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How the terms “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity” trace back to Lviv and a Ukrainian born Nobel Prize winner's somber look at the USSR. Two more book recommendations

By Manoel Chavanne

This being the Lviv Herald “East West Street” ought to be praised in these columns as two lawyers trained in Lviv created two world-changing legal concepts, “Genocide” and “Crimes against humanity”. Philippe Sands masterfully guides his readers through the creation of these two notions but first Svetlana Alexievich takes us through a captivating look at how bleak life was in the USSR by sharing the accounts of humans who endured it personally.

Secondhand Time: The Last of the Soviets by Svetlana Alexievich

Svetlana Alexievich was born in Ivano Frankivsk, now Ukraine but formerly USSR. Her Ukrainian mother and Belarusian father then moved to Minsk where she grew up. Her writing being quite critical of the Soviet Union (and later Belarus) she was forced to live in exile in Germany, France, Italy and Sweden. She received a Nobel Prize in Literature in 2015, or a couple of years after publishing the wonderful text I'm about to recommend.

In this astonishing book, especially from the perspective of a Western reader who's never set foot in the USSR, the author reveals long-form interviews of a variety of extraordinary characters covering the entire geography of the former USSR.

Each story is more amazing in its literal meaning, and often depressing, than the next. One example that left a mark on me is that of a mother living in Russia and who somehow started to exchange mails, real mails that is not emails, with a prisoner in Siberia and after a few months of pondering it and mailing back and forth decided to abandon her family, including young children, to go join this convict she'd rarely be able to visit in person anyway. An unfathomable story if I've ever read one.

What these interviews highlighted to me was the intense pain and suffering people had to endure under the Soviet Union. Not just in terms of imprisonment, constant fear, abuse and torture (although there was plenty of that unfortunately) but also in terms of daily life being so miserable that in such dreadful situations humans look for any sort of escape, alcohol, imaginary lovers in the far East or whatever works for each character... and by character I mean real human beings the author questioned.

I've read many books by Nobel Prize winners and they're never bad of course, there's a reason why these authors got selected and won but this one will forever be with me, it'd be inhuman to read this book and not feel bad for all the pain and suffering that millions of people had to endure for decades under the USSR.

East West Street: On the Origins of “Genocide” and “Crimes Against Humanity” by Philippe Sands

Author Philippe Sands is a lawyer who was involved in many influential international cases such as Pinochet's trial, the legality of the Iraq war, the Georgia v. Russia dispute and more as he continues to work with the International Court of Justice.

Sands being half British and half French he begins the book by investigating his own family history, trying to learn more about his grandfather who grew up in Lviv (first called Lemberg, then Lvov and Lwiw as the city changed hands and went from being Austro-Hungarian to Polish to Russian/Soviet before now being Ukrainian.) I honestly don't remember the details and don't have time to go back through the book to check but from the top of my head the author asked his grandfather to tell him more about his origins and the grandfather remained silent.

This silent lead to a great quest for knowledge. Sands then went on a sort of detective hunt to find more information about his own family history and was reasonably successful. Although this might sound trivial it is actually very well written and as you are reading this part of the book I guarantee you'll want to learn more yourself even if obviously it's not anywhere nearly as significant as what's about to follow.

This quest eventually drove the author to stumble upon an even more interesting one as he realized his grandfather's past connected with two of the most important lawyers of the XXth century, Rafael Lemkin and Hersch Lauterpatch. These two lawyers studied law in Lviv, where I am writing this article from and where a decent chunk of the book happens, and they were both key figures of the Nuremberg trials at the end of World War II. One invented the term “Genocide” and the other “Crime against humanity”. The book goes into great details as to why each thought his term was the more appropriate one to apply to Nazi leadership, why they should be condemned and why their term was better than the other. Obviously there's no right or wrong here but a lot of shades of gray and lots of room for genuine, smart arguments to be made from either side. This book covers it all and more and in a way it was a catalyst for me coming to Lviv. Slightly sad fun fact although the book is called East West Street because Lemkin and Lauterpatch both lived on different ends of that street I have still not figured out which street this is here in modern Lviv.


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