Review of Anne Applebaum’s “Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine”

tags: Anne Applebaum, book review, Red Famine

Mark Tauger teaches history at West Virginia University.

The journalist Anne Applebaum is a leading popular historian of the former European Communist countries. She has published a substantial study of the Soviet Gulag camp system that won a Pulitzer Prize, and a study of the Communist takeovers of Eastern Europe.1   In Red Famine Applebaum focuses on the great Soviet famine of the early 1930s, which she portrays as imposed artificially by the Stalin regime on Ukraine, and the result of a long history of alleged Russian and Soviet hostility toward Ukraine. 

This book has new information on Ukrainian culture in the 1920s, Ukrainian émigré historiography of the famine after World War II, the Ukrainian government’s use of famine history, and few other topics. Overall, however, it retells the nationalist story of the famine found in earlier publications, but inaccurately, and does not cite evidence in its sources that contradicts or undermines almost all its arguments. This review focuses only on certain indicative issues in the first part of the book, and then addresses the main problems with her depiction of the famine itself.

This book relies almost entirely on published sources: monographs, articles, and archival document collections published in post-Soviet Ukraine or in Canada. In footnotes from the document collections, Applebaum consistently cites the full archival source, followed by the reference to the published source. A superficial reader might glance at these endnotes and think they were her own archival research. Applebaum criticizes scholars for “cherry picking” (49-50), and also falsely claims that one of my publications was not based on archival sources (419).

Red Famine begins with a brief historical background, then has two to three chapters on each of the book’s main topics: the Civil War in Ukraine (1918-1921), the NEP in Ukraine (1921-1929), collectivization in Ukraine (1930-1931), events in 1932 that she considers the “preparation” of the famine including grain procurements, the “blacklisting” of villages and farms, restrictions on peasant movement, suppression of Ukrainian culture, the famine itself and its aftermath, the Soviet “cover-up” of the famine and later writings on it. 

This outline makes the book appear coherent and comprehensive. Yet every section has important omissions, errors and distortions. For example, she defines the Ukrainian word Holodomor, “a term derived from the Ukrainian words for hunger-holod-and extermination-mor.” (xxvi) But “mor” in Ukrainian means “plague”; the word for “extermination” is vynyshchennia [винищення].2   She begins her book on the “Holodomor” by mis-translating that term, attributing to it an intentionalist meaning it does not have. 

Applebaum portrays Ukrainians as unique and different from Russians, in line with Ukrainian nationalist arguments. She writes that Ukraine was the Soviet republic with “the most numerous peasantry” (102-103). Yet the Russian Republic had more than triple the rural population of Ukraine and was slightly more rural.3   She also brings up the old nationalist theme (33) that Russian peasants were “communal” while Ukrainian peasants were “individual farmers” who “owned” their land, horses, and livestock. The literature shows, however, that virtually all Russian and Ukrainian peasants held land in strips scattered across the village fields, planted their strips in the spring crop fields in spring, in the winter crop fields in fall, harvested the fields together, and grazed their livestock together on the fallow field.4   This pattern persisted in the Soviet period, and Applebaum’s main source noted this, but she did not mention it.5   Many “communal” peasants owned, rented, bought and sold land during the 19th century, rarely or never repartitioned their lands, and all of them owned their livestock and equipment, unless they were poor.6   “Individual” tenure was less widespread than she claimed in Ukraine and led to extreme inequality and “an army of dwarf-holders and landless peasants.”7

Applebaum also overemphasizes negative aspects of Russian-Ukrainian relations. She claims that the Ems Edict issued by Alexander II in 1876 “outlawed Ukrainian books and periodicals” and anticipated Soviet “sharp hostility” to Ukraine (8-9). Yet Alexander II’s government initially aided publication of Ukrainian books; the later restrictions on Ukrainian culture were a response to the Polish uprising of 1861 and were limited and weakly enforced.8  Ukrainian publishers published numerous publications in Ukrainian and about Ukraine, many of which are in western libraries, including catalogues of Ukrainian books available for purchase there.9  She discusses Bolshevik actions in Ukraine in 1919, the peasant rebellions of 1919-1921, the famine of 1921-1923 in Ukraine, and the successes of Ukrainization in culture, all of which have major problems, but for reasons of space I will focus on the 1933 famine and the events leading to it. 

In chapter 4, “The Double Crisis, 1927-1929,” Applebaum discusses the food crisis of 1928 and the harsh “extraordinary measures” that the Soviet regime applied to obtain food from peasants to feed townspeople, which have long been viewed as events that led to collectivization.10  Applebaum describes food shortages in Soviet cities in 1928 (82-83), but then writes that in Ukraine, “police discovered many tonnes [sic] of grain that had been kept back because peasants had, quite rationally, been waiting for prices to rise” (86). By calling peasants’ actions “rational,” Applebaum seems to endorse their withholding food for high prices, but her subsequent discussion is very critical of the Soviet government’s measures to induce peasants to stop hoarding and obtain food for starving townspeople. Yet many publications have argued that famines can be caused by farmers or traders withholding food from townspeople, sometimes expressed as the “moral economy,” the right to subsistence over the right to profit.11   Applebaum does not consider the possibility that hungry townspeople, and Soviet officials trying to feed them, could have interpreted these reports as a “man-made” famine created by profiteering peasants. 

Applebaum claims that the government’s procurements to alleviate that shortage “comprehensively destroyed the peasants incentives to produce more grain” (87). Yet later she writes that the 1930 harvest was much larger than the 1929 harvest (161). How could that have happened if peasants’ incentives were “comprehensively destroyed”? She also discusses Soviet famine relief effort in 1928-1929 (82, 108) but does not consider how crop failures and famine relief affected peasants’ incentives in this case. She shows that some Soviet leaders during this food crisis came to see Ukrainian nationalism as a threat, held show trials of Ukrainian nationalist groups, and began to connect peasant resistance problematically to nationalism.

In this crisis that the Soviet regime decided to collectivize Soviet agriculture. Applebaum cites Stalin’s references to mechanized agriculture but dismisses them as a “Soviet cult of science” (87-89), not considering that Soviet leaders and planners were trying to emulate American farming, which was even more mechanized and scientifically based. She does not consider that repeated crop failures, which she mentioned, could have persuaded Soviet leaders that Soviet peasant farming needed to be modernized.12  Rather, she attributes the decision to collectivize agriculture to the 1928 Central Committee plenums that allegedly concluded that peasants had to be “squeezed” and “sacrificed” for industry (90-91). Yet modernizing agriculture was a central issue in those plenums. She never mentions that in 1929, the Soviets established VASKhNiL, the central agricultural research academy, under the leadership of the great biologist Nikolai Vavilov, who did not seek to “squeeze” the peasants. 

Applebaum’s discussion of collectivization and dekulakization in chapter 5 describes peasants as “abandoned and alone,” helpless, weak, with no incentive to resist (122). But in chapter 6 she describes them as angry, organizing armed bands, and extremely violent, slaughtering their livestock, rebelling against and murdering Soviet officials, without addressing the contradiction. She admits that in the archival documents of the 1930 rebellions, “it is not always easy to separate fact from fiction” and describes them as often “deliberately embroidered” and “exaggerated and hysterical” (152-153). Yet she never questions them based on this point.

Applebaum’s discussion of the collective farm system (chapters 6 and 7) has many inaccurate and problematic passages. For example, she claims that after collectivization, peasants had no way to earn a “salary” (137), but she notes a few pages later that kolkhoz peasants had private plots and livestock, from which they earned money through the whole Soviet period (147). Peasants before collectivization did not earn “salaries” or wages but were “paid” by the harvest they produced, which depended in part on their work, so payment by labor days after the harvest was basically similar. She claims that in the kolkhozy the “fruits of the peasants’ labor no longer belonged to them, the grain they sowed and harvested was requisitioned by the authorities,” but this would at least require evidence of harvests and procurements, which she never clearly presents (see below). She asserts that kolkhoz peasants “lost the ability to make decisions about their lives,” and that kolkhoz peasants had to follow local authorities’ directions for the crops they grew. Yet on the one hand, she never explains that for decades before 1930, peasants were obliged by the village to farm the same crops at the same times in the same fields in dozens of strips scattered over the village, which means that collectivization retained village dominance over farming. On the other hand, she claims that peasants “worked as little as possible” (159-160), and that 40,000 peasant households decided they “would not plant anything” in April 1932 (171), which were clearly their own decisions.

Applebaum also claims that in kolkhozy as in socialist industry, since there was no “private property,” peasants like workers engaged in pervasive theft (160, 165). Yet American businesses lose tens of billions of dollars every year to workplace theft.13  She ignores the fact, which she notes later, that the kolkhoz-sovkhoz system recovered from the famine and that food production increased. This could not have happened if the peasants did no work and stole everything. 

Repeatedly she purports to know what people were thinking, with no evidence. During 1931-1932 she asserts “everyone understood at some level that collectivization was the source of the new shortages” (165). Yet she admits that in 1931 there were “bouts of drought,” which is an understatement; even Stalin publicly stated that drought “considerably” reduced the 1931 harvest.14  Russia and Ukraine had a long history of droughts and famines, which she admits (283); how can she know that no one, even peasants, saw the drought as a cause of shortages? In discussing the regime’s decision in spring 1932 to stop the procurements and provide food and seed for the villages to produce a new harvest, she asserts that officials “knew” that “food aid to Ukraine was a tacit admission of Stalin’s failure,” but also “knew” that “catastrophe would follow” if Ukraine did not get aid (173). Yet her sources include the published decree of 16 February 1932 that allotted 870,000 tons of seed and food to Ukraine and several eastern provinces, which she does not mention.15   The fact that this decree was publicized implies that leaders did not see it as an admission of failure. Applebaum does admit that in April the Politburo allotted Ukraine some aid, but she then asserts that Stalin suddenly “withdrew the food aid he sent to Ukraine” (174). There is no evidence for this action in her footnotes, nor in her other sources, not even a single telegram or letter; this claim appears to be false. Applebaum does not mention the Politburo decree from 15 May 1932, in her sources, that allotted Ukraine 6.5 million puds (106,000 tons) of grain for food relief, and more in the next weeks.16

To explain most concisely the problems in Applebaum’s chapters on the famine, the following section examines the main points in two summaries of her main arguments at the end of the book. The first summary addresses the causes and nature of the famine, in which I will number each relevant phrase and discuss the broader argument or claims that each represents (357):

“Neither crop failure nor bad weather caused the famine in Ukraine (1). Although the chaos of collectivization helped create the conditions that led to famine, the high numbers of deaths in Ukraine between 1932 and 1934, and especially the spike in the spring of 1933 (7), were not caused directly by collectivization either. Starvation was the result, rather, of the forcible removal of food from people’s homes (4); the roadblocks that prevented peasants from seeking work or food (3); the harsh rules of the blacklists imposed on farms and villages (2); the restrictions on barter and trade (6); and the vicious propaganda campaign designed to persuade Ukrainians to watch, unmoved, as their neighbors died of hunger (5).”

(1) She discusses the harvests and procurements in separate, inconsistent passages. She refers to the 1932 harvest being “40 percent below the plan for the USSR, and 60 percent in Ukraine” (190), but she never explains what those harvest plans were. Yet on the same page, she writes “Intriguingly, the overall drop in production was not as dramatic as it had been in 1921,” and she cites official total Soviet harvest data for 1931-1934, all in the range of 67-69 million tons, showing no decline. She never addresses this inconsistency. She does not mention that Davies and Wheatcroft, whose work she cites for the 40 percent and 60 percent declines, gave much lower figures for 1931 and 1932.17   In other passages she implies or explicitly refers to “harvest failure” in Ukraine (209, 211, 213, 283). Yet in her conclusions she ignores these earlier statements and evidence. In fact, the official figure for the 1932 harvest of 69 million tons that Applebaum cites (190) was a pre-harvest forecast, and the actual 1932 harvest was much smaller. The kolkhoz annual reports, which included final harvest data, reported that the 1932 harvest was extremely low, and the 1933 harvest much larger.18

Applebaum’s discussion of the grain procurements is similarly inconsistent and incomplete. She refers to the “unrealistic, impossible procurement plan of 5.8 million tons” for 1932, (179) yet earlier she wrote that the 1931 plan was 8.3 million tons (168), and she never compares the two or explains why the lower 1932 plan was “impossible” while the higher 1931 plan was not.19   She also does not explain that this 1932 plan was reduced from the original 1932 procurement plan of 7.1 million tons.20   The regime announced the reduced procurement plan for 1932 in a long decree published on 6 May that granted peasants and kolkhozy the right to sell their produce on the free market after fulfilling procurement quotas.21  This was a crucial decision in Soviet history because it laid the basis for the kolkhoz private-plot economy that played a major role in food production to the end of the Soviet regime. Yet she calls it an “an edict” that “forbid peasants from trading” until meeting procurement quotas (195), completely omitting its reduction of those quotas, including Ukraine’s from 7.12 million tons to 5.83 million tons, or almost 20 percent. She does not even footnote or give any other reference to this document, which was in her sources. 

Applebaum does cite correspondence between Stalin and Kaganovich in July 1932 about reducing Ukraine’s procurement plan, but she never states that they actually did reduce the plan (179) or how it would have changed the procurement plan. She also claims that in the winter of 1933 Stalin refused to “ease up on grain collections” (193). Her sources, however, show that the regime reduced procurement targets for Ukraine four times: in the May 1932 decree by 1.3 million tons, as noted; in July by 40 million puds, 656,000 tons, more than ten percent of Ukraine’s plan; in October by an additional 70 million puds, 1.15 million tons; and in January 1933 by 28 million puds, 459,000 tons.22  In all the cases after May, Stalin reduced procurements in response to appeals from Ukraine to help starving peasants. He even turned down other provinces’ requests for reduced procurements while granting Ukraine’s, which Applebaum does not mention.23   Finally, on 5 February, the regime ordered local officials to stop procurements and focus on seed, and began providing food relief.24

The Soviet government thus reduced Ukraine’s procurements from kolkhozy and peasants in 1932 not by a begrudged 40 million puds, 656,000 tons, as Applebaum ambiguously implies, but from 434 million puds to 218 million puds, 7.1 million tons to 3.57 million tons, or approximately half. Even with the procurements required from state farms, the total procurement plan for Ukraine was reduced to 260 million puds, or 4.2 million tons, about one-third below the 1931 actual procurements.25   Although this evidence is in Applebaum’s sources, she misrepresented the second reduction, failed to explain the first, never mentioned the third, fourth, or the decree suspending procurements, and never stated the final procurement plan. And she criticized other scholars for cherry-picking (49-50)! Applebaum notes later that the regime reduced procurement for Ukraine from the 1933 harvest by 915,000 tons (284), yet she never explains that they cut procurements in 1932 four times as much. Even with that reduction, actual grain procurements for 1933, 6.2 million tons, were larger than those for 1932, 4.2 million tons. These data, in her sources, are central for understanding the famine, but she never cites them.26

(2) Applebaum describes the blacklisting policy, which denied a kolkhoz or village access to trade, forced them to pay debts early, and sometimes seized other possessions, as a main cause of the famine. Yet her own sources show that in December, at the peak of the campaign, only some 400 kolkhozy were blacklisted, out of 23,270 kolkhozy in Ukraine.27   Her sources agree that blacklisting could not and did not stop trade.28   The Ukrainian government also removed villages from the blacklist if they met most of the procurement quota.29   Applebaum never mentions these points. Based on this evidence, it is difficult to accept Applebaum’s claims that blacklisting was a major cause of famine mortality. 

(3) The Soviet regime attempted to prevent peasants from fleeing Ukraine, the North Caucasus, and the Lower Volga in decrees in early 1933.30   Applebaum notes that several thousand peasants were caught, but never presents an estimate of the total number. The only figure I have seen is 219,460 people caught by mid-March, the great majority of whom were sent back to their villages.31   Even if twice as many were caught in this harsh policy, and all of them died of the famine, this would account only for a minority of famine deaths (see below). Applebaum also claims that “beyond Kharkiv where the Russian territory starts there was no hunger” (198). Yet archival sources show “there were massive cases of swelling from famine and death” in the Central Blackearth Oblast’, especially in southern parts across the border from Kharkiv.32

(4) In chapter 10 Applebaum describes the harsh searches that local personnel, often Ukrainian, imposed on villages, based on a Ukrainian memoir collection (222), and she presents many vivid anecdotes. Still she never explains how many people these actions affected. She cites a Ukrainian decree from November 1932 calling for 1100 brigades to be formed (229). If each of these 1100 brigades searched 100 households, and a peasant household had five people, then they took food from 550,000 people, out of 20 million, or about 2-3 percent. As will be discussed below, even if all of these people died from the confiscatory searches, this would be only a small share of the total famine deaths.

(5) Applebaum’s attribution of the famine to a “vicious propaganda campaign” against peasants accused of withholding grain leaves out half the story. She cites several sources in which officials and other people expressed certainty that peasants were withholding food (231ff). Yet she does not connect these sources to the published reports from 1928 she cited earlier of peasants withholding grain, which some people must have remembered. Yet the propaganda was not the whole story. She cites Stalin’s famous letter to Sholokhov blaming peasants for shortages, but does not mention that he sent food relief to Sholokhov’s region.33   Her sources have many documents that viewed peasants as victims, allotted relief to starving villages and to children and invalids in hospitals, and even reporting arrests of personnel for poor work in aiding starving people.34   She wrote about some of these relief efforts (269ff), but does not consider whether these actions undermined the “propaganda campaign” of hostility to peasants. 

(6) Applebaum does not present any evidence for her claim that limits on kolkhoz trade were a cause of the famine. Most Ukrainian provinces were allowed to trade by the end of 1932 or early 1933, but even with this permission, peasants brought much less grain to markets than in any other year (another sign of a low harvest).35   But the other side of this issue was famine relief. She asserts that “during the winter of 1933 he [Stalin] did not offer any additional food aid” (193) and that only in May 1933 the government “finally approved significant food aid” (283). Her own sources show that after 5 February 1933, when the regime suspended procurements, officials at all levels worked to obtain and distribute food to these starving people, especially children.36   Most of the documents in both Ukrainian document collections dating from the cessation of procurements in February until the harvest in August (Holod 1932-1933[1990], 350-558; Holodomor [2007], pgs. 621-920) discuss famine relief by officials at some level, as do her other sources, but she cites almost none of these in her very incomplete discussion of aid by Soviet institutions.37   This relief for the USSR as a whole included millions of tons of grain allocated from the USSR’s limited reserves and from grain procured.38

Perhaps even more important, Applebaum almost completely ignores the fact that these starving peasants were the ones who ended the famine, with the help of Soviet famine relief, by producing a much larger harvest in 1933. She mentions peasant work in early 1933 extremely elliptically (252, 265, 296), and never mentions the many agencies the regime established to help farmers overcome the famine.39

(7) In chapter 13, “Aftermath,” Applebaum discusses famine mortality. She notes that views are “coalescing” around an estimate of 3.9 million excess deaths (279-280), but this is still disputable.40   Then she asserts, with no evidence, that famine mortality was highest in Kyiv and Khar’kiv provinces, citing Andrea Graziosi’s claim that these regions posed the “greatest political resistance” to the Bolsheviks in the Civil War and in 1930 against collectivization (282-283). Yet neither she nor Graziosi provide any evidence that Stalin gave directives to “punish” those provinces. She does not cite evidence, again from her own sources, that procurements from Kyiv oblast’ were reduced greatly and ended up “extremely minimal,” that the region had crop failures in 1932, and that Kyiv oblast’ received substantial food relief.41

Applebaum’s second summary conclusion concern Ukrainian nationalism. She argues that “the famine was a political famine, created for the express purpose of weakening peasant resistance, and thus national identity, and in this it succeeded” (283). Yet she provides only anecdotal evidence of “peasant resistance” and never explains how it was related to “national identity.” Her main evidence for this consists of stories fabricated by officials about peasant conspiracies and connections with Ukrainian nationalists abroad (e.g., 95ff, 102ff, 184). If “resistance” meant peasants holding back produce for higher prices, it is difficult to see this as “nationalist,” because it caused people in Ukrainian cities to starve, and because Russian peasants were accused of this as well. Later, in discussing Nazi genocide in Ukraine, she makes an even stronger claim (323): “This was Stalin’s policy, multiplied many times: the elimination of whole nations through starvation.” But 24 pages later (347) she writes: “Stalin did not seek to kill all Ukrainians ….” She never addresses this contradiction and never documents either claim.

She argues the famine brought “the end of Ukrainization.” She writes the arrests of “almost 200,000” Ukrainian political and cultural figures, which she calls an “entire generation of educated patriotic Ukrainians” (217), although she never explains what happened to them. While the arrests she describes certainly harmed Ukrainian culture, Ukraine had 8-9 million townspeople, and many more than 200,000 were educated.42   She claims that, as a result of this repression, “Russian language returned to dominance” (218), but her examples are Donetsk and Odessa, highly Russian regions. Ukrainian statistics show that the share of district newspapers in Ukrainian decreased from 85.3 to 80 percent. But 80 percent is still dominant, and greater than the percentage of Ukrainians in Ukraine in the 1937 census.43   The number of books published in Ukrainian in Ukraine increased from 27 million in 1928 to over 55 million in 1934 and 65.3 million in 1937, almost 90 percent of all books published, with only 5.8 million in Russian.44   In 1935-1936, out of 4.96 million students in schools in Ukraine, 4.1 million were taught Ukrainian, 634,962 Russian, and much smaller numbers for 17 other languages.45   In light of these data, it is difficult to accept her claim that Ukrainization ended. 

In chapter 14 Applebaum discusses the Soviet attempt to conceal the famine and reports by foreign visitors to inform the outside world about it. They included journalists, and she contrasts the writings of Gareth Jones, who traveled in Ukraine briefly and wrote about the famine, with those of Walter Duranty, who she claims concealed the famine. Yet she does not cite Duranty’s article on the front page of the New York Timeson 24 August 1933, with the headline “Famine Toll Heavy in Southern Russia,” with the subheading, “Death Rate During Last Year Has Trebled – Food Supply Now Held Assured,” and the first paragraph, which reads, in part: “The food shortage which has affected almost the whole population in the last year, and particularly the grain-producing provinces – that is, the Ukraine, North Caucasus, the Lower Volga region – has, however, caused heavy loss of life.” Duranty did not “deny” the famine. 

Applebaum’s chapter 15 on “The Holodomor in History and Memory” surveys the nationalist historiography of the famine, from publications during the Nazi occupation of Ukraine, to émigré publications mainly in Canada, culminating in Robert Conquest’s 1986 book Harvest of Sorrow, and writings on the famine in independent Ukraine. This historiography is informative, but she criticizes “Soviet scholars and mainstream academic journals” for allegedly ignoring Ukraine. She describes as “unprecedented at the time for a book about Ukraine” (337) that academics reviewed Harvest of Sorrow. Yet a search in JSTOR for reviews in 18 Slavic studies periodicals during 1960-1985, the 25 years before the publication of Harvest of Sorrow, using the keyword “Ukraine” brought up over 800 reviews, and using the keyword “Ukrainian” over 1100 reviews. 

Red Famine does present recently published anecdotal evidence about many aspects of the famine, but most of Applebaum’s extreme statements are undocumented. Her portrayal of Ukrainians as victims of persecution is exaggerated for the Tsarist period and misleading for the Soviet period: the regime arrested many Ukrainian cultural figures, but they arrested many Russian cultural figures as well, and Ukrainization as evidenced in publishing and education did not end. Her arguments attributing the 1932-1933 famine to blacklisting, roadblocks, searches, and propaganda are contradicted by evidence in her own sources that she does not cite. Her claim that the famine did not result from a crop failure is contradicted by her own statements, and by evidence in her sources that she does not cite, especially the large reduction in food procurements from Ukraine. Since the famine after the low procurements in 1932 was much worse than the one after the higher procurements in 1931, the only rational explanation is that the 1932 harvest was also much smaller.46   Applebaum’s discussion of the debate over whether the famine was genocide (347ff) ignores these issues, which are crucial for that discussion. 

While this review article does not allow for a full discussion of the issue of genocide and Stalin’s responsibility, we can at least note certain conclusions from the sources presented here. Stalin and other leaders made concessions to Ukraine in procurements and were clearly trying to balance the subsistence needs of Ukraine and other regions, especially people in towns and industrial sites who could not access the surrogate foods that some peasants relied on to survive (see for example Applebaum ch.12). Soviet leaders did not understand the 1932 crop failure: they thought that peasants were withholding food to drive up prices on the private market, as some of them had in 1928. They worried about the Japanese take-over of Manchuria in 1931-1932 and the Nazi victory in Germany in early 1933, and feared nationalist groups in Poland and Austria could inspire a nationalist rebellion in Ukraine. Faced with these “threats,” Soviet leaders were reluctant to make the USSR appear weak by admitting the famine and importing a lot of food, both of which they had done repeatedly earlier. The famine and the Soviets’ insufficient relief can be attributed to crop failure, and to leaders’ incompetence and paranoia regarding foreign threats and peasant speculators: a retaliatory version of the moral economy.

Red Famine has received considerable notice in the press, yet none of the reviews that I have seen, even academic ones, address the book’s serious problems. Michael Ellman described Applebaum’s book as “balanced and nuanced” and only noted that hers “is not the only possible framework for a study of the famine.”47   Sheila Fitzpatrick, in theGuardian, calls the book “a superior work of popular history.” She mildly disagrees with Applebaum’s view that Stalin intended “to kill Ukrainians,” without mentioning Applebaum’s contradictory statements on this point.48

One scholar asked me: why have academic works not received the kind of attention the Applebaum’s book has? In addition to her status as a well-known and widely published journalist, another reason for her book’s popularity is that Ukrainian nationalist scholars have been propagating the perspective she advocates for decades, as she documents (ch.15). Applebaum’s omission of key evidence replicates the practices of Ukrainian nationalist writers. For example, the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute (which worked with Applebaum and Conquest, as she documents in the book) recently published an article collection, After the Holodomor, in which, like Applebaum, the authors attributed the famine to grain procurements but never state what they were in 1932 and how much lower they were than in 1931 or 1933.49

Some might ask whether Applebaum’s writing is more accessible to “non-specialist” readers. There are many excellent writers among Slavic specialists, and a more accurate account could easily have been presented in clear and simple language. Applebaum’s writing does not “simplify” the truth, it obscures it, as discussed in this review. Red Famine thus does not fit well in the existing scholarly literature, even as “popular history.” Its interpretation resembles that of Conquest’s Harvest of Sorrow, and it does use recent published sources that provide vivid descriptions of many people’s experiences in the famine. But it leaves out too much important information, has false claims on key points, and draws unjustified conclusions on important issues based on incomplete use of sources, making it not even close to the level of genuine scholarship, like Davies and Wheatcroft’s Years of HungerRed Famine is better characterized by a passage from Peter Kenez’s book on The Birth of the Propaganda State: “propaganda often means telling less than the truth, misleading people … manipulating and distorting information, lying” and addresses “audiences in simple language…”50

When even academics avoid confronting popular histories that mislead the public, they perpetuate a problem in the history field. The American historian Peter Charles Hoffer wrote in his book on malfeasance in American history writing, Past Imperfect: “In law to defraud is to misrepresent or conceal with the intention of deceiving and the aim of gaining from deceit.  In historical scholarship, falsification, plagiarism, and fabrication were devastating types of fraud.  They might not be indictable in a court of law, but they undermined the very foundations of scholarly authority.  What was more, they tested the profession's ability and willingness to police itself.”51 

I hope that this review will help readers and scholars to be cautious in referring to Red Famine and to be alert to the problems in this kind of writing. 


1Gulag: A History, Doubleday, 2003; Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956, Doubleday, 2012. Her website that lists many of her writings is:

2See for example, M. L. Podves’ko, Ukrains’ko-Anhliys’kyy slovnik, Kyiv, 1957, pp. 106, 445; W. Niniows’kyi, Ukrainian-English and English-Ukrainian Dictionary, Edmonton, 1985, pp. 343, 488. The Google translator also gives these translations. 

3Ukraine’s rural population was approximately 24 million, Russia’s was 76 million, in 1926; Vsesoiuznyi perepis’ naseleniia 1937g. Kratkie itogi, Moscow, 1991, 48-51. Russia’s rural population was 83% of the total population, Ukraine’s rural population was 81.7% (my calculation from this source). She discusses the 1937 census (299ff), yet does not notice that it also shows the same population relationship: Vsesoiuznyi perepis’ naseleniia 1937g., 51. 

4V. I. Gurko, Features and Figures of the Past, Stanford: Stanford University Pres, 1939, 136. 

5Graham Tan, “Transformation versus Tradition: Agrarian Policy and Government-Peasant Relations in Right-Bank Ukraine 1920-1923,”Europe-Asia Studies, v. 52 n. 5, July, 2000, 918ff. Her source was V. M. Lytvyn et al., Istoriia ukrains’koho selianstva, Kiev, 2006, v. 2, 59.

6T.K. Dennison, A.W. Carus, “The Invention of the Russian Rural Commune: Haxthausen and the Evidence,” The Historical Journal, v. 46 n.3, September 2003, 561-582; M. M. Gromyko, Mir russkoi derevnyi, Moscow, 1991, 57ff.; P. N. Zyrianov, Krest’ianskaia obshchina evropeistkoi Rossii, Moscow: Nauka, 1992, 50ff. 

7Zyrianov, Krest’ianskaia obshchina , 36, shows repartitional communes dominant in most Ukrainian provinces; on household tenure, Vadim Koukouchkine, From peasants to labourers: Ukrainian and Belarusan immigration from the Russian Empire to Canada, Montreal: McGill-Queens University Press, 2007, 17-18; David Moon, The Russian Peasantry, 1600-1930, London: Longman, 1999, 93. 

8The best study of this issue is Alexei Miller, The Ukrainian Question: The Russian Empire and Nationalism in the Nineteenth Century, Budapest: CEU Press, 2003; on these points: 62ff, 97-115, 230-241, 267ff. 

9Kataloh knyzhnaho magazyna redaktsiy zhurnala “Kievskaia staryna,”28 pages, 1899, and Katalog malorusskikh khig knizhnago magazine Stepana Ivanovicha Gomolinskago, 32 pages, 1887, which is available online:

10See, for example, Moshe Lewin, Russian Peasants and Soviet Power(New York: Norton, 1968), and Michael Reiman, The Birth of Stalinism(Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1987), among many other publications. 

11See for example Pierre Spitz, “The Right to Food in Historical Perspective,” Food Policy, v. 10 n. 4, November 1985, 306-316, and especially E. P. Thompson, “The Moral Economy of the English Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” Past & Present, n. 50, February 1971, 76-136. . 

12These are discussed in Tauger, “Stalin, Soviet Agriculture, and Collectivization,” in Trentmann and Just, eds., Food and Conflict in Europe in the Age of the Two World Wars, New York, 2006, and “La famine soviétique ‘inconnue’ de 1924-1925,” in Tauger, Famine et transformation agricole in URSS, Paris: Delga, 2017, 27-74. 

13See the study in, and Edwin H. Sutherland, White Collar Crime: The Uncut Version, Yale University Press, 1983. On Russia, see for example Christine Worobec, “Horse Thieves and Peasant Justice in Post-Emancipation Imperial Russia,” Journal of Social History, v. 21 no 2, Winter 1987, 281-293.

14See Tauger, Natural Disaster and Human Action in the Soviet Famine of 1931-1933, Pittsburgh, 2001; Davies and Wheatcroft,Years of Hunger, passim; Stalin, Sochinenniia, Moscow, 1954, v. 13, 216-217. 

15Ruslan Pyrih, ed., Holodomor1932-1933 rokiv v Ukraini: dokumenty I materialy, Kyiv,2007, 63-64. 

16Holodomor, 2007, 156; Holod na Ukraine, Ochyma istorikov, movoiu dokumentiv, Kyiv, 1990, 162. 

17Davies and Wheatcroft, Years of Hunger, Palgrave MacMillan, 2004, 449. 

18On these points see Tauger, "The 1932 Harvest and the Famine of 1933." Slavic Review, v. 50 no. 1, Spring 1991, 70-89; and idem., Statistical Falsification in the Soviet Union: A Comparative Case Study of Projections, Biases, and Trust, The Donald W. Treadgold Papers in Russian, East European, and Central Asian Studies (Seattle: University of Washington, 2001), no. 34. 

19Her sources indicate that the 1931 procurement plan for Ukraine was actually 7.17 million tons; Holodomor, 2007, 173. 

20Holod … ochyma, 1990, 352-353; Holodomor, 2007, 642. 

21Holodomor, 2007, 149-52.

22Holodomor, 2007, 290-303, 355-360, 597-601. 

23Holodomor, 2007, 291, document 217, telegram from Stalin to Kaganovich, 19 August 1932: “As is evident from the materials, not only the Ukrainians but also the North Caucasians, Middle Volga, Western Siberia, Kazakhstan and Bashkiria will speak with the Central Committee about reducing the grain procurement plan. I advise satisfying for the time being only the Ukrainians, reducing their plan by 30 million and only in extreme case by 35-40 million. As for the others, postpone discussion with them until the end of August.” 

24Holodomor, 2007, 641; Holod … ochyma, 1990, 349. 

25Holodomor, 2007, 597-601. 

26Davies, Wheatcroft, Years of Hunger, 470. 

27Heorhii Papakin, “Blacklists as an instrument of the Famine-Genocide of 1932-1933 in Ukraine,” translated from Ukrainian and available at: , pp. 8-10. Holodomor, 2007, 458, 620; Holod 1932-1933 ochyma, 1990, 311-314; on number of kolkhozy, Asatkin, Narodne hospodarstvo USRR, 1935, 205. 

28Holodomor, 2007, 458, 620; Holod 1932-1933 ochyma, 1990, 311-314; the regime had brought goods to villages for years to trade for grain. 

29Papakin, “Blacklists,” note that some villages were placed on and off the blacklists multiple times, which implies that the policy was arbitrary rather than systematic. 

30Tragediia Sovetskoi derevni, v. 3, 634, 644. 

31N. A. Ivnitskii, Golod 1932-1933 godov v SSSR, 2009, 199. 

32RTsKhIDNI, f. 112, op. 26, d. 21, l.229. I discussed this source in detail in “Soviet Peasants and Collectivization, 1930-1939: Resistance and Adaptation,” in Steven Wegren, ed., Rural Adaptation in Russia, Routledge, 2005, 83ff. See Ivnitskii,Golod 1932-1933 godov v SSSR


34Holod 1932-1933… ochyma, 1990, 455-456. 

35See John Whitman, “The Kolkhoz Market,” Soviet Studies, v. 7 (April 1956), 390. 

36Holodomor, 2007, 641; Holod … ochyma, 1990, 349, as noted above. For an example of relief that began on & February, two days after the suspension of procurements, see Holodomor, 2007, 663; Holod … ochyma, 1990, 374. The fact that both collections include this document means that the editors considered it significant. 

37For example, Davies, Wheatcroft, Years of Hunger, ch. 6. 

38Tauger, “1932 Harvest and the Famine of 1933,” 74; Tauger, Davies, Wheatcroft, “Soviet Grain Stocks …” 

39See Tauger, Commune to Kolkhoz, PhD dissertation, UCLA, 1991, ch. 7, and Davies and Wheatcroft, Years of Hunger, passim, among other sources. 

40France Meslé, Jasques Vallin, Evgeny Andreev, “Demographic Consequences of the Great Famine: Then and Now,” in Graziosi et al., After the Holodomor, Cambridge: HURI, 2013, 220-222. 

41Holodomor, 2007, 771, 775-778; Holod … Ochyma, 1990, 399-400. 

42Vsesoiuznaia perepis’ naseleniia 1937 g. Kratkie itogi, Moscow, 1991, 28.58. 

43Vsesoiuznaia perepis’ naseleniia 1937 g., 94: Ukraine had 28.4 million people of whom 22.2 million or 78 percent, were Ukrainian. 

44Narodne hospodarstvo USRR: statystychnyi dovidnik, ed. O. M. Asatkin, Kyiv, 1935, 575, 577, Vsesoiuznaia perepis’ naseleniia 1937 g., 94; Kniga i knizhnoe delo v Ukrainskoi SSR, Kiev, 1985, 399. 

45Sotsialistychna Ukraina: Statystychnyy zbirnik, Kyiv, 1937, 222. 

46I made this point in 1991 in “The 1932 Harvest and the Famine of 1933.” 



49Graziosi, ed., After the Holodomor, Cambridge: HURI, 2013. For this and other issues, see my review of this book inNationalities Papers, v. 43 n. 3, 2015, 514-518. 

50Peter Kenez, The Birth of the Propaganda State: Soviet Methods of Mass Mobilization, 1917-1929, Cambridge, 1985, 2, 4, 7. 

51Peter Charles Hoffer, Past Imperfect. Facts, Fictions, Fraud: American History from Bancroft toAmbrose, Bellesiles, Ellis, and Goodwin, New York, 2004, 139. 

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