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The difference between Soviet and Nazi evil

LAURENCE REES: But then how would you compare the abuses of Stalinism and Nazism?

OMER BARTOV: You can compare two evils and say they’ll be different. I think that there is absolutely no point in trying to be apologetic about the crimes of the Soviet Union. It committed numerous crimes and certainly under Stalin millions and millions of people were murdered.  There’s simply no way to apologise for that and no reason to do so. That does not mean that Stalin’s regime was the same as Hitler’s regime though. They were two different regimes, they had different goals and were supported by different types of people, and if there was one single difference between them it was that the Nazi regime was fundamentally a genocidal regime. It was based on the notion of genocide, in the sense that it believed that there were certain biological groups, as it saw it, that had to be entirely eradicated, completely killed, each and every one. That was not part of Stalinist or Communist ideology. There were other parts of Communist ideology, which justified the mass killing of populations, but it was not a genocidal regime.

One could say that, say, the deportation of the Chechens after the war, under the UN understanding of what genocide is, under the UN Convention, could be called genocide. But the regime at the time did not talk about it in this way, it was not about eradicating the Chechen nation, it was about moving them to another place. It was in the view of the regime a population policy. It was removing them from where they were to another place. That was done with horrendous suffering that caused a large amount of death, but the goal of the regime was a population policy, not the eradication of a group. Let me add one other thing that interests me as I look at it these days from the lower level, not from the level of governmental decisions, but how this transpired on the ground and how people experienced these differences. People will compare these regimes on these more general grounds, but people often compare them also as they experience them themselves. And so if you talk with people who lived through that period or read their memoirs or their testimonies you will find that some people say that they were liberated and other people will say that they were occupied.

When the Red Army marched into Lithuania and Galicia and so forth, what did the Ukrainian nationalists say? They said we’re being occupied by the Reds; we’re being occupied by the Soviets (and they had less nice words for calling Russians) and we will fight against it because they’re occupying us. What did the Jews say?  They said that they were liberated by the Red Army. So the experience that they had before also translated into how they saw this new regime that came in: views changed. When the Soviets marched in in 1939, the first time they came, Poles in areas that had been ruled by Poland which were taken over by the Soviet Union saw it as an occupation; part of the destruction of the Polish state. Ukrainians who hated the Polish regime and Polish rule and were told by the Soviets that these parts would be joined with Soviet Ukraine saw that as a liberation. They were very much in favour of that. The Jews were very worried about it but they knew what the other side was. The other side of Poland was occupied by the Nazis and if you had to choose between the Nazis and the Soviets the Soviets were better: Jews were deported in larger numbers proportionately by the Soviets than either Poles or Ukrainians. But the thing is that they did not know at the time that they had a death rate of above 50 percent in these deportations. That’s a high death rate. But it was much lower than for those who stayed behind. So being deported by the Soviets for Jews, not for Ukrainians or Poles, was a better thing, relatively speaking, than staying behind.

These views of these different regimes were not only something that you can sort of measure from above and say how many millions did the Stalin regime kill, and how many did the Nazis, and let’s compare the numbers; but also how this was experienced on the ground.