Book Review – HOLODOMOR: Genocide or Extermination, or Does it Really Matter?

RED FAMINE – Stalin’s War on Ukraine, By Anne Applebaum, Allen Lane, 2017, 512 pages, £25.

 First, they took everything from the collective farm storehouse – everything that farmers earned for their “work days” (trudodni). Then they took forage, seeds, and then they went to the huts and took the last grain from the peasants that they received in advance,… They knew that the area sown was smaller, the amount of grain harvested was lower in 1932 in Ukraine. However, the grain procurement plan was extremely high. Isn’t this the first step towards the organization of famine? During the procurement, Bolsheviks saw there was extremely little grain remaining, yet they carried on and took everything away – this is indeed the way to organize a famine.

Sosnovyi, Nova Ukraina 1942 (p. 333)

In 1929, Joseph Stalin, the General Secretary of the Soviet Communist Party, embarked on an agricultural collectivization policy that mutated into the deliberate and determined famine that killed over five million people in 1932-33 in the USSR, nearly four million of whom were Ukrainian peasants. The Holodomor,  as it is known, “a term derived from the Ukrainian words for hunger – holod – and extermination – mor” (p. xxiv), is the subject of RED FAMINE – Stalin’s War on Ukraine, the latest book by Anne Applebaum, Pulitzer-Prize winning author of Gulag and National Book Award finalist for Iron Curtain.

RED FAMINE is a disturbing and compelling read for anyone interested in understanding the evils orchestrated by Stalin and implemented by his close associates, apparatchiks, enforcers, and, sadly, Ukrainian collaborators, against Ukrainian peasants, intellectuals, and political elites. The horrors Applebaum chronicles in page after page from official documents, private communications, secret speeches, diaries, personal accounts, letters, and even poetry, are mind-numbing.

The purposeful starvation of the Ukrainian peasants and the concerted attacks against the Ukrainian intellectuals and anything connected to the Ukrainian historical, cultural, and national identity was in furtherance of Stalin’s policy to Sovietize, and in no small measure, Russify, Ukraine – or little Russia, as many in Russia claimed (and continue to claim) Ukraine to be. In Applebaum’s words:

As the famine spread, a campaign of slander and repression was launched against Ukrainian intellectuals, professors, museum curators, writers, artists, priests, theologians, public officials and bureaucrats. Anyone connected to the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic, which had existed for a few months from June 1917, anyone who had promoted the Ukrainian language or Ukrainian history, anyone with an independent literary or artistic career, was liable to be publicly vilified, jailed, sent to a labour camp, or executed. (pp. xxiv-xxv)

Applebaum convincingly argues that the Sovietization of Ukraine neither began with the famine nor ended with it; it went on well beyond the 1930s, all the way up to around 1991 when Ukraine declared its independence and became a sovereign nation – a historical fact that today’s romantic torchbearers of the defunct USSR (Russia’s political elite) perfunctorily countenance.

The Ukrainian question loomed heavily on Stalin; a question that has yet to be satisfactorily resolved – though not in the Marxist-Leninist social-engineering vein of destroying capitalism and private ownership. Stalin’s obsession with controlling Ukraine, subduing Ukrainian peasants, suffocating Ukrainian intellectuals, and attempting to extinguish Ukrainian culture and identity, led Raphael Lemkin, the conceptualizer of the crime of genocide (more below), to conclude that the famine of 1932-33 in Ukraine was a classic case of genocide. Applebaum convincingly lays the blame on Stalin:

He knew that Ukrainians were suspicious of centralized rule, that collectivization would be unpopular among peasants deeply attached to their land and their traditions, and that Ukrainian nationalism was a galvanizing force, capable of challenging Bolshevism and even destroying it. A sovereign Ukraine could thwart the Soviet project, not only by depriving the USSR of its grain, but also by robbing it of legitimacy. Ukraine had been a Russian colony for centuries, Ukrainian and Russian culture remained intertwined, the Russian and Ukrainian languages were closely related. If Ukraine rejected both the Soviet system and its ideology, the rejection could cast doubt upon the whole Soviet project. (pp. 365-66)

Applebaum goes further, tying the past to the present. Aware that the Ukrainian question beleaguered Stalin – that “losing” Ukraine could have serious ramifications, Applebaum concludes that the current Russian government is appreciably opposed to a sovereign, democratic, and stable Ukraine that is linked to Europe because such a nation would raise the question: why not Russia too?  This is why, among other reasons, the current Russian government engages in tactics similar to those of the Soviet government’s (propaganda, corruption, and military force) to undermine Ukrainian sovereignty.

Linking the past policies of Stalin and past Soviet governments and the ongoing events between Russia and Ukraine today (including the illegal annexation of Crimea), Applebaum’s conclusions are logically sound. Though this is neither the focus nor the aim of RED FAMINE, it certainly adds grist to the mill.

Anne Elizabeth Applebaum

Reflecting on a quarter-century’s worth of scholarship on how the Holodomor was conceived and implemented by Stalin, and having canvassed archival material (much of which has only become available since the demise of the USSR), Applebaum provides a comprehensive, measured, and accessible narrative, climaxing with the question of whether the Holodomor was genocide. This question interested me most in reading and reviewing RED FAMINE – especially since historians, politicians, journalists, and the general public at large, reflexively tend to claim every mass atrocity to be a genocide.

Applebaum provides more than convincing evidence showing that the nearly four million Ukrainian Holodomor victims perished not because of poor weather conditions that affected the crops, or because of ill-conceived agricultural policies, but because Stalin and the Soviet State deliberately aimed to kill them, and to get the Ukrainians that were not killed to set aside any claims of national identity, aspirations of independence, and notions of private-ownership – to get with the program: Stalin’s program.

When factoring the intended purpose of Stalin’s and the Soviet State’s policies into how the Holodomor occurred, it is tempting to conclude that what occurred in Ukraine between 1932 and 1933 was a classic case of genocide. After all, Stalin, through his policies, set out to destroy the Ukrainian peasantry by eradicating personal and local farming autonomy, local authority, inheritance laws, and by seizing all means of agricultural production. This included taking away seeds for planting. The Ukrainian borders were sealed and peasants were prohibited from moving within Ukraine, so that they could not look elsewhere for work or food to survive. The aim was as obvious as the results were inevitable: slow, painful, and deliberate starvation.

Marshaling the evidence, Applebaum recounts how, at the height of the famine, organized teams of policemen and party activists barged into peasant homes, seizing any available food, including whatever meals may have been on the stoves cooking, and anything edible, including pets. She describes – in grisly detail and with personal accounts of those who experienced and witnessed these events – how these measures of starving the peasantry were so devastating that some peasants resorted to cannibalism, including the butchering of their own children and necrophagy (the consumption of the corpses of those who had starved to death).

As for the peasants who relinquished their land, animals, and farm machinery to the collective farms, they become collective farmers, eking out a pitiful existence. They were paid trudodni (day wages) that were usually paid in grain, potatoes, or other products, and not in cash. Thus, when Stalin’s famine policy went into full swing and conditions in the countryside deteriorated, even these peasants suffered the consequences of Stalin’s starvation policies.

And if this were not enough, aside from introducing laws and policies prohibiting or restricting the use of the Ukrainian language and the practice of their religion, Russifying schools, etc., Stalin set in his crosshairs the Ukrainian intellectual, cultural, and political elite. Effectively, Stalin’s measures were intended to kill off the Ukrainian identity, the essence that makes the Ukrainians who they are as a people.

Applebaum leaves no doubt that Stalin was fully aware of the consequences of his policies. Visible to the naked eye were villages turned into ghost-towns, dead bodies in the streets, emaciated villagers with swollen bellies and glassy unresponsive eyes too weak to work and just waiting to die, uncultivated fields, and cemeteries that had been robbed and scavenged for any valuables to be sold for food.

Stalin was told of the consequences of his policies, in writing. In the spring of 1933, Mikhail Sholokov – a celebrated writer – wrote to Stalin as a “patriotic and pro-Soviet citizen” to tell him that people were starving to death in Vyoshenskaya Vstanitsa:

In this district, as in other districts, collective and individual farmers alike are dying of hunger; adults and children are swollen, and are eating things that no human being should have to eat, starting with carrion and finishing with bark of oak trees and all kinds of muddy roots. (p. 299)

Stalin’s reply is revealing: “You see only one side of the matter. The grain growers in your region (and not only yours) are conducting sabotage and leaving the Red Army without grain.” (pp. 299-300).  As Applebaum points out, Stalin read, considered, and responded to Sholokhov’s missives. Stalin never denied that Ukrainian peasants starved to death in 1932-33. He just never admitted that any of his policies – collectivization, grain expropriation, seizures of food – were deadly wrong; the food shortages and the resulting starvation, as he notes to Sholokhov, were the handy-work of the starving Ukrainian peasants, who he saw as perpetrators and not victims.

Is the Holodomor genocide?

In the last chapter of RED FAMINE, Applebaum concludes that under the definition adopted in the 1948 Genocide Convention, and as it has been subsequently interpreted, the Holodomor was not genocide. While I am inclined to agree with her conclusion, I find some of her analysis in reaching this conclusion to be off.

Before getting to Applebaum’s analysis, an indulgent brief aside.

I am not entirely convinced that, were Stalin and some of his close associates (Vyacheslav Molotov, especially) alive and tried for orchestrating the policies and ensuing crimes that brought about the Holodomor, they would not be convicted of genocide. I say this because some of the international(ized) criminal tribunals and courts have, in some instances, stretched the definition of genocide beyond the intended limits to fit a set of facts to achieve a desired result – a genocide conviction – even when the law and facts do not support it.

It seems that calling mass atrocities genocide has a certain cachet, giving the false impression that unless it is genocide, the crimes perpetrated will somehow be of lesser gravity. And when the number of victims is high – as they are with the Holodomor – the temptation to succumb to the siren calls of the surviving victims (or in this case, a predominant segment of the Ukrainian population) to enter a conviction of genocide can be overpowering.

Contorting the law and facts into a procrustean bed to fit a desired result is not beyond the realm of some judges who place a higher premium on achieving a result that they consider to be just and fair – even if the law and facts, when examined with intellectual honesty, do not objectively support the result. International(ized) criminal tribunals and courts (and some of the judges who sit in them) are political by their very nature. As Applebaum rightly points out, so is the definition of genocide that was ultimately adopted. Narrow as it stands, it reflects the politics played in shaping the language of the 1948 Genocide Convention by some (such as the USSR), who would stand to be accused of genocide were Lemkin’s broad definition to be adopted.

With this aside out of the way, let’s return to Applebaum’s analysis in concluding why the Holodomor is not genocide.

Applebaum, to her credit, tackles this question soberly, going through Lemkin’s writings, his efforts during the Nuremberg trials to have genocide included as a crime (much of which is chronicled by Philippe Sands in East West Street – see my review here), and what ultimately emerged in the adoption of the 1948 Genocide Convention, before reaching her conclusion.

Here it may be useful to look at Lemkin’s conceptualization of what constitutes genocide.    Lemkin’s definition was expansive, including as part of the genocidal intent the destruction “of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups.”1   Raphael Lemkin, Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation – Analysis of Government – Proposals for Redress 79 (Carnegie Endowment for International Peace 1944). He explains in his seminal work Axis Rule in Occupied Europe: Laws of Occupation – Analysis of Government – Proposals for Redress:

Generally speaking, genocide does not necessarily mean the immediate destruction of a nation, except when accomplished by mass killings of all members of a nation.  It is intended rather to signify a coordinated plan of different actions aiming at the destruction of essential foundations of the life of national groups, with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves. The objective of such a plan would be disintegration of the political and social institutions, of culture, language, national feelings, religion, and the economic existence of national groups, and the destruction of personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and even the lives of the individuals belonging to such groups. Genocide is directed against the national group as an entity, and the actions involved are directed against individuals, not in their individual capacity, but as members of a national group.2   Id.

Lemkin, as Applebaum points out, had concluded in some of his published and unpublished writings in the 1940s that the Sovietization of Ukraine and the Ukrainian famine amounted to genocide. Applying the available evidence (as chronicled by Applebaum) to Lemkin’s definition, the inescapable conclusion is that the Holodomor has all the features of genocide.

Regrettably to the victims of the Holodomor, Lemkin’s conception of genocide does not reflect what ultimately was adopted as the definition of the crime of genocide in the 1948 Genocide Convention, which was circumscribed to “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group as such.” And thus, the evidence must be filtered through this lens – assuming one is interested in determining whether the Holodomor constitutes genocide under the 1948 Genocide Convention.

Viscerally, the Holodomor smacks of genocide. Stalin set out to destroy a class of the Ukrainian population, resulting in nearly four million deaths. He purposefully attempted to destroy the national identity of the Ukrainians and their cultural and linguistic heritage to amalgamate the Ukrainians into the Soviet mold. But is this enough to meet the strict definition of genocide?

Applebaum concludes that it is not.  She explains:

As we have seen, Stalin did not seek to kill all Ukrainians, nor did all Ukrainians resist.  On the contrary, some Ukrainians collaborated, both actively and passively, with the Soviet project. This book includes many accounts of assaults carried out by neighbors against neighbors, a phenomenon familiar from other mass murders in other places and at other times. But Stalin did seek to physically eliminate the most active and engaged Ukrainians, in both the countryside and the cities. He understood the consequences of both the famine and the simultaneous wave of mass arrests in Ukraine as they were happening. So did the people closest to him, including the leading Ukrainian communists. (p. 354)

Applebaum then goes on to conclude:

In practice, ‘genocide’ as defined by the UN documents, came to mean the physical elimination of an entire group, in a manner similar to the Holocaust. The Holodomor does not meet this criterion. The Ukrainian famine was not an attempt to eliminate every single living Ukrainian; it was also halted, in the summer of 1933, well before it could devastate the entire nation. (p. 357)

Here is where Applebaum falters in her analysis. By comparing the Holocaust with the Holodomor, she fails to consider the legal definition of genocide under the 1948 Genocide Convention. The special genocidal intent – to destroy a group “in whole or in part” – does not mean that the perpetrator must intend to eliminate every single member of the group. It suffices that the perpetrator intended to destroy a substantial part of the group.3   See Prosecutor v. Krstić, IT-98-33A, Judgement, 19 April 2004, para. 8. Also, simply because the intended total or partial elimination of a group, as such, was halted mid-stream, does not vitiate the commission or attempted commission of genocide.

Where I come down on why the Holodomor most likely does not constitute a genocide rests on how a “group” is defined, and the essence of Stalin’s and the Soviet state’s intent behind the purposeful famine that resulted in massive deaths by starvation and the other attendant polices that led to the elimination of farmers and Ukrainian elite – the scholars, writers, artists, and political leaders.  And herein lies the rub. A segment of the population – farmers and intellectuals – however precious they may be to a society for economic, cultural, and political purposes – does not constitute a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group under the 1948 Genocide Convention.

But can it be said that the total elimination of the entire Ukrainian population of a village constitute a genocide? If the policies set in motion brought about the permanent destruction of this group, arguably, yes, but here again, the special genocidal intent would still need to be met. By all accounts, as Applebaum points out, that intent appears to be lacking.

Stalin may have wanted to Sovietize Ukraine. And he may have succeeded in partially Russifying Ukraine. Forcing Russians to populate Ukraine achieved a couple of objectives: diluting the Ukrainian population in some areas of Ukraine, and cultivating the land that the Ukrainians were no longer capable of cultivating due to Stalin’s starvation policies imposed to whip the Ukrainian peasants into capitulating to his unwelcomed collectivization program. Stalin indisputably diminished the Ukrainian identity by attacking and, in many instances, causing the deaths of Ukrainian intellectuals, professors, museum curators, writers, artists, priests, theologians, public officials, and bureaucrats.

But, can it be said that the evidence shows that Stalin and his collaborators who brought about the Holodomor intended to destroy in whole or in part the Ukrainian people for being Ukrainians as such? As horrific as the crimes may be, the special genocidal intent is arguably lacking – and that makes all the difference. This is why I think the Holodomor fits better within the ambit of crimes against humanity, with extermination being the most fitting crime, along with other crimes.

But does it really matter whether the Holodomor is a genocide?

In the grand scheme of things, whether the Holodomor is genocide or extermination is, in my opinion, marginally consequential.

Applebaum is brutally pragmatic. Rather than making a reflexively emotive argument, she provides a sobering analysis:

But the genocide debate, so fierce a decade ago, has subsided for other reasons. The accumulation of evidence means that it matters less, nowadays, whether the 1932-33 famine is called a genocide, a crime against humanity, or simply an act of mass terror. Whatever the definition, it was a horrific assault, carried out by a government against its own people. It was one of several assaults in the twentieth century, not all of which fit into neat legal definitions. That the famine happened, that it was deliberate, and that it was part of a political plan to undermine Ukrainian identity is becoming more widely accepted in Ukraine as well as in the West, whether or not an international court confirms it.

Slowly, the debate is also becoming less important to Ukrainians. In truth, the legal argument about the famine and genocide were often proxies for arguments about Ukraine, Ukrainian sovereignty and Ukraine’s right to exist. The discussion of the famine was a way of insisting on Ukraine’s right to a separate national history and to its own national memory. But now – after more than a quarter-century of independence, two street revolutions and a Russian invasion that was finally halted by a Ukrainian army – sovereignty is a fact, not a theory that requires historical justification, or indeed any justification at all.  (p. 362-33)

Applebaum echoes what I have claimed on a number of occasions. It is not as if it is an all or nothing proposition: genocide or nothing else. There are other equally reprehensible crimes that carry a stigma as repugnant as genocide, such as extermination. Diluting the essence upon which the crime of genocide was founded risks undermining it.

Where I depart from Applebaum is where she claims that the debate of whether the Holodomor was genocide is becoming less relevant in Ukraine, and thus suggesting, perhaps, that it may be time to move beyond examining whether the Holodomor was genocide. While I unreservedly agree that the Holodomor should not be politicized as it has been, the search for truth, wherever it may lead, should continue. And if perchance archival material showing that the legal criteria of genocide have been met surfaces, then it should be claimed as such.

No doubt, historians and politicians will carry on with the debate – especially in today’s charged atmosphere between Ukraine and Russia. My personal take is that perhaps it may be time for the international community to reconsider whether the crime of genocide should come under the crimes against humanity umbrella. This may be an argument worth debating. Having genocide among the crimes against humanity as opposed to a distinct crime (as the crime of all crimes) may eliminate the urge to try to fit crimes under the genocide umbrella even when they do not meet the strict criteria set out by the 1948 Genocide Convention – simply to give added importance to the crimes perpetrated.

I highly recommend the RED FAMINE – Stalin’s War on Ukraine.  And for anyone interested in Anne Applebaum’s take on researching and writing this excellent book, I recommend her National Public Radio interview at:




Author: Michael G. Karnavas

Michael G. Karnavas is an American trained lawyer. He is licensed in Alaska and Massachusetts and is qualified to appear before the various International tribunals, including the International Criminal Court (ICC). Residing and practicing primarily in The Hague, he is recognized as an expert in international criminal defence, including, pre-trial, trial, and appellate advocacy.

4 thoughts on “Book Review – HOLODOMOR: Genocide or Extermination, or Does it Really Matter?”

  1. I suggest the reviewer read Raphael Lemkin’s paper “Soviet Genocide in the Ukraine”. It can be found on the internet. Anne Applebaum refers to it in her book, but she did not really understand the full scope of Lemkin’s conceptualization of the Ukrainian genocide.
    I have a question for Mr. Karnavas: how does he understand the term “destroy” used in the Convention, in reference to the fifth form of genocidal destrucion: transferring children from one group to another? How are they or rather their group destroyed when their lives are saved?
    If Mr. Karnavas honors me with a reply, I will then expand this theme into a wider discussion concerning his rejection of the Ukrainian genocide.

  2. I am interested in your statement that ‘some of the international(ized) criminal tribunals and courts have, in some instances, stretched the definition of genocide beyond the intended limits to fit a set of facts to achieve a desired result – a genocide conviction – even when the law and facts do not support it.’

    Which examples do you have of this? Or in what way specifically has the definition been stretched?


      Recognizing that it is heretical to argue that Srebrenica was not genocide but rather extermination, the evidence as I understand it (full disclosure, I represented Colonel Vidoje Blagojević, commander of the Bratunac Brigade of the Bosnian Serb Army) does not convincingly show that the killings were committed based on, or as a result of, specific genocidal intent.

      My views do not square with what the various ICTY chambers dealing with Srebrenica have found and held. I am convinced that from the very first case (Krstić), the Trial and Appeals Chambers went out of their way to find genocide. Professor William A. Schabas is spot on in his observations in dissecting the prosecution’s genocide thesis on Srebrenica:

      [T]he Prosecutor’s contention that the intent in killing the men and boys of military age was to eliminate the community as a whole… seems a rather enormous deduction to make on the basis that men and boys of military age were massacred. Can there not be other plausible explanations for the destruction of 7,000 men and boys in Srebrenica? Could they not have been targeted precisely because they were of military age, and thus actual or potential combatants? William A. Schabas, Was Genocide Committed in Bosnia and Herzegovina? First Judgments of the International Criminal Tribunal for the Former Yugoslavia, 25 FORDHAM INT’L L. J. 23, 47 (2001).

      There is abundant evidence that women, children, elderly, sick, and wounded were spared and transported out of the area – as, incidentally, requested by the UN. But that aside, the evidence (direct and circumstantial) does not show – without tortuous and contrived logic used to achieve a desired result – what I maintain is the most critical aspect in ascribing genocide to a particular crime: the special genocidal intent. Others may see it differently, especially because of the number of victims involved, or the attempts to cover up the killings. But neither the numbers, the manner of the killings, nor the efforts to cover up the atrocities are a substitute for conducting a rigorous unbiased analysis of the facts – dispensing with all alternative plausible interpretations before claiming the existence of special genocidal intent beyond all reasonable doubt.

      From a political perspective, finding genocide in Srebrenica also served the purpose of delegitimizing the founding and continuing existence of the Republic Srpska, which could then hopefully be used as the impetus or pretext to undo the Republic Srpska as an entity. Kid yourself not: the ICTY and other international(ized) criminal tribunals and courts are not beyond politics. Of course, raising the specter of politics often leads to labeling those who dare speak about the elephant in the room.

      The reality is that genocide has a cachet. Nothing seems to satisfy some unless it is called genocide. I understand how emotional the Srebrenica killings are and how toxic it is to claim that it is not genocide in the face of numerous trial and appeal judgments. But in answering your question, this is the most prominent example that comes to mind. You might want to check out this website which effectively claims that Professor Schabas is a genocide-denier – a label thrown at anyone who dare question the legal interpretation and application of the ICTY judgments finding that genocide was committed in Srebrenica. I just try to call it as I see it – clinically and dispassionately.

  3. Thank you for your response. For what it’s worth, I completely agree. I have encountered similar attempts to stretch the definition in discussions of colonial atrocities – for many people it seems only the label of genocide will do, and any suggestion that it was instead crimes against humanity is taken as an attempt to somehow lessen the severity of the crime. The power of language and labels, I suppose.

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