Episode 28: Out of Czechoslovakia

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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.   This is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda, recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.

For this episode, we’re interviewing Slovakian Jewish immigrant Klara Sever.   As you’ll hear in the interview, she was among the many people “rescued” by the Soviets from the Holocaust at the end of World War II.    She thought they were offering freedom, but soon discovered they were just delivering another form of totalitarian oppression.

Before we go, we’d also like to thank listener “rightschu”, who left us another great review on Apple Podcasts.   If you are enjoying the podcast, please consider clicking the link at http://storiesofcommunism.com and doing the same!    You can also find links to Klara’s memoir (sadly not yet available in English) and other references in our show notes there.

And this has been your story of Communism for today.


Episode 27: The First Massachusetts Commune

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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.   This is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda, recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.

Today we’re taking another historical dive into the pre-Marx days:  we’ll be discussing the Puritans who arrived at Plymouth in 1620.     An often overlooked aspect of this early American colony was the fact that initially, they formed a government that had much in common with modern ideas of Communism.    I’d heard this story secondhand a few times, but recently discovered that the original journal of William Bradford, one of Plymouth’s early governors, is freely available online at gutenberg.org.   I took a look, and was surprised how modern some of it sounded— there are some parts that, aside from the slightly archaic language, would not be out of place in a Cuban propaganda film, or a Bernie Sanders campaign brochure.  

The initial agreement that the colonists made was to hold all property in common, and all work for the common good.   Perhaps realizing this was an experiment in a new form of government, they initially set the agreement to run for a term of 7 years.   Here are some of the highlights:

 …all profits & benifits that are gott by trade, traffick, trucking, working, fishing, or any other means of any person or persons, remaine still in the com̅one stock … 
That all such persons as are of this collonie, are to have their meate, drink, apparell, and all provissions out of the com̅on stock & goods of the said collonie. 

William Bradford. Bradford's History of 'Plimoth Plantation' / From the Original Manuscript. With a Report of the Proceedings Incident to the Return of the Manuscript to Massachusetts (Kindle Locations 1282-1298). 

There was a lot of grumbling by some of the party about these conditions.   In particular, some were investing more than others into the venture, and didn’t think it was quite fair that everyone should be in this state of forced labor and equal possessions for the first seven years.   But one of their leaders, Robert Cushmans, explained the reasoning:

Consider wheraboute we are, not giveing almes, but furnishing a store house; no one shall be porer then another for 7. years, and if any be rich, none can be pore. At the least, we must not in such bussines crie, Pore, pore, mercie, mercie….
This will hinder the building of good and faire houses, contrarie to the advise of pollitiks… So we would have it; our purpose is to build for the presente such houses as, if need be, we may with litle greefe set a fire, and rune away by the lighte; our riches shall not be in pompe, but in strenght; if God send us riches, we will imploye them to provid more men, ships, munition, &c. You may see it amongst the best pollitiks, that a com̅onwele is readier to ebe then to flow, when once fine houses and gay cloaths come up. 
…I say he that is not contente his neighbour shall have as good a house, fare, means, &c. as him selfe, is not of a good qualitie… . Such retired persons, as have aneie only to them selves, … are fitter to live alone, then in any societie, either civill or religious. 
… Our freinds with us that adventure mind not their owne profite, as did the old adventurers… Then they are better then we, who for a litle matter of profite are readie to draw back, and it is more apparente brethern looke too it, that make profite your maine end; repente of this, els goe not least you be like Jonas to Tarshis. 
(Kindle Locations 1393-1409). 

Sounds great, doesn’t it?    Unfortunately, in reality, the colonists’ first couple of years at Massachusetts were very difficult:  somehow they never planted or gathered enough food, and the colony was soon on the verge of starvation.   Desperate colonists traded everything they had to the local Indians, and were reduced to begging or stealing from them when they ran out of possessions to trade.

It may be thought strang that these people should fall to these extremities in so short a time, being left competently provided when the ship left them, and had an addition… of corn that was got by trade, besids much they gott of the Indans wher they lived, by one means & other. It must needs be their great disorder, for they spent excesseivly whilst they had, or could get it; and, it may be, wasted parte away among the Indeans … And after they begane to come into wants, many sould away their cloathes and bed coverings; others (so base were they) became servants to the Indeans, and would cutt them woode & fetch them water, for a cap full of corne; others fell to plaine stealing, both night & day, from the Indeans, of which they greevosly complained. 
In the end, they came to that misery, that some starved & dyed with could & hunger. One in geathering shell-fish was so weake as he stuck fast in the mudd, and was found dead in the place. At last most of them left their dwellings & scatered up & downe in the woods, & by the water sids, wher they could find ground nuts & clames,

(Kindle Locations 2534-2543). 

The starving colonists realized that something fundamental had gone wrong, and got together to try to figure out some kind of radical solution to their problems.    Listen to the solution they came up with:

All this whille no supply was heard of, neither knew they when they might expecte any. So they begane to thinke how they might raise as much corne as they could, and obtaine a beter crope then they had done, that they might not still thus languish in miserie. At length, after much debate of things, the Gov r (with the advise of the cheefest amongest them) gave way that they should set corne every man for his owne perticuler, and in that regard trust to them selves… 
And so assigned to every family a parcell of land, according to the proportion of their number for that end… 

This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corne was planted then other waise would have bene by any means the Gov r or any other could use, and saved him a great deall of trouble, and gave farr better contente. The women now wente willingly into the feild, and tooke their litle-ons with them to set corne, which before would aledg weaknes, and inabilitie; whom to have compelled would have bene thought great tiranie and oppression. 

(Kindle Locations 2593-2602). 

What I find most important here is Bradford’s insightful reflection on these events.   He talks about the fact that the dream of communal living and equality of property had appealed to humanity since ancient times— but it fundamentally ignores realities of human nature.   You could easily imagine some of these passages being written today in response to modern socialists and communists.  

The experience that was had in this com̅one course and condition, tried sundrie years, and that amongst godly and sober men, may well evince the vanitie of that conceite of Platos & other ancients, applauded by some of later times;—that the taking away of propertie, and bringing in com̅unitie into a comone wealth, would make them happy and florishing; as if they were wiser then God. 

For this comunitie (so farr as it was) was found to breed much confusion & discontent, and retard much imploymÄ“t that would have been to their benefite and comforte. For the yong-men that were most able and fitte for labour & service did repine that they should spend their time & streingth to worke for other mens wives and children, with out any recompence. 

The strong, or man of parts, had no more in devission of victails & cloaths, then he that was weake and not able to doe a quarter the other could; this was thought injuestice. The aged and graver men to be ranked and equalised in labours, and victails, cloaths, &c., with the meaner & yonger sorte, thought it some indignite & disrespect unto them. And for mens wives to be commanded to doe servise for other men, as dresing their meate, washing their cloaths, &c., they deemd it a kind of slaverie, neither could many husbands well brooke it. …

Let none objecte this is men's corruption, and nothing to the course it selfe. I answer, seeing all men have this corruption in them, God in his wisdome saw another course fiter for them. 

(Kindle Locations 2603-2616). 

In some sense, this is an old story, as you may have heard conservative authors allude to it periodically on Thanksgiving or at similar times.    But as I mentioned, Bradford’s original memoir is surprisingly relevant to a lot of today’s discussion of capitalism vs communism and socialism.  I think it’s especially important to share his recognition that the idea of eliminating private property and living in a communal paradise of sharing and equality is a universal human impulse has been around for thousands of years— it didn’t originate with Marx, though he gave it its modern form and language.   Some of the key concepts were shared with Plato’s Republic, written in ancient Greece.    And Plato was probably not the first to speculate along those lines.

This philosophy comes from a place of caring and empathy, and many other fundamentally admirable and moral motives.   But as we’ve seen in the many episodes of this podcast, the societies that have tried to turn this ideal into a reality have created conflict, violence, slavery, and starvation.    A logical conclusion is that the idea of private property is somehow built into human nature.   If you are religious like Bradford, you might even share his view that it’s somehow ordained by God.  

<closing conversation with Manuel>

Before we go, we’d also like to thank listeners “blkconserve” and “AokiGolf”, who left us nice reviews on Apple Podcasts.   If you are enjoying the podcast, please consider clicking the link at http://storiesofcommunism.com and doing the same!    You can also find links to Bradford’s journal and other references in our show notes there.

And this has been your story of Communism for today.


Episode 26: The Communist Patriarchy

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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.

This month we have another interview, with Florida acting coach Lilia Slavova.   Lilia was a successful actress in Bulgaria in the 1980s, until she and her family fled to the West, eventually settling in the U.S.   Her story reveals a lot about the struggles of growing up as a young woman in that environment.

I hope you enjoyed that interview!    As always, you can more information linked in our show notes at http://storiesofcommunism.com .

And this has been your story of Communism for today.


Episode 25: An American in the Gulag

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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.

With major campaign staffers for serious presidential candidates making bizarre claims that Stalin’s gulags weren’t so bad, we thought it might be a good time to review another memoir of life in these camps.   And this time, we’re going to look at the testimony of an actual American who survived 16 years in the gulag:  Thomas Sgovio, whose memoir “Dear America” vividly describes this experience.    Sgovio’s story is a fascinating one, giving a window into a little-known episode in American history:  the period in the 1920s and 1930s when faithful American communists actually believed they could improve their lives by emigrating to the Soviet Union.   Of course, you can’t really blame them, with so many celebrities and major media figures shamefully praising the Soviet system throughout that period— and sometimes winning Pulitzer prizes for it.    But the poor, deluded souls like Sgovio were the ones who ended up suffering the consequences. 

Sgovio was born in 1916 into a family of left-wing activists, and indoctrinated in Communism from a young age.   Growing up in Buffalo, NY, he often attended party meetings, and as the Depression began, it seemed more and more plausible that another system might be superior.    In 1935, after serving a jail term for assaulting police at a violent demonstration, his father fled to the USSR to avoid further prosecution.   Thomas joined his father there, along with the rest of the family, soon after graduating high school.   But as soon as he arrived, he started to notice that his observations didn’t quite match the glowing reports of the workers’ paradise he had been hearing from news stories and from his father.

We entered a large pionaia (beer parlor) filled with smoke, round tables with people sitting while they drank, smoked, and talked. We sat down and as I looked about, I felt like I had swallowed a ton of lead. I had never seen anything quite like this in all my life. I never saw so many drunken men and women in one place at one time. They were so poorly dressed, worse than the bums I had seen on the Bowery. I remembered my classes in Marxism at the Regional Training School. If I were to picture in my mind exemplifications of the lumpen proletariat - this was it. I remembered when the American communist leaders told us that drunkenness was a thing of the past in the Soviet Union.

(Kindle Locations 2375-2380)

His father explained that they were in a transitional stage, still building true communism.   But the Sgovios’ own lives were actually relatively good.  Stalin was trying to encourage foreign immigration at the time, to help support his official statements about the superiority of the Soviet way of life.    Thus the Sgovio family had a nice apartment and could shop in special stores.  With the help of some powerful friends, Thomas was able to begin working as an artist in Moscow and taking advanced art classes.   Furthermore, to get a taste of these privileges, hordes of beautiful Russian girls threw themselves at young male immigrants like him.   But it bothered him that in this land of supposed equality, he was living a life of privilege.   He soon began to realize that the local population had no illusions about the failures of their new system:

We made propaganda speeches describing the miserable workers' existence under capitalism ... and how fortunate the Russian workers were to live under Socialism! … I could not help noticing the contrast in the appearance of the Russian people at those meetings with the audiences in the communist meetings in Buffalo. First, I was struck by the uniformity in dress, then by a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the plain, ordinary men and women beyond the first and second rows. There was not that spark which ignited eyes to gleam and bristle with fire, there was not that wild applause I had so often experienced back home….

Our guides constantly reminded us to shut our eyes to the somberness of the poor Russian people. They had been worse off under the Czar. How wonderful everything would be in twenty or thirty years! I noticed that the charwomen in the House of Political Emigrants lived very poorly… I felt so terrible when I saw those women sitting in a corner sipping a glass of hot water and nibbling on a piece of rock sugar. They could not afford to buy a glass of tea - and here we polit-emigrants had all the tea we desired.

(Kindle Locations 2525-2540).

As you have probably guessed, the good times didn’t last.   In 1937, as the illusions continued to break down and Stalin’s purges began to accelerate, attitudes about the immigrants grew increasingly negative, and the Sgovios were kicked out of their elite living quarters.   His father disappeared— arrested and deported to the gulag, though Sgovio would not know for sure until much later.   Every day Sgovio began to hear about friends and co-workers being arrested, and he decided he had to leave the country.   Foolishly, he thought he could just walk into the American Embassy and request a visa using standard procedures.   But as soon as he walked out, he was arrested as a suspected foreign spy, like nearly every Russian in those days who dared to enter a Western embassy without express orders from the government.

At the beginning of his imprisonment, he was held for questioning in the notorious Lubyanka prison, in conditions that would have been unthinkable in most countries.

We were no longer men. We became things. Refined men, snatched away from their loved ones in the early hours of the morning, feebly protested as they were hurled into cellars already crammed full to capacity. Those on the bottom sat groaning, twisting and pushing the bodies of those on top…  one hundred or so men squeezed in two hundred square feet. We were not taken to the toilet. The latrine bucket was constantly overflowing. Imagine those old professors, doctors and intellectuals – sixty and seventy years old with weak bowels. But one who is determined to survive must always think – not how bad conditions are; instead, how much worse they could be.

(Kindle Locations 318-328). 

Sgovio almost laughed as he recalled his youthful Communist activism in Buffalo.  After damaging a fruit stand during a protest, and being fined 5 dollars, he had loudly protested American oppression and ranted about “capitalist injustice”.    Now, he was packed tightly in an overcrowded cell, being occasionally removed for irrational interrogation in which his claims to be innocent of espionage were dismissed out of hand.   Much later, he realized why his protests were futile.

WE DID NOT REALIZE THEN THAT THE INVESTIGATIONS AND INTERROGATIONS WERE A FARCE! We could not realize it! There would be no trials and reviews of our cases. There was only ONE reason for our being incarcerated: TO BE SENT OFF AS SLAVE LABORERS TO THE CONCENTRATION LABOR CAMPS!
(Kindle Locations 968-970).

After two months of interrogation, Sgovio found out he was sentenced to ten years in a labor camp for espionage.   Then came a journey across the country in a crowded cattle car, at the end of which he and his fellow prisoners arrived in a mining camp in the remote Kolyma region.   By this point, prisoners had few if any possessions left, most likely ragged clothes and poor-quality mattresses and blankets issued by the guards.   But on the first night, upon returning from their day of labor in the mines, they were in for another nasty surprise.

Following the others into the barracks, I heard cries of bewilderment and indignation - "Where's our things?" We hurried to our spots. All our personal belongings, including the new blankets, striped sacks, and pillowcases, were gone. Someone went to the gate-house to complain. 

The Camp Elder, accompanied by two guards, entered our barracks. …”Sure,” said the Camp Elder. "Why don't you write a complaint? - and I'll tell you something else ... You're all accountable for the blankets, mattresses, and pillow-cases which you received yesterday. The cost will be deducted ten-fold from your accounts."

(Kindle Locations 3694-3702).

They had learned the hard way that the common criminal gangs, often just referred to as the “thieves” or the Russian “blatniye”, were completely in charge of the other prisoners.   The common citizens in there for political crimes had no hope of competing with the thieves’ organized, systematic alliance of theft and violence— and if they tried to complain, their very lives were in danger.   The political prisoners were sent out for long hours of back-breaking labor in the gold mines, and always penalized at mealtime due to their output not meeting assigned norms, while most of the thieves had special jobs in camp and were exempt from this system.   

We had just fallen asleep after the third night, when the Camp Elder, the Work Allocation Leader, and several guards woke us up and ordered us all to get on our feet. The names of all those who had less than a 40 work fulfillment was called. My name was one of them. They led us out of the compound, back to the gold-fields, and to work. Here it was - the third morning… I had worked twelve hours in the night shift, plus two more deepening the drainage ditches, and now I was being penalized with more back-breaking work.

(Kindle Locations 3742-3746).

After these long hours of work, Sgovio’s much-reduced rations were issued from the small portion of the food supplies not stolen by the thieves, and he saw his health quickly declining.   After a few months, he realized he was declining into the state known as a “dokhodyaga” or “fitil”, loosely translated as a “goner”.

It is difficult to translate the words into English. Yes, even the free-citizens of Russia at the time were unfamiliar with the terms, the more so because prior to the Soviets, dokhodyagas did not exist. I believe that nowhere in history will you find the equivalent - only in Soviet Prison Camps can they be found.   Literally, dokhodyaga means a person who is nearing the end of his walk; fitil-- is the wick of the candle…

The first sign was when a prisoner lost hope. … It was written all over their faces, their manner. They neglected themselves, did not wash - even when they had the opportunity to do so. … The wick was oblivious to blows. When set upon by fellow [prisoners], he would cover his head to ward off the punches. He would fall to the floor and when left alone, his condition permitting, he would get up and go off whimpering as if nothing had happened. After work the dokhodyaga could be seen hanging around the kitchen begging for scraps…

And then, on hands and knees, they fought and scraped until the last bit of precious food was stuffed into their mouths. To amuse themselves, the blatniye would sit down in the mess-hall after receiving their soup and gruel portions. After taking a sip or two, they pushed the plates away. When dokhodyagas leaped for the leavings, the blatniye picked up the plate and hurled the contents at the face of the nearest one. Then they guffawed.

(Kindle Locations 4000-4020)

As he saw his health declining, Sgovio was greatly relieved when one day he was taken from the work brigade and told he would be an orderly in a new barrack, populated by Muslim prisoners.    He couldn’t believe his luck— after a few hours tidying up in the morning, he was even able to take a nap.   But when he woke up, he discovered he had been set up.   The barrack had been completely ransacked, the newly arrived Muslims now stripped of all their possessions— and as the one supposedly watching the building, he was responsible.   He knew the prisoners would have no qualms with murdering him in revenge.      About to lose hope, he decided on one final, desperate measure— he went and asked the thieves themselves for help.

Surprised by his approach, the thieves asked him whether he was there to accuse them of something.   But Sgovio insisted he was just there to ask for advice, since they were so knowledgeable about the ways of the camp.   They were now fascinated by him, having never spoken to an American before.   They asked if he had ever seen Al Capone, and he started telling them all the stories he could remember, including new stories about other famous American criminals like Dillinger.    When he mentioned he was an artist, they also asked him to draw some portraits of them— cameras and photography were unheard of in the gulag.   His drawings turned out to be pretty good.   By the end of the evening, they had fed him some precious white bread, otherwise unavailable to non-thieves, and invited him to come back the next night.

The end result was that Sgovio became a favorite of the thieves.    He visited them regularly, telling them stories and drawing for them.   When they discovered his art talents extended to creating tattoos, and to creating realistic drawings of naked women, his survival was further ensured, and he managed to survive the winter of his first near-goner status relatively healthy and well-fed by gulag standards.    He continued to be horrified by the treatment of the other prisoners though, as in the case of one young thief who had lost his cushy camp job after some misbehavior, but decided it was too undignified to work at general labor and loudly refused to head to the mines:

Vassya fought back as he lay on the snow-covered ground. Four guards held him while two others undressed him. They tied his hands behind his back, picked him up, and tied him to the sled. Vassya, clad only in his underdrawers hollered all kinds of anti-Soviet epithets. 

A cold chill pierced my soul. I could not believe what I was seeing. Here I was freezing, stomping the ground to keep my feet warm, how long could a naked man last in the frost - a minute - two minutes? And not one of us raised his voice to protest. The horse dashed through the gates, driven by the Senior Officer Guard, and Vassya's cries were strangled by the frost. He froze to death. Commandant Sergeyev yelled out to us, "Let that be an example to all other work refusers!"

(Kindle Locations 4357-4363).

But Sgovio himself was still in more danger than he realized.   He discovered the hard way that prisoners are liable to be transferred to another camp at a moment’s notice— he suddenly found himself removed from his circle of protectors.   Over his sixteen years in the camps (yes, his term was arbitrarily extended when it was time for him to be freed) he was continually moved from one place to another.   In some camps he found barely livable conditions, with a soft camp job as a propaganda artist or with the help of thieves who valued his art and storytelling.   But in other camps, he was sent back to general labor and near-starvation.    Here is a piece of his description of one of the bad ones:

All winter we breathed frozen ice particles. By mid-December more than half my comrades from Srednikan had perished. 
When we awoke in the morning, we glanced at the fellow next to us. Was he alive? If he was dead, we hurriedly took his rags and covered the corpse…
The bodies were piled like logs. When three or four hundred accumulated, holes were bored, and blasting took place. The corpses were thrown into a mass grave, then covered…
When I looked at my bones I was scared. I was worse than any of the walking skeletons in the Srednikan recovery barrack. There was no flesh on my bones - only gray, scaly skin. Someone told me to sit down and wait my turn. I could not sit-it hurt terribly. I felt my buttocks - there were none…
The doctor pulled me aside from the others. In a low voice he said, "Tomas, to look at your body - it's as emaciated as any I've ever seen. It is fearful to look at your bones - but I can't find anything that will justify my listing you in the infirmary.
(Kindle Locations 5326-5476).

Miraculously, a thief who wanted drawings of nude women came along with an offer of a steady supply of food, and Sgovio’s life was once again saved.   He continued to experience these kind of ups and downs, with just enough good luck to keep him alive until the end of his extended sentence.    By the time he was able to return to his family in Moscow, his father was dead.    Even then, he was subject to rules of internal exile, and it was not until 1960 that he and his mother managed to get out of the USSR.   Eventually he managed to return to the United States and wrote his memoir.

<Closing conversation with Manuel>

As always, we’ve just given you a bit of a taste of Sgovio’s book.   It is full of similar unbelievable incidents, near-death experiences, life-threatening scrapes, sudden reversals, and some moments of unbelievable good fortune, or at least relative good fortune in the context of the gulag.   We’re all fortunate that Sgovio survived to write it.    And next time someone suggests to you that the Soviet gulag was simply a set of harmless re-education camps for serious criminal offenders, be sure to point them to Sgovio’s “Dear America”.    As always, you can find a link to the book and to the website I mentioned, along with today’s transcript, at storiesofcommunism.com .

And this has been your story of communism for today.


Episode 24: Unlicensed Meditation

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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 have another great interview episode:  we will be speaking to Chinese refugee Jennifer Zeng.   Jennifer spent her young childhood among the chaos of the Cultural Revolution, and then grew up to find herself persecuted in the late 1990s for her practice of a modern qigong offshoot known as Falun Gong.    She described her harrowing experiences in a memoir called “Witnessing History:  One Woman’s Fight for Freedom and Falun Gong”.    Manuel and I were recently able to chat with her over the phone about her experiences.

<listen to audio for interview>

I think we should all keep Jennifer’s story in mind whenever we’re shopping and see a “Made in China” label on some merchandise.   But once again, we have just touched on a few of Jennifer’s experiences in today’s chat— there is a lot more detail in her memoir.     You can find more information and a link to the book in our show notes at storiesofcommunism.com .

And this has been your story of Communism for today.


Episode 23: The Sarcastic Refusenik

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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’ll be talking about the memoir of a Soviet dissident named Arkady Polishchuk.    Polishchuk was one of the “refuseniks” of the 1970s, the Jews who wanted to leave the USSR and emigrate to Israel.   He tells his story in his memoir “Dancing on Thin Ice:  Travails of a Russian Dissenter”.   Despite the fact that he is discussing deadly serious matters, issues which sent some of his friends for labor camps to years, he writes in a lighthearted, humorous tone that constantly points out the little ironies in Soviet life and philosophy.    Some parts of it sound more like a Kurt Vonnegut novel than a serious memoir talking about life-or-death issues.   But that doesn’t make it any less informative.

Polishchuk spent some time, before he became a dissident of course, working for major state-run Soviet news outlets.   In this position, he got to know that many of the ‘reporters’ his government sent to foreign countries doubled as KGB agents, helping to foment political unrest.   When he decided to apply to leave the country and help other refuseniks, he convinced the government that he had arrangements to reveal the names of those KGB agents if he were to disappear.   This enabled him to be a bit more brazen and outspoken without being punished as hard as many others.   But when he went over the line and actually staged a sit-in in the office of Leonid Brezhnev, the Soviet leader at the time, that was a bit too much, and he was taken to jail for a few weeks.

When he arrived in jail, the guards attempted to set him up to take a beating from the other prisoners.    But he managed to turn the situation around with his clever sense of humor.

LOOK, BOYS! A JEW! were the first words I heard after two policemen opened the cell door to bring me in. The jailers smirked and left me facing my cellmates. Thirty-five pairs of eyes looked at me. I knew that my first reaction would determine my upcoming treatment. 
“Oh, Yisrael, is that you?!” I cried into the dim light. “It feels so good to find a cousin among these Russian thugs!” 
Raucous laughter flooded the stinky cell. A shaggy guy, outraged to the depths of his Slavic soul that I dared to call him a Jew, was climbing down from the upper berth to punish me. I turned back toward the peephole and affably waved my hand to the guards. I knew they stood there, in anticipation. 
To my horror, another inmate crawled out of his roomy den under the lower berth. … After that he shook my hand. The word “mama” was tattooed on his fleshy fingers. The bold exclamation mark on his thumb pointed to his strong filial attachment. “Political?” “Yes,” I said, “but only in Russia. Name me a country where the wish to move to a warmer land is a crime.”
My wiry guardian angel did not react and on the path back to his wooden platform said to his cellmate, “Crawl back into your [f-ing] nest, Birdie.” Judging by the dignity with which he carried himself, my angel had a criminal record that inspired respect.

Polishchuk, Arkady. Dancing on Thin Ice (pp. 11-12). DoppelHouse Press. Kindle Edition. 

The situation of the Jews who wanted to emigrate was very strange.    To have any hope of leaving, they had to apply for an exit visa.   But filing such an application was a demonstration of disloyalty to the Communist Party.    Due to external pressure, and the international detente of the 1970s, a small number of Jews actually were permitted to emigrate each year.   But those who applied and failed were often arrested, sometimes on trumped-up charges that exploited local antisemitism, with their abuse by other inmates actively encouraged.   In this case, having deflected that antisemitism, Polishchuk found himself an object of curiosity.   One guard sought him out for advice on how to make money.    Other inmates peppered him with ridiculous questions based on other silly stereotypes.

“Why do Jews put Christian blood in matzo bread?” 
The question caught me off-guard and I said, “There are many fairy tales about Jews. Who has heard about Jews having horns?” “I did,” said one prisoner. “Me too,” said the frail boy, my neighbor. “So, I’m here, try to find ‘em.” They all laughed. “Well, you laugh now, but when you heard it for the first time, did you laugh?”…
The frail boy began to feel chatty. “Where did they get water in that desert for their matzo?” I responded, “All I know is that for the first two thousand years—poor me!—I was unable to pour your blood into my matzo.” Heat rushed to my face as if I was admitting my Jewish crime. It took effort to look them in the eyes. “Christians didn’t even exist at that time.”

Of course, he always worked in an opportunity to comment on the Communist system as well in these conversations.

“Do you eat matzo bread?” was the next question from deep in the cell. “I will, if you can find some for me. My mother used to buy it in April on the black market…”
“You’re not a Russian; you’re a communist,” giggled an inmate … “A good point—all of us are more communists than Russians. Twenty million Party members. Generation after generation we’ve been reading the same papers and books, watching the same movies, worshiping the same saints. And what do they tell us? ‘We’re good,’ ‘We’re building Paradise,’ … Look at yourselves—are we any good? Aren’t we in Hell already?
So boys, be patient… they will destroy this prison and overnight put a flowerbed here instead. And all of us, when we wake up that morning, won’t be drunks anymore. For the first time in years we’ll brush our teeth, or what’s left of them, and become gardeners taking good care of roses and drinking lemonade for the rest of our no-longer-stinky lives!” And as had happened at the moment of my arrival, raucous laughter flooded the cell. 
“Now,” I concluded, “thanks to the inquisitive questions of my distinguished colleagues, you have learned why Jews want to leave this country. And on this friendly exchange, let’s finish today’s concert. The performer will be given seven years of hard labor in Perm camp #36.”


Here he alluded to another major issue:  the fact that Jews were not the only ones who wanted to leave the poverty and repression of the USSR.   In fact, one effect that intensified local resentment against the refuseniks was the fact that Jews seemed to have this special privilege— a right for a small number of them to leave the country— that was denied to other groups who didn’t have organized international pressure on their side.    Recognizing this inequity, Polishchuk later became a strong advocate for evangelical Christians who wanted to emigrate as well.     

Polishchuk only spent a few weeks in prison, but other refuseniks who didn’t know his KGB secrets or have international prominence were much less fortunate.    One of the scarier chapters of the book discusses the 1974 trial of a Jewish doctor named Mikhail Stern, who was arrested on charges of accepting bribes after his son applied to emigrate to Israel.    Polishchuk and a friend managed to talk their way into his trial and take detailed notes on the proceedings.

Upon arrival in town, Stern and his wife invited Polishchuk to visit.   He discovered that the local police had an almost comical faith in the massive wealth of Jews:

The doctor’s wife Ida said, “I’m sorry we have no decent spoons and forks. The prosecutor Krachenko picked them straight from this table as evidence of our riches, frustrated after a futile two-day search for Jewish gold and diamonds.” She waved her left hand. “Even the penny watch from my wrist.” 
The prosecutor sincerely believed in the hidden wealth of the popular endocrinologist and had dispatched requests to dozens of cities, even in Siberia, to find out whether Stern kept his money in local non-interest bearing savings banks.

The main charges were that Stern had taken small bribes from a number of patients in order to treat them.   They completely ignored the realities of how so-called “free” medical care worked in the USSR:   doctors were not given enough money by the government to pay for even the most basic medicines, so needed to ask the patients to make up the difference.   And doctors in general lived as impoverished a lifestyle as everyone else there— so in cases where they were successful, grateful patients often paid them a little extra.    But as Polishchuk asked around, he found that Stern was one of the more generous doctors, having tried to take as little as possible from his poor patients.   One of them had tried to get in to testify on his behalf, but was rebuked:

“You don’t know him,” insisted the cripple. “He would give his own to others.” “So, why don’t you offer yourself as a witness?” “Didn’t I go? I walked right into the judge’s office. I have nobody to fear. And he said”—here the man pursed his lips portraying [the judge], shook his head awkwardly as if his neck was made of wood, and choked out—“Stern isn’t charged with extorting money from you.”
(pp, 139-140)

A handful of witnesses were questioned in the court, most of whom praised Stern for his medical skills, and the prosecutors could only extract stories of the small amount of money taken with a lot of badgering and threatening.   One mother broke down in tears because she was so grateful to Stern for curing her son, and begged for forgiveness for testifying.  An audience member commented quietly that the amount Stern was said to have “extorted” per month was less than the typical Soviet grocer received in bribes every day.     

Two dozen investigators for three months had been looking in all twenty-five districts of the region for witnesses among his patients. The prosecutor knew that for a physician to survive only on his meager salary was a challenge and many asked patients for money. Forty witnesses, selected by the prosecutors out of two thousand passed in three weeks in front of my eyes in the courtroom. One thousand nine hundred sixty of the questioned patients had insisted that Stern had refused to take money when they begged him.

Bizarrely, the prosecutor tried to back up his charges with an implication that Stern was some kind of sex pervert as well, because he required his patients to undress in order to examine them.   On the final day of the trial, the judge decided at the last minute to schedule the start of court an hour earlier, hoping to trick the doctor into one last legal offense, when he would arrive late at his own trial.   Luckily, in this case he was thwarted by Soviet bureaucratic incompetence:  nobody informed the lawyers that the trial would start early, so it was delayed until the usual time.   Unfortunately, however, for the core charges, Stern was sentenced to 8 years in a labor camp.   

Polishchuk was able to smuggle his account of the trial out to the West, and thanks to international pressure, Stern was released in only 27 months.   But of course, not every refusenik could be lucky enough to have a famous dissident at his trial.

<closing conversation with Manuel>

Anyway, there is plenty more in Polishchuk’s memoir about life of refuseniks in that period of the USSR, and the ironic humor helps to balance out the chilling depiction of travesties of justice like the Stern trial.   We highly recommend checking it out!   As always, you can find show notes and links to our source materials at storiesofcommunism.com .

And this has been your story of Communism for today.


Episode 22: Dreaming of Green Peas

Audio Link

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 interviewing another great guest, Zilvinas Silenas.   As you’ll hear in the interview, Zilvinas spent his childhood in Communist Lithuania, but eventually grew up to become president of the Foundation for Economic Education, a well-known free market supporting think tank.   Let’s listen to Zilvinas talk about his experiences as a child, and how they led him to become such an ardent critic of socialist and communist systems today.

We hope you enjoyed that interview as much as we did.   You can read more from Zilvinas and his colleagues at the Foundation for Economic Education’s web page, FEE.org.   By the way, this link, as well as links to source materials for all our episodes, can always be found with our show notes at storiesofcommunism.com .

We’d also like to thank listener “Uncommonly Creative Nickname”, who posted a nice review of our podcast on Apple Podcasts.   If you’re enjoying this podcast, please consider posting a rating or review as well.   You can follow this link to our Apple Podcasts page if you would like to do so.

And this has been your story of Communism for today.