On a frigid day in early December 1937, Soviet police dragged a shivering 13-year-old boy out onto the frozen ground of a field. Like many children in Russia at that time, Misha Shamonin was an orphan. Starving and alone in the dead of winter, Misha had stolen two loaves of bread.
For his crime, a soldier in the firing squad shot Misha. Another soldier dumped his lifeless body in a mass grave that would eventually hold more than 20,000 men, women and children, all enemies of communism like Misha.
Before the end of Stalin’s two-year purge that became known as the Great Terror, more than 700,000 Russians like Misha would be executed.
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In the Yaroslavl Province in 1919, an officer carrying out Lenin’s orders sat down to write a report to his superiors. He had been sent to deal with an uprising of peasants who refused to be forcibly conscripted and were hiding in the forest.
“The uprising of deserters…has been put down,” the report reads. “The families of the deserters have been taken as hostages. When we started to shoot one person from each family, the Greens began to come out of the woods and surrender.”
A thousand miles away in Astrakhan, Lenin’s secret police rounded up starving workers on strike to protest their limited rations. The soldiers herded them onto barges, tied stones around their necks and threw them into the river.
Between the peasants, workers and middle- and upper-class “Kulaks,” the three-year-long Red Terror claimed the lives of 200,000 people.
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In 1947, Lyudmila Khachatryan fell in love with a handsome military officer from Yugoslavia. After a brief courtship, they were secretly married.
Then the relationship between Russia and Yugoslavia soured. Lyudmila’s husband was detained and she was arrested.
The officer promised her parents when he took her away that Lyudmila would be home that evening. She wouldn’t return home for seven years.
Lyudmila never received a trial, just a guilty verdict. Three months later, she was on a train headed for the Russian Arctic, where winter temperatures can remain below zero for months at a time.
The Kargopol-lag was a logging camp, home to 30,000 prisoners that were being slowly worked or starved to death. There, she was subjected to humiliation, sleep deprivation and other tactics to break her will and make her fit for a life of menial labor.
Lyudmila made it out of the gulag alive. Many did not. Around 2.7 million died in communist concentration camps across Russia, many of them ethnic minorities, peasants and other “undesirables.
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On the 100-year anniversary of the communist revolution in Russia, it’s important to remember the more than 100 million stories of people like Misha, Lyudmila and the Yaroslavl peasants. Communism has been the justification of the deaths of countless men, women and children from Vietnam to Nicaragua to Soviet Russia.
In many cases, socialist revolution was celebrated by the very people who became its victims. Whether they came to power through violent overthrow or democratic election, socialist leaders promised to usher in a better life. Instead, they brought poverty, starvation and death.
Many young people, growing up in the prosperity and safety of modern America, never learned about the atrocities committed in the names of socialism and communism over the past 100 years. Nearly half of us say we would prefer living in a socialist country to a capitalist country.
We can’t afford to let victims like Misha be forgotten. They serve as a warning to us and future generations about communism’s enticing, yet ultimately deadly hand.