The International Law of Genocide and the Soviet Terror Famine of the 1930s:

Last October, I explained why international law is wrong to classify "genocide" as a different and more serious crime than mere mass murder. The recent brouhaha between the Russian and Ukrainian governments over Joseph Stalin's terror famine of the 1930s is a case in point. Not even the apologists for communism in former KGB Colonel Vladimir Putin's government deny that Stalin ordered the deliberate mass murder of millions of peasants in order to facilitate the collectivization of Soviet agriculture. In his classic study, The Harvest of Sorrow, historian Robert Conquest estimates that as many as 14 million rural people may have died because the Soviet government confiscated their land and food supplies.

However, the Ukrainians claim that this mass murder counts as genocide because Stalin specifically targeted Ukrainian peasant farmers for extermination. The Russian parliament, by contrast, claims that Stalin was an equal opportunity mass murderer, targeting Russians, Ukrainians, and others alike. International law considers mass murder to be genocide only if it is the result of an "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such." Thus, if Stalin killed the Ukrainian peasants because they were peasants rather than because they were Ukrainians, it wasn't genocide, and therefore a less serious crime.

Frankly, I see no reason why this difference in Stalin's subjective intentions affects the severity of the crime in any way. The impact of the mass murder is exactly the same either way. And I don't see why Stalin and his henchmen somehow become less immoral if they killed millions of innocent people for "economic" reasons rather than for racial or ethnic ones.

Interestingly, as Jonah Goldberg points out in a column on this dispute, the international law definition of genocide may have been crafted to exclude mass murders targeting political or economic groups precisely because the Soviet bloc insisted on it. Although communist states sometimes do target groups based on ethnicity (as in the USSR's ethnic cleansing and partial extermination of the Crimean Tatars), most of their mass murders were based on economic and political grounds; and Stalin apparently wanted to make sure that they weren't covered by the international law of genocide. If so, this is another example of the pernicious influence of nondemocratic states on international human rights law, which John McGinnis and I discuss in this paper.

UPDATE: Various commenters argue that genocide is worse than other mass murders because it destroys cultural value as well as killing individuals. I addressed this point in my earlier post on genocide and mass murder. For readers' convenience, here's what I said:

Sometimes, it is argued that genocide is worse than other types of mass murder because it deprives the world of valuable cultural diversity, not just of the contributions of particular individuals. That may well be a real harm of genocide. But other types of mass murders also destroy diversity and other cultural resources. For example, Pol Pot's decimation of Cambodia's educated classes surely did severe damage to Cambodia's culture. Stalin's extermination of Russians active in political movements other than his own certainly undermined valuable diversity in that country, and so on. Whether genocide causes more cultural damage than other types of mass murder will vary from case to case.

UPDATE #2: For what it's worth, I think the evidence on Stalin's motives is somewhat unclear. There is little doubt that Stalin's main objective was to achieve the collectivization of agriculture by destroying the class of private landowning farmers - regardless of ethnicity. In addition to the Ukrainians, millions of Russian peasant farmers were also killed, along with members of other ethnic groups (including a good many Georgians - Stalin's own nationality group). On the other hand, Stalin, like other Russian and Soviet rulers, feared Ukrainian nationalism, since the Ukrainians were the Soviet empire's largest minority group. As Conquest and other historians suggest, he may well have been happy to cut down on the number of Ukrainians under his rule, thereby reducing the chance that they would ever be able to achieve independence. The terror famine enabled him to achieve both his ethnic and his economic objectives at the same time.