Ukraine and genocide: A psychological roadmap of the killing grounds

If one looks at a map of Ukraine, the distance between Babi Yar and Bucha looks to be about 15 miles. The more revealing psycho-historical journey between the two places that is required of us at this moment runs through Moscow via a circuitous route, with mandatory detours marked along the way: One leads to the French village of Oradour-sur-Glane, another to the Katyn forest in western Russia. All these roadways are strewn with corpses. It is an itinerary of death, with silent guideposts pointing toward wartime atrocities that challenge our ability to understand how presumably ordinary people can so casually dehumanize and slaughter others.

  • In September 1941, a Nazi mobile killing unit, the infamous Einsatzgruppen C, began the systematic murder of Jews in what was then German-occupied Kyiv, efficiently machine-gunning more than 33,000 people in two days in a nearby ravine called Babi Yar. At the time, it was thought to be the largest mass murder of World War II; the existence of Auschwitz and other Nazi death camps for the purpose of mass extermination would not be exposed to the world for several more years. On March 1 of this year, Russian missiles struck the Babi Yar Holocaust Memorial Center, reportedly killing five people.
  • In June 1944, Oradour-sur-Glane, a small village in German-occupied France a few hours west of Lyon, was obliterated by a regiment of Nazi SS Panzer troops, who set about the task of razing every building to the ground, leaving behind the bodies of 642 civilian victims. Among the dead, 190 men were shot, including three parish priests; others (247 women and 205 children) died after being locked inside a church that was then doused with gasoline and set on fire by the SS troops. The ruins of Oradour-sur-Glane still exist today, preserved exactly as the Nazis left the village, offering a chilling reminder of the human capacity for deliberate cruelty as an organized technique of warfare. 
  • Evidence of a different sort of killing ground was uncovered in 1943 in western Russia, in the Katyn forest near the city of Smolensk, where Soviet NKVD secret police units, precursors to the KGB, summarily executed 4,443 captured Polish military officers on the orders of Joseph Stalin, who wanted to liquidate any potential opposition to his plans for controlling postwar Poland. While Stalin later attempted to shift blame for the corpses exhumed at Katyn to the Germans, forensic data left no doubt that their deaths were by Russian hands.

What ties these mass killings together — and connects them to the slaughter of innocents now occurring before our eyes in Ukraine — is the specific manner of death:  It was up close and personal, requiring individual soldiers to look into the faces of those whose lives they were about to end before pulling the trigger. 

RELATED: Will Russia’s war crimes in Ukraine convince the U.S. to consider its recent past?

These deaths were not the “unintentional” results of the kind of collateral damage that occurs in any war. Rather, what occurred were murders of individual human beings (whether known by name or unidentified), whose lives were taken as intentional instruments of terror, executed in cold blood by other persons (some of whom are known by name, others whose identities remain anonymous). Upon a random autopsy of any such individual case, then, a truthful medical examiner would be compelled to report that the manner of death was homicide. It is worth noting that such deliberate mass homicides of civilians unambiguously meet the internationally accepted legal criteria defining acts of genocide during war, as ratified in 1948 (in resolution 260-A) by the UN General Assembly. 

There can be no plausible deniability for war crimes of this nature, and certainly no credible alibis for those whose orders set the massive Russian war machine rolling into Ukraine. Consider as proof the intercepted radio communications between Russian troop units, clearly admissible as evidence for the prosecution — should this case ever be presented to the International Criminal Court in the Hague — that verifies the incontrovertible accounts of mass homicides and sadistic brutality: Exhibit A, entered as unwitting testimony recorded live from the killing grounds:

  • “Shell the villages directly,” one commander angrily shouts orders into his radio. “Raze them to the ground, got it?” 
  • Another officer is heard issuing damning instructions to his soldiers: “If there are civilians there, kill them all, for fuck sake!”
  • An intercepted personal cell phone call from a tank commander to a woman back in Russia captures him describing — with a tone of shame apparent in his voice — how three soldiers from his armored unit had repeatedly raped a 16-year-old Ukrainian girl the night before. “Our guys? Oh fuck,” replies the woman.

A Russian tank commander called a woman back home and described — with apparent shame — how three soldiers from his unit had raped a 16-year-old girl. “Our guys?” the woman replied. “Oh f**k.”

If anything is clear by now from this detour it’s that a sense of impunity is often a precursor to the commission of certain types of war crimes, especially when the uninvited intimacy of the up-close-and-personal manner of death or violent brutality allows the perpetrators to set aside the normal boundaries of simple human decency. In operational terms, the first step on the psychological pathway to genocide is to dehumanize the intended victims, then to enlist others in complicity.

In Ukraine, the evidentiary trail of accountability now leads clearly to the disturbing case of Vladimir Putin, whose enraged soldiers lined the streets of the Ukrainian village of Bucha with the decomposing bodies of civilians. Just as Stalin attempted to deflect responsibility for the dead Polish officers uncovered at Katyn onto real Nazis, Kremlin propagandists now label photographic and satellite evidence of Putin’s mass homicides at Bucha as “monstrous forgeries” — fake news invented by hostile Western governments and the alleged Ukrainian Nazis that have apparently taken up permanent residence in Putin’s fevered imagination. As the Russian president watches battlefield events unfolding in ways he never anticipated — and as the world recoils in collective horror from the televised scenes of his apparent war crimes — it must be the case that these enemies are secretly conspiring “to make Russia look bad,” as the Kremlin’s official press spokesman put it. No other explanation for this humiliating failure is allowable today in Moscow, certainly not the dangerous observation that Putin is rapidly achieving that unintended goal entirely on his own.  

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While judges and prosecutors at the Hague would likely view such presumptively absurd denials as consciousness of guilt — granted, some might be disposed to argue for a psychiatric defense involving a conspiratorial mode of paranoid thought disorder — neither the law nor psychiatry are of much use in understanding the depth of the collective pathological forces running wild throughout this cynical performance, an act that Putin described, curiously, as a necessary “self-purification” of Russian society.

A rapt world audience now has front-row seats to this public psychodrama with lethal consequences, a collective distortion of reality perhaps not seen since Joseph Goebbels, Nazi Germany’s propaganda chief. That may help explain why Putin unselfconsciously quoted Goebbels in remarks to a conference of Jewish leaders in Moscow in 2014, as reported in an Israeli newspaper at the time. Referring to the purported rise of Nazism in Ukraine, a recurring Kremlin theme, Putin recalled Goebbels’ dictum that “the more improbable the lie, the faster people will believe it.”  “And it worked,” Putin noted admiringly, calling Goebbels “a talented man.” 

More ominously for the future of Ukraine, Putin might also have been pondering Adolf Hitler’s 1939 thoughts on the twin pillars of impunity and genocide — “Who, after all, speaks today of the annihilation of the Armenians?” — as evidenced in a document introduced at the Nuremberg tribunal, when he gave the orders for the Russian military to crush what he considers the “nonexistent” Ukrainian people and their culture. First comes the well-crafted protocols for dehumanization, followed by the descent into moral complicity as the war machine begins its inexorable march toward genocide. 

Rarely has the psychology of impunity and genocide been made so explicit as it was in the October 1943 address by Heinrich Himmler, Reichsführer of the SS, during an address to a group of senior officers and Einsatzgruppen leaders in occupied Poland — chilling remarks acknowledging the stress involved for loyal German soldiers when carrying out orders for “the extermination of the Jewish people.”

Most of you here know what it means when 100 corpses lie next to each other, when there are 500 or when there are 1,000. To have endured this and at the same time to have remained a decent person — with exceptions due to human weaknesses — has made us tough, and is a glorious chapter that has not and will not be spoken of… We have the moral right, we had the duty to our people, to kill  this people who would kill us… We have carried out this most difficult task for the love of our people. And we have suffered no defect within us, in our soul, in our character.

Clearly, the Reichsführer took the term “consciousness of guilt” to an entirely new level, worried about the emotional strain of so many manual shootings of Jews on the mental health of his SS executioners. This problem would be alleviated by the use of gas chambers in the death camps, he assured them, technology that offered much more efficient (and therefore less stressful and more anonymous) killing grounds. “Yet we shall never speak of this in public,” Himmler cautioned.

Eyewitness reports from Bucha indicate that Russian soldiers went door to door asking “where the Nazis lived.” There weren’t any Nazis, so they started killing people.

Holding aside the psychological impact of Putin’s improbable lies on Russian citizens in general — some of whom have courageously risked imprisonment to protest the war, though most appear to have embraced (whether tacitly or enthusiastically) the patriotic necessity for the cultural annihilation of their neighbors — the actual battlefield behavior of Russian soldiers in particular yields clinical insight revealing as much about the collective descent into barbarism that occurred in Oradour-sur-Glane and the Katyn forest as about the deaths in Bucha. Eyewitness reports from survivors in Bucha indicate that Russian soldiers went door to door and randomly stopped residents in the street, angrily demanding to know “where the Nazis lived.” When told that there were no Nazis in Bucha — not the sort of compliant answer the Russians wanted to hear — the immediate consequence for such impertinent resistance was often another homicide committed with impunity (and in plain sight).  

At this critical moment, the requirement to effectively support Ukraine with the moral clarity of truth-told-in-plain-sight is every bit as powerful as the delivery of weaponry, which is why President Biden’s unequivocal J’accuse directed at Putin’s genocidal behavior may assist the world with the overdue recovery of long-forgotten memories, not simply the physical exhumation of corpses from the rubble of history. 

Russia is by no means the only place in the modern era where improbable lies have taken deep root — genocidal killings in Rwanda, Cambodia, the former Yugoslavia and now Myanmar have all competed for our attention at one time or another — but the current process of dehumanization against the Ukrainian people that is underway in Moscow’s media propaganda factory offers a special warning for citizens of democratic societies about the deliberate distortion of reality as a persuasive mechanism for driving human behavior down unthinkable pathways. Witness, especially, the virulent wave of dehumanizing rhetoric about the Ukrainian people now flooding the airways of Russian state-owned media outlets, with Putin’s loyal hacks sounding ever more frantic in their demands to “de-Ukrainianize” an entire culture and national identity.

Goebbels and his protégé in Moscow tell us that clever propaganda will always shape human perception and behavior to their genocidal ends. But sometimes truth manages to claw its way out of the graveyard, exposing the impotence of their improbable lies. 

Ukrainians are showing us the stark moral choice that now confronts the world: Either we tolerate the cruel impulse of certain nations to dominate others at any price, even that of genocidal murder; or we stand with those who seek nothing more than the right to choose their own independent identity at any price, even at risk of death.

We need to listen to what they are telling us.

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