Episode 9: Capitalism In Cuba

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Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we review and discuss the firsthand testimony of those who lived through the horrors of Communism over the past century.   This is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda, recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.

Apologies for the delay in getting this episode out.   We wanted to try something different, and got delayed a bit by logistical issues.    Until now we’ve focused on the written records of Communism, but of course there are a lot of living people who have knowledge and experience in this area.   A few episodes ago we discussed Iris Diaz’s memoir of Cuban Communism around the time of Fidel Castro’s revolution.   But today we will be discussing a very different aspect of Cuban Communist society.   Manuel and I were surprised to be contacted by a filmmaker named Jesus Areola Vega, who is working on a documentary about the “anarcho-capitalist” movement in Cuba, and the growth of private businesses.    Apparently a lot has changed since Fidel Castro stepped down.   Here is our interview of Jesus, where he discusses more details about this topic, and the personal stories of some of those struggling to advance capitalist ideas in Cuba today.

[Audio interview- click audio link above to listen.]

As you can see, things are looking somewhat hopeful in Cuba—  I hope Jesus is right that the opening of their society will continue to accelerate due to exposure to the outside world.     Jesus’s website, https://jesusarzolavega.myportfolio.com/, is also linked in the show notes on our website in case you’re not quite sure how to spell his name.

By the way, we are interested in doing more interview-type episodes as well:  if you have lived in or spent time in a Communist country and would be willing to chat on this podcast, email us at erik@storiesofcommunism.com .    

Also, we would like to thank listeners Glenn, JJGidds, and Msnecken for posting nice reviews in Apple Podcasts.  Please consider posting one of your own if you enjoy the podcast!

And this concludes your Story of Communism for today.


Episode 8: Concealing Your True Self

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Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we review and discuss the firsthand testimony of those who lived through the horrors of Communism over the past century.   This is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda, recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.

Well, we’ve had a few more very serious episodes, so now I think it’s time for another lighthearted one.  Today we’re going to discuss a wacky sci-fi spoof from 1970’s Poland that, at its heart, conceals some pointed commentary on its Communist government.   I’m talking about “The Star Diaries”, a collection of satirical science fiction stories by Stanislaw Lem.   In particular, today we’ll be focusing on “The Eleventh Voyage”, one of the stories from that volume, focusing on a planet run completely by robots.   

Lem is an unusual figure in this podcast for a number of reasons.   Unlike most of the other authors we discuss, he was not a dissident or an exile:  he was a successful author who lived in Poland throughout its Communist period.   He didn’t originally set out to be a science fiction writer, but after realizing the constraints of his government’s censorship early in his writing career, he turned to science fiction as a way to escape them.    While the rules of the time could only tolerate propaganda such as “socialist realism” in books set in modern times, they didn’t really have rules that applied to crazy fantasies about aliens and robots.     Although politics wasn’t usually the central focus of his writing, this looser censorship did enable Lem to sneak political points into his work.

Lem’s science fiction novels and stories actually contain an interesting mix of topics.   Some are dense philosophical meditations on the future of humanity— his Wikipedia page actually mentions that some of his books are used as texts in college philosophy classes.   But my favorite of his are the bizarre satires.   Today’s focus, “The Eleventh Voyage”, falls squarely into that category.   It tells the story of a famous star pilot, Ijon Tichy, who is sent to investigate a planet taken over by robots.    It starts out with a glib summary of Tichy’s somewhat strained relationship with machines, as he gets angry with his robotic servant:

There were mice nesting in my meteor collection… While I was making coffee the milk boiled over. That electrical numskull had hidden the dishrags along with my handkerchiefs. I really should have taken him in for an overhaul back when he started shining my shoes on the inside.    [Kindle Locations 695-698]

Tichy is soon summoned by a group of corporate executives, who explain to him that a computer mutinied on one of their ships several decades ago, and crashed it into an unknown planet named Cercia.   It then started a new society, populated entirely by robots, and with a deadly hatred of humans.

…the youthful nationalism of the Robcol had taken the form of an unreasonable hatred of all things human. The Cercian press never tires of repeating that we are abominable slaveowners, who illegally exploit and prey upon innocent robots.   [Kindle Locations 793-795].
…The robots’ printing houses are turning out, on a mass basis, leaflets and fliers addressed to the robots of Earth and in which men, portrayed as grasping voltsuckers and villains, are called injurious names—thus, for example, in the official pronouncements we are referred to as mucilids, and the whole human race—as gook.  [Kindle locations 802-805]

The Company has apparently sent thousands of agents over the decades to try to investigate or negotiate with the mad robots, but none has returned alive.   So, as often happens in these types of stories, Tichy bravely steps forward and volunteers to investigate.   He will disguise himself as a robot, and sneak into their capital and see what he can find out.   Naturally, he needs to be careful of a few issues:

“Mr. Tichy,” said the make-up man in charge, “there are a few important things you must remember. The first is, not to breathe.” “You must be mad,” I said. “How can I not breathe? I’ll suffocate!” “A misunderstanding. Obviously you are allowed to breathe, but do it quietly. No sighs, no panting or puffing, no deep inhalation—keep everything inaudible, and for the love of God don’t sneeze. That would be the end of you.” [Kindle locations 875-879]

Tichy successfully lands on the planet and infiltrates the robot society, making friends with a few of the locals.   He tries to participate in their social activities, including the theater:

They were putting on a play called “Carbazarius.” It was about a handsome young robot mercilessly persecuted by man—that is, by mucilids—who doused him with water, sprinkled sand in his oil, loosened his screws so that he kept falling down, etc. The audience clanged angrily. In the second act an emissary of the Computer appeared, the young robot was freed, and the third act dealt at length with the fate of man, which, as one might imagine, was not particularly pleasant.  (Kindle Locations 1062-1065).

He spends some time just getting to understand the strange machines around him, but one day notices something suspicious:  a robot heading towards a berry patch.   While berries are tasty, they should be of no use to robots.   As he suspects, it turns out that this robot is also a disguised human!   Relieved to find a likely ally, Tichy reveals his own identity and makes arrangements to meet his fellow human to discuss their next steps.   Alas, it turns out to be a trap— the fellow human, despite their shared nature, has turned him in to the authorities and he is placed under arrest.    This is a pretty serious situation, given what he saw in the recent play.  His robot public defender is not very helpful:

“Tell me, Klaustron Fredrax, what am I accused of?” “Of mussiliditee,” he replied at once. “A capitall offence. And also: of the intent to werken tresoun upon us, of espiaillement on behaff of Gookum, of blasphemous conspiracye to liften a hond agayn Hiss Inductivitude—do that sufficeth, excressent muscilid? Confess you to thes crymes?” “Are you really my lawyer?” I asked. “For you speak like a prosecutor or examining magistrate.” “I am your defendour.” “Good. I confess to none of the above crimes.” “The sparkes they shal flye!” he roared.  [Kindle Locations 1108-1113]

But, he is saved when at his sentencing, the Computer offers Tichy a deal:  he can keep living in the city in his robot disguise, as long as he agrees to seek out and report on other humans, or “mucilids”, that may be sneaking around.    He accepts the deal, thinking he can then escape the planet, but his rocket has been found and dismantled, so he is truly trapped.   At the low point of his despair, a thought occurs to him.   He starts pretending to be a member of the secret police, pretending to arrest arbitrary robots in the street, taking them to secluded places, and unscrewing their heads.   In every case, they turn out to be disguised humans.   

The planet was wet, humid, rheumatic—and for robots, unhealthy in the highest degree . . . they must have rusted en masse, and perhaps too there was, as the years passed, an increasing lack of spare parts, and they began to break down, going one by one to that vast cemetery outside of town, where only the wind rang their death knell over sheets of crumbling metal. 

That was when the Computer, seeing its ranks melt away, seeing its reign endangered, had conceived the most ingenious machination. From its enemies, from the spies dispatched to destroy it, it began to build its own army, its own agents, its own people! Not one of those who were unmasked could betray it—not one of them dared attempt to contact others, other men, having no way of knowing that they weren’t robots, and even if he did find out about this one or that, he’d be afraid that at the first overture the other man would turn him in.   (Kindle Locations 1196-1202).

In other words, the Computer had filled up its society with disguised humans, the very agents that had been sent to investigate it.    All the actual robots had rusted away long ago.

Were there any robots left among those ironclad minions? I seriously doubted it. And the zeal with which they persecuted men, that too became clear. For being men themselves, they had to be…  more robotlike than the authentic robots. Hence that fanatical hatred displayed by my lawyer. Hence that dastardly attempt to turn me in by the man I had first unmasked. Oh what fiendishness of coils and circuitry was here, what electrical finesse!  (Kindle Locations 1211-1214)

After further investigation, Tichy finds that even the Computer itself is not really a machine— sitting inside is a bureaucrat shuffling paperwork, following (and probably misinterpreting) instructions whose exact purpose and details he lost track of long ago.   Tichy solves the whole problem by calling a giant assembly in the town square, and having everyone unscrew their neighbors’ heads at once, finally revealing the truth to all.

If you’re a listener of this podcast, I probably don’t have to do too much explanation of Lem’s allegory.   The totalitarian robot society with its violent hatred for outsiders clearly represents Communism, down to the details of the propaganda play, the lawyer’s behavior, etc.    The most interesting aspect to think about is that Lem’s central thesis, that Communist countries are filled with people who are not Communist at all at their core, is in a sense proven by this story’s mere publication.   After all, a true believer in the Polish censor’s office would have clearly recognized the allegory and blocked its publication.   But the sci-fi dressing gave them just enough plausible deniability to claim that they missed that aspect, and accept it as just a zany comedy about alien robots.   

[Closing discussion with Manuel]

Anyway, if you enjoyed our summary of this hilarious story, be sure to check out the rest of Stanislaw Lem’s “Star Diaries”, as well as his numerous other works.    Whether you’re a science fiction fan, a student of Communism, someone who enjoys wacky humor, or are a bit of each of those, Lem is definitely an author worth checking out. 

And this concludes your Story of Communism for today.


Episode 7: A Child In Cuba

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Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we review and discuss the firsthand testimony of those who lived through the horrors of Communism over the past century.   This is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda, recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.

Today we’re going to discuss the memoir “Cuba:  Another Side of the Story:  Memoirs of a Cuban Childhood”, by Iris M. Diaz.    After a comfortable early childhood in economically growing but authoritarian mid-century Cuba, Diaz lived through Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution and eventually fled to the United States.    It’s an honest, poignant memoir that isn’t focused on politics, but centers around her own personal story, and how she made her way in a world that radically transformed around her.    But her relatively sparse comments about politics and life through Cuba’s transition to Communism do still tell us a lot about what those changes mean for a country.

The memoir begins with Diaz’s experiences as a young child.  
El barrio was a mixture of the wealthy, middle class, and poor; a reflection of what Cuban society was like in the 1950s.   Everyone lived under the same sun, moon, and stars but our worlds were very different.   We lived in the middle class section, surrounded by a few affluent families who kept to themselves and the unlucky ones who had to live in … an old abandoned mansion two blocks from our apartment…  As I grew to become more independent, I played with both the rich and the poor, learned to communicate with both but never felt I belonged to either.  (p.21)

Diaz shares many of her memories about her friends and neighbors, the groups of children playing in the street, local attractions like the ice cream carts and nearby beach, and crazy city characters she liked to people-watch.     Her father was usually absent, but she lived with her mother and her grandmother, who she was very close to.   They sent her to a series of private bilingual schools, which taught her both Spanish and English, a fortunate choice which opened up many opportunities later.    As a young child, she didn’t personally worry too much about the political unrest on the island, which had already begun:

Cuban politics for me was like an intermittent static noise in the middle of a concert.   It was there, but my everyday routine masked what was brewing in the background.   I would see pictures of bombings or political prisoners brutally tortured…  but the pictures did not invade my reality…  Those were my years of innocence.  [p.35]

It was clear that there were some serious problems in the country, with a vast gap between the rich and the poor.   Diaz felt an obligation to help the ragged beggars who showed up at her church every Sunday, and felt sad when she saw how shabbily her nanny’s family lived compared to hers.  In any case, within a few years there seemed to be an implicit agreement among large numbers of people of all classes that the dictator Batista’s government was not working, and something had to change.     

As  Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution heated up, violence grew on both sides.   Finally, on New Year’s Eve of 1958, Batista fled the island, and Castro had won.   But many Cubans soon realized that despite his lofty promises, they had just exchanged a cruel monarch for one that was even worse. 

How were we really doing? We were losing our sanity. Many had become blind followers of a man who preached lawlessness and murder. That night the crowd repeatedly interrupted Castro’s speech with cries of “¡Paredón! ¡Paredón!” They were yelling what Castro wanted to hear. I heard them and couldn’t believe how easy it was for them to yell, “¡Paredón, paredón!” (Shoot them all, against the wall, kill them all!) Under Fidel’s spell, crowds of Cubans had become insensitive to the act of murder.  (p.126)

By this time, Diaz was in high school.   Under the previous governments, there had been lively political discussion among her neighbors and classmates— but that quickly came to an end.   If even a child was heard to utter something disloyal, their entire family would now be in grave danger:

Overnight there was a bizarre transformation in the Cuban soul. … Anyone suspected of being a traitor was harassed. Neighbors would stand around their homes and chant, “¡Gusanos, que se vayan!” (“Worms must leave!”) Gusanos means worms, but Castro gave it a new meaning, the lowliest of creatures, a traitor. Those accused of treason could not do anything but listen to the chant and pray the milicianos wouldn’t show up to take them to jail.  If the milicianos showed up, the chant changed to “Paredón, shoot them all, against the wall, kill them all!” The family was taken to prison and the neighbors, after having yelled the bloody revolutionary chant would go home with the feel of blood on their hands. (p.136)

…Neighborhood spies turned you in to the police whenever they felt like it. The police didn’t need proof to arrest anyone. They could throw you in jail just for improper conduct or suspicious behavior. The spies turned in anyone they felt like because they were rewarded for each man or woman they turned in to the authorities. Neighbors turned against neighbors, children turned against parents. No one could be trusted. (p.141)

Aside from the political dangers, another consequence of Communism was the collapse of basic infrastructure.   Tiny details that even the poorest can take for granted in a functioning society, like bus services, food in the stores, and a working electrical grid, started to fade away.   Diaz’s family tried to cope with this using humor, creating a set of new jokes based on their situation:

“Did you know that SOB Fidel is changing the Cuban language? He calls city buses aspirins, because they only show up every four hours.”…
“Oye, I got a better one, do you know why they call steaks Jesus Christ? Because people talk about them, but nobody sees them.
“Do you know why refrigerators are now called coconuts? No? Well, because the only thing you’ll find inside is water.”  (p.157)

Diaz engaged in a few minor acts of rebellion, conspiring with a neighbor boy to gradually save up tiny amounts of spare food and medical supplies for a supposed anti-Castro revolution.    But when her grandmother caught her, the whole family was horrified at what might happen to them, and decided they needed to send her to the United States as soon as possible.   After the failed Bay of Pigs counter-revolution, Castro’s men had become even more aggressive in seeking out potential traitors, arresting people by the tens of thousands.   

Sending Diaz away to the United States was not easy:  American money was required to buy the plane tickets, and that was very hard and expensive to obtain in Communist Cuba.   After months of struggling, her mother managed to get the money, and got the plane ticket.   Diaz;s case was not unique:  parents all over Cuba were desperate to get their children out of the country as soon as possible.   And their fears were justified, since it would not be too long until travel was totally cut off, making every Cuban citizen effectively a prisoner.   

During this period, the government already laid claim to everything its citizens owned;  travelers like Diaz were only allowed to leave with five dollars to start her new life.   They were not even allowed to carry any valuables that they might be able to sell.   As she left, she was stripped of her grandmother’s ring, which looked like it might be worth more than that.   Can you imagine starting a new life in a new country with only five dollars in your pocket?   

The final part of the memoir doesn’t deal with politics very much.    With the help of some generous relatives who took her in, Diaz managed to finish high school and college in the U.S.    After a brief attempt to become a nun, she moved to New York and began a series of jobs in theater and entertainment.   And finally she achieved her own happy ending:  she realized her lifelong dream of buying a small farm with horses on which to live out her retirement years.

[Closing conversation with Manuel]

Diaz mentions a nice quote by 19th-century revolutionary Jose Marti, which summarizes her view of the Cuban revolution:

“Socialist ideology, like so many others, has two main dangers. One stems from confused and incomplete readings of foreign texts, and the other from the arrogance and hidden rage of those who, in order to climb up in the world, pretend to be frantic defenders of the helpless so as to have shoulders on which to stand on.”  [p.121]

To learn more about her experiences and the Cuban revolution, be sure to check out the book for yourself: “Cuba:  Another Side of the Story:  Memoirs of a Cuban Childhood, “  by Iris M. Diaz.

This concludes your Story of Communism for today.


Episode 6: Willful Ignorance

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Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we review and discuss the firsthand testimony of those who lived through the horrors of Communism over the past century.   This is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda, recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.

You’ve probably heard news reports of numerous cases where some celebrity visits a brutal dictatorship, is given an official, prearranged tour by its leaders, and comes back to announce how successful and prosperous they are.   Naturally, if given enough time and budget to prepare, anyone can create a pretty facade no matter how dismal the actual reality.    I doubt too many people are really fooled by such staged events, but if the celebrity enters with an initial idea that they are there to show how great the system is, they will easily have their preconceived notions confirmed.   Today we are going to discuss one of these cases.    Our topic is author Maxim Gorky’s visit to the Solovki Island labor camp, one of the founding camps of Stalin’s Gulag, as retold in Volume 2 of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.

The Solovki camp was a remote logging camp, on an island in the North Sea, built around an old monastery repossessed by the Soviet state.   It can be looked back on as a prototype for the Gulag, as it was one of the regime’s earliest prison camps, and it pioneered many of the worst elements of that system.   They put undersupplied prisoners in overcrowded conditions, made unreasonable labor demands, and freely tortured prisoners when they disobeyed or failed to work hard enough.   The guards introduced many cruel torments when the inmates failed to fall in line:

“And here.is how they kept the punishment cells: Poles the thickness of an arm were set from wall to wall and prisoners were ordered to sit on these poles all day. (At night they lay on the floor, one on top of another, because it was overcrowded.) The height of the poles was set so that one's feet could not reach the ground. And it was not so easy to keep balance. In fact, the prisoner spent the entire day just trying to maintain his perch. If he fell, the jailers jumped in and beat .him… [p.36]
“Or they might put the prisoners on a sharp- edged boulder on which one could not stay long either. Or, in summer, "on the stump," which meant naked among the mosquitoes. And then they could put whole companies out in the .snow for disobedience. Or they might drive a person into the marsh muck up to his neck and keep him there. And then there was another way: to hitch up a horse in empty shafts and fasten the culprit's legs to the shafts; then the guard mounted the horse and kept on driving the horse through a forest cut until the groans and the cries from behind simply came to an end. “ [p.38]

Unfortunately for the Soviet leaders, they made one key mistake:   due to its convenient location, they decided to sell surplus lumber from Solovki to foreign ships arriving at the nearby port at Kem.   One day when prisoners were loading a foreign ship, a prisoner who secretly could speak English managed to tell his story to some sailors.   They hid him on the ship, carefully concealing him when the incensed guards came to search for the missing prisoner, and managed to successfully transport him to England.   Once there, he published a book, called “An Island Hell”,  about the abuses at Solovki.    This book created a bit of a public outcry, though leftist intellectuals were quick to dismiss it as nonsense.   But Stalin decided they had to do something about this bad publicity, and promised that a commission led by Maxim Gorky would investigate.

Maxim Gorky was an internationally known author, and had been seen as one of the guiding lights of the Russian Revolution.   He had written numerous novels sympathetically portraying Russia’s poor, and had been a long-term socialist and early friend of Lenin.   After the Revolution, however, he was very critical of Lenin’s growing authoritarianism, and ended up leaving the country.   In 1932, Gorky apparently was growing increasingly homesick, and Stalin offered him an amnesty and promise of a high-paying position if he would return.   Some have insinuated that what Gorky really wanted was a life of wealth and luxury— despite his success as an author, his work was not generating enough profit in the West to offer him a truly elite lifestyle.    In any case, Gorky returned to the Soviet Union, where he was given awards and a mansion, but remained in favor with both the international community and with Stalin.   Thus, he seemed like a perfect candidate to report the truth about Solovki.’

Now of course, the Western intellectuals who trusted Gorky were being a bit naive— there’s no way anyone under Stalin’s power could really be free to say something negative, if applicable, about the Soviet regime.   Nevertheless, the officials of the prison camp were ordered to make things appear pleasant and humane, so Gorky could report back to the international community with positive findings.   For the purpose of Gorky’s visit, model areas of the prison were set up with improved conditions, supplies, and the healthiest-looking prisoners.    But it was hard to time these things precisely back then, and they had an almost comical near- disaster during Gorky’s journey to the camp: 

On Popov Island the ship Gleb Boky was being loaded by prisoners in underwear and sacks, when Gorky's retinue appeared out of nowhere to embark on that steamer! … Where can this disgraceful spectacle— these men dressed in sacks— be hidden? The entire journey of the great Humanist will have been for naught if he sees them now. Well, of course, he will try hard not to notice them, but help him! … only a worthy son of the Archipelago could find. a way out of this one. The work assigner ordered: "Stop work! Close ranks! Still closer! Sit down on the ground! Sit still!" And a tarpaulin was thrown over them. "Anyone who moves will be shot!" And the former stevedore Maxim Gorky ascended the ship's ladder and admired the landscape from the steamer for a full hour till sailing time - and he didn't notice! “  [p, 61]

That crisis having been successfully averted, Gorky and his entourage were then led to meet with the model prisoners.   Indeed, they seemed healthy, happy, and well-fed, as far as Gorky could tell.   Everyone played their proper role initially, except for a minor glitch:

And what was there to see there? It turned out that there was no overcrowding in the punishment cells, and-,-the main point-no poles. None at all. Thieves sat on benches … and they were all ... reading newspapers. None of them was so bold as to get up and complain, but they did think up one trick: they held the newspapers upside down! And Gorky went up to one of them and in silence turned the newspaper right side up! He had noticed it! He had understood!  [p.62]
Gorky then moved on to the “Children’s Colony”, where the younger inmates were held, and began making polite conversation with the prisoners. But everyone was shocked as one of them, a teenage boy, went off-script:

And all of a sudden a.fourteen-year-old boy said: "Listen here, Gorky! Everything you see here is false. Do you want to know the truth?  Shall I tell you?" Yes, nodded the writer. Yes,_he wanted to know the truth. ..   And so everyone was ordered to leave, including the children … and the boy spent an hour and a half telling the whole story to the lanky old man. Gorky left the barracks, streaming tears.  [p.62]
After his talk with the boy, Gorky continued his tour.   He undoubtedly knew the boy would be punished severely after he left.   With his fame and power, couldn’t Gorky have arranged to take the boy with him, or at least threaten the guards and try to extort a commitment for his safety, at least until he could follow up?    But he did none of those things, finishing his tour as if nothing had happened.    What happened in the prison afterwards was as you would expect:  as soon as Gorky was gone, the boy was shot.    His name was not even recorded for posterity— none of the surviving prisoners who told the tale could remember it.   And as for Gorky?  

And he did publish his statement, and it was republished over and over in the big free press, both our own and that of the West… claiming it was nonsense to frighten people with Solovki, and that prisoners lived remarkably well there and were being well reformed.  [p.63]
Solzhenitsyn thought that Gorky’s primary motivations were his luxuries and perks as a senior member of Stalin’s regime, similar to what we saw in Sidney Rittenberg’s reflections on his life under Mao in China, which we discussed a few episodes ago.  A more sympathetic interpretation might be that Gorky simply acted out of fear, not seeing any way he could get the truth out without ending up as in such a camp himself.   However, there are some other reports of a different nature:  Gorky was a broken man after Solovki, and descended into depression and eventual death out of guilt over his actions that day.   The tale of Gorky’s last days is actually a fascinating story in itself, which we may explore in a future episode.    

<closing conversation with Manuel>

In any case, next time you hear about a celebrity traveling to a socialist or communist country and praising their virtues, think really hard about what they are saying.  Did they really spend enough time there, out of the control of their official handlers, to make an informed judgement?  And are they so committed to the ideology that they would conceal the truth, like Gorky did, if directly confronted with it?

This concludes your Story of Communism for today.


Episode 5: A Prophetic Warning

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Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we review and discuss the firsthand testimony of those who lived through the horrors of Communism over the past century.   This is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda, recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.
Some of you might be skeptical that today’s topic really belongs in this podcast.   On the other hand, one might argue that this topic is absolutely essential.   I’m talking about Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic 1871 novel, “The Possessed”, sometimes also translated as “The Demons” or “The Devils”.   You’re probably aware that Dostoyevsky was one of the greatest novelists of the 19th century, but most of his writing occurred around half a century before the Russian Revolution.   So how does Dostoyevsky fit into a podcast about Communism?

Actually, the Communist movements that culminated in the Russian Revolution had begun around Dostoyevsky’s time, starting in the first half of the 19th century.   When Marx’s
Communist Manifesto was published in 1848, it was just one of many revolutionary “manifestos” describing how a perfect society could be obtained by replacing current unjust governments with various forms of socialism.    A young Dostoyevsky was caught up in one of these radical movements, and was arrested in 1849 for spreading subversive literature.   He spent several years at hard labor in a Tsarist prison and exile as a result— a few episodes ago, you may recall that we mentioned his memoir of this period, “The House of the Dead”. 

But by the time Dostoyevsky wrote “The Possessed”, in the 1860s, he had started to see a number of dangers inherent in these movements.   Young “nihilists” were so sure of their ideas that they would stop at nothing to implement them, and could justify any act of destruction or violence.   This novel contains a number of shockingly accurate predictions about how these Communist revolutionaries would come to power, and what they would do with this power once they obtained it.   That’s why we believe it fits nicely into this podcast’s topic:   Dostoyevsky was one of the first witnesses to clearly depict the philosophy and mindset of those who would, only a generation after his death, control the fate of the Russian people.   He predicted the fomenting of chaos, the destruction of existing institutions like churches, the use of fear and mutual suspicion to control the population, the cults of personality, and the ultimate necessity of mass murder to cement the Communist system in place.

Summarizing the plot of The Possessed can be a bit tricky.   Like all great novels, it has many layers, and here we’re trying to concentrate on one specific aspect:  its political predictions about Communism.   Also, as is common in 19th-century Russian literature, there are dozens of active characters, again far too many to accurately summarize in this podcast.    At its core, the novel describes a presumably typical Russian town full of ordinary people, with a sparkling of well-meaning liberals and socialists hoping to bring about change.   Cynical, manipulative revolutionary Pyotr Verkhovensky arrives in town, and quickly starts working behind the scenes to cause chaos and tension, while quietly assembling a small group, a “quintet”, of dedicated revolutionaries.   At the climax of the novel, he arranges for the quintet to participate in an act of murder.

The desire to foment chaos was apparent in Verkhovensky’s followers from the beginning, and they are not shy about admitting it. 

“…it was with the idea of systematically undermining the foundations, systematically destroying society and all principles; with the idea of nonplussing every one and making hay of everything, and then, when society was tottering, sick and out of joint, cynical and sceptical though filled with an intense eagerness for self-preservation and for some guiding idea, suddenly to seize it in their hands, raising the standard of revolt and relying on a complete network of quintets, which were actively, meanwhile, gathering recruits and seeking out the weak spots which could be attacked.” [p.631]
As one would expect, this general idea to destroy society and build it anew would require, among other things, the destruction of the churches, ironically out of fear that religion would “brutalize” people:

"But here, for instance, is an incitement to destroy churches…  you know perfectly well that you need religion to brutalise the people. Truth is honester than falsehood... ." ...""And how can you be an official of the government after that, when you agree to demolishing churches, and marching on Petersburg armed with staves, and make it all simply a question of date?"
With the original institutions of the nation destroyed, Dostoyevsky’s revolutionaries would be faced with the question of how to influence and control the people.   One aspect of their solution would be to use mutual fear and shame to keep people under control:

Every member of the society spies on the others, and it's his duty to inform against them. Every one belongs to all and all to every one. All are slaves and equal in their slavery. In extreme cases he advocates slander and murder, but the great thing about it is equality.  [p.384]
…And the most important force of all— the cement that holds everything together— is their being ashamed of having an opinion of their own. That is a force! And whose work is it, whose precious achievement is it, that not one idea of their own is left in their heads! They think originality a disgrace.”  [p.363]
This method culminates in Verkhovensky’s murder plot.   While he claims the murder is necessary because their victim, Shatov, is planning to inform the police about their movement, he reveals a more important motive to a confidante:

“All that business of titles and sentimentalism is a very good cement, but there is something better; persuade four members of the circle to do for a fifth on the pretense that he is a traitor, and you'll tie them all together with the blood they've shed as though it were a knot. They'll be your slaves, they won't dare to rebel or call you to account. Ha ha ha! “
When people are tied together in this way, it’s not a surprise that the most manipulative and bloodthirsty ones would end up in control.   Dostoyevsky eerily predicts how in the name of ‘“equality”, the vast majority of the population will effectively become slaves:

…The one thing wanting in the world is discipline. The thirst for culture is an aristocratic thirst. The moment you have family ties or love you get the desire for property. We will destroy that desire; we'll make use of drunkenness, slander, spying; we'll make use of incredible corruption; we'll stifle every genius in its infancy. We'll reduce all to a common denominator! Complete equality! … But it needs a shock. That's for us, the directors, to look after. Slaves must have directors. Absolute submission, absolute loss of individuality, but once in thirty years Shigalov would let them have a shock and they would all suddenly begin eating one another up, to a certain point, simply as a precaution against boredom.   [p.395]
.… In every period of transition this riff-raff, which exists in every society, rises to the surface, and is not only without any aim but has not even a symptom of an idea, and merely does its utmost to give expression to uneasiness and impatience. Moreover, this riff-raff almost always falls unconsciously under the control of the little group of "advanced people" who do act with a definite aim, and this little group can direct all this rabble as it pleases, if only it does not itself consist of absolute idiots, which, however, is sometimes the case.  [p.432]
At one point, Dostoyevsky might arguably be predicting the eventual rise of Stalin’s and Mao’s cults of personality, as he describes the mindset of Erkel, one of Verkhovensky’s followers:

A craving for active service was characteristic of this shallow, unreflecting nature, which was for ever yearning to follow the lead of another man's will, of course for the good of "the common" or "the great" cause. Not that that made any difference, for little fanatics like Erkel can never imagine serving a cause except by identifying it with the person who, to their minds, is the expression of it.  [p.540]
In addition, the expectation of mass murder as a necessary tool to truly destroy the old institutions and put the new system in place is a theme that recurs several times in the book.  You have to enjoy the typical Communist doublespeak of the need for mass murder being part of a “Peace Congress”:

“And, indeed, he rejects morality itself altogether, and holds with the last new principle of general destruction for the sake of ultimate good. He demands already more than a hundred million heads for the establishment of common sense in Europe; many more than they demanded at the last Peace Congress.”  [p.79]
“It's urged that, however much you tinker with the world, you can't make a good job of it, but that by cutting off a hundred million heads and so lightening one's burden, one can jump over the ditch more safely.” [p.383]
Several other well-known flaws of the Communist system are also predicted in the novel.   He accurately foresees that the idealists who supposedly fix society by removing greed and materialism will themselves end up closely guarding their perks, including property and material privileges, under the new system:

”Why is it, as I've noticed," Stepan Trofimovitch whispered to me once, "why is it that all these desperate socialists and communists are at the same time such incredible skinflints, so avaricious, so keen over property, and, in fact, the more socialistic, the more extreme they are, the keener they are over property ... why is it?” [p.64]
Dostoyevsky also shines a critical eye on the idea that Communism is somehow “scientific”, and that logic and reason demand its implementation as the next stage of societal progress:

Reason has never had the power to define good and evil, or even to distinguish between good and evil, even approximately; on the contrary, it has always mixed them up in a disgraceful and pitiful way; science has even given the solution by the fist. This is particularly characteristic of the half-truths of science, the most terrible scourge of humanity, unknown till this century, and worse than plague, famine, or war. A half-truth is a despot .. such as has never been in the world before. A despot that has its priests and its slaves, a despot to whom all do homage with love and superstition hitherto inconceivable, before which science itself trembles and cringes in a shameful way.  [p.233]
[Closing conversation]

It’s pretty amazing to us that all these words, which might be said to accurately describe events and philosophies of the Communist regimes of the 20th century, were written almost fifty years before the Russian Revolution.     And  it’s especially important in light of the arguments we hear about discussions like this podcast being “unfair” to Communism,  due to stressing examples of particular corrupt, failed implementations of the system.   Some say the problems are not with the system or ideas, but just with particularly poor implementations of Communism in the 20th century.    But ask yourself this:  if destructiveness, totalitarianism, bloodthirstiness, and human cruelty were not inherent to Communism, but just were the faults of particular leaders, how is it that Dostoyevsky was able to predict all these abuses, purely based on his experience with Communist and socialist philosophy, half a century in advance of them actually being implemented?     
As biographer Ronald Hingley wrote in 1978,   The Possessed was “an awesome, prophetic warning which humanity, no less possessed of collective and individual devilry in the 1970s than in the 1870s, shows alarmingly few signs of heeding.”     Seeing recent news reports, there’s no doubt that the 2010s could fit just as easily into that sentence.
This concludes your Story of Communism for today.

Episode 4: Mao's American Friend

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Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we review and discuss the firsthand testimony of those who lived through the horrors of Communism over the past century.   This is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda, recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.

Today we’re going to discuss the extraordinary life of Sidney Rittenberg, an Amercian who abandoned his country to become part of Mao Zedong’s Communist revolution in China.   He then lived there for almost thirty years— sixteen of which were spent in solitary confinement, as he fell in and out of favor with the Party over those three decades.   His autobiography, “The Man Who Stayed Behind”, was published in 1993 to rave reviews in the U.S.   As Mike Wallace wrote, “It reads like a riveting historical novel.   But there’s no fiction here…  it’s Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, the Long March, solitary confinement, despair, romance, and redemption.  Sidney Rittenberg’s story is a classic.”

Rittenberg’s youthful fascination with Communism is pretty understandable, given his
Depression-era childhood, when many in the U.S. questioned whether there was a better way.   This was followed by influence from various radical forces when he attended Stanford University.   As he wrote,

“I had joined the American Communist Party in 1940 while I was in college…it was the Communists, with their strong posture on free speech and ethnic equality in America,  and their roots in the American labor movement, who seemed to offer a hope of righting the injustices I saw all around me.”
He was deployed to China with the U.S. army towards the end of World War II, and had an opportunity there to seek out his fellow Communists.   He was swept up in the romance of China’s revolution, as well as the personal charisma of Chairman Mao:

“This was the Mao Zedong I had been reading about in the daily press, the Mao whose words I had studied in Stanford.  I respected his vision for China and admired his philosophical brilliance.  And here I was, twenty-five years old… sitting and chatting with Mao Zedong as an equal…  Mao had a way of focusing his gaze squarely on whoever was speaking, shutting out the rest of the room.  The attention was intense and flattering.”
He became a vital part of Mao’s staff, fulfilling the important role of English-Chinese translation.  
He had many friends among Mao’s inner circle, and soon married a fellow party member named Wei Lin.   The romance didn’t last too long though, as only a few years after joining the revolution, Rittenberg found himself suddenly arrested, as a supposed American spy.   He was carried off to solitary confinement, taken out only for periodic interrogations, where his protests of innocence were ignored, and the only issue was how to confess to his crimes.   Amazingly, his faith in Communism did not waiver as he spent six years alone in a cell:

“I loved the party, its aims, and its struggle to change the world….  They were prosecuting my case because they considered it in the interest of the much oppressed, long wronged Chinese people.  They had to purge themselves of enemies, I told myself.   It was just that in my case they were wrong…  The problem wasn’t with the party or its methods…  If the fact that they wrongly charged me with a horrible crime became known, it could harm the party.
I made up my mind.  This dark little room would be a test for me and a proving ground for my philosophy— and philosophy would win.  If I came through this ordeal, it would be with perfect understanding.”
As it turned out, the Party had actually arrested him on orders from their sponsor, Soviet General Secretary Joseph Stalin, rather than out of a serious belief that he was a spy.   Thus, a few years after Stalin’s death, his friends in the leadership were able to get him released and rehabilitated.  They even appointed him a high-level trusted position in the Broadcast Administration, a propaganda arm of Mao’s government.    He had, however, lost his wife, who had divorced him while he was locked away.

You would think that his experience would generate some sympathy towards others falsely accused by the regime, but that’s not how he thought.   When some young translators in his group were later arrested on similar political charges, he didn’t do much to help them.   As he wrote:

“… their real crime seemed to be that while outwardly quiet and respectful, underneath they were arrogant and exclusive, with the kind of rich man’s air that had been so common before the Revolution.

“In the end, Cheng Hongkui was pronounced a member of a reactionary clique, and he and his wife and their new baby were sent with their friends to a labor camp in the cold wastelands of Manchuria.   I never saw any of them again…  For me, I felt that good honest farm labor would do them some good.  Hadn’t I been willing myself to undergo years of privation for the sake of the party?”
As events moved forward in China, Rittenberg doubled down on his faith in Communism.   In 1958 he enthusiastically supported the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s program to rapidly collectivize farms, industrialize the country, and build infrastructure.   Similar to the Soviet activities of the 1930s that we described a few episodes ago, the government tried to eliminate private farms, arresting and imprisoning any farmers who resisted collectivization.   Farmers were also redirected by the millions into activities like steel production and construction, supposedly no longer needed on the farms due to their increased efficiency under state management.   The results were similar to those achieved by Stalin in the Ukraine:

“It was late in 1961 when the first symptoms appeared…  People began swelling around their necks and going through the day in a listless haze…  as the months wore on, it became increasingly difficult to overlook the real reason for people’s distress:  malnutrition.   We had all watched the food begin to vanish from the shops late in 1960.”

“Few in China knew the truth until decades later.   The Chinese were not just hungry, they were starving, starving to death in the countryside by the tens of millions.  Fewer still knew the main cause:  not bad harvests, not the Soviet debt…  but the Great Leap Forward itself.”
Again blinded by his faith in the system, Rittenberg continued in the Broadcast Administration.  At least the deadly results of the Great Leap Forward resulted in some criticism of Mao and reduction in his power over the next few years.   However, as the nation slowly recovered, Mao grew jealous of those in control, and decided to engineer the “Cultural Revolution” to restore Communist purity.   He set loose mobs of teenagers to purge the nation of remnants of capitalism and of non-Communist Chinese tradition.  Rittenberg still maintained his faith in his leader:

“With the advent of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, I became an outspoken activist and advocate of returning power to the people…   without the least suspicion that this new revolution was a cynical strategy by Mao— and his wife, Jiang Qing— to foment unrest and rebellion and to vastly increase their own power.”
He didn’t see the danger of mobs of teenagers brutally enforcing Communist doctrine, until a pair of old shopkeepers, in-laws of a co-worker, were beaten to death for practicing “consumerism”.  Ironically, they were actually operating a state-run shop.    Even this wasn’t enough to stop Rittenberg from supporting the Revolution, though he began asking some questions.   After that, it didn’t take too long before the movement turned on him, and he was once again arrested as a suspected American spy,   He was put in solitary confinement again.

This time he was confined for almost ten years.    But even worse than what happened to him were the fates of his second wife Yulin and his four children (ages 2, 7, 9, and 10) while he was gone:

“After that, for the next ten years, Yulin was tossed back and forth.   Sometimes she was returned to the Broadcast Administration, where she was the victim of daily struggle meetings and forced to sit outside the toilet with a sign above her head, “This is the unrepentant wife of the dog of an imperialist spy.”  Sometimes she was beaten, once badly enough to be sent to the hospital.  Always she was reviled and ostracized…  She was forced to spend up to three years at labor camps in the countryside, where she worked for long hours in freezing weather…  For Yulin, it was particularly bitter.  The Communist Party cadre sent to supervise Yulin’s group at one of the labor camps was my ex-wife, Wei Lin…   [as she described:] “They wouldn’t even give me enough to fill my stomach.  I would drag myself to bed at night, legs and back aching, so tired I could hardly move, and hungry at the same time.  I thought of death repeatedly.””
The children had spent some time in prison, though they were cared for by relatives during most of Rittenberg’s absence.   Miraculously, the entire family survived the ordeal, and they were reunited upon his release.    But this experience was finally enough to drive Rittenberg to question the system to which he had devoted his life.   As he wrote,

“…it took me a long time to see the errors of Communist doctrine because of the stake I had acquired in the system and the life I had lived in China, a life of perks, privilege, and deluded complicity.  
…I felt that a genuine renewal for China required a leadership that listened to public opinion, dealt conscientiously with corruption, and thus won the trust of the people.  What I saw was just the opposite….

I had come to China to serve humanity, to serve people, to change China, to change the world.  I had no intention of spending the rest of my life serving those whom power had corrupted, bought by their perquisites, rendered unable to speak or act freely for what I believed in.”
After his second release, Rittenberg moved with his family to the U.S. where he rediscovered his capitalist roots.   He started a successful consulting company with his wife, to provide cultural advice to companies doing business in China.  One of the closing thoughts in his book seems especially relevant to what’s going on in the streets today:

In my twenties, I was sure that there was only one answer, and that I knew what it was: socialist revolution.   Half a century later, I find myself struggling more and more with questions and finding fewer and fewer answers.”
[Closing conversation]

You might argue that despite his sixteen years in solitary confinement, Rittenberg got off kind of lightly, given his central role in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, which destroyed the lives of tens of millions of people.   But his autobiography, “The Man Who Stayed Behind”, is essential reading for anyone interested in learning about the 20th century story of Communist China.
This concludes your Story of Communism for today.

Episode 3: Splendid Arses

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Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we review and discuss the firsthand testimony of those who lived through the horrors of Communism over the past century.   This is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda, recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.
After listening to the last two episodes, you might have started to find this topic a bit depressing.  So to shift gears today, we’ll be looking at something a bit more lighthearted.    One of the ironies of Communist literature is that despite the system’s total stifling of the human spirit, there is quite a bit of humor to be found.   Naturally, it is a rather dark humor, in the vein of Kafka or Camus.    But in such systems, this humor formed an important safety valve, a kind of coping mechanism in many cases.    Living in such a world of bizarre double-speak and daily hypocrisy, it’s hard not to find oddities that, under more pleasant circumstances, would be easy to laugh at.  Today, we are going to discuss one classic embodiment of this form of humor, the samizdat novel “Nobody, or The Disgospel According to Maria Dementnaya”.   

Nobody” is an example of what is known as “samizdat” literature.   This means it is a non-Stateapproved writing, which was passed around the Soviet Union and illegally retyped or recopied.  
It’s actually pretty amazing that such works existed— in the time period from the 1960s to
1980s, although things weren’t quite as bad as in the Stalin years, being caught with antiCommunist literature or illegally using a photocopier could still cost you your home, your livelihood, and your freedom.     Yet Soviet dissidents risked all this to create and share literature that defied the authorities.    

Nobody, our focus for today, was apparently written around 1966, and smuggled out of the Soviet Union.   An anonymous French translation then made it into the hands of English translator April FitzLyon, who rendered it into English for us.   Its original author is unclear.   It appears that there was only a single English-language edition published of this book.   I happened to pick up my copy at random when browsing in a used bookstore— otherwise I probably would have never heard of it.   There is surprisingly little further information online; I found one review at Goodreads, and a few used copies can be bought at Amazon, but not much more.   Not even a Wikipedia page, though there is a brief mention on the page of its translator, FitzLyon.    But that’s a shame, because this is great book.     As the blurb on the cover states, it’s “a deeply tragic novel which also succeeds in being extremely funny.”

The novel centers around a former academic named Petatorov, who couldn’t take the hypocrisy of continuing to build his life around loyalty to the Communist party, and long ago left his job and his wife.   Now he wanders around Moscow living from day to day, begging and doing odd jobs to earn just enough to eat.    He prefers this physical poverty to the mental torture of supporting the Communist system.    Here’s how he describes his decision to a surprised friend, who is working as a journalist:
“The toady is dead.  Long live the madman!   I’m as free as a bird.   Consequently— I’m a pauper…  it’s amazing!   I read my favorite books and drink port.   I am sailing on an ice-flow, shouting to the people left behind:  “Greetings, rats and mice!  Ha Ha!’  And you’re one of them too.   Oh Lord!  Stop soiling lavatory paper with words, give it back to the people— clean!”
My favorite part of the book, though, is the description of the new husband, Brandov,  who Petatorov’s ex-wife has married.   His is a rather unintelligent and bland man, but a caring and successful provider for his family.   He works for the government, in the Applause Section, where his job is to attend official speeches and loudly clap.   A slight exaggeration of the offices that existed in real life, but a spot-on spoof of the many useless and unproductive government positions that are created for loyal bureaucrats.   Here’s how Brandov thinks about his job:

“Brandov loved being at work: people treated him with warmth and respect, behind his back they would say, “He’s one of us, a real clapper!”   Brandov gave a cursory glance at his beloved wall-newspaper ‘For All Out Clapping’, to which he contributed, and to which he sent in cartoons.   For that issue too he had drawn a caricature of Pendyulin who, at a meeting, had missed a foreman’s signal and had started to applaud later than was indicated in the scenario.  Pendyulin was represented with huge ears and little tiny hands.  The inscription under the drawing read, ‘You must clap with your hands, not with your ears.’…  On the walls hung diagrams and placards, aids to improve applauding skill: disembodied hands, clapping at a certain angle and at a certain force; incorrect, erroneous ways of clapping, crossed out with a red cross.”
Later it’s revealed that Brandov has to take down this cartoon, because his caricatured coworker has just earned a Ph.D. in applause.   Not as much of an exaggeration as we would hope—  academia in Communist countries is totally subordinated to the nation’s political goals.   Aside from the quality of his clapping, Brandov is also preoccupied with his department’s rivalry with the Public Criers, a nearby department whose work is sometimes seen as more important than his.    But one of the highlights of the book comes when Brandov reveals a new initiative, one that will drive his career to a new pinnacle:

“The organization of our work has not been sufficiently thought out.   In response to the leadership’s appeals, I have joined in the fight to economize state funds.  In order to improve our work I propose the following:  to use apes as applauders, but especially— for exclamations of approval…  I am convinced that the apes will carry out with credit the work entrusted to them.  The training and purchase of a fresh batch of apes will soon pay for itself.”
In order to get this new project started, Brandov invites his family to join him on a trip to the zoo.  Petatorov also happens to be there, observing many ironic metaphors for aspects of Soviet society among the animals on display.    But of course, Brandov is focused on his task, closely studying the primates to find those best suited for this project. 

“‘Those wouldn’t do”’ he muttered.   ‘They’re too small, it would be too obvious…  but they don’t shout badly, you can hear a ring of triumph.   No, no, we must have chimpanzees, or ourangoutangs— bigger ones.   It will be easy to make them up…  But their arses, their arses are good!  If one were to clap on them, one monkey could do the work of five…’   The man began slapping his buttocks.   ‘Splendid!…   A lot of work will have to be put into them,’  the welldressed visitor was saying to himself.  ‘They’re not well-grounded in ideology.  We’ll manage it, we’ll give them ideological education, we’ve managed harder cases then that.   Ah, what splendid arses!   Pity it’s unethical— just imagine, if a delegate suddenly started jumping up and slapping his arse.   What would our dear foreign guests think! …   I’ll put them in little suits— Pavlov’s Reflexes— I’ll go out and get some advice— we’ll work it all out, and full steam ahead in the name of the radiant future.   You’ll be promoted to senior clapper, Brandov!”
Sadly, the book doesn’t get around to describing the final result of Brandov’s experiments. 

[Closing conversation]

As you can see, while still reflecting many of the tragedies of living in the Soviet Union, this novel can be quite hilarious at times.    If you’re interested in learning more about Communism but need a break from heavy-handed exposes like those we discussed in the last two episodes, we think you’ll really enjoy the samizdat novel Nobody.

This concludes your Story of Communism for today.