March 5, 2013
Israeli political leader Natan Scharansky remembers this day sixty years ago vividly. He was a kindergartener living in a crowded Moscow apartment then. His father woke him up to hear the news: Stalin was dead. The man who ruled twelve times zone with an iron grip for twenty-five years had died in his Kremlin apartments. Scharansky’s father whispered to him that when the children in school cry, you cry. When they compose songs and poems to the Communist leader, you join in. But remember this: Stalin was going to send all of us Jews to Siberia.
It was necessary for that father to whisper those words to his little boy because he could not be sure that the other apartment dwellers, with whom the Scharanskys shared a kitchen and a bathroom, would not turn him in to the NKVD, Stalin’s secret police predecessor of the KGB.
I grew up in the shadow of the USSR. As a young boy, I envisioned an Iron Curtain looking like a venetian blind, closing off an entire people. There was much to fear in those days. Even as a grade school student, I had heard about the concerns of my parents, our relatives. Stalin had gotten the atomic bomb, we were told, by stealing America’s secrets. Our Polish-American relatives were especially concerned about Poland under Stalin’s rule. World War II, fought for such high ideals by America and Britain, had “liberated” the Poles from Nazi rule, only to see them slip behind that Iron Curtain.
My dad woke me up, too, to hear the CBS World News Roundup relating the news of Stalin’s death. My father had been to the USSR as an American merchant seaman. He told me that the American crew of his ship that docked in Leningrad (now St. Petersburg) were held on a bus before being allowed to visit the famous Hermitage. This tsarist palace had been converted to an art museum.
The Soviets went through the list of American seamen. Anyone with a German-sounding name was taken off the bus and ordered back on board his ship. For the rest, they were conveyed in a bus with windows papered over. My father described the long hallways of the Hermitage. The floors were parquet and the walls were plastered white with real gold decorations. The paintings on the walls were priceless canvases by Rembrandt, Rubens, Titian and other Renaissance artists.
Afterward, the Americans were taken to a canteen, where they got to dance with uniformed Russian women. My dad said none of them spoke English and they seemed afraid to be seen with foreigners.
Those women had good reason to fear. No one knew in the USSR when Stalin might decide to have everyone shot who had consorted with Americans—even though he had ordered them to do it.
Hollywood then and now made a joke of Stalin’s purges. “We will have fewer, but better, Russians,” says famed actress Greta Garbo in the hit 1939 comedy “Ninotchka.” The movie posters said: “Garbo laughs!” Few Russians off the screen laughed in those days.
Historian Timothy Snyder’s grim volume, Bloodlands: Europe between Hitler and Stalin, tells why. This book tells the story of millions of people being killed by their own governments. Stalin’s purges in the 1930s destroyed millions of Byelorussians, Ukrainians, and Russians. He deported whole peoples to Siberia, including Volga Germans who had farmed peacefully along that river for two hundred years, including Crimean Tartars. Snyder puts the death toll in these Bloodlands at fourteen million.
The history of the Holocaust is well known, and should be. The fate of six million Jews was a singular horror of Hitler’s Third Reich. But less well known is Stalin’s Gulag, where uncounted millions also died. Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn recorded the story of the Gulag Archipelago in three massive volumes. Some of the “islands” in this allegorical chain of islands—Stalin’s slave labor camps—were as small as a telephone booth at a railway station. Big enough to shove you in to arrest you. Other islands were larger than metropolitan France. Freezing, starving, this is how most of Stalin’s victims died. But there were also the Killing Fields of Kiev. Day and night, for more than ten years, trucks would bring Stalin’s prisoners to be shot outside this Ukrainian capital city.
Stalin’s vast empire stretched from Vladivostok in the East to the borders of West Germany. He also had millions of sympathizers in the West, people who admired his project of building socialism in his sphere and wanted to bring the decadent democracies under his control. In the French National Assembly, when a debate resulted in fistfights, a left wing delegate denounced the many Communists who had been freely elected, he yelled: “You are not of the left, but of the East!” He meant, you are not real socialists, but Stalinists.
Why recall all this now? What has Stalin to do with us in 2013? President Roosevelt hoped that Stalin’s early training as an Orthodox Priest might make him behave “as a Christian gentleman ought to behave.” FDR was spectacularly wrong in that assessment.
But was he any more wrong than Secretary of State John Kerry is today? Kerry went to Egypt and doled out another $250 million in foreign aid to Mohamed Morsi and his Muslim Brotherhood cohorts. These people run U.S.-supplied armored personnel carriers over unarmed demonstrators. Muslims who protest the new jihadist government are being suppressed. So are millions of Coptic Christians.
The United States must borrow that $250 million from Communist China—a regime that never disavowed its allegiance to Stalin. And for what? So that our fellow Christians might be murdered by an ideology of slavery and murder? All over North Africa and the Middle East, Christians are fleeing from the jihadis whom the Obama administration is supplying. Another $60 million has just been showered on the Syrian opposition to the tyrant in Damascus. But that opposition contains elements that are tied to al Qaeda.
One thing can be said for America’s victory in World War II. We took the unconditional surrender of our enemies. Perhaps that’s because we were only funding one side in that war.
Knowing something of the history of cruelty and oppression of the last century should make us all the more determined to preserve, protect and defend America—this last best hope of men on earth.