death of Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn ought to be an occasion for some
soul-searching in the United States, and indeed throughout the West.
Solzhenitsyn was acclaimed for bringing the horrors of the Soviet
regime before the eyes of the Western world. But how many Americans
still remember the lessons he helped to teach? How well will the
crimes Solzhenitsyn showed to the world be remembered?
or so, I had a class where everyone gave a class presentation based
on a historical research paper they had done. Most of my fellow
students were freshmen or sophomores. For my own topic, I chose
the artificial famine that Josef Stalin unleashed to destroy the
resistance of the Ukrainian people to his campaign of collectivization
and cultural destruction.
A number of
other students had given presentations on historical crimes and
tragedies. And yet, despite my poor public-speaking skills, people
seemed enthralled. When I was done, everyone seemed to have questions.
Why were they so fascinated by what I had told them? Simple: None
of them had ever heard of it before.
Now, the school
wasn't exactly Harvard, but it was a respected Catholic university.
My fellow students were not idiots or ignoramuses. And yet, the
millions who had died agonized deaths in one of human history's
greatest crimes were unknown to them. Further probing on my part
revealed a similar degree of ignorance about other Communist regimes.
Everyone, of course, knew of the twelve million victims of Adolf
Hitler. Several even knew about the three thousand people killed
by Augusto Pinochet. On Communism, however, they were almost totally
ignorant. The word "Auschwitz" was instantly understood
by everyone; words like "Kolyma" and "Great Leap
Forward" were mysterious.
I knew that
the horrors of Communism did not get as much attention as the crimes
of the Nazis, but the degree of ignorance stunned me. These were
bright, curious kids; how could they not know? How could they get
all the way to college without learning about it?
Then I thought
back to my own education. How had I learned about it? I spent
a lot of time with my grandfather when I was growing up, and he
encouraged my interest in history and science; I probably learned
more from him and the books he gave me or told me about than I ever
did in school. It was from him that I learned about writers like
Robert Conquest, author of such books on Communism as The Great
Terror and Harvest of Sorrow. In high school, I was good
friends with a Ukrainian exchange student who had grown up in the
last days of the Soviet regime, which gave me a more personal curiosity
about Soviet history.
didn't learn it from public school. We were taught at considerable
length about the crimes of Hitler and Mussolini, and also learned
about such figures as Pinochet, the Mendozas, and Fulgenico Batista.
We were taught about the existence of Communist dictators, and told
that they weren't nice guys, but the information was limited and
We were told
that Communist countries didn't have democratic elections and often
put people in prison for criticizing the government, but we were
never told that Communists had engaged in mass murder. We knew that
Soviet prisoners were sent to gulags, but we weren't told just how
many prisoners there were, or that huge numbers of the gulag's prisoners
died there. We certainly weren't told that Josef Stalin and
Mao Zedong each had a list of victims that rivaled or exceeded Hitler's,
or that Pol Pot had slaughtered a fourth of his own country in less
than half a decade.
The mass media
was no better. If I had never gone to school or opened a book, I
still would have picked up on what the Nazis were like through movies,
television, or newspapers. I might be lacking in details of the
regime's history, but I would still know that they had killed millions.
Failing that, I would pick it up from other people; the crimes of
Hitler occupy so large a portion of the American consciousness that
it would be impossible not to pick up on it. Of the true extent
of Communist crimes, I would know very little; my education would
be as deficient as that provided by school.
I suppose I
shouldn't have been so shocked. The American media and intelligentsia
have a long and shameful history of concealing, minimizing, or ignoring
Communist atrocities that continues to this day. I don't think my
school teachers were willfully trying to deceive me; most of them
were probably as ignorant as my classmates. There was a time when
ignorance was maintained by conscious propagandists like Walter
Duranty, but that is largely unnecessary today. Once established,
ignorance and falsehood become self-perpetuating, as the deception's
own victims pass the lie down to the next generation.
There are plenty
of people who would be eager to learn the truth, if only they knew
it was out there; the response of my classmates convinced me of
that. Sadly, most of those who dominate the dissemination of information
and opinion in America still have little incentive to correct the
situation; they are, after all, the ideological kinsmen of the leftist
Western intellectuals who worked so hard to create the problem in
the first place. Meanwhile, thousands if not millions of perfectly
honest people serve as unwitting accomplices in the perpetuation
of ignorance. Despite the efforts of men like Solzhenitsyn, despite
the tens of millions of corpses, despite historical records available
for anyone to see if only they know where to look, despite whole
nations turned into charnel houses, American ignorance and indifference