Stalin’s Genocides, by Norman M. Naimark
It is an odd thing to read a small set of personal essays about a subject like Stalin’s genocides. Indeed, the subject of Stalin’s genocides is a contentious one because of the way that it reflects on the Russian nationalist project as a whole as well as the legitimacy of leftist attempts at government. Now, as someone whose politics are resolutely anti-Communist and who has a high degree of compassion for the victims of Stalin’s regime, including the poor people he misruled for a period of some three decades between the death of Stalin and his own death, I was clearly on board for what this author had to say. I found it interesting that the author chose to write about this in the form of personal essays, because most writers on Stalin’s genocides (and there were more than one of those) have chosen to write about it in rather different ways. Solzhenitsyn wrote novels as well as one of the most epic memoirs of all time, and a great many others have turned the material of Stalin’s genocides into heavy and dark historical tomes that delve into the statistics of Stalin’s grim harvest, but few have made collections of polemical essays, a format I greatly enjoy writing personally.
This short volume of less than 150 pages contains seven essays along with various other material. The author begins with acknowledgements and an introduction that expresses the scope and perspective of the book as a whole. After that there is an essay that discusses the meaning of genocide and the various activities and levels of genocide that exist and how they would apply to various aspects of Stalin’s behavior (1) towards Ukrainians, Poles, and others. The next essay looks at Stalin’s life and seeks to remove the sort of excuses that people would make for how Stalin became a genocidal tyrant (2) in looking at his background as a radicalized Georgian. After that the author talks about the political and class violence that was involved in Stalin’s dekulakization efforts (3) as well as the horrors of the Holodomor (4), where Stalin’s actions killed millions of Ukrainians. After that the author talks about Stalin’s record in removing nations for forced exile (with the accompanying massive deaths) that took place for the Tartars and Chechens and others (5). Finally, the author looks at the genocidal hostility of the great purge in the late 1930’s (6) as well as the comparison between the crimes of Stalin and Hitler (7) before the author comes to some conclusions about Stalin’s many shades of genocide and some notes and an index.
Reading a book like this, even if it is a collection of essays and not based on grim statistics and official writings, helps the reader to frame the moral bankruptcy of Stalin’s regime. Unfortunately, Stalin’s various genocides are not unique in multiple ways. For example, a writer might compare Stalin’s forced transfer of peoples to that which took place in the 1900’s America, most notably but not only the Trail of Tears. Stalin’s transfer of peoples comes into a context of violence against cultures that includes not only the United States and Hitler’s regime but also the Chinese of the Qing dynasty, the Inca, and the Assyrians, as well as others. Likewise, Stalin’s own massive amount of killings in imprisonments and internal exile and deliberate hostility towards his own citizens resembles a great many other totalitarian regimes from Hitler’s Germany to Communist China to Cambodia under Pol Pot, all of which considerably blackens the historical reputation of the left as well as that of totalitarian governments as a whole. And an essay is a good place to deal with polemical matters such as this, where we must all ponder our own legacies of violence that we have to wrestle with.