With Russia making waves on the world stage and Marxism resurfacing in some academic circles, those who survived communism say it’s time to get serious about building a museum to honor the victims of such governments and warn of the dangers of a relapse.
The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation wants to break ground on a museum in Washington in October 2017, in time for the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution that created the Soviet Union.
“What we see in Ukraine and Russia grappling with and dealing with the toxic legacy of Soviet communism in that part of the world, I think there is a growing awareness that this is a very serious and real issue,” said Marion Smith, executive director of the foundation.
The museum would house documents, art and other historical artifacts, Mr. Smith said. While the foundation has some material, he said it is working with donors to gather other collections and would plan to work internationally with museums in former communist countries for rotating exhibits.
The museum would be a follow-up to the Victims of Communism Memorial, dedicated seven years ago in Washington on the 20th anniversary of President Reagan’s “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall” speech at the Berlin Wall.
Critics of that memorial alleged that it condemned other countries without mention of American violations. For example, according to Russian news site Ria Novosti, Ukrainian communists reacted by opening a museum with exhibits on mass killings of American Indians, slavery, U.S. racism and invasion of foreign countries.
But Mr. Smith said he hasn’t heard any backlash to the proposed museum yet.
The foundation is currently conducting a feasibility study to determine a more exact budget for a museum, though it’s expected to cost tens of millions of dollars. It’s already received a $1 million donation from the Hungarian government, as well as several large private donations, Mr. Smith said.
The organization is limiting its search for a site to the area right around the National Mall, Mr. Smith said.
That may be difficult, however, as the area immediately around the National Mall has been closed off to new memorials or museums to preserve the open space for future generations, said Lucy Kempf, an urban planner with the National Capital Planning Commission. Even other parts of the District and Arlington have restrictions on where you can build.
The National Women’s History Museum is also vying to build a brick-and-mortar space on the National Mall and it took more than a decade for the National Museum of African American History and Culture, which is now being built, to secure its spot next to the Washington Monument.
The push for the museum comes at a time when American headlines warn of a new “cold war” with Russia, and as academics rehash the debate over Marxism, spurred in part by a new critique of capitalism penned by French economist Thomas Piketty.
Mr. Smith said it’s time to have an accurate accounting of what it was like to live in a communist country, as well as pay tribute to the 100 million people the foundation says died as a direct result of communist governments through things like targeted killings for challenging the government and starvation resulting from restrictive agricultural laws.
“Unless we have that, it is going to make future life in these places very problematic,” he said. “There is a sort of moral reckoning that needs to occur with the crimes of communism.”
Mr. Smith said there is support on Congress for the museum, though the project hasn’t yet secured a congressional sponsor.
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