Anne Applebaum talks to Kyiv Post about Holodomor, modern Ukraine
Fear of Ukraine, particularly of Ukraine as an independent nation, is one fixation shared by Josef Stalin and his modern-day successor in the Kremlin, Vladimir Putin.
In Stalin’s case, his paranoia prompted him to kill 3.9 million Ukrainians by starving them to death during the Holodomor of 1932–1933.
In Putin’s case, his fears about Ukrainian independence are still playing out.
The Russian dictator and former Soviet KGB colonel attempted to destroy Ukraine’s independence by co-opting and corrupting ex-President Viktor Yanukovych and Ukrainian leaders before him.
When the EuroMaidan Revolution — one of several popular uprisings by Ukrainians in the last century — ended the Yanukovych regime’s four years of plunder in 2014, Putin’s tactics turned to dismembering Ukraine through a war that continues today at a cost of 10,000 lives and rising.
The similarities of the two Moscow leaders are part of the history that Pulitzer Prize-winning author and Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum captures in "Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine.” The book was published in English in October. A Ukrainian-language version is expected in autumn.
Applebaum sat down with the Kyiv Post for an interview on Nov. 19 to discuss her book and her views on modern-day Ukraine. She spent three days in Kyiv, helping to raise money for Kyiv Mohyla Academy and speaking to the university's students, giving interviews and meeting with President Petro Poroshenko as well as other leaders.
“Stalin was afraid of Ukrainian nationalism, even mild expressions of Ukrainian national identity,” Applebaum told the Kyiv Post. “And in this sense, this is part of the KGB DNA that Putin inherits: Ukraine is not just ‘another problem’ — not an Azerbaijan, Armenia, Estonia. To Putin, Ukraine cannot be allowed to take a different path. What was really upsetting to him was all those young Ukrainians waving European Union flags and calling for laws against corruption. Why? If Ukrainians can do it, why can’t Russians? He’s afraid that Ukrainians will somehow infect Russia with their ‘anarchic Europeanness’.”
For Applebaum, why Stalin ordered the famine and “why Ukraine was so disturbing to him and why he considered it so important” were interesting topics to explore. Consequently, while she started with a focus on the Holodomor, she ended with a 20th century history and an epilogue that includes today’s events.
Ukraine's brief attempts at statehood in 1917–1918 and its periodic uprisings — against the Bolshevik Revolution and forced collectivization -- left their mark on the Kremlin's pysche. Both Stalin and the founding Bolshevik leader, Vladimir Lenin, plotted various ways to get Ukrainians to submit to Soviet rule. "It’s hard not to look at Ukraine’s history in the 20th century and not see that this was a lost opportunity," she said. "I don’t know if independent Ukraine in 1917 would have been a nice place or not. But they were never given the chance."
Despite the depressing history lesson, “Red Famine” concludes with an uplifting epilogue that Applebaum rewrote several times. After recounting Holodomor horrors, the author said she wanted to end on a positive note. She delivered that optimistic message in public remarks on her visit to Ukraine and in the interview with the Kyiv Post.
Ukraine ‘not a tragedy’
“History offers hope as well as tragedy. In the end, Ukraine was not destroyed. The Ukrainian language did not disappear,” Applebaum writes. “In the end, Stalin failed too. A generation of Ukrainian intellectuals and politicians was murdered in the 1930s, but their legacy lived on…The history of the famine is a tragedy with no happy ending. But the history of Ukraine is not a tragedy…As a nation, Ukrainians know what happened in the 20th century, and that knowledge can help shape their future.”
In Kyiv, Applebaum said that the best way for Ukraine to honor Holodomor victims is not so much with official international recognition of the famine as genocide, which she favors, or with memorials and monuments, which she also supports.
What’s most important, Applebaum said, is for Ukraine to build a strong and democratic state that its citizens trust and participate in actively. “I think the best way that Ukraine fights back is by creating a prosperous, law-abiding state to which its citizens feel loyal,” Applebaum told the Kyiv Post.
That’s also the best way to defeat Russia’s war, she said, because Ukrainians cannot expect Putin to change. “Putin really doesn’t think that Ukraine is an independent nation. To the extent that Ukraine is, it is a threat to him.”
Just as in the failed attempts at Ukrainian independence in the 20th century, Ukraine’s independence in the 21st century is not guaranteed, she said, nor should can it be taken for granted.
“Ukraine almost lost its independence under Yanukovych,” Applebaum said. “The way it could lose its independence now is more likely through corruption than military occupation. Putin can play the long game. He can manipulate Ukraine through his oligarchic connections. All of that could cause Ukrainians to lose faith in the state and society. There’s lot he could do even without a military invasion.”
And, just as Stalin did with the Holodomor, Putin recruits Ukrainian traitors to his side and tries to persuade foreigners with lies.
“One of the important stories of the famine is that there were Ukrainians who helped carry it out,” Applebaum said. “There were people who were willing to cooperate with the Soviets and kill people. It’s true in every single genocide that happened.”
Mixed progress today
Applebaum, an American who took on Polish citizenship and who is married to ex-Polish Foreign Minister Radislaw Sikorski, said she doesn’t follow Ukraine’s progress daily.
"I am hesitant to make a sweeping judgment," she said. "It looks like two steps forward, one step back. I am meeting people doing great projects here, like the new acting health minister (Ulyana Suprun). I don’t have any way of measuring that against the colossus of nomenklatura corruption that I know people face here."
Stronger identity today
Russia's war has made the world more aware of Ukraine as a separate entity with separate aspirations. She said that President Petro Poroshenko makes a good impression on international audiences. "Whatever you think about Poroshenko, he does very well abroad. He speaks very well. He makes a good impression on people."
At the same time, she said, foreign governments and international institutions are paying attention to the lack of progress in fighting corruption.
"People who are engaged and who understand Ukraine are concerned when they hear about backsliding," Applebaum said. "But it's not in anybody’s interest to go on stage and condemn Poroshenko. That’s not how politics works."
Applebaum said that she admires Ukrainians "as a people who have been trying a long to time to realize something better." Unfortunately, she said, "Ukraine has always been better at revo- lution than creating institutions afterwards."
Ukraine's civic institutions are "some of the most impressive in Europe," she said. "They are incredibly good at creating new things, whether it's StopFake.org or all the organization" around the EuroMaidan Revolution.
While Poland, where Applebaum lives, and Ukraine have been sparring over their historical conflicts, the author encouraged Ukraine to ignore the noise coming from Poland. "The anti-Ukrainain senti- ment is incredibly thin. There is no mass anti-Ukrainain sentiment in Poland."
She blamed the hostility toward Ukraine on "a very small group of people" trying "to prove how loud they are in defense of their country." She also sees the Kremlin's hand. "A lot of Russian effort has gone into doing anti-Ukrainian propaganda on comments sections on obscure websites...that there would be a government (in Poland) stupid enough to endorse it is amazing to me. Poland has no national interest in fighting Ukraine. My advice to Ukraine is to ignore it. Talk it down. Forget it."
Pulitizer Prize-winning author and Washington Post columnist Anne Applebaum speaks at a fundraiser in Kyiv's Mystetsky Arsenal on Nov. 19 on behalf of Kyiv Mohyla Academy, one of Ukraine's top universities. She is on a book tour promoting "Red Famine:...
The Kyiv Post on Nov. 19 interviewed author Anne Applebaum about her new book "Red Famine," a history of Josef Stalin's drive to crush Ukrainian nationalism by starving to death 3.9 million Ukrainians in the 1932-1933 Holodomor. One of many common...