March 8, 2019

Interview with Anne Applebaum on “Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine”


Author Anne Applebaum (right) and Marta Baziuk, executive director of the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium

More than a year has passed since the publication of Anne Applebaum’s “Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine.” The paperback and audiobook editions are now also available. In an interview conducted on January 16 by Marta Baziuk, executive director of the Holodomor Research and Education Consortium (Canadian Institute of Ukrainian Studies, University of Alberta), Ms. Applebaum reflects on the reception and impact of the book.

The critical response to “Red Famine” has been overwhelmingly positive. What’s your reaction to that?

I was surprised by how good it was, and from a wide range of people too. I thought there would be more pushback from mainstream academics. The reviews were overwhelmingly positive in the British and the American press, including The New York Times, The Washington Post, The Sunday Times in London and The New York Review of Books. The book was well received in Denmark, where I went to promote it, and in Norway, the Netherlands and Estonia. I’m going to Germany in the spring to promote it, and it will be interesting to see the reception there. It’s about to be published in Spain, so I’m going to Madrid next week. There are French, Italian and Portuguese editions coming next fall, I believe. This kind of book takes a long time to translate because the publishers often go back to original sources when the footnotes are translated. 

Cover of the Anne Applebaum’s book “Red Famine”: Stalin’s War on Ukraine.”

“Red Famine” also came out last fall in Poland and was a bestseller. It received national attention and was reviewed on the front pages of newspapers. I had huge crowds at events – 500, 600 people in Gdansk, Lublin, Warsaw, Poznan. I was on national television talking about it. I think it came at the right moment in Poland. Right now there is a real desire to know something more about Ukraine. People in Poland know more about Ukraine than in most places, but details of the Famine and the story of the Ukrainian independence movement – these are not well-known stories. Nobody has been taught them in school. I did a number of events for the Ukrainian community in Poland, which is quite big now, partly because of the ease with which Ukrainians can work in Poland. We had events in Warsaw and a big event at the university in Lublin. I know the community bought the book in large numbers. 

In Poland, there is a big anti-Ukrainian push from the far-right and Russia, and to some extent the nationalist government, and I think the book was perceived as pushing back against that even though it is not about contemporary events. This partly explains some of the enthusiasm for the book. People who didn’t like the new anti-Ukrainian tone in Polish politics wanted to read something or to go to an event where that line was going to be opposed. So it had some kind of political echo in Poland. I meet people in Poland all the time who have read it and who talk about it.

And what about the other important neighbor for Ukraine? Will there be a Russian translation of “Red Famine”?

I haven’t heard of any interest in having it published in Russia. There has been talk in Ukraine of publishing a Russian-language edition, but I don’t know at this point whether that is under way. It would be great if it happened. 

Among people acquainted with Soviet and Eastern European history, have you encountered resistance to any particular part of the book’s thesis? What is it that people who consider themselves knowledgeable have to unlearn?

The one issue has to do with intentionality. Did Stalin really set out to kill these people? And the reason that this continues to get asked is that there isn’t a piece of paper where Stalin says “I would like to kill a lot of Ukrainians.” And so there are some in the historical community who go on asking whether we can make this assumption in the absence of that piece of paper. Several chapters in my book – in fact, the way the whole book is constructed – are designed to show how we know Stalin knew that the Famine was happening, how particular laws were passed and measures taken aimed at deepening the Famine specifically in Ukraine, and so on. But for some people, there will always be the problem that there isn’t that piece of paper, or if there ever was, it’s missing – we haven’t found it among archival documents. 

I find it a really positive sign that one of the most prominent historical journals, Contemporary European History, conducted a debate on the topic. An issue of the journal this past summer contained a section called Roundtable on Soviet Famines featuring articles by eight scholars, some of whom in the past have been very skeptical about the issue of intentionality. While some of them remain skeptical, they are now willing to be part of a debate and conversation, and I feel like the book opened that up in a useful way. 

Early on there was a review that got a lot of attention by Sheila Fitzpatrick, who is a classic revisionist historian. For many years she argued against those who saw the Famine as one of Stalin’s goals, and refused to recognize the uniqueness of the Ukrainian Famine, or even that it was punitive at all. But actually, although she is critical of me personally – she doesn’t like my politics and so on – her review acknowledges maybe for the first time in print that there may be a case that some of what happened was intentional. Her review essentially said Anne Applebaum is objectionable but the book is OK.

A huge jump.

Yes, a huge jump. I think it’s because while a lot of the evidence in the book has appeared in Ukrainian and in other places in bits and pieces, marshaling it in one place, as my book does, was convincing for many people who for the first time were seeing the evidence put together, about the laws passed, the memoirs describing the kinds of searches that were conducted in Ukraine, and so on. For many academics it was convincing. There are a few like [Stalin biographer] Steven Kotkin, who has made several remarks in interviews about not believing the thesis of the book, but he hasn’t reviewed it. 

Would you say that the reception of the book has fallen along ideological lines? 

There really hasn’t been a left-right split in the reception, which did happen in the case of my “Gulag” book 15 years ago. That’s partly because the left and the right have changed and partly because Soviet studies has changed so much. Now that we have access to archives, there really isn’t a left-right argument on many issues that used to be politically contentious. The depoliticization of the field also means there is more openness to hearing Ukrainian stories from all sides of academia and from the mainstream media. A decade or two ago, writing about the Ukrainian independence movement, for example, might have been dismissed as an obscure, right-wing cause. It’s clear from the reviews of my book, with just very, very few exceptions, that that’s gone. 

What do you hope the longer term impact of the book will be?

Obviously what I’d like longer term is for the thesis of the book to be incorporated into the big books about Soviet history, and for people who take survey courses in Soviet history at university to read the book or read references to it. That would be my hope. I think it’s too early to say. I know of courses being taught at British universities where they’re using the book, and I’ve had academics tell me that they teach the book or are using it. 

But I think there’s another kind of impact. This is a book written for a general readership, and my impression is that it has also been helpful for people who just want to have some background on the history of the country. Because the book starts in 1917-1918 with the Ukrainian declaration of independence, it’s also useful to people who are engaged in contemporary discussions about Ukraine, about the war and Russia and so on. That makes me feel encouraged. And it has sold pretty well in English as well as in other languages.

Can you comment on the reception in Ukraine?

One very nice thing I heard from Liudmyla Hrynevych [director of HREC in Ukraine, the publisher of the Ukrainian edition] is that a division of the Ministry of Culture ran a competition to determine what books should be included in Ukrainian libraries. “Red Famine” was among the top 10 books selected from more than 2,000 entries. This is important because then the book becomes part of Ukrainian historiography. The book also won an award at the Lviv Book Fair for Best Book in the history category

But I should also say that by far the most unpleasant reaction came from Ukraine. While most of the response has been enthusiastic, there has also been a negative reaction that seems to some degree coordinated, although I don’t want to be too paranoid. This is a small group of “nationalist” critics who find the book insufficiently anti-Russian and who object to use of the mortality statistics produced by specialists who work with the archives. These are the only fact-based statistics that we have, but there are people who simply want the numbers to be higher. Unfortunately, with social media, this gets spread around, and when I’ve presented the book in Ukraine, both in Kyiv and Lviv, I’ve had questions coming from that line of criticism, which I don’t hear outside of Ukraine.

And Russian reaction?

I have not seen a Russian state reaction in English. Maybe one from inside Ukraine in Ukrainian, but in English, not at all.

On the issue of genocide, are you surprised by the emotions and energy around the question?

I’m not surprised. It is a very emotive issue. I understand that Ukrainians want the word “genocide” used as acknowledgement from the world that what happened to them was a horrific crime. I wanted “Red Famine” to be a history book, not an argument about genocide. If it was seen as setting out to make an argument about genocide, it wouldn’t be taken as seriously by historians or by general readers. And so I felt it was important to separate that question and explain it as part of the history – the history of the idea of genocide and how it connects to the Ukrainian Famine. Genocide is a legal, moral, political question – not a historical question. If you mix it up with the history, you can discredit your history. By the way, Timothy Snyder has also written about the Ukrainian Famine and about Stalin’s intentionality, and for exactly the same reasons, he also stays away from engaging in discussions about genocide. 

Was the Holodomor in your opinion a genocide?

The word has a number of definitions, including Raphael Lemkin’s original conception and the U.N. genocide convention definition. So I think we have to clarify what we mean. The term “genocide” is commonly used to describe a category of the most heinous crimes deserving our utmost moral condemnation. Of course the Holodomor is such a crime. When Stalin and his associates were made aware of starvation in Ukraine, they chose to intensify the suffering by increasing grain requisitions, confiscating all sorts of foodstuffs and preventing the starving from seeking food elsewhere. As the Ukrainian countryside starved, the USSR sold grain abroad and refused offers of international food aid. These actions were accompanied by attacks on the Ukrainian intelligentsia, church leaders and even communists. The Kremlin condemned millions in Ukraine to death by starvation in an effort to crush the Ukrainian national movement and eliminate potential political challenges.

During the writing of “Red Famine,” you mentioned that HREC should consider translating the book “Transformation of Civil Society” by William Noll from Ukrainian into English. That project is about half finished. Could you say why you felt this was worthwhile?

It’s a unique book that contains interviews conducted in the 1980s of hundreds of people from across the Ukrainian countryside about their experiences with collectivization and the Holodomor. No one else undertook anything like it. It is the only thing of its kind. That book deserves attention.

You have said that after your trilogy – “Gulag,” “Iron Curtain” and “Red Famine” – you would not be writing another book on the Stalinist period. You mentioned wanting to write about Eastern Europe after the fall of communism. Have you begun that project? 

I am at the very beginning, just starting to do the research now. 

In the years you worked on “Red Famine,” you continued to write on contemporary issues. Are current events separate in your mind, or do you find yourself making connections to your Holodomor research?

One always makes connections. I gave a talk on the book at a school in London two nights ago, and it was the night that the mayor of Gdansk had been murdered. Part of the talk – which was with 17- and 18-year-olds – was about what we mean by hate speech and hateful rhetoric, and rhetoric that’s designed to divide people and encourage violence. I’m not making direct links between the past and the present, but some of the technology of producing anger and hate isn’t that different from the 1930s. I find that making connections between the past and present first of all encourages people to read the book and also helps them understand why some of this is background to today’s events. I often talk about Putin’s thinking about Ukraine and the historical roots of that thinking, some of which dates back to the 1930s. I try not to be over simplistic because there aren’t exact parallels, but I think the past is the context for the present. Unless you understand what happened before, you don’t understand why people feel the way they do now. Everything is linked in my head.