Please note, the introductory comments and the parenthetical comments are Mr. McConnell's words and do not necessarily represent the views of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation or the Friends of Ukraine Network.
There are times when reporting facts can lead to charges that you are extreme, and people do not want to listen.
But now is a time not only to watch and know what Russia is doing in Ukraine but to understand that the atrocities are intentional; genocide is Russian state policy.
Do not turn away. Do not reject that last sentence as extreme and untrue.
Timothy Snyder, the Richard C. Levin Professor of History at Yale University, and an extraordinary author and historian of Central and Eastern Europe and the Holocaust has written two important pieces in the last few days.
Today's The Washington Post published "By denying a Ukrainian culture, Putin flattens his own" which discusses Putin's desire and intent to crush Ukraine into being one people and culture - Russian. Synder discusses how an official Russian news service has eliminated any ambiguity as to Russia's intent to "eliminate" the Ukrainian nation with the publication of the Russian manual for conducting operations in Ukraine. Of course, the motivation of such a demonic objective is Putin's and his Putinistas' glaring historical misunderstandings and how Russian culture is in fact dependent upon Ukraine.
Then, in the second article below from Thinking about Snyder discusses Russia's genocide handbook mentioned in the Post article. One has to read to believe the Kremlin's definition of terms. A "Nazi," as the genocide manual explains, is simply a human being who self-identifies as Ukrainian.
And of course, the very existence of such a text (especially in the larger context of similar statements and Vladimir Putin's repeated denial that Ukraine exists) not only makes the charge of genocide easy but makes charges of war crimes a straightforward statement of the reality of Russian intentions and actions.
THE WASHINGTON POST
In his 1926 poem “Debt to Ukraine,” Vladimir Mayakovsky wrote: “It’s hard to crush people into one. Don’t raise yourself so high.” After all, the poet continued: “Do we know the Ukrainian night? No, we do not know the Ukrainian night.” But Vladimir Putin wants to crush people into one. He says God told him that Ukrainian souls are Russian. History revealed to him that Ukraine strives to be one with Russia; the very language he speaks entitles him to invade any country where Russian is spoken. An official Russian news service removed any ambiguity a few days ago, publishing a text advocating the complete elimination of the Ukrainian nation as such. [Snyder’s piece on that extraordinary text follows, RAM] And so Ukraine must be crushed, and anyone who thinks or speaks of Ukraine must be eliminated.
By way of these deep misunderstandings, Putin has placed the Ukrainian nation at the center of world history, for everyone to see. A Ukrainian actor, Volodymyr Zelensky, is now one of the most recognizable people on Earth. Putin’s invasion made visible not only that courageous, democratically elected president but also functional institutions, an impressive civil society, and journalists, activists and musicians who appear on our television screens and in our newspapers.
Matters are murkier in Putin’s Russia. A war based upon a big lie is also hard on its culture of origin. Everyone is looking at the Russian nation — or perhaps, rather, for it. What does it do to a society to invade a neighbor, which it claims to love, on the basis of bottomless self-deception? Americans have not yet recovered from the lies they told about Iraq two decades ago, and the Russian deception campaign runs far deeper. How are Russian parents altered when they deny to their children in Ukraine that any war is taking place? What sort of nation makes war and then forbids the use of the very word?
This is Putin’s war, but it is far too simple to say that it is only his war. It is made in the name of Russia, and the killing and maiming and abducting and deporting of Ukrainians are being done by tens of thousands of Russian citizens. As north-central Ukraine is liberated by its own citizens, hundreds of corpses of Ukrainian civilians are found in Bucha and other towns, in positions that suggest atrocities including rape, torture and execution. “This is how the Russian state will now be perceived,” Zelensky said. “Your culture and human appearance perished together with the Ukrainian men and women to whom you came.” Massacres seem to be a normal Russian occupation practice. Even as Russians are committing war crimes that violate Ukraine’s right to exist, Russians are told (and often seem to believe) that they are refighting the Second World War and resisting Nazis. That is a very big lie, and big lies do lasting damage.
The active suppression of freedom of speech and assembly turns a culture toward the abyss. It takes labor to produce unceasing televised propaganda and suppress other media. The last few sources of actual war reporting in Russia have disappeared. It takes violence by thousands of Russians to suppress those with a mind and the will to speak it in public. Russians reading poems are arrested. Russians who carry signs with Bible passages are arrested. Russians who carry signs with only asterisks are arrested. Russians wearing hats in blue and yellow, the colors of the Ukrainian flag, are arrested. Russians who carry anti-fascist signs are arrested.
Putin’s police know that anyone talking seriously about fascism is talking about him. Fascism claims to glorify the nation, but it moves a society toward entirely generic behavior, stimulated by a pattern of threat and release from threat. In regime propaganda videos, the police are the protagonists: First their presence inspires fear, then you are meant to feel relief as you realize that the police are on your side so long as you conform in advance to the regime’s demands. In one such video, police sprint from their van toward a group. The viewer is supposed to feel alarmed: The officers are going to beat the crowd! Instead, police and civilians all lock arms to form a giant Z, the symbol of the invasion. Good: The senseless violence is not directed against you but against Ukrainians. Everyone relax.
Is that culture?
Like Hitler’s swastika, the Z the Kremlin uses has no inherent significance. It functions as a stand-in for culture: You display this meaningless symbol to buy time for excuses for mass murder that you will think up later. You pin ribbons with the symbol on your clothes so you do not have to say anything with your mouths. You form a letter with your bodies as an act of loyalty to an undefined cause. You are expressing your readiness to accept that definition, whatever it might turn out to be — you are obeying in advance. You write the Z on the doors of people who think otherwise in order to threaten them.
The rest of us can measure the staggering courage of individual Russian protesters and dissenters against that silencing violence of empty ritual. These Russians create culture by expressing themselves and acting unpredictably, and so they are immediately repressed. Public culture has collapsed as the talented flee or are punished. Educational culture is under threat as schoolchildren and university students are fed war propaganda and as aspiring teachers are denied courses in social sciences and world literature.
Ukraine is a bilingual country where people switch freely between Ukrainian and Russian. At present, Ukraine is the world’s most important shelter for Russian-language creativity. A single line of one of Zelensky’s appeals to Russians has more vitality than the entirety of Russian television since the war began. Putin is not protecting Russian speakers, as he claims; he is killing them. Most of the possibly thousands of Ukrainians killed in the total destruction of Mariupol spoke Russian as a first language. Putin has claimed that Russians in the West or those who somehow think like Westerners are scum, traitors and insects. What then is left? When culture isolates itself, it ceases to exist. The associated procedures of denunciation, persecution and conformism generate a culture of sorts, but a sadly generic one that has nothing specifically to do with the country where they take place.
A culture has to involve unpredictable encounters. Russian culture up to now has been deeply involved with Poland, with Germany, with the United States, with everything that it now defines as alien and untouchable. Putin complains that Russian culture has been “canceled” by the West. “They’re now engaging in the cancel culture, even removing Tchaikovsky, Shostakovich and Rachmaninoff from posters,” he said. “Russian writers and books are now canceled.” He has reached peak tyranny, and therefore peak irony.
It is true that some Western performances of Russian works have been canceled. Yet this is a reaction to an entirely unprovoked war of destruction. And the word “canceled” trivializes what Putin himself has done to Russian culture by silencing his own country, seeking to destroy Ukraine and calling Russians abroad scum. Culture arises from contact, and contact requires humility. In the poem by Mayakovsky, who was Russian, culture arises when we understand our haughtiness toward others as a mask of ignorance. An encounter is only an encounter when we do not know just how the other person will react. Freedom of speech does not mean that everyone in your country starts to make giant alphabet shapes with their bodies when you say so. Putin’s freedom of speech is not violated if Ukrainians act according to their own convictions and resist him.
The actions of Ukrainians during this terrible war have inspired respect — and humility. Would we be so calm, so articulate, so resolute? Americans and the West in general have been right to listen to the Ukrainians — to their desire to exist as a nation and as a state, to their conviction that they can prevail. This is an encounter, one that we did not expect, one whose consequences are unpredictable. In this sense, we all owe a debt to Ukraine.
So does Russia. Much as American culture is unthinkable without English culture, Russian culture is unthinkable without Ukraine’s. Kyiv and Chernihiv, cities that Russia is shelling, were homes to schools that provided educated priests, professionals and bureaucrats to a Russian empire where such people were in high demand. All of Russian literature, goes the saying, came from Gogol — and Gogol came from Ukraine. Russia will now owe an even greater debt to Ukraine. The sooner Ukraine wins this war, the greater the chance that Russian culture will survive.
The evidence of atrocity and of intent mounts
Russia has just issued a genocide handbook for its war on Ukraine. The Russian official press agency "RIA Novosti" published last Sunday an explicit program for the complete elimination of the Ukrainian nation as such. It is still available for viewing, and has now been translated several times into English.
As I have been saying since the war began, "denazification" in official Russian usage just means the destruction of the Ukrainian state and nation. A "Nazi," as the genocide manual explains, is simply a human being who self-identifies as Ukrainian. According to the handbook, the establishment of a Ukrainian state thirty years ago was the "nazification of Ukraine." Indeed "any attempt to build such a state" has to be a "Nazi" act. Ukrainians are "Nazis" because they fail to accept "the necessity that the people support Russia." Ukrainians should suffer for believing that they exist as a separate people; only this can lead to the "redemption of guilt."
For anyone still out there who believes that Putin's Russia opposes the extreme right in Ukraine or anywhere else, the genocide program is a chance to reconsider. Putin's Russian regime talks of “Nazis” not because it opposes the extreme right, which it most certainly does not, but as a rhetorical device to justify unprovoked war and genocidal policies. Putin’s regime is the extreme right. It is the world center of fascism. It supports fascists and extreme-right authoritarians around the world. In traducing the meaning of words like "Nazi," Putin and his propagandists are creating more rhetorical and political space for fascists in Russia and elsewhere.
The genocide handbook explains that the Russian policy of "denazification" is not directed against Nazis in the sense that the word is normally used. The handbook grants, with no hesitation, that there is no evidence that Nazism, as generally understood, is important in Ukraine. It operates within the special Russian definition of "Nazi": a Nazi is a Ukrainian who refuses to admit being a Russian. The "Nazism" in question is "amorphous and ambivalent"; one must, for example, be able to see beneath the world of appearance and decode the affinity for Ukrainian culture or for the European Union as "Nazism."
The actual history of actual Nazis and their actual crimes in the 1930s and 1940s is thus totally irrelevant and completely cast aside. This is perfectly consistent with Russian warfighting in Ukraine. No tears are shed in the Kremlin over Russian killing of Holocaust survivors or Russian destruction of Holocaust memorials, because Jews and the Holocaust have nothing to do with the Russian definition of "Nazi." This explains why Volodymyr Zelens'kyi, although a democratically-elected president, and a Jew with family members who fought in the Red Army and died in the Holocaust, can be called a Nazi. Zelens'kyi is a Ukrainian, and that is all that "Nazi" means.
On this absurd definition, where Nazis have to be Ukrainians and Ukrainians have to be Nazis, Russia cannot be fascist, no matter what Russians do. This is very convenient. If "Nazi" has been assigned the meaning "Ukrainian who refuses to be Russian" then it follows that no Russian can be a Nazi. Since for the Kremlin being a Nazi has nothing to do with fascist ideology, swastika-like symbols, big lies, rallies, rhetoric of cleansings, aggressive wars, abductions of elites, mass deportations, and the mass killing of civilians, Russians can do all of these things without ever having to ask if they themselves on the wrong side of the historical ledger. And so we find Russians implementing fascist policies in the name of "denazification."
The Russian handbook is one of the most openly genocidal documents I have ever seen. It calls for the liquidation of the Ukrainian state, and for abolition of any organization that has any association with Ukraine. It postulates that the "majority of the population" of Ukraine are "Nazis," which is to say Ukrainians. (This is clearly a reaction to Ukrainian resistance; at war's beginning the assumption was that there were only a few Ukrainians and that they would be easily eliminated. This was clear in another text published in RIA Novosti, the victory declaration of 26 February.) Such people, "the majority of the population," so more than twenty million people, 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.
Had this genocide handbook appeared at some other time and in a more obscure outlet, it might have escaped notice. But it was published right in the middle of the Russian media landscape during a Russian war of destruction explicitly legitimated by the Russian head of state's claim that a neighboring nation did not exist. It was published on a day when the world was learning of a mass murder of Ukrainians committed by Russians.
Russia's genocide handbook was published on April 3, two days after the first revelation that Russian servicemen in Ukraine had murdered hundreds of people in Bucha, and just as the story was reaching major newspapers. The Bucha massacre was one of several cases of mass killing that emerged as Russian troops withdrew from the Kyiv region. This means that the genocide program was knowingly published even as the physical evidence of genocide was emerging. The writer and the editors chose this particular moment to make public a program for the elimination of the Ukrainian nation as such.
As a historian of mass killing, I am hard pressed to think of many examples where states explicitly advertise the genocidal character of their own actions right at the moment those actions become public knowledge. From a legal perspective, the existence of such a text (in the larger context of similar statements and Vladimir Putin's repeated denial that Ukraine exists) makes the charge of genocide far easier to make. Legally, genocide means both actions that destroy a group in whole or in part, combined with some intention to do so. Russia has done the deed and confessed to the intention.
Coordinator, External Relations U.S.-Ukraine Foundation’s Friends of Ukraine Network
Robert A. McConnell is a co-founder of the U.S.-Ukraine Foundation and Coordinator of External Relations for the Foundation’s Friends of Ukraine Network. He is Principal of R.A. McConnell and Associates. Previously, he has served as head of the Government Advocacy Practice at Gibson, Dunn & Crutcher, Vice President – Washington for CBS, Inc, and Assistant Attorney General in the Department of Justice during the Reagan Administration. email@example.com