Echoes of the Holodomor – Jewish Journal

Posted By on March 2, 2022

The events unfolding in Ukraine this week appear to be the maniacal behavior of a crazed leader. Not so. Putin is behaving to form. What we are seeing has its roots in history.

If history has taught us one thing, it is to take international bullies at their word.

There has been widespread condemnation of Vladimir Putins desire to de-nazify Ukraine. Whenever the term Nazi gets invoked in political rhetoric it is inflammatory, especially on the outbreak of violent conflict. The fact that President Zelensky is himself Jewish and had close relatives murdered during the Holocaust makes any such claim of ideological Nazism implausible, and highly insulting. But Zelenskys Jewish identity has nothing to do with Putins use of the term. It is a dog whistle to remind Russians that many Ukrainians sided with the Nazis against the Soviet Union. It is a way to dehumanize the enemy and manipulate the Russian population into supporting the violence. If Ukrainians are framed as Nazis, then the acts of violence that might follow seem more justifiable in pursuit of a so-called just cause. It is highly dangerous propaganda. If history has taught us one thing, it is to take international bullies at their word.

What we are seeing unfolding in Ukraine should be of no surprise. It is an old school extension of the twentieth century. Putin is reprising Stalins playbook in Ukraine: occupy it, use its resources, repress its people, make them feel just Russian enough that they dont fight back. It is a struggle for power, resources and the need for all Russian leaders to have political and economic dominance in the region.

Jews have strong memories of Ukrainians joining the SS and participating in the mass murder of European Jewry, a treacherous past that was never prosecuted. Time and again I have heard survivors of the Holocaust say in their testimonies at USC Shoah Foundation that, the Ukrainians were worse than the Germans. That was not the case. Hitlers Germany was the author and the executioner of the Final Solution. But for many Jews, it was their Ukrainian neighbors who turned against them and murdered them in cold blood. Ukrainianswereworse than the Germans for many Jews, because they never saw Germans.

The Russians saw the exact same treachery from the other side. Many Ukrainian nationalists welcomed the invasion of Nazi Germany in 1941, because they wanted to overthrow the Stalinist oppression that had pulverized their country for over two decades. A hundred years ago they had fought a tenacious four-year battle to keep their independence from the Russians between 1917 and 1921. They eventually lost and were swallowed into the Soviet Union, but they have deep memories of defending their territory.

In 1932-1933 over 3.5 million Ukrainians died because of the politically manufactured, synthetic famine known as the Holodomor. It was a state organized genocide that starved Ukrainians to death and into total submission. The arrival of Hitler in 1941 was a very welcome break for many Ukrainians who were ready to exact revenge on Stalin and his form of Communism, which many equated with Jews.

Putin is a former KGB officer who served for 16 years in the Soviet Union. In his mind, Ukraine belongs to Russia in his post-Soviet construct of the region. He is a power-hungry expansionist, but he is not crazy. He is fulfilling his megalomaniac destiny like the Russian leaders who preceded him. He is taking control of what he believes is the right of Russiathe resource rich, breadbasket of Ukraine.

The Russian army lacks discipline. War crimes, atrocity, maybe even genocide could follow.

How Putin and his armed forces choose to exercise their misadventure is now a matter of international law. We have already seen an armored vehicle purposefully drive over a civilian automobile in broad daylight. That tells us everything we need to know. The Russian army lacks discipline. War crimes, atrocity, maybe even genocide could follow. The Holodomor is the precedent. Anything goes when it comes to Russian rule in the Ukraine.

Whenever genocide occurs, war almost always occurs in parallel, but the two must not be confused. The Holocaust happened during World War II but was a separate act of violence within the war itself. The same was true in Rwanda and Bosnia. You can have war without genocide. But where there is a historical pattern of oppression, and the rhetoric states they are Nazis, then crimes against humanity become more likely.

As a scholar of genocide, I am among the last to call genocide. I have to be sure before I call it. But what I can say for sure is that the long arm of history points to a total disregard of the value of Ukrainian lives over Russian objectives. Put simply, it means that Ukrainian civilians are not safe, and that atrocity is possible, even likely.

Leaders of the world take note.

Stephen D. Smith is CEO of StoryFile and Executive Director Emeritus at USC Shoah Foundation.

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Echoes of the Holodomor - Jewish Journal

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