TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross. Russian disinformation campaigns of the present and the past are the subjects of today's interview. My guest, Anne Applebaum, is a Washington Post columnist who co-directs a new think tank that's devoted to analyzing, reporting on and combating disinformation. It's called Arena, and it's based at the London School of Economics, where she is a professor. Applebaum is also the author of a new book about how, with the help of disinformation, Stalin orchestrated a famine in Ukraine in the early 1930s that resulted in the deaths of nearly 4 million Ukrainians. Part of the goal was to stop the Ukrainian nationalist movement. Echoes of that continue today in eastern Ukraine, which is in its fourth year of fighting with Russian-led separatist forces. Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014.
Applebaum was also the author of the books "Iron Curtain: The Crushing Of Eastern Europe, 1944 To 1956" and "Gulag," a history of Stalin's labor camps. She is American and now lives in London and Poland. Her new book is called "Red Famine: Stalin's War On Ukraine."
Anne Applebaum, welcome back to FRESH AIR. Let's just briefly - for contextual reasons, as a frame, let's talk briefly about the ways Russia has been interfering in Ukraine for the past couple of years. Maybe you can almost just, like, list for us some of the things Russia has done.
ANNE APPLEBAUM: In 2014, the Ukrainians staged a street revolution of a kind that was particularly frightening to the Russian president, waving EU flags and calling for rule of law and democracy. In response to that, their president fled the country. He'd been trying to bring the country closer to Russia and trying to change their constitution so they wouldn't be democratic.
Russia responded by invading and occupying Crimea, which is a peninsula attached to Ukraine, and eventually incorporating that into Russia and then invaded and is still fighting in the eastern part of Ukraine called Donbass where there are Russian separatists who are backed by Russia and are using Russian army weapons and assistance to occupy eastern Ukraine.
GROSS: So does Russia want to annex Ukraine? Is that its goal?
APPLEBAUM: No. Russia doesnt want to annex Ukraine. Russia wants to undermine Ukraine and undermine any Ukrainian government that would pose any kind of ideological or other challenge to Russia. Russia wants to see Ukraine as a kind of colony, as a country that will pay it fealty, that will follow its political system, that will be a comfortable place for Russians to do business.
GROSS: So the story that you tell in your book about Stalin's war on Ukraine and how he helped orchestrate a famine in Ukraine - do you see that as connecting in some way with what's happening now between Russia and Ukraine?
APPLEBAUM: It connects in a number of ways. I think the most interesting way is Stalin's motivation. Stalin saw Ukraine as a problem not just for him politically but for his entire - for the Bolshevik Revolution. And he sought to undermine Ukraine and to eliminate Ukraine as a challenge, as a sovereign nation because he feared that it could undermine Bolshevism.
And that is not the same, but it's similar to the way in which Putin views Ukraine. He sees any Ukraine that was pro-democracy, any Ukraine that was close to Europe politically and economically - this is a challenge to his political system because his political system is a corrupt oligarchy. And he fears exactly the kind of emotions that led people to the streets in Kiev. So I think it's fair to say that these are two rulers who've both seen in Ukraine a source of anarchy, of discontent, of possible trouble for their own political systems.
GROSS: Ukraine in the 1930s, which is the period your book covers, was seen as, like, the breadbasket for the Soviet Union. So when there was a famine, Ukraine became especially important to the Soviet Union.
APPLEBAUM: Yes. Ukraine was important to the Soviet Union from the beginning as the source of much of its grain. Ukraine famously has two growing seasons. It has a whole region called the black earth district, which is unusually fertile soil. And Ukraine had been important to the czarist empire and then later to the USSR as a source of grain. And this of course was one of the reasons why the Soviet Union was very anxious not to lose Ukraine.
And so during the civil war in 1917 and '18, enormous efforts were made to keep Ukraine, to make sure that the Ukrainian independence movement, which at that time wanted to create a sovereign Ukrainian state, didn't succeed. And so there was that motivation in addition to Stalin's fear that Ukrainian nationalism could pose a challenge to Bolshevism ideologically as well.
GROSS: So you know, there's a famine. It gets worst because of the actions Stalin takes. Just give us a sense of how bad the famine was in Ukraine. I mean, you talk about some of the things that people ate when they couldn't find food, like boiling their belts and eating that.
APPLEBAUM: People ate leather. They ate leaves. They ate grass. They ate cats and dogs. They ate squirrels. I've read about people boiling frogs and toads, trying to make bread or bake things, make some kind of flour out of leaves and roots. You know, luckier people, people who lived near rivers were able to fish of course, and people who lived near forests were able to gather mushrooms. But unluckier people who didn't have those kinds of - who didn't have that kind of food source starved very, very quickly.
One of the things that happens when you starve is that you die - you can die very unexpectedly. Your whole system becomes weakened, and so people would be - would die as they were searching for food. They would go into fields. They would try to find leftover grain in fields that had already been harvested, and then they would collapse in the fields. They would try walking to local train stations. They would try walking to cities, and they would collapse along the side of the road. And there are photographs of people dying by the sides of roads among the very few photographs that we have. And there're many, many accounts of - particularly of the train stations - people gathered there, begging as trains passed, waiting and hoping to get on a train.
One of the ways in which Stalin exacerbated the famine was that he created a de facto cordon around Ukraine. So Ukrainian peasants didn't have any permission to travel, but of course they sought to leave anyway. People tried to sneak into cities. They tried to get work in factories. They tried to get off their farms in order to get food. But the level of desperation was something that I think we would now find very hard to imagine.
GROSS: You tell stories about cannibalism.
APPLEBAUM: There was cannibalism. And you know, it's one of these things where Ukrainians have been very reluctant to speak about it of course in subsequent years because it seems almost shameful to imagine that such a thing could have happened. But cannibalism, even at that time, even when people were starving, was never considered normal. Nobody ever treated it, you know, as something that was not anything other than horrible.
Cannibals were caught. They were arrested. Some of them were lynched. There were - there are police reports giving accounts of both of cannibals and of people reporting cannibals and trying to turn them into the police. A decade later when there were travelers in Ukraine who asked about the famine and were told about the famine were stunned to hear the stories of cannibalism because of course it's something that's unheard of in normal life.
But it become - you know, it was - almost became part of the secret history of the famine. It was one of the things that people knew about and spoke about and we're very, you know - yet it never made it - it was never of course in the newspapers. It was never reported in any public way.
GROSS: So there was a famine that was being caused by natural reasons. But you say that Stalin orchestrated a famine within the famine in Ukraine.
APPLEBAUM: Actually, to be more precise, there were no natural reasons for this famine. There was no weather issue. There were no insects, none of the things that normally cause famines. This was a famine that was entirely caused by political decisions. And so first there was a general decision about collectivization. And that meant that the Soviet peasantry - and this is all over the Soviet Union, not just in Ukraine - were forced to leave their homes and to join collective and state farms.
And this caused an enormous amount of disruption. Peasants resisted it. They fought back. Sometimes they fought back violently. There were, you know - teams of activists were sent into the villages to persuade them to do it. All of farming was reorganized. And the effect was a huge drop in food production. Partly, as people left their homes, they had no incentive on the new farms to work, but also just the general disruption led to a - far less food being available.
But as I say, that famine reached, you know, became - it became clear that people were starving in 1932. But what happened in Ukraine was that at that moment, the Soviet Union took - the Soviet Politburo took a decision to exacerbate the famine inside Ukraine. So within this general Soviet famine which affected many people in Russia and Kazakhstan and other places, there were also decisions taken that particularly affected Ukraine - the cordon drawn around Ukraine. There were villages and towns and farms that were blacklisted in Ukraine. There were - decisions that only affected Ukraine were made to make the famine worse there.
GROSS: What was Stalin's goal and collectivizing the farms and basically throwing peasants and landowners in Ukraine off the land?
APPLEBAUM: The goal of collectivization was, in effect, to turn the peasants into a kind of proletariat who would be - they wouldn't be independent. They wouldn't have their own land. They couldn't make their own decisions. They would be under state control. I think his - one of the ideas he had was that this would be more efficient. I think there was also a political reason to in that this would extend Soviet power into the countryside. So you know, inside the cities, it was easier to control people. You could nationalize industry. You could make people work. You could decide where people worked in the countryside. People had their own property. So this was, in effect, removing people's private property as a way of controlling them.
His goal in Ukraine specifically was a little bit different. In other words, the collectivization was the first wave of political changes in Ukraine. And then the famine had an additional goal, which was to weaken the sort of peasant resistance in Ukraine and to weaken the Ukrainian national movement, which he saw as being connected to the peasantry. And he spoke about this more than once. So he - his idea was that he would eliminate Ukraine as a kind of political problem. So you know, the peasantry was a general issue that affected all of the Soviet Union. And then the particular problem of Ukraine as the peasants being the main component of this nationalist movement would be - he would eliminate them by weakening them through mass starvation and also through mass arrests.
GROSS: So one of the things Stalin did was move in a lot of Russians from Russian cities - move them into the Ukraine and replace some of the peasants from Ukraine with these urban Russian workers.
APPLEBAUM: So there are two things that happened. One is that, in order to carry out the famine, there were teams sent from Russia and also from Ukrainian cities to - first of all, to collectivize the peasants and then later on to requisition their grain as well as much of their other food. The activist teams went house to house, and they took people's food away - literally all of their food, everything that they had and confiscated it. Secondarily, after the famine in 1933, 1934, 1935, there were Russians sent from other parts of the Soviet Union to colonize the empty Ukrainian villages. There were whole swaths of the countryside where nobody lived anymore.
And so Russians were brought into Russify rural Ukraine. There's a dispute about how effective that was. Some people stayed. Some people - there are very interesting letters written from some of the Russians who were brought into those empty communities. They didn't really know where they were being sent to. And they were horrified to discover corpses. They discovered, you know, that fields hadn't been tended. They didn't really know where they'd been brought to. And some left. But it's certainly true that over the subsequent 10 and 20 and 30 years, Ukraine - not just rural Ukraine but all of Ukraine - was Russified quite comprehensively.
Russians came in and took over many of the jobs in the Ukrainian Communist Party and Ukrainian institutions but also in the countryside replacing the missing Ukrainians. So in effect, the famine was a part of a larger process of attempt and Russification of Ukraine, of replacement of the Ukrainian language with Russian, of replacement of people who identified themselves as Ukrainians with Russians from Russia essentially in order to Sovietize Ukraine so that it became a more willing colony of the Soviet Union.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Anne Applebaum. She's the author of the new book "Red Famine: Stalin's War On Ukraine." She's also a Washington Post columnist and teaches at the London School of Economics. We're going to take a short break, then we'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DANILO PEREZ AND CLAUS OGERMAN SONG, "RAYS AND SHADOWS")
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Anne Applebaum. She's the author of the new book "Red Famine: Stalin's War On Ukraine." She teaches at the London School of Economics and is also a columnist for The Washington Post.
So in addition to all of this, there were also mass deportations of Ukrainians. I think, like, tens of thousands of Ukrainians were deported during the period of this famine. What were the reasons for the deportations?
APPLEBAUM: Part of collectivization and part of why collectivization was possible was that Stalin demonized a part of the rural population, calling them kulaks. And this is a word that meant rich peasants. Many of the people who were called kulaks weren't rich by any normal standard. I mean, they might have two pigs instead of one. Or they might have, you know, two-and-a-half hector field instead of a one-and-a-half hector field. But - and many of them, of course, weren't rich at all. You could become a kulak if you opposed collectivization. You could be one - you could be considered one if you refuse to hand over all of your grain or all of your food to the activist brigades.
But the demonization of the kulaks was useful to Stalin because it created divisions and hatred inside Ukrainian villages. And he would turn - the system was designed to turn part of the population against the other part. So the kulaks were - you know, why are you suffering? Why don't you have enough food? Why is your family so poor? It's the fault of the kulaks. Blame the kulaks. They're responsible for all of your problems. And he used that kind of rhetoric actually all across the Soviet Union, in the cities as well. So the workers in the cities who also suffered from food shortages were told it's the kulaks' fault. You know, they're standing in the way of our revolution. The reason why the revolution isn't succeeding is because the kulaks are stopping it.
And part of collectivization was a kind of - there was this mass propaganda campaign against the kulaks. And there was also a process of deportation of the kulaks. Tens of thousands - actually, hundreds of thousands of people from Ukraine were sent both into the more distant parts of the Soviet Union - into the far north and the Far East to live as exiles. And a portion of them were sent into the Gulag where they became slave laborers, in effect. I - it's funny. I ran into them in an earlier book that I wrote about the Gulag. There's a kind of spike in the Gulag population that happens in 1930, '31, '32. And that is, of course, the kulaks being deported from Ukraine and other parts of the USSR. That was the height of this kind of hate campaign that was conducted against them - was this mass deportation.
GROSS: So when you stand back now, how - how successful would you say Stalin was in defeating Ukrainian nationalism and in altering the population of Ukraine so that it would identify more with Russia and less with a nationalist movement in Ukraine?
APPLEBAUM: Stalin was successful in - in the 1930s and the 1940s in repressing what had been a national movement that might have in a different context been successful. Remember at the time that, you know, Ukraine sought to have its own state in 1917 and '18. This was a time when lots of European states were - or European nations, rather, were becoming states for the first time. You think - or - or for the first time having lost statehood earlier - if you think of Poland, you think of Czechoslovakia, you think of Lithuania and Estonia, Latvia. So it wasn't an uncommon desire. Democratic liberal nationalism was an - was an important movement in this era.
But - and Stalin succeeded at least in repressing that movement and in destroying it for, you know, for the time being, for his lifetime and immediately afterwards. But he didn't succeed in destroying the memory of it. And, you know, although the famine, you know, it destroyed the peasants' desire to resist and there was no further peasant resistance, and then the mass arrest of intellectuals, you know, effectively eliminated the leadership of the national movement. The memory of it remained. People - the memory of the famine remained. People kind of kept it alive in their families. The grandparents told grandchildren what had happened. People - people went back, they kept the old texts, the old stories. And in the 1980s and 1990s, as the Soviet Union began to fall apart, Ukrainians went back to that movement and they - they saw heroes and they sought examples of what kind of a nation they could be in the - in the post-Soviet world in that movement.
So in a sense, you know, Stalin destroyed it for, you know, for the Soviet Union's lifetime, but it emerged. And, you know, in a sense, the emergence of an independent Ukraine, one with its own identity that was different from the Soviet Union and Ukraine's then declaration of independence and its refusal to join the - into a kind of post-Soviet Union with - with Russia and - and the rest of the USSR in 1991 was really instrumental in ending the Soviet Union. I mean, without Ukraine, Russia really saw no purpose in - in keeping the Soviet Union going and - or trying to keep it going. So in that sense, Stalin was right that a - that a revived national Ukrainian state would destroy the Soviet Union, and eventually it did. So Stalin destroyed it for a time but he didn't destroy it forever, and it did come back. And the Ukraine that we have today is one that knows this history, and it knows the history of the 1920s and the history of the famine. And that's part of what makes up its identity right now.
GROSS: My guest is Anne Applebaum, author of the new book, "Red Famine: Stalin's War On Ukraine." After a break, we'll talk about how Russia spread disinformation in Germany's recent election. I'm Terry Gross, and this is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross back with Anne Applebaum, author of the new book, "Red Famine: Stalin's War On Ukraine." It's about the famine in Ukraine that was orchestrated by Stalin in the early 1930s with the help of disinformation. Applebaum has also been examining Russian disinformation today. She's a columnist for The Washington Post and a professor at the London School of Economics. Her previous books are about Stalin's labor camps and how the Soviet Union crushed Eastern Europe after World War II.
One of the things you do at the London School of Economics is that you help run a project that studies disinformation. So are you studying disinformation in elections, and what have you been looking at?
APPLEBAUM: So it's a project that looks at - we have a range of things we're doing, and one of them, yes, was a project that examined Russian attempts to manipulate the German election campaign, mostly online but not only, and looking at ways in which the Russian government and agents of the Russian government or representatives of the Russian government or even just ordinary Russians were attempting to help the far-right win the German election campaign. What were the techniques and tactics that they used online? What were the messages that they used? How were they trying to create divisions really within Germany because that was the messaging that the Alternative for Germany, the German far-right, was trying to use?
And you know, since we're on the topic of my book, it's really not an accident that I (laughter) got interested in this issue because so much of why the Ukrainian famine was possible, so much of why Stalin's atrocities were possible was because of the way in which the Soviet Union used disinformation, propaganda and what we would now call hate speech to encourage people to do terrible things. So why did people go along with totalitarianism? Why did they go along with dictatorship? They were persuaded to do so by this very divisive and bitter rhetoric.
I don't want to make a direct comparison between the Soviet Union and the president. Things are very different. And that's an interesting conversation to dissect why, but they are. But nevertheless, some of the, you know, some of the thinking of the current Russian government, of the people who run its propaganda system has echoes of the past and particularly this idea of divisiveness, scapegoating.
You know, what's wrong with my life? You know, it can't be ever my fault. What's wrong with my society? It can't be our own decisions. We have to find a scapegoat. We have to find enemies. This is what the German far-right does. It identifies Muslims and Islam and refugees and foreigners as enemies, and that gives them the reassurance that they need...
GROSS: That seems to be a theme right now, doesn't it?
APPLEBAUM: It is a very broad theme all across the West. And it's something that the Russians have identified as something they can use, they can push to help divide and disorganize Western democracies. And they've done it in multiple countries. You know, they did it in our country, in the United States, and they were doing it in Germany.
In Germany, it was a much smaller operation. They have a wide range of interest in Germany, so it's not just in the far-right. They also have some other kinds of stakes there. But it's not an accidental link. I mean, they think about, how do we make people angry? How do we make people afraid? How do we create scapegoats? You know, they understand that those are ways you can unify people to do all kinds of things if you can make them all angry at the same enemy.
GROSS: What does Russia want in Germany?
APPLEBAUM: Russia wants in Germany what it wants everywhere in Europe, which is, it wants to end the European Union, which it sees as a - as something that thwarts its ability to do corrupt deals and do bilateral deals in Europe. And so it supports political parties that are against the European Union. It wants to end NATO because it wants the United States and its influence out of Europe.
More generally, it seeks to undermine and dislodge liberal democracy wherever it can partly for practical reasons because, you know, for Russian companies, it would be a lot easier to do - you know, they do business using corrupt methods, and it would be more useful to them to do business in states where rule of law isn't so respected and they can bribe people. And in other words, they're looking to export corruption rather than - and it helps to undermine democracy to do that.
But I think they also seek to undermine democracy for a bigger reason, namely that democracy rhetoric or the ideals of rule of law and freedom of speech and freedom of decision - these are ideals that are undermining for the current Russian regime. It's an oligarchic corrupt dictatorship, and so what it fears the most is the - is, you know, people on the streets calling for democracy. And so the extent to which it can undermine its neighbors and undermine their democracies is good for them. Then they can point to their own people and say, look; you know, democracy is a disaster. It doesn't work in the United States. It doesn't work in Germany. And so why should you want it either?
GROSS: So Angela Merkel won the election in Germany, but the far-right gained seats. It did very well in the election. So do you attribute that to the Russians?
APPLEBAUM: No, I don't. The Russians don't invent the far-right. They can't - they don't invent political parties in foreign countries. Actually, although they have tried to a few times, it - that doesn't usually work. What they do is they seek to help either sometimes with money, sometimes with advice and sometimes with online trolling and bot campaigns and so on. They seek to help the far-right. In really almost every European country, they have allies.
In the French election campaign, they supported Marie Le Pen. That they did with money. She was given financial aid. She's the far-right candidate in France. In Germany, they had advisers. They had an online campaign that was designed to help the far-right using techniques that they've been working on and perfecting over a number of elections actually going back many years. This is something they've been working on for a long time.
GROSS: What does the far-right stand for in Germany? Is it still connected to the former Nazi party? Is it deeply anti-Semitic?
APPLEBAUM: No. The modern far-right actually tries not to be connected to the Nazi party not least because Nazism is illegal in Germany, literally illegal. You're not allowed to display a swastika. The far-right has instead organized itself around anti-European and anti-immigration issues. So it agitates against Germany's membership of various international clubs, and it argues for heavy restrictions on immigration and deportation of immigrants.
Some of the language that they use is a little bit, you know, what in America we call dog whistling. So sometimes they say things that have anti-Semitic echoes, or one of their leaders did say something about how it's time to stop being ashamed of the German soldiers who fought in World War II, and we should remember - implying that we should remember the Wehrmacht more positively. And so there are some echoes of those links. But no, they can't be openly pro-Nazi in Germany because it's against the law.
GROSS: So how effective do you think the Russians were in helping the far-right getting new seats in Parliament?
APPLEBAUM: It's very hard to measure the Russian impact, but they were certainly trying to help the far-right. They certainly have close links to the far-right. They certainly helped their online campaign to a considerable degree. They helped boost the far-right's presence on German social media.
They particularly helped the German far-right inside the - there's a large Russian-speaking community in Germany, mostly people who emigrated from the old Soviet Union. And they made huge efforts to attract those people to the German far-right as well. So you can't do an exact measurement, but they may well have had an impact.
GROSS: If you're just joining us, my guest is Anne Applebaum. She's the author of the new book "Red Famine: Stalin's War On Ukraine." She teaches at the London School of Economics and is a columnist for The Washington Post. Let's take a really short break. We'll be right back. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)
GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. And if you're just joining us, my guest is Anne Applebaum, author of the new book "Red Famine: Stalin's War On Ukraine." She's a columnist for The Washington Post and teaches at the London School of Economics.
One of the people being investigated in America now in the investigations into the Trump campaign and Russian interference in the election is Paul Manafort, who was an adviser in Ukraine. He advised President Viktor Yanukovych and his party, and Yanukovych fled the country in 2014 after there were protests against him and his anti-democratic efforts. So you were studying Ukraine at the time that Paul Manafort was doing that advising. How soon did you find out about him, and what - how did you interpret his role there?
APPLEBAUM: So when Paul Manafort was appointed to be Trump's campaign manager, I had this horrible feeling of my worlds clashing. So I'd been working on Ukraine, which is a - you know, from the American point of view, it's not a mainstream subject. It's somewhat off to the side. So I did know about Manafort's role there, and suddenly I saw him brought into the center of U.S. politics. You know, I suddenly realized that everything he'd done and all of the ways in which Ukrainian politics had been conducted over the last seven years was suddenly going to be relevant to the U.S. election, as indeed it was.
The kinds of campaigning that he was part of or would have known about in Ukraine, the - for example, the just - the use of online trolling, the use of extensive Internet disinformation campaigns - this is something I knew from Ukraine. This is what the Russians did in Ukraine and others - the creation of these big kind of violent rallies where people get beaten up. This is another Ukrainian election tactic. In a way, he brought this post-Soviet form of politics to the United States. And when I saw that happening, it was a kind of shock, as I say. It was not something I expected to see.
I mean, you know, there's a way in which the - you know, perhaps we've come full circle. I mean, the United States and Western Europe exported liberal democracy and democratic politics to the East in the 1990s, and we've now had a kind of re-export. So their way of doing politics - this, as I said, violent, divisive, angry politics designed to pit people against one another and to build political coalitions based on hate campaigns - you know, this is something that's been done in Ukraine. It's been done in other parts of the post-Soviet world. He brought it, or he and others brought it to the United States.
GROSS: What was Manafort known for in terms of his campaign style in Ukraine?
APPLEBAUM: One of the things he was known for was his remake of Viktor Yanukovych. So Viktor Yanukovych was the president of Ukraine who had previously been part of an attempt to buy an election. A few years earlier, he'd been part of an attempted election fraud.
And so Manafort's job was to remake him, you know, to - I don't know - comb his hair and buy him better suits and teach him how to speak properly and to organize his campaign and probably also to organize the publicity and the - you know, the online campaign around him. And that's what he was known for. So in a way, he was he took a very thuggish former criminal, actually, and made him into somebody who seemed more presidential. And this is what he was best known for in Ukraine. He was also known for corruption.
One of the things that happened during the U.S. election campaign that I don't think got that much attention was that a group of Ukrainian MPs and journalists went back through their records and went - did a little bit of investigation and found there was a kind of party ledger from the president's - Yanukovych's party that described who they'd been paying bribes to or who they'd been paying, you know, off-the-books money to during - while Yanukovych was in power. And of course one of them was Manafort. And this was publicized during the Trump election campaign while Manafort was the campaign manager.
GROSS: So you felt when you were watching the Trump campaign during the period that Manafort was the campaign manager that you were seeing the exportation of Russian-style politics and disinformation being imported by Manafort into the U.S.
APPLEBAUM: Yes. I actually wrote this column in the spring of last year saying that what we're - what Manafort is and what we're seeing with the Trump campaign is Russian-style politics in the United States.
GROSS: You're actually writing about Russia, the former Soviet Union, Ukraine at a very good time to be studying this because archives were opened after the fall of the Soviet Union. You drew on those archives to write your book about the - about Stalin's war on Ukraine when he orchestrated a famine in 1932 and '33 in Ukraine.
What are some of the things you found in the archives 'cause I'm thinking, like, the things that Stalin did were kept secret, and they were kept secret for decades - you know, officially secret. It wasn't taught - the famine wasn't taught in schools. It was covered up. Did they keep records?
APPLEBAUM: So it's a very interesting thing. Yes, the Soviet Union kept extensive records. It kept extensive records of its gulag camps. It kept records of its mass murders. All of that is absolutely available in the archives. And remember; this was a political system that never expected to collapse. It imagined it would go on forever and, you know, nobody would ever see those archives and certainly nobody like me or you would be discussing those archives.
And so the archives were kept for their own reasons to keep their own - keep track of their own population. The KGB also used archives and used its own history - kept track of its own history in order to study it. The KGB would study past operations in order to learn from them. I've actually seen, you know - sort of the KGB wrote its own histories which it kept in its archives, and you can read that and see that as well now, too.
GROSS: Were there actual ledger books kept of about how many people were deported each day, how many people had food taken away from them each day?
APPLEBAUM: There were ledgers kept of deportations, more or less. So they - because they needed to know the numbers - how many trains, how many people would end up in camps and so on. The numbers - statistics on numbers of people who died are more complicated because as the famine was happening, the state decided to conceal it. And so there's a lot of circumstantial evidence and some other evidence showing that doctors, for example, would put false reasons for death on people's death certificates. So they wouldn't say that somebody died of famine. They would give some other reason.
And so the numbers for famine have only been recently calculated using as - by demographers going into birth and death records and looking at, statistically, how many people should have died in a given year and comparing them to the actual numbers. But yeah, the state certainly kept numbers of, you know, who was where and how many people - you know, how many people were available, certainly, to work in the labor camps.
GROSS: So you're living in England and Poland. Do I have that right?
APPLEBAUM: That's correct.
GROSS: But you're American. So you've been watching...
APPLEBAUM: I am American.
GROSS: You've been watching American politics from the perspective of living in Europe. So how does it look to you from where you are? Like, what are you seeing? What are you hearing around you? That's a really broad question, but I just figure you have a different perspective, being an American but living in Europe right now.
APPLEBAUM: You know, most Europeans look on the United States right now with a kind of distress that you would feel if you were stranded on a desert island and you saw, off in the distance, the ship that was coming to rescue you, sinking. You know, the United States, for Europeans, has been, for many decades, a kind of a source of comfort, stability. And the nuke, you know, offered - for countries that don't have nuclear weapons, it offers a nuclear umbrella. But it's not just the - a military link. It's a ideological link, a political link, an economic link.
You know, the United States has really been the anchor of the West - you know, the most important Western country, the biggest country but also the one that was most convinced of its own ideals that was most devoted to the idea of democracy and to the ideas of, you know, free speech, and free commerce, and free trade and all the things that have made the West rich and prosperous. And the last year has caused many to wonder whether - how long that's going to go on being true.
You know, not only does Trump not speak the language that American presidents have spoken for the last - you know, certainly since the Second World War of alliances and friendships. He also doesn't seem to speak the language of democracy. He doesn't talk about it. He doesn't promote it. He doesn't seem interested in it when he makes big speeches. He seems to tiptoe around it.
You know, they see him as somebody who chooses to be divisive rather than unifying, and people worry for the whole Western alliance, for the Western camp. You know, how long can we continue to be cohesive? How long can we continue trading with each other as seamlessly as we've been trading? How long will we main - remain a power and a voice in the world if he is the first of many of a different kind of American president?
GROSS: Well, Anne Applebaum, thank you so much for talking with us.
APPLEBAUM: Thank you so much. I really enjoyed it.
GROSS: Anne Applebaum's new book is called "Red Famine: Stalin's War On Ukraine." After we take a short break, Maureen Corrigan will review the new book "The Obama Inheritance," a collection of sci-fi and noir short stories inspired by conspiracy theories about Obama. This is FRESH AIR.
(SOUNDBITE OF DANIEL FREEDMAN'S "LOVE TAKES TIME")
TERRY GROSS, HOST:
This is FRESH AIR. Our book critic Maureen Corrigan recommends a new short story collection like no other. Here's her review of "The Obama Inheritance: Fifteen Stories Of Conspiracy Noir."
MAUREEN CORRIGAN, BYLINE: It's a commonplace these days to say that real life has become so unpredictable that it outstrips anything anyone could dream up in fiction. I think I'm guilty of having made that banal observation a few times. But that was before I read "The Obama Inheritance," a collection of 15 stories so sly, fresh and bizarro-world witty, they reaffirmed the resiliency of the artistic imagination.
As editor Gary Phillips explains in his foreword, the idea for "The Obama Inheritance" was a cumulative thing, born out of the fact that there were so many conspiracy theories generated about President Obama. There were the birther stories, the suggestion that President Obama used secret weather machines to cause Hurricane Sandy, and on and on.
Phillips says, to many of us, the daily rollout of these preposterous notions about the nation's first black president was laughable. The us Phillips refers to are a diverse group of writers in terms of race and reputation. They're practitioners of a variety of genres - noir, sci-fi and fantasy. Phillips, who's written some terrific, hard-boiled mysteries himself, invited each of these contributors to choose one Obama conspiracy theory and riff on it, take it apart, and turn it on its head and give the reader a thrill ride of weirdo, noir-ish, pulpy goodness. The overarching aim of all this outlandishness is to entertain as well as to tuck some social criticism into the formulaic folds of these tales of spooks, spies, private eyes, clones, bots and alien invaders.
A truly fabulous story kicks off this collection. Remember all those loud whispers sparked by a fist bump that Michelle Obama was a covert black power separatist? In "Michelle In Hot Water," crime writer Kate Flora takes that conspiracy fantasy about the first lady and runs with it. Here's how the story opens.
(Reading) The big man with the Russian accent wore an expression somewhere between a smirk and a smile - not a pleasant smile but the smile of someone who likes to inflict pain and was about to do just that. Michelle wasn't afraid of him. Bullies had been common in the part of Chicago where she grew up. Her years in the White House had shown her plenty more, even if they did hide behind expensive suits and artificial courtesies. No. What scared her was the predicament she had gotten herself into and the trouble it was going to cause for her team - Fisa (ph) from State, Leila (ph) from the Surgeon General's office, Carissa (ph) from the Pentagon, Lourdes (ph) from the FDA and Alice (ph) from Justice.
Michelle, dressed in full combat gear and a "Mission Impossible"-worthy disguise of fake skin, has just gotten caught by that Russian enforcer in the middle of a vigilante mission. It seems as though she and her team of high-level government gal pals have banded together under cover of being in a women's book group to pressure pharmaceutical kingpins to lower the cost of cancer-fighting drugs for kids. When, as always, the drugmakers initially refuse, first lady Michelle and her sister Amazons devise ways to inject these fat cats with a drug that temporarily renders them impotent, incontinent and bald. Part of the fun of this story is the repartee that Flora conjures up between Michelle and Barack. Like FDR, Barack realizes that his wayward activist wife can't be reined in.
Another standout is mystery grandmaster Walter Mosley's complex tale called "A Different Frame Of Reference," which takes birther-ism to its logical alien endpoint. Think of President Obama as the brother from another planet. Phillips himself contributes a wild fantasy tale of racialized deep-state paranoia called "Thus Strikes The Black Pimpernel." It's a story packed with secret agents, genetically altered anacondas and elegant allusions to Ralph Ellison's "Invisible Man."
In recent years, writers of color have taken up sci-fi and fantasy in particular as richly poetic vehicles to explore racism and imagine alternate worlds. The pulp stories in "The Obama Inheritance" - sci-fi, fantasy and noir - are fun to read. And be forewarned, many of them also pack a punch.
GROSS: Maureen Corrigan teaches literature at Georgetown University. She reviewed "The Obama Inheritance: Fifteen Stories Of Conspiracy Noir," edited by Gary Phillips. Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, I'll talk with Dexter Filkins about his article in The New Yorker, "Rex Tillerson At The Breaking Point." We'll discuss the tensions between the secretary of state and President Trump, the possibility of war with North Korea, the possibility of pulling out of the nuclear agreement with Iran and the consequences of a greatly understaffed State Department. I hope you'll join us.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHANO DOMINGUEZ'S "BEMSHA SWING")
GROSS: FRESH AIR's executive producer is Danny Miller. Our technical director and engineer is Audrey Bentham. Our associate producer of digital media is Molly Seavy-Nesper. Roberta Shorrock directs the show. I'm Terry Gross.
(SOUNDBITE OF CHANO DOMINGUEZ'S "BEMSHA SWING")
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.