Red Famine is a much needed book at a time when Moscow is threatening again Eastern Europe. The book is mostly about the great famine of the 1930’s, but it covers the history of Ukraine from 1917 to the recent Russian annexation of Crimea. Most of the facts are known, but placed within the political context of the time, and with full documentation, they make for a better understanding of Ukraine.
The Russo-Ukrainian conflict is old, complex, and not over yet. The famine triggered the most brutal clash between Moscow and Ukraine, but it was not the only one. Famines have been common throughout history. It happened in China under Mao, but it was the result of misguided policies. The 1930s famine was initially caused by Moscow’s requisition of grains to feed the cities and to pay for industrialization. As early as 1920 Lenin had ‘explicitly called for the requisition of all grain at any price’ (p. 59). In Ukraine, however, starving people into submission was a political weapon. The result was catastrophic. Over 6 million people died in the 1930s throughout the USSR, but four million died in Ukraine alone. In Kazakhstan also over a million people died. Most of them perished because they were forced to relinquish their nomadic ways, and in the process they lost their livestock and died. The Ukrainian disaster was purposefully caused by Stalin to destroy Ukrainian identity and nationalism; ‘it was a case of genocide…’ (p. xxvii).
Practically, the famine started with the 1929 Soviet decision to collectivize agriculture.
To implement collectivism, Moscow sent 25,000 activists to the countryside to convince the peasants to join the kolkhoz. Most peasants opposed the process and were punished. Party activists would search for every kernel of grain hidden by the peasants. They poked the ground in search of caches of grain and confiscated livestock, and even pots and pans used for cooking. The results were gruesome. Class struggle was continuously emphasized and neighbor was instigated against neighbor. As for the idea of social class, Ilya Ehrenburg, a well-known Marxist journalist at the time, wrote about the victims… ‘Not one of them was guilty of anything; but they belonged to a class that was guilty of everything.’ (p. 241). Such attitudes would justify mass arrests, deportations, executions, starvations, and finally, cannibalism…
Here are some testimonies: In a village visited by a Western agronomist in 1933 ‘about half of the villagers were already dead. (p. 287)… ‘Dead villagers lay in the roads, along the road and paths. There were more bodies than people to move them.’ (p. 243)… ‘Moribund people were thrown in common pits because… they would die anyway.’ (p.255)… ‘By the late spring and summer cannibalism was wide-spread.’ (p. 256). In documented cases, parents killed and ate their children. ‘Children were being hunted down as food.’ (pp. 257-259). ‘It was one of the greatest man-made horrors in a century…’ (p. 337)
Few people dared speak against the official policy. Party leaders that questioned the orders coming from above were purged and even executed. The renowned Soviet novelist Mikhail Sholokhov wrote personally to Stalin and Stalin’s answer was scary: ‘You see only one side of the matter… Those who were starving were not victims… they were responsible for their terrible fate. They had caused the famine, and therefore they deserved to die.’ (pp. 294-295).
From an official Soviet point of view, the famine did not exist. It was never mentioned in the media and statistics about it were cooked. Foreign journalists were strictly controlled. Those who would mention the famine were denied visas. Those who wrote favorably about the Soviet Union were rewarded. For example, Walter Duranty, a New York Times correspondent in Moscow who was granted the privilege to interview Stalin, published an article titled mildly: Russians Hungry, but not Starving. (31 March 1933). It was part of a series about the ‘successes of the collectivization and the first Soviet Five-Year Plan.’ In today’s jargon, it would be described as truly “Fake News.” Yet, for his articles Duranty received the Pulitzer Prize for journalism. Future President F.D. Roosevelt even praised Duranty’s stories..! (p. 311).
Historically, Ukraine was the bread basket for Russia, but it was equally important geopolitically. In this regard, the Communists continued the old tsarist policies. Stalin himself denounced Ukrainian nationalism and was determined to annihilate it… ‘In 1919 a peasant revolt in Ukraine had brought the White Army within a few days’ march of Moscow; in 1920 chaos in Ukraine had brought the Polish army deep into Soviet territory… The USSR could not afford to lose Ukraine.’ (p. 185). Nationalism was the biggest enemy of the USSR. Intriguingly, these days, nationalism is a big enemy of globalization. Is this a coincidence?
As a native Romanian, I now understand better some events that I witnessed as a child or I read about. The land collectivization that occurred in Romania in the 1950s was modeled after the Soviet collectivization, albeit a less ruthless one. And, the famine in Soviet Moldova (former Romanian Bessarabia) and the mass deportations to Siberia in the 1940s were repeats of what happened in Ukraine. As for Ukraine, ever since the Middle Ages Russia has been and continues to be obsessed with controlling it. And, Moscow remains obsessed with maintaining control even now in the post-Soviet era. Regarding the former Soviet Union, President Reagan was right: The USSR was an evil empire. And, yet, some Western leftists still fantasize about Soviet Communism.
Nicholas Dima, Ph.D, is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. He currently lectures and is a contributor to SFPPR New & Analysis of the conservative-online-journalism center at the Washington-based Selous Foundation for Public Policy Research.