Did Joseph Stalin Commit Genocide?

In his excellent recent book Stalin’s Genocides, Stanford historian Norman Naimark argues that Joseph Stalin committed genocide and not “merely” mass murder. Few any longer deny that Stalin’s regime slaughtered millions of innocent people. But the Russian government and some Western writers continue to argue that these murders were not genocidal, and that Stalin therefore cannot be classed in a category with Adolf Hitler and others who slaughtered entire racial, ethnic, or religious groups.

Back in 2008, I blogged about the debate over the question of whether the Soviet terror famine of the early 1930s (in which some 6 to 10 million people died) was a case of genocide or mass murder (see here and here). Many Ukrainians and some Western scholars argue that this was a case of genocide because Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin specifically targeted Ukrainian peasants for extermination. By contrast, the Russian government claims that Stalin was an equal opportunity mass murderer. The distinction matters because international law defines mass murder as genocide only if it was the result of an “intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnic, racial or religious group, as such.” It also matters because of the ongoing debate over whether communist mass murders deserve as much opprobrium as those of the Nazis.

Naimark concludes that both the terror famine and various other Stalinist atrocities qualify as genocide. His book is the most thorough and compelling study of the subject so far. In the end, however, I am not so much persuaded that Stalin committed genocide as reaffirmed in my view that the genocide-mass murder distinction isn’t a morally meaningful one. Moreover, Naimark overstates Stalin’s personal role in the mass murders committed by his regime and understates the impact of the communist system.

I. Was it Genocide and Should it Matter if it Was?

There is no doubt that at least some of Stalin’s crimes were genocides. The deportation and partial extermination of ethnic groups such as the Crimean Tatars surely qualifies. These indisputably genocidal crimes, however, accounted for only a small fraction of Stalin’s victims. Naimark’s main objective is to prove that Stalin’s much greater mass murders – the terror famine, the killing of millions in Gulag slave labor camps, and the “Great Terror” of 1937-38 – should also be considered genocidal.

Here, Naimark runs into the problem that most of the people killed in these mass murders were targeted not on the basis of race, religion, or ethnicity, but because of economic class or political background – or just being in the wrong place at the wrong time. As he points out, the Soviet Union and its allies successfully worked to exclude “political” murder from the international law definition of genocide; they did so to insulate their own crimes from potential condemnation. This is one of the most blatant examples of the extent to which international human rights law has been perverted by the influence of nondemocratic and totalitarian governments . In effect, Naimark argues that the international law definition of genocide should be read to cover precisely the kinds of crimes that it was deliberately crafted to exclude. In legal terms, the text, original meaning, and legislative history of the international law definition are all against Naimark.

In the case of the early 1930s terror famine, Naimark also argues that Stalin intended to target the Ukrainians as an ethnic group. If so, then this counts as genocide even under the traditional view of international law. Naimark notes that the impact of the famine was greater in Ukraine than in most other parts of the USSR, and that the region was treated with special harshness. On the other hand, it is also true that the main goal of the famine was to exterminate the independent peasantry regardless of ethnicity and carry out the forced collectivization of agriculture. Ukraine may have been targeted as much because it was the USSR’s most important agricultural region as because it was populated by Ukrainians. Moreover Ukraine had large minority populations, including millions of ethnic Russians (my own grandmother, was one of the many non-Ukrainians living in the region during the famine). Many of these people also died in the famine. Stalin’s motives were probably mixed. His main goal was to crush the peasants and collectivize agriculture. But he was also happy to deal a preemptive blow to Ukrainian nationalist aspirations (which he feared because they were the USSR’s largest minority group).

Ultimately, the distinction between genocide and “mere” mass murder should not matter. For reasons I explained here and here, it doesn’t make any difference whether the Soviet regime killed millions of innocent people because they were “kulaks” and “class enemies,” because they were Ukrainian, or for some combination of both reasons. In all three scenarios, innocent people were slaughtered for no good reason, in most cases on the basis of immutable characteristics that they could not change (“kulak” status was determined primarily by family background).

II. The Role of Stalin.

Naimark’s book is also interesting in so far as he blames Stalin personally for most of the crimes committed by the Soviet government during his rule. Absent Stalin’s malign influence, Naimark contends, the regime probably would not have committed mass murder or genocide on such a large scale. There is little doubt that Stalin’s paranoia and sadism influenced Soviet policy. Nonetheless, I think Naimark overstates the importance of Stalin’s personal role. Most of the major repressive policies and institutions – including the secret police and the Gulag slave labor camps – of the Soviet state were begun by Lenin, not Stalin. As historians such as Richard Pipes have shown, even the terror famine was a reprise of the first Soviet effort to collectivize agriculture in 1918-21 (which also led to a famine in which millions died). Leon Trotsky, Stalin’s main rival for power after Lenin’s death, attacked Stalin on the grounds that his policies were too generous to “bourgeois” elements and otherwise not repressive enough. Had Trotsky defeated Stalin, life for most Soviet citizens might have been just as bad or even slightly worse. One of the very few ways in which Stalin was harsher than Trotsky was in his much greater willingness to kill and imprison members of the Communist Party elite. Here, Stalin’s extreme paranoia about possible rivals for power really did make a big difference. Under Trotsky, the party comrades would have suffered a lot less; the rest of the population would not have been so fortunate.

More generally, Stalin’s policies were far from unique in the communist world. Almost every other communist regime engaged in very similar mass murders, including in countries like China and Cuba where the rulers had a high degree of autonomy from Soviet control.

In sum, evidence from both the Soviet Union and elsewhere suggests that Stalin’s deranged personality was probably only a secondary factor in explaining the crimes of his regime. “Without Stalin,” Naimark writes, “it is hard to imagine the genocidal [Soviet] actions of the 1930s.” By contrast, I find it all too easy to imagine communist mass murder even with a less maniacal leader at the helm. In fact, not a lot of imagination is necessary, since the same policies were promoted by Lenin, Trotsky, and other communist leaders with very different personalities.

Despite these reservations, Naimark’s book is a great analysis of both Stalin’s crimes and the debate over the meaning of genocide under international law. Anyone interested in the subject should definitely check it out.

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