Anne Applebaum is with us today, the author most recently of Red Famine. Your book focuses on the Ukrainian famine of 1932 and 1933, known as the Holodomor. The famine was political in that it was caused by bad policy, rather than bad weather. That made it a taboo subject in the official Soviet histories, where it was not featured at all, although it was a seminal part of oral histories in Ukraine. When you started the book in 2010, before events in Ukraine became the center of geopolitical attention, you finished it knowing that it was going to speak to audiences that have strong opinions about what happened on Maidan or in Crimea, and the ongoing conflict in Eastern Ukraine.
So let's start at the beginning and take it up to the current day. After their disastrous first decade, after the revolution, the Bolsheviks reversed course on two major policies. They introduced the New Economic Policy to stabilize the economy, and they introduced indigenization, or Ukrainization, in Ukraine, to convince skeptical non-Russian minorities that they had a place in the Soviet Union. The goal of the latter policy was to make Soviet power seem less threatening to the Ukrainians, and therefore reduce their demands for sovereignty. But things didn't really work out that way. The policy lead to an awakening of Ukrainian historical religious, cultural, literary creativity, and to important work on Ukrainian language.
But given that the Soviet Union was intended to be a voluntary federation of socialist Soviet republics, why couldn't each republic have its own national character? In the case of Ukraine, why did Stalin and his colleagues come to believe that Ukrainian nationalism, or national identity, was incompatible with Soviet identity?
This is a question that lies really at the heart of this book, and also at the heart of the question of why I wrote it the way I did. As you said so eloquently, the Ukrainian famine takes place in 1932 and 1933, [but] the book actually begins in 1917. It begins there because as I was working on 1932 and 1933 and on the decisions to collectivize agriculture in the years before that, I found that Stalin and people around him were referring constantly to the events of the civil war. One of the things that's happening at the end of the 1920s is, as you say, there's a kind of resurgence of national feeling in Ukraine. At the same time, as he begins to impose the policies of collectivization, there are major armed rebellions in Ukraine. So not just peasant resistance, and people refusing to join the new farms—which there was all over the Soviet Union—there were actually people who went into their barns, picked up their buried shotguns that they'd had there since the civil war, and they got them out, and they started shooting at Bolshevik activists, who were leading collectivization.
So this fear that Ukrainian identity and Ukrainian nationalism would lead once again to an anti-Soviet rebellion is something that's very present in his mind. What happened in 1917—in those years the Bolsheviks actually made three attempts to conquer Ukraine. The first one in 1918 and was very brief, they were there for a month or so. They came back in 1919 and they were thrown out, by probably the largest and most violent peasant rebellion that's ever taken place in Europe. There was a massive uprising with many different facets. There was an anarchist leader called Makhno, there were populist leader called Gregoriev, and there were lots of different factions. And the thing that united them is that they were very radical, they were what we would call left-wing. They believed in radical revolution, but they were very anti-Bolshevik and they disliked the Bolsheviks, whom they saw as Russian outsiders, imposing a system on them, and they resisted it.
One of the things that happened as a result of the rebellion was that in 1919 one of the White generals came back into the Ukraine, marched through Ukraine and came very very close to taking Moscow—this is General Denikin, came within two hundred miles of Moscow—and that was the moment when the Bolsheviks nearly lost the whole revolution. So this idea that Ukraine was dangerous, Ukrainian nationalism was a challenge to the Bolsheviks, that unrest in Ukraine, or disturbance in Ukraine might actually upset the apple cart in Moscow itself, was something that was part of Stalin's vision from the very beginning.
So presumably the other Bolsheviks must have been worried about it as well. Why did they allow Ukrainization at all, given that it was such a high-risk strategy?
Ukrainization, when it was brought about in 1920, was actually a reaction to those earlier failures. So the first and second Bolshevik attempts to conquer Ukraine were very anti-Ukrainian in a sense. I mean, they literally came in and took down the Ukrainian street signs and put up Russian signs, and were in an attempt to eradicate nationalism. Remember, there was briefly a Ukrainian National Government in charge in Kiev, and it was an attempt to eradicate that. And they decided, after this terrible experience of 1919, when they nearly got thrown out, where they were thrown out of Ukraine and nearly out of Moscow, they decided that the best thing to do was not to try to erase Ukraine but to somehow accommodate it, and create some kind of Soviet Ukraine.
There was a group of Ukrainian communists, who were called at that time "national communists," who believed that you could bring these two strands of thinking together, that you could be both a nationalist and a communist, and you could be a proud Ukrainian and part of the Soviet Union. So the idea was to use the radicalism of Ukrainians and to somehow link it to Bolshevism and make them work as part of the Soviet Union.
But as your questioning indicates, by the end of the 1920s they felt this wasn't working, and the Ukrainians, as they became Ukrainian artists and writers and intellectuals—who, by the way, had a fairly unique status at that time in the Soviet Union, because most anti-Bolshevik parties and movements by that time in Russia had been erased—their leaders were imprisoned, they didn't exist, there was no social democrats, there were no social revolutionaries. All the other parties that had once been there were gone. So Ukraine was a kind of exception in that Ukrainian nationals had fought the Bolsheviks, yet they were still there. But Stalin and others around him felt that this Ukrainian national thing had gone too far, and actually by the late 1920s, even 1928 and 1929, they are already beginning to crack down on it.
I want to go back to the question of the peasants digging up their shotguns. The peasants really refused to play their assigned role in the Bolshevik narrative after the revolution. Of course, originally, there is no role for peasants in a socialist revolution.
It was always a problem for Marxists, actually, how to think about them.
Right. And so the Leninists try and figure out how they're going to get the peasants to support the proletariat, and after the civil war and the economic collapse, you have New Economic Policy but you also have Stalin worrying about how he's going to get people off the land and into industry. Because in order to industrialize the economy, you're going to need more workers in industry, and you're going to need the kind of equipment that you can only get by selling something abroad, and they only thing that they have to sell is grain. Even before the revolution, Russia was the second-largest exporter of grain.
So Stalin's solution to both problems is to force farmers off their land and into the collective farms, thinking that this is going to be more efficient, it will free up more peasants to go into industry, and it'll be easier to collect the grain that you want to sell abroad. But it doesn't go well, and you describe in great and horrific detail the cruel and crueler methods that were used in order to get the peasants off of their farms.
One of the questions I had is whether the Ukrainian peasants reacted to the collectivization drive differently than peasants did elsewhere in Russia, and whether there were underlying reasons why the peasantry in Ukraine was fundamentally different than, say, the peasantry in the rest of Russia?
In some ways it's not different. You can write generally about the resistance to collectivization in Russia and Ukraine, and there are many similarities. There was a religious element to it, because collectivization was not only forcing people onto collective farms, they also destroyed churches, they arrested priests. There was a part of it that was about destruction of peasant culture, and that's true all across the Soviet Union; that's not unique to Ukraine.
I think the only thing where Ukraine begins to stand out is when you look at this question of rebellion, and armed rebellion in particular. So there is some of it all over the USSR, and there's some of it in a couple of places where there'd been rebellions before, also during the civil war, for example, in the Volga region. But in Ukraine you get an unusually high number of incidents, something like half or three-quarters. The KGB kept statistics. They weren't called the KGB then; the OGPU kept statistics. And by far the largest number of incidents is in Ukraine, and the largest rebellion, number, and level of kind of rebellion is higher, and it seems to be more organized.
As I said, there are a couple of incidents where whole towns, or little sections of the country—the Bolsheviks actually lose control over them. People, they rise up, they make connections to one another, and they begin. If one were to guess, this was probably because, again, those were the people who organized exactly the same kinds of movements a decade earlier during the civil war. So the awareness that there's something particular going on in Ukraine is quite high. The other thing that happens in Ukraine, by about 1931 and 1932, is you begin to get a large number of Ukrainian communists protesting against not just collectivization, but against the grain requisitions that accompany it.
Another aspect of collectivization is that the peasants are no longer free to buy and sell grain as they were in the 1920s, but they're forced to give their grain to the state automatically, and the state decides how much it's going to collect. And the state, they actually have a central planning system whereby people have to collect a certain amount. So a lot of pressure is put on the peasants to hand over their grain. There's resistance to that in Ukraine and there's also resistance from the Ukrainian Communist Party, which objects to this, and particularly as people begin to go hungry, people writing letters to Stalin, but also the OGPU is collecting evidence of Ukrainian communist protesting, and there's actually a file of such protests that are sent to Stalin in the summer of 1932 to illustrate just how badly things are going in the Ukraine.
So there's a sense that Moscow has that things in Ukraine are somehow worse than anywhere else, and Stalin himself says that, and he writes a series of letters, but there's one very famous one. He writes to Kaganovich over the summer, in which he says, "Things are going very badly in the Ukraine. This is outrageous. These people are acting like this isn't a communist system. We must turn Ukraine into a model Soviet republic or else we're going to lose Ukraine." So there's a very clear fear that something particularly bad is going on in Ukraine. I think that must have been a reflection of the kinds of reporting he was reading, and the kinds of stories that he was seeing out of Ukraine.
So, again, some of this is very important to understand that this whole story, the story of the famine, is a Soviet story, there was a Soviet famine. It hit lots of different places, but within that broader story, there is something specific that happens in Ukraine, and it seems to be because of Stalin's particular phobia about what's going on there.
And how did the Ukrainian populations in the southern part of Russia, in Kuban or in the Northern Caucasus, how do they play in to the attitude?
There are a number of moments when it looks like, certainly from Moscow's point of view, they also become afraid that the Ukrainian populations outside of Ukraine are also going to be a problem. This, actually, was the great archival discovery of the Harvard historian Terry Martin, who was the first to see this happening—the orders coming from Moscow. And in particular there is a Politburo decision in December of 1932 that specifically mentions the Kuban and North Caucasus as another problem, and that Ukrainianization has to stop, because it's becoming a problem.
I think they become afraid that the Ukrainians are a sort of fifth column inside Russia, and that they're going to cause a problem too. So Ukrainianization, meaning allowing people to speak Ukrainian and celebrate Ukrainian culture in southern Russia, is banned at that moment as well.
So on a note related to that, your book returns repeatedly to the importance of the Ukrainian language, and how vital it is to the Ukrainian national identity, and the Russian fear of its centrality to the Ukrainian national identity.
But I wanted to ask you to explain a little bit more about the role of Ukrainian language in this more recent Ukrainian history, including the Soviet period. Does it assume such a powerful, maybe an outsized, role in Ukrainian consciousness because of the Soviets reactions to it? Or was it something that was always a mobilizing force in Ukraine?
So I think it goes back farther. The tsars repressed the Ukrainian language. There are orders in the nineteenth century to ban Ukrainian schools, to prevent Ukrainian cultural groups from being created. While the level of repression goes up and down, the idea that Ukrainians speaking Ukrainian are somehow a threat to the Russian state goes back much farther than even the Soviet period. I think in the Soviet period there as an echo of that, as well as a sense that the Ukrainians have these links to Poland, and there are Ukrainians who live outside Ukraine. They lived at that time in what's now western Ukraine, which was of course part of Poland then, and the idea that Ukraine was somehow a conduit for foreign influence, or anti-Soviet influence.
In a way, Ukrainians, they're too close to Russians, and at the same time different, and that has always bothered the Russians. There are too many of them to be ignored. They're a subset of Russians. I think Putin actually said something very similar to that a couple of days ago. "They're half-Russian," he said, they're a subset of Russians, and that existence of this language—which actually Russians can't understand automatically—it is actually different, and it's more different than you think. This I know because I speak Polish and Russian. I don't speak Ukrainian, and I can hear the difference. This has always bothered them. It should be the same country but somehow it's not. That's an old sentiment, going back a couple of centuries, and you actually still have it now.
As someone who's spent a long time in Russia, I'm always struck that most Russians assume that nostalgia for the Soviet Union is a phenomenon that runs the length and breadth of the former Soviet Union, but even brief visits to countries that were once part of the Soviet Federation, Ukraine, Georgia, Kazakhstan, to say nothing of the Baltics, reveals that the feelings at the periphery of a quasi-empire are very different from those at the center. In many ways, the attitude of the Russians today hasn't changed from when Belinski, a leading nineteenth-century theorist of Russian nationalism, wrote, "The history of little Russia"—what he called Ukraine—"is like a tributary entering the main river of Russian history. Little Russians were always a tribe and never a people, much less a state."
While this book is historical, you write extensively on current affairs as well, and I'd like to ask you about how the past and present come together. Does the current situation in Ukraine, particularly in the east, reflect, in part, the different attitudes, in Ukraine and in Russia, to Russia's role in Ukrainian history?
Well, I think, absolutely. You know what? I've found that Belinski quote, and was very, very struck by it, because it sounds so much like the way that Russians talk about Ukrainians now. I think the most important echo in the present is really the way in which, even now, not that Putin is Stalin, but like Stalin, Putin sees events in Ukraine as something that could threaten him personally. Events in Kiev can push, can change events in Moscow. This is exactly the push that Stalin was afraid of, and by that I mean the Maidan revolution that takes place in Ukraine in 2014. What was it? Those were young people, they were standing on the square, they were chanting anti-corruption slogans, pro-democracy, and they were waving EU flags. You know, "What do we want? We want Europe. We want to be part of European civilization." That scenario is Putin's nightmare. That is exactly what he's afraid of. That's the revolution scenario that he has been fighting against. That's what he saw in Dresden in 1989 when he was posted there as a young KGB officer. This is what he's afraid of.
I think his reaction to that, firstly the invasion and then annexation of Crimea, then the invasion of eastern Ukraine, I think this is the reason he reacted that way, because he sees it as an existential personal threat. That what the Ukrainians are calling for is something that would threaten his personal form of dictatorship, his corrupt oligarchy. I should say that I don't think that a European Ukraine, if there was to be ever such a thing, would be bad for Russia. On the contrary, I think it would be great for Russia. It would be better for Russia to have a more stable, more normal, more law-abiding, richer country on its borders. It would be good for Russia in all kinds of ways. But it might be bad for Putin, it might be bad for his entourage, and therefore I think that's why you got this extreme reaction. So it's almost as if this fear of Ukrainian anarchy, and Ukrainian rebellion, is somehow part of the KGB DNA that Putin still carries.
So are you saying, then, that Putin fears not the loss of a buffer state—in other words, Russia is always afraid of having the enemy, which in this case is NATO or Europe, at its doors, at its borders, and therefore wants to have Ukraine as a buffer between Europe and Russia—it's not that that he's afraid of? What he's really afraid of is the prospect of a successful democratic Ukraine is too much of a threat to the legitimacy of the regime.
Yes. Well, I mean, if Ukrainians can be Europeans, why can't Russians? I mean, they are culturally close, the languages are related. Everybody's intermarried. Ukrainians and Russians use a lot of the same social media. There's lots of kinds of interactions all the time, and so if Ukrainians were part of Europe, then Russians might well say, "Well why can't we be too?" I don't see how Putin can seriously fear...he knows exactly how weak NATO's presence really is in central Europe, and I don't think he's really afraid of NATO somehow invading Russia as from Ukraine, but I think he is very afraid of the ideological challenge that would be posed to him by a successful Ukraine.
One last question, if I may. What is the major idea that you'd like the reader to take away from your book?
I think it's important to remember that in order to understand the present, you need a good grasp of the past. I think the events around and before and during and after the Ukrainian famine explain quite a lot about Russia's relationship to Ukraine today, explains a lot about how Ukrainians feel and understand themselves. It explains the background of the politics to the region, and I think we always make the mistake in the West, particularly in the United States, of thinking that every news event has somehow just begun, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine was something that happened out of the blue, and there's no backstory. I would like people to understand that there is a backstory, that these events weren't sui generis, and understanding why they happened, I think, helps us understand the pattern of what's happening now.