The Deadliest Ideology of the 20th Century—Elizabeth Spalding on First US Museum Honoring Victims of Communism
“Communism is premised on the state. And the state is above all. The Party is above all. There’s no transcendent truth. … Everything must serve or be made to serve the state. … So it means all life is cheap.”
Elizabeth Spalding is the founding director of the new Victims of Communism Museum in Washington, D.C. It’s the first museum in America honoring the over 100 million people killed by communism in the last century, as well as the millions more who continue to suffer under communist dictatorships to this day.
What is it like to live in a communist country? And what lessons can we learn from those who chose to resist?
Spalding is also the vice chairman of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation.
Watch Jan’s interview with Victims of Communist witness Nal Oum referenced in this episode here: Survivor of the Cambodian Genocide Nal Oum: A Heartfelt Warning to the West.
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Jan Jekielek: Dr. Elizabeth Spalding, such a pleasure to have you on American Thought Leaders.
Mrs. Elizabeth Spalding: It is a pleasure to be with you. Thank you.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, so let’s start here. Why a Victims of Communism Museum? And the second question, why aren’t there more of them?
Mrs. Spalding: I was going to actually answer that before you asked the second question. Maybe people are asking why has it taken so long to have a Victims of Communism Museum in the United States? We’re the first Victims of Communism Museum here. There are other museums around the world dedicated to victims of communism, but sometimes it’s not all of them. Sometimes it is for just the people of that particular country or experience. We were really focused on this belief in telling the story of all the victims of communism.
There are still people who don’t understand that there actually are victims of communism. They might not even understand what communism is. There are people that are out there defending communism. So we want to make sure that we have this museum that’s tangible, that’s real so that people can come and learn about what communism is and then the atrocities that it’s perpetuated for over a century now, that it’s gone on all around the world in over 30 countries, that there are still five countries today and others at risk that are communist regimes, and they’re still making more victims all the time.
Mr. Jekielek: So you’re the curator. Why don’t you give me the thumbnail here? So I don’t think I’ve even actually ever asked this question in all these interviews, what is communism?
Mrs. Spalding: Right. So that is a very good question. We had, I would say, about a four-day discussion on that going off and on with various scholars, including me. You’ll be able to see the definition that we put in gallery one. We are pointing out to people that, in communism, the state controls everything, that the impetus for it is that human beings cannot be trusted with their free choice, as well as to construct government.
In theory, the state is supposed to wither away and you have no need for government at all. But in practice, and it’s always happened this way, communism establishes a one-party state that controls every aspect of people’s lives, both politically, economically, socially, culturally, religiously, you name it, in every way.
Mr. Jekielek: How does communism view human nature differently?
Mrs. Spalding: So for the communists, human nature is completely malleable. You can go ahead and liberate them by taking away class differences and structure. And then you’re creating a new man. So in all communist literature, you’ll see mention of a new man. And then sometimes it’s associated with particular countries. In so doing, many tools are approved of, and these tend to resort to violence, terror, torture. There’s often famine that’s created by the state in communist countries.
So it’s not something that just happens naturally, even though the theory of communism says that this will inevitably occur over time. The human nature part, if you think that man is by nature basically flawed, needs to improve, should improve, what most people believe, they don’t think necessarily that all human beings are perfect. We all make mistakes every day, but they think that human beings can aspire to be better. I’d say that’s a pretty mainstream view on human nature. That’s not the way that communists look at it.
They really think that, in the end, human beings can’t make decisions for themselves because of the way society is structured. So they have to change how society is structured. So then they’ll have the way that they want human beings to be. A lot of people know about the Bolshevik Revolution or they think they know about the Bolshevik Revolution. But we wanted to make sure people understood something about it and Lenin’s centrality to it.
Some people think revolution and they think, “Oh, people rose up.” Well, this is actually a coup that is imposing communism on the people. And then we wanted people to understand that Lenin didn’t just say, “Okay, communism in Russia, that’s enough.” He took the Red Army on the road and said, “Okay, let’s spread communism.” It’s not happening inevitably or theoretically. It’s in practice and being forced. People were, I mean they had been beaten down by hundreds of years of poverty.
But Russia was at a point where it could have gone a different direction. And then the Great War, it adversely affects so many. The military isn’t able to do a good enough job. This is the first famine caused by communism. There was also a copy of The Communist Manifesto so that people could see that … Some people think manifesto, they may not even know what that means, that it was small, that it was …
Mr. Jekielek: A lot of people aren’t aware, for example, that the concept of violent revolution is baked into The Communist Manifesto, for example.
Mrs. Spalding: Yes. In The Communist Manifesto and in other early writings of Marx and Engels, it’s approved that you’ve got to get to the stage of communism and, in order to get to the stage of communism, violence is approved of, and that even what is called socialism is really a stage getting you to communism. That gets us into a whole other sticky wicket where people are saying, “Well, socialism isn’t connected to communism.”
In some places in the world, people are using socialism in a way that is not theoretically like communism. But in communism, socialism is leading you to communism or it’s a stage that is almost there at full communism.
Mr. Jekielek: By the numbers, tell me about the victims of communism. What does that look like? Obviously, these are estimates, right?
Mrs. Spalding: So for estimates, more than 100 million, and this is the figure for people that have actually been killed by communism since the beginning of the Bolshevik Revolution and what the communists have done over and over again in all these different states that have tried it or still have it. But that’s not the only victim count of communism. There are also people that are living and who lived under communist regimes that need to be counted.
Today, that figure is more than 1.5 billion people because if you count up the populations of Communist China, the PRC, North Korea, Laos, Vietnam, and Cuba, you get to over 1.5 million. Many people would add in Venezuela now. Some people would add in Nicaragua, and there are some other at-risk states. So those people are living under communism as well, and they’re victims in that they don’t get to choose freely. If they choose freely, it’s because they’ve had to make a bargain with the Communist Party.
If they choose not to do that, then they don’t live the kind of life that they would have lived if they lived in a free society. So for the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and our Victims of Communism Museum, it’s important for us that people understand not only the people that have been killed by communism and, thus, made victims, but also the people that are forced to live under communism and also, thus, are victims, even as they resist it.
Mr. Jekielek: What you just said speaks to me personally because a big reason why I’m here and not in Poland was because my mother, in the process of living in Poland, basically got the offer to join the Communist Party and refused that offer, and that changed her life. So it’s actually an opportunity I have here to maybe get you to tell me, why would that restrict someone’s life, saying no?
Mrs. Spalding: Right. So the conditions of living under communism are restrictive. It was medical background. Is that for her?
Mr. Jekielek: She was working in the health ministry, actually, Ministry of Agriculture, actually.
Mrs. Spalding: So somebody gets to study. It doesn’t mean people don’t go to school in a communist society. But at a certain point, if you want to rise in the ranks, you have to be a member of the party. The choices are limited unless you comply, unless you turn your life around to serve the state. So what we’re seeing here in your own family history is that your mother, thank God, she decided to resist. That meant that she hit a ceiling as to what she could do in Poland. But also, it meant, I’m sure, she was subject to persecution.
So you have to decide. Am I going to stay here? Am I going to live this way? Am I going to go ahead? A lot of people go ahead and decide to join the party. It’s easier. Just go along and get along. Or are you going to try to get out? I understand that’s what happened with your mom, which is a great story. The Communist Party and the state wanted her to live differently, and she said no. A major theme for us here at the Victims of Communism Museum is resistance.
We are talking about the revolution that communists wrought and what they tried to bring and that they wanted to communize the world. We are talking about repression—all the horrible oppression that communists and their states do. But also, we’re talking about resistance here at the museum, and that’s certainly something that we see in your own family story. People saying, “No, I won’t take this,” and they resist.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, and so speaking of resistance, there’s a battle that many historians have told me has been pivotal in history, but a lot of people just don’t simply know about it. Obviously, coming up here as the Bolsheviks are advancing, they basically get stopped in Warsaw. In Polish, it’s called the Miracle at the Vistula.
Mrs. Spalding: Right. Here, we’ve got the river, the picture of it right here. When we talk about how the fate of Warsaw was in the balance, it truly was. They were expected to lose, and so this is a miracle of sorts. It’s also a strategy. It was brilliant tactics on the part of General Pilsudski and his advisors and others. But this Battle of Warsaw is hard fought, and it stops the communists. It stops the Red Army. if this hadn’t stopped, then you would have had communism in this part of Europe 20 years earlier.
Mr. Jekielek: Right. Pilsudski actually kind of figures into my own family history. My great-great-uncle now, he was his personal surgeon and later the health minister. Actually, during the Battle of Warsaw, he ran the medical garrison in Warsaw.
Mrs. Spalding: Extraordinary.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, I want to talk a little bit about, let’s call it the West’s love affair with communism. I want to talk a little bit about that. Before that though, you didn’t grow up that way. You grew up being quite aware of the realities of communism, and this kind of plays into the creation of this museum. Tell me a little bit about how you ended up here.
Mrs. Spalding: So I was fortunate to grow up in a pro-freedom, anti-communist household. I was taught that all people are people and the dignity of each and every person. I didn’t realize it always when I was little. But at a certain point, I realized it wasn’t normal that coming through everybody’s house, we had people coming through from different countries. They were people who had resisted, and they got out. So some people had swum shark-infested waters to get away. Some people had burrowed under barbed wire fencing to get away. Some people were boat people from more than one country.
I met people who were boat people from Vietnam [and] people who were boat people from Cuba. Some people had gotten away because they had forged paperwork, and then other people helped them. It was almost like the equivalent of an Underground Railroad for them to get away. So I heard all of these stories from people around the world who had gotten away from communism, and my parents were very central to this. And then skip ahead a few years, after the Berlin Wall fell, I was talking with my parents about how people were forgetting things.
This was of grave concern to my parents who have both been fighting communism pretty much their whole lives. We were having brunch one Sunday after church, and it was just a couple of months after the wall fell. My mother said, “You know, there should be some sort of memorial and museum to the victims of communism.” My father said, “That’s a great idea.” So he took his napkin from under his coffee cup and took out his pen and wrote down victims of communism, a memorial and museum.
That was really the start of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, which was then chartered by a unanimous act of Congress in 1993, signed into law by President Bill Clinton. And then it took a number of years to get to the memorial. VOC was very busy, all people working for free, including my father, who’s Lee Edwards, who’s just been somebody all of his life working on these kinds of issues and finally raised enough money for a memorial that’s on federal parkland in Washington, DC that was dedicated to the nation in 2007 by President George W. Bush.
So it’s always been something that’s been nonpartisan, bringing together all Americans and people from around the world who understand that the victims of communism should be remembered. And then they wanted to do a museum. That takes a lot of money. Communism is sometimes just not understood or forgotten about. People don’t see it as bad as perhaps Nazism. Now, Nazism’s horrible. I think it’s so very important that there’s the Holocaust Museum here in Washington, DC, and that there are various museums elsewhere.
But the victims of communism deserve the same kind of museum and memorialization and everything else that we’ve done for the Holocaust survivors and those, of course, who were killed by the Nazis. So work on the museum continued. There were some roadblocks along the way. Raising money is not easy. Finally, about several years ago, some more bigger donations came in, not enough to do a museum the size of the Holocaust Museum, but to do something. That’s when we decided, okay, let’s find a space where we can do what we’re calling a jewel box museum, something that tells the story about all of the victims of communism in a small space, but do it well, do it as thoroughly as we can and tell it compellingly.
So I became a member of the board of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation four years ago during COVID when some people took on hobbies. This was really a labor of love for me. I’ve spent, as I said, the better part of two years on this and researching and working with other scholars, but also writing and editing everything that people see on the walls in the museum.
Mr. Jekielek: I was thinking, 1993, the idea is kind of born. But at this point in 1993, there were plenty of victims of communism, and this is the first one. It’s almost hard to fathom that that would be the case.
Mrs. Spalding: There was resistance to even having a memorial because even though there are some American victims of communism who have come here, people said, “Well, isn’t that something that’s somewhere else? Why should there be a national memorial to the victims of communism the way that you walk up and down the mall in Washington, DC, and see different memorials and statues?” So it took a lot of education on the part of my father and others to explain why the victims of communism were deserving.
And then by the time we got to picking a statue for the memorial, there was discussion about that. We picked the Goddess of Democracy from Tiananmen Square because part of what we’ve always been teaching at VOC is that especially that year, 1989, you get all of this glorious victory going on for those who resisted from within, those who resisted without, the pressure that the West put on from without in Europe. And then of course, it takes a little bit longer for the Soviet Union to collapse. That doesn’t happen until Christmastime in 1991.
But anyway, you have this amazing series of events and changes in 1989, but it is also the year of Tiananmen Square. People forget. They think that, “Well, was China even still communist? What happened?” So we wanted to make sure that for the memorial, we had a symbol that showed resistance, but look, the communists are still around. Look what they’re still doing.
Mr. Jekielek: You have another replica of the Goddess of Democracy in the entranceway.
Mrs. Spalding: Yes. I’m looking forward to showing you. It’s a cast of the original statue, and we’re fortunate to have a niche here that’s big enough for it to have a permanent home.
Mr. Jekielek: Another thing that I find a lot of people aren’t aware of is that communism eats its own. There’s umpteen examples of the kind of true believer communists and various societies becoming the next victims of communism. I noticed Bukharin as a textbook example of this. So tell me a little bit about maybe his story, but also why.
Mrs. Spalding: Communism does indeed eat its own, and the story happens over and over again in different country after different country. So it’s not something that’s unique to the Soviet experience. But here at the museum, we wanted to show a famous example because a lot of people don’t even know the famous examples. So in our second gallery, our permanent gallery downstairs, we have various victims of communism that are more personally presented because a lot of people, they look at the abstract numbers, the more than 100 million, the more than 1.5 billion.
Especially, you think of a group of school kids, “Oh, those are big numbers. What does that mean?” So we were showing different types of victims of communism in this particular gallery. I said, “Well, there should be a victim of communism that’s communist,” because of this very question you raise. Nikolai Bukharin is extraordinary. He’s somebody that you wouldn’t have expected to be killed by his own. He was a dedicated Bolshevik and communist. He’s there at the beginning with Lenin and Trotsky.
He becomes very close to Stalin as time goes on. He is an editor of “Pravda” [and] an editor of “Izvestia.” All the different councils you can think of, he’s there. He’s a very important figure. And then Joseph Stalin, during the Great Terror during the Purges, he is saying who could be a competitor, who doesn’t seem to be following me 100 percent because Bukharin had some concerns and started to voice them. So he arrests or has his people arrest Bukharin, and Bukharin is subject to an unfair prosecution, some torture, even though some people say not. But most people agree that he was tortured.
He even says when he’s signing his confession, “I’m not guilty of the crimes to which I am admitting right now.” So that’s a classic kind of confession from a communist victim of communism, and he’s executed. This is something that we wanted to make sure people understood. So in that same gallery, we have the Holodomor. We have children of the Holodomor, so that people understand that the communists killed children, too, not just adults. We have a victim of communism who’s from Hungary and is clergy. That’s a famous example as well of Cardinal Mindszenty. Mindszenty was in prison for years and then forced to live in the U.S. Embassy for years when he could finally …
Anyway, the twists and turns of all of this almost boggle the mind. They really do. But the communists do this over and over again and whether it’s innocent or even their own. And then they can’t do it through legal means, so they create something and make people go through the show trial or whatever else they’re doing, that they get a false confession from or the person doesn’t comply, continues to resist, and then imprisonment, torture, often execution.
Mr. Jekielek: I do want to touch on the Holodomor. Millions of Ukrainians starve to death because of Stalin’s policy. Now at the time, and this goes back to this other question that I had was the West’s love affair with communism. We had Walter Duranty reporting for “The New York Times” during the Holodomor, and he sent back glowing reports that everything’s great. Essentially, what was supposed to be the paper of record in America was reporting very, very positively at a time where millions of people were being starved to death.
Mrs. Spalding: Yes. It’s also, unfortunately, another anniversary has ticked around for the Holodomor because that was 1932, ’33. So it’s the 90th anniversary now of this horrible state-made, communist-made famine. Famine happens in so many communist countries and typically not naturally. The other thing that’s very … I mean many things about the Holodomor. That is not the only famine that communism visits upon Ukraine. That is actually the second of three famines. There’s a famine under Lenin that hits Ukraine very hard. The Holodomor, death by hunger is what it means, some people translate that as extermination by hunger, took millions.
So the first famine took a million or more of Ukrainians—this Holodomor famine. The numbers, it’s always very hard to count. You don’t have death certificates for everybody. Scholars in more recent years have now settled on four million, give or take, for the Holodomor. Impossible quotas were required. The horrible thing about, I mean, many horrible things, but the Ukrainians could have still continued to feed themselves and everybody else practically, except for how the communists came in and said, “No, we need these quotas met,” and they were impossible quotas to meet.
“We’re taking your crops and selling them abroad. We’re taking them and sending some of them back to Moscow. We are now even taking your seed and grain.” I mean it kept going and going and going. And then they sealed in the Ukrainians. They wouldn’t let them leave their farms. They wouldn’t let them leave their villages. They wouldn’t let them leave their country. So they were consigning them to death that way. There were some brave people who tried to counter Duranty and “The New York Times.” I’m very glad that people are starting to do stories, including movies.
There’s a fairly recent movie, “Mr. Jones,” which goes through this history. He was an extraordinary journalist who people said, “Oh, no, no, no. You haven’t found anything.” He went into Ukraine even when he was told not to and brought the truth out. So I recommend that to viewers. But this is something that millions and millions died who didn’t have to die. The communists, they don’t care about life either. This is another truth of communism that life is very cheap to them.
Stalin ordered it. This one, Stalin ordered. He knew that people would die, and he said, “Okay, but here’s what I want.” So it’s extraordinary to think on. We need people to understand that you don’t want that. That’s not the way that any leader or any country, any state should run things.
Mr. Jekielek: Why is life cheap under communism?
Mrs. Spalding: I think it’s because for several reasons, but a major reason is because communism is premised on the state, and the state is above all. The party is above all. There’s no transcendent truth. So we live in America and a lot of people might believe in God. They might not. But they at least know there’s religious liberty. There’s no religious liberty under communism. It’s based on atheism. So if you say that the state is the be all to end all, then everything must serve or be made to serve the state. That’s what happens under communism.
The state and the party are the same thing. So it means all life is cheap in comparison to that. Then if you think about Soviet and others, this goes on and on around the world under communism. You think of the dictators. You think of the tyrants that run communist states. Many of them that are successful also build a personality cult. So Lenin does it. Stalin does it. Mao does it, plenty of examples. So then everything has to serve or be made to serve the state, and everything has to be serving or made to serve that particular dictator.
You get the combination of the two, and all other life doesn’t matter. It’s all expendable.
Mr. Jekielek: Let me go back to this original idea, which is with everything you’ve said, why do so many in the West have a favorable view of this ideology?
Mrs. Spalding: I think at bottom, a lot of it is ignorance. I think a lot of it is that we don’t teach in our schools. I think some of it has to do with the way that communism has been taught, including in graduate schools, which I know not everybody wants to even think about these kinds of things or maybe has thought about these kinds of things. But we’ve had a lot of people learn that communism isn’t so bad or hasn’t been tried or whatever, and it’s that they don’t know the real truth about it.
So they don’t know about the ideology. They don’t know about the history. And then they don’t know about the legacy. If you don’t know that, then you’re not going to have an accurate picture of things. So it starts with that. There’s something about the West self-exams itself and then doesn’t think that there might be something pernicious trying to tear it down, and they don’t see the destructive part of communism. So I think that’s been part of it.
I think that as time went on under communism, and once you get to World War II, the Soviets become part of the Allies in World War II. So there’s an entire generation that was taught that even if you thought there was something wrong with communism before World War II, the USSR is our ally. But because of the Soviet Union being an ally against Nazism in World War II, many people don’t realize that then communists were doing as bad or worse things than the Nazis and that there’s still horrible things going on under communist regimes.
You should go ahead and just say you don’t want any of them. But that for a lot of people, for a long time, communism must have been okay because Stalin and the Soviet Union were against the Nazis. So I think that’s part of it as well.
Mr. Jekielek: What about, for lack of a better term, communist infiltration. There was a very high profile defector some years back, Yuri Bezmenov, for example, who explained … There was a lot of debate about whether what he said was true, whether he was far-fetched, but he talked about a very extensive plan by the Soviets to break down the West, as you were talking about earlier. So tell me about that.
Mrs. Spalding: It’s clear when you get more coming out of archives, too, from various former communist countries that communists were trying to break down things in the West, that they wanted to especially drive a wedge between the United States and its allies in Europe. This was something that was perhaps not always systematic, but always a goal. More and more evidence has come out in archival work that the Soviets especially were very sophisticated in looking at, okay, well, we’ll do this militarily. We’ll do this politically. We’ll do this in espionage. We’ll do this.
They were trying to do different ways of breaking down the West. So there are many more stories to be told, but part of it is getting that information out there.
Mr. Jekielek: Talking about Communist China, even today, even as we know there’s at least one, if not three, genocides actively happening there, being perpetrated by the communist regime there, even today, some people say, “It’s not communist anymore over there.” Or they’ll say something like, “Look, they lifted millions out of poverty.” How do you respond to this?
Mrs. Spalding: Right. I’ve heard many people say that China is somehow more of a capitalist country now because it’s allowed some market practices, but the market practices are still controlled by the state. So it’s not capitalism the way we’re used to it in the West, especially, when I say the West, I include Japan and others that are geographically in the East, but they are part of the West. It’s a single-party state. It’s a single-party communist state. It hasn’t stopped defining itself as communist, so that’s something else.
It’s violating human rights up, down, and around, all over the place to serve the state. So it’s still communist that way. I think a lot of people will say it was better at one point. This is something you often hear about China. It was better for a while. Well, it was better relative to being horrible under Mao, but it was still operating as a communist state even then. And then the reformers were not willing to get rid of everything.
If they were going to allow some market mechanisms, they weren’t going to do full market. They were never going to change politically because China, one of their main takeaways from the collapse of the Soviet Union and what happened before then in Eastern and Central Europe was, “Oh, we’re not going to do it that way. We’re going to keep political repression and control even if we experiment with some things on the market side.”
I think also the fact that the PLA owns so much of a lot of what’s going on. When you have the military that is involved with something, it’s not free, and they’re serving the state, too. So you add it all up. Then you get a very concerning thing that shows that it’s still a communist country. Is it always the same every day like it was, for example, in the Mao period? No, but Xi Jinping is clearly … We’re in another period where it’s worse again. Even the better stages, like if I think about it, did I want to live under Brezhnev? No.
Did I want to live under Stalin? No. Would I take Brezhnev over Stalin if those are my options? Sure. This is the kind of thing that you’re going through, but it’s all communist states. That’s the case for China. I do think at least in the last couple of years, more people are waking up about some of the atrocities that are going on. Thankfully, it’s finally happening that people know. Now we got to work on exerting pressure so things will stop and the situation will improve for everybody.
Mr. Jekielek: You described this as a living museum. I go back to this in different interviews. It’s difficult for people who haven’t tasted lack of freedom at a societal level to grasp what that might be like. Similarly, the reverse may also be true to some extent.
Mrs. Spalding: Let’s go and look at it very simply. What if somebody realized that each day they’re not allowed to talk about what they want to talk about. First of all, somebody would be trying to tell you, “Don’t think the way you want to think or don’t believe the way you want to believe or worship the way you want to worship,” or whatever, so all the stuff that internally, that maybe behind a blank face, we could still be doing freely.
But then if that person tells you, “Okay, now you can’t even really wear what you want to wear. You can’t go to school the way you want to go to school necessarily. You can’t work at what you want to work at. You can’t interact with certain people because of whatever class they are.” You might be asked to talk about what your friends and family are doing, rather than keeping that private.
If we keep showing people these are the conditions of living under communism and that even the countries that are trying to offer more opportunities, I suppose … If you think about something like Vietnam, where they’re experimenting with certain things more with the market, if somebody wants to really exercise their free speech, then they’re put in jail still there. If they are opposed to the party, if they’re opposed to the state, it’s not free for every person in Vietnam.
If you still take on the state, if you still take on the party, then you’re going to be imprisoned. Your life is not going to be yours to live. You’re going to resist, which that’s a good thing. But I think going back to just telling people, especially young people, because so much of our focus here at Victims of Communism and the museum is helping the future generations, rising generations understand communism now, as well as the history.
If they just understood, okay, look, you just wanted to do that or you wanted to do a TikTok. Okay, well, it’s being monitored by so-and-so, and you can’t do this one. Or you want to get together with your friends and do this. No, you can’t do that now. It’s not because your parents are concerned for your safety. It’s because the Communist Party or the state is telling you can’t. Then maybe that would reach people, that they see that this really is something that’s in opposition to what we take for granted, for what we live under in the United States and other liberal democratic nations.
We’re going to be entering gallery three, and this covers from the end of World War II to the present. One of the features in here is an interactive. Would you like to try this?
Mr. Jekielek: I would love to try this. This is fantastic. Let’s check it out.
Mrs. Spalding: This is to show conditions under communism. Not everybody’s killed by communism, but they still have to live under communism. You get to choose if you want to be somebody from Cuba or from North Korea or from East Germany. You can go to easy way, the hard way. You’ll see that you get choices.
Mr. Jekielek: So I’m the daughter of a resistance leader.
Mrs. Spalding: That’s right. And your father has just disappeared after a protest.
Mr. Jekielek: Okay. Begin your journey.
Mrs. Spalding: He’s been killed.
Mr. Jekielek: So will you fight the state media’s lies in response? The state media is basically saying this-
Mrs. Spalding: That he died in a car accident and they had nothing to do with it, even though you’ve heard other reports that state security were trailing along in the car and pushed it off the road.
Mr. Jekielek: Oh, okay. I’m fighting.
Mrs. Spalding: So now you have your choices, as you can see here. One is don’t respond. Just be quiet. Comply. Here, you have a couple of choices if you want to fight.
Mr. Jekielek: Okay. Hunger strike. Tell the story to a BBC reporter, to an international reporter. Don’t respond to the regime’s lies. I’m going to pick this one because I think that actually most people would probably do this because the consequences of standing up are too much.
Mrs. Spalding: So you get your father’s body back, but you have to issue a statement saying that the government had nothing to do with his murder. Your brother and you are still the children of this great dissident and an entire movement that he began. So these are the consequences of choices.
Mr. Jekielek: Cuban citizens stage a march. They’re arrested and imprisoned under inhumane conditions. Fascinating. This is a really developed story you’ve got going here.
Mrs. Spalding: Yes. We were talking about how some people don’t understand that it affects every little choice, everything, every day. Somebody living under the conditions of communism, what do they have to do? They get up in the morning and maybe still inside their head they’re thinking their free thoughts, but then everything they’re doing to the outside world, they have to make a choice.
Mr. Jekielek: Sometimes the choices you have to make are impossible choices.
Mrs. Spalding: That’s right. That’s right. This is not the, “Am I getting a cup of coffee today? Am I spending the $3 or $5 to get the dressed-up drink?” Whatever. These are not the kinds of choices that you’re having to make. These are life and death and perhaps going into prison kind of choices.
For all of these stories, they’re actually based on real people who made their own choices. We want visitors, especially young people who will be attracted to playing a game to understand that they made different choices sometimes than the actual person did, but these choices are based on real people. I’ve heard this over and over again from survivors where they say, “They can’t do anything worse to me,” after they’ve lost a family member and then they keep fighting.
[Sound bite]: … the consequence of what I do. … to work. I wanted to transform.
Mr. Jekielek: It’s been shocking to me, speaking with people in the educational space, how little, for example, people learn in teachers college about these realities or how few, I’ll say, sanctioned units are explaining the kinds of things that we’ve been talking about today to students.
Mrs. Spalding: It is shocking. There’s a lot of history to cover in K12. So I think some of it is you just can’t get through everything. That is a given. But then what do you teach? What ends up in the textbooks? What ends up, especially in public schools, that’s required to be covered and taught? We have spearheaded Victims of Communism Day. It’s been now adopted by a handful of states. Virginia is the first one. Florida’s the most recent. Our goal, we hope, is that all 50 states will have a Victims of Communism Day.
And then in various states that have adopted a Victims of Communism Day, they are now talking about should we offer a curriculum? So Florida actually has passed a couple of pieces of legislation requiring education on communism and the victims of communism. I think that’s something that I commend to other states. Some states have it, but it’s not something that we have nationwide. That’s one important thing to do. Captive Nations Week has been around since President Eisenhower, since the 1950s. It is-
Mr. Jekielek: What are captive nations?
Mrs. Spalding: Captive nations are those that are held under communist regimes. At one point, it was very much focused on the Soviet Union, its satellite countries, China, other countries in Asia, but now it’s to not only teach people about past as well as present. But it still goes on. It’s the third week of July. Wouldn’t it be great if teachers knew that and would be teaching students like, “Okay, so here’s some possible summer activities.” A lot of times kids have to do this in the summer.
One of your possible activities would be to attend something for captive nations in July and then report on it when you get back to school. So there’s always something here in Washington for that. VOC does things as well. We always have an annual event, and that’s when we have our national teachers seminar every summer for ongoing certification for teachers. It’s open to middle school and high school teachers, whether they teach in public school, private school, religious school, or homeschool. We’re open to everybody.
So this is something where we’re just trying to get the education out there so that people know. That’s what it is. It’s person by person, student by student, teaching them so that they understand what happened, what is happening, and that they should care about these victims.
Mr. Jekielek: I’ll just mention to our viewers that we have a very, very popular American Thought Leaders episode is with one of your witnesses, Nal Oum, one of the few medical doctors to survive the Cambodian genocide. Very, very powerful story.
Mrs. Spalding: Yes. I think every student, by the time they’re graduating from high school, they should know what the Khmer Rouge and Pol Pot did, that they should know about that genocide. That’s something that I’m shocked that not everybody knows about the Killing Fields, but if they know about the Holocaust, then they should know what happened in Cambodia.
Mr. Jekielek: You have an amazing collection of Nikolai Getman throughout the museum. I was looking at these paintings and there’s one in particular with skulls and a cross that is just shocking so deeply to the core. It speaks to the realities of communist systems being implemented throughout the world. For a lot of people, they don’t want to fathom. People in free societies, they maybe aren’t ready to understand that this level of evil is possible.
Mrs. Spalding: Yes, yes. Sometimes art can help people understand that in a way that history … We’re not going to give up on the history. We have to do the history. But art, so whether it’s something like the Getman paintings, or you mentioned earlier 1984, what we can get from great novels. I would put some memoirs in that same category of art. The way they’re written often, they reach people that way rather than as a straightforward history book.
But back on Getman, he was a survivor of the Gulag, Ukrainian, sent to the Gulag for no real reason. He survives. He gets back home. His brother didn’t make it back home. His brother was sent to the Gulag, too. So he starts painting, and he has to paint some of them in secret because, of course, he’s still living under a communist regime when he’s out. So we have some of his landscapes here that you can see, and those are the ones he could admit he was painting. But much of the collection, he did 50 paintings, he had to keep secret what he was painting.
People have called this essentially the visual Gulag archipelago, that what you get from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in writing in that amazing masterpiece, you get from Getman in painting. So the one that you talked about is he’s trying to show people the deaths of this atheistic regime and then that God can still conquer, but how hard. The way that we have them hung in the stairwell where you’re talking about that’s with the Goddess of Democracy cast, on the one side, it’s the one that struck you so much.
On the other side is Getman’s own imagining of his brother being taken away from the NKVD. He didn’t see that happen, but he knows that’s what happened to his brother. He’s painting the evil. There are also, though, paintings where he paints people resisting. It’s everything. It’s about the human condition, and Getman covers all of that.
Mr. Jekielek: NKVD, of course, being the precursor to the KGB.
Mrs. Spalding: That’s right.
Mr. Jekielek: Soviet Union.
Mrs. Spalding: That’s right.
Mr. Jekielek: Very briefly because some people might not be familiar. The Gulag, what is the Gulag?
Mrs. Spalding: So the Gulag is a horrible system of labor camps where people were literally forced to work and starved to death. It was a network that grew to over 475 camps just in the Soviet Union. There were Gulag camps in other communist countries, and there still are. In some ways, you can call North Korea a camp unto itself, the whole country. But all communist countries have had some kind of system like this. Gulag was an acronym, so that’s why we call it Gulag for the Soviet experience, for what the letters stand for.
It wasn’t as if people were put on trial in a legitimate and fair trial, found guilty and said, “Okay, now you’re going to a camp.” It was people who were found guilty of things that they hadn’t done. Sometimes they were mixed in with people who were actually criminals. But a lot of innocent people were sent to these camps for arbitrary reasons, but they were found guilty. And then they were given long sentences typically, years and years. Some of them would never leave of course, and were killed.
And then they had horrid conditions, not enough to eat. In gallery two, we actually show what a typical bread ration was like. It wasn’t yummy out of the oven, warm bread. It was stuff that you could chip your tooth on, if you were lucky to still have your teeth and the scurvy hadn’t taken them away. So it was just something that was endemic to the Soviet Union. It didn’t matter what you had done, you could end up there.
As I said, in other communist countries, there are still camps. Sometimes they rename them to try to make them seem not so bad, but they’re still there. There are camps right now, of course, in Jinjiang. That’s part of what people should understand, that in Northwest China, this is going on. There are still camps. They don’t always look the same, but there are camps.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, and there was the Laogai system that’s across China-
Mrs. Spalding: That’s right. That’s right.
Mr. Jekielek: … but many people say it was just kind of renamed at one point.
Mrs. Spalding: Yes. There are still people that are in what we would call the Laogai. It’s just the Chinese Communist Party renamed it. You were not found legitimately guilty of something. It’s not like a prison sentence where, okay, now we’re trying to rehabilitate you and you’re going to be back out after you served your time. You’re a citizen again. This is not the case. The reeducation part is still very punitive. Labor is always involved in some way.
Mr. Jekielek: This is what I was just thinking. You’ve mentioned rehabilitation. This is something that is very central to our penal system. But so here in these communist states, you’re actually being “rehabilitated,” I say that in quotes, reeducated for your ideology not matching, basically, in a lot of cases.
Mrs. Spalding: Yes. So that’s something to understand about communism and the victims it creates. It’s entirely an ideological purpose. Communism sets up an entire system based on a radical ideology where then it wants to make people agree and make people live according to it, make people conform, and is willing to imprison people in the most horrible circumstances to be reeducated into that, if they’re not starved in the meantime or worked to death in the meantime.
Mr. Jekielek: Let’s, as we finish up, talk a little bit about the resistance and your focus on people today living in these communist societies.
Mrs. Spalding: That’s right. I’ve said how, during the course of the permanent galleries of the museum, we want people to understand that resistance is there from the start. We talked about the Battle of Warsaw. We’ve talked about how under some of the worst things that Stalin did, there were still people resisting, even willing to say, “No, I won’t confess,” and they got executed. In our third permanent gallery at the museum, we have even more stories of resistance.
We have a film that focuses on some of them, and that includes even some big names, somebody like John Paul II, who of course, was an ultimate kind of resistor to both Nazism and communism and helps encourage other resistors by that trip that he takes the first time back to his native Poland in 1979 the year after he’s selected as pope. What if he hadn’t been able to do that trip? He pushes hard to do that trip.
The communists don’t want him to come back, and he just keeps at it and keeps at it and keeps at it. But that helps to lead you to solidarity. That helps to lead you to all of the resistance that grows during the course of the 1980s, not only in Poland, but throughout the region, throughout Central and Eastern Europe. That’s another what if. What if you hadn’t had that kind of resistance, too? And then we’re very fortunate here that we’re going to have visiting exhibits.
Our current visiting exhibit is on Tiananmen Square, and it does show the horrible things that were done by the communists in Tiananmen Square in June 1989. But also, you see examples of resistance. So it has to be. It has to be. You cannot tell this story. We want people to understand that it is actually evil what communism has done and continues to do, but that also people are people and that they have this innate spirit. They want freedom. They know what that means, and they’re going to fight for it, and that takes the form of resistance, especially when you’re behind the Iron Curtain or the bamboo Curtain.
Mr. Jekielek: Huge congratulations for basically setting up the first Victims of Communism Museum, I think, in North America. Just tell us a bit about how people can come here.
Mrs. Spalding: Yes. You can go ahead and set up an appointment online if you want to in advance. Go to our website. Even if you just Google Victims of Communism Museum, it’ll pop up. So if you want to do something during a vacation or whatever, people come from outside the area, from around the world. We want everybody to come here. But we’re open Monday through Friday, 9:00 to 3:00.
If you have a student group and you want to set up other hours, please do that. We’re very focused on wanting to make sure that as many school groups and student groups as possible can come here. And then we have Saturday hours as well from 10:00 to 4:00. Contact VOC if you’re with a group that would like to try to set up a meeting at the same time with a witness or some other expert.
Mr. Jekielek: This is what I was going to ask, actually, because that really is a big part, I think, of the museum.
Mrs. Spalding: Yes.
Mr. Jekielek: I’ve met some incredible people through you.
Mrs. Spalding: Yes. And our foundation, overall. The museum’s part of the foundation, and we want to make sure that people meet people, if they can, if they have time and if we have time to set it up with them, that have survived, that have made it through, that have resisted, that are now witnesses. That’s what our Witness Project is about. We have videos that people can watch as well. But we’re connecting that with the museum.
VOC, at the end, we’re an educational, research, and human rights nonprofit organization. This museum is this tangible manifestation of what we do.
Mr. Jekielek: Many people I’ve spoken with that have come from these countries have told me, “You might think that it can’t happen here.” I’m thinking of one particular young man from Venezuela where one of the most prosperous countries in the world is no longer so under this ideology. So what do you say to people that would say it can never happen here?
Mrs. Spalding: Right. I say you have to say, “It will never happen here,” and then make sure that you’re working hard [so] that it will never happen here. We are a country and a people based on rights, based on rights from nature and nature’s God, as it says in the Declaration of Independence. If we allow somebody to define all that for us, then it could happen here. I mean people in other communist countries didn’t think it would happen there. Venezuela is a great example. But over and over again, people didn’t think it was going to happen. And then it happened.
I think for all the advantages that we have from technology, from having now everything at our hands in a computer that fits in our palm, that we have to realize that you can maybe be open to things that aren’t always true. I’m telling my students constantly, “You have to double source that,” and I don’t mean two different sources that are actually the same. I mean two separate sources. I want real sources. We have to do that in our daily lives.
We have to realize that freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of assembly, freedom of the press, all of these things are precious and can be either given away or taken away if we don’t understand what they are and live them appropriately and responsibly.
Mr. Jekielek: Well, Dr. Elizabeth Spalding, it’s such a pleasure to have you on the show.
Mrs. Spalding: Thank you, Jan. It was great to be with you.
Mr. Jekielek: Thank you all for joining Dr. Elizabeth Spalding and me on this episode of American Thought Leaders. I’m your host, Jan Jekielek.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
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