The scenes and stories coming out of the Kyiv suburb of Bucha are horrifying. The Russian troops which occupied this town for weeks are gone, but grime signs of their presence remain; mass graves filled with civilians, some with marks of torture, and bodies scattered around the city often with their hands still bound behind their backs.
Many have been quick to conclude these horrible scenes are evidence of genocide.
“These are crimes that the world will recognize as genocide.” – Zelensky
I know that the events in Bucha will be felt for decades. The name will be forever infamous, linked to the dark events that took place there. The families of those who died will never be the same, and neither will those who survived and witnessed the atrocities.
With that said, personally, I do not believe the Bucha is the proof of genocide that the media and world leaders are claiming it to be.
Genocide is a very particular crime, one that went without definition until a Polish Jew named Raphael Lemkin, who lost his family in the Holocaust made it his life mission to see a crime defined and codified into international law. Genocide is not mass murder, nor is deliberately killing innocent civilians. The UN legal definition of genocide reads as follows:
In the present Convention, genocide means any of the following acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group, as such:
- Killing members of the group;
- Causing serious bodily or mental harm to members of the group;
- Deliberately inflicting on the group conditions of life calculated to bring about its physical destruction in whole or in part;
- Imposing measures intended to prevent births within the group;
- Forcibly transferring children of the group to another group.
The biggest question that historians and legal minds focus on within the field of genocide studies is the “intent to destroy” a particular group.
Does Bucha prove the intent of the Russian government to carry out an attempt to destroy the Ukrainian people? Does Bucha belong on a list of locations where genocide was perpetrated, alongside places like Srebrenica or Babr Yar? Or does it belong on a list of war crimes alongside places like the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane the Waffen-SS murdered 642 civilians or the Italian villages of Marzabotto or Sant’Anne di Stazzeme where another 1,330 civilians died in Nazi massacres? These events were horrific, yet no one suggests the Nazis committed genocide against the French or Italians.
The images of what took place in Bucha on their own do not prove genocide, although they are clearly war crimes.
The best way to prove a genocide is intent. However, usually, those who plan and carry out such crimes do not document the orders. There is only a handful studied by scholars who devote ourselves to such dark subjects.
One of the clearest examples of written genocidal intent was a central focus of my graduate research at the Hebrew University. It was issued in the German colony of South-West Africa (modern-day Namibia) in 1904 when General Lothar von Trotha in shockingly blunt terms declared his intention to destroy the Herero tribe his forces were engaging in a colonial war.
“Any Herero found inside the German frontier, with or without gun or cattle, will be executed. I shall spare neither women nor children. I shall give the order to drive them away and fire on them. Such are my words to the Herero people.” -Lothar von Trotha’s Extermination Order Against the Herero
The historical record of most genocides do not offer such explicit intent. Consider the Holocaust, probably the most widely documented genocide in history. The Nazis often relied on euphemisms about cleansing Europe, the final solution, etc. No document has ever been uncovered to prove that Hitler ordered the Holocaust. The closest we can get is a couple of letters from major Nazi figures such as Göring’s order to Heydrich to:
“Solve the Jewish question by emigration and evacuation in a way which is most favorable in connection with conditions prevailing at present. I herewith commission you to carry out all preparations with regard to organization of the material side and financial viewpoints for a final solution of the Jewish question.” -Martin Göring’s 31 July 1941 Letter to Reinhard Heydrich
Written intent regarding other genocides such as Rwanda or Armenia has never been discovered since the orders and plans were all conducted verbally.
Without clear intent, the only way to categorize a genocide is after the fact. That is why focusing on intent as the real smoking gun is the best approach. It can provide evidence when the genocide is still ongoing. For example, Von Trotha’s “Extermination Order” caused such an outcry in Germany that the government took action to remove him from command.
As the word is fixated on the images of bound bodies lying in the streets of Bucha, the Russian state-owned media outlet RIA Novosti published a piece entitled “Что Россия должна сделать с Украиной” (What Russia Should Do with Ukraine) on 3 April.
This document may be one of the clearest examples of genocidal intent from a state-sanctioned media entity in history.
This article explains the term “denazification” used by Putin to justify the invasion. It is truly chilling. The author admits what the Kremlin classifies as “modern Nazified Ukraine” is defined by “an amorphousness and ambivalence” nature and that “there is no main Nazi party, no Fuhrer, no full-fledged racial laws” in Ukraine.
To a western student of history, this might be confusing. How do you call someone a Nazi when admitting they display none of what defined the National Socialist ideology of 1930s Germany? What is a Nazi with no totalitarian one-party government, no fascist strongman to be worshiped as a savior of his country, and no state-sectioned effort to promote a concept of racial superiority?
The Russian concept of Nazism seems to be shaped by the Soviet perspective, one that looks back on the “Great Patriotic War” as an attempt to destroy and subjugate Russia. Holocaust memorials in the Soviet world typically described “murdered Soviet citizens” rather than acknowledging Jews and other ethnic minorities who were the primary targets of the German Nazis. Thus, the ethnic discrimination aspect of Nazism was removed from the Russian concept of the term. One can understand how totalitarianism and one-party systems were not emphasized as negative Nazi traits by the Soviets, who also relied on such constructs.
Without a good understanding of Nazism and Holocaust education, the Russian mind can conceive of Nazism as an equivalent of what they call “European and American racism” (presumably anti-Russian racism).
The article continues to explain that “denazification will inevitably also be a de-Ukrainization, a rejection of the large-scale artificial inflation of the ethnic composition of the self-identification of the population…”
In other words, Ukrainian nationalism is Nazism to the Kremlin. Any effort to shape a Ukrainian national identity is seen by the Russians as an effort to erase a perceived Russian identity. The article explains “The Nazification of Ukraine continued for more than 30 years, beginning in 1989 when Ukrainian nationalism received legal and legitimate forms of political expression and led the movement for ‘independence’ towards Nazism.”
With such an ambiguous concept of Nazism society and deliberate efforts to conflate it with Ukrainian nationalism, the article concludes that “a significant part of the masses (of the Ukrainian population) … are passive Nazis, accomplices of Nazism, are also guilty. They supported and indulged Nazi power. The just punishment of this part of the population is possible only as bearing the inevitable hardships of a just war against the Nazi system…”
The article concluded by sharing a dystopian vision for Ukraine as a region stripped of its sovereignty and reeducated for an entire generation under Russian occupation.
To achieve this, explicit actions are called for including the “liquidation of armed Nazi formations (defined as all armed Ukrainian forces including territorial defense units and the National Guard).” Furthermore, “accomplices of the Nazi regime” would be subjected to forced labor, imprisonment, or the death penalty.
If the Russians indeed define “denazification” as the removal of the Ukrainian national identity and the suppression or murder of anyone who supported it, then we can conclude that Putin’s “special military action to denazify Ukraine” is definitively and categorically, a genocide.