When my wife and I first got to Beaufort, we befriended a German couple. They were young, smart and she was beautiful. And she — I won’t use her name here — was living in Dresden at the end of World War II.
This woman — then a girl — was on the ground when the Soviet Army arrived and the large-scaled raping and killing of German civilians commenced. Her testimony was first-person, detailed, dead-eyed and that narrative still inhabits my memory some 40 years later.
This Sunday morning the news centers on Ukraine and the plastic body bags that are being methodically un-earthed and their blackened, lumpen contents removed and photographed. The helmet-wearing journalists report these were deliberate, line-them-up-against-the wall executions. We’re not talking “collateral damage” here.
“Who are these killers?”
Some say that these young, conscripted Russian soldiers carry the chromosomes of Genghis Khan. Actually, some claim these cold blooded killers are descendants of Batu Khan, Genghis Khan’s grandson, who led his rabid, raping horsemen — the so called Golden Horde — into Russia in 1248.
In 2004 Russian geneticists decided to test this theory by finding out how many Russians actually carried the Y chromosome of Genghis Khan. They looked at 1,400 men from various ethnic groups and found a “cluster” of “Ghenghisides” among the Kazakhs, Altai and Buryats of Northern Eurasia. But they didn’t find any genetic trace of the Mongol marauder in Russia itself.
It is also worth noting that Bubonic Plague almost certainly came from the region around Lake Issyk Kul — where China, Kazakhstan and Kyrgyzstan meet. Yersina pestis (the bacterial pathogen) was brought by the “Golden Horde” as it leveled and looted thriving civilizations from central China to Southern Russia. But the tectonic shifts associated with Black Death and with Batu Khan don’t seem to be connected to the execution-style killings in Ukraine.
There is other evidence out there, specifically that of David Reich a Harvard geneticist who has sequenced the DNA of more than 10,000 long dead individuals. Recently the scientist looked at 270 ancient skeletons from the Iberian Peninsula.
Reich discovered that 2,000 years ago the local type of Y chromosome was replaced by an entirely different type, found only in males, passed down from father to son.
“It is likely that the newcomers perpetrated large-scale killing of men, boys, possibly male infants,” writes Douglas Preston in the December, 14, 2020, edition of the New Yorker.
“The predominant Y chromosome seems to have originated with a group called the Yamnaya, who arose about five thousand years ago, in the steppes north of the Black Sea and the Caspian Sea. By adopting the wheel and the horse, they became powerful and fearsome nomads expanding westward into Europe as well as east and southward into India.”
If one happens to have a map, one sees that the areas just north of the Black and Caspian Seas include Ukraine as well as Russia. So the brutalized Ukrainians might, themselves, be descendant of the Yamnaya nomads.
There are other explanations (for the Russian love of killing) floating in ether that don’t involve biology.
Bret Devereaux, a historian specializing in the Roman military, says hazing of first year Russian conscripts, called “dedovshchina,” is well-documented and is part of the Russian military culture. He explains “hazing” by taking us back to Sparta.
“The same dynamics can be glimpsed even in ancient Sparta. The Spartan system for raising citizen boys, the agoge, was an extended hazing ritual where boys were intentionally underfed, encouraged to steal but severely beaten if caught, and forced to violently discipline younger boys. The result was that abroad, Spartans resorted to violence against both friends and foes, leading Spartan hegemony to collapse almost before it began.”
Devereaux goes on to say that these are not individual soldiers gone rogue. “Instead, it must be understood that Russian leadership — including Putin, himself — are responsible for first fostering the kind of organizational culture that lends itself to such brutality.”
“Armies prone to atrocity are more often not the consequence of undisciplined soldiers escaping the control of their officers but rather of obedient soldiers following the brutal commands of their officers.”
Devereaux says Roman mass violence against civilians could be strategically effective when the Romans were winning. But when the Romans were losing, such ‘take-no-prisoners-tactics” hardened the resistance, resolve and tenacity of their opponents.
Devereaux believes this could be the result in Ukraine.
Scott Graber is a lawyer, novelist, veteran columnist and longtime resident of Port Royal. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.