The Genocide Convention and the Great Chessboard

Raphael Lemkin | Zbigniew Brzezinski |

Antanas Smetona | Sofija Smetonienė| Valdas Adamkus| Jazep Varonka

  • Józef Piłsudski

US citizens originating from the Eastern lands of the former Commonwealth contributed significantly to the development of political science and international relations at American universities. Some of them coined crucial scientific terms that are used around the world today. For instance, Raphael Lemkin (1900–1959), a Polish lawyer of Jewish descent, is widely acknowledged for coining the word ‘genocide’ and campaigning for the creation of the Genocide Convention. He was born in a small village in western Belarus near Vawkavysk, which was located in the Russian Empire’s governorate of Grodno. After graduating from a local trade school in Białystok, he studied at the University of Lviv at the faculty of law. This faculty was recognized as one of the best in the world. As Philippe Sands, a prominent Anglo-French law specialist and author of the award-wining book East West Street, has pointed out: “one thing is clear: Lviv, or Lwów, or Lemberg, has made a singular contribution to the creation and application of the modern international legal order. The city‘s DNA is impregnated into the modern international legal order. This could be a cause for pride and even celebration”. Lemkin arrived in the US in 1941. In 1944, Lemkin published his most important work, entitled Axis Rule in Occupied Europe. The book included an extensive legal analysis of German Nazi rule in Europe, along with the first use and definition of the term ‘genocide’. Gradually, Lemkin’s concept of genocide as an offence against international law was widely accepted by the international community and became one of the legal bases of the Nuremberg Trials. Consequently, Lemkin’s book became a foundational text in ‘Holocaust studies’, as well as the more general study of totalitarianism and genocide. After the war, Lemkin chose to remain in the United States. In 1953, Lemkin gave perhaps his most famous lecture in New York City. This was called Soviet genocide in the Ukraine and was about the Holodomor, a man-made famine orchestrated by the Bolsheviks that killed millions of Ukrainians between 1932 and 1933. He started his lecture with a quote from the poem of the Ukrainian poet Volodymyr Sosiura:

You cannot love other peoples,
Unless you love Ukraine.

According to Lemkin, the Holodomor was “the classic example of Soviet genocide, its longest and broadest experiment in Russification — the destruction of the Ukrainian nation. This is […] only the logical successor of [..] Tsarist crimes”. In 2015, Lemkin’s lecture was added to the Russian index of “extremist publications”, whose distribution in the country is forbidden. On the other hand, in 2018 the Ukrainian Canadian Civil Liberties Foundation and its supporters in the US unveiled the world’s first Ukrainian/English/Hebrew/Yiddish plaque honoring Lemkin for his recognition of the Holodomor as a genocide. This is located at the Ukrainian Institute of America in New York City, marking the 75th anniversary of Lemkin’s address.

Starved peasants on a street in Kharkiv in 1933, Source: Wikipedia

The careers of scholars sometimes alternated between academia and government. Zbigniew Brzezinski (1928–2017), a Polish-American diplomat and political scientist, served as a counselor to President Lyndon B. Johnson from 1966 to 1968. As National Security Advisor to President Jimmy Carter from 1977 to 1981, he was perhaps the most important example of a ‘scholar-diplomat’. As a researcher, Brzezinski belonged to the realist school of international relations. Brzezinski was part of the faculty of Harvard University, whilst at Columbia University he headed the Institute on Communist Affairs. Finally, he became Senior Research Professor of International Relations at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS) at Johns Hopkins University in Washington, D.C.

Brzeziński was born in Warsaw to a Polish family from Eastern Galicia, Ukraine. His grandfather and father graduated from the University of Lviv. As a child, Brzeziński himself lived in Przemyśl. His father was a diplomat who served in the Polish consulate in Soviet Ukraine (Kharkiv). In 1939, when Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union invaded Poland, Brzeziński stayed with his family in Canada. After the war, he decided to move to the US. Nevertheless, Ukraine remained a topic of great personal interest because of its geopolitical importance not only for Poland but also the US. His life’s work is perhaps The Grand Chessboard: American Primacy and Its Geostrategic Imperatives, which was published in 1997. Brzeziński defined the landmass of Eurasia as the center of a global system of power. He formulated a ‘Eurasian geostrategy’ for the US, which argued that no regional power should be allowed to dominate Eurasia and consequently challenge American global pre-eminence. Ukraine occupied a key place in his theory. He wrote that “Ukraine, a new and important space on the Eurasian chessboard, is a geopolitical pivot because its very existence as an independent country helps to transform Russia. Without Ukraine, Russia ceases to be a Eurasian empire. [..] However, if Moscow regains control over Ukraine [..] Russia automatically again regains the wherewithal to become a powerful imperial state, spanning Europe and Asia. Ukraine’s loss of independence would have immediate consequences for Central Europe, transforming Poland into the geopolitical pivot on the eastern frontier of a united Europe”. Taking into consideration Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, which began in 2014, Brzeziński’s assessment seemingly proved to be prophetic.

It is worth remembering that Brzeziński’s family, which found shelter in America following the Second World War, was not an isolated case. Indeed, during and after the conflict America became a safe haven for many prominent political refugees from the Eastern lands of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. President of Lithuania Antanas Smetona (1874-1944) was perhaps the most important politician who received political asylum in the US. Smetona was the founding father of independent Lithuania (1918-1940). He served as the first and the last president of the country (1919-1920, 1926-1940). In 1940, when Lithuania was occupied by the Soviet Union, Smetona fled to the US, where he perished in an accident in 1944. First Lady Sofija Smetonienė (1885-1968) accompanied him to the US and she is buried next to him in Cleveland, Ohio. The US consul in Kaunas Robert Heingartner wrote of her: “Mrs. Smetona is a lady of unusual energy who dominates the President at home if not in office. In fact, she is sometimes facetiously called ‘The President.’”

First Lady of Lithuania,  Sofija Smetoniene
First Lady of Lithuania, Sofija Smetoniene, Source: Wikipedia

Despite the fact, that Lithuania fought with Poland for control of Vilnius and in defense of its independence after the First World War, the presidential couple constitutes a striking example of the ties that bind the two nations together. Sofija originated from a Lithuanian-Polish noble family and was related to Józef Piłsudski (1867-1935), who was the main adversary of Lithuania during the war (1919-1920) and founding father of independent Poland (1918-1939). Piłsudski himself was of Lithuanian background and identified strongly with the state tradition of the Grand Duchy of Lithuania.

A number of political immigrants from Eastern Europe returned to their countries and became key leaders after the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991. Among them was Valdas Adamkus, who served as president of Lithuania from 1998 until 2009. He found shelter in America in 1949 and renounced his US citizenship only in 1998, just before the start of his first term.

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Democratic protestors with flags of Belarusian People’s Republic in Minsk in 2020, Source: Shutterstock

The US served also as a platform for the development of the national cultures and political lives of the nations of the Eastern lands of the former Commonwealth. Jazep Varonka (1891–1952), the first chairman (i.e. prime minister) of the People’s Secretariat of the Belarusian People’s Republic (1918), the first modern and democratic nation state in the history of Belarus, was one of the most prominent political leaders who found shelter in the US. As a journalist, he contributed greatly to the development of the cultural life of the Belarusian diaspora in America. Varonka was born in north-eastern Poland, close to the present-day border with Belarus, near Grodno. When Bolshevik Russia captured Minsk in 1918, Varonka moved to Vilnius. He was appointed the first minister for Belarusian Affairs in the Lithuanian government. At that time, some Lithuanian and Belarusian politicians supported the idea of reestablishing the Grand Duchy of Lithuania. In 1923 Varonka migrated to the US and settled in Chicago, where he began publishing the first Belarusian newspaper in America. Varonka also wrote many political and historical essays that helped shape Belarusian national identity. He was also responsible for the first weekly radio program in the Belarusian language. After the Second World War Varonka became one of the founders of the Belarusian-American Association, which aimed to keep alive the memory of the Belarusian People’s Republic. Today, the historical state serves as a key source of inspiration for the democratic opposition in Belarus.