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  • Politics, Starvation, and MemoryA Critique of Red Famine
  • Tarik Cyril Amar (bio)
Anne Applebaum, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine. 496 pp. New York: Doubleday, 2017. ISBN-13 978-0385538855. $35.00.


In Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine, a 1920s Bolshevik tells an American that food is a weapon (29). Recently, the Syrian and Saudi regimes—cruel secularizing and fundamentalist authoritarians respectively, hostile to each other, one aligned with Russia, the other with the West—have both used that weapon. In general, starving others is still so popular that the current pope has seen the need to expressly condemn it.

In the last century, states as well as those challenging or trying to make them repeatedly used food and its lack to control, coerce, and destroy, in war and in what counts for peace. Experts distinguish different degrees of this abuse, ranging, in essence, from culpable incompetence to deliberate starvation as a weapon of mass murder, often deployed against populations nominally free but also in jails and camps.1 Communist regimes have had no [End Page 145] monopoly on weaponized starving, but they have provided several egregious cases, including in the Stalinist Soviet Union and Mao’s China.2

Regarding the Soviet famines of the early 1930s, linked to the “Great Break” of Stalin’s take-off modernization, there is wide agreement that it was state policies—of commission and omission—that caused excruciating death and lasting harm for many millions. Regarding the Soviet regime’s responsibility, experts and scholars debate not the fact but its nature: current assessments range, in essence, from lethally reckless and murderously callous to deliberately genocidal. None of them are forgiving, but they are not the same.

Concerning the famine in Ukraine, David Marples, for instance, has stressed the need to pay attention to the national factor; he has also pointed out that neither Hiroaki Kuromiya nor Terry Martin, thoroughly attentive to national and especially Ukrainian aspects of the famines, has found evidence of a premeditated plan of genocide even while identifying national bias against Ukrainians in the regime’s response to policy-made agricultural crisis and famine.3 Indeed, in 2008, Kuromiya concluded—cautiously—that while “Stalin let starving people die, it is unlikely that he intentionally caused the famine to kill millions of people” or “used it as a cheap alternative to deportation.” Acknowledging the special place of Ukraine, Kuromiya also found that there is not “enough evidence … to show that Stalin engineered the famine to specifically punish the ethnic Ukrainians.”4


Against this background, Red Famine is an uneven work suffering severely from a single-minded insistence that we must understand the famine in Ukraine, in conjunction with assaults on members of the elite, as a catastrophe “with unique causes and attributes” (xxvi), “a disaster specifically targeted at Ukraine and Ukrainians” (193), deliberate and, in effect, genocidal. It is important to be clear about the fact that Applebaum insists on the substance of the concept of genocide while qualifying—and not consistent about—the use of the term, as I discuss below. The usual shorthand for this genocidal view of the famine in Ukraine is to call it the Holodomor, a term with a complex history, but it bears noting that it has also been used by Stephen [End Page 146] Wheatcroft, who sees the famine as not planned but the outcome of multiple factors, crucially including “criminal incompetence, resulting in murderous action to preserve part of the population at the expense of others … followed by criminal cover-ups.”5

For Applebaum, recent, especially post-Soviet, evidence supports her genocidal explanation of the famine. Unfortunately, her use of archival sources is less transparent than it could have been, because she has chosen to list the archives referenced in Red Famine in an unusual manner, making it hard to distinguish sources that she quotes indirectly through other authors from those with which she, or perhaps her assistants, have worked directly. Even in a book that is not—and does not have to be—an academic monograph, this is regrettable, since it makes it difficult to systematically compare the archival basis of her work with that of others.

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