In Eastern Europe and Russia, Reminders of Communist Horrors Are Everywhere
As our commuter train stopped at the Riga suburb of Tornakalns, we saw a small railroad boxcar standing by itself on the side. To the passenger from the train, it was a small memorial; to a Latvian nearly 80 years ago, it was at worst a death sentence and at best, transportation to exile in a Siberian labor camp.
Our train was taking us from an afternoon at Jurmala, the resort located by the Gulf of Riga, a place where leading Communist Party members from the old U.S.S.R. went to spend vacations, but today, just another place to enjoy the warm sunshine of the Latvian summer. The horrors of the Soviet invasion of Latvia, Estonia, and Lithuania in 1940 are long behind, surfacing only in the image of the boxcar and the Museum of the Occupation, now located in the former U.S. embassy in downtown Riga.
(The USA built a new embassy near the Riga International Airport, a beige, boxy construction that contrasts with the lovely embassies on the famed Embassy Row in Riga, featuring some of the world’s most prominent Art Nouveau facades. When the new embassy was being constructed, locals thought it was a new prison, which, given the USA’s penchant for imprisoning people, probably was not far off the mark.)
The three Baltic nations finally broke away from the U.S.S.R. in 1990 and 1991, but the Museum of the Occupation provides reminders of how the ancestors of people walking freely about the towns and cities of these countries suffered, and suffered greatly at the hands of those promoting the socialist ideology that even today won’t die. How thousands were summarily executed at the hands of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police. How thousands more were herded into those tiny boxcars and shipped to the hinterlands of Siberia, many to die brutal deaths in labor camps. All because they were people who worked in government or taught in schools and universities of the Baltic nations, or who owned businesses, or who were just inconvenient to Soviet authorities. All on the ultimate order of Josef Stalin, the Soviet dictator called “Uncle Joe” by American journalists and by presidents Franklin Roosevelt and, later, Harry Truman.
American publications like the New York Times were so in love with the ideals of the Bolshevik Revolution (and still are, given the NYT’s series last year lamenting the fall of the Soviet Union and its Eastern Europe satellites) that they could not be bothered to tell the truth about what the communists did in the Baltics, just as they denied that Stalin had created a famine that killed more Ukranians than Jews that were killed in the Holocaust . Even now, as one looks at photos of the Baltic people being shot, arrested, buried in mass graves, and forced into labor camps, one is reminded that the Soviet Union did not provide a new way of living, as socialist apologists and American journalists have claimed, but rather just another way of dying – and dying violently.
But that was then. Today, the Baltic nations are wealthier and freer than they were in the days of Soviet occupation. For that matter, Russia also is freer and wealthier than it was when the Hammer and Sickle flew over the Kremlin. After spending time in Riga and Tallinn, Estonia, along with Helsinki, Finland (we were there the day of the Trump-Putin summit), we drove into Russia.
Our first stop was at the border, which passed without incident and certainly was not the ordeal we would face a week later when re-entering the United States. Soon after entering Russia, we came to Vyborg, which once belonged to Finland before being seized by the U.S.S.R. in the brief 1939-40 war between Finland and the Soviet Union.
Although Russia has moved on from its days of communism, it is clear that Vyborg has been slower with the transition. The city reminded me of what I saw in East Germany in 1982, with its drab and hulking Soviet-era high-rise apartment buildings and general shabbiness. The famous castle that dominates the edge of town is in scaffolding and one wonders how long that has been the situation. At least the coffee we had at the small coffee shop near the castle was very good, something I doubt would have been the case in the days of Commieland.
So, we drove onto St. Petersburg mostly on a two-lane road cut through the boreal forest of the northern latitudes. It was here that I witnessed something that amazed all of us – how vehicle drivers cooperated to turn two lanes into de facto four lanes of traffic.
As faster drivers moved to pass slower vehicles, the slower vehicles would move onto the asphalt shoulder and even as our bus moved over the center line, the oncoming traffic would shift to the right, too. It all was spontaneously coordinated and everyone on the road was in on the scheme.
Entering St. Petersburg was an experience in itself. With five million people spread over a number of islands, we saw new high-rises standing alongside the old Soviet-era apartment buildings. No one, however, comes to St. Petersburg to see the relics of the U.S.S.R. Instead, they come to see the czarist palaces and the stunning 18th and 19th century architecture that dominates the city. It may be the birthplace of the Bolshevik Revolution, but people come to pay homage to the way of life the Bolsheviks wanted to destroy and to Czar Nicholas II and his family, infamously and brutally murdered on Lenin’s orders in 1918.
A century later, the bones of the last royal family of Russia lie safely in St. Peter and Paul Cathedral. Despite more than 70 years of communist rule, and despite all of the blood spilled to keep the likes of Lenin, Stalin, and the others in power, and despite the massive propaganda that ordinary people in the U.S.S.R. had to endure, St. Petersburg is the city of the czars, not the Bolsheviks.
Parts of St. Petersburg are run down – as nearly the entire city was during the days of communism – but other parts of it absolutely are amazing to see. Likewise, I enjoyed interacting with the locals and especially the young people that made up most of the workforce of our hotel, from running the desks to cleaning our rooms. The legendary dour Soviet worker was replaced by a competent employee who patiently answered our questions and took care of whatever we needed.
For all of the talk in the USA that Russia is a dictatorship under the iron thumb of Vladimir Putin, Russia did not seem like a dictatorship. Our Russian tour guide often would take a swipe at Putin (including likening his face to a painting of dogs at the Hermitage) and life itself there seemed to have the kind of normalcy that could not have been possible when people were compelled to inform on one another.
The St. Petersburg we visited was not the Leningrad that Logan Robinson described in his humorous 1982 book An American in Leningrad , which described life as a post-graduate student living among Russian students and developing friendships with local writers, artists, and musicians, people who often harassed, persecuted, and arrested by local authorities. That city was an armed camp full of soldiers and had been relegated to being a backwater by Joseph Stalin and his successors who made Moscow the Soviet “showplace,” leaving the city founded by Peter the Great to succumb to the northerly elements.
The citizens of the Baltic countries were not the only ones suffering under communism. No other city in the U.S.S.R. underwent the horror of a 900-day siege by German armies during World War II. Disease and starvation were rampant, but Leningrad held out. In “rewarding” the city for its courage and fortitude, Stalin reinstituted the infamous Purges shortly after the war ended, killing party members, writers, intellectuals, artists, and anyone else Stalin might have deemed even an imaginary threat. On top of that, the first Five-Year Plan after the war had Leningrad being the last city to be rebuilt.
Americans cannot fathom what it is like to have entire cities destroyed or badly-damaged by bombs and artillery and have ruthless armies fight each other over their territories. Nor can we imagine having governments carry out massive executions of people whose only “crime” was not being what the government leadership wanted them to be. We cannot imagine the starvation, the disease, and watching family and friends be shipped off to places like Siberia where they surely would die terrible deaths.
Yet, as I sat in the Old Town section of Riga eating and drinking and listening to live music, I strained to imagine the place as a battle zone with death and destruction all around where now I sat. I imagined the stores that now are full of goods and restaurants with food and drink being empty or stocked with subpar merchandise in the aftermath of the war as the Soviets imposed their primitive communist system and oppressed the people in the name of “liberating” them for many decades until they finally left in the early 1990s.
No, I cannot see people in our cities having experienced anything like what the people of the Baltics and St. Petersburg had to tolerate for decades. And, yet, there are people in high places in the USA, those at the New York Times and elsewhere in the media and in academe that believe that communism had brought in a superior civilization – if only those blinded by capitalism had the courage and foresight to see what these “intellectuals” were imagining they saw.
I recently saw a photograph of American Antifa protesters holding up a communist flag with the hammer-and-sickle and images of Mao, Lenin, and Marx. Perhaps they and the editors of the New York Times want to see the USA embrace a system that others that have lived under it now reject, and reject vehemently. Given that Antifa increasingly is providing shock troops for the causes espoused by prominent members of the Democratic Party like Bernie Sanders, the new drive for communism might not be as fringe as one might hope, and if a century of bloodshed, murder, vast prison systems, and starvation won’t convince the advocates of communism among American millennials, then perhaps nothing will.
Perhaps the ultimate irony will be that Americans of the future might have to travel to the former U.S.S.R. in order to see free people and see a relatively free economy. One hopes not, but the daily onslaught of socialism into our body politic says this no longer is an impossible scenario.