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  • E.G. Maladroit

'Red Famine' - Anne Applebaum's Transcendent coverage of the Holodomor

Anne Applebaum’s ‘Red Famine’ is a deep dive into the Holodomor, a famine that ravaged Ukraine during the early 1930s (particularly 1932-33). The famine took about 4 million lives (though that number is somewhat disputed – estimates can vary from 2 million to 9 million deaths, accounting for the different factors like the limited life expectancy it caused) and has sparked an ever-active debate over whether or not it was an intentional weaponization of hunger against Ukraine, as it was by far the most rebellious and independent of the Soviet republics. The book argues from a perspective that this it was an attack using hunger – though Applebaum carefully avoids directly labelling it as a genocide (most of Ukraine believes it was one, though the matter mostly comes down to the semantics of definitions). Applebaum’s book is an incredibly respectful and detailed investigation of the famine, and the culture surrounding it. It is by far the book I would most recommended on the Holodomor.

As some slight context, the opposing views to the famine being an attack on Ukraine mostly revolve around the idea that either the famine was man-made, but non intended as an attack – it was either caused out of negligence, not caring about the fact many would die, or was entirely unexpected to the soviet government. A final interpretation sees it just as part of the attack on the peasantry Stalin was carrying out during that period (starting with the first five-year plan, in 1928), and therefore not specifically directed at Ukraine.

Applebaum’s book is certainly written in order to convey her view – that it was an intended attack on Ukraine’s independence – but it is not a point of the book I will over-focus on, as that takes away from the fact that it is simply an excellently detailed chronicle of the period (also I don’t want to plagiarise myself as I’m writing an essay on that topic). Regardless, the book does not over-empathise with its viewpoint, and actually allows the complexity of the debate really come through. It was particularly eye-opening having previously read Timothy Snyder’s ‘bloodlands’, as I feel Snyder somewhat misguidedly pushed an over-simplified impression of the evidence in favour of his argument (he agrees with Applebaum). Conversely, Applebaum properly exposes and explains the nuances of the evidence and what it shows – for instance, in the example of blacklists, whilst Snyder vaguely references them as being implemented ‘only, or mainly in Ukraine’ (something he does to a whole list of laws), Applebaum properly explains their significance in being most harshly implemented in Ukraine but actually applied in a wide number of areas. This is a key differentiation and could completely skew someone’s view of the famine, so I was extremely glad to be able to recontextualise much that I thought I had learned from Snyder.

In her approach Applebaum is both respectful and highly readable. She provides considerable background to the system that facilitated the famine and the culture of Ukrainian independence, as well as the antipathy Bolshevism had to it. The reader gains much background to the period, as well as a detailed explanation of the aftermath in culture and understanding. The book is perfect in length to cover all of this – around 368 pages of content, it is not too long as to become tedious or overbearing, yet not so short as to curtail understanding or depth. The only criticism I might hold is the extent to which the background of the Holodomor was covered – taking up around 185 pages – but this did not really bother me, it was relevant and incredibly interesting. Applebaum’s writing style is also very enjoyable, as she has a concise but very convincing way of phrasing things that is very accessible, but not dumbed down.

I was particularly struck by her coverage of the oral history, and witness testimonies – being a fairly uncomfortable territory, as its so easy to turn such accounts into something that seems purely emotional – playing on the pity of the reader as a substitute for an argument. With many similar events, historians directing their books to wide audience end up forging a kind of horror-porn directed at the kind of people who like reading history just for the sake of seeing something grotesque and feeling disgusted or self-righteously piteous (the kind of audience who enjoy ‘the Boy in the Striped Pyjamas’, as feeling sad about the Holocaust somehow makes them feel like better people (not that we should not feel horrified by the Holocaust, but doing so does not make you a better person)). Applebaum does not do this, instead she does something much more respectful: she acknowledges witness testimonies as an important part of constructing the history, of understanding what happened, and bearing witness to the horrors committed. She does not mine them for grotesque facts – but highlights the terrible truth, as well as the significance of people knowing what happened after the years of ‘silence’ that followed the Holodomor. This is difficult to phrase, but I feel Applebaum achieved perfection in showing the horror people suffered without fetishizing it.

To conclude, I deeply enjoyed the book. It was moving and very harrowing and covers an event I wish far more people knew about, all whilst being a comprehensive and encapsulating history. I would highly recommend it to anyone – you do not need prior understanding of the period, or of the soviet system due to Applebaum’s clear and informative style, and it is incredibly interesting


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