Victims of Communism centennial commemoration: “Reflections on a Ravaged Century”
By Jaroslaw Martyniuk (ACAT Speakers Bureau)
Originally published in Ukranian Weekly - December 2017
Reposted with permission of the author
Organized by the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation on November 8-9, the conference “Reflections on a Ravaged Century” at the Library of Congress featured an array of distinguished speakers and moderators. Below are some takeaways that struck me as relevant to the Ukrainian diaspora. However, with eight panels and about 35 prominent speakers, it’s difficult to be all-inclusive in the space of this article.
For Ukrainians, this conference should have been a significant event. Ukraine was often mentioned, and the Holodomor and genocide against the Ukrainian people were presented as one of the most egregious examples of communism’s evil deeds. Official representatives from many countries ravaged by communism were present, however, apart from Paula Dobriansky, one of the panelists, and this author, there were no representatives from the Ukrainian community.
If there was a single message to take away from the conference it was that 100 years of communism produced 100 million dead and a generation of young people know nothing about it. Moreover, recent polls by the Victims of Communism foundation and the Pew Research Center showed that half of the millennials would like to see socialism in the U.S.
Vladimir Kara-Murza, a noted Russian pro-democracy activist, said that in the November 25, 1917, Russian elections, the Bolshevik party got only 22 percent of the vote. The elections were won by Social Democrats and Constitutional Democrats, but Bolsheviks took power by force, and on November 28 declared all parties as “enemies of the people.” Parliamentary democracy was abolished, ending representational government in Russia for seven decades. The Bolsheviks called for a complete overthrow of the system, which led to the collectivization of agriculture and eventually the annihilation of well over 30 million people – one-fifth of the population of the Soviet Union at the time.
Lenin used Marxism to give himself credibility and to persuade the population of his regime’s legitimacy. According to Dr. A. James McAdams of the University of Notre Dame, “The Communist Manifesto” provided ways of looking at the world differently and the ability to manipulate revolutionary movements. It offered three new ideas: (1) a conviction that the Communist Party was involved in a heroic struggle, (2) a sense of belonging for its members, and (3) a vision of themselves as agents in a struggle for a better world. Socialism promises that there will be no rich people and no poor people; everyone will be the same. Everywhere the slogans “social justice” and “equality” have been the same, except the labels of those proclaiming them have changed. Today they have been appropriated by progressives in the U.S. Using the “duck” metaphor Dr. McAdams said, “if it looks like a duck and walks like a duck, it must be communism.”
Dr. Lee Edwards, the co-founder and chairman of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, in his keynote address, elucidated seven common myths about communism:
1. Communism has failed because it had never been tried. (In fact, it has been tried numerous times, and it always failed.)
2. Marx was one of the great thinkers of the 19th century. (His writings were dense and often incomprehensible.)
3. The Russian people enthusiastically supported the revolution. (Only 5 percent of workers belonged to the Communist Party.)
4. Communists delivered on promises to people. (Everywhere, they failed utterly and completely.)
5. Stalin, the great dictator, was the first to use unlimited terror. (Lenin was the first.)
6. There are no more Communist countries. (China is ruled by a 90-million-strong Communist Party.)
7. Nazism was responsible for more deaths than communism. (The numbers indicate otherwise: Communists killed about 10 times as many as the Nazis.)
During a question and answer session, Anna Maria Anders, the Polish senator, state secretary and the daughter of Polish hero Wladyslaw Anders, expressed shock at the alarming level of ignorance about communism in the United States. The Millennials know next to nothing about the legacy of communism because the vast majority of academics are progressives who don’t think it’s worth teaching. “Let’s not resurrect unpleasant facts about the past,” is a typical response by such academics; or as Dr. Jonathan Brent of Bard College noted, “We have to be very careful, so we don’t indulge in commie-bashing.”
Dr. Dobriansky of the Harvard Kennedy School reminded the gathering that its mission must be to educate future generations. In the past, the U.S. has led the fight against communism through policies pursued under President Ronald Reagan, which included increased funding of organizations such as the National Endowment for Democracy and international broadcasters like Radio Free Europe and Radio Liberty.
In panels addressing Soviet totalitarianism and imperialism, Dr. Alan Charles Kors, a scholar of European intellectual history, remarked that in communism the worst elements rise to the top. The system attracts the most ruthless in society, and those who disagree are systematically killed or starved into oblivion. It is no accident that “communism surpassed exponentially all other systems in turning out the dead.”
When asked whether the Soviet Union sought a world revolution, Dr. Jeremy Friedman of the Harvard Business School responded with a clear “yes.” The Soviets had franchises all over the world: Afghanistan, Angola, Cuba, Egypt, Ethiopia, Indonesia, Vietnam and many other places. All these pointed to Soviet Union’s imperialistic ambitions. Moreover, all Communist parties were closely linked to and funded by Moscow – “The cash always came from Moscow.”
Dr. Harvey Klehr, a scholar of American communism, asserted that in the U.S., the communist virus infected intellectuals and professors at many of our best universities and many penetrated the U.S. government bureaucracy. Archives identified 500 individuals in the U.S. government working as agents for the Soviet Union during and after World War II, 350 by actual name and 150 by code names. Actions by these Communist sympathizers allowed the Soviet Union to develop the atom bomb.
A Hoover Fellow and the executive producer of “Women in the Gulag” (which was screened on the eve of the conference), Dr. Paul Gregory pointed out that while the Soviet Union may have collapsed, communism did not die. Many of its ideas are alive at our universities and political life in the form of the progressive movement. A fellow Hoover colleague, Dr. Russell Roberts revealed that over half the Millennials today would like to live under socialism, and many believe that it’s a better idea than capitalism. Victims of Communism and Pew Research surveys indicate that half of the people age 18-29 have a positive view of socialism, compared to 43 percent who hold a negative view. A Pew poll among similar age groups showed strong support for socialism and found that 45 percent would like to see socialism in the U.S., while another 21 percent would vote for a Communist candidate.
Vytautas Landsbergis, former president of Lithuania, asked: “What is it that makes us human?” Memory, of course, makes us human he said, and “the greatest damage done by communism was the destruction of memory. Drs. Andrei Illarionov (Cato Institute) and Frank Dikotter (University of Hong Kong) expounded on the subject of memory and truth. Communism was an ideology of terror, and secret police were part of every Communist regime from 1917 to 1991. In the Soviet Union, excluding war casualties, best estimates yield 36 million dead. The sheer size of crimes everywhere, from Ukraine to Cuba, is mindboggling, yet no one has been held accountable. At the same time, Russia today is resurrecting the legacy of Stalin as a “great leader.”
Dr. Dikotter, a specialist on the history of Chinese communism, noted that historical amnesia in China (45 million victims during the Great Leap Forward) had reached an unprecedented scale. “Truth and memory in China have not been allowed to flower, and even in Hong Kong, there are attempts to impose cultural amnesia on the population.” In 2012, Xi Jinping declared state archives closed to researchers and accused historians of cultural nihilism. Among Western academics, Dr. Dikotter explained, we have the politics of apologia. Attempts to salvage the Cultural Revolution are shocking for their brazenness.
Elena Zhemkova, director of the Russian Memorial Society, stated that fear in Russia is deep-rooted, a legacy of communism where the memory of Stalin is still vivid. “You do not have to arrest all, just a few, and the rest will fall in line. Distrust is widespread, as is xenophobia.” This creates a dual mentality, leading to widespread cynicism and destruction of the moral consciousness of the people. Russia is a country with an unpredictable past. David Satter of the Hudson Institute remarked that until Russia resurrects the past and adopts Western values, the country will never emerge from the cycle of destructive dictatorship.
Ukrainian-born, Jaroslaw Martyniuk grew up in Chicago. In 1979 he was appointed principal administrator at the International Energy Agency/Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development in Paris and in the mid-1908s he joined the Soviet Area Audience and Opinion Research ofﬁce in Paris, a unit of Radio Liberty. In 1995 he moved to Washington, where he continued conducting specialized research for the international broadcasters until he retired in 2011. He is the author of the soon-to-be-released “Monte Rosa: Memoir of an Accidental Spy.”