Part 3: The Culture of Genocide
Are Russian soldiers who commit war crimes full-fledged human beings with consciousness, conscience and agency? Or, are they somehow less than human, somehow dehumanized so their behavior is almost involuntary, exonerating them from responsibility for their atrocities?
Those questions were posed in Part 2, I was just following orders, of this ongoing series of posts. They were followed by asking if the Russian soldiers’ humanity was taken from them, leaving them as automatons mindlessly obeying orders, like the Empire’s stormtroopers in Star Wars. If so, who took it away? And are those dehumanizers, rather than the soldiers themselves, ultimately responsible for the acts of savagery on the ground, just as an owner is responsible if his dog attacks a child?
My contention in this piece (Part 3) is twofold. First, the disparate war crimes committed by the Russian invaders are more than just par-for-the-course “collateral damage” to the civilian population of Ukraine: they are part of a pattern of intentional genocide. Second, the motivation for these crimes is born of contemporary Russian culture at large, and not simply of obedience to commands from a few higher-ups in Putin’s regime or the military. The hatred of ethnic Ukrainians (and other “lesser” peoples), the rationalizations that make it acceptable, even makes it a soldier’s duty to subjugate, humiliate, abuse and kill unarmed women, children, old men and disabled people en masse have been instilled into the combatants’ conscious and subconscious minds for much of their lives by Russian society and their military superiors.
The soldiers have been infused with the mythos of Russian superiority — debunked and humbled by the disintegration of the Soviet Union and the army’s defeat in Afghanistan, and therefore seeking validation and revenge — and have been so conditioned by endemic Russian paranoia that they think of themselves not as war criminals for trampling their people’s “enemies” into the sanguinary mud, but as heroes. And of course there’s the additional perk of getting their rocks off, psychologically or literally, as they watch or feel their victims writhe in agony beneath them.
The first allegation: intentional genocide:
There are rapes — acts of brutality intended to boost the egos of psychologically impotent men by degrading their victims — then there are rapes, acts of war intended to terrorize, defeat and possibly extinguish an “enemy” population.
Lyudmyla Denisova, Ukraine’s ombudsman for human rights, has documented the case of approximately 25 young women who were held in a basement in Bucha (near Kyiv) for more than a month and repeatedly raped until at least nine of them became pregnant. According to a Washington Post recounting of the incident, “Russian soldiers told them they would rape them to the point where they wouldn’t want sexual contact with any man,” Denisova said, “to prevent them from having Ukrainian children.”
So the rapes had a purpose, an intent beyond an incel’s pathetic grasp for “validation” through power — beyond sadism, beyond terrorism. The intent was to erase the Ukrainian population; the intent was genocide. The instrument, in this case, was the implantation of psychological time bombs in the victims, to turn the future mothers of Ukrainian children into the recipients of only “pure Russian” sperm. The women, if they don’t kill their fetuses (or themselves) during their forced pregnancies, would presumably give birth to children they would find it difficult to love wholeheartedly.
More evidence of genocidal intention is the ubiquitous gunning down of unarmed civilians throughout the country. Equally devastating, or perhaps more devastating in terms of lives lost, is the systematic starvation of civilians — especially in the East where the Russians have stolen stores of Ukrainian grain and sold them to other countries. This is reminiscent of Stalin’s Holodomor program of the 1930s which intentionally starved millions of ethnic Ukrainians to death by cutting off their access to their own grain harvest.
Then there’s the deportation of some 700,000 Ukrainian children and adults from the Mariupol region to “filtration camps” where they are selected for extermination or for deportation to slave labor camps in Siberia. Add to that incessant bombing of civilian targets including schools, hospitals, orphanages and homes for the elderly — over 500 health care facilities have been destroyed or damaged — and we have a clear picture of intentionally targeting the general population with the intent to significantly degrade its viability or simply eliminate it.
Ukrainian “denazification” floods the Russian airwaves
News of these atrocities has a way of filtering back to the Mother Country. Although the populace that supports them, through its support of the Putin regime, is heavily invested in the denial of any wrongdoing on Russia’s part, there exists the danger to the regime’s insiders that enough people will see what’s happening and they could undermine both the war effort and Putin’s legitimacy. This awakening of sympathies would be in part due to the fact that, to date, most of victims of Russia’s genocide are in the eastern, Russian-speaking areas of Ukraine, including Mariupol, where many Russians have longstanding familial, social and economic ties. So, if you’re going to wipe out that population, you’d better have a damn good explanation.
What better explanation than that the Ukrainians are all Nazis?
One of Putin’s original justification for Russia’s invasion was that “Nazis” had taken control of Ukraine and subjugated the Russian speaking population, which was thought to identify with Mother Russia. The acceptance of this narrative, possibly by Putin himself (along with Russian Orthodox Church Patriarch Krill), and certainly by the majority of Russians who learned of it from the state controlled media, relied on the longstanding hatred of the Nazi’s who invaded the Motherland in WWII. Just as calling someone a Jew triggered Gentile revulsion and hatred toward that person throughout much of Russia’s (and Europe’s) history, calling a person or group of people “Nazis,” while representing oneself as a hero trying to liberate the oppressed from from their evil rulers, was a sure-fire way to evoke public sympathy and support. The invasion’s aim of liberating the general populace from its Nazi overlords was heartily approved.
But there were two problems. One, it was absurd to call Ukraine’s Jewish president Zelenski, whose family had lost relatives in the Holocaust, a Nazi. More important, in terms of the pretext for genocide we’re examining, the Ukrainian people, rather than joining the Russian invaders in overthrowing their government, resisted the Russians. This betrayal of Russian expectations had to be explained, and it didn’t take long for Putin’s state media to promulgate a new narrative, namely, all Ukrainians are Nazi’s. Which means that it’s OK to kill them all — in fact, it’s the right thing to do. (This has been updated to include everyone opposed to Russia’s invasion — NATO, the U.S., etc. — are “Nazis.”)
Timothy Snyder, the Yale professor of history and internationally renowned expert on Eastern Europe, authoritarianism and genocide (perhaps best known in the U.S. for his short book On Tyranny) has followed the rapid revision of Russia’s anti-Ukrainian-state propaganda into anti-Ukrainian-people propaganda as Putin’s original war aims sputtered. In an article titled Russia’s genocide handbook, a key post on his Thinking about… blog, Snyder explains that on April 8 (six weeks after the invasion began, and when Russia had lost the battle for Kviv), Russia’s official press agency issued “an explicit program for the complete elimination of the Ukrainian nation as such.” (This fits the Oxford Dictionary’s definition of genocide: “the deliberate killing of a large group of people, especially those of a particular ethnic group or nation.”)
The program came in the form of a handbook which Snyder summarizes: “A ‘Nazi’…is simply anyone who identifies as Ukrainian.” And, “Ukrainians are ‘Nazi’s because they fail to accept ‘the necessity that the people support Russia.’”
The handbook goes on to assert, “Such people, ‘the majority of the population’ [of 44 million] are to be killed or sent to work in ‘labor camps’ to expurgate their guilt for not loving Russia. Survivors are to be subject to ‘re-education.’ Children will be raised to be Russian. The name ‘Ukraine’ will disappear.”
This from the official state media, which means that it is the messaging pushed on almost all Russians — who have already been programmed for years, if not for generations, to believe in the superiority of the Russian people, the soon-to-be-reestablished glory of the Motherland, that stronghold against deviants and racial dilution, etc., etc., etc.
Add to this the fact that, according to a New York Times article, committing atrocities has “deep roots,” in the Russian military which allows for, if not actually encourages, the sadistic abuse of its recruits, turning many of them into abusers themselves. Recently, the military has conditioned soldiers to absorb the “Kremlin’s years of dehumanizing propaganda against Ukrainians” by making them sit through through daily “informational television programs” that explain they are training to fight “‘Nazis’ — as their forefathers did in WWII…”
Who is guilty of genocide?
There may be specific legal definitions that make the crime of genocide difficult to establish in an international court. One has to prove intent, charge specific individuals of crimes, make airtight cases and so on. This is as it should be: justice, to retain legitimacy, must be meted out…judiciously.
But then there’s the view from the street where interpreting Russia’s invasion of Ukraine as anything other than an attempt at genocide is simply indefensible. The war is a classic example of an imperial power rationalizing its lust for expansion by demonizing its neighboring people as a pretext for unleashing hideous violence against them.
The remaining question is who, among those of genocidal intent, should be punished? The grunts committing the atrocities? A select group of rulers? The entire population of Russian “zombies,” as that country’s dissidents call them, who support, and often cheer for the genocidal actions of their military?
Which brings us back to the overarching question of this series: Should we cheer when programmed and abused Russian soldiers die? Or, should we only cheer when Putin’s insiders die? Or, should we cheer for the reduction — with bombs and guns, or through impoverishing sanctions — of the general Russian population — a tit-for-tat program that’ll fix ‘em?
We’ll take a look at these issues in Part 4 of this series, Killing with Reverence: Nuremberg, Russia and America’s genocidal past, coming soon.