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Review: "Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine"

Larry Slawson received his master's degree at UNC Charlotte. He specializes in Russian and Ukrainian history.

Anne Applebaum's "Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine"

Anne Applebaum's "Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine"


Throughout Anne Applebaum’s work, Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, the author, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and professor of economics, reinvigorates the scholarly debate over the 1932 famine in Ukraine through a regional analysis of the Soviet Union’s former breadbasket. Using historians Lynne Viola and Sheila Fitzpatrick’s former arguments as a basis for her research, Applebaum argues that peasant resistance towards collectivization was particularly bitter and strong in Ukraine when compared to other localities across the Soviet Union, and illustrates the strong connection that existed between peasant resistance and nationalism during the early years of the Bolshevik Revolution. This connection, she contends, continued to develop unabated throughout the 1920s and beyond as peasants across the country undertook extreme measures to subvert Stalin and his cadres, using the threat of violence (murder, arson, assassinations, etc.) to preserve their culture in the wake of collectivization.

Anne Applebaum's Book

Applebaum's Main Points

Similar to Viola and Sheila Fitzpatrick’s earlier renditions of the Ukrainian famine, Applebaum’s work stresses the “universal” nature of rebellion in Ukraine and makes little distinction between the resistance strategies of countless villages, cities, and oblasts of the region as she argues that resistance served as an “organized reaction to a much-hated policy.” As a result of this strong resistance, Applebaum argues that the Soviet regime sought to rid itself of this social and political problem once and for all by using a catastrophic famine to kill more than three million Ukrainians. Thus, as Applebaum’s work argues, the high death toll in Ukraine was not the result of bad policies or a poor harvest, as historian Mark Tauger has argued in years prior, but the result of a deliberate state policy that was initiated to destroy countless lives.

Quote From Book

"Step by step, using bureaucratic language and dull legal terminology, the Soviet leadership, aided by their cowed Ukrainian counterparts, launched a famine within the famine, a disaster specifically targeted at Ukraine and Ukrainians."

— Anne Applebaum (Red Famine, p. 190)


Applebaum’s work is both well-written and compelling with its overall content and is based on a handful of scholarly articles, monographs, and archival documents from the Soviet era that give substantial credence to her main argument(s). Moreover, Applebaum’s natural ability to write from the perspective of a journalist adds a unique element to the flow of this work, in that it reads more like a novel at times than a lengthy and verbose piece of scholarly work. This makes reading her work both pleasant and absorbing, as her unique writing style grabs the reader’s attention from start to finish. Moreover, Applebaum does a great job of incorporating a great deal of background information into her book, giving readers who are unfamiliar with this particular era of history a good understanding of the material before diving into her main arguments.

One clear issue with Applebaum’s work, however, lies with its clear bias throughout the duration of the text. Although issues such as genocide are often clear-cut, scholarly books are still expected to maintain a level of objectivity in their accounts, letting the facts speak for themselves. It is also important to note that Applebaum’s work is not groundbreaking in the sense that much has been written concerning the famine being an act of genocide. In the 1980s, Robert Conquest’s, Harvest of Sorrow, first analyzed the famine from this sort of perspective; an interpretation that later inspired countless inquiries into the man-made famine. None of these issues are major, however, as Applebaum’s work is still highly relevant and readable given that genocides should never be forgotten by the world at large.

Overall, I give Applebaum’s work 5/5 Stars and highly recommend it to anyone interested in early Soviet history, as well as the crimes committed by Stalin and his regime. The contents of this work are not for the faint of heart, as they detail some of the most brutal crimes against humanity that the world has ever witnessed. Nevertheless, the insight provided through oral testimonies and eyewitness reports serves as crucial reminders of what can happen when society chooses to forget the past, and allow history to repeat itself.

Definitely check it out if you get the opportunity, as you will not be disappointed!

Anne Applebaum

Anne Applebaum

About the Author

Anne Applebaum is currently a columnist for The Washington Post and works as a "Professor of Practice" at the London School of Economics. Applebaum is also a contributor to the New York Review of Books.

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Applebaum's previous books include Iron Curtain and Gulag which won the Cundill Prize, and Pulitzer Prize for Nonfiction, respectively. Her books were also finalists in the National Book Award, as well as three other major prizes for nonfiction works. Currently, Applebaum resides in Poland with her husband, Radek Sikorski, a Polish politician in the former Soviet Republic, and their two children.

Works Cited:

  • Applebaum, Anne. Red Famine: Stalin's War on Ukraine. New York, New York: Doubleday, 2017.
  • Wikipedia contributors, "Anne Applebaum," Wikipedia, The Free Encyclopedia, (accessed April 18, 2019).

© 2019 Larry Slawson


Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on April 19, 2019:

Thank you Liz! Its definitely a great book. Applebaum has written some amazing books on the Soviet Union and the Ukraine in recent years. If you ever get the opportunity, you should definitely give it a shot.

Liz Westwood from UK on April 19, 2019:

I had not heard of this book before. If I had time I would read it. This is a great review. Ukraine is a fascinating country with an interesting and tough history.

Larry Slawson (author) from North Carolina on April 19, 2019:

Agreed! Yes you should definitely check this book out. It’s a real eye opener!

Wesman Todd Shaw from Kaufman, Texas on April 18, 2019:

I'd read it. It's amazing to me how, when you don't own every mass media outlet, then your people's genocide doesn't matter. Only if you're people own the mass media, does a genocide matter, or deserve a museum in every last city.

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