History is the science of human misfortune.
The Soviet Union’s legacy of the dishonesty and criminality brings to the fore two important historical dimensions that should be required study for generations to come. The first dimension is the extensive history and the elaborate cover-ups of its own crimes from the inception of the regime against its own people – the terror, the government-sponsored famines, the forced migrations, the impoverishment, the Gulag and the destruction of individual freedom and incentives. The Bolshevik revolution was as stated in the Black Book of Communism, “a tragedy of planetary proportions.”
The second dimension is the central role the Soviet Union played as a mentor and supporter for other communist regimes in many parts of the world including those under its direct domination in Eastern Europe following WWII. As the twentieth century temporally recedes and becomes increasingly an important subject of historical interpretation and understanding, one of the century’s most salient and significant experiences – the rise and spread of Communism – the fundamental criminality of Communism and its corrupting, impoverishing nature has yet to be completely historically affirmed and analyzed.
In order to achieve a better understanding and to sketch a comprehensive picture of Communism in the twentieth century, in my view, three things need to happen. First, the current gross disparity of moral treatment in the West given to the crimes of Communism compared with those of Fascism needs to be persistently held up and repudiated. The ongoing failure to do this is itself both a major piece of collective dishonesty and a horrific dishonor to the memory of Communism’s millions of victims.
Second, the inherent criminality of Communism must be understood and given greater attention and focus. American school children very early are taught about the Nazi holocaust, Anne Frank, Hitler’s odium, and Germany’s eternal shame. Very few ever learn about the million Ukrainians deliberately starved by Stalin, the heinous Katyn Wood murder of the Polish officers, the Great Terror, the mass deportations of entire peoples, and the Gulag. Harvard’s James Mace writes that the Ukrainian famine “remains as the least understood cataclysm of this century, a tragedy that has disappeared from the public consciousness so completely that it represents the most successful example of denial of genocide by its perpetrators.” [Peter Paluch, “Harvesting Despair: Spiking the Ukrainian Famine Again,” National Review, April 11, 1986, 33]
Stalin’s “Great Terror” of 1937 and 1938 claimed over one and a half million victims. “By the time Stalin called off the mass operations in late November 1938, the NKVD had sentenced some 1.15 million people. Roughly 683,000 thousand were shot, representing the vast majority of individuals executed by the regime in these two appalling years of Stalinist terror.” [Paul Hagenloh, Stalin’s Police: Public Order and Mass Repression in the USSR, 1926-1941, Baltimore, 2009, 3] Yet, despite the range and numbers of victims who survived this incredible massacre was never made it into accounts of Stalin’s reign either in the Soviet Union or the West. [Hagenloh, Stalin’s Police, 3]
Nor do they learn about Mao’s Great Leap Forward, Pol Pot’s destruction of his own Cambodian people, Castro’s half-century of despotism, deceit and depredation. Fidel Castro’s iron-fisted strangle of Cuba seems to be generously overlooked – no free elections in the fifty years of his personal rule and a ruthless repression of any political opposition – yet for many Americans, Castro’s monstrous criminality, his Gulag, corruption, and Cuba’s deliberately imposed impoverishment is excused because Cuban’s have “universal health care.” American college students decorate their walls with Che-posters and wear his visage on their tee-shirts. Very few know about what he believed and advocated, what he actually did, and what the Cubans who encountered him when he was making the island into an egalitarian paradise thought of him.
Auschwitz and Buchenwald have been preserved to mark permanently the places where monstrous crimes took place. These are unique, extraordinary places, places of unfathomable horror that have been preserved with great care to help those who visit them to fix their individual human imaginations on the farthest reaches of inhumanity. The sites of the Gulag, however, were purposely destroyed by Khrushchev. He ordered these camps that Stalin and his followers created for purposes of slave labor to be bulldozed in the mid-1950s. [Martin Malia, The Soviet Tragedy: A History of Socialism in Russia, 1917-1991 New York, 1994, 262], ensuring that physical evidence of Communist criminality and all of its essential material manifestations of inhumanity and betrayal of promise would be erased – no places for post Stalin-era visitors to visit and to walk through and contemplate and remember the suffering of the millions of innocent victims. The Communist assault was not only on the original victims but continued via bulldozers in the aftermath with a cover-up, a deliberate, shameful obliteration of the means and opportunities to remember and honor those victims.
Third, and finally, Russia needs to reconcile its Soviet past and confront the official lies and the long history of Soviet-sanctioned criminality. Major states erect no monuments to dead Nazi’s for the public to visit and pay homage. Yet the embalmed remains of two of history’s most lethal individuals, Lenin and Mao, still lie in public for worshipful and respectful inspection by hordes of the, curious, ignorant and deluded to pay their respects. The Germans have completely repudiated and execrated their mass murdering Fuhrer, but the Russians still cannot bring themselves to be done with Vladimir Lenin, the theorist and founder of the world’s original terror-state, whose moldy corpse is now pushing toward a 90 year post-mortem career as a Communist relic.
Of Communism’s record of “achievement” from its first exercise of power in Russia in 1917 through the end of the twentieth century, perhaps the most damning single observation of many that could be rendered is of the consistent, colossal disparity between Communism’s aspirations and promises and its practical performance. The kinds of societies that the Communists actually created became almost immediately the exact opposite of what they had promised. Their promise of freedom was in stark contrast to the experience of any one of the millions of Soviet citizens, stuffed in a cattle car on his way to the Gulag, or a Cuban or Vietnamese refugee choosing a leaky raft and the risk of sharks and drowning rather than live in a Communist “Peoples’ Republic”. Their promise of equality was completely belied by the privileges and opportunities reserved for Party members and their families – special, fully stocked stores to shop in, bigger, nicer homes, better schools to send their children, career opportunities, in short, exemption from the all the onerous rules and constraints that bound all the others who were promised freedom and equality in a society whose leaders had pledged to abolish the privileged classes.
When what you actually do is so dramatically and emphatically opposed to what you have promised to do, then as you strain to hold credibility and try to remain in power you must be very good at several things that make life into an extremely miserable ordeal for the people to whom the promises were made – lying, intimidation, and coercion. The Communists excelled at lying, promise breaking, censoring, killing and imprisoning innocent people and bankrupting entire societies. They did it many times and in many places. The two most powerful, influential and best known Communists of the twentieth century, Stalin and Mao did all of these things on a massive unprecedented scale. They inflicted their terror for decades. Even today with all of the evidence of their despotism they still have apologists who special plead for them and rationalize or downplay the ravages of their rule.
The criminality of the Communist regimes was essential and inevitable not aberrational. Communism is not and was not a good idea that got hijacked by bad people as is often affirmed; it was a perverse and terrible idea that nevertheless appealed to many people, and still does. It was implemented, maintained and justified by the very worse people. Communism devoured millions of people who never deserved the self-worshipping monsters who ruled over them.
The overwhelming evidence of this is that in all of the Communist regimes that existed in the twentieth century, no one other than the rulers themselves liked living in them. Wherever they were put into place, people who could flee from them – East Germany, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, China – did. Each and every one of these regimes threatened and punished those who even attempted to leave. Without the threats and coercion, these places would have emptied overnight. Moreover, to none of these self-proclaimed “paradises” of equality and freedom were people from non-Communist lands flocking. No one was risking sharks, storms, and drowning to flee on the high seas from Miami to Cuba, from Hong Kong to Vietnam, from Italy to Ethiopia. The Berlin Wall was never built to keep the West Berliners out of the German Democratic Republic. The simple and cruel fact is that in Communist countries, those who were ruled were miserable; those who ruled were tyrannical and corrupt.
Moreover, this huge gap of the disparity of promise and performance separates Communism from Nazism and constitutes the essential, indisputable core of its eternal ignomy. In many fundamental respects Hitler was always as he appeared to be, and he did pretty much what he said he would do. The Nazi’s never feigned compassion for oppressed peoples other than ethnic Germans and never promised to lift humanity to an unprecedented level of freedom and prosperity. As Martin Malia succinctly put it: “The Nazis, after all, never pretended to be virtuous.” [Black Book of Communism, xv] The core message of the National Socialists was antipathy for “the other”, a virulent modern, anti-Semitism and a doctrine of racial superiority that were clearly articulated from the earliest years of Hitler’s career, documented in Mein Kampf, published a decade before Hitler was appointed Chancellor of Germany. The Nazis are easy to loath.
The Communists, however, while making a great propaganda show of their universal humanitarianism and disavowal of any kind of racial and ethnic prejudice, were in fact extensive practitioners of ethnic persecution and anti-Semitism. The racism and ethnic persecution that Communism ardently professed to abhor and resist was practiced far more by Stalin in the late 1930s than Hitler. “[T]he Soviet Union in the late 1930s was a land of unequaled national persecutions. Even as the Popular Front presented the Soviet Union as the as the homeland of toleration, Stalin ordered the mass killings of several Soviet nationalities.” [Timothy Snyder, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, London, 2010, 89] After WWII when Stalin was installing his system into place all over Eastern Europe, anti-Semitism became a standard feature of Communist rule.
Communism’s history unfolded as a perverse dialectic: its theoreticians promised emancipation, freedom and abundance; its practitioners produced the opposite – slavery, oppression and waste. Its apologists were liars unable to forsake the false theory, denying the evils that it produced. First were the promises, then their betrayal, and finally denial.