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16 May, 2011  ▪  Vasyl Starko

Killing A People

Stanford University Professor Norman M. Naimark speaks about various interpretations of genocide and current court practice

One of the problems in recognizing the Holodomor as genocide is the orientation to the Jewish Holocaust, an established precedent in world legal practice after the Second World War. However, this does not make either the massacre of Armenians by Turks or the destruction of Ukrainian peasants by the Bosheviks any less tragic and horrible. Together with Norman M. Nairmak, the author of Stalin’s Genocide, we try to determine what Ukrainians should do in this situation.

U. W.: The title of your most recent book is Stalin’s Genocides, while in your presentations you spoke about Stalin’s genocide. So is it genocides or genocide?

“I don’t think this is an important distinction. The 1930s as a whole and the mass killings in the 1930s should be considered a single historical episode composed of a series of events all of which are genocides. Each of the separate episodes — the dekulakization, the Ukrainian famine, the attack on asocial people, the attack on national peoples like the Poles, Chechens, Ingush, and Ukrainians — should be considered episodes of genocide. So the title Stalin’s genocides basically says that when you take the 1930s, there are more than one episode. But they all should be thought of together as genocidal. These two points are important: that there is a series of episodes and that they should be considered together.”


U. W.: What is your opinion on the groups that are singled out in the 1948 definition of genocide?

“As you know from the book, I make the argument that some of the mass killing of the 1930s which was focused on class-based killing, or political group-based killing, should be considered genocide. It has a lot of the same characteristics, except it’s not a particular ethnic, racial, national, or religious group that’s singled out. If you include social categories, political categories or groups, as well as ethnic ones, you produce a more robust understanding of what genocide is.

“We all keep going to the 1948 definition, and it was written because of what had just happened in Europe, and people talked mostly about the Jews, but of course there were Soviet POWs, Poles, and others who died at the hands of Hitler, too. He killed more than 200,000 handicapped people — not unlike the killing of the homeless and indigent people in the Soviet Union. These people were Germans. That’s not genocide? Whereas, if 200,000 Gypsies are killed, it is? I still have trouble with that. These distinctions are all related to what happened in 1948 and how we thought about the Second World War. The world is different now.”

U. W.: In what way is the Ukrainian famine special compared to other genocides?

“Ukraine is a great example, because the reason for the mass murder of the Ukrainian peasants was not just that they were Ukrainians. It was also because they were peasants. There was not a lot to eat in the cities — we know that. However, the idea was not to eliminate the Ukrainians as a nation, which technically is the definition of genocide. The idea was to get a particular group of Ukrainians who had demonstrated, from the point of view of Stalin and the bosses, a kind of hard opposition to Sovietization and extreme devotion to nationality and social identity — peasantry. And so they go after this group of people, quite purposefully, to eliminate them, to break their back. And that’s what happens.


U. W.: Would you suggest redefining it to reflect current understanding of what genocide is?

“We don’t have any major episodes of socially and politically motivated genocide. But it’s not inconceivable, especially in the Arab world. Suppose Gaddafi wins the struggle in Libya and targets certain groups within society for physical elimination.”

“No one is going to revisit the genocide convention. What might happen is that a group of judges in a particular case will get together, and they will say themselves: This doesn’t work and we need to broaden the idea of genocide in order to prosecute a particular case.

“Let me give another good example — Bosnia. What happened in Bosnia, in Srebrenica in July 1995: Bosnian Serbs took out between 7,000 and 8,000 Bosnian Muslim men and boys, shot them, and buried them in mass graves. Before this happened it would have been very hard to imagine anyone talking about the massacre of 8,000 men and boys — no women, no children — being genocide. Before that the image of genocide in the law and history was the killing of whole peoples — women and children were part of the victims of genocide. Second, the image of genocide was tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands, even millions of people. It would be very hard to imagine that the killing of 8,000 people would be genocide. But the courts decided for a number of complicated reasons that this was genocide.”

U. W.: What court was that?

“The International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia (ICTY) specially set up by the UN to try crimes in Yugoslavia. So that court established a new precedent, a new way of thinking about genocide. It changed the way we now think about genocide and the way courts in the future will think about genocide.

U. W.: Where is the line between using and abusing the term genocide?

“It’s important that the concept not be cheapened and that it not to be indiscriminately used to cover everything. But it’s also true that the way it was used up until 10–15 years ago was too exclusive. For a while Jewish groups insisted that only the Jewish case should be considered genocide. The Armenian genocide was eventually recognized as legitimate. Then we had Rwanda. What are you going to call Rwanda if not genocide? And then there was Bosnia.

“You have to talk about specific cases. Let me give you the Chechen-Ingush example. In February 1944, Stalin and Beria picked up the whole Chechen and Ingush nations, nearly half a million people — men, women, children. They took everyone who had ‘Chechen’ in their passports and moved them to Kazakhstan. Many of them died: the NKVD says about 20% of the total deported, while Chechen historians say 40% died in the process of removal. Was that genocide? Some Chechen historians think it is. We don’t have any kind of proof that there was intent to eliminate the Chechens and Ingush nations. What you do have, as I said in the book, is that Stalin and Beria didn’t want them to continue to exist as a separate nation. They wanted them to be fully assimilated.

The same thing happened with the Crimean Tatars. The Soviet bosses wanted them to blend into this vast Central Asian mix and lose their national identity as Chechens or Crimean Tatars. And we know that because in 1956 they wouldn’t let them go back to their homelands until they went back themselves.

“The Holocaust is a prime example of genocide, a terrible example, but I don’t think it’s a good paradigmatic example. Better is, let’s say, the Armenian genocide. Why is this case better? There were lots of exceptions. Some Armenians were not killed. Armenian women and children were often sold to Kurdish chieftains as a way to escape genocide. Some people were allowed to convert to avoid the deportations. Large numbers of people survived this horrible mass deportation to the deserts.


U. W.: Is there evidence that proves that the Ukrainian famine was genocide?

“For a while, until some of this archival work that has been done recently by Ukrainian, American, and Russian historians, I was back and forth on the Ukrainian issue. I couldn’t tell. I had trouble with the evidence of intent, and intent is extremely important in genocide. There is not one single ‘smoking gun’. There are statements, especially the internal statements to Kaganovich and to others from Stalin where he would say: The Ukrainians caused the hunger. It’s their fault. They get what they deserve. And we now know that Stalin turned down any appeal for relief, whereas in other parts of the Soviet Union there was relief for the famine. Relief came too late in order to save people. Besides that, the fact that Ukrainian peasants could not move to the cities or out of Ukraine to seek relief has also been well-documented. Others could go, but if they didn’t have a passport they couldn’t go elsewhere either. Ukrainian peasants were not allowed to go to the cities and were taken off whatever transport and sent back to villages where they had nothing to eat and were doomed to die.”

U. W.: How would one demonstrate that a state is guilty of genocide?

“In the case of Hitler, it would not be easy, either, but you could do it. There was a meeting held in Wannsee on the outskirts of Berlin attended by people from various branches of the state — the foreign ministry, economy, a few SS men. They sat around a table and decided how they were going to kill the Jews more efficiently. That’s when they basically decided that they were going to ship all the Jews to camps and eliminate them. There you can prove that the state organized the genocide. So the Nazi state was a genocidal state.”

U. W.: What about Stalin and his state?

That’s a really good question. I tried to deal with that a bit in the book. There is no question that Stalin himself is responsible for what happened. I don’t know if you could try the Soviet Union, in retrospect for the genocide that occurred in the 1930s. Off the top of my head, I think you could probably demonstrate that the Soviet state was an actor in genocide, and you might be able to say it was a genocidal state, but the way the Soviet Union was run was much different.

The problem with Stalin and Stalinism is that it was a narrow group of people who did things. It was usually Stalin together with a few of his hierarchs and a few deputies at the local level who supervised the dirty work. He had to have Ukrainian collaborators, too, for example, in the Ukrainian famine. And then there was this huge police apparatus — OGPU and then NKVD — which is a state apparatus. The NKVD was a state organization. The GULAG was a part of the state apparatus. So I think you could probably put together a case for genocide. It would be very difficult because what they say to each other was not on paper and not spoken in open forums. Germans were much more open about their homicidal mission. What we can identify are things Stalin said to Kaganovich, Molotov, sometimes to Khrushchev and others. We can identify some of these statements Stalin said to people individually, but not necessarily sitting around a table in a state meeting.

U. W.: Should we look at the Ukrainian famine not as an isolated act of genocidal nature, but in conjunction with other attacks on Ukrainians that happened before and after the famine?

Absolutely! You clearly need to write about the attack on the intelligentsia, which was quite severe already at the end of the 1920s and beginning of the 1930s — the continuing attack on the Ukrainian writers and cultural and political figures who were in favor of more autonomy for Ukraine. It is absolutely part of one story.

I was trying to tell this not as a story just of Ukraine. What I try to do in the book is to get away from what we now have, which is a literature on the Ukrainian famine, on dekulakization, on special settlements, on the Great Terror, on Instruction Nr. 00447, on the Poles and New Germans, etc. You have a literature which divides everything up. What I am trying to say is that this is all part of a whole.


Norman M. Naimark is a leading historian of the Soviet era. In his work he focuses on the emergence of communism and the establishment of communist regimes in Eastern Europe, Soviet nationalism, Soviet-German relations, the East European involvement in the World War II, as well as Russian and Polish revolutionary movements.

Recently he has focused on the topic of ethnic cleansing and genocide with the books Stalin’s Genocide (Princeton University Press, 2010) and The Armenian Genocide: New Research, New Insights (Oxford University Press, 2010). He is also an author of the groundbreaking studies The Russians in Germany: The History of The Soviet Zone of Occupation, 1945–1949 (Harvard University Press, 1995) and Fires of Hatred: Ethnic Cleansing in Twentieth-Century Europe (Harvard University Press, 2001).

Naimark has been a history professor at Boston University, a visiting professor at Wellesley College, and a fellow of the Russian Research Center at Harvard University. He joined the Stanford University history faculty in 1988 and serves as a senior fellow both at Stanford’s Hoover Institution as well as at its Freeman Spogli Institute of International Studies. He is currently working on a book-length study of Stalin and Europe, 1945–1953 in the American Academy in Berlin, Germany.

Stalin’s Genocidesis now available in Ukrainian published by the Kyiv Mohyla Publishing House.

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