Episode 19: Stories of Che

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

You may recall that when discussing our motivations for launching this podcast, we observed our disappointment at young college students unironically wearing Che Guevara T-shirts.   Che Guevara, who was Fidel Castro’s right-hand man when that regime first took control of Cuba, was a bloodthirsty mass murderer, an economic illiterate—- and a darling of American intellectual circles.    Popular columnist I.F. Stone once wrote, “It was out of love, like a perfect knight, that Che had set out. In a sense he was like an early saint.”    The U.S. media universally portrayed him as some kind of hero, bringing justice, freedom, and equality to Cuba— but those who had the misfortune to encounter him personally offer quite a different story.   I was happy to discover a book by Cuban exile Humberto Fontova, “Exposing the Real Che Guevara”, which collects many eyewitness accounts in one place to paint a true picture of what this Communist leader brought to the Cuban people.

By the way, some of the quotes today contain an impolite word referring to human excrement.  To avoid needing an “explicit” tag for this podcast, we are going to substitute the slightly more neutral word “poop” in those cases. 

Anyway, it’s an indisputable fact that mass murders were a key building block of the new Cuba when Che and Castro took over.   The fact that Che was proud of the thousands he ordered killed during these early years of Cuban Communism is a matter of public record.  In a 1964 speech to the UN General Assembly, he bragged about it.

“Executions?… Certainly, we execute!” he declared to the claps and cheers of that august body. “And we will continue executing [emphasis his] as long as it is necessary! This is a war to the DEATH against the Revolution’s enemies!” The Spanish word for death is muerte, and Che rolled the Rs deliciously. The trilling of “mueRRRRTE!” resonated grandly throughout the hall.

Fontova, Humberto. Exposing the Real Che Guevara (p. 2). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

Even in his “Motorcycle Diaries”, the self-serving autobiography that was later made into a Robert Redford movie, Che is unable to hide his love of killing.    In a passage that Redford seems to have omitted, he wrote

“Crazy with fury I will stain my rifle red while slaughtering any enemy that falls in my hands! My nostrils dilate while savoring the acrid odor of gunpowder and blood. With the deaths of my enemies I prepare my being for the sacred fight and join the triumphant proletariat with a bestial howl!”

He and Castro ordered tens of thousands of Cuban citizens into prisons and concentration camps after taking over the country, and executed anyone remotely suspecting of aiding the previous regime or of defying Communist rules.   One survivor named Pierre San Martin wrote of those days:

“…Dozens were led from the cells to the firing squad daily. The volleys kept us awake. We felt that any one of those minutes would be our last. “One morning the horrible sound of that rusty steel door swinging open startled us awake and Che’s guards shoved a new prisoner into our cell. He was a boy, maybe fourteen years old. His face was bruised and smeared with blood. 
‘What did you do?’ we asked, horrified. ‘I tried to defend my papa,’ gasped the bloodied boy. 

‘But they sent him to the firing squad.’ ” Soon Che’s guards returned. The rusty steel door opened and they yanked the boy out of the cell. “We all rushed to the cell’s window that faced the execution pit,” recalls San Martin. “We simply couldn’t believe they’d murder him. “Then we spotted him, strutting around the blood-drenched execution yard with his hands on his waist and barking orders—Che Guevara himself. ‘

“‘Kneel down!’ Che barked at the boy. “ ‘Assassins!’ we screamed from our window. “ ‘I said: KNEEL DOWN!’ Che barked again. “The boy stared Che resolutely in the face. ‘If you’re going to kill me,’ he yelled, ‘you’ll have to do it while I’m standing! Men die standing!’ ” “Murderers!” the men yelled desperately from their cells. “Then we saw Che unholstering his pistol. He put the barrel to the back of the boy’s neck and blasted. The shot almost decapitated the young boy. “We erupted, ‘Murderers!—Assassins!’ Che finally looked up at us, pointed his pistol, and emptied his clip in our direction. Several of us were wounded by his shots.”’

Another of Che’s virtues that was often praised by Western media was his supposed intellectualism and great learning.   Jean-Paul Sartre wrote, “Che is not only an intellectual, he was the most complete human being of our time—our era’s most perfect man.”   Naturally, since Communist theory demands central management of the economy for the good of the people, this meant Che was the perfect choice for Castro to appoint as minister of industries.   We should point out that before the Communist takeover, Cuba was quite a successful economy by world standards— not just for a few rich plutocrats, as Castro’s supporters like to claim— but for average workers.  A 1957 UNESCO report pointed out that the average wage there for an 8-hour workday was larger than in Belgium, Denmark, France, or Germany.   The average Cuban had the third-highest protein consumption in the Western hemisphere.  Thousands of would-be immigrants were on waiting lists for permission to move to Cuba.

Once Che took over the economy, things swiftly went downhill.   The formerly stable Cuban peso became nearly worthless, as Che printed pesos by the millions without concern for consequences or inflation.   He made arbitrary and foolish decisions about where to focus the nation’s resources:   he destroyed productive plantations to create soccer fields, built refrigerator, shovel, and pencil factories in arbitrary locations that never produced a thing, and decided a fleet of Czechoslovakian snow plows would be perfect for harvesting sugar cane.   (They weren’t).   Foreign investment from non-Communist countries vanished, factories closed, and productivity plummeted to the point where rationing was needed— with the average Communist Cuban food ration significantly lower than 19th-century records show slaves were given.  

A good symbol of the overall economic devastation was Che’s visit to one poorly-performing shoe factory, as recalled later by worker Frank Fernandez:

Knowing his “humanistic” reputation, all the factory workers were on their best behavior. “What’s the problem here!” Che barked at the factory foreman. “Why are you turning out shoes that are pure [poop]!” 
The factory foreman looked Minister of Industries Guevara straight in the face. “It’s the glue, it won’t hold the soles to the shoe. It’s that [poop]ty glue you’re buying from the Russians. We used to get it from the U.S.” 
This really stung Che. So he went off on one of his habitual tirades as the factory workers quaked, fearing the worst. Many had lost relatives in La Cabana, or had relatives behind the barbed wire of Che’s pet concentration camp … “Okay, here,” and the foreman handed Che a shoe fresh from the assembly line. “See for yourself.” Che grabbed the sole, pulled, and it came right off like a banana peel. “Why didn’t you report this slipshod glue to anyone at our Ministry of Industries!” Che snapped. 
“We did,” shot back the foreman, “repeatedly, but nothing happened!” Che ordered his ever-present henchmen to grab the insolent foreman. “Now you people figure out how to make these shoes better.” Che glared. “Or the rest of you will get it!” He spun away and stomped off with his captive, who was not seen again.
… It was Guevara, of course, who threw out the prerevolutionary manager of that factory, and banned glue imports from the United States.

The final part of the legend of Che was his supposedly heroic expedition to Bolivia, where he fought a brilliant guerrilla campaign to bring justice to the peasants there before sacrificing his life for them.   But once again, the Western media have been mainly relying on Cuban government propaganda documents for this story.     The support of the local peasantry is summarized nicely by one of the CIA officers who helped track him down:

“You hate to laugh at anything associated with Che, who murdered so many… But when it comes to Che as guerrilla you simply have to. In Bolivia he was unable to recruit one single campesino into his guerrilla ranks!—not one! I fought the Viet Cong, El Salvador’s FMLF, the Sandinistas, and with the Nicaraguan Contras. So I know about guerrilla movements. All of those—especially the Contras—recruited heavily from the rural population. 
“In fact, the few Bolivians Che managed to recruit were actually tricked into joining the guerrilla band. I interviewed several of them… Che had told them to make their way to his camp and meet with him and he’d see to it that they’d be sent to Cuba—and even to Russia and China—for schooling and training. Then when they got to the camp. ‘Cuba?’ Che would frown. ‘Russia? What are you talking about? Who said anything about going there?’ Then Che would hand them a gun and say, ‘Welcome! You’re a guerrilla now. And don’t you dare try to escape or the army will kill you.’

Aside from their other problems, Che had his team had studied the wrong local language, knew little of the local area, and repeatedly got lost in the forest.   His actual diaries give a good picture of the state of his group:

“We walked effectively for five hours straight, and covered from 12-14 kilometers, and came upon a campsite made by Benigno and Aniceto.” These were men in Che’s own vanguard group, evidence they had been walking in circles. “This brings up several questions,” Che asks in his diaries. “Where is the Iquiri River? Perhaps that’s where Benigno and Aniceto were fired upon? Perhaps the aggressors were Joaquin’s people?” In other words, they were not only walking in circles. They were shooting at one another. Che’s masterful Guerrilla Warfare: A Method gives no explanation for these sly guerrilla tactics. But his diaries are often astonishingly frank. “A day of much confusion about our geographic position,” he wrote on May 2. Before he could liberate the continent, Che would have to figure out where he was.

When he was finally captured, the legends say that Che bravely fought until his weapons no longer worked, and surrendered only when there was no other choice.   But the Bolivian officers on the scene tell a different story— while he ordered his men to fight to the death, for which many paid with their lives, Che quickly surrendered despite having a fully loaded clip in his gun. Seeing that he was outnumbered, he saved his own life by loudly proclaiming ““Don’t shoot! I’m Che! I’m worth more to you alive than dead!”   While the CIA agreed he would be worth more alive, local Bolivians had another opinion, and ordered him executed within a few days.

Che’s true nature is no mystery to his victims, the people of Cuba, who openly despise him when away from government eyes.   A former Argentinian communist named Hector Navarro wrote about a visit to Cuba in 1998 where he tried to impress the locals with his Che-like origin:

“A group of young Cuban musicians were playing for us tourists on the beach at Santa Maria,” recalls Navarro. “So I went up to them and announced proudly that I was an Argentinean like Che! ” The musicians stared glumly at Navarro. So he tried again. “I even hung a picture of Che in my office!” he now proclaimed. More blank looks. So Navarro plowed ahead. “I’m from the town of Rosario itself—Che’s birthplace! ”
     Now the musicians went from blank stares to outright frowns. “I certainly wasn’t expecting this kind of thing,” says Navarro. “But I continued, requesting they play a very popular song in Argentina, titled ‘And Your Beloved Presence, Comandante Che Guevara!’ Now every one of them gave me a complete cara de culo (roughly, [poop]face). Only when I whipped out ten U.S. dollars and handed it to them did they start playing, but in a very desultory manner, and still with those sullen looks.” …  “This was the most important trip of my life—otherwise I might have kept believing in socialism and Che. I finally saw with my own eyes and learned that Castro’s and Che’s version was no different from Stalin’s and Ceausescu’s.”

<closing conversation with Manuel>

Anyway, if you read Fontova’s book for yourself, you will see many more stories that eliminate all doubt about the true nature of Che Guevara.   Be sure to share these stories with any teenager you see wearing that notorious face on their T-shirt.

By the way, we’d like to thank listener “rinthatsit” for posting a nice review on Apple Podcasts.   If you’re enjoying the podcast, be sure to post a rating or review yourself, to help us spread the word!

And this has been your story of communism for today.


Episode 18: The True Believer

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

After a few more heavy episodes, it’s once again time for us to look into the darkly humorous world of Communist satire.   We will be focusing on Soviet-Russian author Vladimir Voinovich’s last major novel, “Monumental Propaganda”.   Voinovich was an interesting figure, having been born in 1932 and thus lived through most of the major eras of 20th-century Russian history, starting with the Stalin years.    He started writing humorous novels during the Khrushchev thaw of the 1960s, but once Brezhnev gained power and started a return to more traditional Communism, his books could no longer be published in his country.    He successfully continued writing secret samizdat novels and having them published in the west, but this led to harassment by authorities and his eventual exile in 1980.   He continued writing though, and returned home in 1990.

“Monumental Propaganda” focuses on a life that occurs over roughly the same time period as Voinovich’s own, but the central character is quite different from the author.   Aglaya Stepanovna Revkina is a local Communist official in the small city of Dolgov, who assisted in the mass arrest of the “kulaks”, or successful farmers, and then fought in World War II.    The book begins in the late 1940s, in the aftermath of the war.  Like many local officials, Aglaya successfully lobbies to have a large statue of Joseph Stalin put in the town square.   She is totally devoted to the great leader, and completely sincere in her desire to honor him.  The statue turns out to be very well designed— almost too good, to the point of frightening its viewers.   Of course, nobody can actually admit they are scared of him without dire consequences:

…one day an influential member of the Politburo came to Dolgov specially to see whether it would be worth transferring the monumental masterpiece to Moscow. Upon arriving in the square accompanied by Kuzhelnikov and looking at the statue, he also experienced quite evident agitation, and when he recovered, he said: “We don’t want any of that!” And once again the matter went no further than a review of personnel: Kuzhelnikov was removed from his position and sent off as an ambassador to somewhere in Africa. But a short while later this Politburo member himself disappeared mysteriously, and precisely because of that phrase “We don’t want any of that!” The phrase was reported to Stalin, and Stalin took the words “We don’t want any of that!” as a reference to himself, not the sculpture, following which the Politburo member vanished and his name was dropped from various lists, textbooks, reference works and encyclopedias, so that now not even the historians are able to say for certain whether he ever really existed or not.

Voinovich, Vladimir. Monumental Propaganda (p. 15). Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group. Kindle Edition. 

Unfortunately, after Stalin dies a few years later and Khrushchev reveals his crimes to the world, people’s attitudes towards him begin to change.   Suddenly people are openly discussing what was previously only the topic of whispers, the millions of lives destroyed and the economic devastation created by Stalin’s policies.  Aglaya suffers a moral conflict when she is asked to remove the great leader’s name from a propaganda poster— she simply can’t accept the change in attitude.  While she has happily helped erase memories of thousands of other people imprisoned or censured by the government, Stalin lives in a category of his own:

…two loves still dwelt in her heart in perfect harmony: love for Stalin and love for the Party. But now she was being urged to commit an act that she absolutely could not justify with any theories. Now everything had been said clearly and unambiguously and she faced a stark choice: to stick with the Party or stick with Stalin. An impossible, unnatural choice. For her, Stalin was the Party, and the Party was Stalin. For her, Stalin and the Party together were the people, the honor and the conscience of the entire country, and her own conscience as well.

Along the way, Voinovich includes numerous vignettes highlighting the failures and contradictions of Soviet society.    Does Communism truly eliminate social classes and make all people equal?   Well, here’s how the officials reason:

…it would have been genuinely indecent for the Party’s nomenklatura workers to live in poor-quality houses, but even more indecent for them to live in communal flats. And not just because the Party’s nomenklatura workers did not know how to coexist in crowded conditions, but because then the details of their lives would have become known to simple Soviet people and that must never happen. Living apart from other citizens, the nomenklatura of those times (just like its counterpart in these times) had to appear and did appear to be a special breed of people, superior, mysterious and possessed of the entire body of human knowledge. … They understood the secrets of our being, what was and what would be, but they had no interests apart from constant concern for the good of the motherland and our well-being. And if they needed living conditions a little better than ours, then it was exclusively in order that they might think about us without being distracted by anything irrelevant.

He also has a gift for anecdotes about the minor absurdities of Soviet life, as in this stomach-churning summary of the mid-century sanitation system:

On the outskirts of town people still simply relieved themselves in the open air, but nearer the center the public was a little more civilized and made use of communal facilities designed for this purpose—in the form of little planking sheds with two separate entrances and two doors that were often torn off their hinges, one of which bore the letter M and the other the letter W. Naturally, in these little sheds (the younger generations perhaps cannot even picture this) on both the M side and the W side the wooden floor was embellished with a dozen or so large holes in a long row and soft heaps deposited haphazardly around them, as though the bombardment had not been conducted point-blank, but from long-range guns, and shots had fallen short or overshot the target…
Alexei Mikhailovich Makarov, also known as the Admiral, used to say that if it was up to him to decide what monument to erect to our Soviet era, he would not have commemorated Stalin or Lenin or anyone else, but the Unknown Soviet Man squatting like an eagle on the peak of a tall mountain (Mount Communism) deposited by himself.

These issues, of course, mean nothing to Aglaya.  She never wavers in her faith in Stalin, and is horrified when the local Party committee votes to remove the statue from the town square, to be disposed of or melted down.   

“Metal?” Aglaya cried indignantly. “You call this metal? It’s a monument to Comrade Stalin. We all erected it together, all the people. We put it up when folks had no bread to eat and nothing to feed their children with. We denied ourselves everything to put it up here. And you’re dragging it through the mud like some lump of pig-iron. You ought to be ashamed of yourself!”

Rather than let the great statue of Stalin be destroyed, she insists on having it moved to her own living room.   Her neighbors are a bit concerned that the giant metal statue might be too heavy for the floor to support, in addition to being creeped out by having a giant Stalin in their midst, but still she manages to get it dragged in.   She then finds she has to pay a series of regular bribes to her building manager, local permitting inspectors, and similar figures to be allowed to keep it there, eventually melting away all her modest savings, but puts up with this without complaints.   The statue dominates her living room for the rest of her life.      She cares for the statue better than she cared for her own children:

As she washed, she spoke words that her own son had never heard from her. “Now,” she intoned, “we’ll wash your nice hair, wash your lovely eyes and nose, and then your ears, then your shoulders and your chest and back and tummy . . .” Until she reached the place where the flaps of the greatcoat were parted to reveal the lower edge of the jacket and immediately below it the spot from which the legs began. Aglaya suddenly felt embarrassed. The spot, as a matter of fact, was smooth, the way it could only have been in a being that was either female or entirely sexless. And for some reason Aglaya felt strangely perplexed by this. She suddenly wondered—and felt angry with herself for doing it, but her doubts still remained—what had the living Comrade Stalin had at this spot? She was unable to think of him as having something at that spot, but to imagine that there hadn’t been anything proved even harder. She abused herself, calling herself a fool and an old fool for having any such thoughts at all.

Despite her past willingness to destroy people’s lives for deviating from the officially dictated party line, which can change from day to day, she cannot be moved on the topic of her idol.   Stalin will forever be her hero, role model, and guide.  In an angry letter she berates her son Marat for accepting the new reality:

“When Stalin was alive, I can’t remember anyone ever saying there was anything about Stalin they didn’t like. Everyone said the same thing: A genius, a great commander. Our father and teacher. The luminary of all the sciences. Did they really not believe what they were saying? Were they all really lying? I don’t understand—when were these people being sincere, now or then?”

When her son visits and complains about the statue making him and his wife nervous, their relationship deteriorates even further:

“Mom, what’s wrong with you?” said Marat, trying to calm her down. He even held out his arms to give her a hug. “I’m not talking about Stalin himself, I mean that idiotic sculpture. It’s not a man, it’s an idol—” “Ah, it’s an idol!” Aglaya flared up. “How dare you! Take your hands off me! . . . How dare you say that about the man who means more to me than—” “Mom!” Marat appealed to her one more time. “I’m not your mom!” she yelled. “And you’re no son of mine! Clear out the pair of you and don’t let me ever see you again!” “Mom,” mumbled Marat. “I just don’t get it, why are you so—” “Get out!” said Aglaya, and pushed him in the chest…
“Get out!” Aglaya repeated, and pushed him in the back. Then she slammed the door shut, turned the key in the lock and went into the sitting room, prepared to cry her eyes out. But glancing by chance at the statue, she froze. Stalin was gazing at her so expressively that she had no difficulty in reading complete approval of her courageous act in his eyes.

Aglaya’s stubbornness begins to get her into trouble when a local Party meeting takes a vote to approve the condemnation of Stalin and the party’s new direction.  For the first time ever, she dares to abstain from a vote of approval called by a local chairman:

Everyone immediately threw their hands up in the air and … cried out: “We approve! We approve! We wholeheartedly and absolutely approve!” “Whosagainstabstained?” Nechaev asked quickly, running the words together without waiting for any answer. He had already opened his mouth to utter the customary “Carried unanimously” when suddenly… he had already noticed a slim arm raised in the back row like a solitary blade of grass swaying in the breeze. … “You? Aglaya Stepanovna? How is this possible? Are you abst—are . . . you abstaining?”

The other party members are horrified at her actions, but in many cases, it’s not for exactly the reasons you would suspect:

…the whole business smacked of nothing less (how terrible even to utter the words!) than ideological sabotage. And all sorts of checks and purges would begin in the district. Involving the elucidation of who had stolen how much from where. Or taken a bribe from somebody. Or given somebody a poke in the face. Or taken and given. And although the delegates at the Dolgov conference were all to a man absolutely devoted to… the latest instructions from the highest levels of the Party, to claim that none of them had ever stolen anything, or given anybody a bribe, or taken a bribe from anybody or entered a fake item in the accounts, or written off an item and pocketed the money, would have been excessive. But the more a man stole, the more intransigent he was in the area of ideology.

As a result, everyone in the room begins to loudly condemn Aglaya.  After this, she fully expects the police to come and carry her off to a Gulag camp or something worse.   Despite having maintained for years that anyone sentenced to these harsh punishments under Stalin must have clearly deserved them for endangering the glorious future being implemented by the leadership, in her own case she suddenly sees a flaw in the system.   But as a further irony, due the post-Stalin thaw, things are no longer quite that bad:  while she loses her position and Party membership, she is not arrested.    Yet there are still numerous consequences in her personal life:  while in bed with her, her boyfriend suddenly realizes that he may be committing an ideological error, and suddenly has to loudly announce that he condemns her political position before leaving. 

The novel continues to walk us through several further eras of Soviet and Russian history, all with the great statue of Stalin staring down at Aglaya in her living room.   Out of favor during the post-Stalin period of reform, she suddenly finds herself again with friends and allies when Brezhnev takes over and attempts to restore more traditional communism.   The Party even sends her on a luxurious vacation.   Then her fortunes are again reversed in the 1980s, as the Gorbachev reforms take hold.   After Communism falls,  she finds herself courted by the new, supposedly democratic Communist Party as it gains popularity in local elections.    They find new ways to rationalize their excuses of past crimes:  

“You know, as a historian, I take an unbiased view of the figure of Stalin. Under Stalin’s leadership great mistakes were made. Mistakes, well anybody can make mistakes, but viewed against the course of the historical process, they naturally don’t appear so significant. Especially, well, you know they say Stalin killed so many millions. But we’re realists. We realize that if he hadn’t, sooner or later those millions would have died anyway.”

In the end, Aglaya and her statue die together, in an explosion caused by the wars between post-Soviet gangsters.

As always, we’ve only been able to touch on a few highlights of the story— you really need to read the book to get a full sense of the colorful and whimsical cast of Soviet neighbors who pass through the decades along with Aglaya.   We hear about Party and military officials, loyalists and dissidents, and ordinary neighbors and drunks, each of whom copes in their own way with the various changes to Soviet Communism after Stalin.   If you enjoyed this podcast, be sure to check out Vladimir Voinovich’s “Monumental Propaganda”, as well as his other novels, for yourself.

And this has been your story of communism for today.


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

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.

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.