I somehow missed the fact that October marked the one-hundredth anniversary of the birth of communism. Communism is not something I tend to dwell on, having grown up overhearing the soft conversations of adults discussing, with deliberately vague and carefully chosen words, the “bad things” that were happening in Russia and China; conversations about the domino effect and the Dulles brothers; hearing the names of tiny countries in southeast Asia that would later become unhappy household words in American homes; hearing—and seeing a photograph in the newspaper—about women and boys being murdered in a place called Yugoslavia because they threw rocks at tanks.
“But Daddy, aren’t tanks made out of metal? How could a rock hurt the tank?” And my father would try to explain, in his inimitable style of talking to, never down to, a child as he might an adult, only with slightly simpler words.
Only a few years later, when I was thirteen (the year the Berlin Wall went up, in fact) a friend and I, a German boy of fifteen, tramped and hitchhiked through Yugoslavia during a great and glorious summer adventure my father allowed me to take part in, and unlike every other country we passed through on that remarkable adventure that unforgettable summer, the peasant farmers we saw in the fields of Yugoslavia never hailed us or even waved. Instead they leaned on their tools, or stopped their teams (there were damned few tractors even in western Europe in those hard, post-war years) and stared at us—just stared, as if we were things not quite unknown, but not quite human enough to merit any interaction. Pancho (my German friend’s real name was Dieter, but for obscure reasons his nickname was Pancho) and I had waved at first, but we soon gave it up, defeated by the blank, unresponsive stares; not hostile, just completely emotionless, as if the lessons of survival under the tender mercies of communism (Don’t give them anything they can hang a label on. Don’t wave back. Don’t react in any way. You don’t know who they are or what they might be. Just pretend they don’t exist.) had been learned so quickly in just the few short years between those newspaper accounts and our long trek down that grey land.
And for the most part, we did cease to exist. The only conversation I do recall in that country was when the authorities confiscated our money for some reason. By the grace of God (who was not supposed to exist under the communists) they missed the little safety stash I had hidden in a leather pouch around my neck, but it was hardly enough to get us through. In Greece, people smiled and waved and invited us into their homes to share their meals—and Pancho, who was very blonde and very handsome, became an object of great interest to the beautiful young black-haired, black-eyed girls in those tiny houses—bakers gave us the burned loaves, and farmers handed us tomatoes and grapes right off the vine, otherwise we would have gone hungry. But in Yugoslavia we didn’t exist, and we went hungry.
I saw my first hammer-and-sickle in Yugoslavia. We hiked more than hitched, because there were so few automotive vehicles of any kind. And I attributed my discomfort in that country in part to the photograph I remembered, and the remembered conversations of what had happened, and the other conversations I had not been supposed to hear, and I couldn’t wait to get to Greece. But now, looking back, I think I also picked up in some way on the despair and fear of the people who wouldn’t talk to us. How could one not?
That was my experience of life—if you can call it that—under communism. But what I saw was the good side. Let us now, on this one-hundredth anniversary of the creation of the great utopia of shared bounty and perfect equality in a worker’s paradise, take a quick look at just a tiny bit of what communism achieved in the twentieth century.
In the USSR, under Stalin (note that it is under Stalin exclusively; the number does not include other, comparatively less heavy-handed, rulers of the USSR) twenty-million (20,000,000) people were exterminated. That is the conservative estimate; Alexander Solzhenitsyn (who managed to survive both imprisonment and a labor camp) estimated sixty-million (60,000,000). Other sources that include the numbers of those who were allowed to die of starvation, as opposed to being actively murdered, put the estimate even higher.
In China, under Chairman Mao, the labor camps were relatively benign, being responsible for only a paltry, estimated, over ten-million (10,000,000+) deaths, but when it comes to famine, ah, there we can all learn of the joys of life under a real Communist Leader when he rolls up his sleeves and puts his mind to it. It is hard to nail down an accurate number, but the conservative—conservative!—estimate is that Uncle Mao knowingly allowed (most historians claim he deliberately and actively encouraged) approximately thirty-five-million (35,000,000) of his people to starve to death during the Great Famine (1959-1963), so that including the executed, the labor camps, the famine, and various noble social reforms of other Chinese leaders, the estimate is somewhere between sixty-five-million (65,000,000) to seventy-five-million (75,000,000) killed between 1949 and today.
The People’s Paradise of good old North Korea seems like Disneyland by comparison, though of course that unhappy land had far fewer people to murder to begin with, so you can’t blame them for not competing with the big boys. Nonetheless, an estimated three-million and up (3,000,000+) murdered one way or another isn’t bad.
Cambodia, under fun-loving Pol Pot, managed to do almost as well, with over two-million-six-hundred-thousand (2,600,000+) murdered, but most of those were murdered pretty horrifically. (Note for research: is there a way to murder one’s citizens wholesale that is not horrific?)
Afghanistan and Vietnam both come in at around one-million-seven-hundred-thousand (1,700,000) people murdered by their respective Communist regimes.
Ethiopia managed to kill over one-million-three-hundred-thousand (1,300,000+) people, some by active means, some by starvation.
The list of communist countries where death has had a field day continues, with staggering numbers: Yugoslavia, Romania, Bulgaria, Mozambique, Angola, Cuba, what used to be known as East Germany…
We live in an age when enormous numbers are the norm. A million dollars today is chump change; if you ain’t got a billion, you ain’t got nothing. A thousand miles from New York to Kansas City is an easy jaunt when you think of 33.9-million miles to Mars. It’s no big deal to add another trillion dollars to the deficit. But those numbers listed above represent human beings, people like you and me, lives and loves, hopes and dreams and infinite possibilities, all gone, wiped out in the name of a perverted vision of an artificial and impossible concept of man being something other than what he was, is, and always will be.
Name a communist country that has thrived and prospered with human rights and justice for all. Just one. Call me when you think of it.