I was in the midst of my high school formative years when a couple of watershed moments in world history happened, and these had fantastically powerful and lasting impacts on me. I grew up in New York City during the Cold War, and there were nuclear fallout shelters in our little Catholic school, and the specter of hiding beneath our desks when the Russians decided to drop the nuke on NYC loomed very frequently.
Then the Berlin Wall fell in 1989.
Then the Soviet Union whimpered to a collapse on Christmas Day 1991.
This video and song got a lot of airtime, and at the time gave me great chills (cheesy, I admit):
Just before I graduated high school, I decided to read some more on what exactly happened behind the Iron Curtain. Why? Well, every image I saw after the fall of the wall was of people with bursting joy at their newfound “freedom.” It was hard to appreciate. So, the first book I picked up was Robert Conquest’s classic on Stalin. It almost made me puke, several times. While in school we read books like Hiroshima and we read books like Night with all of their horrors and disgustingness, those were episodes that I was familiar with and had been popularized long before I read any systematic books about it, it never occurred to me that some horrors would be happening under an alternative political system. And there were no singularly horrific “events” that we learned about as kids that would make us aware of it.
That all changed with Conquest’s book. One of the most memorable stories, now, to me was the treatment of the plant botanist, Nikolai Vavilov. Vavilov was a visionary, and arguably one of the greatest scientists of the 20th century. Among his major accomplishments was establishing one of the world’s largest and most diverse seed bank programs. Of course, Stalin did not think much of the very time-consuming processes of developing crops via the scientific method and Mendelian genetics. When famine “struck” or more precisely, was inflicted upon, the Soviets in the early 30s, instead of turning to the likes of Vavilov for solutions, instead Stalin called upon the “barefoot scientists” (quack agriculturalists) to solve the crisis. It all failed horribly of course.
And as was common, and only got worse as Stalin aged, anyone who disagreed with him didn’t just get a nasty post on Twitter or Facebook, nor did they get doxxed. Nope. They got sent to the Gulag and killed. And in the case of Vavilov, Stalin accused him of “sabotaging Soviet agriculture.” Strictly speaking, that is right. Soviet agriculture was no such thing, and using the scientific method to promote plant development was certainly in stark contrast to what the Soviets was doing. Ultimately, what happened to Vavilov is sickening, and I remember feeling sick when I read it. So, not only was he jailed for his “subversion”, but then he was subsequently ignored by his jailers, and in perhaps the sickest irony of the anti-human, anti-science nature of this collectivist nightmare, Vavilov – a man dedicated to feeding humanity, died of starvation.
One great century of communist collectivism is now in the books, can’t wait to see what treats it has in store for us in the next century.