This month marks 31 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War in Europe. While many young people alive today have little knowledge of what that bipolar world was like and just how terrifying the prospect of communist rule was, the Victims of Communism Museum is striving to change that and tell the story of those who faced brutal communist oppression during the 20th century. Opened in June in the heart of Washington, D.C., the $40 million project funded by both private donations and money from the Hungarian, Polish, Estonian, Lithuania and Latvian governments preserves the memory of the 100 million people who perished at the hands of communist regimes – and the 1.5 billion people globally who still suffer under communist rule.
In a direct and purposeful contrast to the dehumanizing nature of communism, the museum uses personal accounts to guide visitors through the history of communism and its devastating impact on the world. As they move through three galleries, visitors hear from real survivors of communism and learn personal details about some who perished in political prisons and labor camps.
The first gallery covers the origins and early days of communism, from the writings of Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels through the Russian Revolution in 1917. Displays about the ideological origins of communism draw a distinct and direct line from Marx and Engels through to Stalin, Mao, and other 20th century dictators. Current photos of child soldiers in Nicaragua and concentration camps in North Korea serve as a stark reminder that communism is alive and well in many parts of the world – including China, the world’s most populous country, where millions of Uyghur Muslims have been forced into “reeducation camps.”
The second gallery, titled “Repression,” describes the evolution of communist regimes, specifically the developments of gulags throughout the Soviet Union. Through first-hand accounts and physical evidence of labor camps, the museum gives a voice to the millions whom communist regimes tried to erase from history. While statistics still play an important role in teaching museum visitors about the evils of communism, the exhibits are meticulously curated to avoid reducing victims to just a number.
The third gallery focuses on the heroic fight against communism, and how that fight continues to this day. An interactive display invites visitors to weigh the difficult questions that real people faced under communism and learn what those people did to survive. The walls tell stories of individual sacrifices made to free countries from communist rule and resist the regime, from underground churches in Poland to the coalition soldiers who helped keep South Korea free.
The museum is part of the ongoing educational and commemorative efforts of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC). Authorized by a 1993 Act of Congress, the foundation seeks to remember victims of communism as well as helping those who suffer under it today. The foundation’s work is multifaceted, ranging from erecting memorials to conducting research and teaching people about life under communism.
As the museum now welcomes visitors from all over the world, other groups and political leaders are also making a concerted effort to preserve the memory of the victims of communism. On November 7, Florida marked its first “Victims of Communism Memorial Day,” becoming the fifth state, after Alabama, Texas, Utah, and Virginia, to recognize the day. Eight other state legislatures are considering similar resolutions. Additionally, both Florida and Arizona are now requiring that schools teach their students about communist dictatorships around the world.
Public polling data shows that now more than ever, it is urgent that we raise awareness of the evils of communism. According to the VOC’s 2020 Report on U.S. Attitudes Toward Socialism, Communism, and Collectivism, positive perceptions of socialism and communism are on the rise, especially among young people. 40% of Americans expressed a “favorable view” of socialism, including 49% of Gen Z (people ages 16-23). This was up from 2019, where 36% of all Americans and 40% of Gen Z had a favorable view of socialism. Similarly, 2021 Gallup poll shows 65% of Democrats reporting a “positive view” of socialism, up over 10% from 2012, while only 14% of Republicans were positive about socialism. A full 18% of Gen Z and 13% of Millennials said communism was a fairer system than capitalism. Additionally, 30% of Gen Z and 27% of Millennials (ages 24-39), had a favorable view of Marxism – the very root of communist ideology.
But while views on socialism may have changed, the facts have not. The dark and tragic history of communism still exists, even if some in our society now try to write it out of the history books. In order to finally stamp out the scourge of communist rule and ensure that the world never returns to it, it will be up to us to preserve the memory of those who perished fighting it, and leave a true and accurate record for future generations to consult and learn from the horrors we have seen.
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