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Red Famine: Anne Applebaum on Why She Wrote Her Russian Trilogy

Posted on 12th September 2017 by Martha Greengrass

Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Anne Applebaum has been grappling with the complex questions of Soviet history since she published the first book in her Eastern European trilogy, Gulag in 2003. Having chronicled the rise of Communist regimes of Eastern Europe in The Iron Curtain, her latest volume, Red Famine, turns her attention to Stalin’s bloody war on Ukraine. In an exclusive article for Waterstones, as she looks back on a quarter century of research, she considers why these stories are more relevant now than ever.

In the quarter century that has passed since I started working on my first book about the Soviet Union, I think I have been asked “why” a hundred times or more. Why did I write Gulag: A History? Why Iron Curtain? Why Red Famine? Why Eastern Europe? I don’t know whether people who are interested in butterflies or Chinese literature have to answer that question about their books as well, but it always struck me as strange. I started the research for Gulag in the late 1990s, at a moment when Soviet archives were just opening up to foreign scholars. By the time I started Iron Curtain and then Red Famine, archives all over Poland, Hungary, East Germany and Ukraine were wide open too. 

People were finding amazing stories, surprising insights, the answers to decades-old mysteries. To my mind, the question shouldn’t have been “why are you interested” but “why isn’t everybody interested?” 

There were personal reasons that led me to write this trilogy of Eastern European histories, but they weren’t the obvious one. I don’t have any close family ties to the region, and nobody I grew up with did either. I did eventually marry a Pole (who eventually became a Polish politician) but I met him once I was already living in Poland. In fact, I got there thanks to books, and in particularly thanks to Russian, Czech and Polish writers: Nabokov, Chekov, Solzhenitsyn, Milosz, Bulgakov, Kundera. I decided to learn the languages; one thing led to another. I was working as a journalist in Warsaw when the wall came down in 1989. I spent a large chunk of 1991 in Ukraine, in the months before the Ukrainian independence vote led to the end of the Soviet Union. 

But watching the region struggle to shake off the appalling shadow of communism led me to want to know more about how communism had been imposed in the first place. Why were so many people attracted to that system? How did its leaders persuade people to follow?  By the time I first encountered it, as a student in Leningrad in 1985, the Soviet Union was already melting down and Stalinism was a distant memory. What had it been like in its heyday?

The fiction I had read gave me some psychological insights into the system. But there was more to learn. The great Gulag memoirists and storytellers – Ginzburg, Shalamov, Herling-Grudzinski – revealed another side of the story. So did the multiple volumes of oral history that Ukrainians collected, starting in the 1940s, on the history of the famine. So too did the interviews I conducted with dozens of people who took part in key events of the Stalinization of central Europe. And, of course, the archives showed quite a bit more.   

For all three of my books, the archives have been revelatory. Communist bureaucrats kept track of everything, including much that couldn’t be discussed in public. A whole system of inspectors kept meticulous records of the terrible conditions in the Gulag camps, even complaining that “too many people are dying.” The directors of East German radio made transcripts of conversations during which they discussed, among other things, “why people don’t listen to us.” Police in Ukraine dutifully reported to the central authorities the existence of starvation, disease and cannibalism during the 1932-33 famine, even though officially, the famine did not exist. 

Over time, I came to understand that the archives revealed something important about the habit “doublethink” that lay at the heart of Soviet-style communism. Dishonest propaganda was pervasive, and lying was an accepted part of public life.  At times, both could be used to make people afraid, or even to convince them to take part in mass arrests or mass terror. Yet even when false information “succeeded,” that didn’t mean that nobody saw through it, or that nobody understood what was happening. In different ways, my books have all sought to correct a historical record that was falsified by communist regimes, but preserved in other ways.   Bureaucrats, policemen and public officials of all kinds kept records. Ordinary people kept diaries and remembered. Events that were erased from the public record lived on in public memory. Reality had a way of reasserting itself, even when an authoritarian state tried to banish it.  

I know that these three books are not “cheerful,” although I do think that each one of them contains elements that are uplifting. People survived the Gulag; The Ukrainian nation outlasted Stalin’s attempts to destroy it; the central Europeans overthrew communism in 1989. Perhaps reading about these subjects in a happier present offers some perspective. Democracy in our time is under challenge in ways that it hasn’t been since the 1930s, so maybe it’s worth thinking about the unpalatable political alternatives, if only to make sure we avoid falling into some of the same traps. And besides, many of the stories really are too interesting to put down.   


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