Sunday, 27 August 2017

Communist genocide in Ukraine?

Anne Applebaum has been my absolute bete noir for some years. She is ardently opposed to Brexit, seems to want Nato to wage a proxy war against Russia while wanting Europe to take as many refugees from the Middle East as possible, hates the immigration policies of Poland and Hungary and thinks abortion is a human right. 

But this post on Facebook just now is another thing. It sounds very interesting. 

She has written a book saying that the Ukrainian famine was genocide. This is much disputed, especially by left-wing historians who are happy to compare slavery in America with Auschwitz.

I have intended for some years to read further on this subject. I blogged about the famine and about Timothy Snyder's book Bloodlands here.

Anne Applebaum
As an author who also writes reviews, I generally try to avoid responding to reviews of my own books. But Sheila Fitzpatrick's review of my new book, Red Famine, in the Guardian on Saturday does contain two extraordinary factual errors which I feel should be corrected, not least because the book is not yet available in the UK, and won't be available in North America for a couple of months.
First, her statement that "Applebaum has not worked in archives for this book" is astonishing: The book is based on hundreds of archival documents, some found by myself and my research assistant, others found by other Ukrainian researchers and published in the huge document collections (these are primary, not secondary sources) that have been compiled in Ukraine over the past decade. In my bibliography, I deliberately included all of the archives that are referred to in all of the footnotes, precisely in order to counter any suggestion - and there have been many such charges in the past - that the voluminous Soviet archival record of the famine is trivial or false.
Secondly, and more importantly, she states that I "ultimately [don’t] buy the Ukrainian argument that the Holodomor was an act of genocide." That is exactly the opposite of what I wrote - 180 degrees of difference. My argument is that the famine fits perfectly into the original definition of genocide, as conceived by the legal scholar Raphael Lemkin. Indeed, the central argument of my book, which she does not ever address in her review, is that Stalin intentionally used the famine not only to kill Ukrainians but to destroy the Ukrainian national movement, which he perceived as a threat to Soviet power, and to destroy the idea of Ukraine as an independent nation, forever.
I also explain that, during the United Nations debate about the genocide convention in the 1940s, the Soviet delegation altered the legal definition precisely in order to avoid the inclusion of the famine, which is why it is difficult to classify the famine as "genocide" under existing international law. Does Fitzpatrick not understand this distinction?
Here are the first two paragraphs of the Red Famine Epilogue, which goes on to explore this entire debate at length:
Those who lived through the Ukrainian famine always described it, once they were allowed to describe it, as an act of state aggression. The peasants who experienced the searches and the blacklists remembered them as a collective assault on themselves and their culture. The Ukrainians who witnessed the arrests and murders of intellectuals, academics, writers and artists remembered them in the same way, as a deliberate attack on their national cultural elite.
The archival record backs up the testimony of the survivors. Neither crop failure nor bad weather caused the famine in Ukraine. 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, were not caused directly by collectivization either. Starvation was the result, rather, of the forcible removal of food from people’s homes; the roadblocks that prevented peasants from seeking work or food; the harsh rules of the blacklists imposed on farms and villages; the restrictions on barter and trade; and the vicious propaganda campaign designed to persuade Ukrainians to watch, unmoved, as their neighbours died of hunger.

Paul Gottfried, the father of palaeo-conservatives (and, by the way, Jewish), wrote this interesting piece on comparisons between mass murders, a few years back.

Historian Samantha Lomb has commented:

I have routinely have to spar with Ukrainian nationalists who push the idea of genocide hard. We even had this argument over this same review. They think Fitzpatrick is out of touch in her criticism of Applebaum. Given that I study and write on Soviet agriculture in the 1930s incompetence, poor government and overzealous collectivization, plus problems with weather and crop management were all longstanding problems in Soviet agriculture. the Ukrainians though would much rather blame Stalin than the weather or people who routinely lies on their statistical reports and refuse to acknowledge the 1932 famine also hit the north Caucuses hard and that later anti nationality operations targeted Baltic people, Poles, Crimean Tatars, Chechens and Koreans as well. There is no documentary evidence that Ukrainians were purposefully or singularly targeted by the state. This narrative instead gets much of its impetus from Canada

University of Toronto in particular tends to promote this genocide belief and politics in Ukraine today foster it as part of an anti Russian nationalist identity.

In my work in Kirov, even as late as 1938-39 large scale falsification of agricultural reports, which results in the over extraction of grain levies and taxes and was a widespread problem, as was local corruption and drunkenness that even in years of good harvest lead to low overall crop retention and payment for collective farmers. Additionally coordinating the shifting of resources to either cover famine hit areas or even organizing seed exchanges to cover shortfalls in crop planting plans was very difficult and frustrated by poor infrastructure and local officials who did not want to share resources. And the problem with research in Ukraine is the huge holes in the archival record due to the widespread destruction of documents during the war both by the Nazi's and by Ukrainian nationalist bands. up until the 1990s most of the info on Ukrainian collectivization came from the Smolensk archive which had been captured by the nazis and then recaptured by the US and which is woefully

incomplete. I started my historical career trying to do research in Ukraine and was massively disappointed by the lack of documents. That is one of Fitzpatrick's problem with Applebaum, her lack of archival research. She relies on sborniki where archivists publish collections of archival documents they have pre-selected and curated and published sources for her work which is quite problematic cause someone else has chosen and prioritized her documents and she does not see them located in the historical record as they are. Sometimes a documents fellows in a folder are just as important as the document itself and without this context documents often loose some of their meaning.


  1. The interesting part of the story is Sheila Fitzpatrick's article in the Guardian which debunks Anne Applebaum's claims.

    Sheila is one of the most prominent and respected Sovietologists of her generation. And points out the basic facts: "In my 1994 book Stalin’s Peasants, I argued that what Stalin wanted was not to kill millions (a course with obvious economic disadvantages) but rather to get as much grain out of them as possible..."

    The claim (for ultra-rightwing Ukrainian nationalists) that this famine was genocide never made any sense: No government in history deliberately destroys its main food production & unleashes a mass famine (for the simple reason that this is the best way to use power.)

    As for deliberate genocide -- that's a false victim-fantasy by Ukrainian "ethno-nationalists" then imported by propagandists in the West.

  2. Here is the basic reality:

    1) No one in power deliberately creates the collapse of their main agricultural areas.

    You may want to darken Stalin even more, but inventing silly myths doesn't help that cause. Stalin's group intended to produce MORE food for urban areas, not less.

    2) Quasi-fascist Ukrainian fringes insist that "the Jews" used "the Bolsheviks" to unleash a famine against Ukrainians to cause genocide. Such anti-Semitic ravings of wouldn't get five minutes of serious consideration, if not for a Western Cold War habit of treating ANY lunatic accusation against reds as credible.

    3) Anyone who tampers with agricultural production in a radical way risks the creation of famines.

    That was true for the communist land reforms in the USSR & China. But not just them.

    Look at when the Union emancipated slaves in the American South and when the British intervened in Indian food production during WW2.

    Different causes (both noble and unjust) but all with food disruptions.

  3. From 'American Betrayal', Diana West, pp. 98-99. She is contentious but the quotation from Lyons, who covered up what he knew to be the truth that the famine was mass murder, is highly apposite.

    All the way home across Europe and the Atlantic in 1931—the land and sea odyssey back to the safe haven of the Statue of Liberty, New York City— [Eugene] Lyons “wrestled with the problem of how much of what I had seen and what I had thought I should tell,” a problem that reveals his internalization of the totalitarian taboo. Such candor is refreshing if also disturbing. As a vital source of public information, Lyons was torn by a dilemma that was in fact no private matter, particularly once United Press dispatched its star correspondent on a public lecture tour (having plugged his recent series summing up his three years in Russia in foot-high letters on delivery trucks: THE TRUTH ABOUT RUSSIA). It was here that Lyons succumbed to emotional currents he felt emanating from his Depression-era audiences. “I had intended to paint a more realistic picture,” he writes of a lecture stop in Youngstown. “But the simple believing people, their eyes pleading for reassurance, . . . could not be denied.” And remember, Lyons had already concluded (and declared privately) that the USSR was a terror-state.

    It all seemed far away from Youngstown and the other twenty cities in the throes of economic crisis that Lyons toured in the northeast, so far away that, he writes, “your mind imposed its own favorite designs upon the Soviet contradictions, choosing, discarding, arranging, hastily repairing the damage wrought by three years of immersion.” He continues, “Whatever your American lectures may have done to the listeners, they almost convinced the lecturer. By compromising with your experiences you nearly sneaked back into the comfortable groove of uncritical faith . . . [The] dead are dead and the maimed are dying, and what if another million dung-colored Russians are driven into the marshes and forests and deserts, if the great idea marches forward.”

    Chilling words. After all, “What if?” here means “So what?” Anything to keep the “great idea” moving forward—particularly if it were only millions of “dung-colored Russians” standing in the way. It’s hard not to hear a shocking echo: The dead are dead and the maimed are dying and what if a million dung-colored Jews are driven into the ovens just a few years later, if the great idea marches forward . . .

    But that’s different.

    Is it?

    The difference I see is that the Nazi totalitarian “great idea” was always inseparable from its toll, but the Soviet totalitarian “great idea” was always separated and protected from its toll. We never ask why one Holocaust matters when multiple holocausts do not, why one “great idea” of totalitarianism was only totalitarian and the other was only great. We condemn the German population of a police state for looking the other way from and doing nothing about Jewish annihilation under way in Nazi concentration camps; we never think to question ourselves living large in a free world and looking the other way from and saying nothing about ethnic, political, class, and religious annihilation under way in Soviet concentration camps. This split vision derives from the triumph of Communism’s unceasing world revolution against “traditional” morality, objective morality, a morality of fixed standards by which men navigate, or at least perceive the shoals of evil and treacherous behaviors. Such morality tells us there is no separating the idea from its toll. This is the lesson we have erased from our slate. ...

  4. This event had two parts:

    1) There was a serious famine.

    2)there were close to civil war conditions over collectivization (and resistance to collectivization).

    Most of the deaths were due to famine (i.e. lack of food) -- and that was not intentional. I.e. the famine was neither "classicide" nor was it "genocide."

    What caused the famine? Two opposing forces: The soviet government wanted to collectivize food production (to increase food stocks for super-rapid urbanization). Farmers in some areas violently resisted collectivization (often carrying out mass destruction of livestock.) And the resulting conflict further disrupted harvests.

    This produced a serious famine with massive casualties -- due to the very unintended collapse of the food system in a number of areas. (This was not just in the Ukraine -- but the western Ukraine was a center of opposition.)

    Meanwhile before the emerging famine: there were all intentional killings that escalated close to civil war conditions.

    Cadre organizing collectivization were assassinated. Farmers resisting collectivization were arrested, deported and sometimes killed.

    This conflict was most intense in areas where there were a) not a history of large landowners and serfs , and b) in ethnic-religious rural areas most hostile to the radical changes of the Russian Revolution. The western Ukraine emerged as one of the main centers because a) its social structure was largely prosperous family farms (less feudalism, fewer impoverished and landless farmers), b) It had a historically conservative, Catholic & anti-Bolshevik political character, c) it was an indespensible "bread basket" so that its conflicts would be fought out to a resolution.

    In the end, the collectivization won (backed by escalating force where the resistance was most intense). There were huge numbers of deportees, & significant deaths.
    I tried to sort out these things because:

    1) There is often a mistaken attempt to attribute most of the deaths to deliberate, top-down-instructed government killing -- when in fact they were the result of unintended famine.

    I.e. famine deaths were neither genocide nor "classicide."

    The famine deaths were unintentionally disastrous consequences of the decision to collectivize very rapidly & of unexpectedly fierce resistance to that.

    2) Intentional killings (largely government repression) were not aimed at just one class (tho official rhetoric was against kulaks).

    The resistance was regional & involved diverse rural populations who were then LABELED "kulaks" regardless of actual social status.

    So even the waves of government killings were neither anti-Ukrainian genocide nor anti-kulak classicide. They were repression of rather diverse, regionally-based rural outbreaks of resistance. i.e. anti-collective resistors were targeted (not just one nation or one specific class).