Across the street from the Lubyanka prison, in Moscow, there stood in 1937 a nondescript building with a specially sloped floor, for drainage, and a wooden wall to muffle the sound of bullets. It was here that the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, executed enemies of the Communist regime. Between 1937 and 1938 this amounted to the deaths of at least 700,000 people, according to the Russian Memorial society. Among the victims were Nikolai Bukharin, once one of the chief Soviet economists; Mikhail Tukhachevsky, a Marshal of the Soviet Union; Genrikh Yagoda, former head of the secret police; and hundreds of thousands of ordinary people. Those who were not murdered outright were frequently deported to the Gulag prison camps, based on the katorga system that had existed under the tsars. These were scattered throughout Siberia and in 1939 housed over a million people, slowly freezing or being worked to death in some of the most hostile environments on earth.
Other crimes of the Communist regime in the Soviet Union include a terror famine in the Ukraine in 1933, the Holodomor, which killed well over a million people; a more general 1932—33 famine caused by Stalin’s efforts to force farmers onto collectives; and various crimes against humanity perpetrated during the Russian Civil War, most prominently the use of chemical weapons and heavy artillery against peasants rebelling in protest of food requisition (the 1920-21 Tambov Rebellion). According to “The Black Book of Communism,” a 1997 history of Communist atrocities that made use of recently opened state archives, by the time of its fall in 1991 the government of the Soviet Union had caused the deaths of some 15 to 20 million people. This does not include the deaths and misery suffered by the inhabitants of Soviet puppet states in Eastern Europe and the Third World, in which the names of the secret polices read like a nightmarish roll call: the Securitate, the AVH, the Stasi.
Now, if you’ve been on the University of Chicago’s campus for the past two weeks or so, the above information may surprise you, because you’re now aware that “everything you know about Communism is wrong.” The statistics and figures that have been compiled over the decades by reputable historians working to ascertain the truth about Communist regimes must be incorrect (which makes sense, seeing as they’re capitalists, and we all know that historians make the big captain of industry bucks). The true blazing light of historical verity can only be found in the agate lamp of the Revolutionary Communist Party, represented on our campus last week by Mr. Raymond Lotta, and the strange and glorious version of the past with which it sees fit to present us.
Thus we hear that the Soviet Union was “only country in the 1930s that stood against anti-Semitism,” which is true insofar as Stalin cheerfully set aside swampland in far eastern Siberia as a homeland for Russia’s Jews, cooperated with Nazi Germany, and after the war went about executing prominent Jewish leaders (including 23 poets and engineers on the single night of August 12, 1952). The Soviets also, we are assured, supported the ambitions of their country’s non-Russian ethnic groups to an unprecedented degree, which explains why they were unwilling to let go of any of the oppressed territories of the former tsarist empire (and in fact re-annexed some of the few that got away, the three Baltic republics, in 1940) and systematically brutalized non-Russian peoples, including the murder of hundreds of thousands of anti-Communist Cossacks and the campaign of Russification in the Soviet Central Asian territories to the extent that, even today, a vast majority of Kazakhs speak Russian.
In fairness to Lotta, however, he is a Maoist scholar (“I’m pretty well-schooled in Mao’s works,” he says, “let me tell you”–and he does) and thus can’t perhaps be expected to have a very solid grasp of things like Soviet policy at any point in the country’s history. He did manage to discover that President Eisenhower in his “1952 inaugural address”–apparently delivered before Eisenhower’s January 20, 1953, inauguration–“threatened to use atomic weapons against the People’s Republic of China,” something which cannot be found in the text itself but which is certainly in keeping with its spirit. (Sample sentences: “We stand ready to engage with any and all others in joint effort to remove the causes of mutual fear and distrust among nations…” and “We shall never use our strength to try to impress upon another people our own cherished political and economic institutions.”)
Those of us in attendance at Lotta’s presentation were also invited to explore the possibility that the 1966—76 Chinese Cultural Revolution represented “the high point of socialist revolution in the twentieth century,” that it included “massive political and intellectual debate,” and that “high-ranking capitalists,” who somehow still existed in a country that had been racked by war for thirty years and which had long since done away with all of its industrial titans, “planned” most of the violence that occurred during this period. This world doesn’t quite jive with the one in which those who lived through the period (and the current Chinese government) inform us that the Cultural Revolution forced thousands of teachers and students onto collective farms, burned enough books to power a fleet of coal-fired airships, and killed over a million people, but that’s no doubt the result of capitalist lies. Lotta also somehow forgot to mention Western misconceptions of the Great Leap Forward, a collectivization policy pursued between 1958 and 1961 that resulted in the deaths of tens of millions via famine.
This is a highly entertaining and, in many ways, kinder and fuzzier version of history than that which we are accustomed to. Sadly, it’s also a total mischaracterization of the nature of the Soviet Union, the early People’s Republic of China, and other Communist states. I wish I could believe that our facts were indeed wrong, because a world in which, as Lotta asserted, “people were viewing their actions through the moral lens of serving others,” wouldn’t seem to me like such a bad place to live. Alas, the past doesn’t go away when you don’t look at it. For those of us who choose to examine it, there are two possibilities: either Communist governments in the twentieth century killed millions upon millions of people, or all those people disappeared as the result of alien abduction or relocation to a series of underground caves. This–not that you can’t buy as much chocolate as you want, nor that there aren’t as many channels on TV–is the real reason why “Communism is bad.” There are a hundred million plots of turned earth in Siberia and the Yangtze plain that, when Lotta denies what happened to their inhabitants, protest the injustice with a great, silent howl.