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Norman NaimarkStalin’s Genocides

Princeton University Press, 2010

by marshall poe on September 24, 2010

Norman Naimark

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Absolutely no one doubts that Stalin murdered millions of people in the 1920s, 1930s and 1940s. His ruthless campaign of “dekulakization,” his pitiless deportation of “unreliable” ethnic groups, his senseless starvation of Ukrainian peasants, his cruel attempt to “cleanse” the Communist Party of supposed “enemies of the people”–all of these actions resulted in mass death. In total, Stalin is responsible for the murder of roughly 10 million Soviet citizens. Again, this is well established.

What is not well established is what to call Stalin’s crimes. As Norman Naimark points out in his thought-provoking Stalin’s Genocides (Princeton UP, 2010), historians and others have been peculiarly conflicted about this issue. Everyone agrees it’s mass murder. But is it “genocide,” with all that term entails? Etymologically, it doesn’t seem so: gens is Latin for “people who claim common descent,” that is, a clan, tribe, or even nation. The Kulaks were not a gens. Historically, genocide doesn’t fit well either: after World War II, the UN decided that it would mean “acts committed with the intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial religious group, as such.” Again, the Kulaks are none of these things.

Naimark, however, argues Stalin’s crimes should be considered genocide on three grounds. First, he demonstrates that some of Stalin’s attacks were genocide under the UN definition, for example his exile and starvation of minority ethnic groups. Second, he shows that some of those who sought to define genocide during and after World War II did not intend to restrict it to gens: they included political groups, that is, entities like the Kulaks. The Soviets and others demanded these groups be removed from the definition, and they were. Third, he demonstrates that international law has evolved, and with it the legal meaning of genocide: recent proceedings in the Baltic states, for example, have broadened the definition.

Some might ask “What does it matter what we call it?” I think it matters a lot. Words are not only an interpretation of the world, but they are also a reflection of who we are. The words the Nazis used to describe their crimes–”final solution,” “transport to the East,” “special handling”–tell us much about them. The words the Stalinists used to describe their crimes–”purge,” “evacuation,” “re-education”–tell us much about them as well. And so we have to ask: What does our persistent failure to call Stalin’s crimes “genocide” say about us? Nothing very good, I think.

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{ 7 comments… read them below or add one }

Matt Payne September 24, 2010 at 3:17 pm

I am looking forward to reading and assigning this book (I’m a Naimark fan anyway). Thanks for the nice review. I’ve got to say that the terminology thing is quite tricky–though I completely agree with your take. My reading of the UN Convention Against Genocide 2c “Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part,” certainly makes the term appropriate for Poles, Kazakhs, Ukrainians, Cossacks, Koreans, etc. The kulaks tend to be more fuzzy, since they are not, per se, “a national, ethnical, racial or religious group” but as you say, the definition should evolve to move beyond biological to culturally and political ascribed communities as well (since, after all, cultural and political ascription are what nations are anyway).
All this, however gets tricky when the question of “intent” comes. I’ve always hated the idea that “intent” should bulk so large in the issue of genocide since “depraved indifference” is recognized in law as well.
What do I mean, here? I mean the Soviet apologist can (as the GPU did) claim the mass deaths at Nazino (“Cannibal Island”) were unintended and the prisoners were sent for “rehabilitation.” But the special colonists were subject to such depraved indifference to their life and health (no food, no shelter, no protection from predatory elements, no warning in a “free-fire zone” for those seen as escaping), that this is certainly mass murder.
I’ve gotten alot of flack at conferences (often from folks studying the Holodomor) for subtitling my latest project as “Modernization and Genocide in Kazakhstan.” The argument seems to be this wasn’t a “real” genocide since despite the body count (1.5-2 million dead; 40-60% of Kazakh population including just about every single child under 4) since food aid was sent. Leaving aside whether the starving got the food (not much, as it turns out–Nicola Pianciola and Sarah Cameron are doing really good work on this), it is odd to have such an “oops genocide.” You know, “we meant to uplift them but now they’re all dead. Oops.” As you point out this is essentially a Stalinist explanation (“excesses”, “hare-brained schemes” “dizzy from success”) that obscures alot more than it elucidates.
So, storry for the ramble, but I like your treatment of genocide and I think it is entirely appropriate and certainly more elegant than “democide” “classocide” or “mass murder”. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

Paul September 24, 2010 at 3:59 pm


You miss out the key words of the UN definition which are ‘as such’. These words make a huge difference, and when you put them back in make it very hard to term many of these horrific events as ‘genocide’, at least in a legal fashion. They also exist for a reason, which is to distinguish between murder for some political reason and murder simply because of what racial/ethnic group somebody belongs to. Once you start conflating the two, then the particular aspects of the latter get lost.


Matt Payne September 25, 2010 at 8:29 am

No, I go the “as such” and gotta say, deporting every single Korean from the Far East because they are inconveniently located to create a pre-text for Japanese agression, in which process 10% of them die, seems pretty “as such” for me.
I am aware of the problem of diluting the charge of genocide by decoupling it from “intent” but there is simply no vocabulary to deal with the “depraved indifference” part of the story. And by the way (and believe it or not) the “depraved indifference” side of this story has led to a much more massive body count (think of Mao’s 45 million dead peasants, and Leopold’s minimum of 5 million). Seems Ted Shanin is right about the “awkward class” since regimes and states of all stripes seem to like to murder peasants in extraordinary numbers by extraordinarily brutal ways.
Were the Kazakhs “genocided” under the existing UN declaration criteria. Probably not. And that seems a problem with the definition to me, not those who dislike the definition. In fact genocide has become a normative, rather than a descriptive word. And I think Marshall is right that it’s meaning should be expanded to politically and economically constituted groups. It is, after all, the word that describes what is generally considerd the most heinous act a government or movement can do. And it requires intervention (remember the haggling over what Rwanda “was”). Yet, as Marshall points out, reserving it for intentional, ethnically-targeted state murder leaves our vocabulary of atrocity and moral imagination impoverished.
I realize I am in the minority on this, but if the Stalinist and Maoist regimes are not genocidal–especially in relation to the majority Russian and Han ethnicities, I really don’t understand the usefulness of the term.
Just my take.

historyman September 28, 2010 at 2:33 pm

what a pointless argument over terminology. it’s mass murder. the events all have features and circumstances particular to themselves, but they they all lead to the same place: brutality and heaps of corpses.

Matthew Payne November 6, 2010 at 7:48 am

Dear Historyman,
Yeah, pointless argument over terminology. Do you feel good that you dismissed somebody’s productive conversation. You don’t like the “argument,” (which it was not, I found Paul’s intervention very interesting and was responding to Marshall’s thoughtful comments, not “arguing”). Terminology matters and if you don’t think it matters than take a look at the backflips the Clinton administration used to avoid the term in the Rwandan case.
But it’s all cool–you feel all superior and what not that you’re concerned with the body count and scholars like Norman Naimark (who’s done more for finding heaps of bodies that most people seem not to have noticed in plain sight than anyone else in my field) are silly for arguing over terminology. Alright then, enjoy that.
Matt (who, you know, actually signs his real name to have, you know, real discussions of history with, you know, real historians)
PS–yes, I know the snark mode is on high, but less snarky, what fruitful purpose does telling people to STFU, their conversation is pointless, serve? Quite rude in my opinion.

Gale Stokes April 20, 2011 at 11:19 am

I don’t think the discussion over whether this or that massacre meets the technical requirement of genocide is pointless. It does have a potential impact on whether and how the concept becomes a viable part of international law over time, and may or may not give advocates a sense of justification. But if murder is a crime when one person kills another, is it not still murder when there are millions involved? The ICTY has indicted and convicted individuals for “crimes against humanity,” even though the numbers are nowhere near Stalinesque. Might not this concept be the right one for these kinds of mass murders?

Alex May 10, 2011 at 11:55 pm

“As such” apparently covers the US genocide in Vietnam, Iraq, Libya etc., not mentioning American natives.

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