On February 9th 1940, seven-year-old Witold Rybicki and his family were awoken in the middle of the night by banging on the door of their home in Lida, Poland (modern-day Belarus). Outside was an officer of the Soviet secret police, then called the NKVD, who gave his father orders:
“Do not run away. Your house is surrounded by soldiers. You have an hour to pack your personal belongings. Do not worry about bringing much. Everything you need will be at your destination.”
The Rybickis were never informed of charges against them, evidence of wrongdoing, a sentence, or where they were going. Witold, his parents, and four of his siblings were taken from their home to a train station where they were loaded into a cattle car about 15 meters long by five meters wide along with about 40 other people. The car was completely bare, with just a hole in the middle of the floor for a communal toilet.
For nearly a month, the train traversed Eastern Europe and Russia toward Siberia. No one was permitted outside of the cramped, filthy cars except for a short period on Saturdays. Every morning, soldiers delivered four gallons of water and one of soup for the entire car of 40 people.
The prisoners finally disembarked in a city called Tomsk. From there, they walked two days through the Siberian taiga (forest) in the dead of winter to a set of barracks with small, barren rooms built specifically for Poles in a desolate area. This was part of the Soviet Gulag system — a chain of forced-labor camps and settlements — where tens of millions of prisoners were punished and “reeducated” by the state through grueling physical labor in harsh conditions.
This account of life under Soviet rule is not an extreme outlier, but indicative of how the communist regime treated its own people. November marks 100 years since the revolution that gave rise to communism in Russia and, subsequently, Eastern Europe, Asia, Latin America, and Africa. Avowedly Marxist regimes killed anywhere from 65 to 100 million people, a total so high that it is impossible for the human mind to conceptualize.
So goes the apocryphal Stalin quote, “One death is a tragedy; a million deaths is a statistic.” A good way to grasp the breadth of communism’s evils is to understand the depth of the suffering in the lives of its individual victims. And that’s why the stories of the Rybickis and others are apropos.
The Rybickis’ plight is eerily similar to the famed accounts catalogued by Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn in The Gulag Archipelago. From the psychologically poignant nighttime arrest without explanation, to the inhumane transport by cattle car, to hard labor under-clothed in the bitter cold, to the starvation, to the omnipresent stench of death, to the totalizing oppression even outside of the Gulags, the parallels between Witold’s story and other victims’ are striking.
The USSR and Nazi Germany invaded Poland in September 1939 and partitioned the country in two. The USSR deported to Siberia about one and a half million of the 13 to 14 million Poles in the eastern half of the country. Hundreds of thousands of them died or were summarily executed in the process. Over decades, millions of kulaks, Cossacks, Ukrainians, Kazakhs, Soviet veterans, and Orthodox Christians, among others, suffered similar fates. The USSR killed 20 to 30 million of its own people in total.
Those who were considered educated, middle class, overtly religious, or had served in the military were the primary targets, according to Wihold, because they were broadly viewed as threats to the communist regime. His father, Stanislaw, was a Polish veteran and owned a small farm, so off to the Gulag system he and his family went.
A few months later, the Rybickis were moved even farther east, by train to the last city on the tracks, and then by foot, to another nondescript set of barracks in the middle of the Siberian taiga. A new labor settlement, where they would stay for three years.
In the Rybicki’s settlement, able-bodied prisoners above the age of 12 worked felling trees, preparing lumber, and collecting sap in weather that would sometimes fall to 50 below zero degrees Celsius. The laboring prisoners were given a ration of 400g of bread daily, roughly 1,200 calories, while non-working prisoners were given 200g, just 600 calories. Sometimes food shipments would get delayed to the camps, and prisoners like the Rybickis would go days without eating.
“We were practically starving to death,” Witold recalls. Some prisoners had “swollen, huge bellies” from hunger. Prisoners were “dying like flies all around” from hunger, disease, or being worked to death. There was a makeshift cemetery by the settlement where “hundreds and hundreds were buried.”
Witold’s sister, Irena, who was 14 when the Soviets deported their family, eventually refused to work because she didn’t even have shoes to wear. She was sentenced to three months in a prison in Novosibirsk where she survived by the graces of a better-situated, older male prisoner.
Upon Irena’s return, she was badly shaken, exclaiming she “had enough of Russia, communism, and Siberia, and was running away,” which she did. A year later, her father discovered that authorities had captured her trying to cross into Iran and sentenced her to seven years in prison. Because the USSR was in the throes of a brutal war with Nazi Germany, it gave prisoners like her a choice to risk likely death on the front lines of the eastern front or in a harsh, small, cold prison cell. She chose the former. By great fortune, she survived the war, fled to the West near its end, and got documentation to immigrate to the United States.
Later on, Witold’s father also went off to war in service of the Soviet Union under a program that got his family moved to a collective farm with slightly better living standards than the settlement, in addition to a promise of repatriation to Poland after the war.
Witold said it was the only promise Stalin ever kept. In April 1946, almost a year after the war in Europe ended, the Rybickis were permitted to move back to Poland because of their father’s service. By some act of God, every member of their family survived the war and the Gulag system. For millions of other Soviet citizens fighting the war and millions more repressed by their own government, such was not the case.
In 1966, Witold was able to escape communism to the US by another stroke of luck and reconnected with his sister. My step-grandfather is 85 now and lives with his wife in Illinois where he is still a practicing anesthesiologist. He recalls the details of his family’s repression nearly 80 years ago better than I can recall what I did eight days ago. It would behoove our society, and the entire world, to better remember the evils of communism 100 years since.
Stories like the Rybickis’ sometimes don’t resonate with Western audiences because the material depravation foisted upon them is unimaginable to us. As Solzhenitsyn wrote, “[It’s impossible] for Western authors…to describe the perturbation of a human soul placed in a cell filled to twenty times its capacity and with no latrine bucket, where prisoners are taken out to the toilet only once a day.”
Solzhenitsyn’s stories about NVKD officers coercing confessions from innocent prisoners by crushing their testicles underneath the officer’s jackboot are ghastly to even try imagining. So too the mass executions carried out binding, gagging, and burying prisoners alive, because it was more efficient than shooting them first. However, it is difficult to fully comprehend for Westerners who have not experienced immense and continuous physical pain inflicted by others. Thus, it is also worth considering the damage done to the human soul beyond the Gulags.
“The USSR was one big camp,” cites Solzhenitsyn one of its victims. Totalitarian repression in the USSR was not consigned to the war years or the Gulags or the Stalin years. It lasted straight through from 1917 to 1991. Back in Poland in the early 1950s, a classmate of Witold’s who started a quasi-patriotic club at their high school was accused of spying against the government and sentenced to five years in prison. He was never the same after his release and scared of every conversation he had thereafter.
“Whatever was spoken,” Witold recalls, “was spoken in secret, because there were even situations when so-called friends would report you to police and…even if you didn’t say it…you were arrested.”
Solzhenitsyn wrote that “in conflicts between people in freedom, denunciations [to the authorities] were the superweapon….and it always worked.” They were used for romantic gain, material gain, and anything else you can imagine.
Consider how badly this repression decimates civil society. Under communism, nothing was private. Even husband could be turned against wife because no loyalty truly mattered except that to the proletarian class represented by the state. In East Germany, a full third of the population were informants to their secret police, the Stasi. Trust no one.
Marxism considers economic relationships to be the “base” of society, upon which all other institutions are predicated for the sake of its reinforcement. That includes family, religion, culture, and art, among others. Thus, communists viewed loyalty to civil society institutions associated with the old capitalist order with great distrust and sought to break them. They pitted family members against each other, “sought the root destruction of religion in the country,” turned the truth on its head, and attempted to stamp out any sense of individuality in its citizens.
100 years on there are still some efforts to whitewash the terrible legacy of communism, and reflexive repulsion toward communism has not been ingrained in Western culture like that toward fascism. The New York Times published 40 articles on the “Red Century” this year, desensitizing its readers towards communism. It mentions the Gulag system in only two of those articles, and simply as asides. One in five social science professors identify as Marxists, and now they have foot soldiers in the violent “Antifa” movement. Socialism — though fortunately not communism — has become more popular than capitalism among Democrats and young Americans.
Many of the reactions to the centennial from the far left will be that it is a pointless exercise to remember historical aberrations perpetrated by Lenin and Stalin and Mao and Pol Pot and the Kims and the Castos and so on. None of it was “true communism,” anyway.
But all the crimes perpetrated by dozens of communist regimes in dozens of countries over 100 years that touched over a billion people suggest a pattern. Matthew 7 says, “Beware false prophets…Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit…Therefore, by their fruits you will know them.” Karl Marx was a false profit and the proof is in the tens of millions killed by those who espoused his ideology. Communism was murderous in practice because it was murderous in theory.
Marxism was predicated on the idea that “the history of all hitherto existing society is the history of class struggle.” It view society as a zero-sum war between different groups where the individual played little or no part. Under capitalism, all property was theft with profits derived from the “surplus value” of the worker. All other institutions of society, the “superstructure,” simply existed to trick the proletariat into accepting their subjugated status.
The solution Marx proposed was a violent revolution leading to a “dictatorship of the proletariat” that would abolish private property and the ancillary institutions of the bourgeois order and, eventually, gracefully fade into a stateless, classless utopia. This entire progression of things was not just considered an ideal, but an inevitable fact, according to scientific socialism.
But it turned out that people do not relinquish their hard-earned property, nation, culture, beliefs, family, and God easily. By clinging to these things, people revealed themselves as class enemies of the proletariat and had to be eliminated.
Martin Latsis, the head of the Ukrainian secret police, wrote in a communist newspaper in 1918, “We are not fighting against single individuals. We are exterminating the bourgeoisie as a class.” Communism is truly the ultimate collectivist ideology. Your membership and devotion to class, so to speak, determines your worth. In this way, communist ideology sets the predicate to discard individuals en masse for the sake of the collective.
“The imagination and spiritual strength of Shakespeare’s evildoers stopped short at a dozen corpses. Because they had no ideology. Ideology is what gives evildoing its long-sought justification.” And so, Solzhenitsyn himself came to terms with the ideology he had long embraced with great profundity and erudition. He deservedly won the Nobel Prize in literature for his contribution to humanity and helped delegitimize communism in the eyes of many who had also previously embraced or condoned it.
In its place, he rightfully endorsed what the West had been built upon over millennia: A morality that recognizes the fallen nature of each individual, guards against his or her worst elements, and also grants the ability of that individual to achieve his or her own salvation through a proper mode of being.
Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either — but right through every human heart — and through all human hearts….And since that time I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.
And so communism failed humanity, because it lied about its true nature at the most basic level. It robbed people of their individuality and moral agency, and then made them the political tools of one another. Fortunately, alternatives exist in the here and now, and demand our protection and fortification.
A system that guards the sovereignty of individuals can also foster the best within them. Withold expresses a similar lesson from his time under Soviet oppression:
“I am so happy being here in the United States. People do not realize what they have here. It’s freedom. How many other countries have this freedom? You can count them on a few hands…Hopefully we can stay that way, [because] we have irresponsible people, even amongst ourselves.”
100 years on from the Russian Revolution and all the destruction it entailed, we should never forget its victims. We should also remember its lessons. It’s easy to take a great inheritance for granted, but anything can be whittled away. By summoning the best in our system and ourselves, the inheritance of the West can be protected and grown.A slightly shorter iteration of this essay was earlier published in