Episode 13: Communists Take a Bath

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.

Having made it through a few more serious episodes, we’re now going to take another look at the lighter side of Communism, through the eyes of famous Soviet author Mikhail Zoshchenko.    You might call Zoshchenko the Seinfeld of 1920s Russia— he loved to poke fun at the little details of daily life, and the silly behavior of common people who didn’t quite understand what they were doing, or just weren’t quite competent at their jobs.    Most of his stories are not overtly political, but if you read between the lines, you can often spot an embedded critique of the Communist system and its effects on people’s daily lives.   Today we’ll be looking at a few selections from his classic short story collection “Scenes from the Bathhouse”, as translated by Sidney Monas.

Perhaps Zoshchenko’s most famous story is the title story of that collection, “The Bathhouse”, where he describes the challenges of visiting a rather poorly run public bathhouse.   Here’s an excerpt:

Last Saturday I went to one of our bathhouses… and they gave me two tickets.  One for my linen, the other for my hat and coat.   But where is a naked man going to put tickets?  To say it straight— no place.  No pockets.  Look around— all stomach and legs…  Can’t tie them to your beard.   Well, I tied a ticket to each leg so as not to lose them both at once.
All right.  So I’m standing.  I’m holding the bucket in one hand and I’m washing myself.  But all around me everyone’s scrubbing clothes like mad.   One is washing his trousers, another’s rubbing his drawers, a third’s wringing something out.   You no sooner get yourself all washed up than you’re dirty again.   They’re splattering me, the bastards…
I go back to the locker room.   I give them one ticket, they give me my linen.  I look.  Everything’s mine, but the trousers aren’t mine.   “Citizens, “ I say, “Mine didn’t have a hole here.  Mine had a hole over there. “  But the attendant says, “We aren’t here”, he says, “just to watch for your holes.”

You can see that even though he’s not explicitly making a political critique, there are a lot of possible interpretations here about the society of his day.    A similarly absurd situation occurs in another story of his, “The Overshoe”, where he has to deal with an overly bureaucratic lost-and-found office after losing an overshoe on a trolley:

“Is it possible, brothers,” I say, “to get my overshoe back?   I lost it in the trolley.   “Possible”, they say.  “What kind of overshoe?”  “Oh,” I say, “the ordinary kind, number twelve.”   “We have,” they say, “twleve thousand number twelves.   Describe its features.”…  “The back, of course, is a bit torn.  There’s no lining on the inside.  The lining wore out…  The toe looks as thought it was cut clean off, but it’s still hanging on.”…
And right away they bring back my overshoe.  Naturally, I was beside myself with joy.  Really touched…  “Now it’s found, I thank you.”  “No,” they say, “respected comrade, we cannot give it to you.  We,” they say, “don’t know; maybe it wasn't you who lost it… Bring us some certification that you really did lose the shoe.”

In the end, the narrator finally succeeds in convincing the office to let him reclaim his old, worn overshoe, thanks to a written declaration he gets signed by his building manager, but in the intervening week he has lost his other overshoe.    In the story “Kitten and People”, he describes a similar situation that doesn’t end quite as well, when he tries to get some needed repairs approved by his building cooperative:

“The stove I have works very badly.  Sitting around it, my whole family is always stifling from the fumes.   And that housing cooperative of devils refuses to make any repairs.  They’re economizing.  On current expenses…. “Nothing wrong,” they say.  “One can live.”  
“Comrades,” I say, “it’s downright shameful to utter words like that… even our kitten stifled from the fumes….” … “In that case,” they say, “we’ll set up an experiment now and have a look whether your stove is really stifling.”…
We warmed up the stove.   We deposited ourselves around it.  We sit.  We sniff…. Naturally, the fumes soon begin to spread through the room.   The chairman took a sniff, and he says:  “Not a thing.  Don’t smell a thing.”…   The kitten comes.  Sits herself down on the bed.  Sits calmly… she’s already gotten a bit used to it…
Suddenly, the treasurer rocks on the bed and says, “You know, I’ve got to hurry, I’ve got business to attend to.”  And he goes over to the window and breathes through the chink.  And he’s turning green and swaying on his feet.

Eventually the chairman is taken away by an ambulance, but still refuses to acknowledge an issue with the stove.   It’s interesting to note that this story is getting dangerously close to a political point, mocking the widespread “economization” initiative promoted by the government at that time.

In some of Zoshchenko’s stories, though, he takes more direct aim at the incompetence of low-level Communist bureaucrats and the way they gain power.   In “A Metropolitan Deal”, he discusses the efforts of a village to elect a local chairman to replace the rich “parasite” previously in charge.   This is indirectly referring to the public jealousy and resentment over the growth of rich “kulaks”, successful business owners, in the 1920s— you may recall, from Episode 1, the violent rage the government would unleash against them a few years later.   But that’s not the focus here, it’s just on selecting the new chair.

“Brothers!” someone shrieked.  “This is no election…  We need to choose advanced-type comrades…  Someone who’ll know his way around in the city— that’s the kind we need…  Who’d know everything through and through….”   “Right!” they shrieked in the crowd.  “Some advanced types we need…  That’s the way it’s done around here.”…  
“How about Leshka Konovalov?”  someone said timidly.  He’s the only one who’s come from the city  He’s— a metropolitan deal.”  “Leshka!” they shrieked in the crowd.  “Step out, Leshka.  Tell the group.” …
“Well now, said Leshka, a bit confused.   “Me you can choose… I scratched around the city for about two years.  Me you can choose….”  “Speak. Leshka!  Report to the group!” the crowd shrieked once again.  
“I can speak”, said Leshka.  “Why not speak,when I know it all.  Unlike you call, I’m a cultured man.  For two years I shook loose from the grayness of country life.   In the second place, my tongue is very fluent— I can make speeches.   Nowadays that isn’t just a pound of steam.”   “You’re right Leshka,” they said in the crowd.  “Without a tongue a man’s a sheep.  Only the tongue makes men.”
“That’s just it,” Leshka confirmed.  “…The tongue makes knowledge.   Of course, one needs to know— the law code, statues, decrees.  All his I know… I’m sitting in my cell, and they come running up to you.  Explain, Leshka, looks here, what does this note added on to the decree mean.”

Someone in the crowd picks up on the mention of the “cell”, and they soon discover that Leshka gained all his metropolitan sophistication while in jail for theft.   In the end they choose not to put him in charge, though the clear implication is that he would have been fine if he didn’t slip up and mention his cell.    Similarly, in another of Zoshchenko’s tales, “An Instructive Story”, he takes even more direct aim at poorly chosen leaders and fat, lazy bureaucrats: 

So, once, in a certain administration, a certain rather large worker named Ch was employed.   In the course of twenty years he occupied solid positions in the administration… at one time he was the head of the local committee.   They he was moved to the position of administrative director.  Then he was made the boss of something else…  
Of course, Ch was not an engineer or technician…  And even in general, it seems, his education was rather on the weak side.   Anything special, he did not know how to do.  He didn’t even have a very good handwriting….
This is what happened at the last meeting. … He had made a burning and passionate speech:  “The workers, that is… labor… they’re working… alertness… solidarity…”…  And suddenly, just think, a certain worker gets up, one of the motormen…
“Now that we’ve hear the convincing speech of Comrade Ch, I would like to ask him— well, what is it he wanted to say?…  What does Ch contribute to our work?….  The point is that he doesn’t know how to do anything.  He only makes empty speeches.    But just think, in twenty years we’ve outgrown this…”
The chairman got a little scared.  He didn’t know how he was supposed to react to all this.

Don’t worry too much about poor Comrade Ch though— after he admits that he doesn’t know anything and never claimed to, the meeting ends with everyone laughing together and still friends.

In a darker turn, though  there are a few cases where Zoshchenko directly attacks the low-level corruption that common citizens had to face at every turn, as in the story “A Weak Container.”

Nowadays, bribes aren’t taken.  Formerly, it was impossible to move a step without either giving or taking….
Lately, we’ve been dispatching goods from the freight station…  The weigher, an employee of the highest and most noble type, spouts numbers rapidly, takes notes, applies the weights, pastes labels, and issues explanations.     
Only suddenly we notice that, for all the beauty of his work, the weigher is very demanding about the rules.   He watches the interests of his fellow citizens and the state very closely…  to every third or fourth person, he refuses to accept their freight.  The container is a bit loose— he won’t take it…  “Instead of feeling badly, reinforce your container.  There’s a man loafing somewhere around here with some nails…” 

Eventually, a frustrated customer tries to solve the problem the traditional way, before the narrator finally gets to the heart of the issue:

He flushes, remembers something long forgotten… and digs out five rubles’ worth of money in single ruble notes.  And he wants to give them to the weigher.   Then the weigher turns purple at the sight of the money.  He yells:  “Is this how you get it?  A bribe you want to give me, you four-eyed horse?”
Of course, the one in glasses grasps right away the complete shamefulness of his position…  The weigher says:  “For shame!  Bribes are not taken here…”…
I approach the worker and ask him in any case to reinforce my dubious container.   He asks me for eight rubles.   I say:  “You’re kidding.  Eight rubles,” I say, “for three nails?”  He says to me in an intimate tone… “put yourself in my delicate position— I have to share up with this crocodile.”…”you share up with the weigher?”

With all this direct and indirect criticism of various aspects of 1920s Soviet society, it’s a bit surprising that Zoshchenko didn’t end up arrested or killed like so many of his fellow writers in the following years.    There were certainly many Soviet critics who considered his work offensive and denounced him, but he was saved by his large number of fans, even among Communist officials, who considered his writings hilarious.    One aspect that helped was Zoshchenko’s instinctive focus on the bottom rungs of the hierarchy:  he never criticized the upper leadership or the system itself, so he could be said to be merely mocking local incompetence & poor implementation of the new systems.   He also tended to put words in the mouth of seemingly clueless or buffoonish characters, so he could often claim any controversial statements were not his own.   

During the Stalinist period of the 1930s, however, Zoshchenko apparently got nervous about his future, and tried to please officials by writing some orthodox propaganda for the government.   Most notoriously, he contributed to the essay collection “The White Sea Canal”, which praised Stalin’s wasteful and inefficient canal project that cost the lives of thousands of Gulag prisoners.    This may have helped him avoid arrest during the mass purges of the 1930s, but his irreverent attitude towards Communism could not be tolerated forever.   Finally in 1946 he was denounced and expelled from the Soviet Writer’s Union, and did not publish any more major stories after that.   But his hilarious writings from the 1920s will be sure to live on for a long time to come.

[Closing conversation with Manuel]

If you need a lighthearted break from the grim retelling of Communist history in our other episodes, be sure to check out Michail Zoshchenko’s “Scenes from the Bathhouse”, as well as his other short story collections available in translation.

And this has been your Story of Communism for today.


Episode 12: Fighting for Cuban Freedom

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.

This week we have a really amazing guest, Nelson Rodriguez Chartrand from Cuba, one of the modern heroes of the movement for freedom worldwide.    You may remember that a few episodes back we interviewed a documentary filmmaker who mentioned the story of his friend Nelson, who had defied the Cuban authorities to teach capitalist and libertarian ideas to his neighbors.   After we recorded that episode, I managed to connect directly with Nelson online to learn more about his work.  

Since the time we recorded that earlier episode, Nelson’s life has changed dramatically.   As you may recall, Nelson’s teaching was, for a while, grudgingly tolerated by the authorities, though they did threaten him and take away his right to practice as a lawyer.   But earlier this year, the Cuban government took a renewed interest in him, and he had to flee the country.   You’ll hear the full story in this interview.

One aspect that made this a little tricky is that Nelson isn’t fluent in English, and I’m not fluent in Spanish.   But luckily my co-host Manuel is bilingual, so his translation abilities enabled us to conduct the interview.   I decided that the listeners deserved to hear Nelson’s voice directly, so you will hear his Spanish answers in the audio as well as Manuel’s translations.   But to keep the flow a little smoother, I edited out Manuel’s Spanish translations of my questions.  Here you go!

<interview is included in the audio podcast>

I hope you enjoyed Nelson’s amazing story; we'll be sure to update you if there are further developments in his struggle.    By the way, if you want to aid Nelson’s cause, he suggests donating to the Instituto Mises-Mambi De Cuba, and they have a PayPal link in the show notes.   You can also find both the Instituto and Nelson’s Movmiento Anarcocapitalista de Cuba on Facebook and other social media.

And this concludes your Story of Communism for today.


Episode 11: More Harsh Realities of Cuba

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 doing another interview podcast, talking to two immigrants who fled Communist Cuba and built successful lives in the US, Roger Rivero and Eduardo Norell.   This episode is a bit longer than usual, but you will see that it is full of fascinating information.    You’ll hear a strong rebuttal of Cuba’s health care boasts, and stories of the absurd ways college students had to obtain paper for their homework.

Here’s the audio of the interview.

<interview available in Audio Link>

I think that was a really great interview;  please email us your comments as well.   We’ll be sure to check in with Roger and Eduardo some more, as we continue to see changes in Cuba’s government and culture in this post-Castro era.

And this concludes your Story of Communism for today.


Episode 10: Orwell Betrayed

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.

If you attended high school in the US, you are almost certainly familiar with George Owell’s two classic novels about the dangers of totalitarianism, Animal Farm & 1984.  Because they are so abstract, people of all political stripes like to claim that these depict what would happen if their opponents gained control.    But did you know that they were partially inspired by Orwell’s short real-life experiences living under Communist rule, in revolutionary Spain in the 1930s?   Despite Orwell’s fame, fans of socialism in our media and education industries have largely buried Orwell’s classic memoir of this period, Homage to Catalonia.    By the way, George Orwell was a pen name, but for the sake of consistency we’ll refer to him by that name throughout this episode.  

The Homage describes Orwell’s experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.  This war involved a number of different groups, but was primarily a conflict between the fragile Soviet-sponsored socialist Government of Spain against the fascist military rebellion led by Francisco Franco.   Realizing they were outgunned, the Government, aided by Stalin’s Communist International, called for foreign volunteers to help defend it— and thousands poured into Spain from around the world.   It’s pretty amazing if you thing about it:  young, idealistic socialists & Communists from Western countries believed so strongly that they put their jobs, homes, and families on hold to risk their lives fighting for this cause.   Among these was a young George Orwell.    When he first arrived, the people of the Spanish Republic really did seem to have taken their socialist ideals of equality seriously:

Every shop and café had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal.… There were no private motor cars, they had all been commandeered, and all the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black….

In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no ‘well-dressed’ people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.

[Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia (pp. 3-4). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition. ]

A large part of the memoir is taken up by a vivid, harrowing description of what life was like on the front lines of the conflict, from the point of view of an undersuppled, underfed footsoldier in a woefully inexperienced and untrained army.   It’s a classic depiction of life in wartime, which I would highly recommend if you’re interested in such topics.   Today we’re going to gloss over that aspect of the book, though, since the point of this podcast is the politics.    After several months on the front lines, Orwell was wounded, and given leave to spend some time recuperating in Barcelona, where political issues once more came into focus.   When he arrived, he noticed that there had been some unfortunate changes in the ideal “classless society” while he was gone:

Fat prosperous men, elegant women, and sleek cars were everywhere. (It appeared that there were still no private cars; nevertheless, anyone who ‘was anyone’ seemed able to command a car.) The officers of the new Popular Army, a type that had scarcely existed when I left Barcelona, swarmed in surprising numbers… the majority were young men who had gone to the School of War in preference to joining the militia….  all of them had automatic pistols strapped to their belts; we, at the front, could not get pistols for love or money…

A deep change had come over the town. There were two facts that were the keynote of all else. One was that the people—the civil population—had lost much of their interest in the war; the other was that the normal division of society into rich and poor, upper class and lower class, was reasserting itself.  [p. 94-95]

Even worse, the various factions involved in the Government coalition had become increasingly suspicious of each other.   The Soviet-sponsored Communists of the Popular Army wanted to ensure their control, so they began to issue continuous propaganda against the militias of the other factions in their coalition— including the POUM, the smaller socialist party to which Orwell belonged.     Here we can also see some of the origin of Orwell’s concept of “doublespeak” from his novel 1984:

Meanwhile there was going on a systematic propaganda against the party militias and in favor of the Popular Army…over the radio and in the Communist Press there was a ceaseless and sometimes very malignant jibing against the militias, who were described as ill-trained, undisciplined, etc. etc.; the Popular Army was always described as ‘heroic’. 

From much of this propaganda you would have derived the impression that there was something disgraceful in having gone to the front voluntarily… The fact that the militia troops were also, on paper, Popular Army troops, was skillfully used in the Press propaganda. Any credit that happened to be going was automatically handed to the Popular Army, while all blame was reserved for the militias. It sometimes happened that the same troops were praised in one capacity and blamed in the other.   [p.96-98]

It reached the level where some minor street fighting actually broke out in the city.   Orwell was disgusted that his comrades were fighting each other rather than working towards their great cause, but had no choice but to join in on the side of his faction, helping to defend a building.    Eventually the  Popular Army took control of the city and ended the factional fighting, and Orwell returned to the front.   Once more, however, he was wounded, and after a difficult recovery in some horribly supplied and understaffed medical facilities, he returned to Barcelona.   But now his POUM membership put him in real danger, as he learned when drying to visit his wife’s hotel.   Luckily she had been expecting him, and intercepted him by the entrance.

‘Listen! You mustn’t come in here. Get out quickly and hide yourself before they ring up the police.’ And behold! at the bottom of the stairs one of the hotel staff, who was a POUM member (unknown to the management, I fancy), slipped furtively out of the lift and told me in broken English to get out. Even now I did not grasp what had happened. ‘What the devil is all this about?’ I said as soon as we were on the pavement. ‘Haven’t you heard?’ ‘No. Heard what? I’ve heard nothing.’ ‘The POUM’s been suppressed. They’ve seized all the buildings. Practically everyone’s in prison. And they say they’re shooting people already.’…

On 15 June the police had suddenly arrested Andrés Nin in his office, and the same evening had raided the Hotel Falcón and arrested all the people in it, mostly militiamen on leave. The place was converted immediately into a prison, and in a very little while it was filled to the brim with prisoners of all kinds. Next day the POUM was declared an illegal organization and all its offices, bookstalls, sanatoria, Red Aid centres and so forth were seized. Meanwhile the police were arresting everyone they could lay hands on who was known to have any connection with the POUM… In some cases the police had even gone to the length of dragging wounded militiamen out of the hospitals…

Apparently the suppression of the POUM had a retrospective effect; the POUM was now illegal, and therefore one was breaking the law by having previously belonged to it. As usual, none of the arrested people had been charged. Meanwhile, however, the Valencia Communist papers were flaming with the story of a huge ‘Fascist plot’,   [p.166-167]

The Communists had decided to blame the POUM for the recent street fighting, and label them as fascist agents.    POUM members, or anyone whose loyalty to the Communist Party was not proven, could now be arrested on sight.    The upbeat, revolutionary spirit that Orwell had observed in the people a few months before seemed to have been frittered away, though some of the true believers who hadn’t been immediately targeted still managed to hold on to their idealistic convictions.

And it was queer how everyone expressed it in almost the same words: ‘The atmosphere of this place—it’s horrible. Like being in a lunatic asylum.’ But perhaps I ought not to say everyone. Some of the English visitors who flitted briefly through Spain, from hotel to hotel, seem not to have noticed that there was anything wrong with the general atmosphere…  [p.156-159]

Orwell then had to spend some time essentially in hiding— he could blend in with the crowds during the day, but did not dare to sleep at his wife’s hotel room or appear in places where he was known, or he would be arrested.   Even more cruelly, he found out that the Government was attempting to keep the POUM’s suppression a secret from the front lines, so its soldiers would continue to risk their lives without knowing that, as soon as they returned home, they would be arrested or executed.

In the whole business the detail that most sticks in my throat, though perhaps it is not of great importance, is that all news of what was happening was kept from the troops at the front. As you will have seen, neither I nor anyone else at the front had heard anything about the suppression of the POUM. …about 100 miles from Barcelona, no one had heard what was happening. All word of it was kept out of the Barcelona papers ..

This kind of thing is a little difficult to forgive. I know it was the usual policy to keep bad news from the troops, and perhaps as a rule that is justified. But it is a different matter to send men into battle and not even tell them that behind their backs their party is being suppressed, their leaders accused of treachery, and their friends and relatives thrown into prison.  [pp.169-170]

Orwell was also horrified that despite the mass arrest of POUM members, there was no real legal process for them to follow once arrested.   They were generally thrown in crowded, dirty jails and left there to eventually die, or at best be arbitrarily released years later with lasting effects on their physical and mental health.    He wrote about several idealistic friends of his who had given up everything at home to come fight for the cause, only to find themselves confined without trial or executed by their supposed comrades.   One example is Orwell’s young friend Bob Smiile:

Smillie’s death is not a thing I can easily forgive. Here was this brave and gifted boy, who had thrown up his career at Glasgow University in order to come and fight against Fascism, and who, as I saw for myself, had done his job at the front with faultless courage and willingness; and all they could find to do with him was to fling him into jail and let him die like a neglected animal. 

I know that in the middle of a huge and bloody war it is no use making too much fuss over an individual death. One aeroplane bomb in a crowded street causes more suffering than quite a lot of political persecution. But what angers one about a death like this is its utter pointlessness. To be killed in battle—yes, that is what one expects; but to be flung into jail, not even for any imaginary offence, but simply owing to dull blind spite, and then left to die in solitude—that is a different matter.   [pp. 179-180]

While still on the run, Orwell and his wife attempted to use their small amount of influence and contacts to help another of their friends, Georges Kopp, who was still imprisoned.   Their efforts proved essentially futile, however, and they realized that their only reasonable course of action was to flee the country before being forced to join him.   In the end, Orwell and his wife managed to escape from Spain and head back to England, where he resumed his literary career and eventually produced his well-known classics.  

[Closing conversation with Manuel]

Anyway, Orwell’s time in Spain had been relatively brief, but he had directly experienced many of the worst failures of socialist and Communist governments:   government doublespeak and propaganda, the fundamental inability to sufficiently supply and feed their people, the emergence of new classes based on government loyalty, purges and unjustified mass arrests, and the total arbitrariness of the judicial and legal processes.    Knowing about these experiences definitely provides some new insights when trying to interpret 1984 and Animal Farm.

And this concludes your Story of Communism for today.


Episode 9: Capitalism In Cuba

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.

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

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.

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

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 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

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.

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.