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Stalin’s Genocides

Jonathan Leader Maynard

Stalin's GenocidesNorman M. Naimark
Stalin’s Genocides
Princeton University Press, 2010
176 Pages
ISBN 978-0691147840

Comprehending any aspect of history as awful, complex, and varyingly understood as the waves of violence in Joseph Stalin’s Russia is no easy task. For Norman Naimark to wade into this well-trodden but eternally contentious field with a volume of fewer than 140 pages might seem ill-advised, but as the author stresses, Stalin’s Genocides is a brief historical essay with one specific purpose in mind: to argue that Stalin’s crimes qualify as ‘genocide’. Naimark’s argument for this conclusion takes two strands—first, a history of the concept, and second, a lengthier overview of Stalin’s crimes—to show that the latter meet the criteria suggested by the former.

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? These questions remain crucial when considering how we should use the concept of genocide, yet remain largely unaddressed by Naimark. And in spite of the strengths of his brevity, the historical portrayal of Stalin and his entourage also remains disappointingly one-dimensional.

Introductory histories to this period already exist, and given these concerns it seems like a mistake that the majority of this book remains merely a pretty good retelling of what happened. This comes at the expense of a rigorous argument resolving the controversies surrounding whether the events should be called genocide. That was the question Naimark wanted to answer, and which remains the deepest contention. We should be thankful for this accessible work which does move the debate forwards, but given the limited interrogation of so many crucial questions, Stalin’s Genocides does not do enough to justify its fundamental contention.

Jonathan Leader Maynard is reading for a DPhil in Political Theory at University College, Oxford.