We Will Bury You
Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, Anne Applebaum, Alan Lane, 2017, £25, reviewed by GERRY DORRIAN
Marx wasn’t sure what to do about the peasants. Although he railed in Capital against the “corvée” or rent-in-kind that reduced them to serfs, he had condemned them for their patriotism in the Eighteenth Brumaire of Louis Napoleon (1852), which had emboldened Bonaparte’s nephew to finally mount a successful coup d’état. He revealed the source of his ambivalence in The Poverty of Philosophy (1847) in which he situates the origin of the working classes in peasants being forced off the land and into towns through changing agricultural practices. He was right in this, but according to the system he was formulating, the Revolution would not come until all peasants were subject to industrialised economics, and the failure of the 1848 wave of revolutions that convulsed Europe strengthened his belief.
In 1895, Lenin proclaimed that “The peasantry wants land and freedom…All class-conscious workers support the revolutionary peasantry with all their mind.” However, once in power, the “revolutionary-democratic dictatorship of the proletariat and the peasantry” he had promised became a Dictatorship of the Proletariat that excluded almost all working-class Russians, reducing them to serfs. Every aspect of their lives was a corvée in return for something they were told was freedom.
Anne Applebaum’s Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine opens with the Ukrainian Revoution of April 1917, then details Lenin’s outward acceptance of Ukraine’s independence after his Russian coup that October. In the meantime, he was secretly planning “a lesson” to sap Ukraine of the will to resist his version of the Tsars’ Russification.
In the mid-1920s, grain requisitioners started a famine in Ukraine, still a largely peasant country, by following Lenin’s orders actioned by his successor, Stalin, to subordinate the wellbeing of citizens of Russia’s breadbasket to the exigencies of the State. There was little doubt that the State in question was not Soviet Ukraine but Soviet Russia.
It is difficult to know (given Trotsky’s claims that he himself had been Lenin’s intended heir) whether in the 1930s Stalin pressed Ukraine harder than Lenin would have, or whether he was carrying out Lenin’s intentions – after all, Lenin even trusted Stalin with the task of killing him should he become too infirm.
Applebaum has mined new archival discoveries by the Harvard Ukrainian Research Institute to produce the definitive work on the Holodomor (from Ukrainian words meaning hunger and extermination) and its consequences. Her forensic examination of the causes of the famine and its results, including people dying in the street and cannibalism, and the subsequent cover-up until the USSR fell, is all the more horrifying for its sober clarity. She draws a straight line from the Holodomor to Ukraine’s declaration of independence in 1990 that led to the breakup of the USSR and, subsequently, to Putin’s adoption of Lenin’s tactic of sending troops minus national identification over the border.
Red Famine is invaluable for giving voice to the victims of Europe’s largest genocide after the Holocaust, and more besides: it shows Marxism as conditioned and patterned by its first praxis as a method of government, and so acts as a mirror of contemporary Marxist praxis as its advocates seek to consolidate its political, social and cultural hegemony. For example, Stalin added “Nazi” and “Fascist” to the vocabulary of antifascism after his non-agression pacts with Hitler and Mussolini went sour – modern Stalinist “antifascists”, likewise, see Nazis and fascists everywhere, justifying in their minds the use of any means at hand to shut down democratic debate and reduce political diversity.
Applebaum describes how students brought in to harvest grain from deserted collective farms radicalised themselves to cope with the disconnect between utopian political propaganda on one hand, and the abominable effects of the famine they saw in in villages on the other. And she quotes followers of Balitsky wondering whether, under communism, humans “will become a luminous globe consisting of head and brain only”. Today’s antifascists still channel the “cleansing power of political violence” of Vsevolod Balitsky, Stalin’s enforcer in Ukraine. We don’t now have people dying in the street but the fictitious phobias and imaginary genders springing up point to a similar fantasy process masking the gap between prefabricated meaning and reality – witness the denial that still spans whole institutions over the scale of child grooming in the UK.
The hardest hit people in Ukraine were “kulaks”. The latter were originally peasants who had become smallholders, but the term was manipulated for political purposes until it referred to any peasants who had not yet been coerced into collective farms by thugs searching their houses for grain kept to eat and to plant the next year, which was classified as theft. In the contemporary West, all free-thinkers are kulaks, as we reserve the right to draw fact-based conclusions in defiance of the collectivist political-media machine which spews prefabricated interpretations at us. Given the abuses detailed in Red Famine, we would do well to familiarise ourselves with the lengths Stalinists will go to destroy any social, cultural or national resistance to their project.
Historian and philosopher Gerry Dorrian writes from Cambridge