Last week, Russia's lower house of parliament passed a resolution insisting that Josef Stalin's man-made 1932-33 famine - called the Holodomor in Ukrainian - wasn't genocide.
Not even the Russians dispute that the Soviet government deliberately starved millions. But the Russian resolution indignantly states: "There is no historical proof that the famine was organized along ethnic lines." It notes that victims included "different peoples and nationalities living largely in agricultural areas of the country."
Translation: We didn't kill millions of farmers because they were Ukrainians; we killed millions of Ukrainians because they were farmers.
And that's all it takes to be acquitted of genocide.
The United Nations defines genocide as the "intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial or religious group." Left out of this definition are "modern" political labels for people: the poor, religious people, the middle class, etc.
The oversight was deliberate. The word "genocide" was coined by a Polish Jew, Raphael Lemkin, who was responding to Winston Churchill's 1941 lament that "we are in the presence of a crime without a name." Lemkin, a champion of human rights who lost 49 relatives in the Holocaust, gave it a name a few years later. But to get the U.N. to recognize genocide as a specific crime, he made compromises.
Pressured by the Soviets, Lemkin supported excluding efforts to murder "political" groups from the U.N.'s 1948 resolution on genocide. Under the more narrow official definition, it's genocide to try to wipe out Roma (formerly known as Gypsies), but it's not necessarily genocide to liquidate, say, people without permanent addresses. You can't slaughter "Catholics," but you can wipe out "religious people" and dodge the genocide charge.
Political scientist Gerard Alexander decries that type of absurdity as "Enlightenment bias." Reviewing Samantha Power's moving 2003 book, "A Problem from Hell: America and the Age of Genocide," Alexander observed that this bias leaves the greatest mass murderers of the 20th century - self-described Marxist-Leninists - somewhat off the hook.
In Power's book, the most influential writing on genocide in a generation, she scolds - often justly - the U.S. for not doing more to stop systematized slaughter. But by focusing so narrowly on the U.N.-style definition of genocide, she implicitly upholds a moral hierarchy of evil, which in effect renders mass murder a second-tier crime if it's done in the name of social progress, modernization or other Enlightenment ideals.