Winston Churchill said, “Those who fail to learn from history are condemned to repeat it.” Communism is the bloodiest form of government in the history of the world with more than 100 million people killed under Communist regimes.
This past year we did a fairly extensive study on Communism. I hope by sharing this post I have done a small part in helping you to educate your family about Communism and totalitarianism. Seeing the impact Communism has had on our own history in the United States and, to a greater degree, many unfortunate places in the world, I found it vitally important to spend a substantial amount of time immersed in this topic as we covered 20th and 21st-century history.
The Family Romanov: Murder, Rebellion and the Fall of Imperial Russia by Candace Fleming is an absolutely gripping narrative of Russia’s last royal family. My kids especially enjoyed learning about the Romanov children and Rasputin. This non-fiction work is anything but dull. We started here because we wanted to better understand the events that led to the Communist Revolution.
Breaking Stalin’s Nose by Eugene Yelchin is a simple yet powerful story of a 10-year-old boy who has always been devoted to Communism, the Communist Party and Comrade Stalin. His world is shaken after his faithful father is arrested. This compact novel also features dramatic black-and-white pictures.
Angel on the Square by Gloria Whelan is the first in a quartet series of Communist Russia. It shows both sides of the Russian Revolution opening in 1913 when this aristocratic girl goes to live with the Romanov family because her widowed mother is lady-in-waiting to Empress Alexandra. We get to know the Romanovs in a warm and personal way and see what a doting father Nicholas II is to his children. However, she also witnesses the exploitation of workers in the cities and the terrible living conditions of peasants. Meanwhile, war is spreading throughout Europe and Russia is collapsing. We give this fast-paced and absorbing book our highest review possible. This book is a must!
The Impossible Journey by Gloria Whelan is the second in the quartet series of Communist Russia. This book, which opens in 1934 in Leningrad, a generation after the Communist Revolution, is every bit as engaging as the first. The children of the heroine and hero in Angel on the Square are alone and desperate after their father is arrested and mother is exiled to Siberia. They are determined to find their mom and embark on a 1,000-mile journey in hopes of reunification. Filled with adventure and suspense, the children encounter many obstacles and confrontations and even a beautiful experience with the Samoyed tribe in the Siberian wilderness.
A Night Divided by Jennifer A. Nielsen is an engaging, fast-paced book about the Berlin Wall from the perspective of twelve-year-old, Gerta. When the Wall was erected, her father and brother were on the other side looking for work in West Berlin. This left the family divided. We encounter Gerta’s struggles along with her other brother, mother and others surviving in East Berlin as well as their persecution in this Communist city controlled by the Soviets. One day she spots her father on a viewing platform giving her clues to tunnel beneath the wall. This is risky because, if they are caught, the consequences are death. We loved this book. If you only are able to read one book on entire this list, I suggest you choose this one.
Red Scarf Girl, a memoir by Ji Li Liang, takes the reader to the destructive turmoil of the Cultural Revolution in 1966 led by Chairman Mao in Communist China. Twelve-year-old Ji Li is an accomplished student and athlete and joins her classmates in frenetically denouncing The Four Olds: Old ideas, old culture, old customs, old habits. She witnesses relatives, teachers, neighbors and friends publicly humiliated and tortured but still remains fervent in her Communist ideology. Her family eventually becomes reviled due to their wealthy family background including her grandfather being a landlord. Friends and neighbors turn on them, and they are constantly afraid of being arrested. After her father’s imprisonment, Ji Li is forced with a big decision. This autobiography received multiple awards including Publishers Weekly Best Book. ALA Best Book for Young Adults and ALA Booklist Editors’ Choice.
Mao’s Last Dancer (Young Reader’s Edition) by Li Cunxin is the riveting autobiography of a peasant boy born into extreme poverty in 1961 just before the Cultural Revolution. Despite his poverty and witnessing the brutality of the Mao regime, he revered Chairman Mao and Communism. He details life in school that is focused more on Communist indoctrination and Mao worship than the basic educational tenets of reading, writing and arithmetic. At the age of 11, Li was selected from his village by delegates of Madame Mao’s art program to study ballet at the Beijing Dance Academy. The opportunity opens many unimaginable doors including a cultural exchange in Houston with the Houston Ballet in 1979. While in Texas, he begins to realize much of what he was told about the USA was a lie. He loves his taste of freedom in America and is in awe of such abundance and modernity. The story is of his defection, the climax of the book, is nail-biting!
The Clay Marble by Minfong Ho, set in war-ravaged Cambodia after the fall of the Communist Khmer Rouge in the early 1980s, tells the story of twelve-year-old Dara. When the story opens, Dara along with her mother and brother are making their way to a refugee camp along the Thai border. As with most Cambodians at the time, many of their family members had been murdered by the Communists. They are greatly relieved when they arrive at the camp to find plenty of rice, rice seed and tools. However, fighting erupts and Dara is separated from everyone she loves. The author is someone who actually worked at refugee camps on the Thai-Cambodian border and shows great respect for what these determined people overcame.
Escape From Camp 14 by Blaine Harden chronicles the hair-raising journey of the only known person to have been born inside a North Korean prison camp and escape. He was born in Camp 14 in 1982, escaped to China in 2005 and made his way to South Korea in 2006. The account will inform the reader of the barbarian cruelty towards the slaves in the work camps that is still happening today and the obstacles encountered as they flee and eventually try to adapt into the a new world. While this is the only book in this post from the adult section, I do find it appropriate for mature children. Additionally, in much of the book, he is a youth to help the student relate.
Animal Farm by George Orwell is the perfect conclusion to your communism study. The classic allegorical fable at first seems to be a fairy tale for children with talking barnyard animals. However, the informed reader will see it a satire of the communist rule of Joseph Stalin and completely annhilates the viability of communism through scathingly exposing its flaws. The book concerns a group of barnyard animals who overthrow and chase off their exploitative human masters and set up an egalitarian society of their own. Eventually the animals’ intelligent and power-loving leaders, the pigs, subvert the revolution. Concluding that “all animals are equal, but some animals are more equal than others”, the pigs form a dictatorship even more oppressive and heartless than that of their former human masters. All three of my kids very much enjoyed this book and followed the allegory due to the previous books we had read about communism.
I did not know if I should include these books about Cuba because we have not read them yet. I can’t recommend them the way I can all the books listed above. However, they are waiting in our library and next in queue because they have been reviewed well by other readers. I will share the book summaries from Amazon below and update this post after we have read them.
The Red Umbrella by Christina Diaz Gonzales: “In 1961, two years after the Communist revolution, Lucía Álvarez still leads a carefree life, dreaming of parties and her first crush. But when the soldiers come to her sleepy Cuban town, everything begins to change. Freedoms are stripped away. Neighbors disappear. And soon, Lucía’s parents make the heart-wrenching decision to send her and her little brother to the United States—on their own. Suddenly plunked down in Nebraska with well-meaning strangers, Lucía struggles to adapt to a new country, a new language, a new way of life. But what of her old life? Will she ever see her home or her parents again? And if she does, will she still be the same girl?”
90 Miles to Havana by Enrique Flores-Galbis: “When Julian’s parents make the heartbreaking decision to send him and his two brothers away from Cuba to Miami via the Pedro Pan operation, the boys are thrust into a new world where bullies run rampant and it’s not always clear how best to protect themselves.” The book was awarded the 2011 Bank Street Children’s Book of the Year.
There are also a variety of biographies you may consider including John F. Kennedy, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, Pope John Paul II, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, George H.W. Bush, Condoleezza Rice, and Fidel Castro. Pick biographies in a format that are appealing to your children.
We also enjoy the Decade in Photo series for a high-level overview of the most important events in each decade from a U.S. perspective. We dive deeper into the topics we want to learn more about.
We are still not done with our study of Communism. It is important, heartbreaking, infuriating, and captivating. I will continue to update this blog post with books we read. I decided to go ahead and publish this so your family can get started with your own Communism studies.
My hope is that you will read these books with your children and discuss them. If you find other books about Communism you recommend, please send them to me so we can read them and possibly add to this post.
Here is some more information about Communist regimes:
- Chairman Mao’s Great Leap Forward killed 45 million people. This makes Mao Zedong the greatest mass murderer in history. Some were tortured and executed. Millions died of starvation due to his incompetent and reckless policies.
- Joseph Stalin murdered at least 20 million people with some accounts putting the number at 40 or 50 million.
- The Communist Khmer Rouge was responsible for the killing of almost 25% of the Cambodian population–up to 2 million people. Entire families died from execution, starvation, overwork, and disease.
- Forced labor, executions, and concentration camps were responsible for over one million deaths in the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea from 1948 to 1987; others have estimated 400,000 deaths in concentration camps alone. More than one million people have died due to starvation and famine.
One of my sources of inspiration for this study has been a scholarship I received in college to study WWII in Normandy, France. In fact, it was paid for by WWII veterans who strongly believed we can promote peace when we study conflict. I hope by sharing this post I have done a small part in helping you to educate your family about Communism and totalitarianism. I hope our kids will be informed citizens who strive and fight for freedom, liberty, and peace.
We visited the following presidential libraries during our study:
John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum in Boston, MA
Richard Nixon Library and Birthplace in Yorba Linda, CA
Ronald Reagan Presidential Library in Simi Valley, CA
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