Only those who lived in its shadow seem to be worried about contemporary
BY MARY MYCIO
AUGUST 03, 2021
The New York Times
When communism collapsed in Europe 30 years ago, it seemed vanquished.
The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics turned out to be none of those
things and broke into 15 independent countries. After the fall of the
Berlin Wall, McDonald’s replaced Marx, and no one argued anymore that
real communism still hadn’t been tried.
But old, familiar ideas are making a comeback on both sides of what used
to be a great ideological divide. In Russia, Josef Stalin’s approval
rating recently reached an all-time high. Meanwhile, American
millennials’ stated approval of communism and socialism has been
steadily rising in polls. After the fascism panic of Donald Trump’s
presidency, driven and capitalized on by the media and publishing
industries, it’s not surprising that the American left often sees
historical evil even in ordinary populism. That the 20th century’s
other murderous totalitarianism is gaining popularity in response,
however, is alarming.
Some attribute this trend to the failures of capitalism after the Great
Recession, which gave rise to the popularity of Sen. Bernie Sanders and
his own brand of socialism, which he claims to be like Denmark’s
(which isn’t actually socialist). Another reason may be that the
United States simply hasn’t had a communism panic for more than a
generation. And why should it? Who cares about a defeated adversary?
After 1991, the Reds weren’t coming for anyone. Then again, Nazis
haven’t enjoyed a reputational bounce back since their defeat the way
the Soviets have. There is no Godwin’s law for Stalin.
A better explanation is that Americans and others across the West have
simply forgotten about it all, or never learned about it in the first
place: the Soviet dictators, the purges and terror, the dissidents and
refuseniks, the gulags and famines and genocides, the millions shot,
starved, worked, and frozen to death.
All of it hardly exists in our
common imagination. Most Americans have no idea what Soviet communism,
which was still around relatively recently, actually looked like.
Communism and Nazism both used state violence to commit mass murder and
impose a single ideology on entire populations, but they did it for
different reasons. Put simply in contemporary terms, the Nazis imposed
inequality to achieve racial supremacy, while the Soviets imposed
equality to achieve a universal utopia. Both murdered millions, but the
Soviet project naturally found more gullibly receptive audiences abroad
over a longer period of time.
To take a relevant metaphor, Americans have a certain herd immunity to
Nazism and fascism. The early warning signs have been deeply etched into
our psyches with the rich and terrible tapestry of books, movies, and
art about the Holocaust. Like T-cells in the immune system, constant
exposure to the legacy of fascism is part of our cultural memory. We
know what it looks like and where it leads, and we have the antibodies
to stave it off. It persists on the margins, of course. But it’s far
The same doesn’t hold for communism. It’s not that we’re on the
verge of Red Dawn. But after a generation of forgetting, we have few
cultural T-cells left to recognize coercive unanimity, punitive group
think, and other warning signs when they appear in the body politic. It
seems only those who experienced the Cold War or lived through communism
firsthand have the cultural memory to worry about the current moment.
Americans didn’t forget the USSR immediately. It took about a decade.
Plenty of ink was spilled on the seemingly natural and preordained
triumph of capitalism, democracy, and the West, such as Francis
Fukuyama’s The End of History and the Last Man. Along with many
idealists and carpetbaggers who headed to the post-Soviet “Wild
East,” I never actually read Fukuyama’s book. But the idea was in
the air. Even a lefty Democrat like me, who despised Ronald Reagan and
most of what he stood for, was seduced by the neoliberal mantra.
In January 1991, just after the start of the Gulf War, I moved to the
Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republic. I wanted to witness history. Less
than a year later, I did: Our tiny group of Kyiv expats celebrated
Christmas in an independent Ukraine by listening to Mikhail Gorbachev
declare the Soviet Union dead. For a Ukrainian immigrant kid from Long
Island, who grew up in the shadow of war, gulags, and ethnic cleansing,
it was exhilarating to witness the birth of my ancestral homeland as a
But the promise of independence was burdened by the Soviet legacy. In
the heart of what Timothy Snyder called the Bloodlands, Ukraine was the
deadliest place on earth for much of the 20th century, and each acre
buries an atrocity. Three consecutive generations suffered perpetual
trauma in a society built on lies and horror. “Life is getting more
joyful,” Stalin proclaimed in 1935, after engineering a famine that
killed nearly 4 million Ukrainians.
The rubble of that memory surrounded me for years. Every decade or so,
Ukrainians pulled down a bunch of Lenin statues. By now most of them are
gone, though a graveyard of Soviet monuments used to stand outside the
former Museum of Kyiv. I always thought the torn-down Lenins should have
been rounded up and kept in a park in Chernobyl, where the regime’s
lies about the 1986 nuclear disaster helped lead to its demise five
After 16 years of life in post-Soviet dysfunction, I moved back to the
United States in 2007, and looked forward to living in what Ukrainians
called a “normal country,” where traffic police actually police
traffic instead of soliciting bribes. Then, a year later, the economy
crashed. It turned out that endemic corruption was not unique to former
communist lands, but had thoroughly penetrated American finance and
industry to the benefit of a very few. Inequality suddenly became a
nationwide concern, of which Occupy Wall Street was just one outgrowth.
What was then a revelation is now conventional wisdom: Income inequality
in the United States was low for several decades after the New Deal,
rose modestly in the 1980s, and then exploded after 1992. But why 1992?
At the time, no one seemed to notice or care.