Episode 17: A Poet's Awakening

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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.

In this episode, we are shifting our focus to North Korea, one of the world’s most repressive Communist regimes.   We’ll be discussing the first part of “Dear Leader”, the memoir of Jang Jin-Sung, a poet who was one of the top propaganda poets serving Kim Jong-il in the 1990s, before he fled the country and eventually defected to South Korea.   This was a period of economic prosperity worldwide, though due to the failure of North Korea’s command economy, a time of major famine and shortages in North Korea.   As we’ll see, North Korea is also one of the worst examples of a “cult of personality” arising around a powerful leader, with Kim Jong il (and now his son Kim Jong Un) being worshipped like a god.

Jang was born in a small village, but by his teenage years his parents were important Communist officials, and his family was living in Pyongyang, the capital.   His family had the unusual luxury of a piano in the living room, so he was given music lessons from a young age, and sent to a high school focusing on music.   The plan was for him to embark on a career track as one of the regime’s court musicians, a nice, low-risk trajectory for a young member of the party elite.    But even as he studied this music, he started to suspect something wasn’t quite right about how music was developed in North Korea as compared to the West.

As time went on, I was confirmed in my conviction that Western music was artistically superior to the North Korean music I was being taught. It wasn’t that I preferred one set of stylistic rules to the other. Western music had its rules too; but what it had that North Korean music didn’t was the infinite possibilities of breaking an established rule, to make a new one of your own.

Jin-sung, Jang. Dear Leader: My Escape from North Korea (pp. 30-31). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition. 

However, Jang experienced a major shift in outlook after coming across a rare book of poetry by Lord Byron.   This book wasn’t widely available in North Korea, but was part of a small edition of only 100 copies, designated for distribution among the party elite.   Apparently the government assumed that this small group of people was already so loyal that they couldn’t be noticeably contaminated by foreign influences.   But in this case, that wasn’t quite correct.

Before encountering Byron’s poetry, I had thought that adjectives such as “Dear” and “Respected” were a special form of pronoun in the Korean language reserved for Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. … I had assumed that these adjectives were names just like Kim and therefore … purely Korean. But I learnt, through Byron’s poetry, that these words were terms of respect that were part of a universal language and not uniquely Korean. I felt strangely elated by the discovery that these terms might be applied to an individual…. these poems were proof that emotions could be experienced in a personal sphere that did not include the Leader.


He decided that he now wanted to be a poet rather than a musician.   He heard that one of the regime’s top poets, Kim Sang-o, lived nearby, and through a common acquaintance managed to arrange a meeting with him.    He was worried at first that the independence of his poetry might anger the great poet, but it actually had the opposite effect:

When he had finished reading my attempt at an epic poem, he laughed heartily… To my astonishment, he did not scold me, but was accepting of it: “If you had come to me with something like, ‘Oh, my homeland! Oh, my Party!’ I would have refused to talk to you. I enjoyed your personal narrative of love. I can see that you’re faithful to your own voice.”

The great poet took Jang under his wing, and helped him further develop his poetic skills.   Later, on his deathbed, he left Jang an amazing parting gift.   High-ranking Communists were expected to write declarations of loyalty to the leader before they died, indicating that even in the afterlife they would continue to serve him.   But Sang-o added a note to his, that he had left behind unfinished work to be completed by his student— meaning Jang.   This brought Jang to the attention of the Party leadership, and enabled him to get a job at the UFD, or United Front Department, the main propaganda organization of the regime.   This was a stroke of luck, since it was only as a part of this or a similar department that he could actually be allowed to continue to write poetry.

Anyone who composes a work that has not been assigned to the writer through …chain of command is by definition guilty of treason. All written works in North Korea must be initiated in response to a specific request from the Workers’ Party.….It is not the job of a writer to articulate new ideas or to experiment with aesthetics on his or her own whim…

The epic genre of Kim Jong-il poetry in particular was restricted to just six poets, who were also the poets laureate of North Korea. At the age of twenty-eight, in 1999, I became the youngest of this tiny elite of court poets.  

Ironically, this entry into the bowels of the regime’s propaganda machine was what enabled Jang to learn the truth about the outside world.  Because Kim Jong-Il wanted propaganda to be generated in the style of South Korean writing, to appear more authentic, the writers in the UFD had abundant access to otherwise forbidden literature.    Although Jang was continuing to write his personal non-propaganda-related poetry at home, he was grateful to have his job and privileges at the UFD, and composed the official, loyalist poetry that was required.   One of his poems in particular, “Spring Rests on the Gun Barrel of the Lord”, led to yet another level of official recognition:

So this is the Gun 
that in the hands of an inferior man 
can only commit murder, 
but, when wielded by a great man, 
can overcome anything. 
As history has shown, 
war and carnage belong
to the weak. 
General Kim Jong-il, 
the General alone, 
is Lord of the Gun, 
Lord of Justice, 
Lord of Peace, 
Lord of Unification. 
Ah, the true Leader of the Korean people!

(pp 18-19)

This poem was distributed nationally, and led to an invitation for Jang to meet Kim Jong-il and become one of the “Admitted”.   An “Admitted” person was one who had spent at least 20 minutes in the actual presence of the great leader— once you had achieved this milestone, you had many special privileges, including extra rations, personal freedom, and immunity from arbitrary harassment by the secret police.   Jang describes his dinner with the leader, where he finally confirmed that Kim Jong-Il was merely human.

… I can see his feet under the tablecloth. He has taken off his shoes. Even the General suffers the curse of sore feet! I had always thought him divine, not even needing to use the toilet.
That’s what we were taught at school and that’s what the party says: our General’s life is a continuous series of blessed miracles, incapable of being matched even by all our mortal lifetimes put together. With this glorious invitation into his circle, I had thought I would enter and partake of a divine dimension in time. But here I am, looking into his shoes, which have high heels and an inner platform at least two and a half inches high. Those shoes have deceived his people.
(p. xxiv)

But the incident that definitively led Jang to break with the regime was when he visited his old village, during a vacation period after the success of his great poem.   He already knew that things were harder outside the capitol than in Pyongyang, but he had been very insulated from the lives of common people.   He even personally received large amounts of food aid that international charities had intended for the country’s starving population:

In return for our specialist work, and on top of our standard rations, we received additional rations of imported food every Saturday. .. the resources we received—different each time—came from the outside world. They were taken from humanitarian materials donated by the UN and the rest of the international community, as well as from South Korean NGOs and religious organizations…  
The existence of such international aid was viewed as a shameful secret that the regime could not afford to reveal to its ordinary citizens at a time of widespread famine, as it would undermine the state’s ideology of “self-reliance.” But as our department’s role was to live and work as outsiders, it seemed logical that we should receive outside goods.


When Jang arrived at the village’s train station and walked through the market square, he was hit all at once with the extent of the suffering in the countryside.   Even the basic rations that were promised by Communism were no longer being provided, having been replaced by a campaign of “self-sufficiency” promoted by the government.   

I grimaced as I took in every sort of poverty known to North Korea’s provinces, gathered together here and put on display in this miserable plot. The stench of unwashed bodies in the air was rank. The wares optimistically placed on display by grimy hands were not the kind one would expect to pay for. I asked one woman why she was selling an empty insulated flask for twenty won. She replied by saying that if I filled it with hot water, I could hug it during the night to keep warm. It also bewildered me to see tap water on sale. It cost ten won to wash your face with soap and water and five to wash with water alone.

He was even more shocked when he saw some men removing dead bodies from the area.

“They’re from the Corpse Division,” he said. “Dispatched by the city’s party committee.” “Corpse Division? What do you mean?” “Why, they get rid of the corpses! Maybe you don’t have this in Pyongyang, but the committees in all the other provinces dispatch them to their main park near the station. All sorts of people move through the station, so they come here to beg, until they die.”   … “Apparently, the party secretary for Hamheung thought of the idea, and received a state medal for it. Good for him!”

While in the village, he stayed with the family of his childhood friend Young-nam.   He was even more distressed to see how his old friend lived now, compared to his own lifestyle.  

That night, at the dinner prepared by Young-nam’s mother, I had to choke back my tears again. She proudly explained how she was able to offer me, her guest, a half-full bowl of rice—she had stashed away ten grains of rice at every meal. … When I asked how long it had taken to save up the rice, she replied, “Three months.” I could not believe that they were eating rice by the grain, instead of in servings. I muttered an excuse, saying that I had indigestion after eating lunch on the train.

Realizing that he could not impose further on their hospitality, Jang cut his stay short the next day, after giving Young-nam’s family all the gifts he could.   Before leaving town, he wanted to go with Young-nam to the market to buy a few more things for him, but was in for another nasty surprise.    There was a loud siren, and everyone was suddenly herded by the police into the center of the market— forced witnesses to a public execution.   This was regarded as a form of moral education, so nobody was allowed to leave until the sentence was complete.

… an execution in the market? As I looked confusedly at Young-nam, he reassured me that these executions took place almost on a weekly basis. …  The People’s Trial was over in less than five minutes. It was not really a trial. A military officer merely read out his judgment. The prisoner’s crime was declared to be the theft of one sack of rice….

“Death by firing squad!” As soon as the judge pronounced his sentence, one of the two soldiers who was restraining the prisoner shoved something into his mouth in a swift, practiced motion. It was a V-shaped spring that expanded once it was put inside the mouth, preventing the prisoner from speaking intelligibly. … a prisoner could not utter rebellious sentiments in the final moments of his life before it was taken from him. Bang! Bang! Bang! I had never been so close to a gun being fired. The blood froze in my veins. Not daring to look at the prisoner at the moment of his death, I flicked my gaze upward….
The man riddled with bullets for stealing rice had been a starving farmer. Even someone who worked the land could not find enough to eat.

AS SOON as I returned home to Pyongyang, far away from the People’s Trial in Sariwon, I got into the shower. It felt like bits of the prisoner’s skin and blood had been sprayed onto my skin, and I scrubbed myself again and again. For over a week, whenever I sat at the table to eat, I was overcome with nausea and could not bear the thought of food.

After this, Jang could no longer comfortably participate in the nation’s propaganda efforts, and it was only a matter of time until he fled the country.   The second half of the book covers his harrowing journey across the border and as a refugee in China, where the police pursue him for a murder charge trumped up by the North Korean authorities.   It’s a really exciting story that we don’t want to spoil here— check out the book and enjoy it for yourself!

<Closing conversation with Manuel>

And this has been your story of communism for today.


Episode 16: 21st Century Chinese Characteristics

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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.

In some of our previous episodes, we have talked about the truly terrifying death toll of Chinese Communism since Mao first took over the country in 1949.   Tens of millions were killed by the Great Leap Forward, the Cultural Revolution, and similar events.   But in the last few decades, China has enacted a number of reforms, making it a much freer nation than it had been, and ushering in an impressive level of economic growth.    Some in the West have started acting as if we should treat China as just another foreign economic partner, with similar standing to the Western European democracies and other American allies.   Yet the Communist Party is still firmly in control of the country.   Does this really make a difference in people’s daily lives?Are Chinese citizens still subject to the whims of government officials, or are their lives closer to those of  ours in the modern West?  Is Chinese Communism still something to be feared, or have the fabled Chinese Characteristics rendered it harmless?

It’s hard to come up with clear answers to these questions, but we can get a number of clues from recent visitors to the country.   Today we’ll be talking about a book called “Kosher Chinese:  Living, Teaching, and Eating with China’s Other Billion” by Michael Levy.   It’s especially interesting in that it’s less than a decade old— published in 2011— so gives a picture of relatively modern times.    It takes place in Guizhou Province, a rural area far removed from the Westernized coastal cities, where Michael Levy came to teach English as a Peace Corps volunteer.    Levy’s memoir doesn’t really focus on politics— it’s mostly a fish-out-of-water story of Levy’s attempts to adapt to the local culture— but as we’ll see, their totalitarian system of government still affects every area of Levy’s life there, and has a lot to tell us about how we should regard the “reformed” Chinese Communism.

Levy’s memoir is quite enjoyable to read, largely due to the many anecdotes about clashing cultures as he attempts to adapt to the Chinese way of life.   For example, the title, “Kosher Chinese” is inspired by an incident near the beginning of his stay, where he is served a local delicacy— a plate of fried millipedes.   It’s clear that his hosts will be insulted if he doesn’t try it.   Grasping for an excuse, he finally points out that he is Jewish, and millipedes aren’t Kosher, so he’s not allowed to eat them.   (We should point out that he wasn’t really religious enough to care about kosher dining before.)    From that point forward, his Jewishness, which seems to fascinate his hosts, becomes a central focus of his time in China.    We’ll skip over a lot of these humorous incidents, and side details like Levy’s amusing exploration of Chinese pop culture and Chinese relationships and marriage, as we explore the more political aspects of the book.

One running plotline throughout the memoir is Levy’s attempts to get his students to think for themselves, rather than blindly trusting anything they read.   There seems to be a philosophy that if something is written in a book, especially a government-approved one, it must be true.     As you might guess, many local government-approved books embody silly and outdated stereotypes of America, as Levy learns when one of his students, Yvette, tries to flatter him with a report on the “Great Jew”:

They have done so many great things for people in the world. They good at jokes, doing business and managing money so that there are a large number of Jewish tycoon in the world.… In the Wall Street which is the controlling financial interests of the United States, it is the world of Jews who dominate the “street.” Jews deserve careful study though their history is pitiful.”…
“Listen,” I finally said, having failed to find a sensitive way to correct her work. “This is absurd. It’s totally unusable.” Yvette, like all Chinese students, was used to harsh criticism. She smiled and blinked at me. “But,” she told me, “we have learned it.” “What does that mean?” I said, slightly exasperated. “You’ve learned it, but it’s wrong.” Yvette’s smile remained sweet and patient. “It is in a book,” she told me.

Levy, Michael. Kosher Chinese (p. 56-57). Henry Holt and Co.. Kindle Edition. 

On the positive side, at least some of the locals seem to recognize that this emphasis on blind memorization and absolute faith in the written word is something that needs to change.   While drunk one night, the local university president confides in Levy that he’s hoping he will teach his students not just to memorize, but to think.    When he is put in charge of a graduate literature seminar, he puts these ideas into action, leading the students to read and discuss the various works of literature.  It’s an uphill battle though, as this isn’t quite the teaching style expected:

“Your methods are interesting, but it’s not the Chinese way. We believe before you are qualified to offer your opinion, you should know what all of the experts believe. You should copy them again and again until you know their thinking. Only then can you build on it.”


On some level, I think we can agree that there is a good point here— many of today’s problems in the West result from ill-informed people, totally ignorant of the past, trying to impose “new” ideas that replicate well-known failures.   Yet these Chinese schools seem to have hit the opposite extreme, with the contents of any government-approved book being treated as unassailable.  

One of the most entertaining subplots of the memoir is Levy’s participation in the university basketball team.   It seems that the college-level league rules are not as strict as those in the U.S., with teachers as well as students being allowed to participate.   After he becomes a regular at informal pick-up games, Ivan, the coach, invites Levy to dinner, to develop some “guanxi”.    

We should pause here a moment to describe “Guanxi”, which appears as a common theme in this book.  It can mean a social obligation, as in having to reciprocate when someone gives you a gift.   But it also refers to one’s social reputation with the government and its officials— in which case it can have critical effects on one’s life.   In various parts of the book, we see that guanxi is important for being allowed to buy a home, getting a job you want, or avoiding a forcible transfer to an undesirable location.

In this case, Ivan is trying to recruit Levy for the university basketball team.    He makes the transparent gesture of treating him to a session at a local fortune teller as well; it just happens that his future demands that he joins the University basketball team.   But Levy is happy to accept.     However, when he arrives at his first game, he is surprised to learn of a rule they don’t have in the U.S.:

“Take a look at the other team,” Coach told us. “We will not be covering number 11.” Coach Qin looked at me to be sure I understood, and he spelled it out clearly for me: “He is high up in the Communist Youth Party, so he must be allowed to score.” “I got it,” I said. “Be friendly with number 11.” Coach nodded at this and gave me a thumbs-up. Number 11 would have clear paths to the hoop as a consequence of playing basketball in a place where guanxi ruled. Relationships took precedence over winning.

However, even with this consideration, the other coach appears to dislike the fact that his team has to play against a tall, athletic American, so claims Levy needs to be disqualified completely as a foreigner.   Levy starts to argue, but soon realizes that he is endangering his coach’s guanxi by creating a potential incident, so decides to give up and sit out the game.    

Since this is a military school, the coach is a bit more anti-American than most.  Levy later confirms that there was no legitimate rule used to keep him out of the game, but everyone was afraid of the military coach’s official power.   In any case, Levy is allowed to play in other games, and becomes quite a valuable player, despite having to learn to relax his competitive instincts when facing politically connected opponents.   He soon earns the team’s affectionate nickname “Friendship Jew”.

In another major running plot line of the memoir, Levy wants to spend time with some of the average local residents that aren’t involved with the university.  He goes for a walk one day to a small minority Bouyei village, where he stops to talk with some young teenage girls, the Wang family, who are playing with Pokemon cards.   They are fascinated to meet an American, and after a few games of hopscotch, Pokemon, and tree climbing, he and the kids become good friends.  He is surprised to see that despite their poverty, living with a large family on a subsistence farm, they are aware of American pop culture, and even have favorite American athletes.   One of the girls, Big Twin, is a huge basketball fan, and starts attending Levy’s games.  

But then comes a heartbreaking development: Levy finds that Big Twin and one of her other sisters have been taken out of school and sent to work.   The money they earn (and save in unspent school fees) is needed to pay tuition for the oldest sister.    Looking for a way to help her, Levy sees an opportunity when he is asked to judge a local singing contest, with a cash prize that would be enough to pay for  several years of school.     Knowing from their time together that Big Twin has a beautiful singing voice, Levy gets her added to the list of contestants. 

Getting Big Twin into the contest was as simple as asking President Bill to put her on the list of finalists. He didn’t even ask me who she was or why I wanted her to perform; he simply took her name, and that was that. All of the contestants were selected because of guanxi they had with judges or city leaders, so there was nothing particularly untoward about my lobbying efforts. Relationships were, as always, the only currency that really mattered in Guiyang.

The contest begins, and Levy is impressed with several of the contestants, though as he predicted, Big Twin steals the show.    Later, Levy looks at all the scorecards, and is overjoyed to see that Big Twin has been given the highest score by all the judges.    As he daydreams about how happy she will be that she can now go back to school and still help her sister, the winners are announced:   

“The winner,” said President Bill, “is Festival, for his performance of the ‘Unchained Melody.’” The crowd cheered madly. … “This is wrong,” I said, interrupting his conversation. “Festival did not have the top score.” I pointed to the sheet we had used to tabulate the totals. “He finished second.” Carl shrugged. The other two judges were equally disinterested. Festival was given a bouquet of flowers, the cash prize, and received a standing ovation. He was led off the stage, weeping with joy. I later learned why my scorecard did not match reality: Festival was President Bill’s nephew. His guanxi assured his victory.

Levy goes through some mental convolutions figuring out why this result might be justifiable— is it comparable to WWF Wrestling, where the whole contest is scripted anyway?    But it still bothers him in a fundamental way.

The singing contest was another rough lesson in life with Chinese Characteristics. Big Twin had gotten into the contest due to guanxi and lost due to guanxi. Perhaps this was somehow fair, or at least cosmically just….  I couldn’t tell if the Guiyang way made sense and I was just out of my element, or if my fresh eyes were the only ones that could see the gangrenous corruption of the Guizhou system.

Getting back to the core themes of this podcast, there are also a few explicitly political incidents and anecdotes in the book.   Levy points out the various levels of faith in socialism and Communism among the people, with older retirees grateful for their guaranteed but meager living from the government, and younger people anxious about the future.    The fact that people are willing to discuss this topic at all is perhaps a sign of progress, as it’s hard to imagine having these conversations under Mao’s rule.  But it is also clear that the government has unlimited power over private property— one local restaurant is torn down with only a day’s notice for use by the government.    Most likely the owner had not cultivated sufficient guanxi to convince officials to choose another site.   

Government propaganda is still a potent force during Levy’s stay, though the people do not seem to have much faith in it:

There was also a brand-new poster listing President Hu Jintao’s Ba Rong Ba Chi, or “eight Honors and eight Dishonors,” a vague and often-mocked list of political platitudes: LOVE THE COUNTRY; DO IT NO HARM. SERVE THE PEOPLE; [etcetera]…
Hu Jintao promoted these propaganda couplets in a huge national blitz….posters eventually went up at railroad stations, schools, and village entrances across China. My students memorized them and chanted them when Gui Da was inspected by provincial officials. In private, however, they called the campaign the “eight borings, and eight sillies.” I hadn’t met anyone who took them very seriously.

But the funniest incident occurs on election day.   Levy goes looking for his students, who seem to be missing from class, and finds some in an odd place:

I peeked inside and found two students hiding under a desk. They were sharing a bag of soy milk, squatting next to each other and holding hands. I entered the room and saw who they were. “…what are you doing under the desk?” The girls were shocked to hear my voice and jumped up. “Shhh,” they implored me in unison…. “Mike, be quiet. We are hiding because we do not want to vote. But if they catch us avoiding it, we will be punished!” “Why don’t you want to vote?” I asked. Kitten shook her head. “It is better to hide and avoid the problem.”


When Levy follows up, he gets a clearer answer from another student:

“We are told who to vote for. If we don’t listen, our votes are thrown out. The winner has already been chosen.” “Oh,” I grunted. Perhaps singing contests and national elections were both carried out in the WWF tradition. “In that case, why do you bother voting?” “We have to,” said the tall girl as she and the gaggle moved away from me with a surge in the crowd. She yelled a final line before disappearing: “Our class monitors demand it!”

A good quote for us to close on comes from one of Levy’s fellow teachers,who summarizes the prevailing attitude among educated Chinese to recent economic reforms and growing freedom:

“All of this is thanks to the leadership of the Communist Party and Socialism with Chinese Characteristics,” Teacher Qing continued. “We will get rich now and develop and catch the West.  Then we can develop true Communism later.”

Does this mean that in a few years, some new Chinese leader will conclude that there has been enough economic development, and drive another Cultural Revolution to repeal the last few decades of reforms, reclaim the freedom that has been ceded to individuals, and lead the way to “true” Communism”?   I hope not—  but I’m not sure I find Levy’s various observations very reassuring.   If you’ve read about the “social credit system” in recent news articles, it sounds like the guanxi whose abuse Levy observed is now being computerized and expanded throughout the country, truly an ominous development.

[Closing conversation with Manuel].

If you enjoyed these anecdotes, and want to learn more about recent developments in China, be sure to read Levy’s full book, “Kosher Chinese”, available at Amazon through the link in the show notes.   By the way, if you’re enjoying these stories, we would really appreciate some more ratings and reviews at Apple Podcasts or similar sites.   Thanks!

And this has been your Story of Communism for today.



Episode 15: Protesting in Poland

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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.    Manuel and I will be chatting with Wojtek Lisicki, who was one of the local leaders in the Polish Solidarity movement back in 1980-81, before being forced to flee the country in the face of a military crackdown.   As you may recall, Solidarity was one of the most famous anti-Communist popular uprisings of the Cold War.   It was actually the first trade union in the Warsaw Pact not controlled by the government.    After the government declared martial law in 1981, the union was suppressed for several years, but re-emerged during the Gorbachev era to play a key role in Poland’s transition to freedom.

Anyway, let’s listen to the interview.   

I hope you enjoyed that conversation as much as we did— it’s amazing to hear about a critical event in history from someone like Wojtek, who was there in the thick of it as it happened.

By the way, if you have been enjoying this podcast, we could really use your help spreading the word.   Please consider liking our Facebook page, sharing it with your friends, and posting a positive review on Apple Podcasts.    You can find links to these things at http://storiesofcommunism.com .    

And this has been your Story of Communism for today.


  1. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Solidarity_(Polish_trade_union)

Episode 14: Losing Your Humanity

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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 shift our focus to one of the most brutal Communist regimes of the 20th century, the Khmer Rouge rule of Cambodia in the 1970s.   We will be learning about this period through the memoir of Chhalith Ou, who was a young teenager when the Khmer Rouge took over, and eventually made his way to the United States.   He wrote a memoir of his experiences under Communism, called “Spare Them? No Profit— Remove Them? No Loss”.   As you can guess from the  title, the Khmer Rouge basically considered all human lives disposable, in the pursuit of the greater good of a fully Communist society.   Let’s take a look at Chhalith’s  story.

In April 1975, Chhalith and his family lived in Battambang City in Cambodia.   His father worked for the American embassy in Phnom Penh, so the family was mostly prosperous, middle-class and urban.    Life was relatively normal, though there had been some disturbing signs in the city, such as an influx of refugees and skyrocketing prices.   When the Khmer Rouge suddenly entered Phnom Penh, Chhalith’s father fled just in time and joined his family in Battambang, desperately trying to arrange a flight out of the country.    He didn’t manage to get his family away, however, before the airport was closed, and soon the Khmer Rouge army was marching into the city.    As often happens in Communist revolutions, many of their new subjects cheered their entry— there had been serious problems with the previous government, and the new rulers promised a new era of peace and justice.   Chhalith’s father was not fooled, and quickly got the family to work burning anything that could connect him to the Americans.    The next day at school, soldiers escorted all the children into a meeting.

Here in this meeting the Khmer Rouge speaker told us that all of the people had to get out of the city and out onto the farms.  … He outlined the master plan in which all the people in the city had to work on farms to produce rice so that weapons could be purchased with the rice to defend Cambodia against its enemies.  “This war will last a long time,” the speaker said.  “Everybody in the country will now be equal.  There are no longer any rich.  There are no longer any poor.  We will all live in equality.”
This all seemed unreal, crazy really.  I didn’t know what to believe, but these speakers were deadly serious, and for the first time, I was hearing the sayings that would become the mantras by which the Communist Khmer Rouge controlled the people, …
While the speaker was talking to us, the teacher on the stage was pointing at certain teachers in the audience that had voiced opinions against the revolution, and these were quietly removed and did not come back. 

Halleson, R. Z. . Spare Them? No Profit. Remove Them? No Loss. (Kindle Locations 373-383). Kindle Edition. 

Chhalith didn’t see what happened next to the removed teachers, but from his father’s description of the Khmer Rouge’s murderous rampage in Phnom Penh, it was pretty clear that they were executed.   The next day soldiers arrived at the family home to enforce the evacuation order, and the family had to pack up whatever they could carry and leave the city.   Since they could not take farm animals with them, the neighbors who had animals immediately began to kill them all— this made it easy to buy and barter for meat before leaving, but of course would have disastrous long-term effects on the food supply, as we will later see.   The family joined a gigantic march of citizens out of the city, escorted by the Khmer Rouge soldiers.

The streets were jammed with thousands of stunned, scared people, leaving the city, men and women, children getting lost from their parents, and crying babies and toddlers.   It was so crowded that we were bumping into each other and it seemed sometimes as if we were hardly moving. …Khmer Rouge soldiers were stationed all along the road and at checkpoints making sure that no one turned back.  Everyone had to walk or ride in a single direction.  If anyone tried to turn back for any reason, they were shot, sometimes just as an example to scare the people into obedience.

(Kindle Locations 415-419).

Chhalith’s family was actually in a somewhat better position than most of the other urban families being evacuated, in that they were only one generation removed from the agrarian life— his father had grown up on a farm in the area where they were being directed.   Thus, they were able to move onto the farm of his father’s sister and her family, and their relatives helped them to build a bamboo hut and learn about living off the land.   The accommodations were primitive, but at least it looked for the moment like they could survive.   They were in much better shape that the majority of city-dwellers, who were confused by the new situation, had no idea how to handle themselves outside the city, and were sleeping in open fields.   It was a terrifying change, and when soldiers killed a local man named Cheet who had been nice to his family, Chhalith began to fully understand the nature of the new leaders.

When the Khmer Rouge succeeded in conquering the country, they held all the power and could take revenge on whomever they wished.   This was the first time that the meaning of what revenge could look like became clear to me.  I had liked Cheet.  He was a nice man, and now he was dead.  In remembering this incident, I wonder now if the Khmer Rouge had left the wife and children alive because it was so early in the revolution and the soldiers had not yet become the murderous killers that they would become as the years wore on.  Later, nobody connected to targeted victims would survive.  If someone was even suspected of being a traitor to Angkar (the “organization”) the Khmer Rouge murdered the entire family and anyone else suspected of having had ties to the traitor whether related or not.

(Kindle Locations 498-503).

This began a long period of subsistence living on the farm, where his family tried their best to produce, forage, hunt, or trade for enough food to survive, while staying out of the way of the soldiers as much as possible.   They were hungry all the time, but managed to stay alive and together, except for the unfortunate death of his 4 year old sister Vilei in a farming accident.    Of the rice that was produced on the farm, the government confiscated the majority— they were afraid that if anyone had even a little food to spare, they would stock up provisions for a counter-revolutionary army.    During the rainy season, things got even harder, but Chhalith realized how relatively lucky his family was.

Rain fell day and night.  It was a difficult time for my family emotionally.  We didn’t have enough food, not enough medicine, and the place where we slept was not secure enough to keep the water out.  The walls of our hut were made of poles and leaves, and when the wind blew and the rains came, the entire interior of our hut became drenched.
 Sometimes we were so scared, in a panic really, but we looked at the other people, many of whom slept in the wet fields, the people from the city, and we knew we were more fortunate… 

(Kindle Locations 684-691).

…death from exposure and hunger was widespread throughout all of Cambodia, especially among the evacuees from Battambang City, Phnom Penn and other larger towns and cities.  These had been the shopkeepers, the taxi drivers, the teachers, nurses, factory workers, housewives, and all the others who had been born and raised in the city and knew nothing about foraging for food in the country, and who had no knowledge at all of planting and harvesting.  Many had spent months staying in waterlogged fields and in the forest under bushes and trees competing for shelter and food with thousands of others.

(Kindle Locations 1038-1042). Kindle Edition.

Those who survived learned various tricks to gain extra food and supplies and stay alive.  For example, they could trap fish and crabs and sometimes catch rats, satisfying their need for meat.   But poisonous snakes were a constant danger when poking around holes and animal burrows.   The Communists didn’t produce any shoes, so many went barefoot, but Chhalith learned how to make sandals from the tires of abandoned cars.   

Soon new challenges arrived:   the Khmer Rouge soldiers started recruiting village “volunteers” to join collective work teams.   It was clear that if they did not get enough volunteers, the soldiers would be angry, and Chhalith knew what the consequences of that would be— so he and a friend agreed to volunteer together.   Their first assignment was to help with the harvest in areas where there were not enough villagers to do the job.

One day after we had eaten our lunch, I went to visit the village to talk to the people.  I asked the villagers, “Why did you put the seedlings in the ground, but you didn’t have enough people to do the harvest?”  They answered that when they were finished planting, some people moved to other places, and some people died of disease, but others were taken away by Angkar.  They didn’t know what happened to them.

(Kindle Locations 1016-1019).

Later Chhalith’s work teams were assigned to even more difficult tasks, such as building dikes, constructing buildings, and removing trees.   Even in the hot sun or pouring rain, the soldiers forced the constantly hungry work teams to continue at the assigned pace.   As you might guess, this caused the supply of volunteers to dwindle— but the soldiers soon solved that problem by declaring that every single citizen between the ages of 15 and 45 must join the work teams.   The requirements to be loyal only to the State became even more draconian:

“You are the front line working force.  You will eat together, work together, and sleep together.  None of you will go back to live with your family ever again.  You may be able to go back and see them from time to time, but your group is your family now.
 “Get rid of the enemy that lurks inside you.  The old regime taught you to be too individualistic.  From now on, you can only be one with your group.  Destroy the old way so that we can all be equal under Angkar.”  We heard these sayings again and again….
If anybody was seen to be independent, trying to get more for himself, they would be killed because their behavior was not according to the philosophy of the Communists.  If anyone was caught stealing, they were taking something just for themselves, and if they were caught, they were killed.  No mercy.  The same was true about other rules.

(Kindle Locations 1193-1202).

Amazingly, despite this constant atmosphere of fear, Chhalith and some of his work group colleagues still retained a spark of defiance, and took incredible risks to retain some element of their old lives.   At one point, they managed to get an old cassette player working, and spent a few minutes listening to tapes of popular music from a few years before.   Just as they were enjoying their accomplishment, a local Khmer Rouge guard known for his murderous rages, nicknamed Moe, walked in on them.   Fortunately, there were ten people in Chhalith’s group and Moe was alone— afraid for their lives and having nothing to lose, they might possibly have rushed him, sacrificing a few lives to seize his gun.   After sizing up the situation, Moe decided to accept a bribe of food and let the group off with a warning.   But each member of the group was afraid afterwards that Moe would find some other pretext to execute them, and Chhalith made an extra effort to volunteer for work assignments outside the village.

We were scared all the time, all the time.  We trusted no one, but still we had to work together in structured groups for the preservation of ourselves as individuals.  There was no other way…  In the first year, the Khmer Rouge killed any soldiers from any factions that had fought against them.  Then they killed all the family members of these soldiers who had come into the villages.  Next they killed anyone that they thought might start a revolution against them.

(Kindle Locations 1453-1461).

As the population grew sicker and weaker, the soldiers got angrier and angrier at the lack of production.    They tried to hold entire groups accountable when any individual failed to do enough work, but in many cases this was futile:  

…only two people in  a group of ten had shown up to work in the field.  The rest stayed home sick, and these two people had to try and complete the work that ten should have done.  When they went home at the end of the day, they were killed because their group as a whole had failed to perform.  The next day, the rest of the group was still sick, but they had to go out to work anyway.

(Kindle Locations 1577-1579).

All around us, the situation was deteriorating.  Nobody had enough energy, but Angkar made them work more and more to meet its deadlines.  People died in the rice fields, at the building sites, and walking to and from work.  They forced sick people to work.  Whole families died and the dead could not be buried so they just lay there.  We could smell the bodies from a long way away.  People were trying to run away, but the soldiers caught them and killed them.  The people had no more sympathy for the Khmer Rouge or its revolution.  All they wanted was food to eat.

(Kindle Locations 1495-1499).

Chhalith continued to labor on the work crews, his youth and vigor enabling him to survive numerous work assignments that were fatal to the weak and starving.   He had to get used to the constant hunger and disease, the looming threats from the Khmer Rouge soldiers, and the continuous atmosphere of death all around him.   He survived for four years like this, until eventually being felled by a combination of a foot infection and malaria.   Luckily, he was previously known as a good worker, so the Khmer Rouge recognized that he was seriously ill, and sent him to recover with his parents in his village.   

By this time, after four years of Khmer Rouge rule, the regime was beginning to deteriorate in the midst of corruption and factional fighting.  In addition, war began with the neighboring Vietnam.     Incidentally, Vietnamese occupation was not any kind of real deliverance from Khmer Rouge brutality— they were another Communist regime and only slightly less brutal, having murdered about 1 million of their countrymen, as opposed to the Khmer Rouge’s 2 million.   However, with all this chaos going on, families living in the villages were able to go back to their old homes in the cities.   Chhalith and his family returned to Battambang, but soon realized that there was no food coming into the city, so there was no way to survive there long-term. 

Chhalith and his family once again packed all the supplies they could carry, and this time headed to the Thai border.   It was quite a struggle to get across, but eventually they made it to a refugee camp run by the UN, and his father was able to get in contact with Americans who remembered him from his work in Phnom Penh.   Due to this connection, they were able to get accelerated immigration visas, and his family soon began their new life in America.   Chhalith eventually grew up and became a successful banker.    Hopefully this left some of his former Khmer Rouge oppressors spinning in their graves.

<closing conversation with Manuel>

If you want to learn more about what it was like to live firsthand under one of the most brutal Communist regimes of the 20th century, be sure to check out Chhalith Ou’s memoir, “Spare Them? No Profit. Remove Them? No Loss”, linked in the show notes.

And this has been your Story of Communism for today.


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.