May 19th 2018

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COVER STORY The real cost of institutionalised child care

EDITORIAL AGL dismisses $250m bid for Liddell Power Station

GENDER POLITICS As Queensland transgenders birth certificates, 300 women quit UK Labour Party

CANBERRA OBSERVED No pressure on Malcolm to call election this year

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Can Greens regenerate, or are they mulch?

POLITICS Conservative shift in the Victorian Liberal Party

OPINION No fairytale ending from the Land of a Fair Go

LAW REFORM The Nordic Model: proven to curtail sex trafficking

NATIONAL AFFAIRS Committal hearing dismisses main serious charges against Cardinal Pell

GENDER AND ETHICS Transgenderism and the dissolution of identity

PHILOSOPHY The supercharged cheetah

INTERNATIONAL AFFAIRS One Belt, One Road: China's new empire


MUSIC Business as usual: The sweet tinkle of falling coins

CINEMA Avengers: Last Flag Flying and Infinity War

BOOK REVIEW A hungry beast that ate up 4 million lives

BOOK REVIEW Skewed analysis of republic in crisis



CANBERRA OBSERVED Bill Shorten's Budget-Reply speech: for what ails you

FOREIGN AFFAIRS Behind the U.S.-North Korea rapprochement

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A hungry beast that ate up 4 million lives

News Weekly, May 19, 2018

RED FAMINE: Stalin’s war on Ukraine, 1921–33

by Anne Applebaum

Allen Lane, London
Hardcover: 512 pages
Price: AUD$55

Reviewed by Bill James

The black American singer and actor, Paul Robeson, visited the Soviet Union in 1934.

In understandable reaction against both the racism that he had experienced in the United States, and the new Nazi regime in Germany, he typified progressive opinion of the era in eulogising the Stalin dictatorship.

“For the first time in my life I walk in full human dignity,” Robeson enthused, adding that: “Anybody who lifts his hand against [the Soviet government] ought to be shot.”

This perception, and those of his fellow travellers (similar bizarrely laudatory statements about the USSR were made by other showbiz leftists such as Charlie Chaplin) could not have been more mistimed or misplaced.

Because the previous year, 1933, before the newly appointed Hitler had killed almost anybody, Stalin had effectively murdered 4 million innocent Ukrainian citizens of the USSR.

He did it by means of a deliberate famine called the Holodomor, from the Ukrainian words holod (hunger) and mor (extermination).

Other prominent leftists who ignored or denied the famine included George Bernard Shaw, and Sydney and Beatrice Webb, along with the egregious Walter Duranty, Moscow correspondent for the New York Times in 1933, whose lies won him a Pulitzer Prize.

Famines are not unique to communism, and historically Britain has been criticised for its inadequate reaction to the Irish Famine of the 1840s, and the Bengal Famine of 1943. However, Britain neither wanted nor engineered these disasters, and the latter had to be dealt with while she was engaged in a global struggle against Germany and Japan.

Famine no accident within communism

Communism, however, has been characterised by ideologically catalysed famines, which were then covered up.

Additions to the USSR’s 1933 Holodomor (4 million deaths) include China’s 1958–62 Great Famine (over 40 million deaths), Ethiopia’s famine of 1983–85 (500,000 to 1 million deaths) and North Korea’s of 1994–98 (up to 3 million deaths).

Ukraine declared its independence of Russia after the fall of the czar in 1917 and, in less fraught historical circumstances, would probably have developed into a liberal democracy. Instead, the combination of World War I hostilities, Marxist revolution and Russian civil war reduced it to chaos.

During the years 1918–21 it was fought over by the German and Austrian armies, the White armies, a Black (Anarchist) army, the Polish army, various warlords, partisan outfits and bandits, and the finally victorious Red Army. Most Ukrainians wanted national independence, land and peace, but instead got subjugation, hunger and war.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks were Greater Russians, who combined a colonial contempt for Ukrainians as savages – or at least hicks – with a humiliating awareness of Russian dependence on the grain that Ukraine’s rich soil produced.

The imposition of so-called War Communism by the Soviet regime caused a famine in 1921, which, if it were not for the Holodomor 12 years later, would be regarded as Ukraine’s greatest pre-World War II disaster.

Forced requisitioning of grain by the Cheka from Ukrainian farmers, who were demonised as kulaks, meant that peasants lost all incentive to sow crops. Widespread resultant starvation was largely averted by the massive generosity of the America Relief Administration, headed up by future president Herbert Hoover.

The increased market opportunities opened up for farmers by the New Economic Policy after 1921, meant not only greater prosperity for Ukraine, but the chance to nurture its national culture. “Ukrainisation” saw the Ukrainian language used in schools, and the flourishing of Ukrainian history, literature, music and art.

It was too good to last.

By the late 1920s Stalin had eliminated his rivals, and was in a position to impose full-blown communism on his empire, in the form of the first Five Year Plan. This involved a desperate need for hard foreign finance from grain exports to bankroll the Plan’s massive industrialisation projects, and the best way to meet this need was to collectivise Ukrainian agriculture.

Collectivisation would also, conveniently, facilitate the crushing of the uppity Ukrainians’ national pride, and thus eliminate a dangerous example of independent spirit which other parts of the USSR might be tempted to emulate.

The early 1930s witnessed a worse version of 1921.

Once again, gangs were organised by the secret police (now called OGPU) to occupy the countryside and coerce peasants into surrendering not only their whole crops, but this time their animals, their tools, their houses, and all personal freedom, as well. To them, existence in the new collective farms felt like a forced reversion to serfdom.

State propaganda, of course, blamed the Famine not on forced collectivisation but, as in 1921, on ordinary farmers, who were again vilified as grain-hoarding kulaks. Attempts to resist, or to hide food reserves, were met with violence, imprisonment, torture, deportation and execution.

Apparatchiks helped the Famine along

Implacable communist apparatchiks left whole families bereft of home, food, possessions and even clothes, to face death from exposure to the elements. The result was the Great Famine of 1933, in which 4 million men, women and children perished.

Diseases such as scurvy, pneumonia and typhus exacerbated the effects of starvation itself, which also produced psychological trauma such as apathy, emotional detachment, hallucinations and paranoia.

Normal ties of family, friendship, neighbourhood, community and culture disintegrated. Hunger drove sufferers to theft, violence and even cannibalism.

Corpses of those who died at home and work and school, or in the roads and fields, were collected in carts, along with the nearly dead, and buried in mass graves without funerals (Stalin also saw the Famine as an ally in his war against Christianity).

Every conceivable substitute for food was utilised. People ate “horses, dogs, cats, rats, ants, turtles … frogs and toads … hedgehogs … the bark of oak trees … moss and acorns … leaves and dandelions … nettles… grass … grain stored [in burrows] by rodents … belts and shoes [boiled] so as to eat the leather”, along with putrefying meat and vegetable matter from rubbish tips.

Refugees attempted to escape from the countryside to Ukraine’s cities, to other parts of the USSR, or to foreign countries. Parents surrendered their children to filthy, overcrowded and understaffed state orphanages. State-run hard currency shops extracted from desperate peasants the last remaining possessions that gave their life meaning, by offering scraps of food in exchange for crosses, jewellery and wedding rings.

These horrors were all “ultimately the responsibility of Joseph Stalin”, but like Hitler later, in the case of the Holocaust, he “never wrote down, or never preserved, any document ordering famine”.

“It was a political famine, created for the express purpose of weakening … national identity”, but, for propaganda purposes at the time, Stalin’s line was that “those who were starving … had caused the famine, and therefore they deserved to die”.

Here again Stalin was foreshadowing Hitler, this time by blaming the victims of mass killing for their own deaths, as the Nazis did when they accused the Jews of bringing the Holocaust upon themselves.

Finally the communists turned to obfuscatory denial: “Between 1933 and 1991, the USSR simply refused to acknowledge that any famine had ever taken place.”

A few honest voices

At the time of the Famine, a few responsible journalists attempted to expose it. Malcolm Muggeridge, then Moscow correspondent for the Manchester Guardian, smuggled out articles which were grudgingly run, but were heavily cut because of the Guardian’s disinclination to criticise the USSR.

Then there was freelance Welsh reporter Gareth Jones, one of journalism’s forgotten heroes, who somehow managed to travel in the hunger-affected areas, and then get his horrific eyewitness stories published in some American and British newspapers.

Likewise in later years, a handful of courageous historians defied Western academe’s immoral and irrational anti-anti-communism, to maintain awareness of the Famine.

Robert Conquest, for example, had his The Harvest Of Sorrow published by Harvard in 1986, but he was swimming against the tide. The following year, the Stalinist pseudo-historian, Douglas Tottle, published Fraud, Famine and Fascism: The Ukrainian Genocide Myth from Hitler to Harvard, which was picked up and treated seriously by trendy-left publications such as Village Voice.

Even following the final vindication of the Ukrainians after 1991, residual left-wing Cold Warriors, such as the late Eric Hobsbawm, prevaricated over the sheer evil of the millions murdered by communism in general, and Stalin in particular.

Australians were brought face to face with the Famine by the furore that followed the publication of the Miles Franklin Award-winning The Hand That Signed The Paper by Helen Demidenko (now Dale) in 1994. The novel appeared to argue that collaboration of Ukrainians in Nazi anti-Semitic atrocities during World War II (in which two-thirds – 800,000 to a million – of Ukraine’s Jews died) was a result of popular belief in a disproportionately large participation of Jews in the Bolshevik perpetration of the Famine.

Some Ukrainians might have genuinely believed the Jews to be guilty, but it was a myth. Far from Jews dominating the Ukraine, they had in fact for centuries been the victims of Ukrainian persecution and pogroms, which continued after 1917.

Moreover, Jews in the Bolshevik Party, far from running the apparatus, were marginalised and eliminated, as a result of the rabid and deeply entrenched anti-Semitism which Russians shared with Ukrainians and much of the rest of eastern Europe.

In her last chapter, Applebaum asks the question of whether the Great Famine was an example of genocide, and explains the difficulties of answering it because of differences over how to define the term, along with present-day Russia’s continuing opposition to its usage.

She concludes: “The history of the famine is a tragedy with no happy ending. But the history of Ukraine is not a tragedy. Millions of people were murdered, but the nation remains on the map. Memory was suppressed, but Ukrainians today discuss and debate their past. Census records were destroyed, but today the archives are accessible.”

Anne Applebaum’s Gulag: A History, and Iron Curtain: The Crushing Of Eastern Europe, have already won her a towering reputation as a historian of European communism.

This book will only enhance it.

Purchase this book at the bookshop:


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TRANSGENDER: one shade of grey, 353pp, $39.99

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