Stalin's Genocides
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Stalin's Genocides

Norman M. Naimark

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Stalin's Genocides

Norman M. Naimark

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The chilling story of Stalin's crimes against humanity Between the early 1930s and his death in 1953, Joseph Stalin had more than a million of his own citizens executed. Millions more fell victim to forced labor, deportation, famine, bloody massacres, and detention and interrogation by Stalin's henchmen. Stalin's Genocides is the chilling story of these crimes. The book puts forward the important argument that brutal mass killings under Stalin in the 1930s were indeed acts of genocide and that the Soviet dictator himself was behind them.Norman Naimark, one of our most respected authorities on the Soviet era, challenges the widely held notion that Stalin's crimes do not constitute genocide, which the United Nations defines as the premeditated killing of a group of people because of their race, religion, or inherent national qualities. In this gripping book, Naimark explains how Stalin became a pitiless mass killer. He looks at the most consequential and harrowing episodes of Stalin's systematic destruction of his own populace—the liquidation and repression of the so-called kulaks, the Ukrainian famine, the purge of nationalities, and the Great Terror—and examines them in light of other genocides in history. In addition, Naimark compares Stalin's crimes with those of the most notorious genocidal killer of them all, Adolf Hitler.

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Russian History


The specific language of the U.N. Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide of December 1948 is frequently cited as the reason why Stalin’s crimes cannot be considered genocide. However, if one looks at the history of the convention itself, there are good reasons to think more flexibly about the document’s meaning. The Polish Jewish lawyer Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term “genocide” during World War II, first came up with a definition of what he then called “barbarism” in 1933 in a proposal to the League of Nations: “Whosoever, out of hatred towards a racial, religious or social collectivity, or with a view of the extermination thereof, undertakes a punishable action against the life, bodily integrity, liberty, dignity or economic existence of a person belonging to such a collectivity, is liable, for the crime of barbarity.” Lemkin added: “Whosoever, either out of hatred towards a racial, religious or social collectivity, or with a view to the extermination thereof, destroys its cultural or artistic works will be liable for the crime of vandalism.”1
After fleeing Poland from the Nazis in 1940 and landing in the United States, Lemkin continued his search for an international legal statute against mass killing, extermination, and “vandalism.” He first developed his definition of the new term “genocide” in the document collection Axis Rule in Occupied Europe, which he published as a consultant for the War Department in 1944. He had been searching for the right word to describe the horrors of mass murder, expulsion, and oppression, one that would jolt the consciousness of his readers, and, clearly, he was sure that he had found it: “The practices of extermination of nations and ethnic groups as carried out by the invaders [the Nazis] is called by the author ‘genocide,’ a term deriving from the Greek work genos (tribe, race) and the Latin cide (by way of analogy, see homicide, fratricide).”2
We are not certain why Lemkin dropped crimes against social or political entities (versus religious, racial, or ethnic ones) from his 1944 book. In all likelihood, he did so primarily to emphasize the particular evil of Nazi racial attacks on Jews, Poles, and others. No doubt, he also wanted to avoid any trouble that his government-sponsored publication might elicit from the Soviet Union, whose participation in the anti-Hitler alliance was particularly valued at this point in Washington. Until the war was won, the American president and his closest advisors tabled questions about the reliability of their Moscow ally. The press and the public lauded the accomplishments of “Uncle Joe” and the gallant fighting men and women of the Red Army, while few objections were raised about the Soviet Union’s hostile attitudes toward the Poles, including the massacre of Polish officers at Katyn.3 Even more important, Roosevelt was planning for a postwar order that would see the creation of a “United Nations” based on a condominium of Soviet and American interests, in particular, even to the point of marginalizing his “imperial” British ally. In this atmosphere, it is not surprising that Lemkin did not insist on maintaining social and political groups in his definition of genocide. Sometimes, however, contemporary scholars overlook the fact that Lemkin continued to advocate a broad and flexible view of genocide, considering many different kinds of cases within the purview of the term, including premodern as well as modern episodes, and suggesting that genocide often took place in different forms, some more or less murderous. In the early 1950s he explicitly included Soviet crimes in his conception of genocide, but he did so rather unsystematically and for transparently political purposes.4
After the war, Lemkin tirelessly lobbied for his new definition of genocide in the press and at the Nuremberg trials, which began in the late fall of 1946.5 He was only partially successful at Nuremberg. Genocide was mentioned several times in the course of the trials, but it was left out of the final pronouncement of the tribunal. In fact, the justices at Nuremberg were much more interested in the condemnation of the Nazis as aggressors in the international system than they were in condemning the mass murder of the Jews. Even at that, the goal was to expose the evil triad of Nazism–militarism–economic imperialism even more than to put on trial war criminals per se and explore their motivations.6
At Nuremberg, the Soviets pressed their interests, initially developed in the late 1930s, in using international law as a means of condemning fascism and Nazism, while seeking to prevent their recurrence. They saw the tribunal as presenting an opportunity to punish the perpetrators of the war of aggression and crimes against their own population and that of their allies, especially the Poles. Already in December 1943 in Ukraine, the Soviets prosecuted a number of Germans and a Russian collaborator—and, in absentia, the leaders of the German state and army—for “methodically striving for the extermination of the Slavic peoples.”7
Yet the historian does not gain much confidence in Soviet motives at Nuremberg from the fact that almost all of the dramatis personae of the Soviet delegation were involved in the Moscow show trials of the period 1936–38. These included General I. Nikitichenko, a presiding judge in the Zinoviev trial in 1937 and the Soviet prosecutor and chief judge at Nuremberg, and A. Vyshinskii, the chief prosecutor of the Moscow show trials. After having demonstrated his worth as a vicious and unrelenting attack dog of Stalin’s during the Moscow trials, where he abused the defendants and shouted down their attempts to clear themselves of impossible charges, Vyshinskii was deputy foreign minister in 1946 during the Nuremberg trials and head of a secret special commission on Nuremberg that reported directly to Molotov and Stalin. The main job of the commission, according to Arkady Vaksberg, was to make sure that there was no public discussion of Nazi–Soviet relations (not to mention cooperation!) during the period of the pact, 1939–41. The Soviet government was especially concerned that the secret protocols of the Nazi–Soviet Pact were not mentioned at all.8
Apparently, Stalin and the Soviets were disappointed that Nuremberg did not prove as “successful” as their very own Moscow show trials in highlighting the superiority of the Soviet system and demonstrating the perfidy of its enemies. There was no didactic international condemnation of the accused; no uniform death sentences for everyone on the dock; and little attention by world public opinion to the special heroism and suffering of the Soviet people. Sovinformburo (the Soviet state news agency) reported back to Stalin from Nuremberg that Soviet jurists, journalists, and public figures at the trial took a decidedly back-row seat to their Western counterparts in the presentation of the trials to world public opinion. The Soviet representatives at the trial were also disappointed that there were no serious efforts at Nuremberg itself to produce a convention against genocide. From their perspective, the Soviet peoples were the main victims of the racism and imperialism of Nazi Germany and deserved protection against a resurgent Germany through a genocide convention.
In part as a result of their negative reading of Nuremberg, the Soviets showed no interest in later proposals at the United Nations to set up a permanent tribunal to deal with the crime of genocide. Instead, the Soviets insisted that domestic courts in the country where the crime was committed be responsible for trying those accused of genocide.9 Moreover, an international tribunal, stated Aron Trainin, the Soviets’ leading specialist on international law, “under certain circumstances can turn out to provide reasons for unjustifiable interference in the internal life, in the justice system of individual states.”10
The Soviets were also dismayed at Nuremberg that the German defense attorneys had found the opportunity to bring up alleged Soviet crimes committed during the war—and especially those associated with the period of the Nazi–Soviet Pact—despite a “gentleman’s agreement” with Western jurists that the Germans would not be allowed to mention supposed Allied crimes in defense of their clients on the dock. Even if the Western allies broke this agreement toward the end of the proceedings, the Soviets were also able to use the Nuremberg proceedings to perpetuate the myth that the Nazis were responsible for shooting the twenty-two thousand Polish officers and government officials whom Stalin and Beria ordered to be executed by the NKVD in 1940. The Western judges never challenged this shameful subterfuge, though the indictment against the Nazis for the killing was eventually dropped. As Churchill wrote in his memoirs: “It was decided by the victorious governments concerned that the issue should be avoided, and the crime of Katyn was never probed in detail.”11
After the conclusion of the Nuremberg trials of the major Nazi war criminals, Lemkin lobbied energetically at the newly constituted United Nations for the introduction of an international convention against genocide. More important to its ultimate success, of course, was the determination of the Great Powers, including the Soviet Union, to come to terms with the potential of mass murder of the sort perpetrated by the Nazis in Europe during the war. The first move in this direction was the passage—without debate—of General Assembly resolution 96 (I) on December 11, 1946. The resolution condemned genocide “as a crime under international law . . . whether it is committed on religious, racial, political or any other ground” and charged the Economic and Social Council with drawing up a draft convention on the crime of genocide to be presented to the General Assembly.12 In July 1947 the Secretariat of the United Nations presented a draft of the convention that also sought “to prevent the destruction of racial, national, linguistic, religious or political groups of human beings.”13 Further work on the draft produced a series of additional revisions. As amended by the United States, it included the phrase “on grounds of national or racial origin or religious or political belief.” China added “or political opinion” instead of “political belief.”14
All of the early drafts of the genocide convention, including the initial U.N. Secretariat draft of May 1947, included political groups in their definition. The Soviets, the Poles, and even some noncommunist members of the committees and drafting commissions objected. “Political groups,” the Soviets insisted, “were entirely out of place in a scientific definition of genocide, and their inclusion would weaken the convention and hinder the fight against genocide.” The Polish delegate argued that the United Nations should oppose the extermination of groups of people for their political beliefs, like the mass shooting and killing of (left-wing) “hostages” in Spain, Greece, and elsewhere. But genocide was about mass murder of peoples, as happened to the Poles, the Russians, and the Jews at the hands of the Nazis during the war.15 The Soviets were so insistent on this point that they urged the inclusion of language in the convention that specifically referred to the fact that genocide “was organically bound up with fascismnazism and other similar race theories which preach racial and national hatred, the domination of the so-called higher races and the extermination of the so-called lower races.”16
The Soviet delegation and its allies were not the only ones who insisted that political and social groups be left out of the convention. According to the New York Times, countries like Argentina, Brazil, the Dominican Republic, Iran, and South Africa were worried that they could be accused of genocide if they fought against domestic political insurgencies by revolutionary groups. Thus the Soviets and their right-wing political opponents joined forces in the United Nations on the genocide issue. Other observers thought that the United Nations would be obligated to defend Francisco Franco in Spain or even Stalin himself against potential political revolts if the protection of “political groups” was included in the convention.17
Interestingly, Soviet proposals for the genocide convention were not confined to purely “biological” categories. They proposed that the convention include what they called “national-cultural genocide,” using the following language. “Under genocide in the present convention we also understand all of the premeditated actions taken with the intention of destroying the language, religion, or culture of any national, racial, or religious group.” Among the prohibitions included in the Soviet proposal was “the destruction of libraries, museums, schools, historical monuments, buildings used by religious groups, or other cultural buildings and objects of culture used by such groups.”18 Here, too, it is clear that the Soviets were thinking about the Nazis and the terrible destruction wrought on churches, museums, and monuments in Soviet territory, not about their own similar crimes perpetrated in the northern Caucasus, among other places. The United States and its “satellites” (in the words of one Soviet scholar) successfully blocked the Soviet initiative because of American concerns about being indicted for racism and the repression of native cultures at home.
The Soviets did not get “national-cultural genocide” included in the convention, but on the issue of political groups they did in the end wear down the Sixth Committee, in charge of the comprehensive redactions of the convention. A compromise was reached for the purpose of achieving unanimous approval of the convention. “It was for that reason,” the American delegate stated, “that it had agreed to the omission of political groups among the groups to be protected by the convention.”19 In the name of getting the convention passed at this point, Lemkin and a number of Jewish groups also lobbied against including “political groups” in its language.20 As a consequence, the final genocide convention, unanimously adopted by the U.N. General Assembly on December 9, 1948, with Lemkin in the gallery, famously defined genocide as a variety of “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group, as such.”
What this brief rendition of the origins of our use of “genocide” makes clear is that the Soviet Union and its allies in the United Nations eliminated any social, economic, or political groups from the genocide convention—and, I would add, made it very difficult for scholars to talk about genocide as a product of the Soviet system. The Soviets made the self-serving argument, both in the U.N. committees and in contemporary scholarly works on the subject, that social and political groups were too fluid and too difficult to define for them to be included in the convention.21 At the same time, in many cases of Stalinist mass killing, the Soviet leaders tended to create just such categories in their own rhetoric and by their own actions. In Stalinist lore, the more than thirty thousand “kulaks” who were shot and the two million who were deported to the Far North, Siberia, and Central Asia during collectivization and after constituted an allegedly identifiable social and political category of rich peasants, in contrast to poor and middle peasants. In fact, this was an invented group of opponents and alleged opponents of collectivization. In the history of genocide, writes Mark Levene, not enough attention has been paid to the ways “a perpetrator can conceive a group as an organized collectivity in spite of itself.” In some ways, this was as true of the “Jews,” especially fully assimilated German Jews, who were targeted for elimination by the Nazis, as it was of the “kulaks.”22
Since the fall of the Soviet Union and the independence of the Baltic states, the legal questions regarding Stalin and genocide have taken a decidedly contemporary turn. In their desire to bring to justice perpetrators of crimes against their peoples, Estonia, Latvia, and Lit...


Estilos de citas para Stalin's Genocides
APA 6 Citation
Naimark, N. (2010). Stalin’s Genocides ([edition unavailable]). Princeton University Press. Retrieved from (Original work published 2010)
Chicago Citation
Naimark, Norman. (2010) 2010. Stalin’s Genocides. [Edition unavailable]. Princeton University Press.
Harvard Citation
Naimark, N. (2010) Stalin’s Genocides. [edition unavailable]. Princeton University Press. Available at: (Accessed: 14 October 2022).
MLA 7 Citation
Naimark, Norman. Stalin’s Genocides. [edition unavailable]. Princeton University Press, 2010. Web. 14 Oct. 2022.