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How Stalin starved 1930’s rural Ukraine to quash political enemies: Anne Applebaum interview

Anne Applebaum talking about the Holodomor
Anne Applebaum. Screenshot: Youtube/UATV English
How Stalin starved 1930’s rural Ukraine to quash political enemies: Anne Applebaum interview
Today Ukraine is marking the official Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Holodomor, commemorating the millions who were starved to death under Soviet dictator Josef Stalin. Impacts of the Holodomor still resonate after generations. Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Anne Applebaum visited Kyiv to present her new book ‘Red Famine: Stalin’s War in Ukraine’. The book covers the Holodomor and UATV English has discussed how it impacted Ukraine’s history as well as modern society and world history in general.

TAMARA ROZOUVAN: Thank you so much for joining me. In your book, you’ve written that near four million Ukrainians were starved — died as a result of this man-made famine. What kind of an impact do you think it has had on modern Ukrainian society.

ANNE APPLEBAUM: So, this is a very long question which I talk about in the book at more length but I think the important thing to remember is the famine was both an attack on the peasantry and that it weakened ties between people, it weakened village communities and so on in the countryside — but it was also simultaneously, alongside the famine, there was an attack on the Ukrainian intellectual and political elite that took place immediately afterwards and the arrests of artists, writers and historians and even the Ukrainian Community Party. And the people who replaced them both in the city and the village level, who replaced the leaders, were people who were much more cowardly, who were much more afraid — cowardly is the wrong word actually — I mean I think they were simply afraid — and you lost really a generation of leadership of patriots, of people who were loyal to the country and they were replaced instead by people who didn’t have that kind of respect. And I think the long-term legacy is that many Ukrainians became suspicious of the state, the state was seen as a foreign body, something that was dangerous — you know you better stay away from the state and its institutions and not be influenced by them, not touch them and this kind of feeling that the state and the people in power are different from us, they act in their own interests, you know they aren’t representative of us — I think this is a problem not only in Ukraine but actually in the whole post-Soviet world even today and the idea of course of a state which people who work for it are patriots and in which, we expect things from them and they expect from us participation and in which they are — you know, it’s not a foreign body, it’s ours — this is something that’s new and it hasn’t quite caught hold of in Ukraine.

TR: Right, and in your book as well, you touch [upon] Ukraine trying to lobby the UN to recognize the famine as genocide — you touch upon that topic — it’s [a large] debate whether to call it [a genocide]. A number of MPs in the British parliament called on the government to recognize it as genocide and more than 17 other countries already do. Do you think this a very important acknowledgment, legally speaking and morally speaking?

AA: So, I think yes, it is important that the Ukrainian famine be recognized as genocide. I’ve said that many times although there are some problems with doing that with international law. I think actually if you worked country by country, you would discover that people in a lot of places are sympathetic to that. I don’t think that, for Ukraine, it should be the center of your foreign policy or your attempt to establish yourself on the world stage. I think you would do that better by making an argument about the kind of country you are, what you want to become, the achievements that you’ve had since 2014 and where you want to go further. I think Ukraine should be striving to play a really positive role internationally and that you… you know it’s not your history that will gain you respect, it’s who you are now.

TR: It’s what Ukraine aims to achieve now…

AA: And what it is. People will read the history of Ukraine if they are interested in Ukraine and they will be interested in Ukraine if Ukraine is prosperous and they want to do business here or if it’s culturally interesting and they want to Ukrainian books or see Ukrainian films — and then they will become interested in the genocide. It doesn’t work the other way around.

TR: Right, I recently read some of the comments under a book review of Red Famine: Stalin’s War in Ukraine. If we take [aside] all the comments that were written by Russian trolls, obviously there were more than a 100 — I had the impression that a lot of them were questioning and were still debating whether this was Stalin’s main goal to eliminate the Ukrainian population.

AA: Oh sure… so this is a legitimate historical argument actually so let’s be clear — this is not Russian trolls, so the question is, there was a famine all over the Soviet Union in 1932 and 1933 and a lot of people died in Russia and they died in other parts of the USSR. There was a particularly bad famine in Kazakstan for example which had other causes. And the argument of my book is that, within that general famine, within that chaos and the disastrous decisions around collectivisation — and within that, Stalin used that moment to get rid of a problem in Ukraine and the problem was one of the rebellious Ukrainian peasantry and of the Ukrainian political class — so there is a legitimate historical argument to be had about whether or not what Stalin did was intentional. In other words, was he trying to kill people or was it just kind of an accident? And my argument is that he was trying to kill people and that there’s a reason why the famine was worse in Ukraine in the spring of 1933 than it was in other places and that was because of the decision that he took a few months earlier.

TR: Was it to stamp out this nationalist sentiment?

AA: Yes, so one of the things I found when working on the book was that in 1932, when Stalin is considering what to do about the famine which is already then beginning to spread, he begins speaking and writing quite a lot about the civil war — and he starts talking about 1918 and he starts talking about…you know, he says these are all ( )…you start seeing agents of [Chief of State of the Second Republic of Poland Józef] Piłsudski and my argument is that this is because he sees Ukraine as this continuous problem, you know, ‘Ukraine is a problem, it challenges the legitimacy of Bolshevism, it opposes the Soviet regime — we could even be dangerous for the Soviet regime so therefore, we need to get rid of this problem’ and that he, therefore, uses the famine in the winter and the spring of 1933 to eliminate this Ukrainian problem — and that’s the book’s argument but sure, there is a legitimate argument that says it was an accident and there are people who have made that argument before but I think I have assembled the archives and the evidence in such a way that proves it was intentional.

TR: So do you think that he targeted a specific part of the population?

AA: So, my argument is that he particularly targeted peasants in Ukraine because he was afraid of another peasant rebellion. There had been a peasant rebellion in 1918 and 19′ which you remembered very well — which had been very dangerous for the Bolsheviks at the time. There had been another major peasant rebellion in 1930 which is also a topic of the book and in 1932, when he saw that, when this starvation is spreading, he makes a series of decisions that make the famine worse in Ukraine — and this is to undermine the peasantry and to eliminate this possibility of a rebellion happening again

TR: Right, and do you think that the Ukrainian government since gaining independence…do you think how they’ve handled that part of the country’s history…do you think it has been fair? Do you think Ukraine needs to do more in order to focus on that part of its history?

AA: So, you would have to tell me whether that’s true. I mean the degree to which Ukraine has successfully explained its history to young Ukrainians — you know, I don’t know… you have to tell me. I would make a different point which is that I think the most important thing that Ukraine can do as a monument to the famine and as a way to memorialise the victims would be to create a country where nothing like that can ever happen again — and that means to create a country that has strong institutions, that has a neutral and honest state, that has independent courts, that has a strong, independent media and that has well-educated citizens who participate in democracy and that really would the best recipe against it happening again — and that would be the best memorial you could create to the victims of the famine.

TR: And the best recipe for Ukraine’s war that is going on right now in the east [of Ukraine]…

AA: So again, of course, to win this war, you need an army, you need to think about defence strategy and so on — but once again, this is a war which is not just a military war, it’s also an information war, it’s also a political conflict and having a Ukrainian state which Ukrainians feel loyal to and which they, admire and care about — this really is your best defence against Russian propaganda.

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