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

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

Today we’re 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.


Episode 21: The Death Of Reason

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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 China increasingly in the news again, today we’re focusing on another memoir of life in the People’s Republic of China, “Life and Death in Shanghai” by Nien Cheng.   It tells of her experiences during the Cultural Revolution of 1966-1976, when Chairman Mao reasserted his control over the government by setting loose mobs of so-called revolutionaries to attack everyone he thought might be a threat to his power.   Estimates range that between 1 and 8 million Chinese were killed directly during this period, including Cheng’s daughter.   Many times more were driven into poverty, confined to forced labor camps, or imprisoned in barely survivable conditions.    As we’ll see, what I find most memorable about this memoir is the way Cheng consistently exposes the fundamental irrationality of the Chinese Communist system, which can’t even seem to abide by its own declared rules.

Cheng was a senior official at the Shanghai office of the Shell Oil Company, where her husband had also worked until his death in the early 1960s.   Having voluntarily stayed in Shanghai rather than fleeing with her co-workers when the Communists took over China, and continuing to work at Shell with direct permission of the government, she was caught by surprise when Mao suddenly decided that all employees of foreign-owned firms were likely spies.  She was summoned to a “struggle meeting” where one of her company’s accountants, a man named Tao, was being loudly accused of supporting capitalism, and forced to confess to opposing Mao.

It seemed to me that socialism in China was still very much an experiment and no fixed course of development for the country had yet been decided upon. This, I thought, was why the government’s policy was always changing, like a pendulum swinging from left to right and back again. When things went to the extreme and problems emerged, Peking would take corrective measures. Then these very corrective measures went too far and had to be corrected. 
The real difficulty was, of course, that a State-controlled economy stifled productivity, and economic planning from Peking ignored local conditions and killed incentive. When a policy changed from above, the standard of values changed with it. What was right yesterday became wrong today and vice versa.

Cheng, Nien. Life and Death in Shanghai (p. 12). HarperCollins Publishers. Kindle Edition. 

Due to Shell’s connections with England, the speakers at the meeting implied that Tao was somehow personally associated with China’s humiliation in the Opium War of 1845.  After several hours of being yelled at by a roomful of people, Tao was brought forward to confess— supposedly confirming the accusation that Shell’s local office really was placed in order to secretly advance capitalism and oppose China.   Cheng was especially frustrated since she knew the office had fully complied with every regulation imposed by the Communist Party.

At times his voice trembled and sometimes he opened his mouth but no words came. When he turned the pages, his hands shook… he must have known that he was not guilty of any real crime. After all, Shell was in China because the People’s Government allowed, even wanted, it to be there. And I knew that the company had been scrupulously correct in observing Chinese government regulations. Tao must have known this too. I thought his chief problem was mental and physical exhaustion. To bring him to his knees and to make sure that he submitted readily, I was sure those who ‘helped’ him must have spent days, if not weeks, constantly questioning him, taking turns to exert pressure on him without allowing him to sleep … Many people I knew, including my own brother, had experienced it during the Anti-Rightist Campaign of 1957.

It was not too long after that that they began to question Cheng herself.   She was repeatedly called in for sessions where she was asked to confirm Tao’s story and make a similar confession, but each time insisted that the local Shell office had fully supported Mao and followed every law.   They grew increasingly angry each time she refused to confess.  Beginning to get worried, Cheng consulted with a friend of her late husband’s, Mr. Hu, for advice.

‘These men gave me the impression that they wanted a confession from me even if I made it up. Could that be the case?’ 
‘Oh, yes, yes. They don’t care whether it’s true or not as long as they get a confession. That’s what they are after.’ 
‘How terrible!’ I exclaimed. ‘Yes, it’s really bad. … But no individual should make a false confession, no matter how great the pressure is.’ Mr Hu said this with great seriousness. He looked at me steadily as if to make sure I got his message and added, ‘That has always been my policy during each political movement…
‘There always comes a time when a man almost reaches the end of his endurance and is tempted to write down something, however untrue, to satisfy his inquisitors and to free himself from intolerable pressure. But one mustn’t do it. Party officials will never be satisfied with the confession. Once one starts confessing, they will demand more and more admissions of guilt, however false, and exert increasing pressure to get what they want. In the end, one will get into a tangle of untruths from which one can no longer extract oneself.’

Hu pointed out that every previous political movement had ended at some point.   Those who were in prison and had not yet confessed could usually be released after the movement subsided.   But if you had confessed, the Party could use you to save face and show that some of those arrested were “real” criminals— there was no way to prove your confession had been under duress once it was recorded.   And you could then spend decades serving your sentence in prison or at labor camps, even after the reason for your arrest was long forgotten.   So the best strategy would be to ignore promises of leniency in exchange for a confession, and hold fast to your innocence, regardless of the short-term cost.   Cheng took this advice to heart.

As the pace of the Cultural Revolution began to accelerate, mobs of “Red Guards” began roaming the streets to punish anyone seen as supporting capitalism or foreign influence.   Often these were groups of teenagers who seemed to enjoy the senseless destruction and freedom to loot from rich homes and shops, rather than having any coherent idea of what philosophy they were supposedly defending.   Anyone who appeared to be wealthy could be randomly beaten in the street and stripped of their possessions.  The Guards even did absurd things like deactivating traffic lights, since using the color red to mean “Stop” did not seem respectful to Communism.    It was only a matter of time until Cheng’s house was targeted directly.   As expected, her attempt to rationally argue with the attacking mob was unsuccessful:

There were between thirty and forty senior high school students, aged between fifteen and twenty, led by two men and one woman much older. …  As they crowded into the hall, one of them knocked over a pot of jasmine… The tiny white blooms scattered on the floor were trampled by their impatient feet. The leading Red Guard, a gangling youth with angry eyes, stepped forward and said to me, ‘We are the Red Guards. We have come to take revolutionary action against you!’ 
Though I knew I was doing something futile and pointless, I held up the copy of the Constitution and said calmly, ‘It’s against the Constitution of the People’s Republic of China to enter a private house without a search warrant.’ The young man snatched the document out of my hand and threw it on the floor. With his eyes blazing, he said, ‘The Constitution is abolished. It was a document written by the Revisionists within the Communist Party. We recognize only the teachings of our Great Leader Chairman Mao.’

The mob spread throughout the house, destroying everything they could, and gathering up and inventorying the valuables.  After they had been doing this for a while, they took her to her bedroom and demanded she describe all her jewelry, so they could make sure they had confiscated everything.   She realized that if she omitted any item and they found it, she could be accused of hiding it for capitalist purposes, so she did her best to describe them all.   But she noticed that a young Guard girl in the room seemed terrified as she did this— she realized the girl was probably very poor, and had likely pocketed one of the mentioned items to help her family.   Seeing the fury of the guards, and fearing the mob would turn on the girl, she had pity on her and came up with an idea.

When I finished describing the missing jewellery, I said, looking at the girl in front of me, ‘All of you have made such a mess with all these papers and books on the floor. Perhaps the missing watch, rings and bracelets have dropped among the debris.’ The girl’s pale face reddened. In an instant, she disappeared under the desk. The other Red Guards followed suit. The teacher remained in his seat, contemplating me with a puzzled frown. It seemed to me he saw through my game but did not understand my motive for covering up for the thief. Confucius said, ‘A compassionate heart is possessed by every human being.’ This was no longer true in China, where in a society pledged to materialism, men’s behaviour was increasingly motivated by self-interest. The teacher probably thought I had hoped to gain favour from the Red Guards.

The girl successfully “found” the items she had pocketed among the debris on the floor, and the situation was defused for the moment.   But Cheng’s troubles had just begun— several more destructive mobs attacked  over the next few days, and she was then placed under house arrest.   Responding to a speech by Chairman Mao, they even tried to tear apart her mattresses and floorboards, searching for secret caches of gold and weapons stored for a capitalist counterrevolution.    They also continued to repeatedly question her, but she refused to concede any of their points or confess.

‘You are going to hear a lot about us. We are the Revolutionaries who represent the working class which is the ruling class in China,’ he said with a lift of his chin. 
‘Isn’t the working class in China represented by the Chinese Communist Party?’ I asked. 
‘Shut up! We don’t have to justify ourselves to you. You are an arrogant class enemy! You have no right to discuss who represents the working class in China.

As they continued to harangue her, Cheng’s cat Fluffy bit one of them and ran away.   This was followed by a flurry of accusations that she had trained a wild animal to attack Communists, though fortunately the cat was agile enough to escape their wrath.   After many additional rounds of questioning, Cheng was taken to a struggle meeting like the one she had attended for Tao, and a roomful of people shouted demands for her to confess.  But she still refused.   As a result, she was taken to Detention House #1, a local prison, and locked up in solitary confinement.   She didn’t know it yet, but she would remain confined in that cell for six years.

The cell obviously had not been cleaned for years, and she was choking on the dust.   She was only allowed the bare minimum clothing needed, and the only book she was permitted was Chairman Mao’s quotations.   At first the guards would not even loan her a broom to clean the cell with, but she cleverly found an appropriate Mao quotation: “To be hygienic is glorious; to be unhygienic is a shame.”   With this, she convinced the guards to reluctantly let her do some cleaning.   The guard leader was a bit surprised later to see the clean cell.

‘What have you done to the cell?’ 
‘I cleaned it according to Chairman Mao’s teaching on hygiene,’ I answered. 
‘If you heed the teaching of our Great Leader Chairman Mao, why are you locked in a prison cell?’ she yelled. ‘Did the Chairman tell you to commit a crime?’ 
‘I’ve never committed a crime. There has been a mistake. It can be cleared up by investigation and examination of the facts,’ I said. 
‘You have a glib tongue, that I can see. You’re trying to bring your capitalist way of life into this place, aren’t you?’

Depressed by her new situation, Cheng momentarily started to doubt herself.

Could it be possible that what I had considered innocent behaviour had really been interpreted by others as criminal deeds against the State? … I said to the guard, ‘In that case, I’ll study the law books to see if I have indeed committed a crime inadvertently. Will you please lend me your law books?’ ‘
‘What law books? You talk just like the capitalist intellectuals that are being denounced in this Cultural Revolution. You think in terms of law books, rules and regulations. We are the proletariat, we do not have anything like that.’ He seemed highly indignant as if my assumption that they had law books was an insult. 
‘If you do not have law books, what do you go by? How do you decide whether a man has committed a crime or not?’ 
‘We go by the teachings of our Great Leader Chairman Mao. His words are our criteria. If he says a certain type of person is guilty and you belong to that type, then you are guilty. It’s much simpler than depending on a law book,’ he said. … I wondered how the guard would have felt if not I but he had been the victim.

After this, Cheng determined that she would continue to hold her ground, and demand that rational proof of a crime be presented, or she be cleared and released.   At every interrogation, she challenged the guards in logical debate, though this merely continued to anger them further.

She even started to enjoy the mental sparring with the guards, her one break from the unending boredom and deprivation in her cell.   But she suffered several physical consequences:  aside from direct beatings, the malnourishment and filth were not very conducive to an aging woman’s health, and she suffered numerous bouts of bronchitis and pneumonia, as well as uterine hemorrhages.    She had to be taken semi-conscious to a substandard prison hospital numerous times, at one point spending six days in a coma, but miraculously continued to survive.  At one point she was placed in heavy cuffs for a week, permanently damaging the nerves in her hands.  The guards grew increasingly frustrated with her attempts to get them to rationally review her case.

‘Am I not to expect justice from the People’s Government?’ 
‘Justice! What is justice? It’s a mere word. It’s an abstract word with no universal meaning. To different classes of people, justice means different things. … In any case, who are you to demand justice? When you sat in a room of your well-heated house and there were other people shivering in the snow, did you think of justice?’ 
‘You are confusing social justice with legal justice. I can tell you that it was precisely because my late husband and I hoped that the People’s Government would improve conditions in China so that there would never be anybody suffering cold and hunger that we remained in China in 1949 rather than follow the Kuomintang to Taiwan,’ I told him. 
‘In any case… The capitalist countries use such attractive words as “justice” and “liberty” to fool the common people and to prevent their revolutionary awakening. To assume a proper attitude you must get all that rubbish out of your head. Otherwise you will get nowhere.’

With only one book allowed in her cell, she also became adept at using Mao quotes to bolster her arguments.   When the guards got angry at her for pointing out that all her activity at Shell had been government approved, she quoted “Lay out the facts; speak with reason.”   When they tried to stop her from stating further exonerating circumstances, she added the quote “Without investigation, you have no right to speak”.  When they insisted that being in prison must mean she had committed a crime, she used the quote “Where there is counter-revolution, we shall certainly suppress it; when we make a mistake, we shall certainly correct it.”

When the government suddenly decided that one of Mao’s key lieutenants, Liu Shao-Chi, was a capitalist sympathizer and removed him from power, Cheng could not resist rubbing the obvious hypocrisy in the guards’ faces.

‘For sixteen years, in the newspapers, in daily broadcasts and in books published by the government printing press,… Liu Shao-chi… was always presented to the Chinese people as a revolutionary hero who had made a tremendous contribution to many aspects of the work of the Communist Party… I found in Chairman Mao’s books several complimentary references to Liu Shao-chi. It’s so difficult to turn round now and think of him as totally bad. Perhaps he had just made a mistake. If that is the case, I hope Chairman Mao will forgive him. After all, they were close comrades for many years.’ 
‘You are dreaming! Chairman Mao will never forgive him!’ the young worker said. 
‘Well, the outside world must be laughing at us now. How could such an important man who was Chairman of the Chinese People’s Republic suddenly be discovered to have been a traitor all these decades?
… ‘Shut up! Shut up! You are a mad woman!’ the interrogator shouted, seemingly terrified by my candid remark. He quickly added, ‘Liu Shao-chi was guilty and you are too!’
[pp.204, 220]

Ironically, after this Cheng found that some of the guards were sneaking extra food to her.   Apparently many of them had vocally been members of Liu’s faction, and were grateful to hear someone speaking in his defense, something they themselves were too terrified to do.   Her defense of Liu became another criminal charge in her record, though this actually became a positive for her many years later after Mao’s faction fell out of favor.

After she had been imprisoned for six years, the political winds began to change.  Due to U.S. President Nixon’s diplomatic opening to China, Mao decided that foreign connections, at least with American allies, were no longer as damning as they had been, and Cheng was released.   She nearly refused to go, insisting on a full exoneration— but the thought of seeing her daughter convinced her to accept the release.   Sadly, she discovered that her daughter had been murdered by Red Guards back in 1967.

She spent the next few years recovering in a small private apartment.   Luckily, another effect of the diplomatic change was that foreign bank accounts were accessible again, so Cheng could live off her savings despite the continued poverty caused by the continuing Cultural Revolution.  She also began teaching English lessons to make some extra money.   Unfortunately she began to realize that many of the old friends and new acquaintances who visited her were government informants, likely hoping to trap her into incriminating herself somehow, so she had to be very careful.   There were factions in the government that were hoping to save face by finally catching Cheng in an anti-communist act, showing they had been correct to imprison her.   Always a clever conversationalist, she remained a step ahead of the informers though:  for example, she caught one fake “friend” of her daughter by bringing out some old photos to look at together, and intentionally misidentifying some people. 

After Mao’s death in 1976, many former prisoners, including Cheng, were officially pronounced innocent and rehabilitated.   This was not much consolation, given the loss of her daughter, and Cheng vowed to leave the country as soon as possible.   She was constantly tormented by a sense of guilt for having believed in Communism back in 1949, and staying with her daughter in the country that would murder her, rather than fleeing with her co-workers to Hong Kong.   In 1980, she managed to get a travel permit to visit her sister in the U.S., and after that never returned to China.   She wrote her memoir and spent many years giving lectures about Communist China, finally passing away at the age of 94 in 2009.

<Closing conversation with Manuel>

Before we conclude, we’d like to dedicate this episode to the memory of Vladimir Bukovsky, the heroic Soviet dissident and human rights activist whose memoir we discussed in the last episode.   He just recently passed away in England at the age of 76.

And this has been your story of Communism for today.


Episode 20: Outsmarting The Bureaucrats

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 talk about a well-known Soviet dissident, Vladimir Bukovsky, who has made it his life’s mission not to let people forget the abuses of Communism.   Many critiques of the Soviet Union and similar regimes tend to focus on the Stalin years, a natural tendency given the tens of millions of deaths.    But Bukovsky began his dissident career during the Krushchev “thaw”, when the regime was still spreading violence and death throughout the world, suppressing political speech, and causing widespread economic misery for its population.   He has repeatedly made efforts to point out that when Communist regimes seem to be promoting peace, slight economic reforms, or improved relations with the West, they are usually just engaging in intensive PR for what is still a fundamentally totalitarian system causing untold human misery.    Naturally, his outspokenness on these issues resulted in over 12 years of imprisonment, at various times in prisons, mental hospitals, or in labor camps.

When the Soviet Union fell in the early 1990s, Bukovsky thought it especially important that the documentation of the government’s actions over the past few decades be preserved.   He knew that there would be a tendency to gloss over the more recent abuses, since the officials involved were in most cases still alive and often in positions of power in the “new” Russian government.   And that’s not accounting for their many collaborators in the West, who would have a similar interest in papering over such issues.  Thus, he headed to Moscow as soon as he could, to gather any available information and preserve documents before they could be destroyed.   The story of his attempts to preserve documents, and the shocking contents he found, is told in his memoir “Judgement in Moscow:  Soviet Crimes and Western Complicity”.

Bukovsky returned to Moscow in 1991, hoping to initiate something equivalent to the Nuremberg Trials for Communism.   As he summarizes it, this wasn’t about revenge, but about exposing the massive scale of Communist human rights abuses so they could never be denied or papered over.    He considered it an important principle that he would not try to name and expose every “informer” who collaborated with the police— he knew that many had been pressured into cooperation by threats against themselves or their families.    His worst fear is that a few bad leaders, like Stalin, would be blamed, and the fundamental horrors of the system would never be exposed:

The aim was not to winnow the more guilty from the less guilty and punish the latter, but to attain a moral cleansing of society. Not mass hysteria, reprisals, denunciations, and suicides … but repentance. And in order to achieve this, the entire system and the crimes it perpetrated should have been put on trial, while it would have been quite sufficient to pronounce judgment on its leaders, who were already in prison…  
I considered it vital to show the millions of people who would see the program that we, former political prisoners and dissidents, had no desire to seek revenge, that the foundation for my proposals was not vengeance but interests much more far-reaching and not at all personal.

Bukovsky, Vladimir. Judgment in Moscow: Soviet Crimes and Western Complicity (Kindle Locations 1605-1612. Ninth of November. Kindle Edition. 

After Bukovsky began his attempts to gather critical documents from the archives, various Russian media outlets and KGB officers began spreading rumors that there was nothing to be found, and the crimes of Communism had been exaggerated.  Various mid-level employees started giving Bukovsky various excuses and delays when he asked for documents— and he even discovered that some critical ones had been burned.    He was frustrated to realize the the so-called “reform” of the KGB after Yeltsin took over was largely an illusion:

Splitting up the KGB into separate directorates and services… was as pointless as chopping off a lizard’s tail or dividing an amoeba. The result was that every unit regenerated itself and even expanded, just as in the fairy tale in which every dragon tooth grows into a new dragon. Those archives were the essence of the KGB, the heart of the dragon, hidden behind seven seals. The only way to vanquish the beast was to pierce its heart, but the hero of the story, who was supposed to accomplish this magnificent feat, went on a drunken spree instead…
Meanwhile, mysterious “commercial structures” began to appear around the archives, and a brisk trade in documents ensued, but only those deals that profit the KGB, and only through the reliable hands of those who suit the KGB.
(Kindle Locations 1723-1735).

Walking into the buildings of the supposedly reformed KGB, Bukovsky’s description sounds like a mix of a Kafka novel and a Three Stooges movie:

The archive administration occupied only one floor of Number 12; the rest was like the labyrinth of the Minotaur, the entrance and exit of which could not be found without Ariadne’s thread. The superb parquet flooring of the corridors seemed to stretch into infinity past sealed office doors that still bore the nameplates of their former occupants… Here and there, mounds of files and papers marked “top secret” lay right on the floor. I picked up one at random and glanced at the contents: it was a report by some regional party committee about youth work…

The decree ordering the seizure of the party archives had been signed by Yeltsin on 24 August, and the commission with the new guards had entered the Central Committee buildings that same night. At first the electricity supply was cut off to prevent any use of shredding machines, but then it had to be turned on again, because it was impossible to find anything in the dark. The shredding machines were already jammed with hurriedly destroyed documents and not in working order….

It was a fact that all the entrances and exits were manned by sturdy young men with submachine guns. We literally stumbled into one of them, a strapping young fellow with a childish, bewildered face, as we turned a corner: “Can you tell me where the canteen is?” he asked pleadingly. “I’ve been wandering around for half an hour, and still can’t find it….”

Experience showed that it was well-nigh impossible to destroy any archive material selectively, or, for that matter, to forge it. In the first place because it had been established that there were at least 162 archives, totally unconnected to each other by cross-referencing in card indexes or by computer; the communist regime trusted nobody, even its own apparatus. It would take months of searching just to establish whether there were any copies of a document from one archive in another…

(Kindle Locations 1747-1770).

Fortunately, the ultimate disorganization and lack of internal trust ensured that despite attempts to cover the tracks of past Soviet officials, plenty of papers would remain available somewhere in the archives.   But Bukovsky gradually came to realize he was facing another critical obstacle, the lifetime of conditioning of petty bureaucrats under the Soviet system:

In reality, the administrators of the archive were in no hurry… They were no fighters, just typical Soviet bureaucrats who had built their careers under the old regime, cowardly and cunning, like all slaves. Their attitude toward the authorities, their overlords, was a slave’s mixture of fear and hatred, and the more they hated, the more they wanted to cheat their masters in some way. So they regarded the unexpected bounty that fell into their hands as their personal windfall, to be guarded jealously from all outsiders….

It stands to reason that from their point of view, I was an outsider, a thief eyeing their riches from whom they tacitly agreed to protect their “personal property.” Moreover, they simply could not understand my motives—what was it I was after, anyway? Was I trying to get a cut for myself?…
they agreed with me in everything just in case, but managed to invent new excuses for delay every day.
(Kindle Locations 1783-1798)

As the holders of the archives created endless delays, Bukovsky was dismayed to see the continued increase in former Soviet officials attaining positions of power under Yeltsin’s supposedly reformed government.   They even pressured Yeltsin to pass a 1992 law on “preserving state secrets”, yet another obstacle to any attempts to gather more data from the archives.   

Fortunately, later in 1992 the former officials got a bit too brazen for their own good, filing an appeal with the new Constitutional Court of Russia to try to force Yeltsin to re-recognize the Communist Party.    If they succeeded, Yeltsin might even be forced to return buildings and property that his new government had taken from the Communist Party— so it was a very serious threat.    Now, the reputation Bukovsky had for trying to independently document past abuses became an advantage.

 Alarm, even panic seized all the president’s men. And this led to what I had spent almost a year trying to achieve: the CPSU archives were opened, at least in part, and I, who had been hurriedly summoned to Moscow as an expert witness to the proceedings, received access to them. That was the categorical condition I made—payment, if you like, for my participation in the pending farce.
(Kindle Locations 1941-1943)

But even this new power didn’t solve the issue of the stubborn bureaucrats, who were still the ones controlling the archives day-to-day, and could still create endless delays.  Nobody refused him directly, but there was always a reason some document couldn’t be found.   Or they would come back with a request for an exact “date and reference number”, details which could not be known without directly searching the archives for the document.    He suspected that some of them just wanted bribes, but this was a line he refused to cross:

From the arsenal of our prison stratagems, there was only one I consciously never employed: bribery. Maybe I was wrong, but it seemed to me that it would be too demeaning to descend to this level, as it would have been offensive to, say, a former inmate of a Nazi concentration camp to try to buy documents indicting the Nazis from the SS. The thought that the scum who had built their former well-being on our bones would derive profit now… was too repugnant to contemplate.
(Kindle Locations 1989-1992)

Bukovsky managed to slowly gather some documents, but knew his access would soon end as the relevant court case came to a close.   Even worse, while he had gathered a large number of relevant documents, they were still stored in another part of the archive building, where he could permanently lose all the documents he had put so much effort into gathering.   Luckily, he had one more trick up his sleeve.

I took the precaution of acquiring a miracle of Japanese technology: a portable computer with a handheld scanner. At that time this piece of technology had only just appeared in the West, and it was completely unknown to our Russian savages. Because of this I was able to sit right under their noses and scan piles of documents, page after page, with no worries about the curious, who kept coming up to admire my machine. “Look at that!” would exclaim the leaders of democratic Russia, peering admiringly over my shoulder. “Now that must have cost a few bucks!” 

Nobody realized what I was doing until the court hearing was almost over, until December 1992, when one of them suddenly saw the light and yelled loudly enough to be heard a block away: “He’s copying everything!!!” There was a deathly hush. I kept scanning, as though I had not heard. “He’ll publish everything over there!!!” I finished working, packed up my computer, and headed calmly for the door, looking neither left nor right. From the corner of my eye I could see the horrified faces of Yeltsin’s elite… Nobody said a word as I made my way to the door. They were probably busy calculating what untold millions I would make in the West.
(Kindle Locations 2071-2082)

Thus, Bukovsky was able to escape with copies of thousands of pages of authentic Communist Party documents.   While most of the abuses were already well known, there were plenty of explosive revelations.   He solidly documents how many Western political and media figures were collaborating directly with the Soviet government, even though similar collaboration with Reagan or Thatcher would have resulted in their ostracism from fashionable society.  He discusses in detail how Gorbachev, the supposedly reformist Soviet leader,  was at all times in firm control and in solid agreement with the so-called Kremlin “conservatives”—  he never wanted to overturn the totalitarian Soviet system, but merely to make it more robust in the face of Western challenges.       But perhaps worst of all, as had long been suspected, the Soviets directly had a hand in most of the “national liberation movements” that caused chaos in South America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East throughout the 1970s and 1980s.   As Bukovsky writes,

Even I was amazed by the scope of this murderous activity across five continents. Even Hitler could not have dreamed up something like this. The tempest they unleashed swept away millions of lives in Ethiopia, Vietnam, and Central America; it will rage on in Angola, Sudan, Somalia, and Afghanistan long after the last communist regime vanishes from the face of the earth.
(Kindle Locations 1040-1042)

We won’t elaborate more on these topics here, since this podcast is about telling personal stories, but you can find all this information in detail in Bukovsky’s book.    One item uncovered in the items did hit Bukovsky personally though, due to his having spent several years confined to Soviet insane asylums:  he uncovered plans for a new “Psychiatric Gulag”.  In the key document, we can see:

The KGB under the Council of Ministers of the USSR in the Krasnodar region possesses materials that indicate that there is a significant number of mentally ill persons who exhibit socially dangerous and hostile signs, harbor criminal, politically harmful intentions, and have a demoralizing effect on the lives of Soviet people…
Many of those suffering mental illness attempt to create new “parties,” various organizations and councils, prepare and disseminate draft charters, program documents and laws…
At present, according to data supplied by regional health authorities, eleven to twelve thousand persons stand in need of hospitalization…
(Kindle Locations 4087-4126)

This document was written with respect to only one of around 100 administrative regions— so if the plan had actually been implemented, over a million Soviet citizens would likely have ended up in Brezhnev’s new psychiatry-based gulag.  Luckily, a few dissidents including Bukovsky had managed to report their abuse to foreign psychiatric associations at just the right time to embarrass the KGB into giving up this plan.

…it turned out that our campaign had hit the bull’s-eye. Half a year had not yet passed, and the Politburo had not reached a final decision, when my first interviews appeared in the Western press, and by summer they were on television, where the question of psychiatric repression became a top story. It was as though we had caught them red-handed at the scene of the crime, and quite by chance at that. It is probably like this in wartime, when a rogue shell hits the arsenal… The regime had to defend itself with all it had, and the decision to create a psychiatric gulag was shelved…
(Kindle Locations 4169-4173)

Anyway, as you can probably guess, many of Bukovsky’s revelations were very embarrassing for Western liberals who had continually collaborated with Brezhnev and his successors in the name of “peace”, “disarmament”, and similar causes, or supported the many Soviet-sponsored “national liberation” movements.   As a result, even though Bukovsky first published his book in 1996, it took over 20 years for the first English language edition to come out.   At first he was connected with the wrong publishers, who turned out to be more concerned with protecting their liberal friends than letting the truth be revealed.    They kept demanding that he cut passages that would be embarrassing to various public figures, and he completely refused.   Then he found a smaller publisher, who was planning to print the book but got intimidated into silence by continual threats of lawsuits.    These threats successfully suppressed the edition from being published by anyone for years, until an independent group of supporters in the U.S. decided to publish it on their own last year.

Overall, thanks in part to Bukovsky’s work, nobody can now deny the human rights abuses of the later period of Soviet history, the past actions of many officials who are even now active in the Russian government, or the corrosive effect that Soviet Communism had as they exported violence throughout the world.  Or, for that matter, the guilt of Western liberals who continually supported the Soviet Communist party line throughout the 1970s and 1980s.    The next time someone accuses you of paranoia or “McCarthyism” for worrying about the dangers of Communism, be sure to refer them to Bukovsky’s “Judgement In Moscow.”

<closing conversation with Manuel>

By the way, we’d like to thank listener Dusty from Sunup Creative for sending us a nice new logo for the podcast.  Remember, if you want to help but aren’t as artistic, we could always use a few more nice reviews at Apple Podcasts or similar sites.

And this has been your story of Communism for today.