The 75th Anniversary of Stalin's Terror Famine and the Genocide-Mass Murder Distinction:

Cathy Young, a fellow Russian emigre, has a fascinating article on the 75th anniversary of Stalin's terror famine of the 1930s. Some 6 to 10 million peasants were deliberately starved to death by the Soviet government as part of its campaign to force the peasantry to accept the collectivization of agriculture.

Unfortunately, as Young points out, proper commemoration and public understanding of this horrendous atrocity has been partially forestalled by an ongoing dispute between the Russia and Ukrainian governments. The Ukrainians claim that this case of mass murder amounts to "genocide" because Stalin deliberately targeted Ukrainian peasants in order to prevent any possible resurgence of Ukrainian nationalism. The Russian government notes that many of the victims were members of other ethnic groups (including millions of ethnic Russians), and therefore argue that there was no genocide, but "merely" a mass murder.

Despite the current Putin government's efforts to minimize the scope of Soviet atrocities and play up the supposed positive aspects of the communist era, the Russians do not deny that millions of people were deliberately starved to death during the collectivization campaign. Instead, they focus on denying the "genocide" charge. As Young puts it, "it seems that the only time Russia's government remembers the Russian victims of the Terror-Famine is when it needs them to counter Ukrainian claims [of genocide]."

The ridiculous nature of this dispute highlights the arbitrariness of distinguishing between genocide and "mere" mass murder, and of holding that the former is somehow far worse than the latter. I have written about the issue before in this series of posts.

To the millions of peasants who died in the terror famine, it hardly matters whether they were targeted on ethnic grounds or merely because they were "class enemies" and "kulaks" who were considered obstacles to Stalin's plans. Moreover, given that Kulak and class enemy status was largely determined by family background (and both were defined broadly enough to include virtually all peasants whose families owned even a small plot of land), one cannot even make the claim that a genocide targets people for characteristics they cannot change, while more traditional communist mass murders target people based on mutable attributes.

On a more personal note, I recently discussed this dispute with my grandmother, who actually lived through the famine in early 1930s Ukraine (though she is not Ukrainian). She reacted with incredulity. "How can anyone doubt there was a genocide," she said, "I saw the starving and dying people myself!" I tried to explain to her the genocide-mass murder distinction embedded in current international law as neutrally as I could, noting some of the justifications offered for it. She, of course, was unmoved, and continued to see the distinction as a dubious contrivance. I have to agree.

UPDATE: I should note, in response to commenters, that there are clearly cases where Soviet policy could be considered genocide under the international law definition thereof. Examples include Stalin's deportation of the Crimean Tatars and other defined ethnic groups from the Crimea. This led to thousands of deaths, and clearly targeted the Tatars on ethnic grounds.