Frontpage Interview’s guest today is Alide Forstmanis, the chair of Tribute to Liberty, a new organization based in Toronto that seeks to have a memorial built in Ottawa to the Victims of Communist Crimes, by November 2010.
FP: Alide Forstmanis, welcome to Frontpage Interview.
Forstmanis: Thank you, I am grateful to FPM for this opportunity to inform its readers about Tribute to Liberty.
FP: Tell us about this memorial you are planning.
Forstmanis: We want a memorial built in our nation’s capital Ottawa to the victims of communism, a commemoration to the more than 100 million who were subject to the denial of their fundamental rights and freedoms, to torture, to deprivation, and to murder.
We are doing our utmost to have it ready next year. You might ask, why the rush? It took 15 years to complete a similar monument in Washington DC. The answer is very practical: we do not have those years available here. The fact is that many of the Eastern European victims of communism have passed on and those who are still alive are getting very old. We would like as many as possible of them to have a chance to see the monument. The 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin wall in November has re-inspired our cause.
FP: What is your own personal background that explains your dedication to this issue?
Forstmanis: Both my parents are Latvian, but I was lucky to grow up in Sweden. Almost all of our relatives stayed in Latvia and some were also sent to Siberia. Living in Sweden I envied those that had cousins or other relatives living nearby, as we were just the four of us – my parents, my brother and me. I missed growing up with an extended family. Although that family lived on the other side of the Baltic Sea, only about 150 km away, it seemed very far, one could really sense a wall. I remember my parents listening to “Voice of America” and the other news sources that were being jammed by the Soviets – so our relatives in Latvia wouldn’t hear them. Our correspondence with Latvia was censured by the Soviets, and telephone calls were complicated to make, due to Soviet technical backwardness. In sum, communication was difficult.
For us in Sweden, very little, if anything was taught in the Swedish schools about the Baltic States, and to us it seemed as if to Sweden and the rest of the world these states hadn’t ever existed. Balts where often called “Russians”. And if you were not a Swedish citizen you were a “stateless Soviet Russian” citizen, and needed a visa to be able to travel internationally.
These experiences left me with a strong sense of my Latvian roots, and with a feeling of urgency to respond to what was going on. I then became involved in the Latvian communities in the various places I lived – Sweden, the UK, Germany and Canada – and I have seen the passion and conviction the survivors, including my parents, have had and the need they felt to inform the world about communism’s evils. The least I can do is try to get their suffering recognized here in Canada.
FP: What is the importance of monuments such as these?
Forstmanis: A monument like this will be a recognition by Canada of the determination of millions to come to a country like ours that celebrates liberty and opposes the oppression of totalitarian communism. This recognition will also help us remember the suffering that many of those Canadians endured, as well as the suffering of the millions who couldn’t come, and of the many millions that perished in the Gulag. Further it is also important for Canada’s future generations, to understand different Canadians’ backgrounds and history and bring a better understanding of each other. This monument will hopefully generate curiosity about communist crimes and through studies teach Canadians to be aware of and vigilant about them, and of the capacity for such evil in the world when our liberties are not protected.
FP: Why a memorial in Canada?
Forstmanis: According to 2006 Census almost 9 million of Canada’s 33 million inhabitants come from either former or current communist led countries. This is close to a third of the Canadian population. That’s an incredible number of people who can establish some kind of personal connection to lives under communist regimes. By building this memorial, Canada will show that it recognizes these connections. It will also underscore the seriousness with which we take our freedoms, our democracy, and the rule of law we are privileged to have.
FP: Why do you think there is so much resistance in our society to talking/educating about the crimes of Communism?
Forstmanis: The resistance has been there for a long time. Make no mistake: communist regimes have consistently been imperialistic, genocidal, brutal, murderous, aggressive, discriminatory, destructive, oppressive, cynical – there is no end to the negative descriptors that can be used. This has frightened both governments and ordinary citizens.
Many families in the west did not dare talk openly about their families in their homelands, because it could hurt them there. Fear is a great and often very understandable motivator. In addition, communist propaganda machines like that of the former Soviet Union have been incredibly efficient around the world at hiding the evils of communism and spreading myths about the good life offered under it. Many in the west bought this rhetoric – naivety, duplicity, ignorance – who knows the reasons. Many still refuse to acknowledge the truth about communism. And then there are those that say such extreme oppression is dead and that these crimes happened a long time ago so why dwell on them.
Luckily, in the last 20 years, archives have opened up and truths have been revealed. We must continue to bring this evidence to light however, to educate people about the monumental human suffering of the last century.
FP: How do you explain this monstrous evil of communism and how it has manifested itself – and continues to manifest itself? And even after massacring more than a hundred million people and causing unspeakable pain and suffering to millions of others, there are still myriads of believers. What are your thoughts on this phenomenon?
Forstmanis: Communism has existed for well over a century as an ideology and still maintains significant power in some countries. Ideologies can keep hold for a very long time. But many wonder why communism – which was in part the inspiration for Nazism, managed to survive its brutal offspring for so long. I think part of the reason was that the West had to make the communists our allies in the Second World War. This was a necessary evil at the time, but the result was that Stalin emerged largely unscathed from public criticism in the West. This despite his horrific abuses – the Holodomor genocide of Ukrainians, the Katyn slaughter of Poland’s senior officer ranks and intellectuals, to name just a couple.
Add to that the naive romanticism associated with communists – the legacy of the fight in the Spanish civil war against the fascists, the popular portrayal of Castro and Che Guevera, the popular portrayal of Mao (despite incredible slaughter) and you see a kind of branding that is extraordinarily positive. Finally, when the Berlin Wall fell in 1989, things begin to change, but people who had witnessed many of the worst horrors were older, and all were so focused on addressing economic anarchy that there simply wasn’t the kind of attention paid to the crimes of communism that there might have been otherwise.
There was no Nuremburg, there was no Truth and Reconciliation commission – that kind of public engagement still needs to occur. But when so many were caught up in the romanticism and are embarrassed by having to confront the realities, it makes it very hard to contemplate such engagement. After all, George Bernard Shaw himself denied the Ukrainian Holodomor – saying no famine was occurring. So did New York Time journalist Walter Duranty. Such high profile endorsements are hard to ever shake free.
And then, recognize the continuing power of communism. Speak to Chinese-Canadians about the fear – the still pervasive fear – about speaking out, when you have family and friends back home. Cuban Canadians understand it, so do Vietnamese, and Koreans and Tibetans. East Europeans understand constant fear of reprimand and reprisal – they all lived it.
So all of these factors combine to create an atmosphere where there is incredible ignorance. Here in Ontario the Ministry of Education decided to include teachings of genocide into its high school curriculum. They chose to include the Armenian and Rwandan genocides, ignoring the genocides communism has committed.
But things are starting to change. For example, in Sweden, the alliance government elected in 2006 is concerned about it. The Swedish minister of education has included teachings about communist crimes in his government declaration. This was done because a poll result a few years ago showed that only 10% of people aged ~15-25 knew about the Gulag.
I believe Hollywood has done a tremendous job in exposing and teaching about the Holocaust and its victims. It is time for Hollywood to make a few movies about life in the Gulag. It’s my understanding that there has been talk about making a film about the poisoned ex Soviet spy in London UK, however for some reason that production has come to a standstill, and the film might not be completed. I mentioned Shaw before. Think about how many public figures were enamored with communism – the legacy of that remains hard to shake, and people are inclined to say oh why don’t we just move on. And today, when every one wants more trade with China, criticizing communism has economic consequences that many are afraid to deal with.
FP: Is there any opposition to your efforts? The Left must not be very supportive.
Forstmanis: We recently received approval from the National Capital Commission of both projects for the concept and its name. To our original title “Memorial to the Victims of Communism” we added the adjective Totalitarian, in response to an early concern by NCC officials that the title might target legitimate political views in support of a communist party. With this, the NCC officials took the proposal forward to their decision-making body for a monument. That body agreed to the project in principle but still found objection to the revised name, arguing that it might offend communists, that it was not politically correct, and that it should mark all forms of oppression.
Needless to say this sparked derision when it got out. The media had a field day with it, and we think the NCC suddenly recognized how absurd their complaints were. I don’t bear malice towards them: they like many others were oblivious – I go back to my earlier point about ignorance. We were able to convince the NCC that the scope and scale of abuse by communism – directly and indirectly against Canadians – was deserving of public memorial. We agreed to an amended title of “Memorial to the Victims of Totalitarian Communism; Canada, A Land of Refuge”.
We have not encountered much other resistance. I would note that we have written endorsements from Members of Parliament in the Conservative Party, the Liberal Party, and the New Democratic Party. The Communist Party of Canada has written a letter to NCC asking them to reverse their decision, but this letter itself has sparked responses already – including a recent letter from the Vietnamese community. I can not imagine NCC reversing its decision. When you think that approximately 25% of Canadians trace connections to countries currently or formerly under the fist of communism it is hard to imagine this memorial being rejected now.
FP: What do you hope the monument will help achieve?
Forstmanis: I hope it will give an incentive to people to explore and learn about communism. To see it for what it was and still is. It supposedly died 20 years ago for the West, although ByeloRussians will tell you that isn’t the case yet. And certainly its remaining outposts – particularly China – are not to be treated as of little consequence. There are several lessons I think.
First, that this was an extraordinarily evil ideology that took hold of incredibly large parts of the world and subjugated – and still subjugates – hundreds of millions to its oppression. People need to know this history and this reality – it is a part of knowing what we are and where we come from.
Second, the excesses of communist authority can exist under another name: the undermining of democratic processes by various regimes around the world – in Russia, in the middle east, in Latin America – looks awfully like communism by another name. By understanding communism and its terrible affects better, we are better able to address other oppressive regimes.
Third, I would like this monument to be a recognition for the many, many refugees from communist countries that arrived in Canada. It acknowledges and memorializes what they endured, and what those who could not follow them endured.
And fourth, and related to that last point, I would like the monument to help us remember that Canada is a land of liberty. Our great country took people in from around the world, and still does, because it believes in the fundamental dignity and worth of every individual. This liberty is to be vigilantly guarded– memorials like this can help us do that. It is important every new generation gets informed so that past mistakes are not repeated.
FP: Alide Forstmanis, thank you for joining Frontpage Interview.
Frontpage encourages all of our readers to visit Tribute to Liberty.
[To get the whole story on why the Left ferociously opposes a true account of, and final verdict on, communism’s crimes, read Jamie Glazov’s new book, United in Hate: The Left’s Romance with Tyranny and Terror.]