The Victims of Communism Museum is a Propaganda Machine for Normalizing the Hard RightBreaking News
tags: Cold War, Communism, museums, public history, propaganda
Billie Anania is an editor, organizer, and journalist in Brooklyn whose work focuses on political economy in the cultural industries and the history of art in global liberation movements.
“THERE IS NO WAY he is a victim of communism,” my partner quips, pointing to a photo of the late Pope John Paul II. We are near the end of our visit to the new Victims of Communism Museum, standing in an elevator-size lobby with photographs of “victims” screen-printed all over the walls. Among the many victims and honorees: Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, the Dalai Lama, Romanian writer Herta Müller, Hong Kong activist Joshua Wong, and Hungarian neofascist Viktor Orbán.
These public figures are the latest faces of a long campaign to flip the historical script. Ai Weiwei, among the highest-selling artists in the world, has earned his keep resolutely opposing the Chinese Communist Party. Meanwhile, Orbán’s vocal denunciations of Soviet occupation helped launch a political career filled with what critics call “pure Nazi speech.” Despite the cognitive dissonance of this display—Müller’s father served in the Waffen-SS, for god’s sake—the strategy allows the decades-old Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation to position all anti-communists as renegade freedom fighters regardless of their fascist associations, thus rebranding its Holocaust revisionism anew. What better destination for their new museum than Washington, D.C., just one mile away from the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum?
Originally founded during the Clinton era by a unanimous act of Congress, the Victims of Communism Foundation is a relic of Cold War-era propaganda. Its central belief that communism has claimed “more than 100 million” victims was lifted from The Black Book of Communism, a controversial piece of Western agitprop that has since been delegitimized by its own contributors. The book, as well as the foundation, peddle the spurious notion that a “double genocide” took place in the twentieth century: one by fascists and another by so-called “Judeo-Bolshevik Communists.”
According to the Victims of Communism team, all Nazis killed by Soviets are victims of communism, as are all deaths resulting from Covid-19. Inside the museum, Mao Zedong figures as a “mass murderer,” but Adolf Hitler is nowhere to be found. Vladimir Lenin and Joseph Stalin, too, are portrayed as running authoritarian, anti-democratic regimes, yet British colonialism and American imperialism garner nary a mention. Hardly anywhere in the foundation’s documents, or in the museum, are Nazis, fascists, royals, colonizers, or capitalists portrayed as aggressors. In fact, World War II isn’t even included in the museum’s timeline.
Is now a good time to mention that the Victims of Communism Foundation’s original co-chairman, Yaroslav Stetsko, once led the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists to ally with Nazi Germany alongside Stepan Bandera, who is now a national hero of Ukraine? Not only does the foundation count Nazi sympathizers among its scant few donors, but many other immortalized “victims” were involved in the deportation and extermination of Jews, Poles, Roma, Serbs, Belarusians, and Ukrainians on behalf of Nazi puppet regimes across Europe. I went into the museum expecting to see the usual suspects among the victims—from Holocaust perpetrators Ante Pavelić and Roman Shukhevych to the kulaks and Cuban plantation owners—but was surprised to find the vaunted list has gotten a facelift. Perhaps they hope to attract a new generation of culture warriors, or just far-right trolls with Turning Point USA aspirations.
After more than an hour wandering around the building, I was left deeply unsure what, in their view, even constitutes a “victim” of communism, let alone a “communist.” No one will walk out of this institution knowing much more than some fudged numbers and fashy buzzwords. This kind of hyperbolic revisionism meets roadside tourist trap is capitalist projection at its finest, an alternative history built by dark money and reinforced by disinformation. Nonetheless, considering how much the art world masks its own regressive politics, an unabashed right-wing exhibition of this magnitude is a genuine treat for sickos like me.