About 3.9 million people, or 13% of Ukraine’s population, died as Stalin pursued collectivization. Anna Reid reviews ‘Red Famine’ by Anne Applebaum.
In March 1932, Communist Party officials in Ukraine’s Odessa province heard rumors of hunger in outlying villages and sent a medical team to investigate. The doctors found empty cottages, corpses lying in the lanes, and the surviving inhabitants gnawing on carrion, boiled bones and horsehide. Local apparatchiks, the horrified medics reported, were doing their best “not to notice the incidence of starvation, and . . . not to speak about it.”
The dead were early victims of the “Holodomor”—literally translated as “hunger-extermination”—an artificial famine inflicted on the Ukrainian peasantry by Stalin in the years 1932-34. The best estimate of the death toll is 3.9 million, or 13% of Ukraine’s population. Up to an additional 2.5 million died in famines elsewhere in the Soviet Union at the same time.
Denied by the Soviet authorities almost until communism’s fall, the Holodomor was first documented by the British historian Robert Conquest in his ground-breaking 1986 book, “The Harvest of Sorrow.” Compiling census data and émigré memoirs and interviews, he demonstrated both the scale of the famine and the fact that it was not the result of drought or economic upheaval but of food confiscation, deliberately and violently enforced. Since then, a mass of new evidence has become available, on which Anne Applebaum draws—with generous acknowledgments to Ukrainian historians—for “Red Famine,” a lucid, judicious and powerful book.