Ukraine Can’t Hold Elections During the War. Does it Matter?

Originally published in April 2024 in the Journal of Democracy

Russia’s brutal ongoing invasion is preventing Ukrainians from holding a presidential election and the campaigning that comes with it. What does that mean for Ukraine’s democracy?

By Anna Romandash

Were it not for Russia’s war, Ukrainian citizens would have gone to the polls a few weeks ago to pick their president. They would have voted last year, too, in parliamentary elections scheduled for October. Yet neither contest happened. Ukraine’s constitution prohibits elections under martial law, which President Volodymyr Zelensky declared when Russia launched its invasion on 24 February 2022 and has been in force ever since.

Even without the law, organizing mass elections amid an ongoing invasion poses serious practical challenges: how to run the vote in Russian-occupied territories; how to guarantee voters’ safety; what to do about the millions of refugees abroad; and how to provide the necessary time and space for political campaigning. Plus, running elections costs money, and the Russian assault has cost Ukraine not only invaluable losses in human life and generational trauma, but billions of dollars for defense and reconstruction — with the economic impact of the war exceeding US$51 billion per year. Yet without fair elections, can Ukraine have a just democracy? As the country and its people battle to survive, do elections even matter right now?

Russia’s propaganda machine has been exploiting the idea that without elections Ukraine’s government is illegitimate. The head of the occupation authority in Crimea (annexed by Russia in 2014), for instance, started a campaign against Zelensky, calling his presidency “illegitimate” to discredit the Ukrainian government in the eyes of Crimeans. Similar narratives are being circulated widely online — mostly by Kremlin-linked troll farms.

The illegitimacy claim is not new. Russia also used it in 2014, when pro-Russian president Viktor Yanukovych fled Kyiv for Russia and Ukrainians elected the pro-European Petro Poroshenko to replace him. The Kremlin, which did not recognize Ukraine’s 2014 election, claimed that Poroshenko was an “illegitimate” president, too. Of course, the 2014 vote only took place because Yanukovych had unleashed violence against Euromaidan protesters and then fled the country. That left Ukraine with no choice but to select a new president. Today, the logic of Russian propaganda has reversed — Zelensky is labeled illegitimate for not holding elections.

Do the propagandists have a credible claim? Not according to Ukrainians. The Kyiv International Institute of Sociology has found that more than 80 percent of Ukrainians oppose holding wartime elections. Their reasoning is simple: Soldiers wouldn’t be able to vote because they are in the trenches. Polling stations in the rear zone would be easy targets for Russian missiles. And finally, for most Ukrainians, elections and political campaigning are not a priority — but defending every inch of Ukrainian territory is.

Additionally, Ukrainians still maintain an unusually high level of trust toward authorities. For instance, around 64 percent of voters trust Zelensky six years into his presidency. By contrast, his predecessor, Poroshenko, had the trust of around just 14 percent of the people by the end of his single term; other Ukrainian presidents have had similarly low ratings.

Ukrainian attitudes toward parliament have been trending in the opposite direction. Most do not support its activities and consider it to be a weak and inefficient body. Only 15 percent of citizens trust parliament, and this number has been steadily declining. The mistrust stems from the performance of the MPs themselves — their low attendance in parliamentary meetings, slow policymaking, inability to quickly pass important laws, and lack of clear understanding about their wartime roles.

Yet despite their dislike of the current parliament, most still favor keeping it in place — again, because elections are not the priority right now. Ukrainians do not see how electing new lawmakers would help to defeat Russia, and they fear that such changes could create cleavages within Ukrainian society. The people are instead focused on making the government’s activities more accessible and transparent, and on reinforcing citizens’ ability to advocate for different policies. For instance, civil society pushed for reopening state data registries to track public spending and help prevent corruption. Citing security concerns, the government shut these down right after Russia launched the invasion, but quickly restored access after public outcry.

Democracy by Other Means

What is the state of democracy in Ukraine after two years of Russia’s full-scale war and without elections in sight? Ukrainians are willing to wait for fair and transparent elections until the war is over and a just peace is reached. At the same time, citizens want and advocate for efficient ways to communicate with the government so that policymakers know how they feel about different political and nonpolitical issues and decisions. Ukraine has a vibrant civil society, mass media, and digital systems; so the people have petitions, communication campaigns, and other tools through which they can tell the government what they want.

If democratic elections are fundamentally vehicles for agreeing on legitimate leaders and voicing popular priorities for government spending and policy, can these be achieved by other means in times of war? Since the invasion, Zelensky’s government has increasingly relied on digital tools to collect citizen feedback and interact with Ukrainians who became refugees overnight. Millions need documents while living abroad, and the demand for online tools to access government services has skyrocketed.

The government has, in response, worked to digitalize Ukrainian democracy by creating (or updating) state-run apps that are accessible to all citizens. The app Diia, for example, now has more than twenty-million users. With Diia, citizens can donate to the Armed Forces, request official documents, and pay taxes, and displaced people can apply for state support. Ukrainians can also use the app to vote in state-run surveys — an easy way to voice their concerns.

Diia was used in February to select Ukraine’s 2024 Eurovision song, with Ukrainians joking that this was a trial run for the presidential election. But that “trial run” also exposed the fragility of digital-democracy tools: The app crashed for a few hours as more than a million Ukrainians rushed to vote for their preferred song, and the government had to extend the polling period so more people could vote.

Any Ukrainian can also publish and vote for petitions on the president’s web portal. Petitions that receive 25,000 votes are automatically passed on to Zelensky or the relevant authorities for mandatory review and response. Petitions are an effective and popular instrument for voicing public opinion on different matters and getting guaranteed feedback from authorities. Even when petitions don’t get enough votes, they let the government know what citizens are concerned about most. Many petitions, for instance, call for investigating how different policies are being implemented or for addressing gaps within existing laws.

Through petitions, online campaigns, and other means, citizens continue to push for different policies, to change laws, and even to oust officials accused of corruption. For instance, Ukrainians petitioned for the minister of culture to be fired due to a variety of complaints, including his wartime spending; Zelensky dismissed him in July 2023. Another successful petition called for restoring the mandatory declaration of assets by Ukrainian public servants. Once the petition had 25,000 votes, both the president and parliament responded, and e-declarations were brought back.

Not every petition gets a quick response. This two-way communication is sometimes slow and limited; yet it shows how democratic processes can be preserved even amid war and a humanitarian crisis. In 2023 alone, Ukrainians registered more than six-thousand petitions. Of these, more than a thousand got the necessary 25,000 votes, and 150 have already received a response from the president; the others are pending. Seeing the popularity of this approach, local governments across Ukraine have adopted it for regional matters, allowing citizens to publish and sign petitions that concern their specific localities, municipalities, or regions.

Petitions and digital surveys cannot replace the elections, yet they do reveal some common popular understandings in Ukraine. Ukrainian citizens do want to choose their leaders, but only once it’s safe to organize elections. In the meantime, they hope to use and build on different channels of communication with the government so that it can follow up on public demands.

For most Ukrainians, elections for the sake of elections is not a sign of democracy but rather a copy of what’s happening in Russia. Russia never fails to hold elections on time — Vladimir Putin was just “elected” for a fifth presidential term in February. Simply holding a vote, however, does not make Russia a democracy. Instead it shows how such contests can be misused to create the façade of democracy when in fact the voting process is neither free nor fair. Conversely, skipping elections due to war doesn’t make Ukraine undemocratic. But it does highlight how war and its consequences complicate normal democratic processes that should be in place in peacetime.

Ukraine’s democracy remains flawed, but it’s still there. And while the government isn’t perfect, it is legitimate, and it continues working in a country badly affected by a genocidal war. Ukrainians are demanding more openness from their government and pushing for more accountability — both in the government’s execution of the war and its handling of the rebuilding process. They don’t always get timely responses, but they still have effective methods for making their voices heard and influencing the government.

The war has forced adjustments to everyday life in Ukraine and made a profound impact on how the country’s democracy operates. Yet even in this harsh reality, Ukrainians can criticize their authorities openly, voice concerns, and achieve significant political and social changes through advocacy and other means — all of which shows the vitality and resilience of Ukraine as a democratic state.

Anna Romandash is an award-winning journalist from Ukraine and the author of  Women of Ukraine: Reportages from the War and Beyond (2023).

Copyright © 2024 National Endowment for Democracy

Honoring the legacy of CMC Professor P. Edward “Ed” Haley

Professor Lisa Koch presenting at P. Edward “Ed” Haley's memorial.

Photos by Sidney Smith ’25

Story by Anne Bergman

December 6, 2023

On a crisp autumn evening at Claremont McKenna College’s Athenaeum, Professor P. Edward “Ed” Haley was remembered as a teacher and scholar who for nearly 50 years brought the world into his classroom, through his depth of experience and knowledge, as well as his appreciation for the arts.

Reflecting and honoring the late Professor Haley’s impact on the CMC community, the Nov. 28 memorial at the Athenaeum was filled with fond memories, poetry, and a scholarly lecture, “Threats and Promises Across the Nuclear Age,” by Professor Lisa Koch, co-sponsored by the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies and the Mgrublian Center for Human Rights.

Heather Antecol, Vice President of Academic Affairs and Dean of the Faculty, began by recounting how Haley “was an invaluable mentor and professor to more than four generations of CMC students and a key figure in the development and promotion of CMC’s International Relations program, and in the founding of two CMC research institutes,” the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies, and the Mgrublian Center for Human Rights (formerly the Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights).

Antecol noted the care that Haley, who passed away in June 2023 at the age of 83, paid to “his colleagues and his students, many of whom remained lifelong friends once they became alumni, joining advisory boards, attending programs and visiting campus to keep in touch with him” during his time at CMC, which began in 1968 when Haley joined the CMC Government faculty.

Hilary Appel, director of the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies and Podlich Professor of Government, overlapped with Haley at CMC for approximately 15 years. Appel highlighted how Haley’s teaching “reflected his deep humanity and compassion,” “his curiosity for the world,” and ”passion for learning.”

Appel explained how the evening’s academic lecture by Professor Lisa Koch, who specializes in international relations, on “Threats and Promises Across the Nuclear Age,” was a topic “closely related to Ed’s research and teaching interests.” Koch, Appel said, represents “the continuation  of the kinds of programs that Ed started here because she is teaching many of the courses that Ed introduced to our curriculum many years ago.”

This year, Koch published her first book, Nuclear Decisions: Changing the Course of Nuclear Weapons Programs. In addition, she’s the author of scholarly articles on nuclear proliferation and foreign policy.

Kirsti Zitar ’97 P’26, assistant director of the Mgrublian Center, lived across the street from Haley and his wife, Elaine, in Claremont and worked with Haley from 2011 until his retirement in 2014.

Zitar shared her own personal memories of Haley, and observed how Haley worked “tirelessly to help ensure the Center’s long-term viability and to provide opportunities that offered the greatest impact to CMC students,” such as study abroad and internship programs. Upon Haley’s retirement in 2014, an endowed internship was established by the Mgrublian Center’s advisory board in his name. The P. Edward Haley Internship attracts students studying conflicts and human rights issues in the Middle East, and allows them to travel there in the summer.

Honoring the legacy of CMC Professor P. Edward “Ed” Haley at the Nov. 28 memorial service.

Haley’s daughters, Blythe Nilsson and Kate Haley, concluded the tribute by reading some of their father’s favorite poetry, as well as his own self-published poems, which Nilsson described as addressing “the duality of beauty and suffering in this world.”

Ath Fellow Adrian Flynn ’25 introduced Professor Koch’s in memoriam lecture after describing Haley as an “Ath aficionado” who spoke at the Athenaeum’s current location 15 times. Flynn noted that Koch was making her first appearance at the Ath podium.

Before she began her Ath lecture, Koch paid tribute to Haley and his legacy, saying that while she did not meet Haley in person, she felt as though she got to know him “through his writings. That’s how scholars get to know each other. It’s through our work. And so, I get to enter into conversation with Ed as I read and engage with his works. I brought his book, Strategies of Dominance, with me tonight…. It’s a great example of Ed’s scholarship. It is pragmatic, it is clear-eyed, it is grounded in historical case studies. And it is forward-looking, policy-focused, and tinged with optimism.”

Speaker Quotes

“For this talk, in Ed’s honor, I chose the topic of nuclear threat, as that was important during Ed’s long career, and has generated renewed interest today,” Koch said. “Because of declassified documents, and the work of historians and political scientists, we know more now than we used to about how nuclear threats and promises have played out across the nuclear age.”

Koch then detailed the history of nuclear weapons, their use and escalation, as well as the diplomatic efforts that have averted nuclear warfare.

This current “renewed interest” in nuclear threats, Koch explained, “is due in large part to Russian leader Vladimir Putin’s nuclear threats, which he has made in the context of the Russian war in Ukraine.”

Koch then shared the content of a speech Putin delivered in 2020, in which he did not use the word “nuclear,” but which Koch interpreted as a threat to use nuclear weapons. “You don’t even need to use the word (nuclear) to inspire the fear,” she continued. “Why are these veiled threats so scary? It is because nuclear weapons are so scary.”

Student Question

Daniela Brun Matar, a sophomore at CMC studying international relations and psychology, asked, “How does public perception of nuclear weapons change the way we talk about nuclear weapons over time? I especially wonder if you think that the release of the movie Oppenheimer has changed the way we view nuclear weapons?”

Koch replied that is “a question that I’ve asked in different ways in some of my research. I think there are generational differences in how the public perceives nuclear weapons, their meaning, their threat. I think that because each successive generation knows less about what the weapons can do, that people may treat the possibility of the use of nuclear weapons more cavalierly than they should, or not take them as seriously as they should. ….And I do think the movie Oppenheimer could be somewhat of a corrective to that, on the margins. I think that while the movie is not perfect, it is based on a scholarly biography that’s been sitting on my shelf for years. …And I think that people who’ve seen this movie…, who are getting their introduction to nuclear weapons by seeing this movie, they do come away with the respect that I think is healthy to have.”

Learn more about Professor Haley’s life and legacy.

Fighting continues across Karabakh as casualties mount

Posted on CIVILNET

Clashes continued overnight and into Wednesday morning across Nagorno-Karabakh as casualties continued to mount.

As of 9 AM local time, “fighting continued with varying levels of intensity along the entire line of contact,” the Artsakh Defense Army said.

At least 27 people have been killed and more than 200 injured, according to the latest update from Nagorno-Karabakh’s Human Rights Defender’s Office. Those figures include both military and civilian casualties and are expected to rise significantly.

More than 7,000 civilians have been evacuated from the frontlines to relatively safer areas, according to Nagorno-Karabakh’s state-run InfoCenter. It was not immediately clear if that figure included the more than 1,800 people the Russian peacekeepers said they had evacuated.

Civilian infrastructure, including residential buildings, has reportedly been damaged across Nagorno-Karabakh.

Azerbaijani forces began shelling locations across Nagorno-Karabakh around 1 PM local time Tuesday as part of what they falsely called “anti-terrorist activities.” Baku has indicated it will continue strikes until Stepanakert surrenders.

Nagorno-Karabakh’s ethnic Armenian forces “must raise the white flag, all weapons must be handed over, and (the Nagorno-Karabakh government) must be dissolved,” President Ilham Aliyev’s office said Tuesday evening. “Otherwise, the antiterror measures will be continued until the end.”

Azerbaijan’s attack came after Nagorno-Karabakh endured more than nine months of near-total isolation from the outside world. Azerbaijan’s blockade has pushed Nagorno-Karabakh’s roughly 120,000 Armenians to the brink of famine and prompted warnings of genocide from the former chief prosecutor at the International Criminal Court.

What’s been the response in Armenia?

Prime Minister Nikol Pashinyan said Tuesday Armenia will continue to press Azerbaijan to “ensure the rights and security of Nagorno-Karabakh’s people,” but insisted Yerevan will not intervene militarily, saying, “Attempts to engage Armenia in this military escalation are unacceptable.”

Mass protests broke out in downtown Yerevan Tuesday evening in front of Armenian government buildings, the Russian embassy, and the prime minister’s residence, with hundreds of demonstrators calling on Pashinyan to resign and Russia to respond more forcefully to Azerbaijan’s attack on Nagorno-Karabakh.

Protesters scuffled with police officers posted to government buildings and blocked the entrances and exits to the Russian embassy. CivilNet’s team on the ground reported law enforcement used stun grenades on the demonstrators in at least one case.

18 protesters and 16 police officers suffered injuries in the clashes in Yerevan, according to Armenia’s Health Ministry.

Armenia’s National Security Service issued a statement pledging to “take effective, lawful measures to preserve the country’s constitutional order” and “neutralize any actions that destabilize Armenia’s internal security.”

What’s been the international response?

The powerful United Nations Security Council will hold emergency talks on the crisis Thursday after permanent member France requested the body to convene.

Two previous emergency sessions, one last December and one in August, ended with the council failing to adopt a joint statement or binding resolution, reportedly amid diplomatic infighting between member countries.

The European Union, France, Germany, and the United States have all called on Azerbaijan to refrain from taking any further military action in the region. Russia has called on the “conflicting sides” to cease hostilities immediately, but did not single out Azerbaijan.

The European Union and United States together support one track of Armenia-Azerbaijan negotiations, while Russia coordinates a separate track. Neither has made any discernible progress toward a peace deal.

Another Ethnic Cleansing Could Be Underway — and We’re Not Paying Attention

Published by the New York Times, Sept. 2, 2023

A crowd waiting for aid and supplies in Nagorno-Karabakh. Photo credit: Christophe Petit Tesson/EPA, via Shutterstock

By Nicholas Kristof, Opinion Columnist

With its Russian torture chambers and slaughter of civilians, the war in Ukraine is horrifying enough. But what if another country is taking advantage of the distraction to commit its own crimes against humanity?

Meet Azerbaijan.

You probably haven’t heard of Azerbaijan’s brutality toward an ethnic Armenian enclave called Nagorno-Karabakh, but it deserves scrutiny. The former chief prosecutor of the International Criminal Court, Luis Moreno Ocampo, whom I got to know years ago when he sought accountability for the genocide in Sudan’s Darfur region, now describes what is happening in Nagorno-Karabakh in a similar fashion.

“There is an ongoing genocide against 120,000 Armenians living in Nagorno-Karabakh,” he wrote in a recent report.

We tend to think of genocide as the slaughter of an ethnic group. But the legal definition in the 1948 Genocide Convention is broader and doesn’t require mass killing, so long as there are certain “acts committed with intent to destroy” a particular ethnic, racial or religious group.

That is what Azerbaijan is doing, Moreno Ocampo argued, by blockading Nagorno-Karabakh so that people die or flee, thus destroying an ancient community.

“Starvation is the invisible genocide weapon,” he wrote. “Without immediate dramatic change, this group of Armenians will be destroyed in a few weeks.”

“It is critically important to label this as genocide,” Moreno Ocampo told me, and also crucial that the United States and other world powers — including Britain, which has been too quiet — step up pressure on Azerbaijan.

The concept of genocide was developed in part as a reaction to the Ottoman Empire’s mass killing of Armenians in 1915 and 1916, so Azerbaijan’s starvation of Armenians today suggests that history risks coming full circle. The group Genocide Watch has declared a “genocide emergency,” the Lemkin Institute for Genocide Prevention recently issued an “active genocide alert,” and the International Association of Genocide Scholars warned of “the risk of genocide” and called for Azerbaijan to be held accountable for crimes against humanity.

The current crisis began late last year, when Azerbaijanis began blockading the only road into Nagorno-Karabakh, the Lachin corridor to Armenia, on which the territory depends for food and medicine.

The International Court of Justice ordered Azerbaijan to remove the blockade. Instead, the Azerbaijani government established a checkpoint on the road and began blocking even humanitarian aid carried by the International Committee of the Red Cross.

Empty shelves in a Nagorno-Karabakh supermarket. Credit: Marut Vanyan/Picture Alliance, via Getty Images

“People are fainting in the bread queues,” the BBC quoted a local journalist as saying from Nagorno-Karabakh. The report added that the Halo Trust, a nonprofit that works to clear minefields, has had to suspend operations “because its staff are too exhausted to work after queuing for bread all night and returning home empty-handed.”

A third of deaths in Nagorno-Karabakh are attributed by the local authorities to malnutrition, the BBC said. I have no way of verifying these reports, but every indication is that the situation is dire — and getting worse by the day.

Yet I fear that the West is fatigued and looking inward, for it has likewise paid little attention to other global crises other than Ukraine, from horrendous atrocities in Ethiopia to Sudan’s warlords’ slaughtering of civilians. For dictators, tragically, this isn’t a bad time to commit war crimes.

The backdrop is that authoritarian Azerbaijan has a mostly Muslim population speaking a Turkic language, while Nagorno-Karabakh has a mostly Christian population that speaks Armenian. When the Soviet Union collapsed, Nagorno-Karabakh sought independence; a war ended with a stalemate in which the enclave operated autonomously but with close links to neighboring Armenia. In 2020, Azerbaijan fought a brief war in which it reclaimed most of the enclave, and it now wants to recover the rest — and, I suspect, to push out much of the ethnic Armenian population.

Photo credit: Karen Minasyan/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

The world, including Armenia’s prime minister, acknowledges that sovereignty of Nagorno-Karabakh belongs to Azerbaijan. Azerbaijan feels it has a right to integrate Nagorno-Karabakh politically and economically with the rest of the country. Though this is not integration but starvation, and the one point even countries as far apart as the United States and Russia agree on is that Azerbaijan should reopen the Lachin corridor and end the suffering.

One possible compromise to end the looming catastrophe is outlined by Benyamin Poghosyan of the Applied Policy Research Institute of Armenia: Azerbaijan would open the Lachin road and Nagorno-Karabakh would simultaneously open one or more roads into Azerbaijan (which Azerbaijan seeks). The U.S. State Department hinted at this approach in a statement denouncing the blockade. As part of that compromise, Azerbaijan would guarantee the freedom of Armenians in Nagorno-Karabakh.

This would be unsatisfying, for it rewards Azerbaijan for starving civilians, and no one could much trust promises from Azerbaijan. But the sad job of diplomats is to devise flawed, much-hated agreements that are better than any alternative outcome, and in this case a defective deal is preferable to the mass starvation and ethnic cleansing of Armenians, again.

Nicholas Kristof joined The New York Times in 1984 and has been a columnist since 2001. He has won two Pulitzer Prizes, for his coverage of China and of the genocide in Darfur. You can follow him on InstagramFacebook and ThreadsHis forthcoming memoir is “Chasing Hope: A Reporter’s Life.”  @NickKristof  @@NickKristof • Facebook

Democracy is Feminist

Women marching during the Women’s Equality Day protest in New York City on August 26, 1971. It was designated as Women’s Equality Day by the U.S. Congress in 1973. Photo credit: Peter L. Gould—Images Press/Archive Photos/Getty Images


AUGUST 25, 2023 7:00 AM EDT – Published by TIME Magazine

Weiss-Wolf is a contributor to 50 YEARS OF Ms. THE BEST OF THE PATHFINDING MAGAZINE THAT IGNITED A REVOLUTION out on Sept. 19, 2023. She serves as executive director of NYU Law’s Birnbaum Women’s Leadership Center

August 26, 2023 marks the 50th anniversary of Women’s Equality Day. Proposed in 1971 by Bella Abzug, the formidable feminist organizer and federal lawmaker from New York, and passed as a joint resolution by Congress in 1973, Women’s Equality Day recognizes the fight for women’s suffrage and hard-won ratification of the 19th Amendment.

Around the time Women’s Equality Day was first envisioned, Abzug joined forces with other leaders and activists—Gloria Steinem, Shirley Chisolm, and Fannie Lou Hamer among them—to form the National Women’s Political Caucus (NWPC). Through both endeavors they sought to acknowledge that political representation belongs at the center of the quest for gender justice—and, according to the NWPC archives, that “legal, economic, and social equity would come about only when women were equally represented among the nation’s political decision-makers.”

Historically, women in the United States have participated voraciously in civic life, registering and voting at higher rates than men in every presidential election since 1980. Black women show up at the polls and in voter mobilization efforts in even greater numbers, with turnout rates of upward of 66% in 2020. In July 1972, Steinem wrote for the newly launched Ms. magazine, “Black women come out stronger on just about every feminist issue, whether it is voting for a woman candidate, ending violence and militarism, or believing that women are just as rational as men and have more human values.”

The same article by Steinem forecasted, “We’ve been delivering our votes [and] now women want something in return. Nineteen seventy-two is just the beginning …” And in many ways, it was. That year, the Equal Rights Amendment (ERA) handily passed the U.S. Senate and seemed destined for swift ratification. Chisolm’s public service—as the first Black Congresswoman, followed by her groundbreaking 1972 presidential campaign—altered the discourse about whether “White Male Only” remained a qualifier to lead the nation. And by January 1973, the Supreme Court decided Roe v. Wade, affirming a constitutional right to abortion.

Fast forward half a century, and Vice President Kamala Harris shattered the White House glass ceiling. Women’s overall leadership on Capitol Hill has continued to climb, reaching an all-time high in the 118th Congress—just over 28% (149 members). In the House, women broke records in the 2022 midterms, with 124 now serving, 27 of whom are Black and 18 are Latin. Women now comprise nearly a third of all legislators and elected executives, including a record 12 serving as governor.

And still, the U.S. remains far from achieving fully representative governance compared to women’s actual population footprint; this is especially so for women of color. The U.S. pales in comparison to women’s political authority in much of the world, too, including among peer democracies.

As for the other advances on the 1972 agenda? The ERA remains unfinished business and is still not enshrined in the Constitution. And Roe was overturned on June 24, 2022 by the Supreme Court’s new conservative supermajority in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization.

Backlash to the ERA, and the very text of the Dobbs decision, crudely distort the principles undergirding Women’s Equality Day and the goals of the NWPC. Justice Samuel Alito, who authored the majority opinion for Dobbs, claimed women’s political advancement itself is an antidote to the Court’s reversal of a fundamental right. Of this, he wrote, “Women are not without electoral or political power. It is noteworthy that the percentage of women who register to vote and cast ballots is consistently higher than the percentage of men who do so.”

Yes, women are now doing exactly that: running for office on, and voting consistently, overwhelmingly, and successfully for abortion rights everywhere the issue has appeared on the ballot since Dobbs. But there are obvious flaws in Justice Alito’s appeal to women’s electoral and political power—and, for that matter, to the NWPC’s founding documents—suggesting gender parity alone should be a singular or even sufficient metric for achieving feminist goals.

It is exponentially hard to out-run and out-vote anti-democratic maneuvers like partisan gerrymandering, voter suppression—or, as we just saw in Ohio, an attempt to raise the threshold for winning a citizen-led ballot initiative as a way to stymie abortion rights. (The Ohio measure was soundly defeated on August 8 in a special election.) These are not examples of one-off transgressions or piecemeal degradation of our democratic systems, but rather deliberate and systemic mechanisms for defying the popular will. It is why decidedly anti-feminist policy outcomes persist, like book bans in the name of parental rights or the maddening inability to advance common sense gun safety measures. It is how 14 state legislatures succeeded in outlawing abortion since Dobbs, despite public polling in favor of abortion rights reaching record highs.

Women’s Equality Day was initially a way to express the belief that, as noted in public policy scholars Zoe Marks and Erica Chenoweth’s 2023 article in Ms., a democracy in which “half the population is subordinated—politically, socially, economically—is not a true democracy at all.” 50 years later, we must be clear that women’s autonomy, well-being, and rights are inextricably tied to the integrity and durability of our democratic systems.

As we look ahead, two states, Michigan and Minnesota, offer hope. Both have committed to reforms that increase voter participation, fair representation, and direct democracy; in turn, both have seen feminist priorities thrive, from codifying reproductive care and establishing green energy goals, to expanding paid family leave and protecting trans youth.

As we trace the 50-year arc of Women’s Equality Day, among the lessons we might glean today: women’s voices and votes surely matter, transformative change is possible—and the fight for robust democracy is, at its core, a central and urgent feminist goal.

Mgrublian Center celebrates 20 years of responsible leadership in human rights

Mgrublian Center 20th Anniversary.

CMC Professor Emeritus and moral philosopher John Roth called it an “oppression-resisting, hope-sustaining, death-defying, life-giving, and joy-creating place.”

Jonathan Petropoulos, the John V. Croul Professor of European History at CMC, called it “the conscience of our campus.”

They were describing the Mgrublian Center for Human Rights, which this year celebrates its 20th anniversary. Roth and Petropoulos were its founders.

From the beginning, the mission of the Center for the Study of the Holocaust, Genocide, and Human Rights—as it was initially called—was aspirational in a poetic way:

“To throw light on human rights atrocities around the world” is how Trustee Board Chair David Mgrublian ’82 P’11 described it in a speech he gave April 10, 2015—on the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide—when the Center was renamed the Mgrublian Center for Human Rights. The Mgrublian family created an endowment honoring “the memory of our ancestors who perished.”

Surrounded by his late parents, Harold and Alice P’82 GP ’11, his wife, Margaret P’11, and daughter, Madlyn, David spoke of the “great obligation” the Center’s mission imparts on all of us, saying: “By instilling in our students an understanding of human rights as central to moral conduct and ethical decisions, we are sending [them] into the world to do something about it.”

This call to action is deeply aligned with CMC’s overarching mission to prepare its students for thoughtful and productive lives and responsible leadership in business, government, and the professions and to support faculty and student scholarship that contribute to intellectual vitality and the understanding of public policy issues.

“Our family is incredibly proud of the Center and the important work being done to provide our students with an understanding of human rights that is central to the moral and ethical decisions they will encounter in their personal lives, their careers, and the public arena,” David said.

Doing Something About It

The Center’s origins lie in Holocaust-focused ethics courses taught by Roth, who was a member of CMC’s faculty from 1966 until his retirement in 2006.

It was common for students to approach the popular philosophy professor after class. “We can’t rewrite history,” they would tell him. “We can’t change what happened in the past. But our study is motivating us to want to do something about the world as it exists now, and as it might exist in the future.”

When Petropoulos, an authority on Holocaust art theft, joined CMC’s history department in 1999, he and Roth combined forces to lobby the College’s president, Pamela Gann, for a new Center.

Professor John Roth, right, on campus with Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel.
Professor John Roth, right, on campus with Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, who was an early member of the Center’s advisory board.

They envisioned a place to study the Holocaust, genocide, and human rights in a holistic way—viewing past atrocities with an eye toward preventing future ones. That idealism set the CMC initiative apart from existing Holocaust museums, memorials, and research centers, which by definition looked backward.

“The hope is, all the study and research will produce deeper answers that can sensitize people and hopefully genocide will end,” Roth optimistically told The Claremont Courier in 2002.

The idea inspired CMC students. In February 2003, one of Roth’s acolytes, Michael Levy ’03, stood outside Collins Dining Hall with a petition asking the administration to endorse the proposed Center. He collected 638 signatures in a matter of hours.

A year later, Leigh Crawford ’94, founder of Los Angeles-based Crawford Capital, provided the necessary founding gift. Crawford became a life member of the advisory board.

Roth and Petropoulos teamed up as the Center’s founding director and associate director in 2003. They tapped some big names for the advisory board, which assured immediate respect and status for the new Center.

Auschwitz survivor and Nobel Laureate Elie Wiesel, who passed away in 2016, joined early on. He and Roth were old friends who collaborated on A Consuming Fire (1979), a meditation on the role of Christian theology in the Holocaust. Roth also enlisted UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Mary Robinson for the board.

Meanwhile, Petropoulos recruited star attorney Stuart Eizenstat, an expert on Holocaust restitution law, whom the CMC professor knew through his work on Nazi art theft. Today, Eizenstat chairs the governing council of the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum and is a special advisor on Holocaust issues to the State Department.

Roth, now professor emeritus, continues to serve on the Mgrublian Center’s advisory board.

When the late Professor P. Edward Haley became Center director in 2008, he persuaded Human Rights Watch, famous for having the most selective internship hiring process, to ink a deal effectively guaranteeing it would take at least one CMC student every summer.

The Mgrublian Center’s current director Wendy Lower.
The Mgrublian Center’s current director Wendy Lower

“That was a real coup,” recalled current Mgrublian Center Director Wendy Lower, who in 2014 took the baton from Haley (the emeritus professor recently passed away on June 30, 2023). Other top non-governmental organizations (NGOs) made similar agreements. The Center is crucially committed to covering students’ travel and living expenses, making it possible for CMCers to say “yes” when presented with an unpaid human rights internship opportunity.

At last count, the Mgrublian Center sent 230 summer interns to top human rights organizations, said Kirsti Zitar ’97, who returned to CMC as the Center’s assistant director in 2011. Additionally, it has backed 44 undergraduate research fellows and seeded 13 Best Senior Thesis Award-winning projects in under a decade.

Over the years, the Mgrublian Center has enlisted 136 student researchers, hosted 115 Athenaeum lectures, and awarded eight Elbaz Family Post-Graduate Fellowships. The innovative program, introduced in 2018 and funded by CMC trustee Elyssa Elbaz ’94, provides significant grants to new graduates who secure full-time jobs in human rights.

Today, the Center employs eight research fellows, four legal research assistants, and 17 student assistants, while serving as a connecting point for all CMCers with an interest in hands-on human rights scholarship, research, and activism.

Student-led innovations, such as the Justice League Task Force, keep pushing the envelope of what’s possible.

“In the past two years, our students also started a mentorship program matching CMCers interested in human rights, genocide, and Holocaust studies with alumni or parents currently working in those fields,” Zitar said.

Many Pathways, All Converging

In this respect, the Center remains a unicorn.

“We were among the very first—and still are one of a very few dedicated research institutes—doing human rights, Holocaust, and genocide studies at the undergraduate level,” said Lower, who in 2017 spearheaded the creation of a North American consortium representing some 200 peer programs.

By now, Lower is accustomed to first-year students telling her CMC was their dream school because they see the Mgrublian Center as a springboard for future careers in human rights.

Students pursue research in the Center’s John K. and Lyn Roth library.
Students pursue research in the Center’s John K. and Lyn Roth library

Some have fulfilled that altruistic ambition. Alumni include Oxfam America senior policy adviser Andrew Bogrand ’09 and USAID employees Austan Mogharabi ’07 and Nicole Southard ’17. Mogharabi is director of the federal agency’s Sahel regional technical office; Southard is an information officer with its Bureau for Humanitarian Assistance.

Of course, many Mgrublian Center alumni pursue other paths while continuing to be inspired by what they learned at CMC.

Take Colin Hunter ’05, an attorney with the Angeli Law Group LLC in Portland, Ore. He was among the first to receive a Center-funded summer internship, which sent him to Rwanda to work with an international NGO on genocide memorials.

“That was a life-changing experience in so many ways,” said Hunter, who was active in the Center all through his college years, serving on the student advisory board and co-founding Students Against Genocide (SAG). The Mgrublian Center sponsored the SAG task force’s trip to Washington, D.C., where team members met with State Department officials to advocate for U.S. intervention in the ongoing Darfur genocide and ramp-up relief work in Sudan and Chad.

After leaving CMC, Hunter became a CIA political analyst, focusing on early warning signs of potential humanitarian violations in armed conflicts. He later switched gears, earning a law degree at UC Berkeley. Alongside his civil litigation practice, Hunter continues to work pro-bono on humanitarian issues such as abortion protections and transgender rights advocacy.

“The experiences that the Center created for me inform my legal practice every day,” said Hunter, who stays connected as a Mgrublian Center advisory board member.

The Way Forward

The Mgrublian Center 20th anniversary celebration kicked off in April with its annual Armenian Genocide-focused Athenaeum speaker event, and it will wrap up in late September, with the ImpactCMC alumni dinner. To mark the milestone, the Center is running an Instagram campaign spotlighting “20 faces”—one for each year—among the hundreds who have passed through the Center.

Despite its important work and best efforts, genocide has not been stamped out, as Roth had once hoped.

Award-winning Ukrainian journalist Anna Romandash.
Award-winning Ukrainian journalist Anna Romandash met with Mgrublian research fellows this fall to discuss their projects, and with students interested in human rights-related careers.

“There is much that’s dark and dreary about our world, and yet none of that has to be the way it is. Steps can be taken in creative and constructive ways to address those issues,” he said. It’s why the Center is so important 20 years running—and why it must continue to help today’s CMC students see and seize opportunities “to try and change the world for the better.”

“At any moment, we know that somewhere in the world, right now, someone’s suffering—in Ukraine, in China, in Syria,” Lower added. It’s an administrative challenge “just trying to make decisions about where to focus our attention.”

Still, there’s reason for optimism.

“The world is getting more interconnected,” Hunter said. “Students have the ability to create content and get it out to millions of people, which we didn’t have back in 2005. I don’t think there’s any limit to what the Center and CMC students can do together.”

In a recent interview before his passing, Haley also pointed out that human rights manifest as a constant problem throughout history. “Our founding of the Center 20 years ago was an attempt to address that aspect of human rights along with trying to understand and derive lessons from the Holocaust,” Haley said. It requires of us all the “opportunity to look back and then to look forward. … to be full of hope and energy and idealism.”

Article written by Diane Krieger, originally published on the CMC website homepage on July 19, 2023

In Memoriam: CMC Professor Emeritus P. Edward Haley, Director (2008-14)

The Center is mourning the recent passing of a significant member of its foundation and community, CMC Professor Emeritus P. Edward “Ed” Haley.

Ed joined the CMC faculty in 1968 and was a key figure in the founding of the Center 20 years ago, becoming one of its first advisory board members and affirming his belief that the college needed a Center dedicated to the study of the Holocaust, genocide and human rights.  In 2008 he became director and worked tirelessly to ensure the Center’s long term viability and to expand key programs including the speaker series and the summer internship program.  His scholarship and knowledge in the field of international and strategic studies was equally matched by his stalwart support of human rights causes around the globe.  Upon his retirement in 2014, an endowed internship was established by the Center’s advisory board in Ed’s name. The P. Edward Haley Internship attracts students studying conflicts and human rights issues in the Middle East, and allows them to travel there in the summer.  

During his years at CMC, Ed was also the chair of the international relations program, and a former director of the Keck Center for International and Strategic Studies. In addition to teaching at CMC for 47 years, Ed served on the staffs of members of the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives. He was also a prolific publisher of academic works, including Strategic Foreign Assistance: Civil Society in International Security (Hoover Institution Press, 2006), and Strategies of Dominance: The Misdirections of U.S. Foreign Policy (Woodrow Wilson Center/Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006). His book, Revolution and Intervention: The Diplomacy of Taft and Wilson with Mexico, 1913-1915, won the Premio Sahagun, awarded by the Mexican National Institute of Anthropology and History.

Though his legacy will live on through his scholarship and the Center’s programs, Ed will be greatly missed by many members of the college and CMC alumni. Our hearts and thoughts are with his family, and especially his wife Elaine who was also a pillar of the Claremont community.

“Hitler Did a Lot of Good Things”: Trump and the US Rehabilitation of Nazism

Originally published by Cambridge University Press, March 28, 2023

By Ben Kiernan

A newly-excavated mass grave at Choeung Ek, Phnom Penh, Cambodia. Photo: Ben Kiernan, September 26, 1980.

As the mob incited by President Donald Trump ransacked the U.S. Capitol on January 6, 2021, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Mark Milley, “saw the Nazi imagery in the crowd.” Milley told his staff: “These guys look like the brown shirts to me. This looks like a Reichstag moment.” He was referring to the burning of the German parliament in 1933, a crucial event in Adolf Hitler’s rise to power.

What can we learn from the history of genocide as we observe current developments ? And how have previous genocide perpetrators learned from history ? The Cambridge World History of Genocide identifies these and other connections between past cases that may help predict or even prevent future repetitions.

In 2017, Donald Trump had visited France for the annual Bastille Day celebrations. He watched the parade in Paris with President Macron. In their book The Divider: Trump in the White House, Peter Baker and Susan Glasser report that a French general overseeing the parade predicted to an American counterpart: “You are going to be doing this next year.” That idea soon took root in Trump’s mind. Baker and Glasser write: “Trump stubbornly wanted a similar military parade to mark the U.S. Fourth of July independence day holiday. But his cabinet staff was less enthusiastic, and it became a point of contention.” Trump privately ”expressed admiration for Hitler’s generals, while calling his own generals ‘fucking losers,’ and subjecting them and others to racist rants… In an exchange with his then White House chief of staff John Kelly, a retired Marine Corps general, Trump reportedly complained: ‘You fucking generals, why can’t you be like the German generals?‘”

Kelly asked which generals, prompting Trump to reply: “The German generals in World War II.” Those German generals, Trump asserted, “were totally loyal to” Hitler – whose expectations of his generals had become a model for Trump.

In August 2017, neo-Nazis and white supremacists assembled in Charlottesville, Virginia, for a “Unite the Right” rally. They protested plans to remove a statue of Confederate general Robert E. Lee. Some of them chanted “Jews will not replace us,” and the Nazi slogan “Blood and Soil.” Swastika flags flew on “full display”. One protester drove a speeding car into a group of counter-protesters, killing a woman and injuring nineteen others. The car’s driver, James Alex Fields, Jr., of Ohio, was later convicted of murder. A former teacher of his reportedly described Fields as “fascinated by Nazism.” From his jail cell, Fields texted his mother “a meme of Hitler.”

Several days after the Charlottesville events, Trump stated that “the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists… should be condemned, totally,” as “rough, bad people.” Yet he suggested they had been the targets of the violence: “a group on this side, … you can call them the left, … came violently attacking the other group.” Trump emphasized repeatedly that there was “blame on both sides” and “very fine people on both sides.”

The next year, on another European visit, Trump privately told his chief of staff Kelly that “Hitler did a lot of good things”. Such admiration for history’s best-known genocide perpetrator, once unthinkable, had become commonplace in some US circles.

And it was inspiring mass murder. In August 2018 Patrick Little, a former unsuccessful Republican Senate primary candidate in California, posted on the website Gab his call for the “complete eradication of all Jews.” Robert Gregory Bowers, aged 46, reposted on Gab another statement from Little: “I am organizing protests calling for the demolition of all holohoax memorials. Never again will we let jewish lies be used as a weapon against our children. #NeverAgain”. On October 27, 2018, Bowers murdered eleven worshippers and wounded six at the Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.

Bowers’ rampage in turn inspired John T. Earnest, according to a manifesto he posted online, to unleash two attacks in California. Earnest’s manifesto included both antisemitic and anti-Muslim statements. First, in March 2019, he set fire to the Dar-ul-Arqam mosque in Escondido. Then on April 27, Earnest attacked the Chabad of Poway synagogue, near San Diego. Firing an AR-15-style rifle, he screamed that “Jews” were “ruining the world.” He shot dead Ms. Lori Gilbert Kaye, 60, and wounded three other people.

The wealthy African-American rapper and entrepreneur, Kanye West, adopted Trump’s view of the Charlottesville violence. In a video-interview at the TMZ newsroom in 2018, West said: “I want to talk to the guys in Charlottesville on both sides.” Van Lathan of that newsroom engaged West in a video exchange. Responding to West’s assertion that slavery was “a choice,” Lathan mentioned that “12 million people actually died because of Nazism and Hitler”. West then retorted “something like ‘I love Hitler, I love Nazis’.”

Part Two

By late 2020, US national officials were sounding alarms that Donald Trump was following a neo-fascist playbook. After Trump lost the presidential election to Joe Biden, General Mark Milley compared Trump’s false claims of election fraud to “Hitler’s insistence to his followers at the Nuremberg rallies that he was both a victim and their savior”. Milley saw some Trump supporters, the militia group known as the Proud Boys, as “the same people we fought in World War II”. It was the Proud Boys, neo-fascists who call themselves “western chauvinists,” whom Trump had called upon to “stand back and stand by” during his presidential campaign debate with Joe Biden.

In their 2021 book I Alone Can Fix It: Donald J. Trump’s Catastrophic Final Year, reporters Carol Leonnig and Philip Rucker of the Washington Post recount that Milley saw Trump as “the classic authoritarian leader”. This was not only “a Reichstag moment,” Milley told aides, but “The gospel of the Führer.” President Biden stated on August 25, 2022: “It’s not just Trump, it’s the entire philosophy that underpins the – … it’s like semi-fascism.”

Meanwhile Kanye West doubled down. In October 2022, using the name Ye, he wrote on Twitter: “I’m going death con 3 On JEWISH PEOPLE[…] You guys have toyed with me.” Ye added that “the Jewish media blocked me out,” and “Jewish people have owned the Black voice.”

In the ensuing public outrage, Trump claimed that he hadn’t seen West’s comments, but added that Ye was “great to me.” A conservative radio host asked him whether Ye was getting a “fair shake.” Trump replied that Ye had made some “rough statements, on Jewish,” but added: “He’ll be fine”.

On November 22, Trump invited West to dinner at his Mar-a-Lago club in Florida. Ye brought along Nick Fuentes, founder of “America First.” According to The New York Times, Fuentes leads “an annual white-supremacist event,” the America First Political Action Conference. Several weeks beforehand, he had demanded “that Jews leave the country.” Trump asserted that Kanye “arrived with a guest whom I … knew nothing about.” The New York Times reported that they hit it off: “During the dinner, according to a person briefed on what took place, Mr. Fuentes described himself as part of Mr. Trump’s base of supporters,” and that “Mr. Trump turned to the others, the person said, and declared that he liked Mr. Fuentes, adding: ‘He gets me’.”

Did Fuentes “get” Trump ? On October 30, 2019, Fuentes had made a “joke” of the Holocaust, casting doubt on its occurrence while comparing Jews incinerated in death camps to “six million cookies” burned in an oven. Then on May 24, 2021, Fuentes stated: “I don’t see Jews as Europeans and I don’t see them as part of Western civilization.”

Resurgent Nazism and neo-Nazism have combined with a growing white supremacist movement. In 2020, the Department of Homeland Security concurred with the FBI Director that among domestic threats, “racially and ethnically motivated violent extremists – specifically white supremacist extremists (WSEs) – will remain the most persistent and lethal threat in the Homeland.” In March 2023, the Anti-Defamation League reported a five-fold national increase in white supremacist groups’ propaganda activities since 2018, including a 40 percent rise since 2021. Rising racism and ethnic persecution are clear indicators of potential genocide.

The persistent recent evidence of the growing influence of Nazi and racist ideology in U.S. politics and society, and the various outbreaks of Nazism-inspired violence, are far from isolated. Without quick and effective counter-action to combat this dangerous, hateful, accelerating trend, there is only one direction that it can take. In October 2022, the Jewish Democratic Council of America published a digital ad combining images of the January 6 invasion of the U.S. Capitol, antisemitic graffiti, and the recent “Kanye is right” banner hung above a freeway in Los Angeles, all juxtaposed with images of rallies in Hitler’s Germany.

Of course, there are major differences between Nazi Germany and the USA today. But prominent Americans also see significant similarities. Some assert that Hitler’s example offers a positive model, while others note dangerous warning signs in the spread of that viewpoint. The world history of genocides has often been a matter of would-be perpetrators making conscious connections. Trump and the far right’s evocations of these past tragedies must not go unheeded.

Banner image: The Killing Fields, Cambodia, a year after the overthrow in 1979 of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. This photo of a newly-excavated mass grave at Choeung Ek, near Phnom Penh, shows some of the contents of the first four grave pits excavated there, of an estimated 107 pits containing the bodies of, among others, former inmates of the secret Khmer Rouge prison known by its code-name ‘S-21’. These first four pits yielded over seven hundred skulls, including about three hundred found in a single pit. Photo: Ben Kiernan, September 26, 1980.

Her Child Was Deported to Russia

How a Ukrainian Servicewoman Returned Her Daughter

By Anna Romandash

“It was shock, and fury, and fear all at once,” says Kseniya, Lebedenko, “I just could not process that they sent my child to Russia.”

Kseniya sighs as she says it: perhaps, to calm herself, or maybe, to shake off the memories of that difficult experience. It’s been a month since she was reunited with her daughter, 11 year old Eva, after nearly a year of separation. She is still very angry about what happened.

“They could not just take her there without my permission,” the woman proceeds, “I almost lost hope.”

Kseniya’s pro-Russian brother brought her child to Russia and refused to return Eva to her mother. Kseniya, a military medic in the Ukrainian army, could not get the child herself.

“I was contemplating about traveling to Russia to get Eva back,” she says, “I knew I might not return, but I’d try and bring her home.”

After months of struggles, Kseniya was finally able to see her child back in Ukraine.

Kseniya Lebedenko, in Ukraine. Photo credit: Kseniya Lebedenko.

Losing contact

Kseniya is a military medic with Ukraine’s Armed Forces. In her early forties, with a round, motherly face, she is an experienced medical professional who has worked in hospitals for years.

The woman spent most of her life in her native Vovchansk, a quiet little town only 5 miles from the Russian border. Divorced, Kseniya raised her daughter as a single mom with support from her elderly parents. Her brother lived nearby with his wife and two children.

A month before Russia launched its full-scale invasion, Kseniya changed jobs. She moved to Kharkiv, a one-hour drive from her hometown, and became a military medic.

“In late January, I signed my contract, and I started to serve with the Ukrainian army,” the woman recalls.

Her daughter stayed in Vovchansk with her grandparents. As Russians launched their full-scale invasion of Ukraine on February 24, 2022, Vovchansk was one of the first places that fell.

The quiet town turned eerie during the occupation. Russian troops quickly cut off all the communication Vovchansk had with the rest of Ukraine.

“I could not get to them,” Kseniya says, “It was a complete disconnection.”

For months, she tried to reach her family back home, but it was nearly impossible.

“They had no cellphone connection, no internet,” the woman continues, “They barely had any electricity. Whenever I tried to call, I could not get through to them. It was very hard to communicate, very hard to take it in.”

Throughout spring and summer, Kseniya combined her work as a military medic with her attempts to rescue Eva from the occupation.

“I was serving near Izium in the Kharkiv region, and I was looking for ways to bring Eva to Ukraine-controlled territories,” she continues, “But my family was not very supportive of the idea. Basically, they turned pro-Russian while I was serving with the Ukrainian army. I could not communicate with them very much and knew little what was going on, so I could not rescue my daughter.”

By that time, Eva was staying with Kseniya’s brother.

“I was begging my family to give Eva back to me,” Kseniya says, pain in her voice, “I told them I could find volunteers who’d drive Eva to safety in Ukraine. But they didn’t agree.”

Kseniya didn’t know this back then, but her brother supported the occupation. On September 7, he became one of the first locals to receive a Russian passport. The video of him getting the citizenship was widely circulated on the Russian propaganda channels.

“I was really waiting for this moment,” Andriy Lebedenko said to Russian journalists during the citizenship ceremony, “It’s like my second birthday. We are all the same people; we are all Russians.”

A week after Andriy became a Russian citizen, Ukrainian troops liberated Vovchansk.

“They took my daughter to Russia”

Around the time that Russians retreated from her hometown, Kseniya was fighting on another front. With her unit, she was deployed near Bakhmut, where some of the heaviest fighting took place.

“In September, I got wounded. A brain injury,” Kseniya explains, “There was artillery fire against our positions. My phone was destroyed, so I had no contacts, no phone numbers. I could not call my parents right away, and I could not go there because of my injury.”

Kseniya’s acquaintances traveled to Vovchansk to get Eva after the city was liberated. From them, the woman learned that her daughter was not in the country anymore. Andriy took Eva and his family to Russia before Ukrainian forces entered the town.

“I was very angry, and shocked, and afraid,” Kseniya says, “I could not believe they took her out of Ukraine illegally. They had no right to do that without my permission.”

“Why didn’t he go to a territory controlled by Ukraine?” the medic asks bitterly. And, without waiting for an answer, “Well, what’s the point when he already got the Russian passport?”

Through her mother, Kseniya got Andriy’s phone number.

“I started calling him,” she says, “I begged him to let me talk to Eva, but he refused.”

Andriy moved to Belgorod region, not far from the Ukrainian border. He bought a small house there and established his family – and his niece – in a small village two hours away from Vovchansk.

“I asked Andriy to return Eva to me,” Kseniya goes on, “I wanted to talk to her, but he would find all kinds of excuses. This went on for months.”

As soon as the medic was released from the hospital, she resigned from her position to be able to return Eva. Kseniya went to the local police and reported that her daughter was illegally taken to Russia.

The police connected Kseniya with volunteers who focus on returning deported Ukrainian children from Russia.

Since the start of the full-scale invasion, Russia deported at least 12,000 Ukrainian children although Russian sources claim that the number is at least 700,000. Many children are orphans, taken away from their legal guardians and relatives. Some were orphaned recently when their parents were killed during the occupation. Some got separated like Eva.

Russian parliament passed a new law that allows for the speedy adoption of Ukrainian children. According to the Russian authorities, at least a 1,000 of them have been adopted already. Ukrainian guardians are denied information on children’s whereabouts, so unless a child finds a way to communicate with family back home, it is nearly impossible to track and return the kids. Often, when the parents appeal to Russian authorities to get their children back, they get a refusal.

In Ukraine, volunteers help the families return the kids if they already know where they are. Volunteers create the safest route and help with transportation and documents. Most times, relatives have to drive to Russia to get the children themselves.

For Kseniya, this was tricky.

“I served in the Ukrainian army, so I couldn’t go to Russia,” she says, “And my brother did not want to cooperate at all. He didn’t want to return Eva or tell me where they were. I felt like I was failing, and I could not get to him. There were moments when I was on the verge of giving up.”

Eva’s home

Kseniya and Eva Lebedenko, reunited in Ukraine. Photo credit: Kseniya Lebedenko.

Eva was in Russia from September to December. After three months of non-stop calling, Andriy finally agreed to return the child home.

“Volunteers helped me prepare a document that granted power of attorney to another woman who was in a similar situation,” Kseniya explains, “She went to Russia to get her child, and she brought Eva with her.”

On December 17, Kseniya finally saw her daughter.

“I have not seen her for almost a year,” Kseniya says, tears in her eyes, “I don’t remember how we met again. It was just too much for me, so blurry. Too many emotions.”

Mother and daughter moved to Poltava region, in the North of Ukraine. They took Kseniya’s parents with them.

“We cannot go back to Vovchansk now,” she explains, “It is too dangerous because there is constant shelling from the Russian side. The town is on the verge of humanitarian catastrophe.”

In their new home, Kseniya takes care of her parents and spends as much time as she can with Eva. She doesn’t talk to her brother anymore.

“There is nothing I have to say to him,” she sighs, “We have very different values. I don’t know how he could sell his country like that. It is bad, and it upsets me very much that this happened to my family. I don’t know how it happened, but it did.”

Kseniya hopes to return to the Armed Forces soon. But for now, she’s staying home; Eva and her parents need her.

“I am very happy she is home,” Kseniya says, “I was afraid she’d not return. But now, she is here, and everything will be all right.”

Anna Romandash is a Ukrainian freelance journalist and 2022 Research Affiliate at the Mgrublian Center for Human Rights at Claremont McKenna College

“Never Again!” Roundtable Organized by Eastern European Holocaust Studies and the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre

From the journal Eastern European Holocaust Studies

Roundtable organized by Eastern European Holocaust Studies and the Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Centre took place on the 25th of April, 2022 with the technical support of Yana Ustymenko, Daniella Hovsha, and Borbala Klacsmann. The transcript was edited by Yana Ustymenko.

The event was chaired by Andrea Pető, professor at the Central European University (Vienna) and the Editor-in-Chief of the Eastern European Holocaust Studies journal. Participants were asked to reflect on what this “Never Again” means for them, their research, the Holocaust research, and for the present war against Ukraine.

Ruslan Kavatsiuk: I am now, most probably, joining you for the last time in the role of Deputy CEO of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, as I’m resigning from this role at the end of the week. For me, this event is a way to start a conversation and thank you for all the work that you do.

The war that started at the end of February, with a very active attack on Ukraine by Russia, has unfolded as crimes against humanity. It definitely helped me understand better the value of what you all and the community of Holocaust researchers do and the importance of your work. Of course, thank God, what is happening in Ukraine, is not something that can be called anything close to the Holocaust, and I hope that it will never be the case. But I’m afraid to say that we will learn more as Russian troops retreat from the territories they’ve occupied for the last couple of months. We see from the satellite images that there are mass graves with thousands of people. That is something that creates this feeling of live memory when we speak about the past and see some similar things currently. This is something terrible, and I’ve never thought that we would live in a time when something like this would happen in Europe. I wish we learned the lessons of the Holocaust better. I wish all of Eastern Europe, I wish Russia would learn the Holocaust lessons better.

I hope that this important work that you do will continue and good people will prevail over the madness that is sometimes taking parts of humanity.

Omer Bartov (member of the Advisory Board of the Eastern European Holocaust Studies): “Never Again” is a complex and interesting concept which has a fair amount of relevance to what we are seeing today. I will try to give a little bit of my understanding of its historical background: Where does this come from? How can it be interpreted often in very different ways? In fact, I would say, in contradictory ways, as it was in the past and as it is I believe in the present as well.

The idea of “Never Again” and sometimes the very term was used for the first time after World War I, at least in the 20th century. We tend to think about it as something that emerged after World War II. But in fact, this goes back to the aftermath of World War I, and it’s important to understand it in that context.

So what is this that should not happen again after World War I? Well, obviously, the answer would have been World War I – that is that we would never want to have another World War because it was so devastating to so many countries. This is not so much something that you see within the Russian context because Russia disappears as an empire, the Soviet Union is created, and there’s a very different discourse there. But in the West, and especially in Britain and in France, that’s a very powerful idea that we should do everything we can to prevent another war.

You can see that from this kind of idea of “Never Again such a war,” such a destructive war that cut down an entire generation of young men in these countries, comes the notion of either pacifism or appeasement. In Germany, this is somewhat different. In Germany, too, after World War I, there are many who think about preventing such a destructive war from happening again, but ultimately another discourse wins out. That discourse is that: We did not really lose that war. We were stabbed in the back. We were betrayed, and therefore that war has to be fought again. And this time, it has to be won. In that sense, World War I is re-interpreted in Germany, which leads into a National Socialist discourse, into a war that was lost for the wrong reasons and a war that should be won.

There are two types of “Never Again,” if you like, at least in Central and Western Europe. One is “Never Again war.” The second one is “Never Again that war” – we should have a different war, a more successful war and better-organized war, a war without internal enemies where we would not be stabbed in the back. These are related to each other, of course, because so much of the effort that is made in the late 1930s to prevent war, known to us now as “appeasement” (a term that is floated again only in recent weeks), has to do with those responses to what happened in World War I just as much as it has to do with Germany’s interpretation of the war. That’s a little bit on the background of World War I.

After World War II came this sort of official “Never Again.” Nobody is precise about what it is that will never happen again. The term is used, and it appears in many monuments and many declarations, but people have different understandings of what it is that shouldn’t happen again. And that’s part of what I think we want to keep in mind.

If you think about the Jewish and Israeli context, the “Never Again” is quite clear. It’s not “Never Again war” – it’s “Never Again the Holocaust.” It’s not even really “Never Again genocide or mass murder,” it’s “Never Again the Holocaust.” The Holocaust already happened, of course, and the idea is that we should never let it or something like it happen again. But it is perceived very much within the majority of collective Jewish memory, with some interesting exceptions, and within the state of Israel increasingly as “Never Again a genocide of the Jews,” and therefore, this carries with it certain understandings. If that thing should never happen again, then we should do everything we can to prevent it. In fact, everything that we would do to prevent it is justified. This gives one sanction to do anything one can or wants to if one perceives a particular threat, an existential threat. That’s one kind of context.

The other one is “Never Again genocide,” generic genocide, such genocide as what happened to the Jews and has happened to others. This “Never Again genocide” doesn’t have much purchase between the time that the genocide convention was agreed on in 1948 by the UN and until the 1990s, after the fall of the Soviet Union and the communist system in Europe. Of course, that “Never Again,” which keeps happening again and again in the post-war period, comes into a sort of international view and discussion only in the 1990s after the end of the Cold War, when such an international discussion can actually be held. So that’s a very different type of “Never Again” – one that turns out to be a largely hollow and meaningless assertion because it’s never been respected, despite all these assertions after the end of World War II.

There’s another kind of “Never Again,” which doesn’t call itself that way, but it is in a sense that – the communist one, in all the communist countries. It comes under the slogan of anti-fascism, that is that such systems of Nazism and fascism must always be prevented and that everything that we do to prevent it is justified: Nazism should never happen again. Look what it did to the Soviet Union. And it was only the Soviet Union that defeated it. It’s a kind of “Never Again” that gives one license to do whatever is needed to prevent that from happening.

What then is “Never Again”? What is it that should not happen again? How to prevent it from happening? As we can see, “Never Again” can be and has been used as an anti-war argument and can be and has been used as a pro-war argument to prevent something worse. If we talk about genocide prevention or even if we talk about the 1948 UN Genocide Convention itself, those who are its signatories, hypothetically, are obliged to do everything they can to prevent genocide, including interfering in the affairs of another sovereign state. That’s the only international agreement that actually mandates that. If that country is perceived to be carrying out genocide, there is no need for that country to be involved in an international war in order to license an intervention in the affairs of that sovereign state, an idea that is very much against what the international community perceives as acceptable. That’s what makes the genocide convention so problematic.

Similarly, for a state like Israel, if anything is perceived as an existential threat – a threat of genocide, that is of another Holocaust – then war is justified on the basis of that understanding. This also reflects a particular kind of politics of commemoration and memory in many countries. I won’t go into that very deeply, but I’ll just touch again on the case of Israel, and then I’ll go to the case of Russia and Ukraine. When one talks about what should be remembered and never forgotten, about events that should always be prevented, that assertion usually comes also with silencing other events. The politics of memory is always not only about remembering but also about forgetting, not only about commemoration but also about erasure. One can cite many examples. For instance, the politics of memory in Poland, Ukraine, and Israel illustrate this mechanism quite well, and so does the politics of memory in the Soviet Union and later in Russia. What do we remember? What do we forget?

In the case of Ukraine, we remember the fact that Ukraine had experienced genocide, we remember the Holodomor, we remember the destruction of World War II, and we remember Ukrainian freedom fighters, those who fought to maintain and save Ukrainian nationality. What do we remember in the Soviet Union and then in Russia? We remember the Great Patriotic War, we remember that the Soviet Union saved Europe from Nazism. What do we not remember? We don’t remember the crimes of Stalin, we try not to remember the Gulags, and we don’t remember the imposition of dictatorships throughout Eastern Europe. What do we remember in a country like Israel? We remember the Holocaust, we remember the Israeli war of Independence. What do we not remember? We don’t remember that the Israeli war of Independence also included the expulsion of the Palestinian population from Israel, and we cannot even allow that to be commemorated. Every kind of politics of memory that has to do with these constitutive events also entails forgetting.

Now I’ll just touch briefly on the specific case of Ukraine and Russia. In the Soviet Union and later on, and especially under president Vladimir Putin, the Great Patriotic War is a symbol of stopping Nazism and of stopping fascism. It is precisely that symbol, that idea, that kind of danger to Russia, formerly the Soviet Union, of Nazism that has been used by the Putin regime to justify its invasion of Ukraine. It plays precisely on this motif that has been hammered into Russian citizens before the fall of the Soviet Union and again, increasingly, after its demise. It always entails forgetting – forgetting the crimes of Stalin and even striving to prevent n any commemoration of the Gulags and of the repression under Stalin’s regime. In that sense, we can say that the Soviet “Never Again” is used precisely as a justification for the invasion of Ukraine.

In Ukraine, on the other side, I would say the notion of “Never Again” is to never again be under Russian domination, to never again be part of Russia, to be separated from Russia, and to continue the Ukrainian struggle for independence. And within the Ukrainian national memory, it is a long struggle of hundreds of years of trying to separate Ukraine from those who dominated it. In fact, the two main dominating powers are Poland, which has ironically now become a shelter for millions of Ukrainian refugees, and Russia. These are the two powers that for much of Ukrainian history dominated what became then the independent Ukraine. What is remembered is also the Ukrainian struggle for independence, the Ukrainian struggle to free itself from these dominating powers. In that sense, the most immediate memories in Ukraine of that struggle against domination by the Soviet Union (now Russia) is the insurgency of 1944–1949 against what was seen by others as the liberation of Ukraine. Again we find here a particular memory that is not part of the general European memory – “Never Again Nazism,” therefore liberation from Nazism. Within the particular Ukrainian memory, that liberation is in fact an occupation. Those memories of the insurgency against Soviet re-occupation of Ukraine in the last year of World War II and its immediate aftermath, are those that reemerge now. You can see it in various elements, including the use of the slogan of “Slava Ukraini” which was used very often at the time. What is rarely invoked in Ukraine at the moment in the complicity of Ukrainian nationalist organizations in the Nazi genocide of the Jews and the ethnic cleansing of the Poles in 1943–44. These are events that have largely been removed from the official Ukrainian memory of World War II. I would suggest that this forgetting has created a space for the Kremlin’s false propaganda of conducting a so-called denazification campaign.

Finally, what is so interesting is that president Volodymyr Zelensky raised another memory of “Never Again” in a number of his speeches, which are always very well geared to particular publics and therefore have been very effective. One is “Never Again appeasement.” Zelensky very much speaks to European audiences: You should remember the “Never Again appeasement” because look what appeasement caused – appeasement caused World War IIIf there is appeasement of Russia now, it will cause World War III. Of course, there’s a complete opposite discussion of that in Europe and in the United States in many circles – that too much engagement in the war against Russia will bring World War III: Well, we have to be careful because if we are not careful, we will bring about World War III. And Zelensky says: If there is appeasement, that is what will bring World War III. When Zelensky came to Israel, he spoke directly about the Holocaust and directly about “Never Again that genocide, that Holocaust.” He made an analogy, which a number of people in Israel didn’t like because they don’t like these analogies in general, that if you let people get away with that sort of aggression, they will continue doing it, and it will only get worse. So “Never Again the Holocaust,” “Never Again genocide.”

I’ll close by saying that there is a debate over whether what’s happening in Ukraine is genocide or not. Some of the facts obviously have not been investigated thoroughly, but the rhetoric of the Putin regime, the rhetoric that is officially being put out, is completely genocidal rhetoric. It is a rhetoric of the eradication of a group, of a national group, as such. In that sense, the regime itself, whatever it is doing, and it is clearly committing a lot of destruction, is engaged in the rhetoric of genocide. If there is any “Never Again” that we should be talking about, it is that one. Therefore, I think that it is much more important for us as scholars and citizens to speak about that “Never Again” rather than the fear of war.

Marta Havryshko (researcher of the Babyn Yar Holocaust Memorial Centre, a member of the Editorial Board of EEHS): I will talk about “Never Again” in terms of brutal human rights violation, which leads to mass killing based on different characteristics of people: race, ethnicity, and other factors.

On 4th April, the family of 91-year-old Holocaust survivor Vanda Obiedkova reported her death. Her daughter Larysa said, “As Vanda lay dying in a Mariupol basement, freezing and pleading for water, she wanted to know only one thing” – “Why is this happening?” The last days of her life were full of suffering as well as her childhood. She was 10 years old in 1941 when the Germans occupied her native city. With the local helpers, they executed more than 9000 Jews outside Mariupol in October of that year. Vanda’s mother and her family were among those thousands. Vanda spent 2 years hiding in a hospital pretending to be Greek until the Soviet Red Army reached Mariupol in 1943. Vanda was 91 years old when the Russian army attacked Mariupol under the pretext of the de-Nazification and de-militarization of Ukraine. Vanda and her family had to take shelter near their home in the basement of the neighboring heating supplies store. “There was no water, no electricity, no heat,” her daughter said. “There was nothing we could do for her. We were living like animals. Every time a bomb fell, the entire building shook.” Vanda kept asking – “Why is this happening?” Many more Holocaust survivors and their descendants in Ukraine nowadays keep asking a similar question. All who witnessed the unbearable suffering of innocent people in Ukraine caused by the brutal Russian invasion keep asking – “Why is this happening? How is this possible in the world of ‘Never Again ethics’? Why? What did we do wrong? Not enough?”

How we as Holocaust scholars and educators should respond to this new human tragedy unfolding in the lands that suffered so much during World War II and the Holocaust? While seeking answers to these questions, we should pay attention to the language and terminology, especially when organizing conferences, workshops, and seminars regarding ongoing war. For example, instead of using the term “Ukrainian crisis,” “crisis in Ukraine,” or simply “war in Ukraine,” we should say “Russia’s war on Ukraine,” or “Russia – Ukraine war.” Such rhetoric clearly distinguishes perpetrator and victim. It clearly shows who is responsible for this unjustified and cruel war. Instead of the term “Putin’s war on Ukraine,” we should say “Russia’s war on Ukraine.” It was not Putin who raped a woman and her 15-year-old daughter and then killed them in front of her eldest daughter in Irpin. It wasn’t Putin who tied the mother of an 11-year-old boy in Bucha while raping him. It wasn’t Putin who shelled a rocket at the building in Odesa this Saturday on the eve of Easter; that rocket that killed a mother, her mother, and a three-months-old child Kira. It wasn’t Putin who executed Iryna from Bucha while she was riding her bike, and whose hand with the red nails – thanks to the photographer from Reuters – became one of the symbols of Bucha atrocities. It wasn’t Putin who killed a pregnant woman with her unborn child in Mariupol at a maternity hospital. While seeking answers to these questions, we should think about the role of silence in times of extreme violence because this silence might be a form of complicity.

They dragged her to the court in the yard, put her on her back, and started to dance a Cossack on her stomach. Her professor stood by her side. She was a high school student, and she addressed him, “Professor, save me! What are they doing to me?” He didn’t care, he turned his head away. This was the quote from the memories of Adela Bar Eli stance itself. It’s a manifestation of indifference. How can we as scholars and educators show indifference in times of such humanitarian and human rights crises caused by the Russian invasion of Ukraine? How can we sit at the same table with people who deny or justify crimes and pretend that all thoughts are equally important and relevant? While seeking answers to the questions, we should think more about the concept of bystanders. Are those who keep silent bystanders? Are those who deny Russians’ war crimes bystanders? Who is complicit in war crimes and crimes against humanity in Ukrainian cities now? Who made all horrors of war possible? It’s not only soldiers who shoot, rape, and rob. It’s not only their commanders who turned a blind eye to their war crimes or give the orders to attack civilian objects, kindergartens, schools, and hospitals in Ukraine. It’s also their mothers and wives who support and encourage them, who allow them to rape women in Ukraine, and who ask them to bring them presents from abandoned Ukrainian homes. Many more questions should be posed nowadays. Many more answers should be found. We must find an answer to the main Vanda Obiedkova question – “Why this is happening again?”

Wendy Lower (member of the Advisory Board of the European Holocaust Studies): Being very conscious of the fact that this is the week of Holocaust Remembrance (Yom HaShoah), I wanted to start with a very well-known quote that I think deserves our attention and review again. It’s a quote by Primo Levi in his introduction to Survival in Auschwitz,

You who live safe

In your warm houses,

You who find warm food

And friendly faces when you return home.

Consider if this is a man

Who works in mud,

Who knows no peace,

Who fights for a crust of bread,

Who dies by a yes or no.

Consider if this is a woman

Without hair, without name,

Without the strength to remember,

Empty her eyes, cold her womb,

Like a frog in winter.

Never forget that this has happened.

Remember these words.

Engrave them in your hearts,

When at home or in the street,

When lying down, when getting up.

Repeat them to your children.

Or may your houses be destroyed,

May illness strike you down,

May your offspring turn their faces from you.

In his autobiography, Raphael Lemkin, father of genocide studies, wrote: “The function of memory is not only to register past events but to stimulate human conscience.” For decades we’ve adopted this Lemkin logic – remembering the Holocaust will spur awareness of other genocides to be registered in history and halted if they are ongoing. Or as philosopher John Roth, author of The Failures of Ethics, stated, “We remember the Holocaust to hold ourselves accountable.” Is there a relationship “from memory to action”– the title of an exhibit at the USHMM on contemporary genocide. This week, Genocide Awareness Week, is a timely one for assessing what we have done or not done in the case of Ukraine. To consider our ethical imperative to act and do good in the world, to help others facing the worst and suffering now. When genocide is happening, what do we do?

Since February, we have watched as the convoys roll in, Ukrainians hunker down, and the shellings decimate. The images of razed towns, mass murders, and sexual violence are sending shock waves around media outlets. This is not a conventional war if there ever was one. Russia’s forces blatantly disregard rules and international conventions that world leaders have worked so hard to establish since the founding of the International Committee of the Red Cross in 1867.

What have I been doing? I want to go through a couple of tools and ideas concerning intervention and some of the historical echoes that I’ve been thinking through as far as my own work as a scholar, and its potential application to the parallels today.

First of all, solidarity with colleagues. Communication – staying informed, being there, showing up. These genocidal kinds of actions are meant to paralyze us and leave us feeling isolated, leave us with skepticism about the world. As Jean Améry said, “Losing trust in the world.” This is what genocidaires seek. We know Ukrainians are bearing a heavy burden now, and we respect and value their courage, resolve, and sacrifice. We’re in awe. We have to shore up our networks and offer aid and support of any kind.

Second – activism. Keep the story on the front page, write to your congressman, write to the White House, put pressure on international organizations to act boldly, apprehend Putin, uphold the rule of law and pursuit of justice. Do not accept the passivity of those who say, “Oh, justice is too slow. We can’t do this.” Push for creative problem-solving, promotion of peace, and accountability. Do not fall silent. As Levi described the comforts of these safe places – the distances that we can create in our imagination is a false sense of security. The attack on Ukraine is Putin’s attack on the West.

Third – learn, educate. Try to understand and anticipate, as scholars and professors, the origins of this genocidal behavior and its ideology. Many experts in international organizations have devoted their lives to studying this kind of history and genocide prevention. We have a whole toolbox that we can draw from. Why are we not doing that right now? What has failed? What needs to be reformed?

During the first days of the invasion, my Ukrainian friend urged me to look into the history of Russia’s pattern of genocidal actions and thinking. I started to rethink my own work on the relationship between imperialism and mass violence and that of my colleagues, like Mark Levene. Each historical great power in Europe, be it France, Britain, or Germany, experienced a chapter of imperial collapse and decolonization accompanied by mass atrocities and genocide. Putin’s obsession with the loss of empire and, therefore, great power status, and resisting it by claiming Ukraine and keeping a tight grip on Chechnya – these are instructive examples of this phenomenon, this pattern of imperial genocide. As political scientist Adam Jones put it, “Memories of past dispossessions become inextricably bound up with a sense of victimization and the contemporary need for violent redress of perceived wrongs” (Adam Jones, Genocide: A Comprehensive Introduction, Routledge, 2017, p. 117). When an empire is in decline, Mark Levene reminds us, a collective mentality develops in which leaders, policymakers, and the general public believe that something that ought to be theirs in terms of international status is forever being denied or blocked off from them. “This mentality,” Jones elaborates, “pervaded not only Nazi actions, but the Ottoman Empire’s destruction of its Christian minorities, the Khmer Rouge genocide in Cambodia in the 1970s, and the Serb victimization narrative that fueled the Bosnian genocide of the 1990s” (Jones, p. 117). Another example of this genocidal trajectory of imperial ascent and decline is the Russian-Soviet-Chechen history, going back to the late 1820s. In tsarist Ukraine, the nineteenth century was one of forced russification, suppression of the Ukrainian language, mass conscription, and antisemitism in the form of extra taxes, military service, and violent pogroms against Jewish minorities. In the wake of the hardships of the First World War, Lenin and then Stalin’s regime went on the offensive in its terror in the name of revolution and economic modernization, including an artificial famine, the Holodomor. And then, when faced with a Nazi assault and morally threatened in 1941–42, Stalin undertook more ethnic cleansing – mass deportations of minorities, such as Chechens, Tatars, and of political foes, such as Polish and Ukrainian non-communist elites.

Adam Jones argues that this recent post-Soviet Russian tendency can be traced to Yeltsin and Putin’s actions in Chechnya, in what he calls “wars unto genocide” (p. 114). Jones describes “the pathological excesses” of the violence in post-Soviet Russia, “stripped of its quasi-colonies in eastern Europe and central Asia and obsessed with holding on to minority-dominated territories on the fringes of its shrunken empire” (p. 117).

Is Russia’s degenerate war genocidal? It could be since war enables genocide. “Genocide is often put into practice in the context of war,” historian Peter Longerich wrote in his book on the Holocaust, “because the brutalizing atmosphere in which the existence of the individual is already to an extent devalued.” Martin Shaw developed a taxonomy of degenerate wars that can become genocidal in their mass targeting of civilians. In March 1942, the gassing facility of Belzec received its first gassing victims from Ukraine, while Slovakian Jews were being sent to Auschwitz-Birkenau. At this time, Reich Minister of Propaganda and Hitler acolyte Joseph Goebbels wrote in his diary, “Thank God that now, during wartime, we have a whole series of opportunities that would be closed off to us in peacetime.”

In Adam Jones’s book on the history of genocide, he delineates some important aspects of war and its relationship to genocide: “War accustoms a society to violence and dehumanization, and erodes the boundaries between legality and criminality;” “War increases the quotient of fear and hatred in a society;” “War eases genocidal logistics;” “War provides a smokescreen for genocide;” “War fuels intracommunal solidarity and intercommunal enmity;” “War magnifies humanitarian crises;” “War stokes grievances and a desire for revenge” (pp. 118–120).

The Nazi-Soviet war (1941–1945) is also rather instructive. We know, for instance, as students of the Holocaust, that for too long scholars approached the war as two separate undertakings. As the late Geoff Megargee stressed, military historians focused on the battlefield and the sweep of armies to the exclusion of the genocidal actions in the civilian zones. Likewise, Holocaust historians often lacked the expertise to discuss the war itself, not showing the integration of military strategy operations, occupation policy, and the ideologies driving both. The controversial German exhibit in 2000 on the Wehrmacht’s crimes debunked the myth of a clean army and changed all this bifurcated thinking. But as far as today’s events, we can see the clear combination of conventional bombardment and use of military force to achieve several ends: territorial expansion for empire; a genocidal reordering or ethnic cleansing; and mass murder and destruction of culture and infrastructure in Ukraine.

Consider some of the statements of some of the worst Nazi generals like Walter von Reichenau in 1941 when he instructed troops in Ukraine: “The most important goal of the campaign against Judeo-Bolshevik’s system is the complete destruction of its instruments of power and the eradication of the Asiatic influence in the European cultural realm.” One of Putin’s generals, propagandists, or Putin himself could state this in the same way as Hitler and his generals did in 1941: “The most important goal of this special military operation against the Western Nazi system in Ukraine is the complete destruction of its instruments of power and the eradication of Ukrainian Western NATO influence in the European cultural realm.” Reichenau wrote more about the soldier in the East not only as a combatant but also as the bearer of an inexorable idea and the avenger of all the alleged bestialities committed against the German people. He condoned soldiers’ necessarily harsh treatment of civilians and POWs, and justified punishment of all whom they called “sub-humans,” or those who resisted the Germans on the battlefield and behind the lines. This is the kind of exterminatory rhetoric that was mentioned earlier on the panel. The parallels are striking. Also, the pre-meditated planning of the execution of the campaign on Putin’s part as a presumed Blitzkrieg, the focus on reprisals, bombardment and siege of cities. Today the history of the dangers of appeasement vis a vis a blatant global menace echoes in our ears. We can recall the Nazi warfare of 1939 and 1941 and occupation history as a guide for Putin, as Putin’s playbook, his historical reference, point and guide. For decades he has been instrumentalizing The Great Patriotic War to beef up and legitimize this campaign against Ukraine. Now we see Putin taking on this multifaceted role of being a Hitler-like leader, a general von Reichenau, and a propagandist like Goebbels.

Recently, a version of Putin’s genocide handbook came into open circulation. It was published on April 3rd, and critiqued by Timothy Snyder who wrote about it. It was released by an official Russian press agency and delineates his bigger campaign. As I read that, I was reminded of Himmler’s Generalplan Ost and thought about this as Putin’s Generalplan West. The handbook calls for the liquidation of the Ukrainian state, an abolition of those who fight with Ukraine. It targets more than 20 million people to be killed or sent to work in labour camps to be re-educated. Children will be raised to be Russian. The name Ukraine will disappear. It reminded me, of course, of Himmler’s Germanization and kidnapping campaigns in places like Ukraine. This is not just rhetoric, and we have to take all this very seriously because it’s accompanied by acts of destruction, and these war crimes that are increasing in the media every day.

So how do we enforce “Never Again” – What are the kinds of intervention strategies? What can we do? We have some lessons learned from recent genocides and American-Western responses. In the 1990s, there seemed to be a kind of definitional debate and even stalling as far as using the so-called G word. Because we took the Convention very seriously, and our obligations to respond to genocide. There was boom in education and memorialization of the Holocaust with the 1993 opening of the USHMM; there were anti-genocide protests to help victims but a lack of direct intervention in Darfur, Rwanda, Syria, and Myanmar. These were deemed distant conflicts, atrocities not worthy of boots on the ground. There was a fear of losing American lives, a lack of domestic support and inertia, indictments but no arrests, and no real actions to immediately halt the genocide and enforce accountability.

Humanitarian intervention as a concept has deeper roots. It actually emerged in a formal legal sense in 1931, and Raphael Lemkin referred to it in his own history when he was researching his history of genocide. It means the “justifiable use of force for the purpose of protecting the inhabitants of another state from treatment so arbitrarily and persistently abusive so as to exceed the limits beyond reason in justice.” In the 1990s, intervention was mostly in the form of bombing, as in Kosovo, peace brokering and a number of other measures, including sanctions. Much of it was detailed in the R2P (Responsibility to Protect) doctrine in 2001.

The UN has a stronger record of aftermath work. Peacebuilding in some parts of the world; there has been some success in Central America, for instance, after the civil wars in El Salvador, Nicaragua, and Guatemala, working with NGOs to demobilize fighting forces and create new institutions for democratic elections. We’ve also seen some success there led by the UN in The Truth and Reconciliation Commission (TRC) and other justice work.

But what about intervention now? R2P was recently beefed up by a Canadian effort called The Will to Intervene (W2I). The Will to Intervene recognizes the constraints of international organizations and their national makeup and argues that domestic support must come first for intervention abroad, requiring leadership from executive legislative branches and consensus across government departments, and the preparation of military and civilian agencies to intervene with plans, equipment, and good solutions. The Will to Intervene “has to move beyond well-meaning but simplistic calls” to do something to prevent mass atrocities. Rather it expects demand-precise proposals from government leaders for action found on a results-based analysis.

There have also been proposals for an international peace army, similar to a standing police force that could arrive on the scene to intervene, document, and apprehend, composed of nationals from around the world. This was envisioned by one scholar as an arm of the UN, as an enforcer of its conventions. Canada and Denmark signed on to this UN force, this international peace army, contributing to a proposed 6000 strong able-bodied men to be on standby for a call from the Secretary General and Security Council. The EU discussed a similar kind of organization, a rapid reaction force capable of deploying 60,000 soldiers within 60 days and maintaining them in the field for up to a year. As Adam Jones points out: “All of these initiatives were guided by a perception that early response was necessary to prevent genocidaires and war criminals too great a head start” (Jones, p. 771). I fear that Putin and non-Russian mercenaries, and his call (in the genocide handbook) to involve other countries that have grievances with the West – he’s trying to build a kind of coalition of anti-Westerners around the world. The mobilization of a collective will to respond to this is perhaps the hardest, entails overcoming fear, disbelief, and ignorance and realizing how fragile freedom is and our shared vulnerability. What will it take to educate others about the seriousness of Russia’s ambitions and crimes, the history of Ukraine, and why Mariupol, Bucha, and Kharkiv matter to all of us? They are attacks against us all.

Tali Nates (member of the Advisory Board of the European Holocaust Studies, director of Johannesburg Holocaust and Genocide Center): I would really like to continue and build on the many important points raised but also to bring my thoughts as a practitioner in the museum sphere. What should we, the hundreds of museums and memorials to genocides, to the Holocaust, from around the world, can do and should do to help making the “Never Again” a reality?

Of course, as Omer [Bartov] stated, “Never Again” – these two words declared again and again and expressed now, this April, Genocide awareness month. The 7th of April was Kwibuka, Remembrance of the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. Yesterday [24 April] we marked 107 years since the Armenian genocide. This week is Holocaust Remembrance Day. And of course, remembering the genocide in Cambodia too, and then in July this year, we’ll remember 27 years of the genocide in Srebrenica. So “Never Again” are empty words – it’s really “Never Again until the next time.” It’s “Never Again yet again.”

I’m thinking about Nelson Mandela who also used the words “Never Again” in his inauguration speech in April 1994: “Never, never and never again shall it be that this beautiful land will again experience the oppression of one by another and suffer the indignity of being the skunk of the world.” The words are used, but they lost their meaning. And that is where the call is to reinvigorate those words, to reexamine those words and see how we can actually deal with them.

Specifically, in April 1994, when Nelson Mandela was saying these words, don’t forget that in the same month, the same year, the same continent, the genocide in Rwanda had already been happening for three weeks. No one cared. The media was in South Africa covering the “good story”. Almost no one was in Rwanda covering that story.

I want to share with you a story that I will never forget. During one of my many, many visits to Rwanda, probably about 20 years ago, I went to one of the churches that became a memorial site. In every one of those memorials, there was a huge sign, “Never Again,” and the bones, the remains of the victims were under that very sign. So this Roman Catholic Church I went to was in Ntarama, about 30 min away from Kigali, where five thousand men, women, and children were murdered. The driver who took me there was a Tutsi survivor. He had a huge machete scar on his head, and he was visibly upset. He started to tell me that he had lost all his family. He was the only survivor of the genocide. He was wearing a bracelet on his arm which said – yes, you guessed it – “Never Again.” What do you say to someone who survived such horrors? I didn’t know what to say except, “I am very sorry for your loss.” I also told him that I was the daughter of Holocaust survivors. My father survived a genocide including five concentration camps, that happened far away, on another continent, and at another time. I will never forget it because of what he said, “Really? Never Again?” And he took the bracelet off his arm and gave it to me. I’m keeping it until today. It’s been more than 20 years since this happened. And these are the words that I’m thinking about when we say “Never Again.” What does it mean when one survivor is talking to another descendant of survivors, and we’re using the same words? But what do they mean, really?

If we think about Primo Levy, an Auschwitz survivor, who said the very famous words that we display in our museum and many other museums are using them as well, “It happened, therefore it can happen again. This is the core of what we have to say – it can happen and it can happen anyway”. The issue is that the same South Africa – the country where the first democratic elections brought us Nelson Mandela, the country which many see as the symbol of human rights – is now the country that is staying “neutral” in this Ukraine-Russian war. I am sitting in a museum in Johannesburg, and my colleagues are in museums in Cape Town, in Durban and in other places, teaching about the past, and South Africa is claiming neutrality. That neutrality is, of course, not neutrality at all because it’s in fact pro-Russian. It is silent about the atrocities happening. Until just a week ago, no one from the government even contacted the Ukrainian ambassador. I’m very glad to say that in the last week, at last, the Ukrainian ambassador was actually contacted and spoken to by one of the ministers and by our Foreign Ministry. But I feel ashamed. I feel really ashamed that we as a country not only did not learn from our own history, but we are supporting the oppressor.

So what can we, as museums and memorials, do? This is something that really worries me, really bothers me. How do we, those who are showing exhibitions, organising educational programs and workshops for thousands of students from schools, universities, and also teachers and the public, turn those words from a “Never Again” with a question mark [?] to “Never Again” with an exclamation mark [!] that will create a clear connection between the past and the present?

I’m glad that Wendy [Lower] spoke about R2P [Responsibility to Protect] and the other ways we are starting to think about how we make those connections and activate some action. For me, the challenge is how do you make the links quicker, much quicker? How do you teach about the past – may it be World War II, the Holocaust, may it be Rwanda and the reaction of the world, may it be other genocides, or mass atrocities, or crimes against humanity such as apartheid? How do we make the connection that our students and teachers can activate in real time? The term that I would like to use is “memory activism.” How do we, and I hope that there are some colleagues from museums from around the world listening today, make history relevant to our students today? How do we activate this memory into activism in order to do more – may it be writing letters to our governments, may it be getting donations for good causes, may it be writing articles or getting involved in local media?

The ideas are many, but we have hundreds of memorials and museums. I think that, if we include university departments and other related museums, we have more than 350 such memorials around the world. How do we start and make that connection between “Never Again” in history and now, action, today, in each one of our countries?

This is what I wanted to add to what we are talking about today – a call to action to my colleagues around the world. To make that connection now.

Published Online: 2023-02-15

© 2023 the author(s), published by De Gruyter, Berlin/Boston

This work is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License.