Episode 7: A Child In Cuba

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

Today we’re going to discuss the memoir “Cuba:  Another Side of the Story:  Memoirs of a Cuban Childhood”, by Iris M. Diaz.    After a comfortable early childhood in economically growing but authoritarian mid-century Cuba, Diaz lived through Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution and eventually fled to the United States.    It’s an honest, poignant memoir that isn’t focused on politics, but centers around her own personal story, and how she made her way in a world that radically transformed around her.    But her relatively sparse comments about politics and life through Cuba’s transition to Communism do still tell us a lot about what those changes mean for a country.

The memoir begins with Diaz’s experiences as a young child.  
El barrio was a mixture of the wealthy, middle class, and poor; a reflection of what Cuban society was like in the 1950s.   Everyone lived under the same sun, moon, and stars but our worlds were very different.   We lived in the middle class section, surrounded by a few affluent families who kept to themselves and the unlucky ones who had to live in … an old abandoned mansion two blocks from our apartment…  As I grew to become more independent, I played with both the rich and the poor, learned to communicate with both but never felt I belonged to either.  (p.21)

Diaz shares many of her memories about her friends and neighbors, the groups of children playing in the street, local attractions like the ice cream carts and nearby beach, and crazy city characters she liked to people-watch.     Her father was usually absent, but she lived with her mother and her grandmother, who she was very close to.   They sent her to a series of private bilingual schools, which taught her both Spanish and English, a fortunate choice which opened up many opportunities later.    As a young child, she didn’t personally worry too much about the political unrest on the island, which had already begun:

Cuban politics for me was like an intermittent static noise in the middle of a concert.   It was there, but my everyday routine masked what was brewing in the background.   I would see pictures of bombings or political prisoners brutally tortured…  but the pictures did not invade my reality…  Those were my years of innocence.  [p.35]

It was clear that there were some serious problems in the country, with a vast gap between the rich and the poor.   Diaz felt an obligation to help the ragged beggars who showed up at her church every Sunday, and felt sad when she saw how shabbily her nanny’s family lived compared to hers.  In any case, within a few years there seemed to be an implicit agreement among large numbers of people of all classes that the dictator Batista’s government was not working, and something had to change.     

As  Fidel Castro’s Communist revolution heated up, violence grew on both sides.   Finally, on New Year’s Eve of 1958, Batista fled the island, and Castro had won.   But many Cubans soon realized that despite his lofty promises, they had just exchanged a cruel monarch for one that was even worse. 

How were we really doing? We were losing our sanity. Many had become blind followers of a man who preached lawlessness and murder. That night the crowd repeatedly interrupted Castro’s speech with cries of “¡Paredón! ¡Paredón!” They were yelling what Castro wanted to hear. I heard them and couldn’t believe how easy it was for them to yell, “¡Paredón, paredón!” (Shoot them all, against the wall, kill them all!) Under Fidel’s spell, crowds of Cubans had become insensitive to the act of murder.  (p.126)

By this time, Diaz was in high school.   Under the previous governments, there had been lively political discussion among her neighbors and classmates— but that quickly came to an end.   If even a child was heard to utter something disloyal, their entire family would now be in grave danger:

Overnight there was a bizarre transformation in the Cuban soul. … Anyone suspected of being a traitor was harassed. Neighbors would stand around their homes and chant, “¡Gusanos, que se vayan!” (“Worms must leave!”) Gusanos means worms, but Castro gave it a new meaning, the lowliest of creatures, a traitor. Those accused of treason could not do anything but listen to the chant and pray the milicianos wouldn’t show up to take them to jail.  If the milicianos showed up, the chant changed to “Paredón, shoot them all, against the wall, kill them all!” The family was taken to prison and the neighbors, after having yelled the bloody revolutionary chant would go home with the feel of blood on their hands. (p.136)

…Neighborhood spies turned you in to the police whenever they felt like it. The police didn’t need proof to arrest anyone. They could throw you in jail just for improper conduct or suspicious behavior. The spies turned in anyone they felt like because they were rewarded for each man or woman they turned in to the authorities. Neighbors turned against neighbors, children turned against parents. No one could be trusted. (p.141)

Aside from the political dangers, another consequence of Communism was the collapse of basic infrastructure.   Tiny details that even the poorest can take for granted in a functioning society, like bus services, food in the stores, and a working electrical grid, started to fade away.   Diaz’s family tried to cope with this using humor, creating a set of new jokes based on their situation:

“Did you know that SOB Fidel is changing the Cuban language? He calls city buses aspirins, because they only show up every four hours.”…
“Oye, I got a better one, do you know why they call steaks Jesus Christ? Because people talk about them, but nobody sees them.
“Do you know why refrigerators are now called coconuts? No? Well, because the only thing you’ll find inside is water.”  (p.157)

Diaz engaged in a few minor acts of rebellion, conspiring with a neighbor boy to gradually save up tiny amounts of spare food and medical supplies for a supposed anti-Castro revolution.    But when her grandmother caught her, the whole family was horrified at what might happen to them, and decided they needed to send her to the United States as soon as possible.   After the failed Bay of Pigs counter-revolution, Castro’s men had become even more aggressive in seeking out potential traitors, arresting people by the tens of thousands.   

Sending Diaz away to the United States was not easy:  American money was required to buy the plane tickets, and that was very hard and expensive to obtain in Communist Cuba.   After months of struggling, her mother managed to get the money, and got the plane ticket.   Diaz;s case was not unique:  parents all over Cuba were desperate to get their children out of the country as soon as possible.   And their fears were justified, since it would not be too long until travel was totally cut off, making every Cuban citizen effectively a prisoner.   

During this period, the government already laid claim to everything its citizens owned;  travelers like Diaz were only allowed to leave with five dollars to start her new life.   They were not even allowed to carry any valuables that they might be able to sell.   As she left, she was stripped of her grandmother’s ring, which looked like it might be worth more than that.   Can you imagine starting a new life in a new country with only five dollars in your pocket?   

The final part of the memoir doesn’t deal with politics very much.    With the help of some generous relatives who took her in, Diaz managed to finish high school and college in the U.S.    After a brief attempt to become a nun, she moved to New York and began a series of jobs in theater and entertainment.   And finally she achieved her own happy ending:  she realized her lifelong dream of buying a small farm with horses on which to live out her retirement years.

[Closing conversation with Manuel]

Diaz mentions a nice quote by 19th-century revolutionary Jose Marti, which summarizes her view of the Cuban revolution:

“Socialist ideology, like so many others, has two main dangers. One stems from confused and incomplete readings of foreign texts, and the other from the arrogance and hidden rage of those who, in order to climb up in the world, pretend to be frantic defenders of the helpless so as to have shoulders on which to stand on.”  [p.121]

To learn more about her experiences and the Cuban revolution, be sure to check out the book for yourself: “Cuba:  Another Side of the Story:  Memoirs of a Cuban Childhood, “  by Iris M. Diaz.

This concludes your Story of Communism for today.


Episode 6: Willful Ignorance

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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’ve probably heard news reports of numerous cases where some celebrity visits a brutal dictatorship, is given an official, prearranged tour by its leaders, and comes back to announce how successful and prosperous they are.   Naturally, if given enough time and budget to prepare, anyone can create a pretty facade no matter how dismal the actual reality.    I doubt too many people are really fooled by such staged events, but if the celebrity enters with an initial idea that they are there to show how great the system is, they will easily have their preconceived notions confirmed.   Today we are going to discuss one of these cases.    Our topic is author Maxim Gorky’s visit to the Solovki Island labor camp, one of the founding camps of Stalin’s Gulag, as retold in Volume 2 of Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago.

The Solovki camp was a remote logging camp, on an island in the North Sea, built around an old monastery repossessed by the Soviet state.   It can be looked back on as a prototype for the Gulag, as it was one of the regime’s earliest prison camps, and it pioneered many of the worst elements of that system.   They put undersupplied prisoners in overcrowded conditions, made unreasonable labor demands, and freely tortured prisoners when they disobeyed or failed to work hard enough.   The guards introduced many cruel torments when the inmates failed to fall in line:

“And here.is how they kept the punishment cells: Poles the thickness of an arm were set from wall to wall and prisoners were ordered to sit on these poles all day. (At night they lay on the floor, one on top of another, because it was overcrowded.) The height of the poles was set so that one's feet could not reach the ground. And it was not so easy to keep balance. In fact, the prisoner spent the entire day just trying to maintain his perch. If he fell, the jailers jumped in and beat .him… [p.36]
“Or they might put the prisoners on a sharp- edged boulder on which one could not stay long either. Or, in summer, "on the stump," which meant naked among the mosquitoes. And then they could put whole companies out in the .snow for disobedience. Or they might drive a person into the marsh muck up to his neck and keep him there. And then there was another way: to hitch up a horse in empty shafts and fasten the culprit's legs to the shafts; then the guard mounted the horse and kept on driving the horse through a forest cut until the groans and the cries from behind simply came to an end. “ [p.38]

Unfortunately for the Soviet leaders, they made one key mistake:   due to its convenient location, they decided to sell surplus lumber from Solovki to foreign ships arriving at the nearby port at Kem.   One day when prisoners were loading a foreign ship, a prisoner who secretly could speak English managed to tell his story to some sailors.   They hid him on the ship, carefully concealing him when the incensed guards came to search for the missing prisoner, and managed to successfully transport him to England.   Once there, he published a book, called “An Island Hell”,  about the abuses at Solovki.    This book created a bit of a public outcry, though leftist intellectuals were quick to dismiss it as nonsense.   But Stalin decided they had to do something about this bad publicity, and promised that a commission led by Maxim Gorky would investigate.

Maxim Gorky was an internationally known author, and had been seen as one of the guiding lights of the Russian Revolution.   He had written numerous novels sympathetically portraying Russia’s poor, and had been a long-term socialist and early friend of Lenin.   After the Revolution, however, he was very critical of Lenin’s growing authoritarianism, and ended up leaving the country.   In 1932, Gorky apparently was growing increasingly homesick, and Stalin offered him an amnesty and promise of a high-paying position if he would return.   Some have insinuated that what Gorky really wanted was a life of wealth and luxury— despite his success as an author, his work was not generating enough profit in the West to offer him a truly elite lifestyle.    In any case, Gorky returned to the Soviet Union, where he was given awards and a mansion, but remained in favor with both the international community and with Stalin.   Thus, he seemed like a perfect candidate to report the truth about Solovki.’

Now of course, the Western intellectuals who trusted Gorky were being a bit naive— there’s no way anyone under Stalin’s power could really be free to say something negative, if applicable, about the Soviet regime.   Nevertheless, the officials of the prison camp were ordered to make things appear pleasant and humane, so Gorky could report back to the international community with positive findings.   For the purpose of Gorky’s visit, model areas of the prison were set up with improved conditions, supplies, and the healthiest-looking prisoners.    But it was hard to time these things precisely back then, and they had an almost comical near- disaster during Gorky’s journey to the camp: 

On Popov Island the ship Gleb Boky was being loaded by prisoners in underwear and sacks, when Gorky's retinue appeared out of nowhere to embark on that steamer! … Where can this disgraceful spectacle— these men dressed in sacks— be hidden? The entire journey of the great Humanist will have been for naught if he sees them now. Well, of course, he will try hard not to notice them, but help him! … only a worthy son of the Archipelago could find. a way out of this one. The work assigner ordered: "Stop work! Close ranks! Still closer! Sit down on the ground! Sit still!" And a tarpaulin was thrown over them. "Anyone who moves will be shot!" And the former stevedore Maxim Gorky ascended the ship's ladder and admired the landscape from the steamer for a full hour till sailing time - and he didn't notice! “  [p, 61]

That crisis having been successfully averted, Gorky and his entourage were then led to meet with the model prisoners.   Indeed, they seemed healthy, happy, and well-fed, as far as Gorky could tell.   Everyone played their proper role initially, except for a minor glitch:

And what was there to see there? It turned out that there was no overcrowding in the punishment cells, and-,-the main point-no poles. None at all. Thieves sat on benches … and they were all ... reading newspapers. None of them was so bold as to get up and complain, but they did think up one trick: they held the newspapers upside down! And Gorky went up to one of them and in silence turned the newspaper right side up! He had noticed it! He had understood!  [p.62]
Gorky then moved on to the “Children’s Colony”, where the younger inmates were held, and began making polite conversation with the prisoners. But everyone was shocked as one of them, a teenage boy, went off-script:

And all of a sudden a.fourteen-year-old boy said: "Listen here, Gorky! Everything you see here is false. Do you want to know the truth?  Shall I tell you?" Yes, nodded the writer. Yes,_he wanted to know the truth. ..   And so everyone was ordered to leave, including the children … and the boy spent an hour and a half telling the whole story to the lanky old man. Gorky left the barracks, streaming tears.  [p.62]
After his talk with the boy, Gorky continued his tour.   He undoubtedly knew the boy would be punished severely after he left.   With his fame and power, couldn’t Gorky have arranged to take the boy with him, or at least threaten the guards and try to extort a commitment for his safety, at least until he could follow up?    But he did none of those things, finishing his tour as if nothing had happened.    What happened in the prison afterwards was as you would expect:  as soon as Gorky was gone, the boy was shot.    His name was not even recorded for posterity— none of the surviving prisoners who told the tale could remember it.   And as for Gorky?  

And he did publish his statement, and it was republished over and over in the big free press, both our own and that of the West… claiming it was nonsense to frighten people with Solovki, and that prisoners lived remarkably well there and were being well reformed.  [p.63]
Solzhenitsyn thought that Gorky’s primary motivations were his luxuries and perks as a senior member of Stalin’s regime, similar to what we saw in Sidney Rittenberg’s reflections on his life under Mao in China, which we discussed a few episodes ago.  A more sympathetic interpretation might be that Gorky simply acted out of fear, not seeing any way he could get the truth out without ending up as in such a camp himself.   However, there are some other reports of a different nature:  Gorky was a broken man after Solovki, and descended into depression and eventual death out of guilt over his actions that day.   The tale of Gorky’s last days is actually a fascinating story in itself, which we may explore in a future episode.    

<closing conversation with Manuel>

In any case, next time you hear about a celebrity traveling to a socialist or communist country and praising their virtues, think really hard about what they are saying.  Did they really spend enough time there, out of the control of their official handlers, to make an informed judgement?  And are they so committed to the ideology that they would conceal the truth, like Gorky did, if directly confronted with it?

This concludes your Story of Communism for today.


Episode 5: A Prophetic Warning

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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.
Some of you might be skeptical that today’s topic really belongs in this podcast.   On the other hand, one might argue that this topic is absolutely essential.   I’m talking about Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic 1871 novel, “The Possessed”, sometimes also translated as “The Demons” or “The Devils”.   You’re probably aware that Dostoyevsky was one of the greatest novelists of the 19th century, but most of his writing occurred around half a century before the Russian Revolution.   So how does Dostoyevsky fit into a podcast about Communism?

Actually, the Communist movements that culminated in the Russian Revolution had begun around Dostoyevsky’s time, starting in the first half of the 19th century.   When Marx’s
Communist Manifesto was published in 1848, it was just one of many revolutionary “manifestos” describing how a perfect society could be obtained by replacing current unjust governments with various forms of socialism.    A young Dostoyevsky was caught up in one of these radical movements, and was arrested in 1849 for spreading subversive literature.   He spent several years at hard labor in a Tsarist prison and exile as a result— a few episodes ago, you may recall that we mentioned his memoir of this period, “The House of the Dead”. 

But by the time Dostoyevsky wrote “The Possessed”, in the 1860s, he had started to see a number of dangers inherent in these movements.   Young “nihilists” were so sure of their ideas that they would stop at nothing to implement them, and could justify any act of destruction or violence.   This novel contains a number of shockingly accurate predictions about how these Communist revolutionaries would come to power, and what they would do with this power once they obtained it.   That’s why we believe it fits nicely into this podcast’s topic:   Dostoyevsky was one of the first witnesses to clearly depict the philosophy and mindset of those who would, only a generation after his death, control the fate of the Russian people.   He predicted the fomenting of chaos, the destruction of existing institutions like churches, the use of fear and mutual suspicion to control the population, the cults of personality, and the ultimate necessity of mass murder to cement the Communist system in place.

Summarizing the plot of The Possessed can be a bit tricky.   Like all great novels, it has many layers, and here we’re trying to concentrate on one specific aspect:  its political predictions about Communism.   Also, as is common in 19th-century Russian literature, there are dozens of active characters, again far too many to accurately summarize in this podcast.    At its core, the novel describes a presumably typical Russian town full of ordinary people, with a sparkling of well-meaning liberals and socialists hoping to bring about change.   Cynical, manipulative revolutionary Pyotr Verkhovensky arrives in town, and quickly starts working behind the scenes to cause chaos and tension, while quietly assembling a small group, a “quintet”, of dedicated revolutionaries.   At the climax of the novel, he arranges for the quintet to participate in an act of murder.

The desire to foment chaos was apparent in Verkhovensky’s followers from the beginning, and they are not shy about admitting it. 

“…it was with the idea of systematically undermining the foundations, systematically destroying society and all principles; with the idea of nonplussing every one and making hay of everything, and then, when society was tottering, sick and out of joint, cynical and sceptical though filled with an intense eagerness for self-preservation and for some guiding idea, suddenly to seize it in their hands, raising the standard of revolt and relying on a complete network of quintets, which were actively, meanwhile, gathering recruits and seeking out the weak spots which could be attacked.” [p.631]
As one would expect, this general idea to destroy society and build it anew would require, among other things, the destruction of the churches, ironically out of fear that religion would “brutalize” people:

"But here, for instance, is an incitement to destroy churches…  you know perfectly well that you need religion to brutalise the people. Truth is honester than falsehood... ." ...""And how can you be an official of the government after that, when you agree to demolishing churches, and marching on Petersburg armed with staves, and make it all simply a question of date?"
With the original institutions of the nation destroyed, Dostoyevsky’s revolutionaries would be faced with the question of how to influence and control the people.   One aspect of their solution would be to use mutual fear and shame to keep people under control:

Every member of the society spies on the others, and it's his duty to inform against them. Every one belongs to all and all to every one. All are slaves and equal in their slavery. In extreme cases he advocates slander and murder, but the great thing about it is equality.  [p.384]
…And the most important force of all— the cement that holds everything together— is their being ashamed of having an opinion of their own. That is a force! And whose work is it, whose precious achievement is it, that not one idea of their own is left in their heads! They think originality a disgrace.”  [p.363]
This method culminates in Verkhovensky’s murder plot.   While he claims the murder is necessary because their victim, Shatov, is planning to inform the police about their movement, he reveals a more important motive to a confidante:

“All that business of titles and sentimentalism is a very good cement, but there is something better; persuade four members of the circle to do for a fifth on the pretense that he is a traitor, and you'll tie them all together with the blood they've shed as though it were a knot. They'll be your slaves, they won't dare to rebel or call you to account. Ha ha ha! “
When people are tied together in this way, it’s not a surprise that the most manipulative and bloodthirsty ones would end up in control.   Dostoyevsky eerily predicts how in the name of ‘“equality”, the vast majority of the population will effectively become slaves:

…The one thing wanting in the world is discipline. The thirst for culture is an aristocratic thirst. The moment you have family ties or love you get the desire for property. We will destroy that desire; we'll make use of drunkenness, slander, spying; we'll make use of incredible corruption; we'll stifle every genius in its infancy. We'll reduce all to a common denominator! Complete equality! … But it needs a shock. That's for us, the directors, to look after. Slaves must have directors. Absolute submission, absolute loss of individuality, but once in thirty years Shigalov would let them have a shock and they would all suddenly begin eating one another up, to a certain point, simply as a precaution against boredom.   [p.395]
.… In every period of transition this riff-raff, which exists in every society, rises to the surface, and is not only without any aim but has not even a symptom of an idea, and merely does its utmost to give expression to uneasiness and impatience. Moreover, this riff-raff almost always falls unconsciously under the control of the little group of "advanced people" who do act with a definite aim, and this little group can direct all this rabble as it pleases, if only it does not itself consist of absolute idiots, which, however, is sometimes the case.  [p.432]
At one point, Dostoyevsky might arguably be predicting the eventual rise of Stalin’s and Mao’s cults of personality, as he describes the mindset of Erkel, one of Verkhovensky’s followers:

A craving for active service was characteristic of this shallow, unreflecting nature, which was for ever yearning to follow the lead of another man's will, of course for the good of "the common" or "the great" cause. Not that that made any difference, for little fanatics like Erkel can never imagine serving a cause except by identifying it with the person who, to their minds, is the expression of it.  [p.540]
In addition, the expectation of mass murder as a necessary tool to truly destroy the old institutions and put the new system in place is a theme that recurs several times in the book.  You have to enjoy the typical Communist doublespeak of the need for mass murder being part of a “Peace Congress”:

“And, indeed, he rejects morality itself altogether, and holds with the last new principle of general destruction for the sake of ultimate good. He demands already more than a hundred million heads for the establishment of common sense in Europe; many more than they demanded at the last Peace Congress.”  [p.79]
“It's urged that, however much you tinker with the world, you can't make a good job of it, but that by cutting off a hundred million heads and so lightening one's burden, one can jump over the ditch more safely.” [p.383]
Several other well-known flaws of the Communist system are also predicted in the novel.   He accurately foresees that the idealists who supposedly fix society by removing greed and materialism will themselves end up closely guarding their perks, including property and material privileges, under the new system:

”Why is it, as I've noticed," Stepan Trofimovitch whispered to me once, "why is it that all these desperate socialists and communists are at the same time such incredible skinflints, so avaricious, so keen over property, and, in fact, the more socialistic, the more extreme they are, the keener they are over property ... why is it?” [p.64]
Dostoyevsky also shines a critical eye on the idea that Communism is somehow “scientific”, and that logic and reason demand its implementation as the next stage of societal progress:

Reason has never had the power to define good and evil, or even to distinguish between good and evil, even approximately; on the contrary, it has always mixed them up in a disgraceful and pitiful way; science has even given the solution by the fist. This is particularly characteristic of the half-truths of science, the most terrible scourge of humanity, unknown till this century, and worse than plague, famine, or war. A half-truth is a despot .. such as has never been in the world before. A despot that has its priests and its slaves, a despot to whom all do homage with love and superstition hitherto inconceivable, before which science itself trembles and cringes in a shameful way.  [p.233]
[Closing conversation]

It’s pretty amazing to us that all these words, which might be said to accurately describe events and philosophies of the Communist regimes of the 20th century, were written almost fifty years before the Russian Revolution.     And  it’s especially important in light of the arguments we hear about discussions like this podcast being “unfair” to Communism,  due to stressing examples of particular corrupt, failed implementations of the system.   Some say the problems are not with the system or ideas, but just with particularly poor implementations of Communism in the 20th century.    But ask yourself this:  if destructiveness, totalitarianism, bloodthirstiness, and human cruelty were not inherent to Communism, but just were the faults of particular leaders, how is it that Dostoyevsky was able to predict all these abuses, purely based on his experience with Communist and socialist philosophy, half a century in advance of them actually being implemented?     
As biographer Ronald Hingley wrote in 1978,   The Possessed was “an awesome, prophetic warning which humanity, no less possessed of collective and individual devilry in the 1970s than in the 1870s, shows alarmingly few signs of heeding.”     Seeing recent news reports, there’s no doubt that the 2010s could fit just as easily into that sentence.
This concludes your Story of Communism for today.

Episode 4: Mao's American Friend

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

Today we’re going to discuss the extraordinary life of Sidney Rittenberg, an Amercian who abandoned his country to become part of Mao Zedong’s Communist revolution in China.   He then lived there for almost thirty years— sixteen of which were spent in solitary confinement, as he fell in and out of favor with the Party over those three decades.   His autobiography, “The Man Who Stayed Behind”, was published in 1993 to rave reviews in the U.S.   As Mike Wallace wrote, “It reads like a riveting historical novel.   But there’s no fiction here…  it’s Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, the Long March, solitary confinement, despair, romance, and redemption.  Sidney Rittenberg’s story is a classic.”

Rittenberg’s youthful fascination with Communism is pretty understandable, given his
Depression-era childhood, when many in the U.S. questioned whether there was a better way.   This was followed by influence from various radical forces when he attended Stanford University.   As he wrote,

“I had joined the American Communist Party in 1940 while I was in college…it was the Communists, with their strong posture on free speech and ethnic equality in America,  and their roots in the American labor movement, who seemed to offer a hope of righting the injustices I saw all around me.”
He was deployed to China with the U.S. army towards the end of World War II, and had an opportunity there to seek out his fellow Communists.   He was swept up in the romance of China’s revolution, as well as the personal charisma of Chairman Mao:

“This was the Mao Zedong I had been reading about in the daily press, the Mao whose words I had studied in Stanford.  I respected his vision for China and admired his philosophical brilliance.  And here I was, twenty-five years old… sitting and chatting with Mao Zedong as an equal…  Mao had a way of focusing his gaze squarely on whoever was speaking, shutting out the rest of the room.  The attention was intense and flattering.”
He became a vital part of Mao’s staff, fulfilling the important role of English-Chinese translation.  
He had many friends among Mao’s inner circle, and soon married a fellow party member named Wei Lin.   The romance didn’t last too long though, as only a few years after joining the revolution, Rittenberg found himself suddenly arrested, as a supposed American spy.   He was carried off to solitary confinement, taken out only for periodic interrogations, where his protests of innocence were ignored, and the only issue was how to confess to his crimes.   Amazingly, his faith in Communism did not waiver as he spent six years alone in a cell:

“I loved the party, its aims, and its struggle to change the world….  They were prosecuting my case because they considered it in the interest of the much oppressed, long wronged Chinese people.  They had to purge themselves of enemies, I told myself.   It was just that in my case they were wrong…  The problem wasn’t with the party or its methods…  If the fact that they wrongly charged me with a horrible crime became known, it could harm the party.
I made up my mind.  This dark little room would be a test for me and a proving ground for my philosophy— and philosophy would win.  If I came through this ordeal, it would be with perfect understanding.”
As it turned out, the Party had actually arrested him on orders from their sponsor, Soviet General Secretary Joseph Stalin, rather than out of a serious belief that he was a spy.   Thus, a few years after Stalin’s death, his friends in the leadership were able to get him released and rehabilitated.  They even appointed him a high-level trusted position in the Broadcast Administration, a propaganda arm of Mao’s government.    He had, however, lost his wife, who had divorced him while he was locked away.

You would think that his experience would generate some sympathy towards others falsely accused by the regime, but that’s not how he thought.   When some young translators in his group were later arrested on similar political charges, he didn’t do much to help them.   As he wrote:

“… their real crime seemed to be that while outwardly quiet and respectful, underneath they were arrogant and exclusive, with the kind of rich man’s air that had been so common before the Revolution.

“In the end, Cheng Hongkui was pronounced a member of a reactionary clique, and he and his wife and their new baby were sent with their friends to a labor camp in the cold wastelands of Manchuria.   I never saw any of them again…  For me, I felt that good honest farm labor would do them some good.  Hadn’t I been willing myself to undergo years of privation for the sake of the party?”
As events moved forward in China, Rittenberg doubled down on his faith in Communism.   In 1958 he enthusiastically supported the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s program to rapidly collectivize farms, industrialize the country, and build infrastructure.   Similar to the Soviet activities of the 1930s that we described a few episodes ago, the government tried to eliminate private farms, arresting and imprisoning any farmers who resisted collectivization.   Farmers were also redirected by the millions into activities like steel production and construction, supposedly no longer needed on the farms due to their increased efficiency under state management.   The results were similar to those achieved by Stalin in the Ukraine:

“It was late in 1961 when the first symptoms appeared…  People began swelling around their necks and going through the day in a listless haze…  as the months wore on, it became increasingly difficult to overlook the real reason for people’s distress:  malnutrition.   We had all watched the food begin to vanish from the shops late in 1960.”

“Few in China knew the truth until decades later.   The Chinese were not just hungry, they were starving, starving to death in the countryside by the tens of millions.  Fewer still knew the main cause:  not bad harvests, not the Soviet debt…  but the Great Leap Forward itself.”
Again blinded by his faith in the system, Rittenberg continued in the Broadcast Administration.  At least the deadly results of the Great Leap Forward resulted in some criticism of Mao and reduction in his power over the next few years.   However, as the nation slowly recovered, Mao grew jealous of those in control, and decided to engineer the “Cultural Revolution” to restore Communist purity.   He set loose mobs of teenagers to purge the nation of remnants of capitalism and of non-Communist Chinese tradition.  Rittenberg still maintained his faith in his leader:

“With the advent of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, I became an outspoken activist and advocate of returning power to the people…   without the least suspicion that this new revolution was a cynical strategy by Mao— and his wife, Jiang Qing— to foment unrest and rebellion and to vastly increase their own power.”
He didn’t see the danger of mobs of teenagers brutally enforcing Communist doctrine, until a pair of old shopkeepers, in-laws of a co-worker, were beaten to death for practicing “consumerism”.  Ironically, they were actually operating a state-run shop.    Even this wasn’t enough to stop Rittenberg from supporting the Revolution, though he began asking some questions.   After that, it didn’t take too long before the movement turned on him, and he was once again arrested as a suspected American spy,   He was put in solitary confinement again.

This time he was confined for almost ten years.    But even worse than what happened to him were the fates of his second wife Yulin and his four children (ages 2, 7, 9, and 10) while he was gone:

“After that, for the next ten years, Yulin was tossed back and forth.   Sometimes she was returned to the Broadcast Administration, where she was the victim of daily struggle meetings and forced to sit outside the toilet with a sign above her head, “This is the unrepentant wife of the dog of an imperialist spy.”  Sometimes she was beaten, once badly enough to be sent to the hospital.  Always she was reviled and ostracized…  She was forced to spend up to three years at labor camps in the countryside, where she worked for long hours in freezing weather…  For Yulin, it was particularly bitter.  The Communist Party cadre sent to supervise Yulin’s group at one of the labor camps was my ex-wife, Wei Lin…   [as she described:] “They wouldn’t even give me enough to fill my stomach.  I would drag myself to bed at night, legs and back aching, so tired I could hardly move, and hungry at the same time.  I thought of death repeatedly.””
The children had spent some time in prison, though they were cared for by relatives during most of Rittenberg’s absence.   Miraculously, the entire family survived the ordeal, and they were reunited upon his release.    But this experience was finally enough to drive Rittenberg to question the system to which he had devoted his life.   As he wrote,

“…it took me a long time to see the errors of Communist doctrine because of the stake I had acquired in the system and the life I had lived in China, a life of perks, privilege, and deluded complicity.  
…I felt that a genuine renewal for China required a leadership that listened to public opinion, dealt conscientiously with corruption, and thus won the trust of the people.  What I saw was just the opposite….

I had come to China to serve humanity, to serve people, to change China, to change the world.  I had no intention of spending the rest of my life serving those whom power had corrupted, bought by their perquisites, rendered unable to speak or act freely for what I believed in.”
After his second release, Rittenberg moved with his family to the U.S. where he rediscovered his capitalist roots.   He started a successful consulting company with his wife, to provide cultural advice to companies doing business in China.  One of the closing thoughts in his book seems especially relevant to what’s going on in the streets today:

In my twenties, I was sure that there was only one answer, and that I knew what it was: socialist revolution.   Half a century later, I find myself struggling more and more with questions and finding fewer and fewer answers.”
[Closing conversation]

You might argue that despite his sixteen years in solitary confinement, Rittenberg got off kind of lightly, given his central role in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, which destroyed the lives of tens of millions of people.   But his autobiography, “The Man Who Stayed Behind”, is essential reading for anyone interested in learning about the 20th century story of Communist China.
This concludes your Story of Communism for today.

Episode 3: Splendid Arses

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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 listening to the last two episodes, you might have started to find this topic a bit depressing.  So to shift gears today, we’ll be looking at something a bit more lighthearted.    One of the ironies of Communist literature is that despite the system’s total stifling of the human spirit, there is quite a bit of humor to be found.   Naturally, it is a rather dark humor, in the vein of Kafka or Camus.    But in such systems, this humor formed an important safety valve, a kind of coping mechanism in many cases.    Living in such a world of bizarre double-speak and daily hypocrisy, it’s hard not to find oddities that, under more pleasant circumstances, would be easy to laugh at.  Today, we are going to discuss one classic embodiment of this form of humor, the samizdat novel “Nobody, or The Disgospel According to Maria Dementnaya”.   

Nobody” is an example of what is known as “samizdat” literature.   This means it is a non-Stateapproved writing, which was passed around the Soviet Union and illegally retyped or recopied.  
It’s actually pretty amazing that such works existed— in the time period from the 1960s to
1980s, although things weren’t quite as bad as in the Stalin years, being caught with antiCommunist literature or illegally using a photocopier could still cost you your home, your livelihood, and your freedom.     Yet Soviet dissidents risked all this to create and share literature that defied the authorities.    

Nobody, our focus for today, was apparently written around 1966, and smuggled out of the Soviet Union.   An anonymous French translation then made it into the hands of English translator April FitzLyon, who rendered it into English for us.   Its original author is unclear.   It appears that there was only a single English-language edition published of this book.   I happened to pick up my copy at random when browsing in a used bookstore— otherwise I probably would have never heard of it.   There is surprisingly little further information online; I found one review at Goodreads, and a few used copies can be bought at Amazon, but not much more.   Not even a Wikipedia page, though there is a brief mention on the page of its translator, FitzLyon.    But that’s a shame, because this is great book.     As the blurb on the cover states, it’s “a deeply tragic novel which also succeeds in being extremely funny.”

The novel centers around a former academic named Petatorov, who couldn’t take the hypocrisy of continuing to build his life around loyalty to the Communist party, and long ago left his job and his wife.   Now he wanders around Moscow living from day to day, begging and doing odd jobs to earn just enough to eat.    He prefers this physical poverty to the mental torture of supporting the Communist system.    Here’s how he describes his decision to a surprised friend, who is working as a journalist:
“The toady is dead.  Long live the madman!   I’m as free as a bird.   Consequently— I’m a pauper…  it’s amazing!   I read my favorite books and drink port.   I am sailing on an ice-flow, shouting to the people left behind:  “Greetings, rats and mice!  Ha Ha!’  And you’re one of them too.   Oh Lord!  Stop soiling lavatory paper with words, give it back to the people— clean!”
My favorite part of the book, though, is the description of the new husband, Brandov,  who Petatorov’s ex-wife has married.   His is a rather unintelligent and bland man, but a caring and successful provider for his family.   He works for the government, in the Applause Section, where his job is to attend official speeches and loudly clap.   A slight exaggeration of the offices that existed in real life, but a spot-on spoof of the many useless and unproductive government positions that are created for loyal bureaucrats.   Here’s how Brandov thinks about his job:

“Brandov loved being at work: people treated him with warmth and respect, behind his back they would say, “He’s one of us, a real clapper!”   Brandov gave a cursory glance at his beloved wall-newspaper ‘For All Out Clapping’, to which he contributed, and to which he sent in cartoons.   For that issue too he had drawn a caricature of Pendyulin who, at a meeting, had missed a foreman’s signal and had started to applaud later than was indicated in the scenario.  Pendyulin was represented with huge ears and little tiny hands.  The inscription under the drawing read, ‘You must clap with your hands, not with your ears.’…  On the walls hung diagrams and placards, aids to improve applauding skill: disembodied hands, clapping at a certain angle and at a certain force; incorrect, erroneous ways of clapping, crossed out with a red cross.”
Later it’s revealed that Brandov has to take down this cartoon, because his caricatured coworker has just earned a Ph.D. in applause.   Not as much of an exaggeration as we would hope—  academia in Communist countries is totally subordinated to the nation’s political goals.   Aside from the quality of his clapping, Brandov is also preoccupied with his department’s rivalry with the Public Criers, a nearby department whose work is sometimes seen as more important than his.    But one of the highlights of the book comes when Brandov reveals a new initiative, one that will drive his career to a new pinnacle:

“The organization of our work has not been sufficiently thought out.   In response to the leadership’s appeals, I have joined in the fight to economize state funds.  In order to improve our work I propose the following:  to use apes as applauders, but especially— for exclamations of approval…  I am convinced that the apes will carry out with credit the work entrusted to them.  The training and purchase of a fresh batch of apes will soon pay for itself.”
In order to get this new project started, Brandov invites his family to join him on a trip to the zoo.  Petatorov also happens to be there, observing many ironic metaphors for aspects of Soviet society among the animals on display.    But of course, Brandov is focused on his task, closely studying the primates to find those best suited for this project. 

“‘Those wouldn’t do”’ he muttered.   ‘They’re too small, it would be too obvious…  but they don’t shout badly, you can hear a ring of triumph.   No, no, we must have chimpanzees, or ourangoutangs— bigger ones.   It will be easy to make them up…  But their arses, their arses are good!  If one were to clap on them, one monkey could do the work of five…’   The man began slapping his buttocks.   ‘Splendid!…   A lot of work will have to be put into them,’  the welldressed visitor was saying to himself.  ‘They’re not well-grounded in ideology.  We’ll manage it, we’ll give them ideological education, we’ve managed harder cases then that.   Ah, what splendid arses!   Pity it’s unethical— just imagine, if a delegate suddenly started jumping up and slapping his arse.   What would our dear foreign guests think! …   I’ll put them in little suits— Pavlov’s Reflexes— I’ll go out and get some advice— we’ll work it all out, and full steam ahead in the name of the radiant future.   You’ll be promoted to senior clapper, Brandov!”
Sadly, the book doesn’t get around to describing the final result of Brandov’s experiments. 

[Closing conversation]

As you can see, while still reflecting many of the tragedies of living in the Soviet Union, this novel can be quite hilarious at times.    If you’re interested in learning more about Communism but need a break from heavy-handed exposes like those we discussed in the last two episodes, we think you’ll really enjoy the samizdat novel Nobody.

This concludes your Story of Communism for today.


Episode 2: 20th Century Slavery

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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.

If you’ve been following the news, you may be aware that the United Nations has recently
passed some courageous resolutions affirming the radical idea that slavery is a bad thing.
While we naturally agree with this, it’s always frustrating that in such discussions, some of the
largest mass enslavements in human history are ignored: those created under 20th-century
Communism. The best-documented of these is probably the “Gulag” system of slave camps
created by the Soviet Union, which reached its greatest heights in the 1940s and 1950s, but
lasted from only a few years after the Russian Revolution until the Soviet regime’s eventual

The most well-known chronicler of the Gulag was Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, a fascinating
historical figure. He started out as a mostly loyal Communist citizen, serving as an officer in the
Soviet army during World War II. But near the end of the war, in 1945, he was arrested for
making comments critical of Joseph Stalin in a private letter, and condemned to the Gulag labor
camps. Millions died in those camps due to being forced to do excessive amounts of labor with
inadequate food, clothing, and housing, but Solzhenitsyn miraculously survived, and during a
brief thaw after Stalin’s death was able to publish an autobiographical novel about life in the
Gulag, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”, in 1962. The authorities soon clamped down
and stopped him from publishing further works in this vein, but the worldwide fame created by
this novel protected him to some degree from the Communist authorities.

After “Ivan Denisovich”, other Gulag survivors from across the Soviet Union began contacting
Solzhenitsyn and sharing their stories. Combining his story with those of many correspondents
to piece together a complete picture of the Gulag system, Solzhenitsyn created a massive
documentary work, “The Gulag Archipelago”. He managed to smuggle it out to the West and
get it published in 1973, though it would not see official publication in his own country until 1989.
That’s not surprising— far from merely a report of isolated abuses, it was a comprehensive
analysis of how the Gulag was an integral component and result of the Communist system.
It’s a fascinating read, by the way; at first I was skeptical that a 2000-page book on Soviet slave
labor camps could hold my attention, but once I started, I literally couldn’t put it down.
Although they may have mostly not been bought and sold explicitly (but in some cases they
were), it’s hard to argue against applying the word “slavery” to the Gulag inmates. Here’s some
of Solzhenitsyn’s description of his camp after first arriving:

“In all the rooms bare multiple bunks… were installed… Two stories of four wooden panels on two cross-shaped supports placed at the head and feet. When one sleeper stirred… three others rocked."

"They did not issue mattresses in this camp, nor sacks to stuff with straw. The words ‘bed
linen’ were unknown… no sheets or pillowcases existed here, and they did not issue or launder underwear. You had what you wore, and you had to look after it yourself… In the evening, when you lay down on the naked panel, you could take off your shoes. But take into consideration that your shoes would be swiped.”

Later Solzhenitsyn describes the work he was assigned, digging in the clay pits, after his failure
as a ‘work foreman’ to successfully drive his brigade to achieve desired targets:

“The work norm there was well known: during one shift one worker was to dig, load up, and deliver to the windlass six cars full of clay— eight cubic yards. For two persons the norm was sixteen. In dry weather, the two of us together could manage six and a half. But an autumn drizzle began. For one day, two, three without wind, it kept on… It was not torrential, so no one was going to take the responsibility for halting the outdoor work. …

"Boris was weaker than I; he could hardly wield his spade, which the sticky clay made heavier and heavier, and he could hardly throw each shovelful up to the edge of the truck…  We loaded as much as we could. Penalty ration? So it would be a penalty ration! The hell  with you! …three times a day that same black, unsalted infusion of nettle leaves, and once a day a ladle of thin gruel, a third of a liter. And the bread… they gave fifteen and a quarter ounces in the morning, and not a crumb more during the day or in the evening. And then we were lined up for roll call out in the rain. And once again we slept on bare bunks in wet clothes, muddled with clay, and we shivered because they weren’t heating the barracks…

"Borya was coughing. There was still a fragment of German tank shell in his lungs. He was thick and yellow… I looked at him closely, and was not sure: would he make it through a winter in camp?”

Now I expect some of you will be arguing that all countries make prisoners do labor to some
degree. But we can’t forget that these were people who haven't committed anything we would
consider a crime— even mildly questioning the government in a private conversation or letter,
reported by an informer or spotted by a censor, could get you sent to these camps. That’s
aside from the mass deportations of regions and ethnic groups thought to be possible threats to
the authorities. And in the last episode we saw how large classes of innocent victims were sent
away just due to their neighbors’ jealousy. In such systems, nobody can dare to publicly
discuss these conditions or advocate for their improvement, unless they are ready to join the
ranks of the enslaved.

One might also argue that there were labor camps for prisoners already, under the Tsars, so the
Gulag was not a major change. But as Solzhenitsyn points out, those Tsarist labor camps
were not designed as death camps— for example, at a mining camp where the Tsar’s work
requirement was 118 pounds per day, Gulag slaves were given a norm of over 20 times as
much, and sentenced to reduced punishment rations if they failed to deliver. Millions died in the
Gulag camps from overwork, malnutrition, and other aspects of the poor conditions; nothing
remotely close to that could be said of the previous prison camps.   He also points out that when 19th-century writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s famously described the  bleak life at a labor camp in his book “The House of the Dead”, Tsarist censors were worried that due to its depiction of prisoners who had clean clothes, limited workdays, and spare recreational time, they might reduce the value of labor camps as a deterrent to crime. While life in a Russian labor camp could never be said to be pleasant, the brutal slave camps that killed millions of prisoners only arose under Communism.

As is typical wherever there is slavery, any remotely attractive female prisoners of the Gulag
were essentially forced into prostitution. They were destined to serve whichever of the
“trusties”, or special prisoner-supervisors favored by the guards, they were allocated to, as soon
as they arrived in camp:

“In the camp bath the naked women were examined like merchandise. Whether there was water in the bath or not, the inspection for lice, the shaving of armpits and pubic hair, gave the barbers, by no means the lowest-ranking aristocrats in the camp, the opportunity to look over the new women. And immediately after that they would be inspected by the other trusties…. the Archipelago hardened, and the procedure became more brazen…. And then the trusties decided among themselves who got whom.”

“…And what of it if you loved someone out in freedom and wanted to remain true to him? What profit is there in the fidelity of a female corpse?”

Because Communism superseded all previous systems of morality, it was easy for officials to
rationalize arbitrarily cruel treatment. Anyone who dared to stand in the way of their perfect
new system of government deserved whatever they got. And why not get some use out of
them, forcing as much labor as they could before the prisoner’s inevitable death?

Solzhenitsyn and his fellow prisoners certainly considered themselves to be slaves. On one
occasion, a Gulag construction brigade found themselves transporting a large number of
handcuffs which the guards had forgotten to count, and decided to preserve a lasting record of
their condition:

“… out of 125 pairs of handcuffs, our lads carried off 23! There, in the work zone, they started by smashing the cuffs with stones and hammers, but soon they had a brighter idea: wrapping them in greased paper, so that they would last better, and bricking them up in the walls and foundations of the buildings on which they were working that day… together with ideologically uninhibited covering notes: “Descendants! These houses were built by Soviet slaves! Here you see the sort of handcuffs they wore!”

As you would expect in this short podcast, we’re really just touching on a tiny sampling of the
many details included in thousands of pages of The Gulag Archipelago. But an inescapable
conclusion is that the tens of millions of prisoners condemned to labor camps for so-called
“political crimes”, and sentenced to decades of forced labor in unbelievably substandard
conditions, should be considered “slaves” in any meaningful sense of the term. And while the
Soviet Union may be gone, existing governments such as China and North Korea maintain
networks of Gulag-inspired camps to this day.

[closing conversation]

So next time you are discussing the moral calamity of slavery, don’t just dwell on events of the
1800s and earlier. Think a bit about what has happened, and is still happening, in socialist and
Communist regimes throughout the world.

This concludes your Story of Communism for today.