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Russia-Ukraine war: Knowledge of communist history will help Americans understand invasion, expert says


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To understand the Russia-Ukraine war, one must understand the history of communism – and more specifically, Russian communism. 

That’s according to Andrew Bremberg, president of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation (VOC) and former U.S. permanent representative to the United Nations.

“Young Americans know very little, and frequently nothing, about Josef Stalin – the brutal leader of the USSR that took over after Lenin and took his crimes under communism and really ratcheted them up,” Bremberg said. “I think people know nothing of the Holodomor, which was Stalin’s planned famine in Ukraine that killed over 10 million people during the time.”

Soviet Premier Josef Stalin (1879-1953) in 1949. (Keystone/Getty Images)

Soviet Premier Josef Stalin (1879-1953) in 1949. (Keystone/Getty Images)

At the time of the Holodomor, known as the Great Famine, when Westerners were suffering from the Great Depression in the early 1930s, socialism and communism were “very much in vogue,” Bremberg explained.

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“It is a terrible chapter in human history of the 20th century, and the vast majority of young Americans truly know nothing about [it]. Just knowing that one fact, I believe, can really materially change how a person understands communism,” he said. “And, frankly, I think it has an effect on how people understand the attacks and crisis today” in Ukraine.

Two peasant women collecting fallen grain on a collective farm near Belgorod, during the man-made Holodomor famine in the Ukraine 1934. (Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

Two peasant women collecting fallen grain on a collective farm near Belgorod, during the man-made Holodomor famine in the Ukraine 1934. (Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images)

VOC’s mission is to commemorate “the more than 100 million victims of communism around the world” and pursue “the freedom of those still living under totalitarian regimes.”

The foundation published a report last year that found an increasing number of young Americans are unaware that some 100 million people have been killed by communist parties in power over the last century, and many are unaware that the Chinese Communist Party is responsible for more deaths than Nazi Germany.

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While Russia is a socialist country today, Bremberg argued that it is being led by a “dictator” and former KGB leader, President Vladimir Putin, who is “trying to legitimize and rehabilitate the image of Josef Stalin – specifically him as a person – and of the Soviet empire.”

Russian President Vladimir Putin enters the hall to address Tokyo 2020 Paralympic medalists during the meeting at the Grand Kremlin Palace, on Sept. 13, 2021, in Moscow, Russia. (Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

Russian President Vladimir Putin enters the hall to address Tokyo 2020 Paralympic medalists during the meeting at the Grand Kremlin Palace, on Sept. 13, 2021, in Moscow, Russia. (Mikhail Svetlov/Getty Images)

“Putin knows the history of communism in 20th century, and if we do not, we are at a significant disadvantage in not understanding what is going on, why it is happening, and … the important historical context for what is happening,” the former U.N. ambassador said.

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Bremberg traveled to Europe before Putin invaded Ukraine to meet with heads of state in Romania, Poland and Hungary to discuss the countries’ respective histories battling communism in an effort to “build a relationship” with those countries and better tell their stories here in the U.S.

VOC is building a museum dedicated to victims of communism from more than 40 nations since 1917 in Washington, D.C., and it is set to open in May.

Since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine began, however, the tone of Bremberg’s conversations with foreign leaders has shifted. Officials have been reflecting on their own country’s battles against Russia and communism as Ukraine comes under Putin’s fire.

A century ago, the Red Army invaded Poland with the intent of taking over Central Europe, and Polish citizens stepped up during the invasion to help defend the country’s capital of Warsaw, which is reminiscent of Ukrainians defending Kyiv today.

In 1956, Hungarian people helped defend Budapest when Russia tried to invade during the Hungarian Revolution. 

“We can look at and see lots of parallels to what we’re seeing in Ukraine today” when looking at Central Europe’s previous battles against the Soviets, Bremberg said.

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Much of the dialogue in Europe surrounding the Ukraine crisis paints Ukraine and its citizens in a positive light, and the same is happening in the United States.

Russian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has insisted on staying in Ukraine’s capital of Kyiv as Russian missiles strike the city and a military convoy edges slowly toward the center of the capital, despite an offer from the U.S. to help him evacuate.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stands alongside other government officials in a video posted to social media Friday and vows to defend the country from a Russian invasion.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy stands alongside other government officials in a video posted to social media Friday and vows to defend the country from a Russian invasion.
(Armed Forces of Ukraine)

In Russia, citizens have risked arrest to protest Putin’s war against Ukraine – something that would not have happened during the Cold War, according to Bremberg. 

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“It is hopeful, inspiring to see many thousands of Russians protest this war, and that most likely never would have happened under the previous communist regimes,” he explained. “[B]ut one difference, frankly, is that I think the regime probably cared or feared a popular uprising, whereas I fear that today that Putin actually just doesn’t.”

He said he fears “Putin is so isolated and separate” from the Russian people “that regardless of how they may protest,” the impact of sanctions – with “Russia being basically cut off from much of the rest of the world” – will be more significant on them than Putin and Russian oligarchs unless further sanctions, such as travel options, are directed toward the higher-ups personally.

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