Coming to grips with the Russian Revolution and its legacy.
Romanian public intellectual Mihail Neamţu has written eight books on politics, religion and culture in defense of the cultural contributions of Christianity and the political values of classical liberalism. He has become a leading conservative in Romanian policy circles and blogs about European issues at the Library of Liberty and Law site. Neamțu, who has a doctorate in theology from King’s College, London, has pursued postdoctoral studies at New Europe College, Bucharest; Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars, Washington; and the Russell Kirk Center in Michigan. Neamţu, who was in Washington recently, was interviewed by Religion & Liberty's executive editor, John Couretas.
Religion & Liberty: This year we are marking 100 years since the Russian Revolution. Eastern Europeans still live with the effects, the legacy of that cataclysmic event. What are your thoughts?
Neamţu: The Bolshevik Revolution and its 100th anniversary are of relevance for Westerners and Eastern Europeans alike. We still lack in the West a good understanding of the ideological roots of Communism, which lasted for at least a century in Europe, Asia and, to some extent, Latin America. Just look at the reactions of many politicians and intellectuals after the death of Fidel Castro.
When it comes to writing the obituary of a brutal dictator, to quote here President Trump, Western academics still show an amazing degree of moral relativism. From an ideological perspective, Castro was the grandchild of Lenin. Yet Prime Minister Trudeau and Barack Obama failed, among others, to see this form of continuity. However, I fear that Russia today is doing almost nothing to commemorate the victims of the Bolshevik Revolution. Quite the contrary: freedom fighters are being bullied and arrested in Moscow as we talk. This is why I salute the Acton Institute’s efforts to grasp our experience of Communism and the way it has impacted our social fabric and Romania’s way of life.
R&L: Where is the justice for the tens of million who died under Communist oppression, many of them already forgotten?
N: Since 1989, some countries, such as Poland and the Czech Republic, have accepted the notion of lustration or moral cleansing, which removed from the public square former Communist apparatchiks. Other countries, such as Romania, have postponed the punishment of the evil perpetrators, making the act of memory a form of immanent justice. We can always tell the stories of those who suffered in the gulag. Perhaps we should do it more often and more eloquently. Dropping names and figures isn’t quite enough. Speaking of this danger of equating a human person with a number, should I also add, perhaps, the fact that we just commemorated the victims of the 1966 Chinese Cultural Revolution. The consequences of that collective Maoist brainwashing are still felt to this day in Beijing.
When we talk about the memory of Communism, we talk about a global phenomenon. This is why we should build more memorial sites as museums, such as the one I have recently visited in Vilnius, Lithuania. We should also learn from Germany how to bring about this painful yet liberating recognition of the horrors of a totalitarian regime.
R&L: Are millennials ready to listen?
N: It depends on the media platform where we choose to communicate our message. It is true that we live in a day and age where the greatest threat to this understanding of our past is, simply put, ignorance. By constantly living in the present tense, like T. S. Eliot’s “insects of the hour,” we may find ourselves always at the surface of things. We tend to forget that past is prologue. The world of ephemeral tweets, Snapchats, Facebook posts and Instagram pictures is remarkably colorful. Perhaps we should engage our youth there, in social media. However, there’s no way we can preserve the treasures of the past by having only a shallow understanding of those who fought for our freedoms. Our schools and our churches should therefore consider more the art of storytelling. It is important to know that more than 100 million people have been killed since the Bolshevik Revolution started. But our narratives should include tales about individuals who had a name, who had a house, who had dreams, friends and hobbies, which all came under attack. Once we begin to ask fundamental questions, such as "Why did they suffer?" and "Why did they die?" we may see a healthier society.
R&L: In the United States, both the historical narrative and the fictional narrative in film and print about Communism is meager. The terrible destruction wrought by the disciples of Marx, Engels and Lenin isn’t taught in American schools, so our young people are largely ignorant of that history. Why isn’t Solzhenitsyn read in our schools? What about The Black Book of Communism?
N: Our moral instincts are shaped by our close readings of exemplary lives. Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan were soul mates precisely because, before they first met, they both had read the story of Whittaker Chambers and Alger Hiss, as well as fragments from Solzhenitsyn’s masterpiece, The Gulag Archipelago. They both saw in Communism a great existential threat. Why? Because the imaginative powers of their souls were nourished with references to history, music, art and literature.
The diminishing of political leadership in our times may have something to do with our deep ignorance about the brave resistance of Czechs, Poles or Hungarians from the 1950s to the 1980s. How many in the West have heard of the very impressive figure of a Romanian intellectual named Nicolae Steinhardt? He was an expert on constitutional law and a highly skilled literary critic who, in the wake of the 1956 Budapest revolts, was sentenced to prison. There his spiritual hunger led him to prayer. Fasting, of course, was already on the concentration camp menu. While still in a labor camp, Steinhardt embraced the Christian faith and emerged as a luminous figure among his former political inmates. I personally grew up with such powerful stories, which, believe me, could easily be the subject of a Hollywood blockbuster. Why not?
R&L: When you survey the current political and cultural scene in Eastern Europe, in what ways do you see cultures still struggling with the legacy of Communism? In 1980, according to one estimate, 1.5 billion people were living under Communist regimes out of a global population of 4.4 billion.
N: Of course there is a lasting legacy. The biblical image of the forty years of wandering in the desert comes to my mind. The story of the Israelites from slavery to freedom captures the struggle of my own nation. One striking aspect of this legacy of Communism is the rampant presence of corruption in my society at all levels. Communism was built on murder, and it was carried out through lies piled upon lies. Actually, we could say the greatest factory of fake news in history was the Bolshevik Revolution. If you were a reader of Pravda and other such periodicals in Eastern Europe, you would find out that every day there was another big lie being told to millions of people. So fake news is not something recent. It’s rather old in our part of the world.
We still see politicians telling lies to their constituencies, former spies or snitches telling lies to their friends, doctors telling lies to their patients without a peculiar reason, university professors telling lies to their students about plagiarized doctoral dissertations and so on. This collective form of self-deception is very harmful and may lead not just to moral but also financial bankruptcy.
R&L: Where will the healing come from? Must everyone wait for the passing of generations?
N: Only truth can set us free. Nobody can deny the progress made by South Africa with the Truth and Reconciliation Commission led by Archbishop Desmond Tutu. Our own churches in Eastern Europe could perhaps begin to confront the past by opening the archives and getting involved in the work of memory that we have already talked about. New York City has built an impressive memorial for the victims of the 9/11 terrorist attack. No visitor to Ground Zero can miss the therapeutic aspects of such a memorial site. Unless we honor our heroes, who stood up for freedom, the ghosts of the past will strike us back.
Is that what we were seeing in Romanian cities this past winter?
Throughout the whole month of February 2017, nearly a million people took to the streets of Bucharest and other cities to protest against corruption and the empire of lies told by politicians who hate justice and the rule of law. Remember what Solzhenitsyn told Russians back in the 1970s: “Live not by lies!” I’m hopeful now because we live an age of digital transparency. Just turn on Google Maps and you will see how filthy rich are those politicians who have stolen billions of dollars from their own people. I remain hopeful because the U.S. is our strategic ally and because there’s a new generation who wants to see more accountability and transparency. Corruption kills. Corruption steals our future and buries our dreams. This civic awakening that I have personally witnessed during many hours of protests in the public square makes me more optimistic.
R&L: Have the Romanian churches been providing witness at the cultural level?
N: If you believe in Christ, you know how blessed are those who hunger for righteousness’ sake. During the protests, the Romanian Orthodox Church issued a statement in support of the anti-corruption fight, suggesting that “robbery and theft degrade society morally and materially.” However, the protests mustered people from all walks of life. People demanded justice because, for many decades, they saw their lives diminished by what are aptly known as “the extractive elites.”
Several times, Pope Francis has also stated that institutionalized corruption is a big threat to our ways of life. It may sound trite, but it is just commonsensical. We may recognize, after all, that common sense is our common denominator. Most autocratic regimes defy reason and turn free people into objects of exploitation, consumption and mockery. This is why Christian leaders have to get involved and restore the dignity of the individual.
R&L: What you’re talking about is really those common values that exist between Europe and North America and still bind us together in a way that perhaps we are not linked by other regions. We still have something to talk about.
N: And something to build. I do not talk here merely about future policies, though NATO needs to rethink its mission and vision by recognizing the threat of a global jihad. We should build a culture that understands why individual freedom is our greatest gift in life.
Here I am, talking about the legacy of Communism, nearly thirty years after the 1989 revolution in Romania. Could this conversation have happened in the absence of a great leader, such as Ronald Reagan? I grew up listening to Voice of America in a basement, together with my grandparents. In a sense, I feel like I’m the grandchild of Ronald Reagan. I belong to a generation in Eastern Europe that benefitted immensely from the personal courage of Pope John Paul II and from the prophetic insight of Ronald Reagan, who knew that the Berlin Wall could be demolished, who knew Communism could be collapsing in our lifetime. So I’m very grateful. On this historic foundation we can build a robust future.
There are many U.S. politicians who are fully aware of the horrors of Communism. One of Donald Trump’s favorite books is an excellent biography of Chairman Mao. Younger politicians, such as Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, understand why Eastern European countries are far more pro-American than France, Spain and Germany. We understand our transatlantic values to be rooted in this existential quest for political freedom, not in whims and social experiments. Countries such as Poland, Romania and the Baltic States are good allies for the United States not just from a military perspective. We value deeply what America did for us, before and after 1989. Younger Americans should hear more often about Radio Free Europe, which was funded by the CIA, and its contribution to our civic awaking in December 1989. Since then, our way of life has dramatically improved. Our economies are better off. We owe it to ourselves, but we also owe it to the American people, who trusted the instincts of Ronald Reagan in 1980 and then in 1984. This memory keeps us close and gives us a new direction.