Eugene Finkel: "I believe that Russian violence against Ukraine's civilian population is genocide"

The following conversation with the American political scientist and expert in comparative genocide is devoted to his comparative research on the Holocaust and understanding of the Russo-Ukrainian War. We discussed the consequences of the latest escalation of the Israeli-Palestinian War for Ukraine and scenarios for possible events if Donald Trump wins the presidential election in the US.

"The Holocaust is part of my family history"

Your book Ordinary Jews is one of the most successful attempts to apply the methodology of the social sciences to the study of the Holocaust. Please tell us in more detail how the idea for this study came about.

The book has two origin stories: one intellectual and another practical. The book emerged out of my doctoral dissertation that I wrote at the University of Wisconsin in the United States. Violence and the collapse of states were always a topic that fascinated me and was part of my life. I grew up in Lviv during Perestroika, then moved to Israel and spent almost twenty years there. The Holocaust is also a part of my family history. One of my grandfathers survived the Holocaust; he was in the ghetto of Khmilnyk in the Vinnytsia oblast and was the only survivor of a mass shooting of the ghetto children, in which his younger brother was killed. The other grandfather, who grew up in Galicia under Polish rule, lost all his relatives. He survived only because he was drafted into the Red Army after the USSR occupied Galicia and spent the war on the front, not under the Nazi occupation. But my discipline in political science and political scientists are, in general, not supposed to do historical research, so my original plan was to write a dissertation on how the memory of genocide affects state-building. I wanted to compare Ukraine, Israel, and Armenia. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, I could not receive funding to do field research. I also had to finish my dissertation quickly for family reasons, so I decided to take a risk and switch my focus from the memory of genocide to the genocide itself and try to understand how and why Jews chose their survival strategies in the ghettos. The key reason was that such a project did not require much travel, most materials I needed were in the archive of the US Holocaust Memorial Museum in Washington, D.C. But beyond the practical aspects, I also wanted to understand how my own family members behaved, and the choices they made during the Holocaust, and this was my opportunity to do it.

Please explain your typology of survival strategies that Jews adopted during the Holocaust.

When I started my research, I discovered that there was quite a lot of work on how and why perpetrators of genocide behave, but few people asked such questions about the victims. The assumption was that during the Holocaust, victims were either passive and were just killed or simply could not make real choices and consciously decide on survival strategies in such oppressive conditions. I, on the other hand, believed that even during a genocide, people can and do make choices. I developed a basic typology of four survival strategies that Jews could choose from. The first strategy was trying to survive by cooperating or collaborating with the Nazis, for instance, by joining the Jewish police or Jewish Councils (Judenrat) in the ghettos. The second strategy was evasion: trying to hide, escape, assume a false identity, and pass as a non-Jew. For instance, my own grandfather spent almost a year living with fake documents that stated that he was an ethnic Ukrainian named Vasyl Donets. The third strategy was resistance: fighting back against the Germans and their collaborators either as part of a clandestine resistance group inside the ghettos or in the forests, as partisans. And the final group was coping: trying to survive within the ghetto without escaping, collaborating with the Nazis, or fighting against them.

What factors influenced Jews'choices of a particular survival strategy?

What I discovered is that the choice of a particular strategy was typically a result of Jews' pre-Holocaust lives. For instance, people who were more politically active before the war were more likely to choose both collaboration with the Nazis and resistance. These people were experienced in activism that centered on the community or the ideology, had organizational skills, and knew other people interested in these issues, so they adapted their pre-war activism to new conditions. The key distinction between those who collaborated with the Germans and resisted them was age. Older people were more likely to become collaborators; the younger generation was more likely to join the resistance. They were younger, in better physical shape, and did not have families to support so they could more easily devote their entire life to fighting the Germans — evasion required either money to pay for being hidden by non-Jews or the ability to pass as non-Jews. Physical appearance helped. Jews who had blonde hair or blue eyes or just did not look "typically" Jewish could pass as non-Jews more easily. It was also easier for women than for men because even in the USSR, despite its war on religion, many Jewish men were circumcised. But it was even more important to pass as a non-Jew culturally, not just physically. The key danger was not Germans because they had no idea how to distinguish Jews from non-Jews by appearance, but the local population who could recognize Jews, even if they had blonde hair and blue eyes, by these peoples' behavior, speech, knowledge of tradition, and denounce them to the Germans. Therefore, Jews who were better integrated into non-Jewish society and had non-Jewish friends went to non-Jewish schools, spoke the local language without an accent, and understood local traditions, including the religious ones, had a much easier time passing as non-Jews and many of these people chose evasion. But for those who were more integrated into Jewish society, coping inside the ghetto, as long as these ghettos existed, was a preferred strategy.

I also wanted to see how these strategies changed across communities, and I compared the ghettos of Minsk, Krakow, and Bialystok. Minsk was a part of the Russian Empire, where Jews were oppressed and segregated from non-Jewish society. But the Soviet government worked hard to integrate the Jews, and the younger generation of Minsk Jews who spoke Russian and Belorussian had non-Jewish friends, and because of the Soviet repression of religion, were not expected to know even the basic Christian traditions and prayers. As a result, tens of thousands of Minsk Jews escaped to the forest or survived outside the ghetto. However, the ghetto itself, the largest in the pre-1939 USSR, was extremely miserable and disorganized because Soviet Jews lost their capacity for a community-based organization. In Krakow, the Habsburg Empire helped many Jews to integrate into local society, so most of them spoke Polish or German without an accent, went to state schools, and worked with non-Jews. In Krakow as well as in Minsk, many Jews tried to escape and pass as non-Jews, though it was harder than in Minsk because even Jews who were well familiar with Polish culture and literature did not know Christian prayers and traditions, which every ethnic Pole was expected to know. Bialystok was in the Russian Empire and then part of Poland, and neither state tried to integrate Jews into the broader society. So there, Jewish and non-Jewish communities were segregated. Few Jews spoke Polish or had Polish friends, and therefore, almost no one tried to escape, even those who did not look Jewish. But the Jewish community was strong and well organized, and as long as the Nazis allowed the ghetto to exist, life was much better than in other ghettos. There was no famine, no epidemics, and communal services functioned simply because the Jews of Bialystok knew how to do these things inside the community.

"No matter which strategy people chose, luck and chance played an enormous role"

Can one conclude that, under certain circumstances, there were effective and ineffective survival strategies?

Yes and no. No matter which strategy people chose, luck and chance played an enormous role. The difference in "effectiveness" was that some behaviors almost certainly guaranteed death, while others increased the chances of survival but still could not guarantee it. Among those who collaborated with the Nazis, almost no one survived. These people believed that collaboration protected them from being murdered or sent to the death camps, and for some time, it did. They might have been the last to be sent to their deaths, but when the Nazis decided that they no longer needed these people, nothing could save them. Surprisingly, resistance and fighting against the Nazis led to relatively high survival rates, even if those people were willing to die fighting. Partly because they were relatively young, but they also had weapons, and many of them built ties with non-Jewish resistance groups and partisans who could help them outside the ghettos. Among those who tried to escape and pass as non-Jews, many died, but a considerable number did survive. We will never know the numbers and percentages, but looking at testimonies of survivors, many did manage to save themselves by passing as non-Jews if they had the cultural and social capital to do so. Coping inside the ghetto might have worked as long as the ghetto existed, but once the Nazis decided to liquidate the ghettos, only a very small percentage survived, even among those who were sent to labor camps and not the death camps.

"Looking at Russian state TV, Russian propaganda, and statements by Russian officials, it was shocking to see them openly advertising genocide"

Did the Russo-Ukrainian War influence your views and approaches in the field of genocide studies?

I think it is a bit too early to tell. It definitely influenced me very deeply on a personal and emotional level, but intellectually, I am still not sure what exactly it will do to the field of genocide studies or to me as a part of this field. Probably the only exception is how we think about what genocide is and the question of intent. The legal definition of genocide focuses on actions taken with the intent to destroy a national or an ethnic community as such, so proving intent is absolutely crucial to the question of genocide. No intent, no genocide, no matter how many people die. But a common critique (that I also shared) was that organizers of genocide are not stupid, so how can you prove intent, especially in a court of law, when there is no paper evidence, explicit orders are not given or disguised as euphemisms or bureaucratic jargon and the archives are often closed to researchers? And looking at Russian state TV, Russian propaganda, and statements by Russian officials, it was shocking to see them openly advertising genocide to the extent that proving intent in Ukraine's case would be the least of our concerns. As a side note, when you look at the rhetoric of multiple Israeli politicians in the current war against Hamas, you can also see genocidal statements being expressed openly, so maybe it is not just about Russia as such but something indicative of the current time and political environment. Maybe social media also has something to do with it. I don't know, but we do see a shift in how politicians talk about genocide, and it did start with the Russian full-scale invasion.

In one of your іnterviews you state that Russian aggression against Ukraine can be considered genocide but that there was no planned genocidal intent. Could you explain your position in greater detail?

Yes, I do believe that the Russian violence against civilians in Ukraine is genocide, and I have been saying this since early April 2022, more or less from the day that Bucha and neighboring settlements were liberated. But I do not believe that the invasion was meant or planned to be a genocide. It evolved into a genocide. Based on what we know about Putin and his plan, the goal was subjugation and control of Ukraine, regime change, and turning Ukraine into something similar to Belarus. Yes, of course, the Russian government planned repressions and violence against Ukrainian elites, but this violence was supposed to be quite limited. I think Putin genuinely believed that Russians and Ukrainians are one people. Russian soldiers went into Ukraine expecting to be greeted as liberators and without planning for a long, brutal war. They did not expect massive resistance anywhere outside of western Ukraine. But when this did not happen, and the Russian troops and leaders discovered that they were not welcomed and that Ukrainians resisted, their perception of Ukrainians shifted from "oppressed brothers" to "traitors" who needed to be punished and destroyed. Genocidal violence against Ukrainian civilians, in my view, is punishment and revenge for the failure to take Kyiv and for the Ukrainians' rejection of the "Russian world" and not a part of the Kremlin's original plan.

"I do not think the comparisons between the current Russian invasion and the Holocaust or World War II in general are very productive"

In the media discourse, frequent comparisons have been made between the events of the Second World War in general, and the Holocaust in particular, and the Russo-Ukrainian War. As an expert in comparative genocide, how do you assess the productivity of such comparisons? When we talk about the Holocaust and other genocides, what can be compared and what should not?

I am not against comparisons, but we must be careful about what exactly we compare to what. I do not think the comparisons between the current Russian invasion and the Holocaust or World War II in general are very productive simply because the events and the context are very different. But we definitely can, even should, compare the practices of violence and the ideas that form the foundation of Russian violence to, say, other instances of mass violence perpetrated by Russia. For instance, to understand the Russian targeting of civilians, it will be useful to compare how Russia has fought in Ukraine since 2022 to, say, Russian wars against Chechnya and Syria. There, we will find multiple parallels that will show us how Russia fights war and whether the current war is or is not different. Or, even more interestingly, compare this war to the original Russian attack: the Donbas and Crimea. There, for instance, violence against civilians was very limited, and it is important to understand what changed and why. That will probably help us to better understand Russia's ideas and ideology, then and now. I hope someone will do a comparative analysis of the Russian invasion and violence in the Balkan wars in the 1990s. This might be useful to put the current war in the broader context of communist state collapse, colonialism, religion, competing national projects, etc. I don't know what exactly we will discover by doing such comparisons, but in my view, it will be more useful than comparing the Russian invasion to the Holocaust. Rhetorically and politically, it is tempting to paint Putin and Hitler, Russia and Nazi Germany, as belonging to the same broad category. But I personally do not see what exactly we will gain in terms of understanding Russia's ideology and practices of violence if we compare Bucha to Auschwitz, or even to Babyn Yar, and Putin to Hitler.

Which historical parallels spring to mind with regard to Russian aggression against Ukraine? What conclusions should we draw from these comparisons?

As I said above, I think it might be fruitful to compare this war to the 1990s Balkans. There are scholars who previously compared Serbian nationalism and expansionist policies to the late-Soviet and post-Soviet Russian nationalism, and I think we can do much more here. But the most obvious parallels, of course, would be between Russia since 2022 and earlier Russian violence in and against Ukraine. I just finished writing a book that focuses on Russia and Soviet efforts to control Ukraine since the mid-19th century. While I was doing research for this book, I was absolutely astonished by how the current Russian rhetoric and occupation practices are almost identical to the Russian policies in the occupied Austro-Hungarian Galicia and Bukovyna during World War I. In fact, if I were to give people a quote from Putin and from the Russian Supreme Commander Grand Duke Nikolai Nikolayevich, I can guarantee you that most people, even historians, will not be able to easily recognize who said what. And, when we are looking at many policies related to the Ukrainian language, publication, education, culture, etc., the only difference would be the place and the year, the actual content will be almost identical.

"'Decolonization' for many Ukrainians means simply to fully, irreversibly, separate themselves and their society from the Russian state"

The Russo-Ukrainian War has sparked considerable discussion about the decolonization of Western narratives about Eastern Europe. How productive are these discussions, and are they leading to positive shifts?  

Yes, decolonization is now a hot topic. In fact, in early February, I was at a conference at HURI, the Ukrainian Research Institute at Harvard University, and the theme of this conference was "Decolonizing Ukraine in Theory and Practice." The auditorium was packed; for some parts of the conference, it was standing room only, and people — many of them Ukrainians or scholars of Ukraine — were hungry to discuss, learn, and understand what decolonization means in the Ukrainian context, both intellectually and practically. I am not an expert on colonialism, and I don't know what "decolonization" really means in practice. My impression is that outside academia, "decolonization" for many Ukrainians means simply to fully, irreversibly, separate themselves and their society from the Russian state, Russian political dominance, and for some, the Russian language and culture, but emphasizing, promoting, and protecting the Ukrainian language and identity, re-discovering Ukrainian history, and no longer seeing it as an appendix or a poor, provincial sibling of the Russian one. In practical terms, "decolonization" would mean all the things that Ukrainian society and its leaders will do to achieve this goal.

Analytically, it is also undeniable that the Russian Empire was indeed an empire and that the USSR was an empire; and therefore, there is absolutely no reason not to analyze Russian and Soviet practices through the lens of colonialism. By doing so we might discover that Ukraine was not a "typical" colony within the general framework of colonialism, but for me, analyzing the different and the unique is even more revealing than focusing on the common and typical. Looking at how Russian and Soviet practices in Ukraine and ideas about Ukraine differed from Russian ideas and practices in Central Asia, of French and British practices in Africa, would definitely help to better understand the relations between Ukraine and the imperial center and how and why Ukraine is so crucial for Russia and Russians.

At the same time, we should not forget that "decolonization" is not only an analytical term but also a political one and it does affect the practice. For instance, talking about practices, it is undeniable that many Russian and Soviet policies in Crimea, Eastern, and Southern Ukraine fit into the broader framework of "settler colonialism." But settler colonialism is now also a very charged political and moral term, and applying it to certain groups within Ukraine might have political and social consequences for a society that fights for its survival and depends on unity. Making "practice" out of "theory" can have quite a few unintended and unexpected consequences, especially in such politically sensitive fields as decolonization. This is something we are not talking about enough when we talk about decolonization in the Ukrainian context.

"The war in Gaza also influenced the ability and the willingness of the West to help Ukraine"

How did the Hamas attack on Israel affect the geopolitical balance of power in the world? How is this manifested, and how can it affect the future course of the Russo-Ukrainian War?

The Hamas attack and the Israeli war against Hamas and Gaza, more broadly, unfortunately, have a direct and very negative effect on Ukraine. Global attention has shifted from Ukraine to the Middle East. Interest in Ukraine was declining even before October 7, but the war in the Middle East overshadowed everything. You can easily see it in what is being published in Western newspapers, I can see it in my conversations with journalists, and I also see it in the behavior of my students and the topics they follow. Ukraine is no longer at the top of the list. The war in Gaza also influenced the ability and the willingness of the West to help Ukraine. Israel is simply so much more important to the West, and especially the US than Ukraine, and the aid and equipment that might have gone to Ukraine is now going to Israel or is being put aside in case it might be needed by Israel. [Editor's note: US President Joe Biden on 24 April 2024 signed a $95.3 billion foreign aid package to Ukraine, Israel, and Taiwan, which includes $60.8 billion for Ukraine, $26.4 billion for Israel and $8.1 billion for the Indo-Pacific region.]

Also, the less the West is focused on Putin and Russia, the better it is for the Kremlin and the worse it is for Ukraine. Western support for Israel and unwillingness (or inability) to limit the extent of Israeli attack and damage to civilians in Gaza also allows Putin to present the West as deeply cynical and claim that Western support for Ukraine is driven not by the protection of international law and human rights but by self-interest. This argument resonates, especially in the Global South.

I suspect that once the war in Gaza is over, interest in Ukraine will increase again, but I don't believe it will be as high as before unless something really dramatic happens within Russia or on the frontline.

In the West today we are hearing about "war fatigue" increasingly often. What are your  forecasts about continuing support for Ukraine by the EU countries and the US?

Yes, "war fatigue" or "Ukraine fatigue" is real, and not just because the West is now focused on the Middle East. Supporters of Ukraine complain about how unfair or dangerous it is, but this is the reality. Of course, it is also not evenly distributed across the West — the closer a country is to Russia, the less "Ukraine fatigue" it experiences. To some extent, it was inevitable after two years of war and with other crises also on the agenda. It is also, to some extent, an outcome of what is happening on the frontlines. Everyone loves a winner, and it was easy not to have fatigue during the Kharkiv and Kherson offensive. The evidence of Russian violence and war crimes also ensured that all eyes were on Ukraine, but now it is no longer news. Having said that, some major developments on the frontline, a successful Ukrainian offensive, or an internal crisis in Russia will make this fatigue go away fast. Even more crucial is what the West will do and how it will help Ukraine with, or despite, the fatigue. And here almost everything depends on the US presidential election in November 2024 and whether Donald Trump returns to the White House.

"I don't believe anyone can predict what US policy would be if Donald Trump wins the election"

What are the scenarios of possible events if Donald Trump wins the presidential election? To what extent can his pre-election rhetoric about (non)support for Ukraine be realized?

I don't believe anyone can predict what US policy would be if Donald Trump wins the election. If you look at his first term in office, the record was mixed. On the one hand, there was the famous phone call with Zelensky that dragged Ukraine into US domestic politics and led to Trump's first impeachment. But Trump also provided Ukraine with Javelins, something President Obama refused to do. What Trump will do during his second term in office is, of course, unknown, but I think his second term will be different from the first one, and it will be a tragedy for Ukraine, a tragedy for the US, and a tragedy for the West. Still, that doesn't mean that we should despair. First, Americans who care about Ukraine can and should do what they can to prevent his election. This is our task. Ukraine, in the meantime, should prepare for this possibility. Trump can abandon Ukraine, but this does not mean that Ukraine is helpless and will do precisely what the US orders. No one can force Ukraine to surrender if Ukrainians do not wish to surrender and insist on keeping fighting. Yes, it will be so much harder without US support, but the decision will be taken in Ukraine, not in the US. The same is true for Western Europe. Trump can abandon Ukraine and NATO, but this only means that for countries such as France, Germany, the UK, and especially the NATO "Eastern flank", the danger of Russia becomes much stronger. These countries have the resources to support Ukraine even if Trump decides not to. What is needed is political will and investment in capacity. This, however, needs to be very fast rather than waiting until the election and hoping for the best. The "wait and see" strategy is a recipe for disaster. Disaster for Ukraine, but also for Central and Western Europe.

What, in your opinion, is the most optimistic and realistic scenario for ending the Russo-Ukrainian War?

Of course, the most optimistic scenario is Ukraine liberating all its internationally recognized territories, including Crimea, followed by Russia paying reparations and legal accountability for perpetrators of war crimes and genocide. Is it plausible? Probably not anytime soon. But at the same time, if you look at Russian history, collapse can happen, and when it does happen, it happens fast and catches everyone by surprise. Think of the Revolution in 1917, or in our own living memory, the collapse of the USSR. They happened as a result of an internal crisis, and Russia is experiencing quite a lot of political instability these days. It would be extremely unwise to base our policies on the expectation of Russia's collapse, but this does not mean that it cannot happen or that we should not prepare for it to happen. I am also convinced that it is very likely to happen, though, of course, no one can predict in advance when it is likely to happen. In the meantime, Ukraine will have to do what it can to protect its territory, its people, its democracy, and its economy and wait for a better geopolitical reality. Unfortunately, I do not expect the war to be over soon and I very much hope that I am wrong on that point.

Eugene Finkel is Kenneth H. Keller Associate Professor of International Affairs at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) in Washington, D.C., who works at the intersection of political science and history. He was born in 1977 in Lviv, Ukraine, and grew up in Israel, where his family moved in the early 1990s. Finkel received a BA in Political Science and International Relations at the Hebrew University of Jerusalem and a PhD in Political Science at the University of Wisconsin-Madison. His research focuses on how institutions and individuals respond to extreme situations: mass violence, state collapse, and rapid change.

Finkel is the author of Ordinary Jews: Choice and Survival during the Holocaust (Princeton University Press, 2017), Reform and Rebellion in Weak States (co-authored with Scott Gehlbach [Cambridge University Press, 2020]), Bread and Autocracy: Food, Politics and Security in Putin's Russia (co-authored with Janetta Azarieva and Yitzhak M. Brudny [Oxford University Press, 2023]), and Intent to Destroy: Russia's Two-Hundred-Year Quest to Dominate Ukraine (Basic Books, 2024).

Interviewed by Petro Dolhanov
Photos from open sources are featured in this publication.

Originally appeared in Ukrainian @Ukraina Moderna

This article was published as part of a project supported by the Canadian non-profit charitable organization Ukrainian Jewish Encounter.

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