The other day, as I was walking through Montreal's central train station, I saw two young men who looked to be around 16 or 17 wearing bright red t-shirts with the letters "CCCP" emblazoned in yellow across their chests. As any hockey fan knows, CCCP is the Russian abbreviation for the former Soviet Union. The t-shirts also featured the infamous hammer and sickle from the former Soviet flag.
I stopped and tried to engage these young gentlemen in conversation. Did they realize what those symbols stood for? Were they aware of the millions who had suffered and died under the fearsome Soviet regime?
Sadly, they were supremely uninterested in what I had to say.
It seems that ex-Soviet iconography is becoming cooler and cooler lately in Quebec, including amongst some groups who have emerged in the context of the so-called "student protests" (even if the vast majority of students are not involved with them). More and more people seem to have forgotten, or more likely never learned, about the crimes committed by the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics and their ideology.
What would I have told those two young men if they had been more open to discussion?
I probably would have started by telling them about the Red Terror, in which hundreds of thousands of rebellious workers and peasants — the two groups supposedly represented by the hammer and sickle — were murdered by the communist regime during the years immediately following the Russian Revolution.
Then I would have told them about the tens of thousands killed in Soviet concentration camps in the 1920s, not to mention the nearly 700,000 people killed in the Great Purge of the late 1930s.
And I certainly would have told them about the famines of 1921 and 1932-1933 artificially created by the Soviet regime, which caused the deaths of five million and six million people, respectively.
For further information, I would have directed them to The Black Book of Communism: Crimes, Terror, Repression. Originally published in France in 1997, it was written by various European academics — some of whom hail from the left of center side of the political spectrum, by the way. It estimates that the Soviet Union was responsible for a total of 20 million deaths.
Is this what those two young men think is cool?
The scope of the Soviet regime's atrocities should be widely known among both young and old. The fact that it is not widely known is a sad indictment of our educational systems.
One thing that might help is an organization called Tribute to Liberty, whose goal is to establish a memorial to victims of communism in Ottawa. The project has received approval from the National Capital Commission and is now at the fundraising stage. I just gave them $200 in order to buy two "bricks."
As the organization points out, over 8 million individuals in Canada trace their roots to countries once ruled or still ruled by communists. If a quarter of Canadians have direct, personal links to communism and its victims, perhaps one of them could have a chat with those who proudly wear or display Soviet icons.
And perhaps once this memorial gets built, I can just tell those people to hop on the next train to Ottawa for a little dose of history.
Regardless of one's political orientation, wearing the hammer and sickle is just not cool. Actually, "not cool" is too soft an expression for this kind of intellectual and moral recklessness.
Michel Kelly-Gagnon is President and CEO of the Montreal Economic Institute. The views reflected in this column are his own.