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Never Forget: The Psychology of Genocide

Today's events in Ukraine bear profound historical resonances.

Raphael Lemking, who coined the term "genocide" [United Nations Refugee Agency]

In 1944, the Polish lawyer Raphael Lemkin coined the term “genocide”—literally, the killing of a people. A polyglot who could speak and write in about 10 languages, Lemkin devoted himself to bringing the perpetrators of such acts of barbarism to justice, initiating the Genocide Convention, which now claims over 150 international signatories.

History may not repeat itself, but it often rhymes. In Lemkin’s 1953 work, Soviet Genocide in the Ukraine, he describes what he calls “the classic example of Soviet genocide, its longest and broadest experiment in Russification—the destruction of the Ukrainian nation.” The 2022 invasion recalls the “Holodomor” of 1932-33, which many, including the European Parliament, now regard as an act of genocide.

Holodomor comes from Ukrainian roots meaning “killing by starvation.” Although long denied by its Soviet perpetrators, who systematically suppressed death statistics, it is now clear that millions lost their lives. The causes of these deaths are hotly disputed among scholars, with some claiming that, while manmade, they resulted from collectivization. Others assert that they were intended to undermine Ukrainian nationalism. Lemkin is one of the latter.

Writes Lemkin, “As long as Ukraine retains its national unity, as long as its people continue to think of themselves as Ukrainians and to seek independence, so long Ukraine poses a serious threat to the very heart of Sovietism.” Updated to contemporary circumstances, some Russians including President Vladimir Putin seem to believe that Ukraine must be fitted into, to paraphrase Lemkin, “the Procrustean pattern of the ideal [Russian] man.”

Lemkin outlines four psychological components of genocide, beginning with a direct blow to the “national brain,” the intelligentsia. By taking them out, Soviet authorities believed they would paralyze the rest of the nation’s body. Lemkin writes that in 1920, 1926, and 1930-33, countless teachers, writers, artists, thinkers, and political leaders were deported, imprisoned, or liquidated.

The second attack was directed at the churches, which Lemkin characterizes as the “soul” of Ukraine. Between 1926 and 1932, he asserts, approximately 10,000 clergy were liquidated. This not only deprived congregations of their leaders but also terminated the training of many seminary students, with consequences that would continue to be felt for decades.

As Lemkin saw it, the attacks on the intelligentsia and church were tightly linked, with broader implications for the nation’s capacity to solve its own problems. Attacks on the soul of Ukraine inevitably inflicted considerable damage on its brain because the families of clergy “traditionally supplied a large part of the intellectuals.” Moreover, priests had long functioned as the leaders of villages, and in many cases, their wives provided leadership to local schools and charitable organizations.

The third prong of the Soviet plan, and the one that most directly resulted in mass starvation, was the attack on agriculture. Tradition, folklore, music, and the national language and literature existed not primarily in libraries but in the minds and hearts of the people, among whom, Lemkin asserts, approximately 5 million were made to starve to death in just the two years of 1932 and 1933.

As a correspondent for the Christian Science Monitor wrote in 1933, the communists saw in the resistance of the Ukrainian peasants “sabotage and counter-revolution,” so “with the ruthlessness peculiar to self-righteous idealists, they decided the let the famine run its course, with the idea that it would teach the peasants a lesson.”

The final element of the attack, Lemkin argues, was the absorption of Ukraine into the Soviet nation. Instead of directly annihilating the population, the Soviets believed that eliminating the intelligentsia, the priests, and the peasants would render Ukraine “as dead as if every Ukrainian were killed, for it will have lost that part of it which has kept and developed its culture, its beliefs, its common ideas, which have guided it and given it a soul, which, in short, made it a nation rather than a mass of people.”

Putin repeatedly echoes this psychology. He has repeatedly denied that Ukraine ever enjoyed “real statehood,” instead arguing that it is part of Russia’s “history, culture, and spiritual heritage.” Since the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the 1991 declaration of Ukrainian independence with the support of 92 percent of its voters, Putin has been especially critical of Ukraine’s tendency to “unthinkingly emulate foreign models.”

And yet, as many Ukrainians argue, Kyiv, the capital of Ukraine, was founded some four centuries before Moscow, and the language, religion, and traditions of Ukraine are in many ways distinct from those of Russia. The Ukrainians fought a war of independence against Russia in 1917, which may have loomed large in the mind of Stalin as he sought for decades to suppress Ukrainian identity, eliminating even members of Ukraine's communist party.

One of the greatest impediments to Russia’s intentions has been the free flow of information made possible by news media and the world wide web. Putin may exert considerable control over the narrative available to his own people, but events in Ukraine are a different matter, and the prompt and widely shared video evidence of Russian atrocities, including rape and murder, has helped to galvanize international opposition.

Ironically, Lemkin, who lost almost 50 family members to the Holocaust and died in poverty in New York City in 1959, believed that his life-long fight against state-sponsored genocide had ended in failure. Yet his accounts of the Holodomor and other atrocities are garnering more attention. Russia's recent failure to annihilate Ukrainian leadership and install a puppet regime makes Lemkin’s account of genocidal psychology as urgent as ever.


(c) 2023, Psychology Today

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