By Paul Goble
When the US Congress passed the resolution in 1959 requiring the president to issue a proclamation on Captive Nations Week every July, this measure was viewed both by its authors and those opposed to it as directed against the repression of nations by communist regimes.
Until the collapse of the Soviet bloc and then the USSR in 1989 and 1991, these messages served as an indicator of how the US government viewed these communist. In the years since, the messages have celebrated the freeing of nations in the former communist states and focused on nations who remain under communist rule.
That is appropriate because of how much progress in fact has been made, but it is incomplete for two reasons. On the one hand, it ignores the fact that the Captive Nations Week resolution focused not on communism as a doctrine but communism as a practice that involved repression not limited to communist states.
Victories over communism led to many victories, but many who proclaimed themselves as non-communists or even anti-communists have continued or revived the kind of ethno-national repression that the Soviet communists carried out in the past and that the few surviving communist regimes, China first among them, are carrying out to this day.
And on the other hand, focusing on progress alone not only overshadows just how much evil has been and is being carried out by nominally non-communist regimes and also how much work remains to be done in countries like the Russian Federation. There, for example, two of the nations the resolution spoke of, Idel-Ural and Cossackia, remain victims of repression.
In his proclamation of Captive Nations Week this year, US President Joe Biden has corrected this trend and returned to the principles underlying the original resolution’s concerns about the victims of imperialist oppression regardless of what those carrying it out call themselves (whitehouse.gov/briefing-room/presidential-actions/2022/07/15/a-proclamation-on-captive-nations-week-2022/).
Biden makes three key points: First, Captive Nations Week is not about anti-communism per se but rather against repression, regardless of what the states carrying it out do. Only three of the regimes he lists among the world’s most repressive are communist – Cuba, North Korea and the People’s Republic of China.
The other six are either former communist countries or have never been communist – Russia, Iran, Belarus, Syria, Venezuela, and Nicaragua – and it is no accident that the US president listed Russia first among all these countries, not because of its communist roots but because of its continuing imperialist behavior.
Second, Biden was explicit that governments which repress their peoples at home as all nine of these countries do seek to repress others abroad through various kinds of repression. Russia’s invasion of Ukraine is only the most obvious case of this; and it is no surprise in the current environment that the American president focuses on that.
And third, and this may be the most important aspect of the Captive Nations Week resolution this week, Biden makes clear that Americans can’t remain unconcerned about such repressive be it within countries or between them and their neighbors. They must “stand in solidarity with the brave human rights and pro-democracy advocates around the world.”
The US leader concludes with the following words: “May Captive Nations Week reinvigorate our efforts to live up to out ideals by championing justice, dignity and freedom for all,” words that apply not only to communist countries, post-communist countries, countries that have never been communist and the US as well.
Biden does not say but his words clearly imply something that has often been forgotten: we are anti-communists not because people call themselves communists; we are anti-communists because of what communists have done. And we are equally against former communists or those who have never been communists who do the same things.
Those are words that the still enslaved peoples within the borders of post-Soviet Russia and within other countries communist or not will certainly welcome and hope that Biden’s suggestion that Captive Nations Week can reinvigorate the American commitment to be on their side will take the form of concrete actions and support.
Paul Goble is a longtime specialist on ethnic and religious questions in Eurasia. Most recently, he was director of research and publications at the Azerbaijan Diplomatic Academy. Earlier, he served as vice dean for the social sciences and humanities at Audentes University in Tallinn and a senior research associate at the EuroCollege of the University of Tartu in Estonia. He has served in various capacities in the U.S. State Department, the Central Intelligence Agency and the International Broadcasting Bureau as well as at the Voice of America and Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty and at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace. Mr. Goble maintains the Window on Eurasia blog and can be contacted directly at [email protected] .