Ninety-seven years ago this month, Bolshevik troops stormed the Winter Palace at Saint Petersburg in the coup de grâce of the Russian Revolution. As much as any other event, this triumph of communism would dominate and shape the remainder of the century. To get a sense of scale, consider that the great conflagration of World War I claimed about 18 million lives. Somewhere between 40 million and 60 million were killed in World War II. The death toll from Communist tyranny? One hundred million people.
Yet the advent, destruction, and passing of communism has for the most part dropped down the memory hole. There are a handful of -museums and memorials in Eastern Europe marking its evils. There are none in America. Washington, D.C., has vast museums commemorating spies, newspapers, textiles, the Postal Service, urban planning—there is even a “science” museum devoted to “climate change.” But when it comes to communism, there is nothing.
Or almost nothing. Seven years ago, on a tiny triangle of land six blocks north of the Capitol, the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation unveiled America’s first and only monument marking communism’s toll. Now they’re about to embark on a project to build a museum in the nation’s capital.
The VCMF began as the dream of Lee Edwards and Lev Dobriansky in 1990. Edwards was a historian at the Heritage Foundation and Dobriansky was a professor of economics at Georgetown. The two men were friends and had been, for three decades, cold warriors par excellence. With the fall of the Berlin Wall and the implosion of the Soviet empire, they decided to build both a memorial and a museum in the nation’s capital. In 1993, working with Edwards and Dobriansky, a bipartisan group in Congress crafted a bill authorizing the creation of a foundation to pursue those goals. It was passed unanimously and signed by President Clinton. And thus the VCMF was born.
The foundation is a curiosity by Washington standards because it refuses to take money from the American government. The VCMF is adamant that it will never take funding from U.S. taxpayers.
It thus took 13 years of planning and fundraising to build the memorial, and that was with everything breaking the right way. The National Park Service donated the little parcel of land where New Jersey and Massachusetts Avenues cross. The sculptor Thomas Marsh donated a 10-foot-tall bronze replica of the statue inspired by Lady Liberty that the Chinese students erected in Tiananmen Square in 1989. But obtaining the various approvals and permits was a slog. “It’s going to take longer than you think,” a Park Service official warned the foundation at the outset. And more money, too. By the time the memorial was dedicated by President Bush in 2007, $1 million had been spent.
The list of donors who brought the memorial to life is a charming hodge-podge of America: from the Knights of Columbus to individuals in the Vietnamese-American community, from the Pew Charitable Trusts to the nations of Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia, and Hungary. It’s a modest little memorial, but powerful. On the back of the pedestal is an inscription that reads, “To the freedom and independence of all captive nations and peoples.” As you stand there, looking at those words, you can see the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol dome.
Earlier this year Marion Smith took over for Edwards as director of the foundation, and he’s now focused on the museum. The plans are ambitious: 55,000 square feet of exhibit space near the National Mall, an auditorium to show films, and resident scholars pursuing research and writing on communism’s legacy. The museum, it is hoped, will be backed by an endowment to pay for operations indefinitely. The price tag, Smith says, is $100 million.
As fundraising goes, that’s a heavy lift. But unlike vanity projects—think the barren National Postal Museum or the insipid Newseum—the Victims of Communism Museum will have something to say. “Ideas have consequences,” Smith explains. “There’s a direct line from Marxism to the killing fields of Cambodia.” People sometimes—often—forget this fact. “We aim to be the source of record for communism,” Smith says.
This may be the right moment to begin the project in earnest. Smith points out that we are now 25 years from the fall of communism, and it was in the early 1970s—about 25 years after the conclusion of the Second World War—that most of the Holocaust memory projects began. The VCMF hopes to begin its capital campaign later this year and break ground in 2017.