The evidence of atrocity and of intent mounts
By Tim Snyder (published on April 8)
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 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.