Communism’s grim toll

ROBERT SERVICE is a professor of Russian history at St. Antony's College, Oxford, and author of the recently released "Comrades!: A History of World Communism."

WHEN President Bush declared, at Tuesday’s dedication of the Victims of Communism Memorial in Washington, that communist regimes had been responsible during the 20th century for taking the lives of 100 million innocent people, he did not so much misspeak as under-speak.

Whoever gave the president his estimate of the death toll was only making a guess. The actual number of fatalities in the Soviet gulag, in the Chinese laogai or in the Cambodian forests is not known with precision. What we do know for certain is that the killing of people by communist regimes is only part of the story. If you calculate the lives ruined by communism, the number shoots into the thousands of millions.

Gradations of victimhood existed under communism. There were those who were intentionally murdered, for instance, as opposed to those who died along the way as a result of thoughtless or inhumane social policies. Dispute persists about whether Stalin deliberately intended to starve Ukrainians to extinction in 1932 and 1933. Few researchers believe that Mao Tse-tung consciously hoped to create mass famine in China in the late 1950s, a famine that is reckoned to have been the worst in modern history. What is beyond challenge is that communist regimes had a terrible record in managing agriculture and guaranteeing food supplies.


Communist governments introduced policies of discrimination against entire classes of “hostile” people. Boris Yeltsin’s father, for instance, was a peasant who fell afoul of the Stalinist authorities for complaining about working conditions. The black mark against the father was affixed to the son, and the youthful Boris had to draw a veil over it in order to get any kind of engineer’s training in the Soviet Union. In Cambodia the situation was even worse: Anyone wearing spectacles was automatically categorized as an enemy and subjected to persecution.

A full analysis of communism’s victims also would have to take into account the restrictions on political, religious and cultural freedom.

Even where communist parties permitted other political parties to exist in name, the reality was communist one-party rule. This was the case in East Germany. And even where the church was allowed a certain prominence — as in Poland — its priests avoided any criticism of the communist ideology or risked punitive sanctions.

Censorship was severe. Ideas were dangerous to every communist government unless they were communist ones. In the world’s democracies, it was usually possible for conservatives, liberals and socialists to be in power without suppressing the freedom of communist parties to exist.

There were, of course, exceptions. West Germany banned its communist party in 1956 after the party leadership on Moscow’s orders repudiated the state’s constitutional right to exist. In the U.S., Sen. Joe McCarthy started a witch hunt against communists and their sympathizers. But what was exceptional in the democracies was the norm in communist states, which clamped down regularly on freedom.

Those states jammed foreign radio and TV broadcasts. They withheld the right of their citizens to travel abroad. For communism to survive, it needed to put its citizens in quarantine. The great symbol of this was the Berlin Wall, which was not pulled down until November 1989.


Successful modern states seek to win the unforced consent of their citizens. Economies function better this way. And the public clash of ideas is good in principle and practice. Thus, when communist dictator Enver Hoxha declared Albania the first atheist country, he only aggravated the problems of inter-faith and inter-ethnic cooperation in the longer term.

These regimes weren’t all the same. Nobody would maintain that Cuba, with its colorful, noisy bars and restaurants, is administered in exactly the same way as North Korea. Mao’s China was not a precise replica of Gomulka’s Poland or Hoxha’s Albania. Yet communism’s characteristics have been basically similar wherever it has lasted any length of time.

NOR CAN IT BE stressed too heavily that not every inhuman action in the 20th century was perpetrated by communists. Adolf Hitler carried out the extermination of Jews, Roma, homosexuals and mental hospital patients during the Third Reich. No communist was involved in the genocide in Rwanda in 1994. The Agent Orange poisoning of Vietnamese and Cambodian forests was carried out by the U.S. Air Force.

In the end, the West won the Cold War, with more than a little help from Mikhail Gorbachev and his Soviet reform agenda. Communism today is discredited around the world, and the new monument in Washington commemorates its victims.

Yet communist states survive: China, Cuba, North Korea and Vietnam. Bush said nothing about this. He passed up the chance to state the blindingly obvious: that the Chinese labor-camp system remains in place. Its victims are current, not just historical. The camps there are even more brutal than those of the Soviet gulag because the Chinese authorities insist on indoctrinating as well as incarcerating prisoners — and the methods of indoctrination are savage.

China is a crucial trading partner with the West, and it tends to be handled gently by governments and the media. Lest we forget: Its regime remains the most disgustingly repressive of the world’s great powers.