There are some massacres that are clearly genocides, such as the Holocaust, and there are some massacres that are clearly not, such as Katyn, but in between there is a vast, gristly spectrum that in the absence of any strict and universally accepted definition of the term is dominated by quacks and cranks driven more by politics, competing ideologies, and petty ethnic grievances than by anything that approaches an altruistic commitment to humanism and historical memory.
This becomes very evident when you look at a map of global recognition of what are perhaps the two single most contentious “genocide debates” today: The Medz Yeghern (“Great Crime”) against the Armenians and other minorities in the waning days of the Ottoman Empire, which is seeing its centenary this April, and the Holodomor (“Death by Hunger”) against Ukrainians – and quite a few Russians, too – in the early 1930s USSR.
Now I don’t want to wade into a debate about whether or not the Armenian Massacres and the Holomodor were specifically genocides or not. It’s been overdone, and frankly the whole thing is rather banal. Instead, through this map I compiled, I want to demonstrate just how politicized these things really are, just how closely recognitions and non-recognitions of genocide hew to geopolitical faultlines.
One could, more or less validly, argue that both the Armenian Massacres and the Holodomor were genocides. One could also – with some difficulty – argue that neither were genocides. And one could also very legitimately argue that the Armenian Massacres were genocide, but the Holodomor was not. But the one thing that you cannot do with any degree of intellectual consistency is argue that the Holodomor was a genocide while the Armenian Massacres were not. By the end of the Armenian Massacres, there were practically no Armenians left in what had once been been Western Armenia. 75% of the Armenian population in Turkey was destroyed under conditions that arguably pretty clearly fell under Article 2 (c) of the UN’s Genocide Convention. The factual argument that the Holomor was a genocide against Ukrainians is mainly underpinned by harsher regulations on internal migration in the region, but set against that, excess famine mortality in several ethnically Russian regions was also very high and weren’t far from Ukrainian levels*. And after Stalin’s death, Ukraine was larger and more coherent as a nation than it had ever been as the region of Malorossiya in the Russian Empire.
Nonetheless, it should be accepted that under a sufficiently loose definition of genocide – one that would presumably qualify the Irish Famine as such – that the Holomor could indeed be described as a genocide. The assumption I am making in this post doesn’t hinge on whether the Holodomor was a genocide or not, but on a much more minimal argument: That the Armenian Massacres were pretty unambiguously more genocidal in nature than the Holodomor. Recognizing the latter but not the former is illogical and inconsistent at best.
In reality, though, plenty of countries have recognized the Holodomor as a genocide while refraining from the doing the same with the Armenian genocide – and most of them aren’t exactly surprising: East European nations with historically hostile relations with Russia (Estonia, Latvia, Hungary); the GUAM group (Georgia, Ukraine, Azerbaijan, and Moldova – though it should be stressed that Ukraine only pushes the Holodomor as a genocide against Ukrainians line when it is under anti-Russian Orange regimes); and Western countries with large Ukrainian diasporas, such as Australia, Spain, and the United States. But diasporas by themselves can’t account for everything. The Armenian Lobby is a lot more influential in the US than the Ukrainian Lobby, but Obama nonetheless weaseled out of using the G-word so as not to upset Turkey too much. Turkey is of course for all the ups and downs in the relationship still a major US ally, while American relations with Russia are… quite another matter. Really, the only two puzzling features here are the tendency of Latin American countries to only recognize the Holodomor as a genocide – in particular that of Brazil and Ecuador, both socialist-lite countries who can’t be described as close friends of the US – and Romania’s failure to do so.
Still, even though the positions of the above countries are by far the more hypocritical, I don’t wish to give off the impression that most of those countries which do recognize the Armenian Massacres do it out of the goodness of their hearts. Russia’s own position on this is 90% dictated by geopolitics, 10% by its own domestic Armenian Lobby, and 0% by any humanist concerns. Likewise, geopolitics underlies Armenia’s friendliness with Russia in the first place; it has two hostile powers to the west and east, Turkey and Azerbaijan, both of which are quite friendly with the US and Israel (and the Jewish Lobby) to boot**. And it would probably surprise no-one that the recognition of the Armenian genocide by Greece, Cyprus (which recognized the Armenian genocide a year after its northern part was occupied by Turkey), Bulgaria, Lebanon, and Syria is more of a “fuck you” towards Turkey than a result of any commitment to humanism and historical memory. Likewise it is too much to hope for that Venezuela’s and Bolivia’s recognition of the Armenian genocide is about something other than asserting their ideological independence from the United States.
This is why I have some understanding towards Turkey’s essentially tu quoque response to Russia’s recognition of the Armenian genocide, and its wider strategy of whataboutism in response to accusations of genocide. After all, if the Armenian Massacres were a genocide (in which ~75% of the targeted Armenians died), then it’s not entirely obvious why the ethnic cleansing of the Circassians under the Russian Empire is not (in which ~50% of the Circassians died); and by the same chain, it is then not obvious why the Trail of Tears is not a genocide (in which ~25% of the Cherokee died). Russia strenuously denies the Circassian ethnic cleansing was a genocide, after all, and the US immortalized Andrew Jackson on its $20 bill. What’s the magic number at which ethnic cleansing becomes hardcore genocide? Did Poland commit genocide against its Germans after the end of World War Two (in which ~10% of them died)? Do the Serbs count – of whom ~0.5% died – who were cleansed from Krajina after Operation Storm with the enthusiastic connivance of the West?
So this, ultimately, is why all this international rhetoric about whether this massacre or that massacre is a genocide or not are so utterly banal, pointless, and ultimately nauseating. It has very little to do with any detailed and dispassionate statistical and comparative analysis of the historical facts. Instead, it’s all about my genocide being so much bigger than yours, it can walk right through the door.
It’s enough to make one a misanthrope.
* If you really wanted to find the closest candidate for a proper genocide – as opposed to democide – in Russian history, it would probably be the ethnic cleansing of the Circassians in the late 19th century, which were ironically not that dissimilar from the Armenian Massacres.
** It should be noted that during Soviet days, Armenia was actually a relatively restive province, with nationalist terrorists going so far as bombing the Moscow Metro in the 1970s.