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Americans Can’t Seem To Stop Romanticizing Communism–Which Is Exactly What The Communist Dictators Did To Maintain Control

By Meghan Dillon··  15 min read
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It’s easy to romanticize any aspect of history. Our distance and our imagination can cause us to romanticize horrific events and regimes, sometimes providing excuses for inhumane actions.

Romanticizing history has consequences, and the consequences can be ugly. The romanticization of communism has taken over our culture over the past few years, as seen in outlets like Teen Vogue promoting communism to their teenage readers and the rise of popular hashtags like #eattherich. Communism has been rebranded as cool, ignoring its very disturbing and violent history. This not only erases the struggle of those who have lived and died under communism but makes it more likely that disastrous historical mistakes will be repeated.

A Brief History of Communist Revolutions

Though there are many brutal communist revolutions and regimes throughout history, this article will mainly focus on the Russian Revolution and the Cuban Revolution because they tend to be the most romanticized revolutions. And since a lack of knowledge about what actually happened can contribute to viewing communism through rose-colored glasses, let’s do a quick dive into what these two communist revolutions really looked like. 

The Russian Revolution

Before the Russian Revolution of 1917, which is divided into the February Revolution and the October Revolution, Russia was ruled by the tsars of the Romanov Family for three centuries. After the devastation of World War I and the incompetency of the Russian government (*cough* Rasputin), the Russian people revolted, resulting in the abdication of Tsar Nicholas II. Though Russia was briefly ruled by a Provisional Government, Vladimir Lenin and the Bolsheviks took over in a bloodless coup in October 1917. This led to the Russian Civil War, which resulted in a Bolshevik victory and the creation of the USSR, also known as the Soviet Union.

Lenin was a known Marxist and communist, promising the Russian people a fairer and more just future. In reality, all Lenin brought to the Russian people was more oppression under the guise of equality. Joseph Stalin, one of the world’s most ruthless dictators, took over after Lenin’s death in 1924 and created one of the most brutal regimes the world has ever known.

Lenin and the Bolsheviks were big fans of censorship, censoring any dissidents to promote their dream of a communist utopia. What Lenin and the Bolsheviks did was horrible, and things only got worse under Stalin. It’s hard to narrow down all of Stalin’s atrocities, but some of the most horrible things to happen under his regime were the Ukrainian Genocide (known as the Holodomor) and the Great Purge.

To help achieve his goal of collectivizing farming in the early 1930s, Stalin issued impossibly high grain quotas for Ukrainian farmers to reach, causing many farms to close and Ukrainians to starve. This included the “Five Stalks of Grain” decree, making it illegal for any household to have more than five stalks of grain, and the punishment for hoarding grain was execution, forcing families to fear for their lives and resort to eating farm animals to survive. It’s estimated that the Holodomor killed 3.5 million to 7 million Ukrainians over two years.

During the Great Purge, Stalin and the Soviet government encouraged and incentivized Soviet citizens to report dissidents to the government, leading to massive fear and paranoia in small villages and big cities alike. No proof was needed to turn someone in for execution or an extensive stay at gulag, and it’s estimated that 750,000 Soviet citizens were killed between 1936 and 1938 due to the purge.

The Cuban Revolution

Cuba was in a military dictatorship before the revolution, but the alternative provided by Fidel Castro wasn’t any better. Former Cuban president Fulgencio Batista took back power in 1952 through a coup and canceled all elections. This marked the end of the notion of democracy in Cuba and the beginning of Cuba’s military dictatorship. 

Many Cubans were angered by this coup, including a radical young lawyer named Fidel Castro. Fidel and his brother Raul helped organized a small rebellion, in which both Castro brothers and over a hundred other Cuban men attempted to attack the Moncada Barracks in Santiago de Cuba on July 26, 1953. Though the attack failed and all participants were either captured or killed, Fidel gained sympathy from the public during his trial before being sentenced to 15 years in prison. Batista later converted his sentence to two years, and the Castro brothers left for Mexico in 1955.

While he was in prison, Fidel renamed the revolutionary group the 26th of July Movement and studied Marxist-Leninism (the ideology created by Lenin which was followed in the Soviet Union) closely, the ideology he’d hold dear to his heart for the rest of his life. The Castro brothers met radical Argentinian medical student Che Guevara while in Mexico, and they began planning the Cuban Revolution. Meanwhile, Cuba’s public distrust in Batista was growing, so it was only a matter of time before they had their shot to take over.

Fidel promised the Cuban people fair elections and a free press but created a brutal communist dictatorship.

They left Mexico for Cuba in 1956, only to be welcomed by a military attack, forcing survivors (including the Castro brothers and Guevara) to hide in the Sierra Maestra mountains – but the Cuban Revolution began nonetheless. While in the mountains, the 26th of July Movement engaged in guerilla attacks across Cuba and gained the sympathies of the Cuban public. Whenever Batista tried to attack the revolutionaries, the 26th of July Movement always prevailed.

The 1958 election resulted in a Batista victory, but many believed it was fraudulent. Fidel took advantage of this division by ordering Guevara to capture Santa Clara in December 1958, and Batista fled the country on December 31, 1958. Fidel and his fellow rebels claimed victory in Cuba’s capital city of Havana in January 1959. Fidel promised the Cuban people fair elections and a free press but went on to create the most brutal communist dictatorship in the Western hemisphere through propaganda, fear, and the killing of dissidents. Political dissidents were jailed, tortured, and murdered, and it’s estimated that Fidel ordered the death of somewhere between 10,000 and 100,000 Cubans. 

The Romanticization of Communist Revolutions and Revolutionaries

The Russian Revolution was the first successful Marxist revolution, romanticizing both the revolution and revolutionary figures. While you could argue that things were awful in pre-revolutionary Russia (which they were), the Bolshevik victory didn’t result in the fair and just society that promised "peace, land, and bread" to the Russian people.

British writer KV Turley noticed that romanticizing the Russian Revolution was still common when he visited the 2017 exhibition at the British Library, Russian Revolution: Hope, Tragedy, and Myths. He was shocked by how the exhibit seemed to favor and romanticize the Bolshevik side. He wrote, “What interested me most were the English notes attached to each of the exhibits. All the White Russian pieces were described as ‘crude’ and ‘anti-Bolshevik.’ These pieces, they asserted, were calling for the restoration of an old and discredited system. Perhaps so. But then one would expect that the labels elucidating the propaganda of the Bolsheviks and their fellow travelers might be equally or even more dismissive. Not a bit of it. Instead, there was a constant whiff of nostalgia, even a sense of something essentially noble about what had taken place a century ago. At this point, knowing which way the ideological wind was blowing, I gave up on the whole thing and the hope of finding a credible, even-handed, and objective presentation of the events of 1917 in Russia and their aftermath.”

Ironically, romanticizing the Russian Revolution is exactly what the communist rulers did in Russia for decades. As the Chicago Tribune reported, “Historical scholarship was one of the many victims of the Soviet regime. From 1917, when the Bolsheviks seized power in Russia, until the late 1980s, when the Soviet government itself acknowledged that official history books were ‘full of lies,’ the only permissible version of history in the Soviet Union was Marxism-Leninism. For more than 70 years, schoolchildren in Russia were imbued with dogmas about the glorious feats of the Soviet Communist Party. The historical profession in Russia was perverted and destroyed, leaving only the most vulgar propagandists to function as ‘historians.’"

Romanticizing the Russian Revolution is exactly what the communist rulers did in Russia for decades. 

Soviet propaganda was so powerful that it took until the fall of the Soviet Union for Russian historian Dmitri Volkogonov to admit who Lenin truly was in his 1994 book, Lenin: A New Biography. Volkogonov claims that only after reading through thousands of newly declassified documents did he shed his belief in the “old myths about Lenin.” He called Lenin "savage, cruel, uncompromising, remorseless, and vengeful" and said he "promoted systematic terror, violence, coercion, hostage-holding, a vast array of punitive measures, and propaganda on a scale never before seen in Russia or anywhere else."

The grip of these “old myths” still seems to be strong in some circles: Lenin is mainly romanticized for his Marxist-Leninist ideology, which is popular in leftist circles. Leftist media outlets like Jacobin romanticize his legacy, and so does wildly popular leftist Twitch streamer Hasan Piker, who briefly hosted a YouTube show on agitated propaganda (a favorite tactic of  Lenin). To be fair to Piker, he says he’s not a fan of the USSR or any other authoritarian regime. Still, his romanticization of Marxist-Leninism speaks to the problem of our culture continuing to not see communism, Lenin, and the Russian Revolution for what they were. This romanticization has seeped into social media, including a viral meme captioned, “Me lighting a joint inside Kylie Jenner’s house during the revolution,” alongside Vladimir Serov’s famous 1954 painting of Lenin and an unknown revolutionary storming the Winter Palace, titled “The Winter Palace Is Captured.”

lighting a joint kylie jenner house revolution meme

Though you could argue that it was Stalin who bastardized the Russian Revolution and that Lenin had good intentions, Lenin’s complicity is clear through historical evidence. Jacob Wilkins, a writer at History of Yesterday, argues, “Historians still debate how many people died under far-left regimes in the twentieth century, but most believe the death toll to be around 100 million. And though they differ in terms of ideology, the totalitarian foundations of fascism were also forged during the early days of the Soviet Union. Had it not been for Lenin’s political blueprint, the twentieth century might have been completely different.”

Aside from a few edgy teenagers on TikTok and Reddit, the only people really romanticizing Stalin are in Russia and are nostalgic for the Soviet days. Though it’s good that he’s less romanticized than any other communist figure, those who romanticize him are proof that Soviet propaganda and Stalin’s cult of personality are still powerful decades after his death in 1953.

The Cuban Revolution is also heavily romanticized, and it’s not hard to see why. The story of a group of guerilla rebels overthrowing the government sounds like something out of a storybook, but the fairytale ended when the rebels turned out to be just as brutal (if not more) than their predecessors.

A lot of the romanticization of the Cuban Revolution comes down to revolutionary leader Ernesto “Che” Guevara. Born in Argentina in 1928, Guevara was a medical student at the University of Buenos Aires before he left in 1951 to travel throughout South America. After witnessing severe poverty throughout his travels, he began to believe that capitalism was to blame and decided to leave medicine to become a military leader and political figure, as he believed he would save more lives in the public sphere than as a doctor. We know his role in the Cuban Revolution.

Since his death in 1967, Guevara has become a romantic symbol of revolution and rebellion. You’ve likely seen his face on a t-shirt, and this romanticized image of him ignores the brutality of his life. Maria Paula Mijares, a Drexel University student and writer for Her Campus, writes, “He was an Argentinian soldier who led the Cuban revolution alongside Fidel Castro and today is admired by hundreds of thousands of people in leftists movements worldwide – mostly the younger generations – without knowing much of his ideals against the LGBTQ+ and Feminist movements. I believe these groups should be more educated on the history of the people they admire, like Guevara, to not contradict their movement and stop romanticizing El Che specifically.”

Mijares continues, “Moreover, they also ignore how his ideals go against many of these new groups’ ideals – especially when we talk about gender and sexual preference equalities. Guevara considered homosexuality contrary to his ideal of the ‘new man’ (the archetype of a man who, in his words, should rise above established powers and any form of domination).”

Che Guevara wasn’t the progressive hero that many modern communist sympathizers paint him to be. 

Mijares is referring to Guevara’s repression of homosexual Cuban citizens, including establishing labor camps for gays and political dissidents. He was also incredibly racist towards black Cubans, opposed a free press, and took pleasure in murdering political dissidents. In his diary, he wrote, “I see it printed in the night sky that I ... howling like one possessed, will assault the barricades or the trenches, will take my bloodstained weapon and, consumed with fury, slaughter any enemy who falls into my hands.”

According to Maria Werlau, author of Che Guevara’s Forgotten Victims, Che was “directly responsible for at least 124 killings.” He’s not the progressive hero that many modern communist sympathizers paint him to be. He was a racist, homophobic, and sociopathic murderer, and history should treat him as such.

Though Fidel Castro is also romanticized, it’s nowhere near as bad as Guevara, possibly because he was more recent. Shortly after Castro’s death in November 2016, James Bloodworth of Little Atoms wrote, “Now that the tyrant is gone, let us put the revolutionary tracts to one side and wish for something equally straightforward for ordinary Cubans: that they can put more food in their stomachs, read independent newspapers that report the truth, and have some say over the direction of their country.”

Luckily, the romanticization of Castro died alongside him, but the legacy he left behind had already done enough damage.

Millennials and Gen Z Are Too Young To Remember Communist Regimes, and They Don’t Care about Them Either

The romanticization of communism is so rampant that the stories of survivors and descendants of survivors are ignored. In 2017, Harvard student Lauren M. Nicolae wrote an op-ed in the Harvard Crimson detailing the problems of romanticizing communism on campus by sharing her family’s story of fleeing Communist Romania. Though she makes plenty of good points in her piece, her strongest points are simply the historical facts of communism. 

“Perhaps before joking about communist revolutions,” she wrote, “we should remember that Stalin’s secret police tortured ‘traitors’ in secret prisons by sticking needles under their fingernails or beating them until their bones were broken. Lenin seized food from the poor, causing a famine in the Soviet Union that induced desperate mothers to eat their own children and peasants to dig up corpses for food. In every country that communism was tried, it resulted in massacres, starvation, and terror.”

She continued, “Communism cannot be separated from oppression; in fact, it depends upon it. In the communist society, the collective is supreme. Personal autonomy is nonexistent. Human beings are simply cogs in a machine tasked with producing utopia; they have no value of their own.”

Gen Z is even more sympathetic towards communism than Millennials.

Nicolae also detailed how communism was romanticized during her time at Harvard. She cited examples of Che Guevara imagery and a Leftist Club on campus to provide a “modern perspective” of Marxist-Leninism and “alleviate the stigma around the concept of Leftism.” Nicolae’s piece told the horrific story of her family escaping communism and cited data regarding Millennials being more accepting of communism than previous generations, but things have only gotten worse in the five years since her piece was published. Gen Z is even more sympathetic towards communism than Millennials, proving that the romanticization of communism is so ingrained in our culture that true stories of the horrors of communism aren’t enough to steer people away from it.

Back in early 2020, an old interview of Bernie Sanders praising Fidel Castro for his literacy program went viral, ignoring the fact that Castro used the program to indoctrinate Cuban students into communist ideology. Sanders defended his remarks about Castro and was condemned by both Democrats and Republicans. Sanders’ comments enraged the Cuban-American community, and I’d go as far as to say that this led to Sanders losing Florida in the 2020 Florida Democratic Presidential Primary and eventually the 2020 Democratic Presidential Primary. I’d also argue that the romanticization of communism is why he made these comments, as it’s no different than suggesting that Hitler was an animal rights activist.

Closing Thoughts

Whether they’re fascists or communists, dictators are dictators. Romanticizing communism gives communist dictators a free pass for their crimes when they should receive the same historical treatment as their fascist counterparts.

The truth is that younger generations like Millennials and Generation Z don’t care about the history of communist regimes. A 2019 poll conducted by the Victims of Communism Memorial foundation showed that 15% of Millennials believe that the world would be a better place if the Soviet Union still existed. Though this poll is a few years old, other aspects of the poll showed an increase in tolerating communism, so it’s not far-fetched to think that the number would be even higher today. I think this proves it’s more important than ever to take a deep dive into history, not only American, but the history of other countries as well. The biggest problem with romanticizing communism is that it can eventually lead to recreating historical mistakes that could have been avoided.

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