The Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum has long lived in and written about Eastern Europe and is best known for her Pulitzer Prize-winning “Gulag: A History.” But my favorite of her books is the quirky and original 1994 “Between East and West: Across the Borderlands of Europe,” in which she travels from the Baltic to the Black Sea, entirely through regions and cities that had found themselves situated, over the course of the 20th century, in several different countries. Today’s Lviv, for example, in western Ukraine, was previously Lvov in the Soviet Union, and before that Lwow in interwar Poland, and prior to 1914 was Lemberg in Austria-Hungary. And that’s not even counting its occupation by czarist Russia in World War I, Nazi Germany in World War II and a short-lived Ukrainian nationalist group in 1918.
Most of the people she spoke to on that journey shared a sense of ethnic identity under threat by a nation in which they were now absorbed, or had been oppressed by in the past. They felt themselves to be unfairly Lithuanianized Poles, or Belarusified Lithuanians or Ruthenians denied a country when everyone else seemed to be getting their own. The book was prescient, for it is exactly that sense of aggrieved, wounded ethnic or national pride that has been cultivated so skillfully by politicians who have emerged in recent years, from Viktor Orban in Budapest to Vladimir Putin in Moscow to Donald Trump in Washington.
The specter of clashing nationalisms also runs through Applebaum’s new book, “Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine,” a richly detailed history of the great famine, peaking in 1933, which killed an estimated five million or more Soviets, more than 3.9 million of them Ukrainian. Stalin, beginning several years earlier, had ruthlessly forced millions of independent small farmers into the new collective farms that he was certain would increase production and feed Soviet cities. The farmers understandably resisted giving up their land, often slaughtered and ate the animals they were ordered to bring with them, and had little incentive to work once they were taken, sometimes at gunpoint, to the collectives.
This is certainly part of the story, but Applebaum puts more emphasis on something that has great relevance for today: Russia’s prolonged fear of losing a territory it had long treated as a lucrative colony. Even Alexander II, the reformer czar who freed the serfs, outlawed Ukrainian books and magazines and forbade the use of the language in theaters and opera. Schoolchildren generally had to be educated in Russian even when, despite the many ethnic Russians in Ukrainian cities, in the countryside most people spoke Ukrainian.
In the chaos of dissolving empires toward the end of World War I, Ukraine declared itself independent, but its famously fertile black earth and Black Sea ports were tempting prizes for rival independence movements, for both White Russians and Bolsheviks, and for the territory’s neighbors. After several extremely bloody years of fighting (Kiev changed hands more than a dozen times in 1919), Ukraine was divided between two newborn states: Poland and -- taking the lion’s share -- the Soviet Union.
Even before the disastrous imposition of collective farming, Russia’s new rulers “once again followed the precedent set by the czars,” Applebaum writes; “they banned Ukrainian newspapers, stopped the use of Ukrainian in schools and shut down Ukrainian theaters.” By the mid-1920s, once Soviet power had been firmly established, the regime tried a new policy, as it did in other non-Russian parts of the Soviet Union, giving official status to the Ukrainian language and allowing the production of a definitive Ukrainian-Russian dictionary.
But rather than making the Ukrainians into happy Soviets, this period of limited tolerance only produced more demands for Ukrainian-language schools for the nearly eight million ethnic Ukrainians living in Russia itself, and for Ukrainian border expansions to include some of those ethnic communities. An alarmed Kremlin quickly reversed course.
The end of the 1920s saw a crackdown on the Ukrainian branch of the Orthodox Church and arrests of tens of thousands of Ukrainian teachers and intellectuals -- 45 of whom were the subject of a show trial at the Kharkiv Opera House. Thousands of Ukrainian books were removed from schools and libraries. The dictionary project was now judged subversive, and many of those who worked on it were arrested and shot. Ukrainian-language newspapers and magazines were given lists of words not to be used, and replacements closer to Russian. One letter was even removed from Ukrainian Cyrillic, to make it more like the Russian, as if the very alphabet were guilty of treason and had to be punished.
Then came the senseless scheme of compelling some of the Soviet Union’s most productive farmers to abandon their land and move to the untried new collectives. Not only was this imposing an ideological blueprint that didn’t work; it was carried out with a cruelty that guaranteed millions of people in the ethnically Ukrainian rural areas would starve. Peasant families were allowed to keep no food for themselves: Teams of Communist Party activists ripped up floorboards and poked through haylofts with iron rods, confiscating all they found, including grain being kept as seed for the next year’s crop. Despite the rotting, emaciated corpses of starved adults and children piling up along streets and highways and the wolves that took over abandoned farmhouses, the seizures continued, in part to find grain the state could sell abroad for hard currency. When even loyal party officials raised objections, they were fired, jailed or shot. If resistance to the requisitions and to collectivization was not stamped out, Stalin wrote to Lazar Kaganovich, one of his henchmen, in 1932, “we may lose Ukraine.”
The planned starvation, the execution of the territory’s best artists and intellectuals, the destruction of churches and the crushing of traditional village culture terrified into silence any Ukrainians who wanted autonomy or independence. Then finally, 60 years later, what Stalin had feared happened virtually overnight, and Russia did lose Ukraine. The history of all that happened between these two tragically intertwined peoples in the early 20th century fills in the background to Putin’s ruthless desire to gain influence or control over Ukraine once again.
Applebaum has painstakingly mined a vast array of sources, many of which were not available when the historian Robert Conquest wrote his pioneering history of the famine, “The Harvest of Sorrow,” 30 years ago: oral histories of survivors; national and local archives in Ukraine, including those of the secret police; and archives in Russia, which opened in the 1990s and then partly closed again, but not before various scholars published collections of documents from them.
One account of the famine comes from the young Welsh journalist Gareth Jones, who walked 40 miles through starvation-ridden districts in 1933 and, after he left the country, wrote one of the very few eyewitness descriptions of the carnage to appear in the Western press. Jones has been celebrated before, but Applebaum also tells the less known story of how, after he spoke out, Stalin’s government successfully strong-armed British and American correspondents in Moscow into denying what he said -- even though some of them had been his sources, telling him what would have been censored from their own dispatches. It is a reminder of the lengths that demagogues will go to in order to suppress or distort the truth -- something no less a problem in many a country today than it was in the Soviet Union more than eight decades ago.