The Victims of Communism Museum opened this June without the kind of fanfare that has accompanied the recent debuts of other exposition halls in the nation’s capital. Indeed, outside of a lone article in the Wall Street Journal and some local and conservative media outlets, it did not command much press coverage at all—a far cry from several lengthy Washington Post articles on the Museum of the Bible and the National Museum of African American History and Culture. This might have been a function of the Victims of Communism Museum’s status as a small, private institution with only three permanent exhibition halls that can be easily covered in 40 minutes. Still, shouldn’t the first museum in the United States dedicated to educating the public about the deadliest ideology in human history have garnered more attention? Shouldn’t the sheer scale of the topic—over a century of history, dozens of countries, 100 million dead, and literal billions more victimized—have warranted more square footage than the lobby of one of the Smithsonians?
Over the past three decades, as the memory of the Cold War has faded, the American public is no longer confronted with the Soviet Union’s living, breathing, frightening alternative to our admittedly imperfect model. Still, the glorification of the Chinese and Soviet Communist Parties remains essential to the ideologies of the West’s two greatest geopolitical foes, Russia and China, as does their embrace of the essential values of far-left authoritarianism and their contempt and animosity toward the West. Lacking the historical grounding to understand the unvarnished evil that is the alternative to American power, the American people are increasingly unwilling to understand the moral imperative for resisting those alternatives.
Just as, if not more, alarming is the increasing proliferation of traditionally far-left authoritarian tropes in domestic American public life, with talking points ripped straight from the briefs of Kremlin propagandists from the 1970s and 1980s. Ceaseless attacks on Western institutions, governments, and ideals as illegitimate and inherently unjust, and rooted in exploitation and slavery, are now so frequent that they have almost lost their shock value among almost anyone under the age of 40 or with a Twitter account. And nowhere is the line between old-school Communism and avant-garde hard-left wokeism more obvious than the trotting out of “anti-Zionism” as a species of “anti-racism” and “anti-colonialism.”
With little conception of what the alternative to liberal democratic capitalism is and what the rhetoric of unhinged “social justice” and “decolonization” means in practice, an entire generation of Americans has now entered public life and the voting booths with an understanding of the world that is a mile wide and an inch deep. Enhanced public awareness of the crimes of Communism over the course of the 20th century, driven by updates to school curricula, the establishment of museums, centers, and public memorials, and a broad-based grassroots effort of community groups to educate their fellow Americans, can help bridge that gap and rekindle the anti-Communist spirit that once motivated the public.
I was no more than five years old and living in the outer boroughs of New York City when my Soviet-born parents relayed to me the parable of Pavlik Morozov. The legend of this Soviet cultural martyr was told to generations of schoolchildren across the USSR. It went something like this:
Once upon a time, in a small Russian village, lived a young boy named Pavlik. His father was a rich farmer, and one day, when the local Communist authorities came to collect his grain harvest, he hid part of it and only turned over a small portion. Pavlik, a bona fide member of the Communist youth group, soon found out about his father’s deceit and duly reported him to the authorities, who confiscated the grain and arrested Pavlik’s father. Pavlik’s family, outraged at his betrayal, reacted by murdering the boy—an act for which they, after a great outcry from the Soviet public, were then put on trial and executed.
For decades, Soviet schoolteachers and youth-group leaders reiterated this story, urging their charges to emulate Pavlik and place loyalty to the state and the party above loyalty to their families, no matter what the consequences may be.
My parents did not tell me the story of Pavlik to transmit this message. Rather, they encouraged my gut reaction to it, which was: How could any child possibly ever be led to betray his father for the crime of daring to feed his family? What right did these government agents have in the first place to take away the grain that this family had worked so hard to grow? And how could any adults, presumably parents themselves, spend their time encouraging other children to betray their parents?
My parents planted the seed of what became a decades-long fascination with the depraved system they had escaped. I came to learn more about the barbarity of Communist rule and the multigenerational tragedy it had inflicted on my family and hundreds of millions of others around the world. Both of my grandfathers’ fathers had been arrested and spent time in the Gulag as political prisoners, leaving behind families that then had to fend for themselves amid the “nationalization” of all their assets and the intense social stigma that attached to the wives and children of an “Enemy of the People.”
My grandparents, having survived the twin evils of Stalinism and Nazism as children, spent their adulthoods grappling with the corrupt, economically backward, and authoritarian police state of post-Stalinist USSR, trying to bring up families in a climate of ratcheting anti-Semitism that deprived them and their children of work, education, and housing opportunities.
I cannot count the number of occasions growing up when I was told, emphatically, by whatever relative was sitting across the kitchen table, how intensely lucky I was to have no conception of the daily miseries and humiliations that defined day-to-day life for most Soviet citizens.
But the more I experienced post–Cold War America, and the further I moved from the hearth of my upbringing and into mainstream American public-school education and eventually a stream of elite universities, the more it seemed that I was the only one even remotely interested or even remotely aware of the nature of Communist crimes in the USSR and around the world.
To the extent that Communist crimes were at all covered in general history curricula, they took the form of a passing reference to Stalin being “bad” and “killing lots of people.” The blood-soaked legacy of Mao—the greatest mass murderer in world history—scarcely warranted a mention. Fidel Castro? Ho Chi Minh? Morally ambiguous figures at best. Was it any wonder, then, that when a hammer and sickle was painted on the side of a university building at my undergraduate alma mater of Rice University, the overall response of the student body was a massive shrug?
Shocking as this might be to their parents and grandparents, for most younger Americans the Cold War is a distant and unexciting topic. And above all, for those who grew up after the Cold War, it was certainly not a moral conflict. Older Americans saw the crimes of Communism in real time—the boat people who fled Southeast Asia and Cuba, the brutal suppression of democratic revolts in Hungary, Czechoslovakia, Poland, and Tiananmen Square, the criminalization of free thought in the example of intellectuals and activists from Solzhenitsyn and Sakharov to Ida Nudel and Natan Sharansky. My peers have no connection to the Gulag, Mao’s Great Famine, or Pol Pot’s killing fields, but they are intimately familiar by virtue of their education and popular culture with the litany of moral failings attributed to the United States and the West. This category of the ignorant majority, of course, is separate from the committed Tankies and far-left activists who dominate Twitter and campus life, including the types willing to send an unprompted email to the school-wide listserv of a top law school to defend the North Korean regime as a victim of American imperialism. (Yes, that really did happen.)
Recent polling reflects that reality. A 2020 YouGov poll of 2,100 American adults showed that 18 percent of Gen Z and 13 percent of Millennials think Communism is a fairer system than capitalism and deserves consideration in America. Thirty percent of Gen Z and 27 percent of Millennials have a favorable view of Marxism. Just 63 percent of Gen Z and Millennials think that the Declaration of Independence better guarantees freedom and equality than the Communist Manifesto, in contrast to over 80 percent among Gen X, Boomers, and the Silent Generation.
Depressing though these numbers are, they also suggest enormous opportunity for education and engagement. Thirty-four percent of all Americans admitted they were “not sure” what Marxism most looks like. Almost half could not answer whether the Chinese Communist Party was responsible for more deaths than Nazi Germany.
No longer faced with a nuclear-armed physical manifestation of what far-left totalitarianism looks like in practice, the American people have forgotten about its dangers. No longer forced to confront, day in and day out, what the alternative to our system might be, we turned inward to an unrelenting barrage of self-doubt and self-criticism. The resulting worldview is an ugly and false one.
The answer to this great imbalance is not to cover up or sugarcoat the tragedies of American and Western history both prior to and during the Cold War. Instead, it is to rekindle the spirit of American anti-Communism through education and public awareness. To this end, since 2018, 14 states have moved to recognize Victims of Communism Day, often with overwhelming and bipartisan support in state legislatures. Last year, Florida became the first state to require students to be educated about the victims of Communism—albeit only high schoolers, and for all of 45 minutes a year starting in 2023.
Against this backdrop, the opening of the Victims of Communism Museum seems to flow with the trend: slow but steady progress toward a new reckoning with this enduring evil. But it has taken far too long to make such tepid gains. In a country with millions of people who have emigrated from tyrannical Marxist regimes around the globe, school assemblies welcoming those who as children survived Stalin’s deportations, those who witnessed the Tiananmen Square demonstrations with their fellow students, or those who climbed into a rickety boat at Mariel Harbor for a chance to cross the 90 miles to Key West are almost unheard-of rather than ubiquitous. Moreover, in the most elite and educated circles, the notion that Communist crimes are worthy of greater public awareness, and that Communism is worthy of unrelenting public condemnation, is treated as passé at best or inappropriately controversial at worst. And if that’s beyond the pale, then Barry Goldwater’s The Conscience of a Conservative—which defined modern American conservatism’s central political objective as the defeat of Communism—is definitely way past that.
Today, we find ourselves reaping the harvest of a 30-year-old error. The leaders of the Soviet Communist Party and their underlings in Central and Eastern Europe never had their Nuremburg where they were judged before the world, their evil put on full display, and appropriate punishments for their crimes doled out. Their victims were deprived of their day in court, and the perpetrators’ guilt was never definitively recorded for posterity. This very point was made in a July 22, 2022, letter from the prime ministers of Estonia, Latvia, and Poland and the presidents of Lithuania and Romania to their colleagues of the European Council. The letter urged leaders throughout Europe to prioritize public commemoration and remembrance of Soviet crimes, which, the letter properly notes, have helped drive the narrative of Russian imperialism and war crimes in Ukraine. Most striking, the presidents and prime ministers wrote, “The democratic world has decisively condemned the Nazi regime and brought to justice its leaders and perpetrators. The bitter lessons of Nazism and the crimes perpetrated by the regime have become an obligatory part of teaching about the history in our educational systems. At the same time, the memory and knowledge of Soviet crimes have yet to find their rightful place in the consciousness of the Europeans.” The same applies, arguably with even greater force, in the United States.
The failure to condemn Communist crimes and inculcate them into the consciousness of free people around the world was not just a failure of governments. It was failure of Western civil society. Historians and archeologists from around the world did not flock to the mosquito-infested swamps of Siberia and the barren steppes of Kazakhstan to assist with the excavation and preservation of various outposts of the Gulag. No grand marches of remembrance packed the streets of New York, London, and Paris on every August 23 and November 7, the dates of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the October Revolution of 1917, respectively, and to commemorate Communism’s victims. The world did not have its moment of moral reckoning with Communism in 1991, unlike the one it forced itself to have with National Socialism in 1945—and in that, whether by foolishness, hubris, or incompetence, a historic opportunity was lost.
Although anti-Communism as a (somewhat) unifying facet of American life may have died in 1991, neither Communism nor its historical legacy did. At no time is this more obvious than in 2022, already the year in which everything old—inflation, energy crises, a land war in Europe, and an uptick in political violence around the world—is new again. For can one truly understand the nature of the threat the Chinese Communist Party poses to the world without actually understanding the ideology it espouses? Is it really that hard to understand why the CCP has spent the last two-plus years doing its utmost to impede the investigation into the origins of Covid-19 if one has any familiarity with the Soviet Union’s handling of the Chernobyl nuclear catastrophe? Can’t one draw a clear line between the physical and cultural genocide of the Uyghurs by the CCP and the physical and cultural genocide of the Balts, Kalmyks, Chechens, Ingush, Crimean Tatars, Soviet Koreans, and the other indigenous peoples of the Soviet Empire? Is this not the latest installation of a well-known storyline, in which ethnic and religious minorities on the borderlands of an empire are rounded up for forcible removal from their homelands and then rapidly replaced by more “reliable” individuals from an empire’s Han Chinese or Slavic heartlands, respectively?
And by the same token, does not the same apply to the forced deportation of up to 1.6 million Ukrainians, including 260,000 children, by the non-Communist, but avowedly Stalin-worshipping, Putinist regime that occupies the Kremlin?
The history of Communist crimes is the history of billions around the world who were first stripped of their property, then their dignity, then their liberty, and then in many cases, their lives. It is not the story of blood-curdling ancient ethnic hatreds of the type that motivated the Shoah and the genocides in Rwanda and the former Yugoslavia—even though it unambiguously has elements of that. Nor is it the story of targeted repression of political opponents, as is the case for authoritarian regimes the world over—even though it unambiguously has elements of that, too. Instead, it is a complicated and dynamic history all its own.
It is a history of the slow destruction of societies and individuals for the sake of economic exploitation. It is the history of physical and spiritual murder by way of total indifference to the value of human life, and a history of impossible choices being imposed on everyday people caught up in the pressures of mass terror and all-encompassing propaganda, people who often seamlessly crossed the divide between victim and perpetrator—sometimes on multiple occasions.
Yes, discussing the history of the victims of Communism is hard. It takes intellectual honesty, empathy, and courage to do it right. And it is also controversial, not least because of the inevitable comparisons and contrasts between Soviet Stalinism and German National Socialism. Historians and Shoah survivors and their families and advocates have been loath even to discuss the notion of Communism having “victims” who can be analogized to those of the Nazis. Reams of research have been dedicated to “debunking” the “Double Genocide Theory,” questioning the narrative advanced by the nations of Central and Eastern Europe about the regime of occupation, political repression, deportation, and mass murder imposed upon them by the Soviet Union for 45 years. For many, the notion that these Soviet crimes can be described as “genocide” is deeply suspect and rooted in a desire, on the part of non-Germans in Europe, to evade responsibility for their participation in the murder of Jews during the Shoah. At worst, it is seen as a racist cudgel and perpetuation of the widespread myth of “Judeo-Bolshevism,” which was central to Nazi propaganda and far-right conspiracy theorists both before and after World War II.
But in its quest to prevent the distortion of the historical record and preserve the distinctiveness of the Nazis’ crimes against humanity and the Jewish people, this approach not only gives short shrift to victims of Communism as a whole; it also erases the history of Soviet anti-Semitism and xenophobia, all while stilling the voices of Jewish victims of Communism from the former Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc. Public education and commemoration of the victims of Communism and National Socialism is not a one-or-the-other choice. Rather, both are essential for a healthy society that can proceed into the future with sufficient awareness of the errors and horrors of the past, whatever extreme end of the political spectrum those violent ideologies come from. Indeed, the European Union, Canada, and the World Jewish Congress all formally commemorate Black Ribbon Day every August 23 in memory of the victims of Nazism and Stalinism. Whatever the merits of this joint commemoration may or may not be, it is hard to argue that it is inappropriate given these systems intertwined histories and ideological overlap—which was recognized as early as 1951 in Hannah Arendt’s Origins of Totalitarianism.
For the twin evils of the 20th century often bore down on the same families, even the same individuals, in the great swath of Europe that was transformed into a human meat grinder for almost 50 years. My own family was no exception. My maternal grandfather’s father was a victim of the anti-Jewish purge of the late Stalinist period. He was condemned to the Gulag in 1952 and then released within a month of Stalin’s death in 1953, amounting to a comparatively “short” term of less than a year. Nonetheless, the experience was ruinous for his physical health, as his formerly robust body deteriorated over the next 15 years, leading to his untimely death at the age of 60. His fate, even though it featured torture, hunger, cold, and forced labor, was nonetheless far less dramatic than his father’s—a blacksmith in a Belarusian shtetl who was killed by occupying German forces in 1941; as the records collected by the local museum suggest, they hammered the nails he had forged himself into his skull. Apparently, my great-great grandfather was selected for this excruciating end because he had dared to throw out the German officers quartering in his house after they had insulted his wife.
Were not both of these men murdered? Are not both of their stories worth telling? Is the cruelty inflicted upon my great-grandfather to be passed over because its consequences took 15 years to manifest, while the cruelty inflicted upon his father (in what I hope were minutes rather than hours) is recognized in one form or another in museums, textbooks, and lessons taught to people the world over?
The last room one enters at the Museum of the Victims of Communism in Washington is a space featuring the pictures on the walls of various anti-Communist activists from around the world. It was there, in a room no bigger than an average walk-in closet that I finally had an emotional reaction. It was in the faces of the men and women, young and old, of every imaginable race, faith, and nationality, of every age, of every stratum of society, that I located the horrors of Communist depravity. My mind transported me back to the basement of the former KGB headquarters in Vilnius, which I visited several years ago and where the restored torture chambers of the Gestapo and KGB are located. In one room, victims were forced to balance themselves on a small pedestal just wide enough for a person to stand on until they eventually lost their balance and fell into the icy water that filled the concave, concrete floor around them.
Across the hall was the equally horrific “padded cell,” in which prisoners were tied into a straitjacket for hours or days on end in total isolation—a punishment that led to such ear-piercing shouts that the KGB officials eventually covered the room with almost a foot of padding. As I stared into those cells, I could not help but picture my recent ancestors. Were they, too, made to stand in a water-torture cell? Back in D.C., I started to wonder the same about the people on those walls. How many of them had been left in a straitjacket, left to scream endlessly in the padded cells of basements the world over? But then, among their photographs, there was a simple message, written in a multitude of languages. “Remember us.”
Remember them, we shall. And remember them, we must, for in doing so, we remember who we are first and foremost. It took 31 years for the first museum dedicated to the victims of Communism to rise in this country. It took 31 years for the first state to decide that its children must be educated about the evils unleashed upon the world on November 7, 1917. It cannot take another three decades to spread the word. The time is now.
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