Archive | Communism

I Wasn’t Paying Attention When the Wall Came Down

I’m sorry I wasn’t and I don’t quite know what happened.  I don’t say this to be flippant in the least.  I knew that big things were happening, but unlike many others’ experiences, it all seemed very gradual to me and finally anti-climactic.  It seemed like something that was gradually sliding into place that had been sliding into place for a long time but was also terribly fragile.

I credit that feeling to two things.  One was that I was working in a Manhattan law firm, and completely buried in learning international tax.  The other was that I had spent the previous several years putting in large amounts of time with Human Rights Watch, both its Americas division and its Helsinki division.  I had done many missions in Yugoslavia, watching the Soviet empire fall apart while watching Yugoslavia fall apart very much upclose, at the village level, and watching it lead to war, affected how I saw the Soviet Union.  I had a huge anxiety that war would break out in the Warsaw Pact; or that it would be a repeat of 1968 – especially a fear of a repeat of the end of Prague Spring, that fear more than anything – or something that I didn’t know, but bad, would happen.

I was also perhaps lulled into a sense of passivity that was somewhat Bush senior’s approach – looking backwards, it had important advantages by treating it as a matter of course – but for me, at least, it felt a little like events were unfolding, not so much as Frank Fukuyama would later say, but more as people like Adam Michnik and the Eastern Europeans intellectuals I knew said it would, if only the US and Western Europe would stay the course.  In Yugoslavia, it was a very [...]

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Reflections on the Fall of the Berlin Wall

Today is the 20th anniversary of the Fall of the Berlin Wall. In several ways, the Wall and its collapse are fitting symbols of communism. They demonstrate several truths about that system that we would be wise not to lose sight of.

First and foremost, Cold War-era Berlin was the most visible demonstration of the superiority of capitalism and democracy over communism and dictatorship. Despite the fact that East Germany had one of the highest standards of living in the Soviet bloc, it had to build a wall to keep its people from fleeing to the capitalist West. By contrast, West Germans and other westerners were free to move to the communist world anytime they wanted. Yet only a tiny handful ever did so. Decisions to “vote with your feet” are often even better indicators of peoples’ true preferences than ballot box voting, since foot voters have better incentives to become well-informed about the alternatives before them. Even more powerful evidence is the reality that many East Germans and others fled from communism even when doing so meant risking their lives.

Second, the Berlin Wall was an important symbol of the way in which communist governments violated the human right to freedom of movement, one of the most important attributes of a free society. If people are forcibly trapped under the rule of the government in whose territory they happen to be born, they are not truly free; rather, they are hostages of their rulers.

Finally, the sudden collapse of the Berlin Wall in 1989 vividly demonstrated the extent to which communist totalitarianism relied on coercion to maintain its rule. Some Western scholars and leftists contended that most Russians and Eastern Europeans actually supported communism or at least preferred it to the available alternatives. The events of 1989 gave the [...]

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How my father helped free Soviet prisoners

Last month in Massachusetts, my father, Jerry Kopel, received the Soviet Jewry Freedom Award from the Russian Jewish Community Foundation. He was honored along with his fellow former legislator, Tilman Bishop. (Bishop is now an elected Regent of the University of Colorado. He is a conservative Republican from Grand Junction; my father is a liberal Denver Democrat.) In 1979, my father and Bishop created the Committee to Free the Leningrad Three; these were Jewish and Christian refuseniks who had attempted to flee the Soviet Union in 1970. They were part of a group of 10 which bought all the seats on a small charter plane, and planned to overpower the pilot and escape to Scandanavia. Their plot was thwarted at the airport, before they ever boarded the plane. The group was known as the “samoletchiks”–airplane guys. By 1980, 7 of the 10 had been released due to international pressure. Five of them were part of a swap involving some captured Soviet spies; the other two had completed their prison terms. 

Thanks to the Committee to Free the Leningrand Three, the remaining three were all released by 1985.

In a recent column, my father explained some of the Committee’s unusual tactics. First, they did not adopt the standard legislative approach of merely getting a resolution adopted. A resolution is a one-time thing, but the Committee aimed for continuing pressure. Colorado legislators were invited to join the Committee, which eventually comprised 95 of Colorado’s 100 state representatives and senators. Every member was required to write personal letters, not form letters, to the Soviet authorities, and to the prisoners. Bishop (who started in the House, and then went on to a long tenure in the Senate)  made sure the Committee members kept up the writing.

More information about the samoletchiks and the [...]

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Why the Neglect of Communist Crimes Matters

In my last post, I discussed the neglect of communist atrocities. Although communist governments murdered and repressed even more people than the Nazis, their crimes have gotten only a tiny fraction of the public awareness and recognition extend to the latter. But does that neglect matter? After all, the major communist regimes have either collapsed (the USSR and its Eastern European satellites) or evolved into much less oppressive forms (China and Vietnam). But there are several reasons why increasing recognition of communist crimes should be an important priority: providing justice for victims and perpetrators; alleviating the oppression of the unreformed communist governments that still exist today; and ensuring that comparable atrocities are never repeated. The twentieth anniversary of the fall of communism in Eastern Europe is as good a time as any to reflect on these points.

I. Justice for Victims and Perpetrators.

Millions of victims of communism are still alive today. They include former Gulag inmates, forced laborers, dissidents subjected to political repression, ethnic minorities such as the Crimean Tatars who were forcibly deported, and many others. With a few exceptions (principally in Eastern Europe), little has been done to recognize the suffering of these victims or to compensate them for the wrongs they suffered. Obviously, the scale of communist crimes was so vast that complete compensation is impossible. However, the impossibility of perfect compensation is no excuse for doing nothing. After all, the same can be said for the Holocaust and other Nazi crimes. Yet extensive efforts have been made to compensate Holocaust survivors and return property confiscated from Jewish and other Nazi victims. The German government has paid reparations to Holocaust survivors and former forced laborers, among others. These efforts at reparations for Nazi crimes surely have many shortcomings. But they far outstrip anything that [...]

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Paul Hollander on the Fall of Communism

This fall is the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall and other events associated with the collapse of communism. Paul Hollander, a sociologist who has written numerous works on communism and Western attitudes towards it, has an op ed in the Washington Post, noting some of the lessons of the communist experience, and the failure of most Westerners to fully appreciate them:

The Berlin Wall that came down 20 years ago this month was an apt symbol of communism. It represented a historically unprecedented effort to prevent people from “voting with their feet” and leaving a society they rejected. The wall was only the most visible segment of a vast system of obstacles and fortifications: the Iron Curtain, which stretched for thousands of miles along the border of the “Socialist Commonwealth….”

While greatly concerned with communism in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Americans — hostile or sympathetic — actually knew little about communism, and little is said here today about the unraveling of the Soviet empire. The media’s fleeting attention to the momentous events of the late 1980s and early 1990s matched their earlier indifference to communist systems. There is little public awareness of the large-scale atrocities, killings and human rights violations that occurred in communist states, especially compared with awareness of the Holocaust and Nazism (which led to to far fewer deaths). The number of documentaries, feature films or television programs about communist societies is minuscule compared with those on Nazi Germany and/or the Holocaust, and few universities offer courses on the remaining or former communist states….

The different moral responses to Nazism and communism in the West can be interpreted as a result of the perception of communist atrocities as byproducts of noble intentions that were hard to realize without resorting to harsh

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The Evil of Leon Trotsky Revisited

Two of Leon Trotsky’s best-known quotes are his statement that “Where the sole employer is the State, opposition means death by slow starvation” (made famous, especially among libertarians, in part because it was quoted by Hayek in The Road to Serfdom), and the very next sentence in the same paragraph: “The old principle: who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced with a new one: who does not obey shall not eat.” My GMU colleague Bryan Caplan helpfully provides the context of these quotes, from Trotsky’s 1936 book, The Revolution Betrayed:

During these years [since Stalin took power in the USSR] hundreds of Oppositionists, both Russian and foreign, have been shot, or have died of hunger strikes, or have resorted to suicide. Within the last twelve years, the authorities have scores of times announced to the world the final rooting out of the opposition. But during the “purgations” in the last month of 1935 and the first half of 1936, hundreds of thousands of members of the [Communist] party were again expelled, among them several tens of thousands of “Trotskyists.” The most active were immediately arrested and thrown into prisons and concentration camps. As to the rest, Stalin, through Pravda, openly advised the local organs not to give them work. In a country where the sole employer is the state, this means death by slow starvation. The old principle: who does not work shall not eat, has been replaced with a new one: who does not obey shall not eat.

Bryan points out that this context doesn’t reflect well on a man who is still admired by many leftists and even a few ex-leftist conservatives:

Worth noticing: While Trotsky meant what libertarians think he meant, the man’s sheer evil still shines through. He doesn’t mind if

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