The resulting process of collectivization was demonstrably wicked, empowering thugs and naive idealists who used the force of the state to legitimize the worst kind of banditry. Nor was it simply a matter of immoral policies being enforced with a heavy hand, although there was plenty of that. One of the most effective tactics was to broaden the definition of kulak to anyone who opposed collectivization and then apply that broader definition capriciously so that every villager was at risk of finding themselves in the crosshairs of the Soviet mobs. Not only did the resulting fear increase the number of villagers who were willing to give up their old way of life in favor of joining the kolkhozes, it also created a climate in which neighbors were encouraged to inform on one another, a tried and true tactic of totalitarians everywhere.
The driving force behind this policy was to raise the quotas of free grain required from the villages and farmers unreasonably high. This led farmers to grow less and consume or hide everything they had. The Soviets used the latter as further excuse to arrest farmers, ransack their homes for all the food they could find and drive their families from their land. Once again, this process was aided by the willingness of scared and starving villagers to turn on their neighbors. Without the participation of ordinary people, the impossibly high quotas could not have been enforced, food could not have been stolen, the border to Ukraine could not have been closed (aid was not allowed in during the famine and villagers were not allowed to emigrate) and 3.9 million people would not have starved. One might expect this kind of behavior from naive idealists, ideologues and thugs; what made the Soviets so effective in their wickedness was their ability to get ordinary people to support – or at least to allow – such evil. This book gives detailed and heartbreaking descriptions of what this complicity looked like.
This story of collectivization and the imposition of high quotas has been the standard explanation for the starvation death of up to 6 million (Applebaum gives the more conservative estimate of 3.9 million) souls in Ukraine from 1932–33, and Applebaum does a good job of describing it and its various mechanisms in great but readable detail. If it stopped there, Red Famine would be a convincing indictment of the Soviet experiment and of any government that is willing to move its control over the economy too far past the governing of the commons. However, she proves something more: Stalin wasn’t just trying to master agricultural production; he was trying to subdue Ukraine and eliminate “Ukrainian” as anything but a vestigial administrative description of the people who happen to be living in a particular Soviet Socialist Republic.
The Holodomor – “death by hunger” in Ukrainian – was, as the subtitle of the book describes, part of “Stalin’s War on Ukraine.”
The Ukrainian problem was not a new one for Moscow. In addition to outright war, Russian imperial policies designed to Russify Ukraine included outlawing the use and teaching of the Ukrainian language, arresting its leaders, banning nationalist groups and large-scale resettlement. The Soviet war on Ukraine, along with the current one led by President Putin, is just a continuation of that same effort. One of the reasons for this effort is the propensity of Ukrainians to organize in defense of their land and their freedoms. Stalin knew of this firsthand from the early years of the Soviet Union when the Ukrainian countryside, led by nationalist intelligentsia, organized itself into armies and militias to drive out various threats, to include Russian nationalists and Communists. Under War Communism, Moscow declared war on everyone involved. As with the agricultural policies of War Communism, the Soviet state lacked the capacity to sustain that effort. Just as it allowed Ukrainian farmers more freedom during the next few years, so too did it allow more freedom for Ukrainians to use their language and organize according to their interests. As with the kulaks, this did not last; in the long term, all it did was put a target on the back of everyone who might have stood in the way of Soviet totalitarianism.