Why we urgently need to call Russia Fascist and Russia’s war Genocide — (Part 1)
On the use of words
A consensus is emerging that Putin’s Russia is a fascist state and that Russia’s war in Ukraine is genocide. Both the words genocide and fascist are so weighted in history that people are often hesitant to use them, or when they do use them they are easily shouted down. Both words require consideration and justification. They need to be used in a targeted and precise way in order to serve the purpose for which they were created, and to do justice to those whose suffering has given them such weight.
As one of the many people whose ancestors died at the hands of fascists in a genocide, I feel some affinity with these words and some duty to use them when I feel it is needed. I have written previously that the lesson from history when it comes to both fascism and genocide is that we have to deploy these words early in order for them to be preventative, rather than after the fact when they are just descriptive.
We have seen fascism and genocide before; we know what they look like. At the first sign they might be happening, we should act swiftly. Instead, we risk prevaricating, avoiding bringing out the linguistic big guns just in case we should be proved wrong, or seen to be alarmist. Getting caught up in semantics whilst people are dying is a familiar problem, and we should again learn from the mistakes we’ve made before.
There is a recent parallel with which we are all familar. When Covid19 first emerged, there was a debate about whether it qualified as a pandemic. This lost us time we could have used to prepare our healthcare systems. In March 2020, the Director General of the World Health Organisation finally declared a pandemic. This empowered governments to act more decisively. It brought the world together by recognising the crisis for what it was, giving it a name, and crystalising the seriousness of the situation.
In his speech, the Director General said, “Pandemic is not a word to use lightly or carelessly. It is a word that, if misused, can cause unreasonable fear, or unjustified acceptance that the fight is over, leading to unnecessary suffering and death.”
In the same way that we needed the use of the word pandemic to start reacting properly to Covid19, we also need to say that Putin’s Russia is now fascist, and his war in Ukraine is genocide. Like pandemic these are not a words to be used lightly or carelessly, and they should indeed cause fear and may lead to deaths. But they are words we need to use now in order to prompt a unified, global response to a spreading threat. Just like Covid19, Putin’s fascism and genocide have already become a global threat, undermining food and energy supplies, killing tens of thousands and threatening to kill millions. As with Covid19, this threat will also destabilise democracies, undermine governments, and cause widespread social unrest well beyond Russia, from where the threat is spreading.
A war has two sides, and you can side with either. Genocide only has one side, and you are either opposed to it or complicit. Whilst Russia has very few allies, too many countries still remain neutral, as we have seen in UN votes. Some because they are concerned about being judged for their own past or future actions, others because they have benefitted from Russian money, arms, or energy. Remaining neutral about a war is a matter of opinion and analysis. Once it is recognised as a genocide, there is no debate or interpretation, it is a crime recognised the world over, and can only be condemned.
The biggest lesson from Nazi Germany, Stalinist Russia, Srebrenica, Rwanda, and many other genocides or periods of dictatorship, is that we should call out a descent into fascism or genocide as soon as we see it starting, not once we’re sure it is underway. At that point it is too late. These powerful words rose out of the last century as harbingers to those in the future. They are meant to stop us in our tracks, to silence us, and to focus us. Any time we have stood by and watched fascism infect a nation, or a genocide destroy a people we have only ever regretted not acting sooner. We are there now with Ukraine.