Ukraine and the Words That Lead to Mass Murder

Ukraine and the Words That Lead to Mass Murder

In the terrible winter of 1932–33, brigades of Communist Party activists went house to house in the Ukrainian countryside, looking for food. The brigades were from Moscow, Kyiv, and Kharkiv, as well as villages down the road. They dug up gardens, broke open walls, and used long rods to poke up chimneys, searching for hidden grain. They watched for smoke coming from chimneys, because that might mean a family had hidden flour and was baking bread. They led away farm animals and confiscated tomato seedlings. After they left, Ukrainian peasants, deprived of food, ate rats, frogs, and boiled grass. They gnawed on tree bark and leather. Many resorted to cannibalism to stay alive. Some 4 million died of starvation.

At the time, the activists felt no guilt. Soviet propaganda had repeatedly told them that supposedly wealthy peasants, whom they called kulaks, were saboteurs and enemies—rich, stubborn landowners who were preventing the Soviet proletariat from achieving the utopia that its leaders had promised. The kulaks should be swept away, crushed like parasites or flies. Their food should be given to the workers in the cities, who deserved it more than they did. Years later, the Ukrainian-born Soviet defector Viktor Kravchenko wrote about what it was like to be part of one of those brigades. “To spare yourself mental agony you veil unpleasant truths from view by half-closing your eyes—and your mind,” he explained. “You make panicky excuses and shrug off knowledge with words like exaggeration and hysteria.”

He also described how political jargon and euphemisms helped camouflage the reality of what they were doing. His team spoke of the “peasant front” and the “kulak menace,” “village socialism” and “class resistance,” to avoid giving humanity to the people whose food they were stealing. Lev Kopelev, another Soviet writer who as a young man had served in an activist brigade in the countryside (later he spent years in the Gulag), had very similar reflections. He too had found that clichés and ideological language helped him hide what he was doing, even from himself:

I persuaded myself, explained to myself. I mustn’t give in to debilitating pity. We were realizing historical necessity. We were performing our revolutionary duty. We were obtaining grain for the socialist fatherland. For the five-year plan.

There was no need to feel sympathy for the peasants. They did not deserve to exist. Their rural riches would soon be the property of all.

But the kulaks were not rich; they were starving. The countryside was not wealthy; it was a wasteland. This is how Kravchenko described it in his memoirs, written many years later:

Large quantities of implements and machinery, which had once been cared for like so many jewels by their private owners, now lay scattered under the open skies, dirty, rusting and out of repair. Emaciated cows and horses, crusted with manure, wandered through the yard. Chickens, geese and ducks were digging in flocks in the unthreshed grain.

That reality, a reality he had seen with his own eyes, was strong enough to remain in his memory. But at the time he experienced it, he was able to convince himself of the opposite. Vasily Grossman, another Soviet writer, gives these words to a character in his novel Everything Flows:

I’m no longer under a spell, I can see now that the kulaks were human beings. But why was my heart so frozen at the time? When such terrible things were being done, when such suffering was going on all around me? And the truth is that I truly didn’t think of them as human beings. “They’re not human beings, they’re kulak trash”—that’s what I heard again and again, that’s what everyone kept repeating.

Nine decades have passed since those events took place. The Soviet Union no longer exists. The works of Kopelev, Kravchenko, and Grossman have long been available to Russian readers who want them.

In the late 1980s, during the period of glasnost, their books and other accounts of the Stalinist regime and the Gulag camps were best sellers in Russia. Once, we assumed that the mere telling of these stories would make it impossible for anyone to repeat them. But although the same books are theoretically still available, few people buy them. Memorial, the most important historical society in Russia, has been forced to close. Official museums and monuments to the victims remain small and obscure. Instead of declining, the Russian state’s ability to disguise reality from its citizens and to dehumanize its enemies has grown stronger and more powerful than ever.

Nowadays, less violence is required to misinform the public: There have been no mass arrests in Putin’s Russia on the scale used in Stalin’s Russia. Perhaps there don’t need to be, because Russian state-run television, the primary source of information for most Russians, is more entertaining, more sophisticated, more stylish than programs on the crackly radios of Stalin’s era. Social media is far more addictive and absorbing than the badly printed newspapers of that era, too. Professional trolls and influencers can shape online conversation in ways that are helpful to the Kremlin, and with far less effort than in the past.

The modern Russian state has also set the bar lower. Instead of offering its citizens a vision of utopia, it wants them to be cynical and passive; whether they actually believe what the state tells them is irrelevant. Although Soviet leaders lied, they tried to make their falsehoods seem real. They got angry when anyone accused them of lying, and they produced fake “evidence” or counterarguments. In Putin’s Russia, politicians and television personalities play a different game, one that we in America know from the political campaigns of Donald Trump. They lie constantly, blatantly, obviously. But if you accuse them of lying, they don’t bother to offer counterarguments. When Malaysia Airlines Flight MH17 was shot down over Ukraine in 2014, the Russian government reacted not only with a denial, but with multiple stories, plausible and implausible: The Ukrainian army was responsible, or the CIA was, or it was a nefarious plot in which 298 dead people were placed on a plane in order to fake a crash and discredit Russia. This constant stream of falsehoods produces not outrage, but apathy. Given so many explanations, how can you know whether anything is ever true? What if nothing is ever true?

[Read: Anne Applebaum and Jeffrey Goldberg’s interview with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky]

Instead of promoting a Communist paradise, modern Russian propaganda has for the past decade focused on enemies. Russians are told very little about what happens in their own towns or cities. As a result, they aren’t forced, as Soviet citizens once were, to confront the gap between reality and fiction. Instead, they are told constantly about places they don’t know and have mostly never seen: America, France and Britain, Sweden and Poland—places filled with degeneracy, hypocrisy, and “Russophobia.” A study of Russian television from 2014 to 2017 found that negative news about Europe appeared on the three main Russian channels, all state-controlled, an average of 18 times a day. Some of the stories were invented (the German government is forcibly taking children away from straight families and giving them to gay couples), but even true stories were picked to support the idea that daily life in Europe is frightening and chaotic, Europeans are weak and immoral, the European Union is aggressive and interventionist.

If anything, the portrayal of America has been worse. U.S. citizens who rarely think about Russia would be stunned to learn how much time Russian state television devotes to the American people, American politics, even American culture wars. In March, the Russian president, Vladimir Putin, displayed an alarmingly intimate acquaintance with Twitter arguments about J. K. Rowling and her views on transgender rights at a press conference. It’s hard to imagine any American politician, or indeed almost any American, talking about a popular Russian political controversy with the same fluency. But that’s because no American politician lives and breathes the ups and downs of Russian partisan arguments in the same way that the Russian president lives and breathes the battles that take place on American cable networks and on social media—battles in which his professional trolls and proxies compete and take sides, promoting whatever they think will be divisive and polarizing.

Within the ever-changing drama of anger and fear that unfolds every night on the Russian evening news, Ukraine has long played a special role. In Russian propaganda, Ukraine is a fake country, one without history or legitimacy, a place that is, in the words of Putin himself, nothing more than the “southwest” of Russia, an inalienable part of Russia’s “history, culture and spiritual space.” Worse, Putin says, this fake state has been weaponized by the degenerate, dying Western powers into a hostile “anti-Russia.” The Russian president has described Ukraine as “fully controlled from the outside” and as “a colony with a puppet regime.” He invaded Ukraine, he has said, in order to defend Russia “from those who have taken Ukraine hostage and are trying to use it against our country and our people.

black and white photo of emaciated dying people lying on a sidewalk along a picket fence next to a street where people are walking
color photo of a woman holding a cat in a ruined yard by a house and looking at two corpses lying face down on the ground
Top: Women walk past people dying of starvation during the Ukrainian famine in the early 1930s. Bottom: Ira Gavriluk stands among the bodies of family members who were killed outside her home in Bucha, on the outskirts of Kyiv, in April. (Sovfoto / UIG / Bridgeman Images; Felipe Dana / AP)

In truth, Putin invaded Ukraine in order to turn it into a colony with a puppet regime himself, because he cannot conceive of it ever being anything else. His KGB-influenced imagination does not allow for the possibility of authentic politics, grassroots movements, even public opinion. In Putin’s language, and in the language of most Russian television commentators, the Ukrainians have no agency. They can’t make choices for themselves. They can’t elect a government for themselves. They aren’t even human—they are “Nazis.” And so, like the kulaks before them, they can be eliminated with no remorse.

The relationship between genocidal language and genocidal behavior is not automatic or even predictable. Human beings can insult one another, demean one another, and verbally abuse one another without trying to kill one another. But while not every use of genocidal hate speech leads to genocide, all genocides have been preceded by genocidal hate speech. The modern Russian propaganda state turned out to be the ideal vehicle both for carrying out mass murder and for hiding it from the public. The gray apparatchiks, FSB operatives, and well-coiffed anchorwomen who organize and conduct the national conversation had for years been preparing their compatriots to feel no pity for Ukraine.

They succeeded. From the first days of the war, it was evident that the Russian military had planned in advance for many civilians, perhaps millions, to be killed, wounded, or displaced from their homes in Ukraine. Other assaults on cities throughout history—Dresden, Coventry, Hiroshima, Nagasaki—took place only after years of terrible conflict. By contrast, systematic bombardment of civilians in Ukraine began only days into an unprovoked invasion. In the first week of the war, Russian missiles and artillery targeted apartment blocks, hospitals, and schools. As Russians occupied Ukrainian cities and towns, they kidnapped or murdered mayors, local councilors, even a museum director from Melitopol, spraying bullets and terror randomly on everyone else. When the Ukrainian army recaptured Bucha, to the north of Kyiv, it found corpses with their arms tied behind their backs, lying in the road. When I was there in mid-April, I saw others that had been dumped into a mass grave. In the first three weeks of the war alone, Human Rights Watch documented cases of summary execution, rape, and the mass looting of civilian property.

Mariupol, a mostly Russian-speaking city the size of Miami, was subjected to almost total devastation. In a powerful interview in late March, the Ukrainian president, Volodymyr Zelensky, noted that in previous European conflicts, occupiers hadn’t destroyed everything, because they themselves needed somewhere to cook, eat, wash; during the Nazi occupation, he said, “movie theaters were operating in France.” But Mariupol was different: “Everything is burned out.” Ninety percent of the buildings were destroyed within just a few weeks. A massive steelworks that many assumed the conquering army wanted to control was totally flattened. At the height of the fighting, civilians were still trapped inside the city, with no access to food, water, power, heat, or medicine. Men, women, and children died of starvation and dehydration. Those who tried to escape were fired upon. Outsiders who tried to bring in supplies were fired upon as well. The bodies of the dead, both Ukrainian civilians and Russian soldiers, lay in the street, unburied, for many days.

Yet even as these crimes were carried out, in full view of the world, the Russian state successfully hid this tragedy from its own people. As in the past, the use of jargon helped. This was not an invasion; it was a “special military operation.” This was not a mass murder of Ukrainians; it was “protection” for the inhabitants of the eastern-Ukrainian territories. This was not genocide; it was defense against “genocide perpetrated by the Kyiv regime.” The dehumanization of the Ukrainians was completed in early April, when RIA Novosti, a state-run website, published an article arguing that the “de-Nazification” of Ukraine would require the “liquidation” of the Ukrainian leadership, and even the erasure of the very name of Ukraine, because to be Ukrainian was to be a Nazi: “Ukrainianism is an artificial anti-Russian construct, which does not have any civilizational content of its own, and is a subordinate element of a foreign and alien civilization.” The existential threat was made clear on the eve of the war, when Putin reprised a decade’s worth of propaganda about the perfidious West, using language familiar to Russians: “They sought to destroy our traditional values and force on us their false values that would erode us, our people from within, the attitudes they have been aggressively imposing on their countries, attitudes that are directly leading to degradation and degeneration, because they are contrary to human nature.”

[From the May 2022 issue: Anne Applebaum on how there is no liberal world order]

For anyone who might have accidentally seen photographs of Mariupol, explanations were provided. On March 23, Russian television did broadcast film of the city’s ruins—drone footage, possibly stolen from CNN. But rather than take responsibility, they blamed the Ukrainians. One television anchorwoman, sounding sad, described the scene as “a horrifying picture. [Ukrainian] nationalists, as they retreat, are trying to leave no stone unturned.” The Russian Defense Ministry actually accused the Azov battalion, a famously radical Ukrainian fighting force, of blowing up the Mariupol theater, where hundreds of families with children had been sheltering. Why would über-patriotic Ukrainian forces deliberately kill Ukrainian children? That wasn’t explained—but then, nothing is ever explained. And if nothing can be known for certain, then no one can be blamed. Maybe Ukrainian “nationalists” destroyed Mariupol. Maybe not. No clear conclusions can be drawn, and no one can be held accountable.

Few feel remorse. Published recordings of telephone calls between Russian soldiers and their families—they are using ordinary SIM cards, so it’s easy to listen to them—are full of contempt for Ukrainians. “I shot the car,” one soldier tells a woman, perhaps his wife or sister, in one of the calls. “Shoot the motherfuckers,” she responds, “as long as it’s not you. Fuck them. Fucking drug addicts and Nazis.” They talk about stealing television sets, drinking cognac, and shooting people in forests. They show no concern about casualties, not even their own. Radio communications between the Russian soldiers attacking civilians in Bucha were just as cold-blooded. Zelensky himself was horrified by the nonchalance with which the Russians proposed to send some trash bags for the Ukrainians to wrap the corpses of their soldiers: “Even when a dog or a cat dies, people don’t do this,” he told journalists.

All of this—the indifference to violence, the amoral nonchalance about mass murder, even the disdain for the lives of Russian soldiers—is familiar to anyone who knows Soviet history (or German history, for that matter). But Russian citizens and Russian soldiers either don’t know that history or don’t care about it. President Zelensky told me in April that, like “alcoholics [who] don’t admit that they are alcoholic,” these Russians “are afraid to admit guilt.” There was no reckoning after the Ukrainian famine, or the Gulag, or the Great Terror of 1937–38, no moment when the perpetrators expressed formal, institutional regret. Now we have the result. Aside from the Kravchenkos and Kopelevs, the liberal minority, most Russians have accepted the explanations the state handed them about the past and moved on. They’re not human beings; they’re kulak trash, they told themselves then. They’re not human beings; they’re Ukrainian Nazis, they tell themselves today.

This article appears in the June 2022 print edition with the headline “‘They’re Not Human Beings.’”  When you buy a book using a link on this page, we receive a commission. Thank you for supporting The Atlantic.

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