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Anne Applebaum interview

Anne Applebaum interview

The Baillie Gifford Prize 2017 longlist

In the first of our longlisted author interviews we speak to Anne Applebaum about how it feels to have made the list with her book Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine after judging the prize in 2015.

What does it feel like to be longlisted?

It is fantastic to be recognized by a prize whose judging committee I chaired only a couple of years ago! Because of that experience, I know exactly how many great books are out there, so am extremely flattered to be included.

What inspired you to write this book?

I knew that the archives on the famine were now available – and that they showed how Stalin had intentionally targeted Ukraine. I also knew that there was an extraordinary quantity of memoir material available, and I thought it was time to put the whole story down in one place.

How did you research? 

The famine ‘timeline’ had already been established by Ukrainian researchers; I went back and read through it, and spent a bit of time in archives researching around it, going back through party conference transcripts, for example, to understand the context around the big declarations. I also went through the memoirs, looking both for themes that repeated themselves and unusual stories. In both of these tasks I had help from two wonderful young Ukrainian historians, one in Kyiv and the other in Cambridge. As I got in to the subject, I also realised that I needed to learn a lot more about the Ukrainian civil war, which was an important part of the background to the famine, and that sent me off looking for first-hand accounts, some of which had been published abroad in the 1920s and could be found in the British or London university libraries. 

If someone wanted to explore the subject further, which book(s) would you recommend?

Anyone who wants to know more about Ukraine should read Serhii Plokhi’s short, comprehensive history, The Gates of Europe. Robert Conquest’s Harvest of Sorrow is still an excellent and readable account of the famine. Timothy Snyder’s Bloodlands puts the whole story of Ukraine in the 1930s and 1940s into a broader context; he describes Ukraine, along with Poland and the Baltic states, as the primary geographic focus of both Nazi and Soviet aggression, and explains why so much violence took place there. 

Your book has been described as ‘grim but essential reading’. Why do you think it is important to uncover this darker side of history?

If you want to understand why things are the way they are in the present, you need to understand what happened beforehand. The Ukrainian tragedy is the backdrop to so much else that followed, up to and including the war that is going on right now.

What are you working on next? 

I would like to write a book about 1989 and the decade which followed in central and Eastern Europe – the journey away from dictatorship and towards democracy. But there is so much going on in contemporary politics right now too – I would really like to do some serious journalism during the next year or two, before retreating back into the archives again. 

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