A Catholic Guide to Great Books and Films about Communism
Tuesday, November 7th marks the 100th anniversary of the Bolshevik Revolution in Russia, which began the expansion of communism across the world. Whether in Russia or Eastern Europe, Cuba or Ethiopia, everywhere communism was implemented it led to a staggering loss in human life through mass shootings, manmade famines, or concentration camps. French historian Stéphane Courtois, himself a onetime believer in Marxist-Leninism, has estimated the number of victims of communist rule at 100 million, which means that the hammer and sickle has killed many more people than the swastika. And yet not only do most young people not learn about this horror and evil at high schools or universities, but it’s not uncommon to hear seemingly well-informed academics, politicians, or journalists to naively romanticize communism. Note, for example, Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau who rather than being grateful for never having to live under communist rule has only praised Cuba’s butcher Fidel Castro. On today’s solemn anniversary I have compiled a list of some of the best books and films on the subject so that you can learn more about the tragic fruits of Marxism-Leninism.
A helpful, quick introduction to the history of communist oppression is Communism: A History by Richard Pipes, one of the most accomplished historians of Russia in the West. Prof. Pipes served as President Reagan’s advisor on the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. Pipes publicly sparred with Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn, easily the best known dissident from behind the Iron Curtain, on the relationship between Russia’s political culture and the nature of the Soviet regime. Regardless, both Pipes and Solzhenitsyn are worth reading. A good introduction to the latter is the novel One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich, set amidst the cold, hungry misery of the gulags where inmates anxiously await their ten-year sentences to end, only to have more ten-year sentences slapped on them. One Day’s significance extends far beyond its Soviet setting and is a reflection on man’s cruelty under extreme conditions.
Another canonical novel about Stalinism is Arthur Koestler’s Darkness at Noon. It tells the story of Rubashov, an old Bolshevik unfailing in his belief in communism who is unexpectedly imprisoned and tortured in the lead up to a show trial. While Rubashov is a fictional character, there were many real life Rubashovs whose orthodox belief in the Soviet state did not save them from falling victim to Stalin’s paranoia.
Communism as an ideology was based on anthropological lies, and it forced people into lying to survive. Czech dissident (and later president) Vaclav Havel’s classic essay The Power of the Powerless is the best known take on this theme, using the memorable image of the green grocer who places a placard reading Workers of the World, Unite! in his window. The green grocer does not believe in this slogan; whether he does or not is irrelevant, because he has to display a slogan he potentially rejects in order to not be harassed by the state. A much less known, but equally powerful work dealing with communism’s inherent dishonesty is Leopold Tyrmand’s The Rosa Luxemburg Contraceptives Collective: A Primer on Communist Civilization. Tyrmand left his native Poland in the 1960s and arrived in the United States, where he was shocked to see a large part of the intellectual elites harbor naïve illusions about communism. He wrote this book to explain communism from an insider’s perspective to Americans blessed to live in a free country.
While the number of infamous crimes wrought by communism is too long to be listed in this article, one that undoubtedly deserves mention is the Holodomor. In 1932-1933, Stalin starved to death at least four million (some estimates go much higher) Ukrainian peasants in order to wipe out political dissent after they resisted the collectivization of agriculture. Ukraine’s Black Earth region boasts of the most fertile soil in Europe, which would make a famine unlikely under natural circumstances, but Stalin deliberately starved millions of Ukrainians by sending officials to seize their wheat. The fact that Microsoft Word underlines “Holodomor” in red as I write this shows how relatively little known this tragedy, undoubtedly one of the biggest mass murders in European history, is. A good primer on the Holodomor is Harvest of Sorrow by the late British Sovietologist Robert Conquest.
No communist leader has enjoyed such a positive image in the mainstream media (one that many democratically elected officials would likely envy) as Fidel Castro. Cuban-American writer Humberto Fontova has written a fine book that deconstructs the myth of Fidel as a cool ladies’ man and ardent critic of American imperialism whose heart is always on the side of the poor. Fidel: Hollywood’s Favorite Tyrant engagingly shows how prior to 1959 Cuba, despite all its troubles, was one of the most prosperous societies in the Americas, yet as a result of Castro’s destructive rule, marked by death squads, growing poverty, and prison camps with appalling conditions, thousands of Cubans risk their lives floating on inner tubes in shark-infested waters to escape to Florida each year and Cuban political prisoners inject themselves with the HIV virus to shorten their misery. Fontova’s book is impossible to put down and, despite the grim subject matter, is replete with sarcastic humor that will have you laughing out loud. Fontova’s Exposing the Real Che Guevara and the Useful Idiots Who Idolize Him is equally enthralling.
Chairman Mao, who was the de facto ruler of the People’s Republic of China from 1949 to 1976, holds the unenviable record of being the twentieth century’s biggest butcher. Historians estimate that he killed up to 70 million of mostly his own people, far more than Stalin and Hitler combined, during peacetime. And yet there was a time when Mao’s Little Red Book was a trendy fashion accessory at Berkeley and in many Left Bank Parisian cafes. A fascinating chronicle of Mao’s rise to power from an undistinguished, eccentric schoolteacher to becoming history’s biggest psychopathic mass murderer thanks to the Kremlin’s support is Jung Chang and Jon Halliday’s Mao: The Unknown Story.
In addition to these books, there are also many excellent films about communism. Latvian director Edvins Snore’s documentary The Soviet Story, which includes interviews with many esteemed historians and former Soviet dissidents such as Vladimir Bukovsky, begins by showing young, clueless hipsters parading around in T-shirts with the hammer and sickle. By the end of the film, anyone who ever entertained the idea of buying such a shirt will undoubtedly be burning with embarrassment.
One of the best dramas about communism is the 2006 German film The Lives of Others, which received a well-deserved Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. The Lives of Others depicts the Stasi, East Germany’s secret intelligence agency. The film painfully and memorably depicts the humiliating tortures of the Stasi.
The late Polish filmmaker Andrzej Wajda directed numerous films about communism. Two deserve special note. One is 2007’s Oscar-nominated Katyn, about the Soviet massacre of 22,000 Polish reserve officers (among them Wajda’s father). The Soviets falsely blamed the Germans for this crime for almost half a century. The film is less about the murder of the Polish officers itself and more about how totalitarian regimes function on the basis of blatant lies. Wajda’s last film, last year’s Afterimage, depicts the real-life story of Polish modernist painter Władysław Strzemiński, a lifelong communist who fell out of favor with Poland’s Stalinist government for believing that art should depict one’s subjective sensory experience rather than have an obligatory political undertone. Afterimage is a sad film, showing how Strzemiński’s resistance to socialist realism led the regime to throw him out of the artists’ union and prohibit him from buying paint and eventually food. Hungry and abandoned, Strzemiński died of untreated tuberculosis.
More lighthearted is Milos Forman’s The Firemen’s Ball. While Forman later gained fame in the United States for directing such masterpieces as Amadeus and One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest, he was one of the leading stars of Czechoslovak New Wave in his native country. The sardonic Firemen’s Ball shows the party firefighters throw for their colleague’s eighty-sixth birthday. The party is a disaster and a microcosm showing the absurdity of communism, a political system that forces people to steal, that presents ugliness as beauty, and that ultimately brings about its own destruction.
Many great books and films have been made about communism, which in terms of absolute numbers is the most murderous ideology in human history. Hopefully, this reading and viewing list will show you its dark side, which most liberal arts professors conveniently ignore.
Catholic Culture Note: Any list would be incomplete without Dr. Warren Carroll's books on the subject. Please see 1917: Red Banners, White Mantle, The Rise and Fall of the Communist Revolution and 70 Years of the Communist Revolution.
Filip Mazurczak is the assistant editor of the European Conservative and a correspondent for the National Catholic Register. His work has appeared in numerous publications, including First Things, The Catholic Thing, Crisis Magazine, and Poland's Wprost weekly. He studied at Creighton University and the George Washington University.
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