A conservatism that fights for truth, justice and historical memory finds no friend in Putin, writes Marion Smith
In the United States (and in the United Kingdom), conservatives enjoy the distinct benefit of conserving a liberal political tradition that values individual rights, economic and religious freedom, the rule of law, and traditional morality. Thus in America, temperamental (small “c”) conservatives and political movement (capital “C” Conservatives) are often the same people.
In continental Europe, on the other hand, the ravages of the Twentieth Century meant that many conservatives, fighting for the same ideals, had to become radicals, revolutionaries, or dissidents. Such was certainly the case for conservatives in the former captive nations of central and Eastern Europe.
While the stories of murdered innocents, tortured farmers, slaughtered aristocrats, and martyred priests filled the free peoples of the West with horror, they found even greater inspiration in the emergence of samizdat literature and underground universities, in the almost impossible courage of the authors and painters whose frozen hands kept hope alive even in the Gulag, and in the battles waged by young students against Soviet troops in the woods of Lithuania and the streets of Budapest. Those who suffered behind the Iron Curtain proved that totalitarian Communism was ultimately no match for the national culture, language, religion, family, music, and love of their home countries. But their stories are more than mere history.
On this 100th anniversary year of the Bolshevik Revolution we must examine how European nations were made captive in the first place and how they became free and independent once again in 1989. We must also look honestly at why in 2017 we as free people are tolerating the whitewashing of Soviet crimes, the spread of blatant Russian propaganda and revisionist history in Europe, and the reemergence of Communist-era tactics from Moscow. This is not a quibble over the past. The unresolved legacy of the Soviet era is a clear and present danger to freedom in the Twenty-First Century.
The 1917 February Revolution was sparked by the deplorable working conditions and worsening social problems in major cities of the Russian Empire. Tsarism is accurately understood as tyranny and it is important not to romanticise it. The political movement that began in Petrograd had the necessary elements to make Russia a constitutional monarchy or a republic. But by October 1917 the Bolsheviks had overthrown the Russian Provisional Government and seized power. Lenin’s Cheka state security force tortured and killed thousands of middle- and upper-class Russians. The Tsar and his family were murdered.
Almost immediately it was apparent to Lenin that Marxist theory required updates. The Communist utopia would take longer than expected. For the time being, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics would make the world safe for socialism. The Communist Party would be the people’s vanguard. Lenin would be their god.
In the name of equality, Vladimir Lenin instituted a new form of slavery on earth. Stalin took the helm upon Lenin’s death and sought to expand the Soviet Empire. Among many other machinations, this included the 1939 non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. The sinister pact, negotiated between Hitler and Stalin by their foreign ministers Vyacheslav Molotov and Joachim von Ribbentrop, along with its secret provisions, provided for a conquered and divided Europe, half Nazi and half Communist.
Days after signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, Hitler’s armies invaded Poland, and over the next few months, Stalin invaded Finland, Estonia, Latvia, and Lithuania. For nearly two years, the Nazi SS and Soviet NKVD worked together; the NKVD even rounded up German Jews who had escaped to the Soviet Union and returned them to the SS. Both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union committed war crimes on a massive scale and systematically murdered millions of civilians.
After Hitler broke the agreement in 1941 and invaded the USSR, Stalin conveniently became anti-fascist and joined the Allies in World War II. When the war ended, the Nazis were defeated, but the Soviet Empire lived on.
By the time Winston Churchill delivered his 1946 “Iron Curtain” address in Fulton, Missouri, he was convinced that Stalin had replaced Hitler as the greatest threat to the Free World. Stalin revealed his true intentions when he broke the promise he had made at Yalta and annulled the outcome of free elections held in Poland. The Soviet troops that had “liberated” the Nazi-held territories of central Europe were there to impose Communist rule on unwilling populations. To accomplish this they installed Communist Parties and secret police forces and used them to destroy families, religion, civil society, and whole nations.
Stalin’s increasingly cruel and aggressive tactics convinced President Harry Truman to begin the fight against international Communism by launching a military build-up and establishing the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (Nato), the CIA, and the National Security Council. In 1949, Truman declared America’s opposition to the “false philosophy” of Communism, a philosophy that “purports to offer freedom, security, and greater opportunity to mankind” but which in reality brings “deceit and mockery, poverty and tyranny.” The Cold War had begun.
America became the leader of the free world and a place of refuge for the hundreds of thousands who fled Communist countries around the world. The Captive Nations movement in the United States and Europe lobbied Western governments to confront Soviet expansion around the world and countered the lies spread by Communist embassies in dozens of Western capitals. The moral recognition of Communism’s barbarity was vital in maintaining the political will of the United States and Nato countries to contain and then roll back Soviet power.
In August of 1989, Hungarian authorities allowed the barbed wire of the Iron Curtain on the Austria-Hungary border to be cut. Soon thousands of Hungarians, Czechs, Slovaks, and Germans were pouring through. In November, East German officials allowed an opening in the Berlin Wall. Within hours Berliners were hammering down the symbol of Communist oppression.
Over the next two years, the economic failures of central planning and Soviet leaders’ lack of confidence in their own system led to the dissolution of the Soviet Union and the independence of other captive nations, including Ukraine (which legally contained Crimea). The costly experiment in Marxist ideology that began with the Bolshevik takeover of the 1917 Russian revolution was over.
More than 40 million people died as the result of Soviet policies, including man-made famine, purges, political assassinations, forced deportations, Gulag deaths, and the military invasions of independent countries. The Soviet Union also inspired, imposed, or funded Communist rule in nearly 40 nations. The total death toll caused by Communist rule in all of these countries is over 100 million. And while Communism collapsed in Europe, it lives on in the single-party Leninist states of China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam. Today, these Communist regimes rule over 20 per cent of the world’s population.
The American engagement in the Cold War that began under Harry Truman was brought to completion by Ronald Reagan, who aimed to consign Communism to the “ash heap of history.” Today, Reagan’s warning that one generation is all it takes to lose freedom is still pertinent, especially in the face of young Americans’ astounding ignorance of the basics of Twentieth Century history, including the crimes of Communist regimes. An October 2016 poll conducted by YouGov (commissioned by VOC) found that one third of US millennials believe that George W Bush killed more people than Stalin. The vast majority under the age of 35 were unaware of the death toll in Communist regimes. The survey also found that 45 per cent of 16- to 35-year-olds would vote for a “socialist”; 21 per cent of 16- to 20-year-olds would vote for a “Communist.”
The United States, which spent more more blood and treasure than any other country to confront international Communism, has suddenly forgetten what the Cold War was and why it was worth fighting. The crimes of the Nazis against Jews in the Holocaust are rightly known and condemned. The crimes committed by Communists in the name of a false notion of equality deserve to be understood as well. Today, this is not the case. Certainly, this is a failure of education, but is also a matter of power politics. This moment is no accident.
The situation in Europe is even worse. Too few European socialists have come to terms with their own complicity in birthing, aiding, and then excusing Communism in Europe. Too many Western journalists, politicians, and academics who defended the Soviet Union have carried on unrepentant.
Significantly, the ideas of Marxism are still exonerated of any connection to the deeds of Marxists in power. Although some socialists today concede that conceptually Marx and many other early Communists had too rosy a picture of human nature, most blame the failed experiments of Twentieth Century socialist regimes on the excesses of their leaders and on the tenacious forces of nationalism, all of which worked against true Communist ideals. Many socialists today, therefore, argue that the practical path forward is to fight against the nation-state in all its forms and to foster globalism.
Certainly, the collectivist ideas that took hold in 1917 had roots in European history, most notably in the Jacobin’s reign of terror following the French Revolution. Lenin made the Bolshevik’s political patrimony clear by erecting statues of Robespierre in St Petersburg and Moscow shortly after his party seized power.
The countries of the former Soviet Union, with the exception of the Baltic states, have not yet succeeded in overcoming the toxic legacy of Communist rule. The people of Ukraine, Moldova, and Georgia must fight the overbearing power of Moscow today, even as they struggle to reform their systemically corrupt institutions and rebuild civil society. In Ukraine, a powerful symbol of this struggle has been the demolition of the hundreds of statues of Lenin and Soviet stars that lingered for 24 years after the collapse of the USSR. Their choice is contested by Putin and has required blood to defend. Russia’s forced annexation of Crimea and invasion of eastern Ukraine is an attempt to reverse some of the consequences of Soviet defeat.
When Western nations objected to Moscow’s actions in Ukraine, the Kremlin struck back with information warfare in Europe. One clear propaganda success was convincing some European traditionalists that – compared to the hyper-liberal, globalist, and sometimes even socialist agenda of the European Union and the administration of US President Barack Obama – Vladimir Putin was a modern-day champion of traditional Western values. Russian cash made the claim easier to swallow. The election of President Donald Trump and the emergence of his coalition of conservative, nationalist, EU-sceptic supporters obviously throws a wrench in Putin’s narrative that Russia is the conservative champion and suddenly throws new light on Putin’s real intentions – the creation of a modern Russia based on a fusion of the Tsarist and Soviet traditions, free from any illusions of freedom as a fundamental right of individuals or peoples.
At this moment of geopolitical crisis, it is imperative that European conservatives see through the false conservatism of Vladimir Putin, his co-opted Russian Orthodox emissaries, and his paid apologists in the West. Vladimir Putin is a cool, calculating, Communist-trained Cold War veteran who believes he can reclaim the power of Soviet times and challenge the West.
Costly gains made by the generations who fought tyranny in Europe must not be reversed because of apathy, corruption or cowardice. When it comes to the past crimes of the Soviet Union, the current tactics of Vladimir Putin, or the West’s growing vulnerability to the false hope of socialism, European conservatives must have the courage to fight for truth, justice, and historical memory. We too can live in truth. To do otherwise is to risk cursing the next generation with a new era of captivity.
This article was originally published on The Conservative