President Trump’s claim that America is morally on par with Russia’s corrupt dystopian regime was so historically ignorant that even timid Republicans felt compelled to speak out this week. Perhaps that is because remaining silent in the face of such a morally disorienting claim would make them look like fools. Vladimir Putin is, after all, the same ruthless autocrat who kills journalists and political rivals who cross his path. He is also the same man who called the Soviet Union’s collapse “the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the century.”
The evil empire Putin admires says much about the tyrant our new president defends. Burning with resentments carried over from a fallen empire, Comrade Putin hopes to rebuild the U.S.S.R. one invasion at a time. And while Putin pursues that delusional dream, Trump should be reminded exactly what kind of world his new friend wants to create.
Because of poor Soviet record-keeping, determining how many Russian citizens were killed under Soviet rule is difficult. But most historians agree that the tyrants running the Soviet Union murdered up to 10 times as many of their own citizens as Hitler did during the Holocaust. Russian novelist and historian Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn put the number of deaths at 60 million. Preeminent European historian Norman Davies estimates that 50 million people were killed between 1924 and 1953 alone. Other historians are more modest, estimating that the Kremlin was responsible for 20 million to 40 million deaths.
Repetitive reigns of terror gripped Putin’s country from the moment the Bolsheviks seized control of the country in 1917. From the Red Terror to Stalin’s Great Purge to his show trials to national operations by the NKVD to the purges in Mongolia to ghastly Gulags responsible for the deaths of more than a million people. Putin’s idealized regime was the most murderous of the 20th century.
Following the Allies’ victory in World War II, the Soviet Union responded to the Nazis’ defeat by enslaving up to 100 million people across Eastern Europe. Its forced resettlement of citizens behind the Iron Curtain in the 1940s and 1950s was so barbaric that some consider those deportations acts of genocide.
America’s response to World War II was radically different. Trump should ask an employee from the National Archives to visit the Oval Office and bring documents illustrating the superhuman relief work Americans did following the war under the leadership of President Harry S. Truman and former president Herbert Hoover. Hoover helped establish UNICEF and CARE and, with Truman’s support, launched a school meals program in Germany that fed 3.5 million children. American tax dollars paid for those meals and also helped to fund the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, which provided $4.5 billion of food and supplies to Europe. And in 1948, the United States took the even-more-radical step of saving Western Europe from complete collapse through the Marshall Plan. American taxpayers paid that $12 billion bill that rebuilt Western Europe following the most destructive war ever.
The Soviet Union’s response to that generosity? It blocked all benefits from reaching citizens that were trapped behind the Iron Curtain. Eventually, the Soviets had to build a wall, not to keep people out but to lock citizens in their wretched living conditions.
If Trump would like a tightly controlled experiment to compare the moral might of America and Russia, Afghanistan is a useful case study. In liberating the Afghan people from the Taliban, American troops have brought the greatest degree of freedom to Afghanistan that the country has enjoyed in the modern era. Compare that with the government that employed Putin during Russia’s 1979 invasion of Afghanistan. Amnesty International estimated that some 1 million Afghans died after the Soviet invasion, and in 1980 the Soviets began a campaign of terror that included the mass killing of civilians, the use of chemical weapons and the deployment of land mines among local populations.
Since seizing control, Putin has carried forward the worst of the Soviets’ legacy: His political opponents have been poisoned, investigative reporters have been killed and Russia has invaded neighboring countries. Despite what Trump would have the world believe, the historical record is unambiguous. There is no moral equivalence between the United States and Russia. That much is clear. What is not is why Trump would so gleefully continue to spread this dangerous lie.