The editors of Contemporary European History are delighted to present this roundtable on the Soviet famines of the 1930s, which brings into conversation leading scholars from around the world working in the field of Soviet history.

Most historians of the twentieth century have a sense of how important the debate over Ukraine’s tragic famine has been to the historiographies of the Soviet Union, interwar Europe, communism, state-determined modernisation, totalitarianism and genocide. Recently there has been increased public interest in this subject, not least thanks to the appearance of Pulitzer Prize winner Anne Applebaum’s widely acclaimed new book Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, published by Penguin/Doubleday in September 2017. The book has already reached audiences few professional historians could imagine. It has been reviewed extensively on both sides of the Atlantic by all major newspapers and politically interested magazines and has made it onto several year-end best book lists. Some of today’s best-known commentators on non-fiction books have weighed in, alongside leading professional historians. The Yale historian and author of Bloodlands (Basic Books, 2010), Timothy Snyder, described the book as ‘remarkable’. In short, the assessment of Applebaum’s book within these high-profile, for public-consumption publications has been overwhelmingly positive.

It was the curious reaction by Applebaum to one of these interventions by a leading scholar writing in a mainstream newspaper that prompted the idea for this roundtable. A review of Red Famine by the renowned historian of Stalinist Russia, Sheila Fitzpatrick, for the British left-leaning daily the Guardian (25 August 2017) was the kind of review that would make people want to buy the book: thoughtful, engaged and generally positive. However, one of Fitzpatrick’s comments led Applebaum to post an almost immediate censure of the reviewer on social media. The issue at hand was not seemingly personal; it was a question of interpretation. Fitzpatrick in her review had commended Applebaum, writing, ‘though sympathetic to the sentiments behind it, she [Applebaum] ultimately doesn’t buy the Ukrainian argument that Holodomor was an act of genocide’. Applebaum responded: ‘that is exactly the opposite of what I wrote . . . the central argument of my book . . . is that Stalin intentionally used the famine not only to kill Ukrainians but to destroy the Ukrainian national movement’.

The renewed interest in the Soviet famines as evidenced by the enthusiasm for Applebaum’s book, and the perplexing misunderstanding between how her book could be read and how she intended it to be read, convinced the editors of Contemporary European History to use this opportunity to open up the conversation to leading experts in the field. The goal was not to feed a polemic but instead to reassess how the historiography of the Soviet famines has changed over the last twenty years. We also felt that the subject provided scope for a broader discussion about the type of history we write, the sources we use and the stories that the reading public want to consume. Finally, we are pleased that a roundtable on this topic complements our new ‘Spotlight’ series, which examines the state of historiography in different European countries, the opening one of which was, by coincidence, on Ukraine.


This blog is an extract from the Introduction to the Soviet Famines roundtable in Contemporary European History

View all articles in roundtable

Main image credit: National Museum Memorial to Holodomor victims – Ukraine’s national museum and a world-class centre devoted to the victims of the Holodomor of 1932-1933. Source Shutterstock.

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