; her two sons, age 19 and 17; how she, an American born in Washington, wound up living in Warsaw.
She explained that she went to Yale and studied East European history, went abroad to study in Leningrad and then Warsaw, and then began to write freelance news pieces and sell them wherever she could. Her husband, although born in Warsaw, came from a family that fled the Communists in 1944 and settled in England and he was educated at Oxford. He came back to Poland in 1989 as a journalist and the two met covering stories. They traveled to Germany together to cover the fall of the Berlin Wall.
When Ms. Applebaum talked about writing her book about the Holodomor, she admitted that dealing with many of the statistics and reporting was appalling and distressing. To snap herself out of it, she would go with a friend to the Sikorski country house, where they would spend long weekends cooking and where after a year and a half they had authored a cookbook (for fun).
The interview was edited and then formatted into segments for the afternoon and the evening drive and for “Women’s Watch.”
Ms. Applebaum also paid a visit to Harvard’s Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, where she was interviewed for a podcast. The interview focused on her book and the Holodomor, as well as current Russian-Ukrainian relations. The session lasted about an hour.