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The former Berlin Wall, along Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles, April 21, 2020.Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images
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How Americans Forgot Communism

Only those who lived in its shadow seem to be worried about contemporary parallels

Mary Mycio
August 04, 2021
Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images
The former Berlin Wall, along Wilshire Blvd. in Los Angeles, April 21, 2020.Keith Birmingham/MediaNews Group/Pasadena Star-News via Getty Images

When communism collapsed in Europe 30 years ago, it seemed vanquished. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics turned out to be none of those things and broke into 15 independent countries. After the fall of the Berlin Wall, McDonald’s replaced Marx, and no one argued anymore that real communism still hadn’t been tried.

But old, familiar ideas are making a comeback on both sides of what used to be a great ideological divide. In Russia, Josef Stalin’s approval rating recently reached an all-time high. Meanwhile, American millennials’ stated approval of communism and socialism has been steadily rising in polls. After the fascism panic of Donald Trump’s presidency, driven and capitalized on by the media and publishing industries, it’s not surprising that the American left often sees historical evil even in ordinary populism. That the 20th century’s other murderous totalitarianism is gaining popularity in response, however, is alarming.

Some attribute this trend to the failures of capitalism after the Great Recession, which gave rise to the popularity of Sen. Bernie Sanders and his own brand of socialism, which he claims to be like Denmark’s (which isn’t actually socialist). Another reason may be that the United States simply hasn’t had a communism panic for more than a generation. And why should it? Who cares about a defeated adversary? After 1991, the Reds weren’t coming for anyone. Then again, Nazis haven’t enjoyed a reputational bounce back since their defeat the way the Soviets have. There is no Godwin’s law for Stalin.

A better explanation is that Americans and others across the West have simply forgotten about it all, or never learned about it in the first place: the Soviet dictators, the purges and terror, the dissidents and refuseniks, the gulags and famines and genocides, the millions shot, starved, worked, and frozen to death. All of it hardly exists in our common imagination. Most Americans have no idea what Soviet communism, which was still around relatively recently, actually looked like.

Communism and Nazism both used state violence to commit mass murder and impose a single ideology on entire populations, but they did it for different reasons. Put simply in contemporary terms, the Nazis imposed inequality to achieve racial supremacy, while the Soviets imposed equality to achieve a universal utopia. Both murdered millions, but the Soviet project naturally found more gullibly receptive audiences abroad over a longer period of time.

To take a relevant metaphor, Americans have a certain herd immunity to Nazism and fascism. The early warning signs have been deeply etched into our psyches with the rich and terrible tapestry of books, movies, and art about the Holocaust. Like T-cells in the immune system, constant exposure to the legacy of fascism is part of our cultural memory. We know what it looks like and where it leads, and we have the antibodies to stave it off. It persists on the margins, of course. But it’s far from mainstream.

The same doesn’t hold for communism. It’s not that we’re on the verge of Red Dawn. But after a generation of forgetting, we have few cultural T-cells left to recognize coercive unanimity, punitive group think, and other warning signs when they appear in the body politic. It seems only those who experienced the Cold War or lived through communism firsthand have the cultural memory to worry about the current moment.

There is no Godwin’s law for Stalin.

Americans didn’t forget the USSR immediately. It took about a decade. Plenty of ink was spilled on the seemingly natural and preordained triumph of capitalism, democracy, and the West, such as Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. Along with many idealists and carpetbaggers who headed to the post-Soviet “Wild East,” I never actually read Fukuyama’s book. But the idea was in the air. Even a lefty Democrat like me, who despised Ronald Reagan and most of what he stood for, was seduced by the neoliberal mantra.

In January 1991, just after the start of the Gulf War, I moved to the Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. I wanted to witness history. Less than a year later, I did: Our tiny group of Kyiv expats celebrated Christmas in an independent Ukraine by listening to Mikhail Gorbachev declare the Soviet Union dead. For a Ukrainian immigrant kid from Long Island, who grew up in the shadow of war, gulags, and ethnic cleansing, it was exhilarating to witness the birth of my ancestral homeland as a new country.

But the promise of independence was burdened by the Soviet legacy. In the heart of what Timothy Snyder called the Bloodlands, Ukraine was the deadliest place on earth for much of the 20th century, and each acre buries an atrocity. Three consecutive generations suffered perpetual trauma in a society built on lies and horror. “Life is getting more joyful,” Stalin proclaimed in 1935, after engineering a famine that killed nearly 4 million Ukrainians.

The rubble of that memory surrounded me for years. Every decade or so, Ukrainians pulled down a bunch of Lenin statues. By now most of them are gone, though a graveyard of Soviet monuments used to stand outside the former Museum of Kyiv. I always thought the torn-down Lenins should have been rounded up and kept in a park in Chernobyl, where the regime’s lies about the 1986 nuclear disaster helped lead to its demise five years later.

After 16 years of life in post-Soviet dysfunction, I moved back to the United States in 2007, and looked forward to living in what Ukrainians called a “normal country,” where traffic police actually police traffic instead of soliciting bribes. Then, a year later, the economy crashed. It turned out that endemic corruption was not unique to former communist lands, but had thoroughly penetrated American finance and industry to the benefit of a very few. Inequality suddenly became a nationwide concern, of which Occupy Wall Street was just one outgrowth. What was then a revelation is now conventional wisdom: Income inequality in the United States was low for several decades after the New Deal, rose modestly in the 1980s, and then exploded after 1992. But why 1992? At the time, no one seemed to notice or care.

I thought it was obvious. It was the year in which Americans rejoiced in the Soviet Union’s collapse, the triumph of free markets, and victory in the Cold War. Capitalism no longer required converts from opposing systems; it could simply run wild. Americans no longer had to wonder what they could do for their country, only what their country could do for them. Individuals didn’t have to do anything—just buy stuff. Shows like Seinfeld had never really appealed to me, but now they clicked: They weren’t about anything, and nothing mattered. That was the joke.

“Without the Cold War, what’s the point of being an American?” wrote John Updike in 1990. Evidently, not much. Nearly three decades later, Snyder observed that Americans convinced themselves their Cold War triumph had been inevitable, and so they “raised a millennial generation without history.” The result has been a profound cultural amnesia.

Without art, imagery, and emotion bringing them to life, it is hard to convey the very particular horrors of Soviet crimes. The victims of communism still haven’t emerged from anonymous numbers into the realm of tangible human tragedy. Stalin was evidently right when he observed that “One death is a tragedy, a million deaths a statistic.” Something about this time and place still isn’t accessible to Americans.

One important reason is that most people don’t learn history from lectures or books. They pick it up from television, movies, and entertainment. Hogan’s Heroes taught baby boomers to laugh at Nazi Germany, and a new generation learned about its horrors from Schindler’s List. By contrast, little of communist history has ever penetrated popular American media. The Death of Stalin made fun of the USSR, while The Americans glamorized it. Most of the crumbs of communist memory that make it into American culture have no real connection to history. The few exceptions—such as Mr. Jones, the powerful 2019 film about the Ukrainian famine—tend to be culturally marginalized.

Unless you actively search for them, you won’t find your way to many films or documentaries about the USSR, except about the often-romanticized Russian Revolution. Even the rare Cold War film is usually about spies, another romanticized subject. Compare that with the dozens or hundreds of titles like Hitler’s Circle of Evil that you often find without even looking for them. Of course, there is very good reason for the persistence of art and documentation about the Nazis. But the dearth of interest in or material about Nazism’s twin totalitarianism has had consequences.

Why does any of this matter? Isn’t fascism the real and present danger? In 2016, after Trump’s election, I thought it clearly was. Now, I’m not so sure. The current woke movement to me is like a zombie communism that survived by hiding out in academe—the only place where communism could thrive in the United States after its rejection by the vast majority of Americans, including by the working class. Defeated on the issue of class, this living dead communism now metes out punishment to ideological opponents by policing thought and bullying nonbelievers on divisive issues like racial and gender identities.

The zombie communism also continues the tradition of demanding betrayals of familial and communal trust for the sake of the “greater good,” which is usually understood as the state. Only someone familiar with the nasty Soviet practice of ratting on neighbors to the KGB felt the chill when New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio asked people to report their fellow citizens for COVID violations by sending photos of offenders to the city government.

When nearly 70% of college students believe that professors should be reported for saying something that students find “offensive,” is it surprising that nearly the same percentage of Americans are afraid to share their political views with each other? We are discovering the lesson that the Soviets and their victims learned long ago—that fear of social disapproval, especially when it’s enforced by government and the media, breeds self-censorship and obedience, and robs society of its ability to discuss and assess reality. When the monolith of progressive politicians, journalists, academics, experts, and self-proclaimed fact checkers spent over a year excoriating anyone who considered the possibility that the pandemic began as a lab leak in China, it was hard not to think of the privileged Western press in Moscow in the 1930s, led by The New York Times’ Walter Duranty, destroying the credibility of Welsh journalist Gareth Jones for telling the truth about the famine in Ukraine.

For a lifelong liberal, it feels quaint to raise alarms about political movements that remind me of the communist era, like simultaneously pearl-clutching and Red-baiting. Even referring to the words “communist” and “Bolshevik” as pejoratives makes you sound old-fashioned and uncool. But anti-communism was never cool. It was simply correct. It’s time to remember why.

Mary Mycio is the author of Wormwood Forest: A Natural History of Chernobyl (2005) and the forthcoming Dictionary of the Mother Tongue: A Modern Mystery about Prehistory. Her writing has appeared in the Los Angeles Times, Natural History, Newsday, Salon, Slate, and Politico.