PARIS.- The “butcher” perpetrated a bushingthe mass graves discovered in Mariupol and the rest of the Donbass, the rhetoric used by Vladimir Putin to justify the invasion of Ukraine and now the deliberate missile attack on the railway station in Kramatorsk seem to confirm this the Kremlin is applying the strategy of sanctions against “punished peoples” that Stalin has practiced since his early years in power.
The real architect of this policy of terror was, in reality, the father of the Russian Revolution: already in 1923 Vladimir Ilich Lenin put into practice a regime of terror which was then continued – and perfected – by Stalin starting from 1924, when the government communist has deliberately intertwined the idea of ”enemy people” with the notion of “enemy of the people” which made it possible to demonize all opponents of the regime.
That broad spectrum model, which authorized all excesses, allowed to create the first gulags: Those concentration camps not only began to receive “class enemies” like the kulaks, who represented 18% of the population in the Tsarist era. That term, in Soviet political language, pejoratively designated agricultural owners – large or small – who hired workers to exploit their land, considered enemies of the collectivization of agricultural properties. But the gulag – an acronym for the main administration of the camps – also began to function as forced labor centers that housed prisoners charged with building public works, undermining or exploiting wealth. The latest example of this was the recent criminalization of the Memorial Association. Created in 1989 in memory of dissident scientist Mikhail Sakharov, this association, charged with perpetuating the memory of the 26 million prisoners deported between 1923 and 1960, was accused of being a “foreign agent” when it was banned by the Putin regime. in December of 2021.
“Victim of numerous invasions and aggressions throughout history, Russia has often appealed to the figure of the foreigner as a federative element to consolidate its home front”, recalls sociologist Kristian Feigelson, a professor at the Sorbonne. Stalin relied on this collective imagination when he stopped individually punishing his opponents and adversaries to launch massive repression against Soviet power-hostile peoples on the periphery accused or suspected of resisting collectivization. The emblematic model of these wide-ranging punitive actions was the Holodomor (great famine), which caused more than four million deaths in Ukraine and another 1.5 million in Kazakhstan in 1930. In 2006, Ukraine decided to consider the Holodomor as a form of genocide, a criterion rejected by Russia in a manner consistent with the rehabilitation of Stalin decided by Putin in 2009.
In the 1930s it was again used to justify the “punishment” of various component peoples of the USSR, considered “internal enemies”, as well as of some resistant countries, such as Finland, Hungary, Japan and Poland. Every resister is a foreign agent and therefore a criminal: his desire for independence or freedom shows that he is a fascist, recalls the historian Anne Applebaum in her book “History of the Gulag”.
The intersection of “enemy people” with the concept of “enemy of the people” was used again during the Great Patriotic War in a vision that hides the German-Soviet pact of 1939 and focuses only on the anti-fascist dimension of World War II since rupture of the pact and the invasion of the USSR in 1941. In this perspective, for the Russian propaganda the enemy is necessarily “fascist”. The crossing of justifications was used again after 1945 with the three Baltic countries (Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia) and, internally, with the Crimean Tatars and the Chechens, accused of having collaborated with the Nazi occupier to free themselves from Soviet totalitarianism. While it is true that some Ukrainians joined the German ranks, the overwhelming majority resisted the invader along with the Red Army. Ukraine was the scene of major tank battles during World War II, and the conflict pulverized major cities and destroyed millions of hectares of crops in a country that used to be the granary of Europe.
Moscow propaganda appealed to this – adulterated – argument from 2014 to justify the annexation of Crimea and the occupation of the Donbass region in eastern Ukraine. Although the far right garnered only 2% of the votes in the elections, Russia chose to raise the flags of anti-Nazism to justify its military intervention. In this particular case, the use of that argument presents perverse profiles because Ukraine is a “brother country” which, according to the confused ideology expounded by Putin in recent years, shares the same roots and the same language as Russia.
Echoing the Holodomor of 1932-1933, which resounds in the collective unconscious of the country, in this latest invasion of 2022, Moscow resorted to the argument of an alleged genocide prepared by the Ukrainian “Nazis” against the Russian-speaking populations of Donbass, a dialectical pirouette that made it possible to pass from the notion of reunification to the notion of punishment.
Chechnya was the first case of “people punished” during the quarter century that Putin was in power. In 1999, when he was still prime minister, Putin decided to raze the city of Grozny in retaliation for a series of attacks on the Moscow metro. Some historians hesitate to attribute these sabotages to Chechen Islamists and do not exclude that it was a provocation staged by the Russian special services to justify the reaction to blood and fire.
In Russia, a repression is never proportional to the attack, as advised by international jurisprudence. The reactions are always overwhelming to leave the punishment engraved in the historical memory of the peoples, as happened during the Great Patriotic War: to avenge the 26 million deaths caused by the Nazi invasion during the four years of occupation, the Red Army mobilized 196 divisions, 2.5 million men, 6,250 tanks, 7,500 aircraft and 41,600 to enter Berlin with blood and fire. That two-week battle left more than 100,000 dead and 200,000 wounded, and 80,000 dead and 280,000 in the Soviet ranks. Equally bloody and bloody were the repressions of the “brother countries” of Eastern Europe after the Second World War. The suppression of the Budapest uprising, which lasted two weeks in 1956, left 2,500 dead and 13,000 injured. Massive was also the intervention of the Warsaw Pact forces in Czechoslovakia, which mobilized 2,000 tanks and 200,000 soldiers to quell the famous Prague Spring, which had been completely peaceful.
The doctrine did not change after the collapse of the Soviet Union. In September 1999, after bombing Grozny to suppress the Chechen uprising, Putin declared in a press conference, without blushing, that “he would go to exterminate the terrorists even in the latrines”. It was a way of saying that for Russia – before, as now in Ukraine – there is only one way to make war.