Memorial on the edge of Vilnius had an eerie feel when I visited last weekend.
Not just because of the 100,000 innocents who had been shot here, thrown into
pits and later dug up and burned in 20-foot pyres layered with firewood. And
not just because my six companions and I were literally the only living souls
in the place. But above all because I had lived in the environs for some 16
years, taking keen interest in Lithuania’s historical sites, yet had never
heard or suspected that such a place existed.
Most of the people
murdered at Paneriai were Jews. Standing there, I could not help recalling a British media
report just a few days earlier that took Lithuania to task for
largely ignoring the fate of its Jewish population, of whom Nazi Germany and
its local accomplices killed more than 90 percent between 1941 and 1944.
Monuments to Lithuanian victims of the 50-year Soviet occupation are much more
visible and much more frequented. For the record, those victims also number in
the hundreds of thousands, as a British politician stressed in a separate
article, calling the other report’s criticism “mistaken”.
people in Latvia, Estonia and other former Soviet states, do not deny the
criminal nature and scope of the Holocaust, but tend to view it more as someone
else’s tragedy, the Jews’. In two decades of regained independence, their grief
and grievances have focused on their own national wounds. So, too, have their
historical and criminal investigations. They are accused by Israel and many in Western
Europe of playing up the work of Stalin’s henchmen in order to play down the
evil of Hitler’s hordes and, by association, the role of their own countrymen
in the Jewish genocide.
for their part, say their critics are in denial about the tens of millions of
murders attributable to Soviet Moscow. Offended and zealous for historical
justice, they plead their case with calls to formally condemn Communism, like
Nazism, at the international level. A good example is The Soviet Story, a
hard-hitting 2008 documentary produced in Latvia and sponsored by a group in
the European Parliament. The film seeks and largely succeeds to show Soviet
equivalents, in documents, photos and video footage, for almost every type of
And the battle
rages on, with one side accused of being indifferent to the Nazi-led Holocaust
during World War II, and the other called blind to the perhaps less efficient
but equally deliberate and massive Soviet slaughters spread out over decades
both before and after that war. Most often, the debate seems to focus on
rivalry for attention to one’s own victims, one’s own tragedy, with
unwillingness or inability to understand the other side’s points and share the
other side’s pain.
What’s in a word?
To judge by the
recent banter in the British media, a key sticking point in this battle for
historical truth and justice lies in the use of the term “genocide”. One side
says this most heinous of crimes can only be attributed to the most evil of
regimes, the Nazis. Stalin was bad, but not that bad, the argument goes. Forced
labor in Siberia and KGB persecution are not on a par with the Nazi death camps
and their gas chambers. The concept of a “double genocide”, implying moral
equivalence between the Nazi and Soviet evils, could only be floated “by those
who want to banalise or relativise the Holocaust and reduce its historical centrality,”
in the words of
British MP Denis MacShane. For the other side, refusing to use
equally strong words to condemn Soviet crimes is a politically motivated
selective attitude towards mass murder.
In fact, the
Nations definition of genocide, which dates to 1948, refers only to
the extermination of national, ethnic, racial and religious groups, but not
social classes and political groups – the main targets of Soviet internal
aggression. A broader definition, which would have been applicable to Stalin
and his comrades, was vetoed by the Soviet delegation at the UN, Stanford University
Naimark reveals in a his just published book, Stalin’s
Genocides. The narrow UN definition of genocide is an
injustice which needs to be corrected, Naimark argues.
debate and filling a perceived conceptual hole, US political scientist R.J.
Rummel coined the term “democide” to refer to any “concentrated, systematic,
and serial murder of a large part of its population” by a government. Rummel
concludes from his research
that the government of the Soviet Union committed “democide” against a minimum
28 million people, though he notes that a likelier figure is 60 million or more
and some estimates exceed 120 million. He writes:
“Part of this mass killing was genocide, as in the
wholesale murder of hundreds of thousands of Don Cossacks in 1919 [or] the
intentional starving of about 5,000,000 Ukrainian peasants to death in 1932-33.
[…] Part was mass murder, as of the wholesale extermination of perhaps
6,500,000 ‘kulaks’ (better off peasants and those resisting collectivization)
from 1930 to 1937 […] And part of the killing was so random and idiosyncratic
that journalists and social scientists have no concept for it, as in hundreds
of thousands of people being executed according to preset, government, quotas.”
It is worth noting
a December 2009
public opinion poll showing that 37 percent of Russia’s population
have “a positive attitude” toward Stalin and another 28 percent are
“indifferent”. Almost a third of respondents said that Russia today needs “a
leader like Stalin”, and a good number consider Stalin one of the greatest
figures in history. Stanford’s Naimark argues that such national attitudes –
which would be absolutely unthinkable in a poll on Hitler in Germany – are a
direct result of the denial and obfuscation involved in refusal to use words
like “genocide” to describe the true nature of the Soviet regime.
Back in Lithuania,
one senses the rivalry for attention to one’s own victims in numerous details.
Take the forest of Paneriai, which in fact contains several distinct monuments
to those killed here by the Nazis: one recalls 86 members of a Lithuanian
military unit, another commemorates some 20,000 Polish soldiers, and a third
grieves for 70,000 Jewish lives lost. Then there is the Museum of Genocide
Victims in Vilnius, housed in former KGB facilities and dedicated to the Soviet
atrocities, quite separate from the Holocaust Exhibition at the Green House, a
part of the Vilna Gaon State Jewish Museum.
What is missing is
a sense of common tragedy, that all the varied 20th century
violations of human dignity caused a tremendous loss for all of society, for
all of humanity. It is not just digestion of the fact that the exterminated
Lithuanian Jews were fellow Lithuanian citizens, that many non-Jewish
Lithuanians also died at the hands of the Nazis, and that Jews also suffered a
lot from Soviet repressions, notes Nerijus Šepetys, who teaches history at
haven’t come to grips with the fact that we lost “our” Jews in the Holocaust,
our neighbors and our fellow citizens, who had greatly enriched our culture and
social life during centuries. It’s a huge loss that we can and must grieve as our
own loss, too,” says Šepetys, my guide at Paneriai. That also implies honest
assessment and open condemnation of those Lithuanians who collaborated with the
all this is the lack of broader recognition and shared pain for the millions of
victims of Soviet terror, putting aside irrational fear that fully condemning
this other tragedy could somehow detract from people’s sense of horror at the
Western world has lived for decades on the assumption that all crimes were Nazi
crimes and it’s very difficult to change it,” historian Norman Davies says in
an interview in “The Soviet Story”. “Whether Europe will ever come to terms
with this criminal part of its past is very difficult to know. But mass killing
is mass killing.”
Bradley is an American-born writer, based in Vilnius, Lithuania, who has lived
and traveled in Central and Eastern Europe for nearly 20 years.