This year is a particularly important time to remember the victims of Communism because of the approaching one hundredth anniversary of the October Revolution – Bolshevik takeover of Russia. The Soviet Union was not the most oppressive communist regime. It probably did not match the even more thoroughgoing totalitarianism of the Khmer Rouge and North Korea. Nor did it kill the most people – a record held by Mao Zedong and the Chinese communists. But the Soviet experiment was the principal model for all the later communist states, and it is hard to imagine communists seizing control of so much of the world without it. In addition to the significant material aid that the Soviets provided to communists in other nations, the communist seizure of power in Russia also greatly boosted the ideology’s prospects elsewhere.
To this day, some claim that Soviet communism was originally a positive development and only went bad later, after Joseph Stalin came to power. But Stalin’s crimes were largely extensions of the earlier practices of Lenin. And it is unlikely that things would have gone better if Stalin had lost out to Leon Trotsky, his principal rival in the struggle for power. In some ways, Trotsky’s agenda was even worse than Stalin’s.
As British scholar Tony Brenton and other leading historians show in an important recent book, the rise of communism in Russia was very much an avoidable tragedy, and far from inevitable. Hopefully, we can learn from its history and find ways to reduce the risk of similar atrocities in the future.
In a 2012 post, I explained why May 1 is a better date for Victims of Communism Day than the available alternatives, such as November 7 (the anniversary of the Bolshevik seizure of power in Russia) and August 23 (the anniversary of the Nazi-Soviet Pact). I also addressed various possible objections to May Day, including claims that the date should be reserved for the celebration of labor unions.
But, as I emphasized in my 2013 May Day post, I would be happy to support a different date if it turns out to be easier to build a consensus around it. If another date is chosen, I would prefer November 7 – not out of any desire to diminish the significance of communist atrocities in other nations, but because of the special role of Russia in the history of communism.
NOTE: Some parts of this post were adapted from last year’s Victims of Communism Day post.