Reader Review: Stalin's Genocides
Norman Naimark’s extended essay Stalin’s Genocides is both controversial and provocative. Not only does it offer a study of Joseph Stalin’s murderous policies including dekulakization and the Holodomor (the Great Famine of 1932-33 in Ukraine), but most importantly, Naimark argues that these policies, until now defined as mass killing, should be categorised as acts of genocide.
In his introduction, Naimark correctly highlights the common agreement that the Holocaust was an act of genocide; it is frequently called the worst crime of the 20th century. However, when people discuss the crimes committed by Stalin’s regime, few are willing to recognise all or some of these crimes as genocidal.
The origins of the term of genocide are the main topic of chapter one. Naimark argues that the United Nation Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of Genocide (December 1948), which defined genocide as an act of murder of ethnic, national, racial and religious groups, was from the outset considerably curtailed as a result of diplomatic pressure from the Soviet Union. He presents evidence that the Soviet Union argued that the murder of social and political groups should not be included in the legal definition of genocide.
In chapter two, Naimark considers the roots of Stalin’s brutality. Drawing on several biographies of Stalin and his own studies, he concludes that there was no one particular event or person that caused Stalin to become such a proficient mass killer. He argues instead that a combination of events in Stalin’s life created the perfect environment (the Perfect Storm theory) for the pursuit of a reign of genocide and terror.
The following chapters cover dekulakization, the Holodomor, the removal of nations, and the Great Purge of the late 1930s. After brief descriptions and detailed analyses, Naimark concludes that dekulakization should be seen as genocidal much like the Kremlin planned famine in Ukraine in the early 1930s. Furthermore, he argues that the attack on and forced resettlement of several nationalities such as the Poles, Germans and Koreans also have some genocidal characteristics. In the case of Stalin’s attack on the Chechens-Ingush and the Crimean Tatars, Naimark suggests that it be called a cultural genocide. According to Naimark, the Great Purge of 1936-38 is the weakest case for being classified as an act of genocide: repression was chaotically and sporadically aimed at anybody who was considered a real or potential threat to Stalin and therefore to the USSR.
In the final chapter, Naimark offers a comparison of the crimes committed by Stalinist and Nazi regimes. He concludes that there were more similarities than differences between the two regimes and emphasizes that despite the violence inherent in both governments, the personas of Stalin and Hitler played a crucial part in these brutal crimes.
Naimark’s daring effort to redefine several of the crimes committed by Stalin’s regime in the 1930s and 1940s as acts of genocide is admirable. His study is also particularly timely as the Russian Parliament admitted, last month, that Stalin was directly responsible for the execution of approximately 22,000 Polish nationals in the Katyn massacre of April-May 1940. Although the Russian Parliament has not yet recognized the massacre as an act of genocide (it is referred to instead as ‘mass murder’), it is a sign of considerable progress in terms of Russian recognition of some of the terrible acts of its dark Stalinist past.
Stalin's Genocides, Norman M. Naimark (Princeton University Press)
Zbysek Brezina is Assistant Professor of History at Bethany College, Kansas. He has recently completed a dissertation on the informal group of people around President Tomas G. Masaryk and Minister of Foreign Affairs Edvard Benes in interwar Czechoslovakia.
In September 2009 we began a short series entitled 'After the Cold War', which explored changing attitudes to history in the former Communist states of eastern Europe. In the first article of the series, Haunted by Stalin, Catherine Merridale examined competing versions of Russia's troubled past in the light of present politics.
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