Episode 45: The Heights Of Absurdity

 Audio Link

Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we discuss what life is really like for those unfortunate enough to live under communist or socialist governments.    Recording from the suburbs of Wichita, Kansas, this is Erik Seligman, your host, along with co-host Manuel Castaneda in Oregon.

Today we’re going to be talking about a very unusual novel, “The Yawning Heights” by Russian dissident, philosopher, and sociologist Alexander Zinoviev.   Published in the 1970s, this immense work is a mix of satire, philosophy, and social analysis.   It differs from a lot of our discussions in this podcast in that it focuses on how Communism affects the lives of artists,  writers, and professors, drawing from Zinoviev’s own experiences as a chair in Logic at the Soviet Academy of Sciences.     While jockeying for political position and trying to rationalize and understand their own behavior, they have long discussions about social laws that ultimately trap them in a self-perpetuating system.

“The Yawning Heights” is structured as a sequence of vignettes in the lives of this circle of intellectuals, interspersed with long passages of philosophy or social analysis purportedly written by some of the characters.   It takes place in a fictional land called “Ibansk”, where every citizen is named Iban Ibanovich Ibanov.   To tell them apart, they are usually referred to by nicknames, like Schizophrenic, Artist, Dauber, Truth-Teller, etc.    Some are obvious stand-ins for real-life figures:  “Boss” is clearly Joseph Stalin, “Hog” is his successor Nikita Khrushchev, and “Truth-Teller” represents author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who exposed the horrors of the Gulag.

An early passage from the book gives a feeling for Zinoviev’s cynical sense of humor, as well as the corruption of the sciences which becomes a constant theme throughout:

All our scientists claim, and many foreign scientists accept, that the inhabitants of Ibansk are a whole head taller than everybody else… not by reason of any reactionary biological superiority … but because of the progressive historic conditions in which they live and the correctness of the theory for which they have been the guinea pigs, and thanks too to the wisdom of the leadership which has guided them so brilliantly. For this reason the people of Ibansk do not live in the old fashioned and commonplace sense of the word as it is applied to other people in other places. The Ibanskians do not live, but carry out epoch-making experiments. They carry out these experiments even when they know nothing about them and take no part in them, and even when the experiments are not taking place at all. This book is devoted to the examination of one such experiment.

The experiment was dreamt up by the Institute for the Prophylaxis of Stupid Intentions, and carried out under the supervision of the Brainwashing Laboratory, written up in the Fundamental Journal and was supported by an initiative from below. The experiment was approved by the Leader, his Deputies, his Assistants and by everybody else-except for a few holding mistaken opinions. The aim of the experiment was to detect those who did not approve of its being carried out and to take appropriate steps.

There are many parts of the book where Zinoviev takes savage aim at the corruption of the practice of science under Communist leadership.   Here’s one classic example, a passage likely inspired by the worthless agricultural methods once promoted by Stalin’s favorite scientist, Trofim Lysenko:

In Ibansk, a science which enjoyed a great flowering was that of meatology. To be fair, it should be said that initially things didn't go too well. … they made life quite impossible for the Ibanskians. Things had to be put right. So in their place the Great Veterinarian was appointed. He was quite incredibly stupid and tongue-tied. The Ibanskians said he couldn't tell Gogol from Hegel, Hegel from Babel, Babel from Cable, Cable from Beigel, Beigel from Table, but he came from the right social background, and had views which fitted in at the time in question. So he quickly made up for lost time. Relying on the work done by the founders of this branch of science, he began, on the wide open spaces of the Ibanskian wasteland, to carry out his famous experiments on crossing watermelons with maize. And he achieved remarkable results. In the outskirts of the city of Ibansk cows were exterminated. Milk began to come from powder, and meat from abroad.

He also continually pokes fun at the effort to create positive external appearances without any sense of internal order, direction, or purpose.

After historic experiments the village of Ibansk was transformed. The former school building was redesignated The Associate Department of the Institute. The lavatory was rebuilt and clad in steel and glass. Now, from an observation platform, the tourists who flow into Ibansk in a never-ending stream can convince themselves with their own eyes that the false rumours that have reached them are the purest slander. … So the tourists should have something to look at during the time they had free from visits to model factories, around the hotel ten new picturesque churches of the 10th century and earlier were built. Their walls were adorned with ancient frescoes by Artist himself, who painted a portrait of the Leader in the foreground. He was awarded prizes, decorations and titles for his work. … 

In the main fresco Artist painted the Leader and his Deputies, who for this were awarded prizes, while the Leader himself got two: one for the one thing, the other for the other. As a result food prices were lowered, which meant that they merely doubled, instead of rising by five per cent as they did outside Ibansk. The Ibanuchka River was dammed. It overflowed, flooded a potato field (the former pride of the Ibanskians) and swelled into a lake (the present pride of the Ibanskians). And for this all the inhabitants, with one or two exceptions, were decorated. …

The facade of the building is decorated with nine hundred columns of every order known to world architecture, and on the roof a multitude of towers reaches towards the sky, blending into a unified whole, a perfect reproduction of the inimitable domes of the church of Iban the Blessed. Overcome by so much beauty, Ibanov, the world-famous engineer of human souls, produced this high-flown sentence in the editorial of the bi-annual journal Dawn of the North-East: 'In the presence of such unearthly beauty one can only stand to attention and bare one's head.' His namesake Ibanov, an officer-cadet, happened to glance at the aesthetic aspect of the building which in his erroneous opinion was completely unsuited to normal human life-and, warily examining the three-story-high statue of the Leader, whispered to his old friend, cadet Ibanov: "As far as the number of columns per head of population goes, we have overtaken even the Greeks. Now we are the leading columnial power in the world.” His friend reported this conversation to the appropriate authorities, and the fate of the slanderer was decided before taps was sounded that evening…  He was carted away to a nasty cold cell.

More bureaucratic bungling is highlighted in the discussion of a trip abroad, one of the ultimate rewards for the most politically favored intellectuals.

When they reached their destination it transpired that Thinker was the only one who knew any foreign languages, and not the ones which were needed, in fact precisely the reverse. To do him justice, those he knew he knew perfectly adequately. … They were instructed to buy vodka to ensure a friendly atmosphere. Then the delegation was split in two, each half being instructed to keep an eye on the other. …  The success of the delegation exceeded all expectations : it produced five hundred denunciations, eight hundred devastating speeches, five thousand critical observations, and twenty thousand disparaging rejoinders.

There are many long, complex passages about social laws, which seem to compel these kinds of behaviors and results even when each individual realizes how absurd they are.    These sections of the book can be difficult reading, partly satirical and partly very serious, but form a very pointed critique of the entire Communist system.   Zinoviev pokes fun at the fact that he doesn’t use the words Soviet Union or Communism anywhere in the book, yet it is obvious to any reader what he is criticizing:  

When he had read this extract from Schizophrenic's manuscript, Sociologist said to Dauber that Schizophrenic would get into really hot water for it. "Whatever for?' asked Dauber in surprise. "What do you mean, what for?" replied Sociologist, no less surprised. This is all about us and our society. There isn't a word here that says it's all about us,' observed Dauber. 'Our bosses are no fools,' said Sociologist. 'Hypocrisy, oppression, disinformation, waste and so on— a babe in arms would recognize who all that's about.' 

And Sociologist told a story of a man who shouted 'Arrogant blockhead!' and was arrested for insulting the Leader, even though he protested that it was his workmate he had in mind. ‘Come off it-you and your work-mate!’, he was told, ‘everyone knows who the arrogant blockhead must be. ‘

‘But that's not legal,' cried Dauber, 'to charge a man with slandering us, just because someone decided that his words could be applied to us. ‘What's legality got to do with it?' exclaimed Sociologist. ‘…This manuscript will be assessed by an expert. And only a man who will produce the desired conclusion will be nominated as an expert.’

Zinoviev often makes fun of the fragile egos of the self-contradicting intellectuals, who try to convince themselves that their successes result from actual merit, while their failures are caused by undeserving enemies.  

Thinker knew that he was the most intelligent and educated person in Ibansk. He had a job on the Journal and was pleased about that since most people weren't as well placed as he was.  But at the same time he was dissatisfied, for there were other people with better jobs. Insofar as everyone who didn't have a job as good as his was more stupid than he was, he thought his position perfectly justified. But insofar as all those who had jobs superior to his were also more stupid than he was, he felt himself unjustly passed over. He knew perfectly well that if he were more stupid, he would have a better job. And because of this he was filled with rending self pity, and came to the point of despising even more the inhabitants of Ibansk, who fully deserved this scorn because of all their former history…

Sometimes Thinker wrote orthodox but inept articles. The occasions when they appeared became high days and holidays for the thinking part of the Ibansk population. Everyone could see with their own eyes how outstandingly courageous Thinker was, Thinker who was the first to refer to the historic speeches of the new Leader, and who raised to a record number his total of references to them.

I think the novel is at its most poignant when it’s discussing the suffocating effects of the system on the lives of  the characters who do actually have some merit, probably based on unfortunate friends and colleagues that Zinovev knew in real life.   A prime example is the situation of Dauber, an artist who everyone recognizes as brilliant and talented, though he is barely recognized by the authorities and just scraping by, as opposed to his politically favored but untalented friend Artist.   (By the way, Dauber is an obscure English word referring to an unskilled artist, in case you didn’t pick up on the ironic names.)

Artist and Dauber had been students together, and had been close friends. Once Dauber said jokingly that there was really only one rule in art: the higher placed the arse you licked, the better artist you were. You can't be a great artist if you are not painter to the King.  Artist took the joke seriously and soon their paths in art and life divided, although they remained on friendly terms. His outstanding successes led to Artist being awarded prizes, elected to Academies, and finally given an appointment. His portrait of Adviser brought him a flat. His villa came from his portrait of Assistant. His portrait of Deputy's wife yielded him a car. When he painted Deputy he got a trip abroad. …  For his second portrait of the Leader he was awarded the entire three-year allocation of studio funds for his own studio alone. For his portrait of Assistant, he was given his own exhibition, open round the clock with no admission charge. And yet Artist would have felt happier had it not been for the existence of Dauber.

At his own expense and after great difficulty Dauber found himself a tiny attic to use as a studio. And from time to time, working in complete anonymity, he turned something out, but not without scandals and rows. Artist got to hear some stupid rumours, which he didn't want to believe. He well knew what our art was about, and who our true artists were. Finally, some dubious intellectuals began to agitate for an exhibition of Dauber's work. A commission was set up under the chairmanship of Artist. The commission ruled against a one-man show. But since the winds of change were beginning to blow even through the spheres of cultural control, they decided to set up a new commission to examine the possibility of showing one of Dauber's more suitable works at a general exhibition of the works of amateur old-age pensioners and folk-art clubs.

When Dauber is invited to chat with a high-ranking official, Deputy, who also appears to be an admirer of his work, he just ends up with further obstacles.    Even his own friends are more concerned with following the party line than with helping him.

He said, "I value your work, and I could authorise your mounting an exhibition." "Go ahead," I said, "it won't cost you anything!" "There's no point," he said. "No matter what I do, nothing will come out of it. You know our system." "I do," I said. "Art has always needed the protection of the powerful. On its own, real art is defenceless. Without your protection, they'll make a meal of me." "Even with my protection," he said, "they'll gobble you up just the same."

When Dauber was invited to take part in the jubilee quarter-final exhibition for untalented artists of the first early middle age division, he was beside himself with delight.  At last!  ‘There you are’, he said to Slanderer, ‘even here something can be done!  I am an optimist!’ ‘Ah well, we’ll see’, said Slanderer.  Dauber sent more than a hundred magnificent engravings to the selection committee.   They were all rejected and he was asked to submit something similar,  Finally they accepted one tiny etching which Dauber had considered a failure and which he was going to tear up.  A friend of Dauber’s, who was organizing the exhibition, put the etching in the darkest corner beyond a great many works by Artist.   'What have you done?’ cried Dauber, angrily…

and you shove me somewhere almost out of sight.' Friend got angry in his turn. "How conceited can you get?' he said…

The Leader, himself, visited the exhibition. Beyond Artist’s powerful canvases showing the Leader in the front line, the Leader posing beside a steam-hammer, the Leader visiting a modern rat-breeding station, the Leader saving a neighbouring nation from the danger of back-sliding, as well as other aspects of our busy and colourful life, he did not immediately notice Dauber's pathetic etching. It was hard to tell if it was a representation of a finger, a phallus or a chromosome in the grip of sudden madness. The Leader disliked the etching. 'Our people feel no need of this kind of thing,' he said, 'because our people need something quite different.

That evening a special commission was set up to organise the struggle with Dauber and those like him. The commission included Artist, Writer, Friend, Thinker and Colleague. Thinker delivered a speech on false orientations. Colleague told the latest funny stories about the Leader. And Artist formulated a resolution: that Dauber's works were of no value and should be destroyed to avoid harmful consequences, and that Dauber himself should be regarded as having no existence, since there could in principle be no such monstrous deviation among our people. The resolution was adopted unanimously. Afterwards, Colleague and Thinker went to see Dauber, drank a bottle of his vodka, borrowed a hundred roubles to the end of the month, ridiculed the other members of the commission, and spent a long time trying to persuade Dauber to fix them up with some girls.

Of course, all Dauber’s and Artist’s friends know who has the real talent, including Artist himself.   But even when seeking direct guidance from Dauber’s success, Artist’s own lack of talent cannot be concealed.

Artist salvaged a few of Dauber's engravings from destruction and took them back to his own studio. He decided to copy some which were more or less tolerable. But whatever he tried to draw a finger, a penis, a nose, a woman's arse, a crankshaft… it always turned into a portrait either of the Leader, or of Deputy, or (in the best cases) of a high-yield milch-cow praised in a newspaper article. Writer said on this account that Artist had a very healthy inner core, and however hard he tried, he could never turn himself into some kind of imprexprabsturrealist. Slanderer said that they weren't even able to steal properly, these people, because they didn't know the right thing to steal. Some of Dauber's sculptures were melted down and turned into saucepans and smoothing irons, and the rest were slung out on to the rubbish tip. Afterwards young and progressive artists, who were pleased not to be aware of the existence of Dauber who had never existed and never could exist in the culture of Ibansk because of its general state of health, chiselled off lumps of stone from Dauber's sculptures and carved from them little unknown monsters. These monsters reminded the members of the commission of something they had once seen long in the past, but they were nevertheless allowed to exhibit them.

As our final quote from this all-too-brief collection, let’s look at one more moment of absurd dark humor, when the characters discuss why the events in the book are not quite as unbearable as they might sound:

'What a joy it is,' said Schizophrenic, 'that we are all fictitious characters. We can talk about suffering without experiencing hunger, cold or pain. We can talk about the discomfort of life without having to repair a tap, hunt for bed-bugs or complain about noisy neighbours." "Yes,' said Chatterer, 'we're very lucky that we have no real existence. And besides we can make discoveries without having to worry about publishing our books or getting our fees. We can produce masterpieces without suffering sordid arguments about getting them exhibited. This does have a certain charm and beauty of its own.’

[Closing conversation with Manuel]

As usual, we’ve just scratched the surface here— the full book is over 800 pages, so we haven’t come close to doing it justice.   But if you enjoyed the passages we checked out today, be sure to check out the full novel, The Yawning Heights by Alexander Zinoviev, linked in our show notes at storiesofcommunism.com. 

And this has been your Story of Communism for today.


Episode 44: Leaving The Nonsense Behind

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Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we discuss what life is really like for those unfortunate enough to live under communist or socialist governments.    Recording from the suburbs of Wichita, Kansas, this is Erik Seligman, your host.  

Today we have a guest episode, an abridged version of an interview recorded by Gyuszi Suto a few months ago, with fellow immigrant Joe Csizmazia.   You may recall that Gyuszi is the author of the entertaining memoir “I Tried”, about growing up in Communist Romania, that we discussed in episodes 41 and 42.   Joe contacted Gyuszi after reading that memoir, as it stirred a lot of his own memories of his early life and escape from Communist Hungary.   Suto ended up interviewing Joe on his YouTube channel, and has given us permission to share his interview in this podcast as well.  Now, let’s go to the interview.

[Listen to audio for interview]

This was an abridged version of the interview, focusing on aspects most topical for this podcast, but Joe shared many other hilarious stories, odd experiences, and impressive accomplishments after his emigration in the full two-hour-plus interview.   You can find a link to the full interview on Gyuszi’s YouTube channel, as well as a link to Gyuszi’s memoir “I Tried”, in the show notes at storiesofcommunism.com .


And this has been your Story of Communism for today.


Episode 43: Through A Child's Eyes

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Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we discuss what life is really like for those unfortunate enough to live under communist or socialist governments.    Recording from the suburbs of Wichita, Kansas, this is Erik Seligman, your host, with co-host Manuel Castaneda dialing in from Oregon.

Today we’re going to talk about an unusual children’s book, targeted for a middle-school audience:  “Breaking Stalin’s Nose”, by Eugene Yelchin.  I was happy to see that such a book exists— it seems that these days, most books in U.S. schools are coming from the opposite end of the political spectrum.     It tells the story of two eventful days in the life of a young boy in Stalin’s Soviet Union of the early 1950s.   A historical novel, it is based on memories retold to Yelchin by friends and family during his own childhood, just a few years after the period featured in the book.    Zaichik is a young boy who lives with his father, a minor functionary who works for the secret police, in a communal apartment.   He is excited that he is only a day away from being inducted in the Young Pioneers, a scout-like organization that only accepts loyal Communist children into their ranks, and has been selected to lead the parade and carry the school’s banner.   

As we hear in nearly every episode of this podcast, material poverty is inherent to the system, as we see when Zaichik discusses his living situation.

It’s dinnertime, so the kitchen is crowded.   Forty-eight hardworking, honest Soviet citizens share the kitchen and single small toilet in our communal apartment…  We live here as one large, happy family; we have no secrets.  We know who gets up at what time, who eats what for dinner, and who said what in their rooms…  Stalin says that sharing our living spaces teaches us to think as Communist “We” instead of capitalist “I”.   We agree.


I take small bites of the carrot to make it last; the carrot is delicious.   When hunger gnaws inside my belly, I tell myself that a future Pioneer has to repress cravings for such unimportant matters as food.   Communism is just over the horizon; soon there will be plenty of food for everyone….   I wonder what it’s like in the capitalist countries.   I wouldn’t be surprised if children there had never even tasted a carrot.


As you might expect, this kind of deprivation leads to jealousy and resentment among those who see their neighbors slightly better-off than they are.   While Zaichik and his father are not exactly living in luxury, many others have it much worse.  In particular, there is major tension between his father and neighbor Stukachov.

I wish he would leave us alone and go to his own room, even though I know how crammed it is in there with his wife, three little kids, and mother.   My dad and I have a large room for the  two of us.   I’m so embarrassed we live in luxury that I don’t look at Stukachov, but I know he’s there.


Then, suddenly, Zaichik’s life is turned upside down when his father is arrested.   It turns out that this is the doing of Stukachov, who was next in line for their room— he doesn’t even give the boy enough time to remove his belongings, immediately claiming his new residence after the father is taken.

In the corridor stands our neighbor Stukachov.  “It’s me, Stuckachov.  I made the report,” he says, smiling and bobbing his head at the passing uniforms.


Tomorrow they’ll throw away our broken things.   That doesn’t matter, of course.  My dad and I oppose personal property on principle.   Personal Property will disappear when Communism comes.  But still…

Maybe I don’t need a room…. Maria Ivanova doesn’t have a room.   She lives in a cubbyhole next to the toilet.  Semenov sleeps behind the curtain in the corridor, and nobody’s complaining.  I feel better already.  I’m staying in the kitchen until my dad returns.


He attempts to go to his uncle and aunt for help, but they have little interest in taking care of another child, especially one with the stigma of being the son of an “enemy of the people”.   Zaichik reminisces with them about the death of his mother, but it’s pretty clear that some information is being withheld.  Later we learn that his father actually turned her in to the secret police for disloyalty, gaining prestige for himself at the expense of her life.

The next day, Zaichik attempts to go to school as normal, still hoping he can march with the banner and become a Young Pioneer.   On the way in, he has a minor scuffle with a classmate, “Four-Eyes” Finklestein, who ends up being late as a result.   Everyone in the class feels free to mock and torment Finklestein, since it is well-known that his parents were arrested.   When he arrives late to class, the teacher instructs the students to vote on whether to send him to the principal.    

…remember, children, the Soviet classroom is the most democratic in the world.  You will decide his fate.  You will vote.  Those in favor of sending Finkelstein to the principal, raise your hands.”


Feeling a bit guilty, Zaichik refuses at first to vote for punishing Finklestein.  But the teacher quickly corrects him.

We don’t allow those who vote against the majority to handle the sacred banner.  You’re a smart boy, Zaichik; you understand.”…  I raise my hand.


Then, further disaster strikes.   As Zaichik is walking down the hallway, fetching the sacred banner for the parade later, he bumps against the school’s statue of Stalin— and accidentally knocks off the nose.

The plaster dust sparkles in the muted window light before landing on the floor around the nose.  I look at the broken nose.  I look at the banner, spread nearby.   Then I look up at Stalin, now without a nose.   It doesn’t take much to know what will happen next…

the guards will arrive to arrest me.  It won’t be a mistake like with my dad, I should be arrested… I have become an enemy of the people, a wrecker….  who’s going to believe me?  Nobody saw how it happened.


He quickly moves past the statue and hopes that nobody saw him, but a few minutes later the broken nose is spotted in the hallway.   The school authorities see this as an anti-Soviet act, though they don’t know who is responsible.   The teacher starts pressuring the students to inform on each other in order to find the culprit.

“I’ll make it easy for you.   Write down the names of the pupils who you’re sure didn’t do it…  Just make sure you are right.   You know what will happen if even one name on your list turns out to be unreliable?”… “You, yourself, will be suspected…  We’ll know that Zina Krivko is covering for the enemies of the people.”…  


Zaichik is saved when, inexplicably, Finkelstein confesses for the act.   It soon dawns on him that his classmate is hoping to be sent to the prison where his parents are, foolishly believing they can be together again as a family.    Of course, the teacher sees this as confirmation that no son of enemies of the people can be trusted.

“We should have known better than to permit Finkelstein to remain in our ranks after his parents were arrested.   We have failed, class, slackened in our vigilance.  But this will not happen again.”

Nina Petrovna rises, walks to where the group photograph of our class hangs on the wall, and blackens Four-Eyes’s face with her ink pen.   That’s what we always do to pictures of enemies of the people, and it usually feels good, but not this time.  Four-Eyes is not an enemy.  He just wanted to see his parents.


Zaichik is soon summoned to the principal’s office anyway, as the news has arrived that his father was arrested.   He reflects on what has happened to another classmate, Vovka, who also had a father arrested.   The principal then rubs salt in the wounds by lecturing Zaichik on how he should have acted after the arrest.

When Vovka and I were friends, I went to his apartment hundreds of times.  I liked his dad.  He was a good Soviet citizen, modest, a devoted Communist.  How could he be a wrecker?…  It’s just too confusing.   Then I remember what my dad used to say;  “There’s no smoke without a fire.”   If someone is arrested and executed, there must be a good reason for it…  What about my dad then? 



“You, Zaichik.  Your father has been arrested and locked up… You think I didn’t know?”… “So why not come to me and say, ‘Sergei Ivanych, I want to purify myself from the rotten influence of my father.  I want to march with my school…’ “ … “Had you done that,” Sergei Ivanych says, “I would have let you denounce your father at today’s Pioneers rally…  But no, you chose to pretend that you are still one of us.”


Upset, the boy flees from the principal’s office and hides in an unused part of the school.  Out of fear and exhaustion, he faints, and has a bizarre hallucinatory conversation with the statue’s severed nose.   Among other topics, it retells a dark joke that was popular in Stalin’s day, though few could dare to tell it aloud:

“Once, I received a delegation of workers from the provinces.  When they left, I looked for my pipe but did not see it.   I called the chairman of the State Security….  ‘Yes, Comrade Stalin, I’ll immediately take the proper measures.’   Ten minutes later, I pulled out a drawer in my desk and saw my pipe.  I dialed the State Security again.  ‘Nikolai Ivanych, my pipe’s been found.’ ‘What a shame,’ he said.  ‘All of the workers have already confessed.’”


Finally, in the end, Zaichik runs away from the school, and decides to get in line at the prison to try and see his father.   It will be a long time until that happens, as he sees a gigantic queue in front of the prison doors, thousands of people lined up for multiple blocks.   But on that line, for the first time, he sees genuine human warmth and camaraderie not tainted by obsequiousness to authorities or constant fear.

 After a while, a woman in front of me turns around.  “You must be cold”, she says…  She stares at me for a moment, then digs into her bag and pulls out a woolen scarf.  “I made this for my son,” she says.  “Wrap it around.  I’ll take it back when we get to the door.”…  She doesn’t even ask if I’m hungry, just takes out something wrapped in a cloth and hands it to me.  I unwrap it— a baked potato, still hot….  “Now that my son’s cot is empty, you’re welcome to it if you want.”


<closing conversation with Manuel>

If you liked these excerpts and have a young reader in your life, be sure to get them a copy of “Breaking Stalin’s Nose” by Eugene Yelchin, linked in the show notes at storiesofcommunism.com .

And this has been your Story of Communism for today.



Episode 42: The Bears And The Bees

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Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we discuss what life is really like for those unfortunate enough to live under communist or socialist governments.    Recording from the suburbs of Wichita, Kansas, this is Erik Seligman, your host, with co-host Manuel Castaneda dialing in from Oregon.

Today we have another great interview, with Gyuszi Suto, author of the memoir, titled “I Tried”, that we discussed in the last episode.  As you may recall, Suto grew up in Communist Romania, and had a very colorful early life.   In our interview, we discuss his impressions on the transition from Communism to living in the West, his thoughts on various political topics, and some hilarious stories that didn’t make it into the book.    Now, let’s go to the interview.

<Listen to audio for interview>

Again, if you want to read more of Suto’s amazing, eye-opening, and darkly humorous stories about his early life in Romania, be sure to check out his book “I Tried”, available at your favorite online bookseller and linked in the show notes at storiesofcommunism.com .


And this has been your Story of Communism for today.


Episode 41: In Search of Used Toothpaste

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Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we discuss what life is really like for those unfortunate enough to live under communist or socialist governments.    Recording from the suburbs of Wichita, Kansas, this is Erik Seligman, your host, with co-host Manuel Castaneda dialing in from Oregon.

The memoir we are looking at today is especially interesting to me, as I actually know the author:  we worked in the same department at a large company for many years.  The book is called “I Tried”, by Romanian immigrant Gyuszi Suto, and assembles many darkly humorous anecdotes about his life growing up in the final decades of Romanian Communism.   Unfortunately, he and I were always on different projects, so I never chatted with him about non-work stuff.   But his book is an amazing and entertaining read:  while we see many themes common in this type of memoir, he really shines a light into many details of Romanian life that might surprise you, 

Of course, one dominant theme throughout the book is the scarcity of consumer goods, pretty much universal wherever socialism or Communism has been implemented.    I was especially amused by his struggles to obtain a round soccer ball:

We started playing soccer. Frana, the Romanian kid who lived in an old, broken-down house in the neighborhood, got a hold of a rubber ball. It was not exactly round; actually, it had a giant egg shape, but it was good enough. We played on the street for hours, until late in the night. I wasn’t very good at soccer, I was usually chosen as a player in the last round, but I didn’t mind it, as long as I could play. 

Cosar—a heavyset kid, slightly older than me, and a good friend of Frana approached us one afternoon. “Have you seen the new ball?” he asked. “What new ball?” “They just got a new ball at the sports store, and it’s made of real leather.” “Really? How much does it cost”—I asked. “Eighty-Two Lei”—Cosar replied. I made a quick mental calculation. That was about five times more than the yearly toy budget my parents spent on me…. No way my parents could pay for a ball.

[Location 117]

One day, he thinks he has found the solution when he saw a poster about the local infestation of Carabus bugs.    These were a major pest, so the local government put up a bounty to try to encourage public help:  anyone who turned in 1kg of Carabus wings would get a free soccer ball!   Sadly, after many weeks of insect hunting by Suto and his friends, they only had 100 grams of bugs, and never did get their ball.

More serious than sporting equipment, though, was the food situation.


My father used to tutor students after-hours for as long as I remembered. Our tiny apartment was frequently visited by high school students needing extra attention and tutoring. My father used to teach them for free, for years. But now that food shortages were getting worse, he was tutoring for food.… Whenever I went to a food store, the typical scene was empty shelves, save for the occasional bean cans. When there was food, the lines would wrap around the building, four people wide.

[Location 167-180]

The food stores were in the most dismal state. The typical scene was an overweight woman clerk sitting on a stool, disgruntled, showing no desire to help the underweight comrades visiting her store. In a meat store, shelves would be empty; the refrigerator would be running full power, behind the glass display lay the hooves of a pig and next to it a bare bone. Behind her, on the wall, empty steel hooks. In a milk store, it was equally empty, save for the occasional yogurt bottles. If it was a grocery store, same thing, mostly empty, except a few expired cans of dill pickles and refried beans. When these stores would get occasional food delivery, the news traveled fast around our little town. People would rush to the store with empty bags and form huge lines. They had no idea what food would be available at the store, but anything was better than nothing. 

[Loc 4330]

Suto and his friends somehow managed to look on the bright side of things, and keep up their sense of humor despite the lack of material comforts.  For example, he discusses the relative freedom he and his childhood friends had to roam about the neighborhood without adult supervision:

One of the few advantages of living in communism was that kidnapping did not exist. We didn’t even have a word for that. How and why would anybody steal a child? How would one feed that child? Where would the kidnapper hide that child? All apartments were tiny, and the walls were thin; neighbors knew everything about everybody. Gossip was rampant. There were no secrets. This came with the freedom of roaming around as a child.

[Location 307]

And, of course, there were the jokes, as in this example, where a traveller tried to lift his neighbors’ spirits on a horribly overcrowded bus:

He spoke up with a high pitched voice, almost shouting, that filled the entire bus: “It is two hundred meters long…” Passengers, startled, turned their heads his way but couldn’t see him; he was surrounded by taller folks. “It is three meters wide,” he continued, shouting towards the ceiling of the bus to give his voice the best chance of reaching all corners. “It undulates…” now his voice was booming, folks were listening with surprise. “Though it’s not moving neither forward nor backward…”—by then I could hear in the timber of his mezzo soprano voice that this was going to end up being a joke. “And it is vegetarian! What is it?” he posed the question. “An anaconda?” came a female voice from the front of the bus. “No! A line at the meat store!”

[Location 4099]

Another issue that Suto often touches upon is the local government’s stewardship of the environment and public resources.    Despite the claims of excellence in these areas, the local citizens of Romania observed quite the opposite:

Wow, I thought to myself, wouldn’t it be great to have drinkable, clean water right here in our backyard? So I won’t have to go anymore to stand in line for hours at the bottom of the hill, a fifteen-minute walk there with empty buckets, and a long, tiring walk back with the full buckets, following an hour-long standing in the line at the only potable water source that came down the hill, the last part of the city that was not polluted.

“…they built the pig farm upstream at Bonchida, and that ruined everything. The river got full of pig poop and carcasses. We could no longer drink the water from the river. Then the factories came at Apahida, and Someseni and Cluj. Now the whole waterbed is poisoned”. True, our tap water—that came from the Szamos River, it looked like urine, tasted of pig [poop] combined with phosphorus, nitrates, and heavy metal. We could only use it for washing and bathing.

[Location 167]

The Romanian train cars emptied their toilets directly down onto the tracks. There was a sign in the bathrooms asking comrades not to use the toilets while the train was stopped in stations, but nobody paid attention. When a comrade had to go, the comrade went. As a result, the railroad tracks had the highest concentration of human manure in the whole desert—a straight line of putrid fertility cutting across the barren landscape.

Weird plants would pop up from the middle of the tracks, enjoying the unusually high level of fertilizers engulfing the crushed rocks of the ballast. Some weeds would grow a foot a day, much to the station chiefs’ dismay, who were supposed to keep their little kingdom clean and tidy. Since power tools for gardening did not exist, they would send out a poor guy to walk along the [poopy] tracks and try to whack down the thick weeds with a hoe.

I was thinking that if they’d build railroad tracks crisscrossing the Sahara desert and give free rides to the Romanian comrades—eating the same crappy food that we, the Camp workers got—pretty soon, they would revegetate the desert.

Maybe even animals would reappear. Never underestimate the climate changing potential of twenty million proletarians with diarrhea.

[Location 1093-1100]

One of the scarier parts of the book, at least to a Western reader, is Suto’s discussion of the time he and his friends were “volunteered” to spend a summer effectively as slaves in a labor camp, helping to dig a canal desired by the local government.  

The principal looked like a wild boar. He had a big face, heavy, drooping eyelids, a thick neck, and a sizeable belly. Those who had big guts were either a leader of the communist party or worked at a gas station or at a factory that had to do something with food. They could get access to food. The rest of us were all thin. “Pupils,” he started his speech. “We got an order from Bucharest. All of you will be sent to the Danube Canal for three months to do volunteering work.” There was a murmur in the ranks. “In line with our communist values, we all need to contribute to the construction of our bright future,” he carried on. “You’ll be helping to connect the Danube to the Black Sea.

“It is your duty as a communist youth,”—he continued sternly—“ to help build our bright future. The country needs your help, so you must go.”

If we ignored the fact that we had hardly any food, we had no freedom to travel, no freedom of speech, no access to imported foods or books or magazines, and that we were about to leave on a treacherous, three months long forced labor camp in the desert, life was not that bad after all. Our workweek—and school week—was six days long. You can’t build utopian communism with just five days of work a week.

But on the seventh day, we couldn’t rest. We had to go stand in line for food and fetch drinking water from the nearby hill.

[Location 869-901]

Naturally, the officials in Bucharest did not select high school students from their district because that must’ve meant that some of their own sons had to come and bust the rocks in the hot sun. Instead, they picked the most under-represented areas and schools in the country.

[Location 941]

Breakfast was at 6 AM. We were given some brown goo, made with a combination of potatoes, cabbage, carrots, and some pork cartilage, boiled into a semi-homogeneous paste. It was very bad. Occasionally we’d find rock pieces in it that chipped our teeth. When we found one, we’d smack it into the only window of the cafeteria. The thought was that if the rock is big enough to break the window, we could then argue with the camp captain that if they only had smaller pebbles in our food, the windowpane would’ve not shattered.

[Location 950-951]

Suto also discusses several run-ins with the celebrated free health care system that Communist governments generally provide.   In one case, his sister has a wart on her eyelid that needs to be removed:

My parents were worried and took her to the doctor, who offered to remove it by surgery. … My father, though, smelled alcohol in the breath of the surgeon during their consultation. He was worried that the surgeon would botch the procedure, and permanently damage my sisters’ eye. My father tossed and turned in his bed, then got up at 3 am, took out a brand new razor blade, then disinfected it in boiling water. Then he sat on the edge of my sister’s bed, pinched her eyelid with his left hand, turned it inside out, then, with one precise motion, sliced off the wart. The wound healed perfectly.

[Location 760]

Another unpleasant incident occurs when Suto goes for urgent dental care during his summer at the labor camp, after he has finally managed to convince his supervisors to give him an afternoon to get treated:

Highlight(yellow) - Location 1106

“Good day, comrade,” I greeted her. “I have a big pain in my tooth,” I said, pointing at my lower left jaw. “What are you? A student?” “Yes,” I replied, “I am from the Camp.” “I don’t work with students or soldiers,” she replied and turned away. “They have no money.” I stood there for a while, then exited the office. I had nowhere else to go. I slumped down on the pavement.

Medical care was officially free in Romania. Theoretically, you could’ve walked into any medical office anywhere in the country and requested treatment for no money. 

In practice, though, things were different. There was no appointment system; you just showed up at the hospital or clinic, just to join a crowd of people waiting there for hours. If you had money, you could discreetly hand an envelope to a nurse, that would allow you to be seen ahead of the rest of the comrades. And, once the doctor saw and treated you, you were supposed to hand them yet another gift: either cash, American cigarettes, or coffee. Poor farmers, with no access to any of the three items mentioned, would show up with a live chicken, a live piglet in a burlap bag, or a dozen eggs individually wrapped in the daily newspaper.

I had nothing to offer to the lady dentist. And she knew it. Neither the students nor the soldiers were paid any money; we were expected to build our country out of youthful enthusiasm and the belief in a utopian future that our president kept promising us. I knocked on the door and stepped inside. I was moaning from pain, holding my jaw. Again, she waved me out of the office.

I went outside and slumped on the pavement. Years of standing in line taught me to survive the heat and cold and endless hours of doing nothing. Just like most Romanians, who could easily endure ten hours of standing in line, with no food, no drink, no bathroom breaks, no talk. Just standing and hoping that at the end, they’ll get something. Potatoes, or eggs, or maybe frozen chicken wings.

[Loc 1106-1130]

Eventually, after finishing with all her paying (or should we say bribing) clients, the dentist takes pity on Suto and fills his tooth after all.   But she may not have put her full effort into it.

Years later, I had an X-ray done, and the radiologist told me that he could see a piece of broken drill bit buried deep inside the root of the molar. I guess this is my version of body piercing.

[Loc 1134]

One of the most surprising aspects of Suto’s memoir is his ambition to work as a ski instructor.   He went to school for computer engineering, which you would think should be a well-paid and prestigious job— but in such a closed society, the most desirable jobs were ones that would give you access to foreign people and their consumer goods.    In addition, as Suto describes it, the remoteness of the mountaintops also allowed a pleasant escape from the usual politics of life in Romania, to some degree.

What happened up in the mountains was strictly merit-based. You could not even attempt to bribe any of the senior ski instructors in charge of training and selecting the new instructors. We had to be at the top of our game to make the cut. What happened down in the city, was a totally different thing. 

I had to bribe a series of officials at the factory I worked at so they would let me leave my job as a computer scientist for three and a half months. They had no official way of doing that, but they somehow got creative once they saw the bagful Western goods I would gift to their wives. Being a ski instructor at that time and that place was the best thing that happened to me in Romania. I could finally utilize my skills as a skier, a teacher, a guide, and—in the process—learn languages, make new friends, learn about life in the west.

If they asked whether we’re happy, we had to say, of course, we’re happy. If they asked us how communism is working out for us, we were supposed to say, great! Of course, everybody knew what the reality was, but we tried to avoid these topics, especially in a setting with others around. Secret police informants were everywhere, especially where westerners were present. When I was with my team in the deep forest, pristine snow all around, out of hearing distance from anybody else, I would tell them the truth. But only to those that I trusted.

[Location 4353-4364]

Due to the state of life in Romania, even minor items obtained from foreigners would be treated as valuable treasures.

He said he gathered all the used toothpaste tubes from the team, just as I requested. Toothpaste—even if it came in used tubes—was a strong currency I could use down in the city. The communist teeth were decaying rapidly; everybody was eager to get a hold of British or German toothpaste tubes.

[Location 4415]

Suto lost his coveted position as a ski instructor, though, when the Romanian secret police contacted him and demanded that he start acting as an informant and writing reports.   He refused, and they were furious— they immediately arranged to take away his ski privileges, and were likely to create further difficulties in his life.   Luckily, immediately afterwards, the revolution began that took down Ceausescu, so Suto and his family were spared any further consequences.

Suto nicely summarizes the situation of his nation under Communism:

We were all miserable, hated the government, the lies, the censorship, the cult of personality, the lack of decency, the lack of empathy, the decades’ long shortages, the apathy and pessimism that all of this infused into our country. A country with a beautiful geography, beautiful people, mountains, rivers, fertile lands, forests, the Danube, the Black Sea. 

If God would design an optimal country, it would be Romania. Smack in the main path of East-West trade routes, with good climate, no natural disasters, no plagues, a literate and quite educated population. With hard-working people. Life could’ve been good; people could’ve been happy, different nationalities could’ve peacefully coexisted, as they did for centuries. But it was not so. The most corrupt and dictatorial government shrouded Romania, and sucked the life out of it.

[Loc 4770-4776]

Fortunately, the book has a happy ending, as Suto finishes with a discussion of the revolution that ended Communist rule, and his eventual emigration to the United States.

[Closing conversation with Manuel]

If you want to read more of Suto’s amazing, eye-opening, and occasionally hilarious stories about his early life in Romania, be sure to check out his book “I Tried”, available at your favorite online bookseller and linked in the show notes at storiesofcommunism.com .


And this has been your Story of Communism for today.