This summer marks the 60th anniversary of the Norilsk and Vorkuta Gulag uprisings—and yet you probably don’t remember those events, or more likely, you’ve never even heard of them.
In fact, they were just two horrors in the long, long catalogue of horrors perpetrated by communists in the twentieth century. The need to remember these and other such outrages was the theme of a recent panel discussion at the Heritage Foundation, led by Lee Edwards. He and his fellow experts addressed communism’s legacy, including the bizarre tendency to ignore that legacy, especially compared to the legacy of another murderous totalitarian regime, the Germany of National Socialism (aka Nazism).
The neglect of communism, the panel agreed, is largely attributable to the world’s ignorance of the atrocities committed by communist regimes. The Third Reich, however, has had its horrors portrayed many times over in movies and books since the regime fell in 1945, just as one would expect of a world-class evil that produced the Holocaust and the deaths of well over 10 million people.
But the same has not occurred with communism, even after the fall of the Soviet Union. Rather, many intellectuals remain fascinated by the utopian ideas of communism and have been gradually pushing us closer and closer ideologically towards socialism, precisely because they ignore the evils of communism. Stalin’s gulags, which were also a world-class evil, do not receive nearly as much publicity as Hitler’s concentration camps.
The Norilsk and Vorkuta Gulags, for example, whose uprisings were brutally put down, were part of a chain of forced labor camps used by Lenin and Stalin to exterminate their political enemies, and yet we have a bust of Stalin at our D-Day memorial in Bedford, Virginia. Public media are rife with examples of the atrocities of Hitler’s concentration camps, and rightly so, but we refuse to view Stalin and his gulags with horror. Nor does one often hear of the thousands upon thousands who were murdered by the Stalinist government during its collectivization of agricultural property in the 1930s.
Dr. Ariel Cohen, a senior research fellow at Heritage, told the story of how he received the files in which his own grandfather confessed to crimes against the Soviet government while being tortured, in the vain hope that he would not be executed. And yet neither these historical evils, nor the continuing evils that are their legacy, are much considered these days. That helps explain why we overlook many communist practices that still exist, including secret police and political prisoners. Russia retains many remnants of communism, preventing the nation from more fully revitalizing its economy and creating a nation based upon freedom.
Similarly, Americans’ blindness to communism’s true legacy skews our perception of Red China. Many of us view China’s economy as increasingly a free-market system, but Dr. Yang Jianli, president of Initiatives for China, explained how the Chinese economy has been altered but the nation remains a communist state. In the years leading up to the Tiananmen Square Massacre, the property that had been collectivized under Mao Zedong was increasingly privatized, but it went into the pockets of a few Party members. As a result, Dr. Yang said there is now a Two-China structure that consists of “China Inc.” (the wealthy and influential) and the “shitizens.” The legacy of communism in China is simple, he said: 0.4% of the population own 70% of the wealth, the socio-economic ladder is stagnant, and the country is “a 100% police state.” Communism remains strong in China and manifests itself in a system of appalling political, social, and economic inequality.
The same kind of blindness occurs in our own hemisphere, the panel observed, pointing to the case of Che Guevara, a radical and doctrinaire communist who helped lead the Cuban Revolution and tried to start an international communist movement, first in Africa and then in Bolivia. He is idealized by many young people, not only in Latin America, but also on college campuses in the United States. The cult of Che is probably the most obvious example of the lasting influence communism on the Western Hemisphere. The same young people who wear his face on their shirts either are ignorant of what type of man he actually was (an often murderous radical), or for some reason do not care.
José Cárdenas, from Visión Américas, explained that socialists have become smart over the past 15 years and now use democratic means to be elected, before establishing many communist policies in their governments, like those fought for by Che. For example, in Venezuela Hugo Chávez remained in power through elections but led his nation as a socialist state, aligning itself with Cuba. Cárdenas argued that we need to take a stronger stand against communism in our hemisphere, because its legacy is so powerful and so many Latin American nations are leaning increasingly toward socialism.
The greatest threat to American conservatism from the communist legacy, the panel concluded, lies not in North Korea, which can be clearly seen as a totalitarian police-state, but rather in Latin America, where our lack of opposition to growing socialism ends up condoning those very evils.
Alex Hadley is an intern at the Capital Research Center currently attending the Heights School.