Episode 43: Through A Child's Eyes

 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, 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

 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, 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

 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, 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.



Episode 40: Little Socialist Women

 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, with co-host Manuel Castaneda dialing in from Oregon.

Today we’re going to take a look at one of the odder episodes in the prehistory of communism:  the short-lived socialist commune where Louisa May Alcott spent time as a child in the 1840s.   Yes, I’m talking about THAT Louisa May Alcott, the author of the children’s classic “Little Women”.   One lesser known historical tidbit is that her father, the Reverend Bronson Alcott, fancied himself a philosopher, and decided that he needed to create a new life for his family, and separate himself from the corrupt modern economy whose, as he described it, “root is selfishness, whose trunk is property, whose fruit is gold.”   He managed to convince a small group of followers to join him, and one, Charles Lane, had enough money to buy a farm in Massachusetts where they could put Alcott’s ideas into practice.   They called this commune Fruitlands, in honor of the abundance of fruit they expected to produce.   A collection of memoirs and writings about Fruitlands was eventually published many years later by someone named Clara Endicott Sears, and is available to read at Project Gutenberg.   

The Reverend Alcott was an eloquent writer, and became friendly with numerous literary figures of the time such as Emerson, Thoreau, and Hawthorne.   Here is how he described his objectives and philosophy:

First, to obtain the free use of a spot of land adequate by our own labor to support…

    Secondly, to live independently of foreign aids by being sufficiently elevate to procure all articles for subsistence in the productions of the spot, under a regimen of healthful labor and recreation;  with benignity toward all creatures, human and inferior; with beauty and refinement in all economics; and the purest charity throughout our demeanor…

  …we are not without hope that Providence will use us progressively for beneficial effects in the great work of human regeneration, and the restoration of the highest life on earth.

[Loc 267]

…We do not recognize the purchase of land; but its redemption from the debasing state of proprium, or property, to divine uses, we clearly understand when those whom the world esteems as owners are found yielding their individual rights to the Supreme Owner. …

Trade we hope entirely to avoid at an early day. As a nursery for many evil propensities it is almost universally felt to be a most undesirable course. Such needful articles as we cannot yet raise by our own hand labor from the soil, thus redeemed from human ownership, we shall endeavor to obtain by friendly exchanges, and, as nearly as possible, without the intervention of money.

Of all the traffic in which civilized society is involved, that of human labor is perhaps the most detrimental. From the state of serfdom to the receipt of wages may be a step in human progress; but it is certainly full time for taking a new step out of the hiring system.

[Loc 619]

As you can see, some of his ideas had a lot in common with those that Marx would write a few years later, idealizing labor and claiming that paid employment amounts to slavery.     Alcott also added in a few more quirky ideas and philosophies, such as strict vegetarianism, which didn’t make his project any easier.    Nevertheless, his follower and chief financier, Charles Lane, was full of optimism, worrying that their great improvement to the human condition might attract those who wanted to use their ideas for the villainous goal of making money:

Perhaps the external revelations of success ought always to be kept secret, for every improvement discovered is only turned to a money making account and to the further degradation of man, as we see in the march of science to this very moment. If we knew how to double the crops of the earth, it is scarcely to be hoped that any good would come by revealing the mode. On the contrary, the bounties of God are already made the means by which man debases himself more and more. We will therefore say little concerning the sources of external wealth until man is himself secured to the End which rightly uses these means.

[Loc 478]

Of course, once Alcott started working to actually put together the community, there were a number of details that seemed a bit challenging.   Fortunately, Lane had enough money to buy the farm, and was sufficiently committed to the cause to purchase and donate it to the group.   But when they started recruiting potential residents, it got a bit harder.   As one observer wrote,


The matter of getting the right kind of persons to join the Community required a keen insight into human nature, and on this point Mr Alcott was not very strong.   His own sincerity and depth of purpose were so great that he looked for these same attributes in everyone who approached him, and often failed to detect the superficial qualities that lurked underneath the surface enthusiasm of some of his followers…  

[Loc 335]

One of the Fruitlanders took it into his head that clothes were an impediment to spiritual growth, and that the light of day was equally pernicious. He accordingly secluded himself in his room in a state of nature during the day, and only went out at night for exercise, with a single white cotton garment reaching from his neck to his knees.

[Loc 542]

When it got time to actually do the hard work of farming the fields, things didn’t go quite as smoothly as Alcott had hoped.   Concern quickly grew about Alcott’s dogmatism and refusal to compromise.  As some of the residents and observers wrote:

He thinks Mr. Alcott is arbitrary or despotic, as some others do, but I shall endeavour (and, I think, not in vain) to urge him to the noblest conduct of which our position is capable. He must not complain nor walk off, but cheerfully amend whatever is amiss. 

[Loc 488]

[Alcott] was very strict, rather despotic in his rule of the Community, and some of the members have told me they were nearly starved to death there; nay, absolutely would have perished with hunger if they had not furtively gone among the surrounding farmers and begged for food.

[Loc 542]

Interestingly, the journal kept by his daughter Anna, and later incorporated into Sears’s collection, had the second half completely torn out, apparently intentionally destroyed.   One has to wonder whether, in the later stages of the experiment, she actually had similar complaints, and her father didn’t want to risk those being shared with the world.  This theory is supported by the fact that the surviving portion of the diary contains occasional notes in the Reverend’s handwriting.

The biggest problem at Fruitlands was simply the fact that farming is hard work, and doing it right involves leveraging the collective learnings of many thousands of years of human experience— not rebooting the core concepts based on idealized philosophies.  During the short life of the commune, Alcott and Lane were constantly lecturing, entertaining visitors, and doing other work that did not contribute to the farm.   The small group of able farmers didn’t seem to be progressing fast enough in their field work, but their leader’s philosophy prevented the obvious solutions:

Hired laborers and beasts of burden were against the principles of the Community, but in order to make headway against the advancing season they seemed to be a necessity. This concession, however, troubled the philosophers, and it was decided to carry out the original plan and rely wholly on the spade instead of the plough, even at a cost of valuable time. The results were rather disastrous: Charles Lane’s hands became sore and painful, and lame backs seriously interfered with progress. 

Sobered by this new experience, the philosophers met in conclave, and as a result Joseph Palmer, who always came to the rescue in trying situations, went to [town] and brought back his plough and yoke of oxen, as he called it—it really was an ox and a cow which he had trained to work together. Besides the outdoor work much writing was done indoors. Charles Lane and Bower wrote prolifically to different papers. The Herald of Freedom, the Vermont Telegraph and the New York Tribune of that summer are full of their writings.

[Loc 869]

Unfortunately farm operations were not started until well into June, and the only crop raised that was of value as dependence was barley; but the philosophers did not flinch at the thought of an exclusively barley diet. Now and then they gave a thought as to what they should do for shoes when those they now had were gone; for depriving the cow of her skin was a crime not to be tolerated. The barley crop was injured in harvesting, and before long actual want was staring them in the face.

[Loc 1528]

As the first autumn approached and the crops were clearly failing, Alcott and Lane took an ill-advised trip to the city to try to gain more followers.   This left his commune on the brink of starvation, his wife scrambling to save them at the last minute:

It was all very pleasant, this wandering off and showing their linen tunics to the world and holding conversations to enlighten people in regard to the future wonders of the New Eden, but the day they left Fruitlands Joseph Palmer was off attending to his cattle… and the crop of barley had been cut and was waiting to be harvested. Poor Mrs. Alcott looked at it with anxious eyes. The granary was almost empty and this barley meant food. She could forget herself, but she could not ignore the needs of her children. Christopher Greene and Larned and Bower were also away. The barley lay there with no one to bring it in to a safe shelter. 

The next day she looked at it again with a sinking heart. As the afternoon waned, black clouds covered the sky and flashes of lightning rent seams through them with terrifying rapidity. Then Mrs. Alcott made a quick decision. Gathering all the baskets she could find, she carried them to the barley-field with the help of the children, and in hot haste they gathered the barley into the baskets and dragged them to the granary, and then ran back as fast as they could for more. Thus they worked with all their strength, and when the storm broke, they had saved enough to last them for at least a few weeks.

[Loc 1352]

Luckily this commune was not a country— people could freely enter and leave it.   And as you would expect, the result of this pathetic attempt at farming was a stampede towards the exits, as Lane complained:

All the persons who have joined us during the summer have from some cause or other quitted, they say in consequence of Mr. Alcott’s despotic manner, which he interprets as their not being equal to the Spirit’s demands…

Mrs. Alcott has no spontaneous inclination towards a larger family than her own natural one, of spiritual ties she knows nothing, though to keep all together she does and would go through a good deal of exterior and interior toil. I hoped I had done with pecuniary affairs, but it seems I am not to be let off. The crops, I believe, will not discharge all the obligations they were expected to liquidate, … In the midst of all these events and of William’s illness, who is in bed eight or ten days with a sort of bilious fever, I am not without the consolatory hope that some measure of Spirit utilitary is bound up with our obscure doings.

[Loc 1404]

In the end, the commune did not survive its first winter.   Soon everyone was gone, and the Reverend entered a deep depression; eventually, though, he realized he needed to provide for his family, and snapped out of it to return to a somewhat normal life.   Ultimately, the best thing to come out of this commune was his daughter Louisa May Alcott’s sarcastic short memoir, “Transcendental Wild Oats”.   Hiding behind animal pseuonyms, she wrote a biting critique of many of the events at Fruitlands.   Here are some of my favorite bits of that piece:

“What part of the work do you incline to yourself?” asked Sister Hope, with a humorous glimmer in her keen eyes.

“I shall wait till it is made clear to me. Being in preference to doing is the great aim, and this comes to us rather by a resigned willingness than a willful activity, which is a check to all divine growth,” responded Brother Timon.

“I thought so.” And Mrs. Lamb sighed audibly, for during the year he had spent in her family Brother Timon had so faithfully carried out his idea of “being, not doing,” that she had found his “divine growth” both an expensive and unsatisfactory process.

[Loc 1787]

Such farming probably was never seen before since Adam delved. The band of brothers began by spading garden and field; but a few days of it lessened their ardor amazingly. Blistered hands and aching backs suggested the expediency of permitting the use of cattle till the workers were better fitted for noble toil by a summer of the new life.

Brother Moses brought a yoke of oxen from his farm,—at least, the philosophers thought so till it was discovered that one of the animals was a cow…

Great was Dictator Lion’s indignation at this lapse from virtue. But time pressed, the work must be done; so the meek cow was permitted to wear the yoke…

The garden was planted with a generous supply of useful roots and herbs; but, as manure was not allowed to profane the virgin soil, few of these vegetable treasures ever came up…

Transcendental wild oats were sown broadcast that year, and the fame thereof has not yet ceased in the land; for, futile as this crop seemed to outsiders, it bore an invisible harvest, worth much to those who planted in earnest.

[Loc 1825, 1879]

[Closing conversation with Manuel]

Now, of course we are not claiming that this particular experience is in itself a definitive refutation of the concept of communism:  Alcott’s many quirks, such as the strict vegetarianism and refusal to use animal labor, would probably have doomed even a group of economically literate farmers who had attempted to follow him.    But are these experiences really that different from those who, a century after, would attempt new and untried farming and economic methods on a national scale, and starved millions of their citizens with similar levels of incompetence?   It definitely is something to think about.

And this has been your Story of Communism for today.