March 6, 2011

WHILE THERE MIGHT BE SOME VALUE TO CREATING A NEW CATEGORY...:

REVIEW: of Stalin's Genocides by Norman M. Naimark (Jonathan Leader Maynard, Oxonian Review)

There is a lot to commend about Stalin’s Genocides. Naimark writes with admirable clarity and concision on a subject of extreme complexity. Key explanatory features of Stalinist repression, such as discourses of internal threats and complex relations of power and expectations between periphery and centre, are rightly and succinctly incorporated. Naimark is not blind to the variance in forms and targets of Soviet violence during this period, and openly addresses the greater problems posed by some cases, where intentions are unclear, or target groups not ethnically rooted. And his argument will convince many on the clearer cases, such as the Ukrainian ‘Holodomor’ or the attacks on the annexed Baltic States. Naimark’s fifteen-page outline of the formative history of genocide as a concept is particularly helpful, crucially detailing successful Soviet efforts to exclude political groups from the definition. Given the importance of making issues of such significance accessible to a wider academic and non-academic audience, Naimark’s book is a worthy contribution.

One cannot help but feel, however, that the two dimensions of Naimark’s analysis are fundamentally in competition in a volume of this length. While a history of the origins of genocide is a good step on the road to arguing that the concept should incorporate killing directed at political groups, it nevertheless leaves certain analytical issues unresolved. Why should the original intentions of Raphael Lemkin, who coined the term, override the social connotations ‘genocide’ has now? Is it not valuable to preserve a distinct conception for directed killing of a distinct kind: that which is ethnically targeted? Why is it relevant to invoke, as Naimark frequently does, the moral equivalence between Stalin’s crimes and the Holocaust when discussing how such phenomena should be conceptualised? And even if this is relevant, could there not be a distinct immorality in the attempt to eliminate ethnic or national communities on which individuals’ identities and well-being may uniquely depend?


...to describe the mass murder of your democratic opposition, as opposed to ethnic groups, isn't there something almost racist in the insistence that the former is unworthy of being compared to the latter? Does it matter that much that Dietrich Bonhoeffer died for practicing Christianity instead of for being a Jew?

Posted by Orrin Judd at March 6, 2011 10:40 AM
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