Don’t give us your propaganda about genocide, Mr Putin

Ukraine has indeed been the scene of mass murder — but the culprits were Stalin and then the Nazis. And Russia has not been held to account for shooting down a Malaysian plane

February 24, 2022 08:31

One of the reasons why Vladimir Putin felt impelled to, in effect, declare war on Ukraine this week was, he reminded us, because of the “genocide” being carried out there. His lieutenants and his media have been adamant that the peoples of the Donetsk and Luhansk regions are being systematically wiped out or forced out by the hirelings of the Ukrainian regime. 

You might imagine that Russia sets a high bar for using the “g” word. As a guide, seven years ago Russia vetoed a UN Security Council Resolution describing as a genocide the murder of 8,000 unarmed men and boys in the fields around the Bosnian town of Srebrenica. If that wasn’t a genocide then what has been happening in Eastern Ukraine must be terrible, right? 

Eastern Ukraine has, of course, witnessed genocides before, as a keen amateur historian like Mr Putin must know. Let’s remind ourselves what one of these looks like. We’ll take the city of Mariupol, the second largest conurbation in the Donetsk oblast. In 1941, anti-tank trenches had been dug about eight kilometres out of town, near an agricultural outpost of a large state-owned farm. The trenches had failed to stop the German advance across the steppes and on 8 October the Nazis took the city. A fortnight later, the Jews of Mariupol, some 16,000 of them — all civilians, all unarmed, many of them children — were bussed or marched out to the trenches. 

Yad Vashem recorded the testimony of one of them, Sarra Gleykh, who was 23 at the time. She was part of a group of women who were forced to undress to their underclothes and then led to one of the trenches to be killed. The first one they came to was already too full of bodies to be used, so her group was led on to another. She only saw around four Germans with machine guns, she testified, though they were enough. The women were told to face away from the guns and then were shot in the back and fell into the pit. Sarra came to under a pile of dead people, none of whom she recognised, crawled out once the Germans had left and somehow survived the rest of the war. In the video, Sarra tells her story simply and terribly, just the bare facts of the few minutes of massacre in which she was supposed to die. 

Six months later, the German-established ghetto in Donetsk (then Stalino) was “liquidated”.About 15,000 Jews were taken to a local abandoned mine where some were gassed in mobile vans, their bodies thrown down the mineshaft. Others were thrown down still alive. 

In those two places, that’s over 30,000 Jews murdered in a matter of days. But this wasn’t the only set of terrible events to have happened in the area in that rough timeframe. In 1933, forced collectivisation, as ordered from Moscow, helped create a widespread famine (this in what was widely known as the “breadbasket” of Europe). As the historian Anne Applebaum recounts in her book Red Famine, tens of thousands of Ukrainian civilians died of hunger. “In the Markhivka district of Donetsk province,” she writes, “a meeting of village council leaders in December reckoned their prospects were bleak.  Some 20,000 people — more than half the population — had perished in the famine. More than 60 per cent of the local horses had been killed that year and 70 per cent of the oxen. Their owners were gone too. One observed, ‘now when you go out into the country, you can see villages that are so empty, wolves are living in the houses’.” Nor were wolves the only predator to be feared. Also in Donetsk province, secret police reports detailed cases like that of the babushka who strangled her nine-year-old grand-daughter and “cooked her internal organs”. Cannibalism was not uncommon. 

Was that a “genocide”? Certainly, hundreds of thousands died. So how does this stack up against Mr Putin’s genocide in the same area? Well, the best estimate of the number killed in Eastern Ukraine since the present conflict began in 2014 is about 14,000, of whom 3,500 were civilians, mostly killed in shelling. In the biggest single incident, 300 died when a Russian anti-aircraft battery brought down a Malaysian airliner carrying a large number of Dutch passengers. No one has yet been brought to account for this crime. 

People often convince themselves that a convenient story, however improbable, can be true. But I don’t imagine that Vladimir Putin really believes for five seconds that the Ukrainians have been committing a genocide. It’s a propaganda fiction, designed to gull those who want to be gulled. It is also an insult to the memory of those who have been or continue to be the victims of genocide. 

February 24, 2022 08:31

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