Only two blocks from the White House, a small museum in an elegant Beaux Arts mansion draws our attention to one of the deadliest ideologies of all time: communism. The Victims of Communism Museum opened only last year after decades of thoughtful planning, and the care that went into the project shows. Visiting the museum is a powerful experience.
As you enter the building, a placard declares the startling human cost of world communism: Over 100 million people have been killed since Lenin took power. Josef Stalin supposedly said that whereas one death is a tragedy, a million deaths is a statistic. He would certainly know. The mind cannot comprehend such mass misery; it glazes over. The VOC Museum’s curators overcome this problem by highlighting individual human tragedies. Visitors are shown in the most vivid way possible—through recordings, written testimonies, and more—that the casualties of communism were individual human beings.
In a sense, the victims of communism number far more than 100 million. If we consider those forced to live under this tyrannical system, tortured by it, or driven from their homes because of it, then the numbers are far greater. My grandparents were German-speaking Anabaptists living in Ukraine over one hundred years ago. As the Bolshevik revolution plunged the region into deepening repression, famine, and civil war, violent anarchists as well as communists struggled for control over local villages. Pacifist peasant communities that successfully built a life for themselves over preceding generations were a natural target. My grandfather’s family was terrorized, and his father was killed. Desperate to survive, the remaining members of the family managed to travel to the Baltic, then across the Atlantic Ocean. Settling in Western Canada during the early 1920s, they created a new life for themselves, just as their ancestors once did. Working hard in a free country, they farmed the land, went to church, raised a family, and smiled. But they passed on to their grandson a profound mistrust toward the supposed benefits of socialism.
The museum’s first gallery focuses on the Bolshevik takeover of Russia. Lenin was the first to pioneer the model of one-party totalitarian dictatorship. As the VOC Museum reminds us, some of that model’s features included:
- the creation of a comprehensive police state, with security forces empowered to kill, torture, terrorize, and toss whole categories of innocent people into prison
- the assertion of the Communist Party’s monopolistic authority over private life
- mass executions, deportations, and forced starvation
- the attempted destruction of civil society including any traditional, free, or independent source of authority apart from the new regime
- the existence of a sweeping utopian ideology to justify and encourage all the above
For Lenin, opposition to his regime was necessarily illegitimate, the expression of nothing more than selfish class interests to be crushed.
The museum’s second gallery centers on the victims of Stalin’s rule and informs visitors about the gulags, forced labor camps, purges, and show trials that characterized his dictatorship. We see and hear gripping evidence of the deportations, the mass executions, the ethnic cleansings, and the deliberately engineered famines that killed millions, most notably in Ukraine. Once again, these atrocities are illustrated through vivid examples; visitors are shown the daily ration of one gulag prisoner, which consisted of a small crust of bread. It was mostly sawdust.
The museum’s third gallery describes the postwar expansion of the Leninist model into Eastern Europe, China, Cuba, Southeast Asia, and parts of Africa. Yet even as the Soviet bloc was at the height of its power, the seeds of its destruction were being planted. Especially in the USSR’s European sphere of influence, ordinary people yearned for a better way of life. For them, simply listening to a smuggled revamped Beatles album—one of the many artifacts highlighted by the museum—was an act of joy and resistance. This gallery details the many acts of courage taken by everyday citizens as well as exceptional dissidents to chip away at the tyranny surrounding them, which ultimately led to the stunning collapse of the Soviet Union and its Warsaw Pact allies. Americans can take pride in the indispensable role they played in these efforts.
During the 1990s, it was commonplace to write triumphalist obituaries of communism. Now we know better. For while the USSR was deservedly placed on the ash heap of history, the Marxist-Leninist template never entirely disappeared. Instead, it discovered new ways to tyrannize and survive.
First, the People’s Republic of China—one of the two most powerful countries on the planet—remains controlled by a Marxist-Leninist dictatorship. To be sure, the Chinese economy made remarkable gains over the past forty years, in part by loosening the most preposterous Maoist strictures. But these material gains were not accompanied by the end of Communist Party rule. On the contrary, under Xi Jinping, the party has asserted new forms of high-tech authoritarianism using Leninist methods. Authorities in Beijing operate forced labor camps, seek to wipe out ethnic minorities, and engage in a massive military buildup preparing for the eventual subjugation of democratic Taiwan.
Second, several lower-tier Marxist-Leninist dictatorships—such as Cuba and North Korea—have long outlasted predictions of their demise. They continue to oppress their own people, support terrorism, and snuff out freedoms even while lecturing the rest of the planet on the benefits of their own dysfunctional systems. Superficially, they may seem like irritants to the United States and nothing more. But Cuba is actively cooperating with China to promote their mutual interests in the Western hemisphere, and North Korea continues to build nuclear-tipped missiles capable of reaching American cities.
Visiting the Victims of Communism Museum is a remarkable experience; not only does the museum educate visitors on twentieth-century communist tyranny, but it reminds us that Marxist-Leninist dictatorships continue to survive, impacting the lives of over 1.5 billion people. In the case of Xi Jinping’s China, that threat is greater than ever. For American conservatives, the only sane answer in the coming years must be: resist.
Colin Dueck is a professor in the Schar School of Policy and Government at George Mason University and a non-resident senior fellow at the American Enterprise Institute.
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Images by Press Service of the President of the Russian Federation / Roman Kubanskiy, The Presidential Press and Information Office, and duma.gov.ru licensed via Creative Commons, Creative Commons, and Creative Commons. Images combined and cropped.
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