In the spring of 1933, the Soviet Union was in the depths of a class war. Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had sent workers and communists from the cities to extract grain from the countryside. “We realized,” as one of them put it, “that it was impossible for us to live on the same earth as these bloodsuckers.” The suppression of private agriculture, combined with unreasonable requisitions, caused millions to die that year in the Soviet Union. As Anne Applebaum reveals in “Red Famine,” Stalin and the Soviet leadership enforced policies that ensured that the disaster was worst in Ukraine. According to the latest work of demographers, some 3.9 million people died by starvation in that Soviet republic.

Until the Holocaust, the great famine in Soviet Ukraine was the largest policy of mass killing in Europe in the 20th century. As Applebaum notes, the crimes of Stalin and Hitler shared a similar impulse: the desire to control the fertile black earth of Ukraine. For Stalin, Ukraine was a source of capital that could be used to create a modern industrial Soviet Union. Under his first Five-Year Plan of 1928-1933, millions of peasants were to be moved to urban areas (and to the concentration camps known as the gulag), and their farmland was to be brought under state control; its product was to be sold abroad or used to feed the growing cities. Adolf Hitler, in his time, wanted to strip Ukraine from the Soviet Union so that Germans could exploit its fertile lands, gain agricultural self-sufficiency and become a world power. Germany invaded the Soviet Union in 1941 to take the Ukrainian breadbasket. It was with that invasion that the mass murder of European Jews began.

So Ukraine suffered for reasons of economics and geography. Applebaum demonstrates that the causes of the great famine of 1933 were also national and political. Using her prodigious original research, she develops an interpretation that was first offered by the historian Terry Martin some 20 years ago. Her account will surely become the standard treatment of one of history’s great political atrocities.

The Soviet Union was founded in 1922 after a series of civil wars fought largely in Ukraine. The major Bolsheviks, Stalin included, were forced to accept the reality of a Ukrainian nation, and they designed the Soviet Union as a federation in order to co-opt Ukrainian national aspirations into the larger Soviet project. During the 1920s, when private agriculture was tolerated, the Soviets also educated young Ukrainian teachers, writers and artists. The expectation was that an elite educated in the Soviet spirit would one day lead its people toward a broader Soviet identity. This project, as Applebaum deftly shows, had its opponents from the beginning, chiefly among the Soviet secret police.

Yet these policies of the 1920s were a kind of holding action. A political revolution created the Soviet Union, but the ideology of its founders demanded that the revolution be economic. Stalin wended his way toward power during arguments among peers about how a country of peasants and nomads was to become a utopia of workers and engineers. His signature policy, associated with his name, was the collectivization of agriculture, which coincided with his consolidation of personal power. As in all tyrannical systems, the errors of the leader had to be ascribed elsewhere. Thus the massive resistance to collectivization in Ukraine in early 1930 was seen as a result not of the entirely justified fears of peasants that they would lose their livelihoods and ways of life, but rather of corrupt local communists and distant capitalists plotting against the regime. Stalin, in other words, chose a national and a political explanation over the truth.

The harvest of 1932 was worse than expected, and requisition targets were high. Ukrainian communists tried to explain to central authorities in Moscow that fulfilling the targets would mean mass starvation. Their simple observation was rejected categorically, and they were classified as enemies and punished. Requisitions proceeded at an entirely unrealistic level, absorbing what the peasants needed to survive the winter and even their seed corn for the next year.

As Applebaum recounts, the Soviet secret police provided Stalin with what they knew he wanted to hear. They passed along complaints they overheard from Ukrainian communists about the grotesque results of collectivization. Stalin, in turn, deemed the Ukrainian communists to be nationalists and corrupt agents of a foreign power. In late 1932, as hundreds of thousands were dying of starvation, Stalin and his closest comrades devised and enforced policies that guaranteed that death tolls in the Ukrainian republic would reach the millions.

Our modern sensibilities expect a modern kind of mass killing. We can imagine industrial extermination by gas. But as most of us are now distant from the countryside, and accustomed to ample and cheap food, we have trouble imagining deliberate starvation as a policy. However, as Harvard economist Amartya Sen long ago demonstrated, famine is usually political. In the case of the Soviet Union, the politics was driven by coercive development, which made peasants landless and helpless before it made them starve. In August 1932, Stalin formulated a law that criminalized taking even a single grain of wheat from a collective farm. In the ensuing months Ukrainian peasants were banned from leaving their republic and from traveling to cities to beg. Areas that did not meet requisition targets were blacklisted, separated entirely from the Soviet economy, guaranteeing death. A meat tax was imposed on peasants, forcing them to slaughter their livestock; the milk or meat from a cow had been the last protection from starvation.

Applebaum re-creates a pastoral world so we can view its destruction. And she rightly insists that the deliberate starvation of the Ukrainian peasants was part of a larger policy against the Ukrainian nation. The cities fared better than the countryside in 1933, but the new generation of educated Ukrainians did not. The first show trial directed against Ukrainian culture was organized in 1930. Applebaum counts 200,000 arrests in the Ukrainian republic at the time of the famine, directed disproportionately at the new Ukrainian schools, publishing houses, newspapers and museums. Important backers of Ukrainian culture committed suicide; the great writers and artists who survived were murdered in the Great Terror a few years later.

Applebaum began this project long ago and is keen to disassociate her work from the current Russian occupation of southern and southeastern Ukraine. Yet knowledge of the famine does help to explain the attitudes of Russian leaders. The Kremlin justified the Russian invasion with the claim that the Ukrainian nation did not exist. That is the kind of thing people say when they align themselves with a history of imperialist mass murder. A past policy of destroying a nation has become a present claim that the nation never existed.

To be sure, Russia is not the Soviet Union, and Russians of today can decide whether they wish to accept a Stalinist version of the past. But to have that choice, they need a sense of the history. This is one more reason to be grateful for this remarkable book.