There are many sights to see in Washington, D.C. You can view the only Leonardo da Vinci painting on public view in the Americas at the National Gallery of Art. You can walk among giant dinosaur skeletons in the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History. You can ride the elevator to the top of the Washington Monument and see the nation’s capital (if you get there early enough in the day to get a ticket). As Catholics, we can even stop to pray at the largest Catholic church in North America and take a tour of a Franciscan monastery which features replicas from the Holy Land. But a new museum, located just a few blocks from the White House, offers something less popular than the National Mall but as haunting as a statue of the Pieta.
The Victims of Communism Museum opened its doors on June 13, 2022. It’s certainly small compared to any of the famous museums and landmarks located near Constitution and Independence Avenue. But it has a powerful message, particularly as many people today—especially younger people—seem captivated by the promises of socialism and communism.
This new museum is the product of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, a non-profit foundation authorized by an Act of Congress in 1993. The goals of the foundation include commemorating those who lost their lives under communist governments, protecting those who are currently living under totalitarian regimes, and, as stated here, working for a world “free from the false hope of communism.”
It was that “false hope” that propelled Lenin into power over Russia in 1917. The museum’s first display examines the many catastrophes that helped communist leaders take control of the country. Those disasters include disillusionment over the heavy losses of Russian soldiers during World War I, food shortages, lack of work, and the breakdown of the czarist government itself. Russians did not so much embrace communism as they fell into its arms while trying to escape starvation and chaos.
Interestingly, the museum points out some distinctive and typical features of communist governments. Under communism, citizens can expect their government to control their access to information through propaganda—which sometimes means they will be expected to accept outright lies. They can expect to be subjected to ruthless surveillance over their family life, working life, and perhaps their every word. They can expect state control to be imposed over virtually every aspect of life and expect every religion except atheism to be highly controlled or made illegal.
One might think that a display on gulags would be limited to the experiences of people in Russian prison camps. The word “gulag” comes from a Russian acronym for such places, after all. Sadly, horrific tales of mistreatment, starvation, and torture can be told by prisoners from North Korea, Cuba, and many other communist countries.
For citizens of communist countries who are able to escape imprisonment, communism’s inherent weakness as an economic system routinely brings about a lack of food and many other goods. Communist countries’ disregard for human rights makes it easy for totalitarian leaders to justify another cause of fear for their citizens: the execution of individuals for no cause and with no trial.
A separate display in the museum describes the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, in which students publicly protested a variety of issues, including greater participation in Chinese politics. The protests ended with a massacre of the students. The display provides a few hundred names of those killed, but it also notes that the government has never officially recognized the total number of deaths, probably in the thousands.
All of these somber facts do not make for a cheery tour. But for Christians, it’s hard not to see the hidden power of the Cross in all this human suffering. This is most obvious in the interactive display titled “Conditions Under Communism”.
In this display, you are prompted via a computer screen to imagine that you are one of three people living in different communist countries. You are then offered choices about how you would respond to multiple real-life situations faced by these individuals. For example, if you were living in Cuba and your father was arrested and imprisoned, would you be silent about ongoing human rights violations to protect yourself (and him in prison) from further persecution? If you were a disabled child in North Korea, how bad would your life have to get before you would be willing to leave your family to walk thousands of miles to live in freedom? If you were a Lutheran pastor in East Germany under communism, how would you teach your flock about the Gospel without getting them or yourself arrested?
All of these situations were experienced by real people, and you learn their names, find out about their choices, and see their faces. Tragic as their life stories may be, these men and women know the truth about Communism, and their heroic examples witness to the power of God to help human beings triumph over incredible obstacles.
It should be noted that there is a difference between what this secular foundation calls “victims of communism” and what the Catholic Church would call “martyrs of communism”. Canonized and beatified martyrs are those Catholic men and women who lived holy lives and heroically gave up those lives out of love for Jesus Christ. The Church holds up such martyrs as exemplars for all Catholics to follow and asks for their intercession from Heaven. The Church’s current calendar already includes many martyrs who died under communism. But it is not unlikely that there are Catholics suffering in communist countries right now who will someday be declared martyrs and confessors for their heroic faithfulness to Christ and His Church. It is hard not to think about them as you look at these displays.
In 1999, the authors of The Black Book of Communism calculated that approximately 100 million men, women, and children had died under communism. The fact that so many innocent people lost their lives as victims of such an unjust system should stagger us. And communism’s refusal to acknowledge the human rights of millions of people should offend us because it certainly offends the God who made them.
That’s why we should care about communism and its victims, at least as much as we care about works of art, dinosaurs, and patriotic symbols. The victims of communism are human beings, many of whom were and are members of the body of Christ. Even those who do not know God are known by Him. And communist governments do their best to prevent their citizens from ever finding out about Christ and the promise of salvation that he offers to us.
Whether or not your summer plans involve coming to Washington, D.C., all of us can make ourselves uncomfortably aware of the unpleasant truths about communism. We can also support groups like this foundation, which exposes the cruel and duplicitous practices of communist governments both in the past and the news today.
Most importantly, we can pray for those who are living in communist countries right now. We can pray particularly for God to show us how to help make it possible for all people to live in freedom, far from communism’s false hopes and lies. God, after all, is the source of all hope, and it is only when we place our hope in him rather than the empty promises of this world that we will not be disapointed (Rom 5:5).
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