A gathering of the anti-Communist tribes
Washington, D.C. — Every day is an anniversary, and people take advantage of them. This week, the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation is marking its 20th anniversary. Last week, the anti-Communist world, so to speak, marked 25 years since the Tiananmen Square massacre. In November, there will be a celebration: the 25th anniversary of the Fall of the Wall.
VOC (as the Victims of Communism foundation is known) is intended to teach people about Communism: its ideology, its record. The organization was founded by Lee Edwards, a Heritage Foundation scholar, and the late Lev Dobriansky, who taught economics at Georgetown. His obituary in the Washington Post was headed “Professor and Foe of Communism.” It’s interesting that “foe of Communism” should be a distinction. Who is not a foe? The answer is many.
I have never been entirely comfortable with the first word in “Victims of Communism.” That’s because, in my time and place, the word “victim” has been debased. If anyone ever looked at you crossways or called you a name, you’re a certified victim. And yet there are victims: such as the 100 million murdered by Communists. (This is a toll that continues to rise.)
The most visible achievement of VOC so far has been the erection of a memorial near Capitol Hill. It is a replica of the “Goddess of Democracy,” fashioned by the students in Tiananmen Square. At the time, left-leaning commentators in America were keen to say that the symbol had nothing to do with the Statue of Liberty: Rah-rah Americans could not claim kinship with the demonstrators in China. The truth is, the Goddess of Democracy was inspired, in large measure, by the Statue of Liberty.
Money for the memorial in Washington came from various quarters, especially the Vietnamese, Baltic, and Hungarian communities in this country. While he was president, George W. Bush was asked to serve as honorary chairman of VOC — and he did. It was he who spoke at the dedication of the memorial, in June 2007. Forgive me for wondering: Would his successor have done so? What would he have said?
In a monumental city, the Victims of Communism memorial is modest — small-scale — but stirring and apt. Its sculptor is Thomas Marsh, not just an artist but a believer: He waived his fee in sculpting this memorial. And let me say, in a gratuitous aside, that he is a longtime and warmly admiring subscriber to National Review. Every year, VOC gives a Truman-Reagan medal, in honor of anti-Communist champions, or, better, champions of freedom. Among the recipients is William F. Buckley Jr., the late founder of this magazine.
On a muggy morning — typical in Washington — a modest but hardy crowd gathers around the memorial for the 20th-anniversary ceremony. In the air is an array of accents and languages. You can tell, from this array, what peoples have been subjugated by Communists. I’m reminded of an evening I once attended at the Czech embassy here. It was presided over by Václav Havel. His guest list was heavy with his fellow former political prisoners, from far and wide: Russia, Vietnam, China, Cuba, etc. At the VOC ceremony, there are a few people in native dress (“captive-nations-wear” is the strange term that occurs to me). What press there is looks foreign.
In the speeches, there is much citing of Milan Kundera: “The struggle of man against power is the struggle of memory against forgetting.” Anti-Communists always lay great stress on memory: on resistance to airbrushing and falsification. A leading Russian civil-society group is called, simply, “Memorial.”
And yet Communism is more than a memory, more than a historical fact. “It continues to rule one-fifth of the world’s people,” says VOC literature. Populous China sees to that. One of the speakers at the ceremony is Jianli Yang, the Chinese democracy activist. He reads a portion of the Gettysburg Address, saying that it would ring fresh in Tiananmen Square. Another speaker is Shin Dong-hyuk, the “only known escapee from North Korea’s Camp 14.” (Actually, he is too ill to attend the ceremony, and his remarks are read by a spokesman.) He says, “Though I was born inside a prison camp, a prison camp was not born inside me.”
On the program is a congressman’s name — Shimkus. I think, “Why does it always have to be someone with a name like Shimkus who cares?” Then again, a congressman named Smith — Chris Smith of New Jersey — is one of the foremost human-rights champions in politics. (With my luck, however, his mother’s maiden name is Wozniak.)
In awarding the Truman-Reagan Medal this year, VOC has gone timely — giving the medal to two figures from Ukraine. One is Mustafa Dzhemilev, the leader of the Crimean Tatars. He was a political prisoner in the Soviet Union and is now a member of the Ukrainian parliament. The other awardee is Myroslav Marynovych, also a former political prisoner and a longtime democracy activist. He gives a moving speech, ending with a remark about standing on “the free land of blest America.”
Now it’s time for VOC’s annual roll call of nations, and the wreath-laying that goes with it: Representatives of some 20 nations and 20 organizations will lay a wreath at the memorial. I find this ritual both hokey and painfully sad.
After, there is a luncheon, hosted by the Austrian and Hungarian embassies (as well as VOC). A congressman named Ross speaks — Dennis Ross of Florida. He has a Hungarian mother. There is also a senator named Cruz — Ted Cruz of Texas, who speaks of his family’s tribulations in Cuba. At a panel later there is a congressman with the straightforwardly American name of Andy Harris — but his father was a Hungarian tossed into the Soviet Gulag; his mother was a Ukrainian refugee. Next at the rostrum is Congresswoman Marcy Kaptur — who tells an amazing story about a trip she took with her mother in 1973. They went to Soviet Ukraine, looking for relatives.
All of these congressmen “get it,” to use a too-common modern phrase: They understand Communism. So do the congressmen who speak at an evening event — the Cuban Americans from Miami, Ileana Ros-Lehtinen and Mario Diaz-Balart. They get it in spades. Marynovych, from Ukraine, gives one more speech. He takes up the old and vexing question, “Why was Nazism appropriately branded and Communism not?” He says, “Europe has always treated the two totalitarianisms differently: The Nazi regime was considered absolute evil while the Communist regime [in Moscow] looked like the Slavonic spoiling of an excellent idea.”
A Vietnamese dissident, Cu Huy Ha Vu, apologizes for his poor English. His excuse is that he was released from prison only two months ago. His foreign languages may be a little rusty. He uses a translator, but then says, in English, his voice rising, “I’m ready to fight Communism to the end, all over the world!” He also says that democratic countries should help sufferers and strugglers in undemocratic ones.
VOC has a couple of goals. One, it is realizing even now: an oral-history project under the heading “Witness.” Victims of Communism, or survivors of Communism, give their testimonies, on video. The organization also intends to build a museum in Washington, something akin, I gather, to the Holocaust Museum. They would like to break ground by October 2017, the centennial of the Bolsheviks’ takeover. The Hungarian government has pledged $1 million to the enterprise.
People often say that museums of this kind are necessary to prevent crimes against humanity in the future. I’m not sure. There will always be genocidalists, or would-be genocidalists, and totalitarians, or would-be totalitarians. A museum is powerless to stop them. But a museum can certainly record the truth. Victims, survivors, long for the truth to be known.
On my way to the morning ceremony, I passed a young man in a Che Guevara T-shirt. (On your way to anything, you pass a person in a Che Guevara T-shirt.) What if he knew about Guevara? Would he still wear the shirt? In our schools and universities, even the leading monsters of Communism tend to get off lightly. And those monsters are Stalin and Mao, although Pol Pot should not be snubbed.
Some years ago, I interviewed Robert Conquest, the author of The Great Terror (and a Truman-Reagan winner). In colloquial British English, he said, “They’re still talking absolute balls. In the academy, there remains a feeling of, ‘Don’t let’s be too rude to Stalin. He was a bad guy, yes, but the Americans were bad guys too, and so was the British Empire.’” In China, the Party line is that Mao was 70 percent good and 30 percent bad. What does the average American Sinologist teach? 50–50? (Stalin and Mao are responsible for almost 100 million deaths all by themselves. The Guevaras, in comparison, are minnows.)
Rarely do I feel more at home than among the anti-Communists. They are my tribe, or archipelago of tribes. I have always been drawn to them, I think, because they tell the truth. They abide by the Solzhenitsyn doctrine “Live not by lies.” And people in the Free World — to say nothing of the unfree world — are always lying about Communism. No one lies about Nazism, outside of David Irving and the Iranian government. Many lie about Communism.
I remember when Armando Valladares, the “Cuban Solzhenitsyn,” emerged from that tropical gulag to tell the truth about Cuba. Students and professors around me hated him, for his disturbance of their illusions about Castro. Later, people hated Jung Chang, for disturbing their illusions about Mao. Last year, by the way, she was asked in an interview, “What one thing would you change in China?” She said, “Say goodbye to Mao. Take down Mao’s portrait from Tiananmen Square.” I know other Chinese democrats who wish this supremely.
At the VOC luncheon, Ted Cruz said, simply, “Thank you for telling the truth.” In fact, he said it twice. I say it, too. Thank you.