Remembering Yesterday’s Victims of Communism—and Today’s

Feature: Chinese dissident Yang Jianli awarded Reagan-Truman Medal of Freedom at sixth anniversary of Victims of Communism Memorial

Victims of Communism Memorial
Victims of Communism Memorial / Wikimedia Commons

The most intimidating man on Massachusetts Avenue laid a wreath at the feet of the goddess of Democracy.

He arched his shoulders, bowed his head then whipped around to let the next member of the procession through, his shin-length leather coat blackening out the sun on the sidewalk. His wreath joined 27 other sets of lilies, sunflowers, and roses at the base of the Victims of Communism Memorial—10 feet of bronze commemorating 100 million dead.

Lesser men at the 6th anniversary of the memorial opted for seersucker. Some sought cover beneath sun umbrellas carried by their dates. But Jensen Deroche stood at attention in the uniform of the Black Sea Cossack of the Don Kuban: the black slicker held in place by a chain mail belt over red leather pants. Ten inches of white fox fur called a papakha stood atop his head, covering a ponytail that extended to his mid-back. His dress and demeanor served as a warning: hide your Che shirt if you see this guy coming.

"One day those people doing the oppressing are going to wake up to a harsh reality," he said.

Deroche’s family fled the Soviet Union after World War II, narrowly escaping Stalin’s slaughter of the Cossacks and Ukrainians. His Canadian accent softens the fierce critique of Soviet communism and the autocracies it inspired in China, North Korea, and Putin’s Russia.

"Cossacks are still living under oppression and threat of violence in Russia, in Tibet, in Mongolia," he said. "You still see that in cases like Pussy Riot; they’re extremely radical, but they’re one small piece of a big revolution."

Deroche and dozens of other attendees, many of whom lived under communist rule in eastern bloc and Asian countries, were on hand to honor Yang Jianli, a Chinese political prisoner and recipient of the Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation’s Reagan-Truman Medal of Freedom.

Yang helped organize the student demonstrations at Tiananmen Square that led to a brutal crackdown from the communist regime; he personally witnessed more than 30 killings. He spent nearly six torture-filled years in prison for fighting for workers rights in China’s sweatshops and coal mines.

"The scourge of communism continues to plague a good part of the earth … this statue reminds us each day of the terrible tyranny," he said. "The [Chinese Communist Party] has conducted the cruelest theft of private property in the history of the world, has been responsible for the most horrific starvation, and the greatest number of unnatural deaths in history."

He noted more than 66 million Chinese citizens died under Mao’s Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, state-sponsored starvation and execution programs perpetrated in the name of equality.

Yang said China has not gotten much better in the past three decades even as it has opened its borders to foreign commerce and investment. American businessmen and policymakers are lying to themselves if they think they’re helping to bring about a market economy that will eventually liberalize the regime: China’s newfound prosperity has been heavily concentrated in the hands of the political elite, with 70 percent of the nation’s wealth in the hands of .4 percent of households.

China’s society is divided between party elites who control all industries and "Shit-izens," who are used as slave labor, according to Yang.

"The [communist] elite’s monopoly on wealth and insularity makes social mobility between the two societies nearly stagnant, almost impossible, nearly as difficult as under Mao," he said. "If you believe a free market will bring democracy, know that there is no such thing in China. We need to think of other strategies to help change China."

Yang said America needs to approach China the way that it dealt with the Soviet Union during the Cold War. Europe, he said, would not be free without pressure from the western world, particularly the United States.

"Democracy in Europe was only possible because of pressure from western democracies, especially the United States from the Truman Doctrine, to the Berlin Airlift, to Reagan’s ‘tear down this wall,’" he said. "Communism had no where to hide in the eyes of the world."

Representatives from former Soviet satellite states agreed that they would not be free today without the dedication of western anti-communists. Latvian embassy official Ojars Kalnins delivered a speech in a perfect Midwestern accent—a product of being born in a displaced person’s camp in Munich and spending his lifetime in Chicago after his family fled the Soviet Union.

"Here we had these countries that we were trying to rebuild," in the wake of Soviet collapse, he said. "We hoped to reclaim our independence and we had the framework [of the U.S.], this symbol of hope for all people living under oppression."

Lithuanian Minister of Foreign Affairs Audronius Azubalis said his country would not take for granted its newfound freedom, pledging to support western efforts to pressure communist regimes to liberalize.

"History can be a very powerful tool; this is what brings us together today," he said. "We work daily to promote freedom and democracy around the world."

Foreign governments are putting their money where their mouth is. The Victims of Communism Memorial Foundation is raising money to build a brick and mortar museum in Washington, D.C.

Congress has provided little in the way of funding. Liberated Soviet satellites, however, remember their friends: the government of Hungary has pledged $1 million to the project.

The generations that grew up with horrors of the gulag, show trials ending in genuine firing squads, intentional mass starvation, and threats of nuclear war showed up at Wednesday’s ceremony in force.

"Many like to say that communism is dead; ask the political prisoners in China if communism is dead; ask the Ladies in White in Cuba if communism is dead," said foundation chairman Lee Edwards. "We need to keep reminding the world … we need the resolve that never again will we let the tyranny of communism terrorize the world."

The speakers lamented the popularity of Che shirts sported by college kids too young to remember Cuba’s concentration camps. It’s just a t-shirt, right?

"He relished killing, not just in Cuba, but in other countries," said Rep. Ileana Ros-Lehtinen (R., Fla.), whose family fled Cuba when she was eight years old. "I’m always shocked to see people wear those shirts, but I’m never hesitant to call them out on it."

Amidst raucous cheers from the crowd, a young boy, perhaps five years away from college, turned to his grandfather.

"I’ll never wear one."