On June 16, I witnessed the opening of a new museum in Washington, D.C., that will have special interest for Ukrainians.
While many schools teach a new generation about communism with photos of Josef Stalin and Chairman Mao, young people lack knowledge about the philosophy, legacy and cruelties of the totalitarian regimes. In order to provide this knowledge, the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation launched the online Global Museum of Communism.
Memories of the terror that took 100 million lives have faded with each with each generation and changing governments.
Many people perceive communism either as a story from Hollywood movies or, more dangerously, as a “progressive” system which gave millions of people new opportunities in the form of education, better health care and others. However, they forget that the new opportunities were built on the bones of millions of victims.
It is necessary to keep in mind that totalitarian systems are always based not only on KGB and police, but also on millions of sincere supporters, believers and followers of communism ideology. Totalitarian regimes usually come to power at time of economic hardship. That is why it is especially important nowadays to focus not only on solving economic problems, but also on teaching history to our kids.
“Our children must learn about the past in order to understand the present,” said Aldona Wos, a former U.S. ambassador to Estonia, at the wreath-laying ceremony of to the Victims of Communism Memorial.
In addition to teaching history, the museum will also monitor human rights violations and other current crimes of communism in China, Cuba, North Korea, Vietnam, Tibet and Laos.
“Communism as a totalitarian ideology is adjusting and embracing into new forms,” said Wos, describing modern communism. Communists are successful in China. They are hiding under the term “socialists” in Europe. They participate in new crimes in Tibet and are close to the United States, ruling Cuba. Wos was born in Poland and has first-hand experience of the totalitarian society and its cruelties towards human beings. “It brings destruction of population, cultures, personalities and even environment,” she said.
History has shown that communism can be defeated. “We have already lost 1.6 million lives in Tibet. This event gives me the hope that one day communism will fall down in my country,” Tencho Gyatso from the Save Tibet organization told the Kyiv Post.
Embassies, non-government organizations and ethnic communities brought fresh-flower wreaths to the Victims of Communism Memorial. The event also included Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom award ceremony.
The foundation has been working not only to honor 100 million victims, the estimate of the number of people killed under communist regimes, but to create awareness about the heroes and fighters.
The foundation annually gives the Truman-Reagan Medal of Freedom to those people who have demonstrated a lifelong commitment to freedom and democracy. This year the award goes to the Majority Leader Rep. Steny Hoyer, a Maryland Democrat; Bishop Laszlo Tokes of Romania and the late former Republican politician Jack Kemp. Past recipients included Pope John Paul II, Elena Bonner, Vaclav Havel, Lech Walesa and other fighters against communism.
At the event, you could meet the survivors who lived at the time of communism and whose life stories reflect world history.
Romuald Lipinski was a 14-year-old minor when he was deported from his native Poland to Altai, Russia, with his parents. After a while they were given amnesty and the opportunity to join the Polish Army, which was fighting against the Nazis together with the British Army.
He still has the ability to speak Russian, which he learned in deportation, and reads Russian novels. “I was lucky. I got typhus, but my father [a health-care professional] had many different samples of Western medications which were not available in the Soviet Union. I was treated in probably the best possible way in that land, even though we were in deportation,” Lipinski told the Kyiv Post. His father also joined the army as a doctor, later emigrating to the United Kingdom. Their native town became a part of Soviet Belarus and the family did not consider returning home.
Embassies of Ukraine, Romania, Albania, Croatia, Czech Republic, Estonia, Germany, Hungary, Latvia, Lithuania, Macedonia, Poland, Philippines and Slovak Republic together with a number of associations and nongovernmental organizations supported the day of commemoration of victims and heroes.
Even though it was one of the most affected nations, the second after China in terms of the number of deaths under communism, Russia was not represented at the event. “We invited them. We contacted the Russian Embassy and NGOs. It is their choice to come or not. I hope that one day they will be with us,” Lee Edwards, the chairman of the foundation, said.
What will our children know about communism? Will the lack of understanding cause new victims of communism? Will the totalitarian political system become history or will it persist? It depends on us. Direct your children to GlobalMuseumOnCommunism.Org.
Yuliya Melnyk is the Kyiv Post’s Washington correspondent.