My political orientation has evolved slowly over decades. With one exception: I became anti-Soviet and anti-Communist overnight. More quickly than that, actually.
The year was 1972. I was an undergraduate exchange student at the University of Leningrad. A Russian couple I’d come to know and trust invited me to meet a friend of theirs.
She was old and frail but her mind was sharp. Over strong coffee and countless cigarettes, we talked in muted tones, the radio playing in the background to (hopefully) diminish the effectiveness of any listening devices that might be in the room.
She mentioned that during the Stalin era she had spent 10 years in a Siberian labor camp. Young and nosey as I was, I asked why she had received such punishment. She repeated that she had been exiled and imprisoned for 10 years. I assured her that I didn’t mean to imply that she had done anything wrong. I simply wondered: What was the charge? Again, she said: “It was for 10 years.”
I apologized for my poor Russian, but she corrected me: “Your Russian is fine, dear. It’s Soviet Russia that you don’t understand. I was sentenced to 10 years. When they sentence you to 10 years, they don’t bother to come up with a charge. It’s because you’re a member of the bourgeoisie or an intellectual or maybe someone powerful doesn’t like you.”
After a pause, she added: “Now if they’re going to execute you, that’s different. For example,” she said evenly, “they executed my daughter.” Tentatively, I asked what law her daughter had been accused of breaking. The woman replied: “She formed a Marxist/Leninist study group.”
But in the Soviet Union, I protested, how could that be a crime? “Well, you see, my dear,” she said, “it wasn’t a Marxist/Leninist/Stalinist study group.”
The evil at the heart of communism became suddenly — glaringly — obvious to me. I would regard the collapse of the Berlin Wall on Nov. 9, 1989 and the implosion of the Soviet Union on Dec. 26, 1991 as great advances for civilization. So it’s perplexing and distressing to now see a headline like this: “Millennials would rather live in socialist or communist nation than under capitalism: Poll.”
Marion Smith, executive director of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, blames “widespread historical illiteracy in American society regarding socialism and the systemic failure of our education system to teach students about the genocide, destruction and misery caused by Communism since the Bolshevik Revolution one hundred years ago.”
True enough, but it’s not just what young people don’t know, it’s also what too many older intellectuals know that isn’t so. Exhibit A: the series that has been running all this year in The New York Times.
Not all the contributions to “Red Century: Exploring the history and legacy of Communism, 100 years after the Russian Revolution” are misleading or an attempt to whitewash oppression and mass murder. But those that are — well, they’re humdingers.
I’d award First Prize to “Why Women Had Better Sex Under Socialism,” by Kristen R. Ghodsee, a professor at the University of Pennsylvania. Her explanation for this putative phenomenon includes this: “State-run women’s committees sought to re-educate boys to accept girls as full comrades, and they attempted to convince their compatriots that male chauvinism was a remnant of the pre-socialist past.” I should add that Ms. Ghodsee does take Stalin to task — for “outlawing abortion and promoting the nuclear family.”
A close runner-up: “Lenin’s Eco-Warriors.” Yale lecturer Fred Strebeigh salutes the author of the Red Terror (thousands summarily executed by the Cheka, the Bolshevik secret police), the philosopher who instructed: “A lie told often enough becomes the truth.” Mr. Strebeigh calls V.I. Lenin “a longtime enthusiast for hiking and camping” who believed that “protecting nature had ‘urgent value.’ “
Try to imagine The New York Times running nostalgic pieces with titles like “Why Women Had Better Sex Under the Third Reich” or “Mussolini’s Eco-Warriors.”
Keep in mind: Communism’s grim harvest during the “Red Century” approached 100 million, according to “The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression.” The authoritative study edited by French historian Stephane Courtois puts China atop the list with 65 million murdered. Next comes the Soviet Union with 20 million (a conservative estimate). North Korea and Cambodia tie for third at roughly 2 million each. Mr. Courtois calculates that these and other Communist regimes are responsible for more deaths than any other ideology or movement — Nazism and Fascism very much included.
The atheist totalitarian ideologies of the 20th century influenced what has become the most dynamic contemporary expression of totalitarianism: Islamism, which comes in both Sunni and Shia variations. Whereas Communism was based on class supremacism, and Nazism on racial supremacism, Islamism is based on religious supremacism. This should be a rich subject for scholarly research but at most American and European universities, grappling with such questions is a sure-fire way to ruin an otherwise promising academic career.
There are exceptions: Last weekend in the United Kingdom’s Sunday Times, historian Niall Ferguson, a professor at Harvard and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution, observed that a century ago “it was the West’s great blunder to think it would not matter if Lenin and his confederates took over the Russian Empire, despite their stated intention to plot world revolution and overthrow both democracy and capitalism.”
He added: “Incredible as it may seem, I believe we are capable of repeating that catastrophic error. I fear that, one day, we shall wake with a start to discover that the Islamists have repeated the Bolshevik achievement, which was to acquire the resources and capability to threaten our existence.” Actually, that no longer seem incredible to me.
• Clifford D. May is president of the Foundation for Defense of Democracies and a columnist for The Washington Times.
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