Among international law, genocide is widely considered the most heinous criminal act a governing body can inflict upon a society. First coined by Raphael Lemkin in 1943, the term genocide denoted the intention to annihilate a group of the population by destroying essential foundations of life. To Lemkin, the term was a blanket label used to convey a serious violation of human rights, applicable to categories of social and political institutions, culture, language, national feelings, religion, economic means, personal security, liberty, health, dignity, and life itself. For decades before the adoption and recognition of this term, Soviet Russia (the USSR and its policing force the NKVD) was conducting lethal and nonlethal criminal acts against particular individuals who subscribed to national and ethnic identities at the order of their charismatic dictator, Joseph Stalin (Weiss-Wendt 2005). Stalin’s power hungry regime sought to destroy civil liberties and inflict terror on the general public to ensure an anti democratic ideology (Goldman 2005). With rising tensions amongst Europe and Western Asia, state security concerns motivated Stalin’s genocidal acts against the repressed people of the Soviet Union.
While Lemkin may have instigated the indictments for Soviet post-war counterinsurgency measures, his definition of genocide was too widely applicable for the UN to ratify. The UN believed his classifications for the destruction of political and social groups were not a violation of human rights, but rather, crimes of genocide dealt only with the physical and biological destruction of life associated with ethnicity and nationality (Weiss-Wendt 2005). For these reasons, many forms of Communist oppression went unrecognized as criminal acts due to claims of political rather than ethnic incentives. Condemned nationalities (Soviet minority nations) were labeled as social groups, and thus endured mass exile and deportation that often resulted in massive mortality due to unhygienic conditions and resettlement in remote locations with harsh climates. Stalin aimed to destroy these ethnic groups as viable and distinct cultures through a combination of mass exile and forced assimilation, (Pohl 2000, 268). Per the UN definition of genocide, such forcible removal was not considered criminal because the associated death with deportation was unintentional. A largely disputed act of perceived genocide on behalf of Stalin’s regime was the 1932 Ukrainian Famine. The threat of Ukrainian nationalism, which I will later explain was detrimental to the suffering of these Soviet minorities, caused Stalin to invoke the Extraordinary Commission in Ukraine to take draconian measures, resulting in the confiscation of grain, vegetables, and meat that ensured starvation.
Stalin’s pursuit of undermining the Ukrainian Nation has since caused scholars like Craig Whitney, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times, to conclude that the famine was intended as an instrument of genocide. Downplaying any specific ethnic factor in relation to the famine, the Soviets blamed a bad harvest for the lack of resources. Modern Ukrainian specialists, however, support the conviction of genocidal famine based on Stalin’s prejudices (Marples 2009). It wasn’t until years after exposure to Stalinism caused population displacement, denial of freedom, and mass scale killing, that Lemkin’s definition was enforced in international law. While the narrative for Soviet genocide resonated differently in the memory of each state, the Baltic States of Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania sought and procured legal justice for their endured genocidal deportation through the establishment of Articles 61.1, 68.1, and 71 of the ex-Soviet CC. Such articles extended legal protection to social and political groups (Pettai 2017). While the adversity experienced by vast populations of targeted minority groups has recently been acknowledged as empirical data, the motivation behind such cruel exploits continues to be a matter of interpretation.
Known as one of the most cruel genocidaires in modern history, Stalin’s coldness in the face of human affliction likely stemmed from his rapidly increasing power over Western Europe and Asia. With the inherent trust of the Soviet Nation, and victories characterized by the destruction rather than liberation of small nations, Stalin’s vainglory sent him on a power trip like no other. His sense of entitlement caused him to become hyper aware of society around him, and with anxieties about the possibility of war, he became dubious of surrounding states. This caused him to order executions based on the belief that certain minorities were incapable of digesting a great number of people belonging to a higher civilization, (Weiss-Wendt 2005, 552). Eliminating those that were unfit to prosper within USSR borders then provoked suspicions of conspiracy to collude with enemies. Stalin also uprooted and exiled/condemned Soviet Koreans, Finns, Germans, Karachays, Kalmyks, Chechens, Ingush, Balkars, Crimean Tatars, Meskhetian Turks, Georgian Kurds, Khem Shils, and Pontic Greeks, asserting they were inherently treasonous and disloyal to the Soviet State, (Pohl 2000, 267). Although presumptuous, Stalin was not completely unwarranted in his suspicions. After the Battle of Stalingrad, many of the resettled Kalmyks retreated with enemy German forces. This hasty decision was grounds for the abolishment of the Kalmyk Autonomous Soviet Socialist Republic at the hands of blood thirsty Stalin (Richardson 2002). As a result of his deportations and executions, Stalin felt a sense of distrust from his subordinates that sent him into a paranoid frenzy. He suffered from a paranoid delusional system… in essence, an entire mythological structure of traitors and spies was constructed to satisfy the boss’s fantasies, (Naimark 2012, 106). While Stalin’s previous fears of potential policy adoption, reflecting national-in-form but socialist-in-content ideologies, made him suspicious of non-Russian Soviet republics, this new paranoia made him suspicious of even his closest confidants (Marples 2009). Stalin was constantly on the hunt for two-faced party members who strongly supported Stalin and his regime on the surface, but were in fact spies and and agents of foreign powers. Coupled with his extreme xenophobia, Stalin’s constant fear of infiltration fueled irrational criminal acts with morbid consequences (Naimark 2012). The security of the state, and his own power, set foundations of distrust amongst the Soviet Union, with a major byproduct being mass casualties.
As his administration was strengthened through the repression and oppression of Soviet minorities, Stalin counteracted distrust amongst his people through forced trust and established state-to-citizen kinship. Goals of emotional mobilization, disciplining, and management of disparate groups and individuals characterized the emotional regime of Stalinism. Using trust as a precious resource that signified social status, the mechanisms of inclusion and exclusion established through inequalities provoked individuals to seek close social relationships with the government. Trust granted by the party was seen as a kind of insurance that provided feelings of security and stability and the sense that the future was predictable, (Tikhomirov 2013, 79).
While his regime epitomized terror that led to a society of inherent distrust, Stalin saw the importance of gaining public trust to safeguard his expectations of complete capitulation, fealty, and loyalty. He made government and police authorities open to contact with the public and assured congruency in political and social communication. This aroused feelings of paternalism within the Soviet Union that led denizens to see Stalin as a trustworthy father figure rather than the sadistic oppressor he was. Stalin’s deliverance of a happy life created emotional bonds that advanced notions of unwritten rules and informal practices as being more binding than codified laws and expressly stated rules. This propaganda presented representations of prosperity and well being [that] concealed the realities of poverty, deprivation and need, (Tikhomirov 2013, 108). This Bolshevik sphere of trust bred individual realization of one’s own weaknesses and consequent need to recognize authority which forced more trust toward the state than one’s own family. Political kinship superseded hereditary ties, rendering each family subordinate to the interests of the big family of the people. The implementation of collective responsibility was also crucial to the widespread trust in the Soviet Union; it held groups responsible for the actions of individuals, leading to conformity, loyalty, and subordination among socially differentiated groups of the population (Tikhomirov 2013). The Kalmyk ASSR provides an exemplary case. Fourteen years after majority of the Kalmyks retreated Stalingrad with German forces, Stalin relocated the remaining population back to their ancestral homeland. Because of the individuals who fled the Soviet Union, the remaining Kalmyks were punished and scrutinized, however, Stalin’s mercy and trust in the ASSR provided the opportunity to show gratitude to the state in the form of assimilation and cooperation. This deprivation of the Kalmyks’ right to complain is labeled the Fiction of Friendship (Richardson 2002). In the Soviet case, distrust propagated forced trust in the government for fear of being victimized by Stalin and the NKVD. Repressive policy of exclusion became an important tool for measuring trust/distrust in, and outside of, the USSR’s borders, justifying extensive punishment of enemies as state security concerns. Such elements of trust allowed the genocidal practices of the Soviet Union to go undisputed in the prime of Stalin’s destructive reign.
Within its anthropological context, Stalin’s genocides are widely debated due to the cultural relativism of human rights. The facts and data used to examine the Soviet Union’s cruel acts against minority groups are understood to be relative and subjective to the perspective of the examiner. While majority of people can agree Stalin’s actions were a criminal violation of human rights, the notions of genocide and social norms of Soviet Russia differ greatly from modern humanitarian ethics. By attaching moral meaning to such historical records, the application of historical revisionism disables any ability to judge the genocides committed during this time; only investigation and analysis warrant an anthropological study (Wilson 2005). The significance of this approach is merely the international law reform that came as a result of investigating Stalin’s regime. Neutral and inclusive definitions of what should be considered genocide are problematic because of the momentous political choices they can justify. Genocide is more recently considered a legal instrument designed to prosecute and convict people, ignoring the causes and mechanisms of mass killings and population displacement. The law associated with genocidal allegations reduces complex histories to defective legal templates, and thus distorts them. However, modern inquiries have yielded data that showcase genocide as centrally motivated by state concerns (Ferrara 2015). Various centrally organized punitive actions and their jarring implementations illustrate the extent of Stalin’s terror and the organizational, psychological, as well as political means of self-destruction brought about by Stalinism (Goldman 2005). Through copious personal recounts, meticulous quantitative data, and thorough legislative policy, it has been proven Stalin acted unethically toward marginalized, repressed, and disenfranchised nations in the name of the Soviet Union and its prosperity.
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