The red famines

John Kane-Berman writes on the mass deaths caused by communist regimes that some would prefer to forget

Famines you don't and won't read very much about

Many people will celebrate the centenary of the Russian Revolution next month. They will ignore the crimes the communists committed when they were in power in Russia and elsewhere.

This makes the recent publication of another book by Anne Applebaum especially timely. Entitled Red Famine: Stalin's war on Ukraine, it argues that four million people died of hunger in Ukraine in 1932 and 1933 in a man-made famine unleashed by the Soviet state. 

All over the country peasants resisted forced collectivisation, and they burnt their grain rather than surrender it to the state. When Ukraine, long the bread-basket of the Russian Empire, failed to meet production quotas set by the Kremlin, Stalin sent in squads to seize their food. The result was mass starvation in what is known as the "Holodomor" – the "hunger death". Today this is commemorated in Ukraine in a day of national mourning akin to Holocaust memorial day in Israel.

Food supply was not mismanaged by utopian dreamers. Food was the weapon of choice against supposedly reactionary peasants. According to Nikolai Bukharin, a member of the Politburo, "we were conducting a mass annihilation of completely defenceless men, together with their wives and children".

The attack on the Ukrainian peasantry was also a manifestation of the Kremlin's attempts to crush Ukrainian national aspirations. Yet when emigré survivors wrote of what had happened in Ukraine they were largely dismissed in the West as right-wing conspiracy mongers.

After a trip to Ukraine, Boris Pasternak wrote of a disaster almost too "abstract" to "fit within the bounds of consciousness." Arthur Koestler described an "enormous land wrapped in silence". Malcolm Muggeridge said he had witnessed a crime "so terrible that people in the future will scarcely be able to believe it ever happened". It was not until Robert Conquest published Harvest of Sorrow in 1986 that larger audiences in the West started to learn of the use of famine as a political weapon. A few years later Jung Chang published her best-selling Wild Swans about similar atrocities committed during the "cultural revolution" in China.

Estimates of deaths from famine caused by communist regimes in Europe, Asia, and Africa in the last century range up to 90 million. Probably the worst was the forced collectivisation of Chinese peasantry launched in the "great leap forward" by Mao Tse Tung in 1958. According to Mao's Great Famine by Frank Dikötter published in 2010, that famine killed 45 million people. Mao launched his campaign despite deaths in earlier famines, and despite warnings from Soviet leaders who remembered the murderous collectivisation policies pursued by Lenin and Stalin.

There is no mention of this in the lavish advertising feature published last month in various South African newspapers "celebrating the 68th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China" and its "glorious history".

Unlike the crimes of the Nazis, which have been universally recognised, those of communist regimes are still largely unknown in the West. According to a review of Dikötter's book in The Spectator, the economist Amartya Sen and other scholars published a study of famine which somehow failed to mention those inflicted by communist governments when they seized grain and closed down markets.

Moreover, whereas some of the practitioners of Nazi genocide were imprisoned or hanged, nobody has been punished for the crimes committed by communists.

But slowly the truth about communist criminality is coming out, thanks to the work of people such as Conquest, Applebaum, Dikötter, Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and Chang. Conquest's first great work was The Great Terror, published in 1968. This was a study of how the communist state used terror as an instrument of rule, just as Marx had envisaged. Solzhenitsyn published The Gulag Archipelago in 1973. Applebaum published Gulag, her own study of Soviet forced labour camps, in 2003.

Next month's anniversary of the Russian Revolution in 1917 is no more cause for celebration than Adolf Hitler's ascent to power in 1933. Although Hitler hated communism, and although the Russians helped to destroy Nazi Germany, the Nazis and the communists had plenty in common.

* John Kane-Berman is a policy fellow at the IRR, a think-tank that promotes political and economic freedom.