11 September 2023
Timothy Snyder is a renowned historian whose name needs no introduction, especially in Ukraine. Last year, his lectures on the making of modern Ukraine were eye-opening for many, revealing the Ukrainian people’s centuries-long struggle for independence from the Russian Empire. The current occupation is the latest stage in this struggle. The world finally must stop Russia.
Less attention is paid to the fact that Snyder, as a historian, meticulously investigates the crime of genocide. He is insistent that Russia is committing genocide. However, proving this crime is currently one of Ukraine’s key international tasks.
We had the opportunity to discuss this with Snyder in Kyiv, and we highly recommend watching this brief and very emotional conversation.
At the end of the conversation, we had the honor of awarding Snyder the Friend of Ukraine prize, which Ukrainska Pravda’s editorial team presents annually.
– You have repeatedly stated that you consider the crime Russia is committing in Ukraine to be genocide. So, let’s start with this.
– Genocide is a legal question, and it has a legal definition, and the legal definition has two parts.
The first part is the intention: does the state actor intend to destroy a nation in whole or in part?
And here we’re in a historically unusual situation in that Russian authorities are constantly saying, or if you’d like, admitting, that this is what they’re trying to do.
Russian state television is an actor of the Russian state, and almost every day they say something genocidal. But we don’t have to content ourselves with that. Dmitry Medvedev is constantly saying genocidal things, and even the president of the Russian Federation, Vladimir Putin, fairly regularly says genocidal things.
For example, that the Ukrainian nation doesn’t exist, or as you said the other day, the Ukrainian nation is simply a black hole run by a Jew appointed by the West. This is genocidal language.
Then the second part of the law are the actions. There are five, and they range from killing individuals to deporting children. Russia has done all five of those things.
So in my mind, it’s a very clear case of genocide.
But I would add something to that. Blocking food supplies, trying to crush the Ukrainian economy, is also a genocidal action. When you think about destroying food, or destroying
schools, or murdering individual artists and writers and so on – these are all genocidal actions, but they also tend to confirm the genocidal intent.
So for me it’s a very clear case. I tend to think that the reason why people don’t say it is genocide, honestly, is that they know that it is.
That sounds paradoxical, but I think people in the West avoid saying genocide because they know that it is, and if they said that it was, it would require more action. It would require them to ask themselves: “Why didn’t I do something earlier on?”
– In your opinion, why do Russians choose the path of genocide? Is it a conscious choice?
– That’s a wonderful question. It’s a bit of a mystery to all of us, isn’t it? I’ll give you a logic, and then we can all think about it. It would be interesting to ask the Russians in 10 years.
The war is based on the principle that you don’t exist.
The principle of the war is there is no Ukraine, no Ukrainians, no Ukrainian culture.
This is the principle, that there’s not really Ukraine. There’s only Russia, great Russian history, great Russian culture.
So the idea was to come in and kill or deport people like you, like everybody here, and then the happy Ukrainian peasant masses would just go along and accept they were Russian. That was the idea.
What happens, though, when it turns out that’s not true?
The Russian idea is that everybody wants to be Russian.
That turns out not to be true. Then how do you feel? Well, you feel, “I need to kill more and more people.”
First you think it’s just an elite that’s Ukrainian, then you realize more people are Ukrainian, then you realize there’s an entire Ukrainian nation. The logic is, “Okay, I have to kill more and more people in order to get to those Ukrainians who want to be Russians.”
You do that long enough and you realize there aren’t very many Ukrainians like that. Suddenly, you find yourself in this completely genocidal position, which is where they are.
When they started, they said quite openly, “This is a colonial mission. We’re going to kill the elites, we’re going to put people in camps, and then the rest of the country will go along.”
That’s already genocidal.
But when it turns out that there are more people that you have to kill, then you kill more people.
They say this openly on television.
They started out by saying thousands, or tens of thousands. Now they say, “It turns out there are more Ukrainians, so we have to kill millions.”
I think that’s the dynamic.
Russia has been trying to eliminate Ukrainians for a long time. The Holodomor, for example, was undoubtedly genocide (although the term “genocide” did not exist in the 1930s). Do you believe these attempts are interconnected? Does the genocide spiral start from scratch each time?
I’m going to give you one thought about that. For the last 20 years, the Russian Federation has put a lot of energy into denying that there was a Holodomor. There were Russian historians whose special mission it is to fly around the world and go to conferences and deny that there was a Holodomor. They said it was an administrative mistake, everybody suffered.
Their whole mission was to say there was nothing specifically Ukrainian about this.
I paid attention to this because, among other things, I wrote about the Holodomor. I paid attention to it, I tried to figure out what happened. And to me it’s clear that there was a political angle to it and it did have something to do with Ukraine.
Now, when I think about this war, I think, what were the Russians doing during those 20 years when they were denying the Holodomor?
In general, when you’re denying something, that means that you’re thinking about it. Perhaps thinking about doing it, or thinking about doing it again.
– Or doing it better than their predecessors.
– Yeah. Or worse.
When I look at this war – and this has to do with the South – when I look at this war, and Russia destroying the port of Mariupol, and controlling the other Azov ports, and just trying to destroy the port at Odesa, attacking the ports on the Danube, mining the fields of Ukrainian farmers, flooding the plains south of Nova Kakhovka, all of these things have to do with causing hunger.
This time, Ukrainians aren’t going to starve, but the Russians are starving the rest of the world, or they’re threatening to starve the rest of the world.
And here Putin, a little bit like Stalin, becomes the master of who gets food and who doesn’t get food.
He tells the Africans, “Well, maybe you’ll starve, or maybe Putin will give you food.”
In that way, there is a kind of repetition here, using hunger as war.
And I think that was present, I mean, I think there’s a kind of strange relationship here: you deny something because you’re thinking about it, but I think that hunger as a way of war was present in the Russian official mind all this time.
It’s an example of why it’s very important to go back critically to your own history. Russians with the Holodomor could have said, “Well, that wasn’t us, it was the Soviets and it was bad.” But they didn’t even do that.
– You mentioned that in the West, there is reluctance to recognise that Russia is committing genocide. Is this because Russia is a nuclear state?
– It’s not the nuclear weapons. You don’t want to do it because if you admitted that it was genocide, you would be saying: “I didn’t stop it.” That’s the problem.
This is the problem with genocide: if you admit that it’s there, then you’re a bad person, too.
It’s like admitting Vladimir Putin was a fascist. He’s obviously a fascist. But if he was a fascist, why was I meeting with him a few years ago?
– Is there a chance that under the pressure of reality, the West will acknowledge that genocide is taking place?
– First of all, there’s no such thing as “the West”. There is no West. There are people in the West who do indeed talk about genocide.
There are legal projects underway in my country which are designed precisely around chronicling genocide.
And there are lawyers who think, “Okay, there are various crimes we could prosecute the Russians for. Is genocide the right one?”
And so there’s also a tactical question: a lawyer could think, “Yes, this is genocidal, but I’m going to have a lot harder time proving that than I’m going to have proving war of aggression or war crimes,” right?
So in fairness, that’s part of it as well.
There are people who think privately that it is genocide, but they think that in making a case in court, other crimes are going to be easier.
There’s also the other issue: whether people say it’s genocide or not, there’s also just the question of understanding how horrible the crimes are.
In a way, you in Ukraine can get into a trap if you say: “You need to say it’s genocide, you need to say it’s genocide, you need to say it’s genocide.” Because sometimes the human story – like the story of the actual deported children, or the story of particular things that happened to particular people – works better. And then people on their own will say, “Okay, I need a word for this.”
– Some argue that Russia isn’t just committing genocide against Ukrainians. The peoples of northern Russia, the peoples of Siberia – Moscow has been exterminating them for centuries.
– To be fair, there used to be a lot of tribes in the United States that no longer exist. So if we’re going to apply genocide to frontier colonialism where peoples are exterminated or deprived of their identity, then the United States certainly did that a number of times.
And yes, in a similar way, Muscovy, moving across Asia, destroyed peoples and deprived them of their identity.
– So genocide is only applied to events in modern times, the 20th and 21st centuries?
Returning to Siberia. This war, I think, is also genocidal in a way that doesn’t have to do with Ukraine and does have to do with the Russian Federation. The Russian Federation is deliberately sending its national minorities to die in Ukraine, because Putin is concerned about having a white Russia. That itself is a genocidal thought.
“We are going to send the national minorities to die in Ukraine. We are going to try to send the Crimean Tatars to die in Ukraine.”
That is another genocidal thought.
– It’s not just Putin doing this. Russians largely support the genocidal actions of their state. Should Russians bear collective responsibility? Can we talk about their collective guilt?
– Collective responsibility, certainly, in the sense that this has become an enterprise which involves so many Russians that it’s very hard to say, “I didn’t have anything to do with it.”
In general, as a moral matter, I think the 20th century teaches us that you should be leaning towards taking more responsibility rather than less.
One of the things which troubles me about discussions with Russians, even with very liberal Russians, is that people tend to find a way to say, “This was not my responsibility.”
And I think it’s very important for people to be able to say that a genocide is everyone’s responsibility.
It’s being done to another people, but it’s being done in the name of my people. So many people are involved in it, and the genocidal rhetoric is very widespread.
Collective guilt legally – I think no, legal guilt always has to be assigned to a particular person, but collective responsibility in the sense that if you are a Russian citizen and you want Russia to be a different, better place, then you do have to take responsibility.
It’s a very important category.
– What form could this responsibility take? Is it possible that it will lead to Russia’s collapse?
– I mean, morally speaking, we want people to just do the right thing.
The Germans did the right thing because they lost.
Russia has to lose.
There are a few Russians who take responsibility now. There are some Russians who are very courageously doing things.
Kara-Murza is going to sit in prison for 25 years, for one reason only, which is that he said the Ukrainian war was wrong. That’s the only reason he’s in prison.
But for Russians as a whole, they have to lose.
They have to lose this war, and they have to know that they lost this war.
So, this is not why Ukrainians fight, but the best thing to do for Russia is to make sure they lose. Unfortunately, that’s what history shows us. These kinds of reckonings only start after your imperial project fails.
Interviewed by Sergiy Sydorenko, European Pravda, Editor