Human Rights and the Legacy of Communism: A Visit to the Victims of Communism Museum

By M.A Student, Jair Peltier

On a sunny day in late September, the MA in Human Rights cohort from the Catholic University of America visited the Victims of Communism Museum in the heart of D.C. As we were ushered into the fortress we were greeted by one of the founders of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation, Mr. Lee Edwards. Edwards welcomed us to the museum and immediately took us up the stairs to see a centerpiece sculpture, The Goddess of Democracy. This statue is a replica of a statue erected by student protestors in Tiananmen Square, many of whom were massacred in 1989 by the Chinese army. The original was made out of foam and papier-mache; today it stands defiantly in stone as a reminder of their sacrifice. The dedication, “to the more than one hundred million victims of communism and to those who love liberty,”  would set the tone for our entire visit. 

As we were led up the stairs we passed through the temporary exhibit: Holodomor Then; Genocide Now; Justice When. This exhibit showcases the deliberate genocide of Ukranian peasant farmers by Stalin and the Soviet government. They cut off imports of food while simultaneously ceasing the produce of farmers in Ukraine as a part of collectivized agriculture, all with the intent to starve them. Various artifacts display the extent of the suffering endured including personal articles of life under perpetual famine as well as writings from victims describing their plight. This exhibit is especially relevant today considering ongoing efforts by the Kremlin to justify the current war in Ukraine by, among other things, downplaying the events surrounding Holodomor and the Soviet Union’s crimes. This exhibit is open until February 4th, 2024.

After a brief discussion on the formation of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation and how the museum came to be, Mr. Edwards proceeded to lead us through the museum himself through the VOC’s three main galleries. The first gallery tells the story of how Communism proliferated from a single pamphlet on historical materialism by Karl Marx. The ideas posited in The Communist Manifesto by Marx and Freidrich Engels, established a framework of revolution for anyone willing to organize. The tensions between the czar and the peasantry in early 20th century Russia proved to be a prime environment to execute a Communist revolution. Vladimir Lenin lead the revolt along with the Bulshevek’s and “innovated” Marxist-Communism, which ironically advocates for a decentralized, stateless society,  into a “vanguard” party system that consolidated power into a small, all encompassing central committee. 

Leninist-Communism formed the foundation for Stalin’s Terror which is the central theme of the second exhibition hall. Here we were shown glimpses of life under Joseph Stalin and his regime of terror whereby any kind of political dissidence or really anything less than emphatic support for Stalin and the party were met with brutality and, in many cases, death. Some particularly haunting displays in this exhibit were small portions of rock hard bread given in the gulag for a day of hard labor, felt shows that prisoners were expected to wear in the freezing Siberian wilderness, and a teddy bear of a young polish girl, shipped off to a place grown men hardly survive.

After gleaming Stalin’s horrors we came upon a more hopeful chapter in the history of Communism. The final gallery, entitled Miracles and Tears, draws attention to the year 1989 or the “year of miracles,” when the communist bloc regimes began to domino into democracies. After decades of repression, censorship, and violence, many countries gained back their freedom in what many had hoped to mark the beginning of a new era of peace and prosperity. The exhibit ends on the somber reminder that there are still 1.5 billion people living under repressive communist regimes across the world including in China, Cuba, Laos, North Korea, and Vietnam. As we exited through the anteroom we were met with countless faces on the wall; faces of people who have “fought, shed blood, and died” standing against Communism; 100 million people have died standing for freedom. The Victims of Communism Museum reminds us to remember them. 

We ended our visit where we started; as we congregated under the Goddess of Democracy statue we reflected on the value and necessity of places like this. In modern life, it’s easy to forget the people who are suffering elsewhere in the world. It’s easy to brush off the sins of the past and overlook the sins of the present in the pursuit of business interests or under the guise of national sovereignty. But we must never forget what happens when any state represses freedom and seeks to control all aspects of social life. The Victims of Communism Museum itself reminds us that we are not so far removed from Stalin’s Russia or Mao’s China, and that we must now, more than ever, stand for the protection of Human Rights around the globe. As Martin Luther King said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Any violation of Human Rights is a threat to the dignity and freedom of all people everywhere.