Episode 46: The Miracles of Socialist Healthcare

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Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we discuss what life is really like for those unfortunate enough to live under communist or socialist governments.    Recording from the suburbs of Wichita, Kansas, this is Erik Seligman, your host, along with co-host Manuel Castaneda in Oregon.

Today we’re going to be discussing a darkly hilarious memoir by a former Soviet doctor, Vladimir Tsesis, who practiced medicine in a small Moldovan town in the 1960s.   The memoir is titled “Communist Daze”, and describes his experiences in his first job after graduating from medical school, as a pediatrician at a hospital in a small farming town called Gradieshti.   It begins with a discussion of his days in medical school.   It’s great that his schooling is completely free, aside from the mandatory summers spent at forced labor harvesting crops in the country.   But he is a bit bothered when he notices that certain of his classmates aren’t quite held up to the same standard as he is.

… I crossed paths again with… the Komsomol leader, Sarakutza.  It seems the army veteran was struggling in chemistry, and so the professor asked me to tutor him.   One day well into the course, I was explaining the concept of valence…  Looking very puzzled, my pupil lit a cigarette… and casually inquired through a cloud of smoke, “But what is… an ‘atom’?”   Petra Sarakutza later went on to become an instructor in the Department of Biochemistry there, another bright Communist future guaranteed.

…I remember my classmate Vitale Istrati, a nice-looking fellow with a childish face, who simply could not remember the cornucopia of terms in the course on anatomy…   Due to his high level connections, he was not expelled…  Of course— you guessed it— after graduation, Vitale became a teacher in the Department of Anatomy and later even went on to chair the department at another medical school….

Vitale’s story is not unique; I would come to discover that such shameless nepotism in the medical profession was typical of the entire country, undermining the professional capabilities of generations of Soviet doctors.   Privileged students with minimal education and training invariably were permitted to finish medical school and become physicians, to whom patients entrusted their lives.

Tsesis is sent to the small farming town of Gradieshti, where he is granted the amazing privilege of a small apartment to himself.   Electric service is unreliable, and he has to use an outhouse in the yard due to the apartment’s lack of a sewer system, but it’s still a pretty nice arrangement by local standards.  He also comments on how he had to save up newspapers, since toilet paper there (and in most of the Soviet Union for non-Party-elites) is an unheard-of luxury.   This, however, creates another potential hazard, as someone caught wiping oneself with the wrong newspaper page, say one that contained a picture of a Communist Party leader, could find themselves denounced and arrested.    Tsesis comments on the wide-ranging effects of these issues:

Gradieshti’s challenges with sanitation were a microcosm of a widespread, unending Soviet problem…  a high level of gastrointestinal infections in town and country.   Like millions of my compatriots, I grew up in a medium-sized city, in a little house with a backyard outhouse and without a sewer line, shower, bath, or hot water.   With all that, my family was very lucky in comparison to people in rural areas, many of whom confronted worse sanitary conditions.   Even in the large cities, finding a toilet— even the most primitive and foul-smelling- was a difficult task.

Tsesis settles into his job at the hospital, happy to see that his boss is a somewhat competent physician, and begins treating the local population.  The staff do their best to keep the hospital running, but certain nationwide problems are hopeless to fight against.   One is the constant theft of hospital supplies by the local workers.

The theft of public property is very simple to perform.  Before the hospital stamps each new piece of bedding with its blurred, rusty hospital seal, the bedding somehow quietly slips away— for a modest fee, mind you— to employees and their acquaintances.  On paper, the “old items” miraculously become the “new items”.  One consequence of such ubiquitous stealing is that all of the hospital’s bedding is universally dirty gray, a fine match for the colorless village…   bedding is only really and truly discarded after countless washes in the hospital laundry, once it completes a long, thinning, and fragmenting journey into shapeless rags.

The level of skills of the other doctors varies, of course.   Tsesis is shocked when he sees a fellow doctor bragging that his patient is getting better because he has ordered nearly every available antibiotic for him.   The colleague gets offended when Tsesis tries to bring up the fact that there may be dangers to this strategy.   Overall, he has some harsh words for the overall system, which he calls a “grandiose global show for all those who preferred wishful thinking to reality.”

Typical hospital rooms housed between eight and sixteen patients.  In rural Gradieshti Hospital, only four inside toilets served patients in fifty beds.  Lacking hot water, showers, or baths in the main building, our patients were unable to take appropriate care of their personal hygiene and resorted to wiping themselves with wet towels.  One of the biggest difficulties for me… was enduring the smelly and stale odors from dozens of unwashed bodies…

The needles were reused, and were never sharp or small enough.  All syringes were made from glass and were reused until they broke.  Though it was common knowledge how blood-borne infections were transmitted, none of our medical instruments were disposable… The first time I encountered the word “disposable”, I didn’t know what it meant, even after consulting an English-to-Russian dictionary.  When a coworker told me that syringes and needles, so precious in my understanding, were intended only for one-time use, I thought he was joking.   I simply had no idea that disposable medical instruments had been a mandatory norm in the West for over a quarter-century…

Another factor that continually affected our ability to treat patients was poor lighting, due to the electrical grid’s low voltage…   When the electric lights dimmed or went out, we treated and operated by kerosene lamps and sometimes even by hand-held flashlights.

To compensate for these issues, Tsesis’s superiors make sure that any formal reports to their higher-ups contain manufactured data indicating widespread success and a healthy community, regardless of the actual reality.   He doesn’t believe anyone on the Central Party Committee knows what the actual truth is most of the time, as anyone who revealed it to them would be sacrificing their careers or worse.   Tsesis attempts to fill out some forms accurately, and gets reprimanded by his boss.

He is also surprised to see how reluctant the local farmers are to bring their sick children to the hospital.   As he investigates, he learns that the real reason is that the peasants in the area are kept in a state of virtual slavery:  

The kolkhoz was run essentially like a feudal fiefdom.   The peasant farmers… were all hardworking representatives of the socialist system who could not leave because their IDs (internal passports) were kept under lock and key by the village council…  Only a small number of peasants— those drafted into military service, or going away for professional or higher educations, or marrying nonresidents— were able to get their hands on an internal passport…

The “workdays” of these peasants were carefully tracked, and given that they were barely paid at a subsistence level, they could rarely afford to sacrifice a day to bring a sick family member to the hospital, or to sit with an ailing child, for any issue that didn’t seem life-threatening.   A missed workday meant a loss of food and a danger to the family’s survival.   As a result, he would see many children with major hearing loss, horrible dental disease, and dangerous respiratory infections.

I have never, ever seen such catastrophically dehydrated children as I did in Gradieshti and the surrounding villages.  In textbooks, it is written that in cases of severe dehydration— more than ten percent loss of body fluid— a child presents with symptoms such as lethargy, sunken eyes, fast and deep respiration…  But the severely dehydrated children I encountered at least once a month in Gradieshti looked like small skeletons tightly covered with skin…  It was so damn painful and traumatic to see the last sparks of life glimmering in these children…  And some parents’ struggle for daily survival was so extreme that they were forced to leave their critically ill child alone in the hospital.


One of Tsesis’s most shocking discoveries, and another factor in the childrens’ low general health,  is the fact that in this area, citizens actually need a doctor’s prescription to get milk from the store.   Milk is available in very limited supply from a rather dirty and unsanitary kitchen.   He discovers that this came about through a typical Communist policy:

Before the District Party Committee’s enlightened plan of action, every kolkozhnik family… had been allowed to own one or two cows, which supplied them with milk and other dairy products.  The chairman of the kolkhoz… announced at a general meeting that all individual cows would become part of a common herd.  The socialist bovines would be managed at a livestock farm, where they would benefit from the latest scientific discoveries, as well as a specially educated and trained staff, led by a veterinarian. 

In this “win-win” situation, the owners would supposedly benefit even more by receiving a modest sum for their share of the calculated income of the collectivized cattle.   Each family in Gradieshti would also receive two liters of collective herd milk each day from a special mobile milk cistern…

After two months, unfortunately, the milk cistern simply did not show up one morning…  The next day, they waited in vain again and returned home with empty jugs.  Eventually a group of villagers went to the village council…   “We know how important it is for you to get milk.  But we are behind in state milk deliveries, and nobody can deny that this is the number one priority.”  At this point, their cows and now their milk taken forever from them, the incredulous villagers still kept silent.  Each standing there knew well from long years of experience that protesting was not only futile but could be counterproductive and dangerous.

  And that’s how— ta-da!— forming a collective made a nonsensical shortage of one of the most common food items in Gradieshti.

Tsesis makes an attempt at least to improve the standards of the milk kitchen, through carrying out the formal inspection himself, but is unaware that the attendants are well-connected in the local Party.   He creates a crisis for his boss when he sends a report of the kitchen’s actual condition, including photos of the dirty rags used to clean the bowls and the dead flies floating in the milk, to the district party committee.    He damages his and his boss’s relationship with the local officials, which likely ends up as an influencing factor behind many of his later problems, but does manage to get the kitchen cleaned up a bit.

Perhaps the most absurd moment in the book comes when a delegation of foreign professors and students arrives to observe life in the village.   Naturally, the group is led by a leftist professor, who helps add legitimacy to the scripted and carefully managed tour they are provided.   When the visitors can’t help but observe the primitive conditions, the town officials simply remark that they are looking at old facilities, since new modern ones are currently under construction.    When one of the visitors attempts to follow up with a hard question, the friendly professor stops him and threatens to get him banned from any future trips to the USSR if he continues.     It is clear that nobody on either side is fooled.    

To deal with all these contradictions, Tsesis shares one of his main coping mechanisms, a commonality we see in many of our stories:

Despite the incessant grind of the Soviet propaganda machines, despite the terror and huge numbers of informers seemingly everywhere, the people of our Soviet paradise always fought back through humor.  Gradieshti was no different from any other place I lived.  In the face of shortages, the heel of totalitarian rule, extreme poverty, and bureaucratic ineptitude, all we could do was mockingly make fun of the utter absurdity of the Communist system.   Often the first thing loyal friends did when they met was to tell new political jokes they had just heard.  There was even a joke about the danger of telling a joke:

Two men are placed in the same prison cell.  One asks the other why he is in jail.  “For being too lazy, my friend!” “Lazy, why?”  “My next door neighbor told me an anti-Soviet joke.  It was late in the evening, so I decided to denounce him to the KGB first thing in the morning.  But he reported me the same night.”

Here are some of my other favorite jokes from the book:

A man explains to the Soviet authorities that he has to go to the United States to take care of his sick uncle.  The representative of the authorities replies, “Why would not your uncle come to the Soviet Union?  You can take better care of him here.”  The man answers, “I said that he is sick, not stupid.”

An ordinary woman walks into a Russian food store.  “Do you have any meat?” she asks the grocer.   “No, we don’t.”  “What about milk?”  “Comrade, we deal only with meat here.  Across the street there is a store where they have no milk.”

In a soviet school, a teacher asks a student, “Who is your father?”  “Stalin!” the child eagerly replies.  “Who is your mother?”  “The Soviet Union.”  “And who do you want to become?”  “An orphan.”

A man came home and found his wife in bed with a stranger.   Furious, the man shouted, “You good-for-nothing, look at what you’re spending your time for, while at the corner store they’re selling eggs and they have only three boxes left!”

A KGB officer is walking in the park and he sees an old Jewish man reading a book…  “I am learning Hebrew so that when I die and get to Heaven I will be able to speak to Abraham and Moses.  Hebrew is the language they speak in Heaven.”…  “But what if … when you die you go to hell?” …”Russian, I already know.”

Though perhaps the biggest joke, if unintentional, comes when one of the local Communist doctors tries to give a lecture on why the Soviet medical system is so superior to the West.

“As you know, last year with a delegation of leading rural physicians, I went for a week to Paris…  Comrades, French hospitals are not better than our city hospitals and their medicine is incredibly wasteful.  They have a lot of technology but it is too expensive.  Waste, waste, waste!  Their medical laboratories are unnecessarily large and stuffed with equipment for tests you never heard of…  The cost for medial imaging is astronomical.  And guess who pays for it?  People like you and me…   

“In France, they know nothing about our usual procedures, such as leeches… they consulted their smart books and had the nerve to tell me that these procedures were long outdated and replaced with more effective methods!…   Those French physicians are so infatuated with their technology that they use hundreds of antibiotics, while we need only ten!     Our hospital room hold six or eight patients, sometimes more, while theirs often have one or two sick people in a room.   Patients in these separate rooms are isolated, without a friend in the world, while the poor nurses are forced to run from one room to another…  Many hospital rooms have individual washrooms!   We have one washroom on each floor and nobody complains!…

“Soviet medicine is the most advanced in the entire world!”

<closing conversation with Manuel>

Anyway, there are many more moments of colorful village life, hilarious silliness, and medical horror for you to read in Tsesis’s memoir.   Check out “Communist Daze” through the link in our show notes at storiesofcommunism.com .

And this has been your Story of Communism for today.



Episode 45: The Heights Of Absurdity

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Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we discuss what life is really like for those unfortunate enough to live under communist or socialist governments.    Recording from the suburbs of Wichita, Kansas, this is Erik Seligman, your host, along with co-host Manuel Castaneda in Oregon.

Today we’re going to be talking about a very unusual novel, “The Yawning Heights” by Russian dissident, philosopher, and sociologist Alexander Zinoviev.   Published in the 1970s, this immense work is a mix of satire, philosophy, and social analysis.   It differs from a lot of our discussions in this podcast in that it focuses on how Communism affects the lives of artists,  writers, and professors, drawing from Zinoviev’s own experiences as a chair in Logic at the Soviet Academy of Sciences.     While jockeying for political position and trying to rationalize and understand their own behavior, they have long discussions about social laws that ultimately trap them in a self-perpetuating system.

“The Yawning Heights” is structured as a sequence of vignettes in the lives of this circle of intellectuals, interspersed with long passages of philosophy or social analysis purportedly written by some of the characters.   It takes place in a fictional land called “Ibansk”, where every citizen is named Iban Ibanovich Ibanov.   To tell them apart, they are usually referred to by nicknames, like Schizophrenic, Artist, Dauber, Truth-Teller, etc.    Some are obvious stand-ins for real-life figures:  “Boss” is clearly Joseph Stalin, “Hog” is his successor Nikita Khrushchev, and “Truth-Teller” represents author Alexander Solzhenitsyn, who exposed the horrors of the Gulag.

An early passage from the book gives a feeling for Zinoviev’s cynical sense of humor, as well as the corruption of the sciences which becomes a constant theme throughout:

All our scientists claim, and many foreign scientists accept, that the inhabitants of Ibansk are a whole head taller than everybody else… not by reason of any reactionary biological superiority … but because of the progressive historic conditions in which they live and the correctness of the theory for which they have been the guinea pigs, and thanks too to the wisdom of the leadership which has guided them so brilliantly. For this reason the people of Ibansk do not live in the old fashioned and commonplace sense of the word as it is applied to other people in other places. The Ibanskians do not live, but carry out epoch-making experiments. They carry out these experiments even when they know nothing about them and take no part in them, and even when the experiments are not taking place at all. This book is devoted to the examination of one such experiment.

The experiment was dreamt up by the Institute for the Prophylaxis of Stupid Intentions, and carried out under the supervision of the Brainwashing Laboratory, written up in the Fundamental Journal and was supported by an initiative from below. The experiment was approved by the Leader, his Deputies, his Assistants and by everybody else-except for a few holding mistaken opinions. The aim of the experiment was to detect those who did not approve of its being carried out and to take appropriate steps.

There are many parts of the book where Zinoviev takes savage aim at the corruption of the practice of science under Communist leadership.   Here’s one classic example, a passage likely inspired by the worthless agricultural methods once promoted by Stalin’s favorite scientist, Trofim Lysenko:

In Ibansk, a science which enjoyed a great flowering was that of meatology. To be fair, it should be said that initially things didn't go too well. … they made life quite impossible for the Ibanskians. Things had to be put right. So in their place the Great Veterinarian was appointed. He was quite incredibly stupid and tongue-tied. The Ibanskians said he couldn't tell Gogol from Hegel, Hegel from Babel, Babel from Cable, Cable from Beigel, Beigel from Table, but he came from the right social background, and had views which fitted in at the time in question. So he quickly made up for lost time. Relying on the work done by the founders of this branch of science, he began, on the wide open spaces of the Ibanskian wasteland, to carry out his famous experiments on crossing watermelons with maize. And he achieved remarkable results. In the outskirts of the city of Ibansk cows were exterminated. Milk began to come from powder, and meat from abroad.

He also continually pokes fun at the effort to create positive external appearances without any sense of internal order, direction, or purpose.

After historic experiments the village of Ibansk was transformed. The former school building was redesignated The Associate Department of the Institute. The lavatory was rebuilt and clad in steel and glass. Now, from an observation platform, the tourists who flow into Ibansk in a never-ending stream can convince themselves with their own eyes that the false rumours that have reached them are the purest slander. … So the tourists should have something to look at during the time they had free from visits to model factories, around the hotel ten new picturesque churches of the 10th century and earlier were built. Their walls were adorned with ancient frescoes by Artist himself, who painted a portrait of the Leader in the foreground. He was awarded prizes, decorations and titles for his work. … 

In the main fresco Artist painted the Leader and his Deputies, who for this were awarded prizes, while the Leader himself got two: one for the one thing, the other for the other. As a result food prices were lowered, which meant that they merely doubled, instead of rising by five per cent as they did outside Ibansk. The Ibanuchka River was dammed. It overflowed, flooded a potato field (the former pride of the Ibanskians) and swelled into a lake (the present pride of the Ibanskians). And for this all the inhabitants, with one or two exceptions, were decorated. …

The facade of the building is decorated with nine hundred columns of every order known to world architecture, and on the roof a multitude of towers reaches towards the sky, blending into a unified whole, a perfect reproduction of the inimitable domes of the church of Iban the Blessed. Overcome by so much beauty, Ibanov, the world-famous engineer of human souls, produced this high-flown sentence in the editorial of the bi-annual journal Dawn of the North-East: 'In the presence of such unearthly beauty one can only stand to attention and bare one's head.' His namesake Ibanov, an officer-cadet, happened to glance at the aesthetic aspect of the building which in his erroneous opinion was completely unsuited to normal human life-and, warily examining the three-story-high statue of the Leader, whispered to his old friend, cadet Ibanov: "As far as the number of columns per head of population goes, we have overtaken even the Greeks. Now we are the leading columnial power in the world.” His friend reported this conversation to the appropriate authorities, and the fate of the slanderer was decided before taps was sounded that evening…  He was carted away to a nasty cold cell.

More bureaucratic bungling is highlighted in the discussion of a trip abroad, one of the ultimate rewards for the most politically favored intellectuals.

When they reached their destination it transpired that Thinker was the only one who knew any foreign languages, and not the ones which were needed, in fact precisely the reverse. To do him justice, those he knew he knew perfectly adequately. … They were instructed to buy vodka to ensure a friendly atmosphere. Then the delegation was split in two, each half being instructed to keep an eye on the other. …  The success of the delegation exceeded all expectations : it produced five hundred denunciations, eight hundred devastating speeches, five thousand critical observations, and twenty thousand disparaging rejoinders.

There are many long, complex passages about social laws, which seem to compel these kinds of behaviors and results even when each individual realizes how absurd they are.    These sections of the book can be difficult reading, partly satirical and partly very serious, but form a very pointed critique of the entire Communist system.   Zinoviev pokes fun at the fact that he doesn’t use the words Soviet Union or Communism anywhere in the book, yet it is obvious to any reader what he is criticizing:  

When he had read this extract from Schizophrenic's manuscript, Sociologist said to Dauber that Schizophrenic would get into really hot water for it. "Whatever for?' asked Dauber in surprise. "What do you mean, what for?" replied Sociologist, no less surprised. This is all about us and our society. There isn't a word here that says it's all about us,' observed Dauber. 'Our bosses are no fools,' said Sociologist. 'Hypocrisy, oppression, disinformation, waste and so on— a babe in arms would recognize who all that's about.' 

And Sociologist told a story of a man who shouted 'Arrogant blockhead!' and was arrested for insulting the Leader, even though he protested that it was his workmate he had in mind. ‘Come off it-you and your work-mate!’, he was told, ‘everyone knows who the arrogant blockhead must be. ‘

‘But that's not legal,' cried Dauber, 'to charge a man with slandering us, just because someone decided that his words could be applied to us. ‘What's legality got to do with it?' exclaimed Sociologist. ‘…This manuscript will be assessed by an expert. And only a man who will produce the desired conclusion will be nominated as an expert.’

Zinoviev often makes fun of the fragile egos of the self-contradicting intellectuals, who try to convince themselves that their successes result from actual merit, while their failures are caused by undeserving enemies.  

Thinker knew that he was the most intelligent and educated person in Ibansk. He had a job on the Journal and was pleased about that since most people weren't as well placed as he was.  But at the same time he was dissatisfied, for there were other people with better jobs. Insofar as everyone who didn't have a job as good as his was more stupid than he was, he thought his position perfectly justified. But insofar as all those who had jobs superior to his were also more stupid than he was, he felt himself unjustly passed over. He knew perfectly well that if he were more stupid, he would have a better job. And because of this he was filled with rending self pity, and came to the point of despising even more the inhabitants of Ibansk, who fully deserved this scorn because of all their former history…

Sometimes Thinker wrote orthodox but inept articles. The occasions when they appeared became high days and holidays for the thinking part of the Ibansk population. Everyone could see with their own eyes how outstandingly courageous Thinker was, Thinker who was the first to refer to the historic speeches of the new Leader, and who raised to a record number his total of references to them.

I think the novel is at its most poignant when it’s discussing the suffocating effects of the system on the lives of  the characters who do actually have some merit, probably based on unfortunate friends and colleagues that Zinovev knew in real life.   A prime example is the situation of Dauber, an artist who everyone recognizes as brilliant and talented, though he is barely recognized by the authorities and just scraping by, as opposed to his politically favored but untalented friend Artist.   (By the way, Dauber is an obscure English word referring to an unskilled artist, in case you didn’t pick up on the ironic names.)

Artist and Dauber had been students together, and had been close friends. Once Dauber said jokingly that there was really only one rule in art: the higher placed the arse you licked, the better artist you were. You can't be a great artist if you are not painter to the King.  Artist took the joke seriously and soon their paths in art and life divided, although they remained on friendly terms. His outstanding successes led to Artist being awarded prizes, elected to Academies, and finally given an appointment. His portrait of Adviser brought him a flat. His villa came from his portrait of Assistant. His portrait of Deputy's wife yielded him a car. When he painted Deputy he got a trip abroad. …  For his second portrait of the Leader he was awarded the entire three-year allocation of studio funds for his own studio alone. For his portrait of Assistant, he was given his own exhibition, open round the clock with no admission charge. And yet Artist would have felt happier had it not been for the existence of Dauber.

At his own expense and after great difficulty Dauber found himself a tiny attic to use as a studio. And from time to time, working in complete anonymity, he turned something out, but not without scandals and rows. Artist got to hear some stupid rumours, which he didn't want to believe. He well knew what our art was about, and who our true artists were. Finally, some dubious intellectuals began to agitate for an exhibition of Dauber's work. A commission was set up under the chairmanship of Artist. The commission ruled against a one-man show. But since the winds of change were beginning to blow even through the spheres of cultural control, they decided to set up a new commission to examine the possibility of showing one of Dauber's more suitable works at a general exhibition of the works of amateur old-age pensioners and folk-art clubs.

When Dauber is invited to chat with a high-ranking official, Deputy, who also appears to be an admirer of his work, he just ends up with further obstacles.    Even his own friends are more concerned with following the party line than with helping him.

He said, "I value your work, and I could authorise your mounting an exhibition." "Go ahead," I said, "it won't cost you anything!" "There's no point," he said. "No matter what I do, nothing will come out of it. You know our system." "I do," I said. "Art has always needed the protection of the powerful. On its own, real art is defenceless. Without your protection, they'll make a meal of me." "Even with my protection," he said, "they'll gobble you up just the same."

When Dauber was invited to take part in the jubilee quarter-final exhibition for untalented artists of the first early middle age division, he was beside himself with delight.  At last!  ‘There you are’, he said to Slanderer, ‘even here something can be done!  I am an optimist!’ ‘Ah well, we’ll see’, said Slanderer.  Dauber sent more than a hundred magnificent engravings to the selection committee.   They were all rejected and he was asked to submit something similar,  Finally they accepted one tiny etching which Dauber had considered a failure and which he was going to tear up.  A friend of Dauber’s, who was organizing the exhibition, put the etching in the darkest corner beyond a great many works by Artist.   'What have you done?’ cried Dauber, angrily…

and you shove me somewhere almost out of sight.' Friend got angry in his turn. "How conceited can you get?' he said…

The Leader, himself, visited the exhibition. Beyond Artist’s powerful canvases showing the Leader in the front line, the Leader posing beside a steam-hammer, the Leader visiting a modern rat-breeding station, the Leader saving a neighbouring nation from the danger of back-sliding, as well as other aspects of our busy and colourful life, he did not immediately notice Dauber's pathetic etching. It was hard to tell if it was a representation of a finger, a phallus or a chromosome in the grip of sudden madness. The Leader disliked the etching. 'Our people feel no need of this kind of thing,' he said, 'because our people need something quite different.

That evening a special commission was set up to organise the struggle with Dauber and those like him. The commission included Artist, Writer, Friend, Thinker and Colleague. Thinker delivered a speech on false orientations. Colleague told the latest funny stories about the Leader. And Artist formulated a resolution: that Dauber's works were of no value and should be destroyed to avoid harmful consequences, and that Dauber himself should be regarded as having no existence, since there could in principle be no such monstrous deviation among our people. The resolution was adopted unanimously. Afterwards, Colleague and Thinker went to see Dauber, drank a bottle of his vodka, borrowed a hundred roubles to the end of the month, ridiculed the other members of the commission, and spent a long time trying to persuade Dauber to fix them up with some girls.

Of course, all Dauber’s and Artist’s friends know who has the real talent, including Artist himself.   But even when seeking direct guidance from Dauber’s success, Artist’s own lack of talent cannot be concealed.

Artist salvaged a few of Dauber's engravings from destruction and took them back to his own studio. He decided to copy some which were more or less tolerable. But whatever he tried to draw a finger, a penis, a nose, a woman's arse, a crankshaft… it always turned into a portrait either of the Leader, or of Deputy, or (in the best cases) of a high-yield milch-cow praised in a newspaper article. Writer said on this account that Artist had a very healthy inner core, and however hard he tried, he could never turn himself into some kind of imprexprabsturrealist. Slanderer said that they weren't even able to steal properly, these people, because they didn't know the right thing to steal. Some of Dauber's sculptures were melted down and turned into saucepans and smoothing irons, and the rest were slung out on to the rubbish tip. Afterwards young and progressive artists, who were pleased not to be aware of the existence of Dauber who had never existed and never could exist in the culture of Ibansk because of its general state of health, chiselled off lumps of stone from Dauber's sculptures and carved from them little unknown monsters. These monsters reminded the members of the commission of something they had once seen long in the past, but they were nevertheless allowed to exhibit them.

As our final quote from this all-too-brief collection, let’s look at one more moment of absurd dark humor, when the characters discuss why the events in the book are not quite as unbearable as they might sound:

'What a joy it is,' said Schizophrenic, 'that we are all fictitious characters. We can talk about suffering without experiencing hunger, cold or pain. We can talk about the discomfort of life without having to repair a tap, hunt for bed-bugs or complain about noisy neighbours." "Yes,' said Chatterer, 'we're very lucky that we have no real existence. And besides we can make discoveries without having to worry about publishing our books or getting our fees. We can produce masterpieces without suffering sordid arguments about getting them exhibited. This does have a certain charm and beauty of its own.’

[Closing conversation with Manuel]

As usual, we’ve just scratched the surface here— the full book is over 800 pages, so we haven’t come close to doing it justice.   But if you enjoyed the passages we checked out today, be sure to check out the full novel, The Yawning Heights by Alexander Zinoviev, linked in our show notes at storiesofcommunism.com. 

And this has been your Story of Communism for today.


Episode 44: Leaving The Nonsense Behind

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Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we discuss what life is really like for those unfortunate enough to live under communist or socialist governments.    Recording from the suburbs of Wichita, Kansas, this is Erik Seligman, your host.  

Today we have a guest episode, an abridged version of an interview recorded by Gyuszi Suto a few months ago, with fellow immigrant Joe Csizmazia.   You may recall that Gyuszi is the author of the entertaining memoir “I Tried”, about growing up in Communist Romania, that we discussed in episodes 41 and 42.   Joe contacted Gyuszi after reading that memoir, as it stirred a lot of his own memories of his early life and escape from Communist Hungary.   Suto ended up interviewing Joe on his YouTube channel, and has given us permission to share his interview in this podcast as well.  Now, let’s go to the interview.

[Listen to audio for interview]

This was an abridged version of the interview, focusing on aspects most topical for this podcast, but Joe shared many other hilarious stories, odd experiences, and impressive accomplishments after his emigration in the full two-hour-plus interview.   You can find a link to the full interview on Gyuszi’s YouTube channel, as well as a link to Gyuszi’s memoir “I Tried”, in the show notes at storiesofcommunism.com .


And this has been your Story of Communism for today.


Episode 43: Through A Child's Eyes

 Audio Link

Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we discuss what life is really like for those unfortunate enough to live under communist or socialist governments.    Recording from the suburbs of Wichita, Kansas, this is Erik Seligman, your host, with co-host Manuel Castaneda dialing in from Oregon.

Today we’re going to talk about an unusual children’s book, targeted for a middle-school audience:  “Breaking Stalin’s Nose”, by Eugene Yelchin.  I was happy to see that such a book exists— it seems that these days, most books in U.S. schools are coming from the opposite end of the political spectrum.     It tells the story of two eventful days in the life of a young boy in Stalin’s Soviet Union of the early 1950s.   A historical novel, it is based on memories retold to Yelchin by friends and family during his own childhood, just a few years after the period featured in the book.    Zaichik is a young boy who lives with his father, a minor functionary who works for the secret police, in a communal apartment.   He is excited that he is only a day away from being inducted in the Young Pioneers, a scout-like organization that only accepts loyal Communist children into their ranks, and has been selected to lead the parade and carry the school’s banner.   

As we hear in nearly every episode of this podcast, material poverty is inherent to the system, as we see when Zaichik discusses his living situation.

It’s dinnertime, so the kitchen is crowded.   Forty-eight hardworking, honest Soviet citizens share the kitchen and single small toilet in our communal apartment…  We live here as one large, happy family; we have no secrets.  We know who gets up at what time, who eats what for dinner, and who said what in their rooms…  Stalin says that sharing our living spaces teaches us to think as Communist “We” instead of capitalist “I”.   We agree.


I take small bites of the carrot to make it last; the carrot is delicious.   When hunger gnaws inside my belly, I tell myself that a future Pioneer has to repress cravings for such unimportant matters as food.   Communism is just over the horizon; soon there will be plenty of food for everyone….   I wonder what it’s like in the capitalist countries.   I wouldn’t be surprised if children there had never even tasted a carrot.


As you might expect, this kind of deprivation leads to jealousy and resentment among those who see their neighbors slightly better-off than they are.   While Zaichik and his father are not exactly living in luxury, many others have it much worse.  In particular, there is major tension between his father and neighbor Stukachov.

I wish he would leave us alone and go to his own room, even though I know how crammed it is in there with his wife, three little kids, and mother.   My dad and I have a large room for the  two of us.   I’m so embarrassed we live in luxury that I don’t look at Stukachov, but I know he’s there.


Then, suddenly, Zaichik’s life is turned upside down when his father is arrested.   It turns out that this is the doing of Stukachov, who was next in line for their room— he doesn’t even give the boy enough time to remove his belongings, immediately claiming his new residence after the father is taken.

In the corridor stands our neighbor Stukachov.  “It’s me, Stuckachov.  I made the report,” he says, smiling and bobbing his head at the passing uniforms.


Tomorrow they’ll throw away our broken things.   That doesn’t matter, of course.  My dad and I oppose personal property on principle.   Personal Property will disappear when Communism comes.  But still…

Maybe I don’t need a room…. Maria Ivanova doesn’t have a room.   She lives in a cubbyhole next to the toilet.  Semenov sleeps behind the curtain in the corridor, and nobody’s complaining.  I feel better already.  I’m staying in the kitchen until my dad returns.


He attempts to go to his uncle and aunt for help, but they have little interest in taking care of another child, especially one with the stigma of being the son of an “enemy of the people”.   Zaichik reminisces with them about the death of his mother, but it’s pretty clear that some information is being withheld.  Later we learn that his father actually turned her in to the secret police for disloyalty, gaining prestige for himself at the expense of her life.

The next day, Zaichik attempts to go to school as normal, still hoping he can march with the banner and become a Young Pioneer.   On the way in, he has a minor scuffle with a classmate, “Four-Eyes” Finklestein, who ends up being late as a result.   Everyone in the class feels free to mock and torment Finklestein, since it is well-known that his parents were arrested.   When he arrives late to class, the teacher instructs the students to vote on whether to send him to the principal.    

…remember, children, the Soviet classroom is the most democratic in the world.  You will decide his fate.  You will vote.  Those in favor of sending Finkelstein to the principal, raise your hands.”


Feeling a bit guilty, Zaichik refuses at first to vote for punishing Finklestein.  But the teacher quickly corrects him.

We don’t allow those who vote against the majority to handle the sacred banner.  You’re a smart boy, Zaichik; you understand.”…  I raise my hand.


Then, further disaster strikes.   As Zaichik is walking down the hallway, fetching the sacred banner for the parade later, he bumps against the school’s statue of Stalin— and accidentally knocks off the nose.

The plaster dust sparkles in the muted window light before landing on the floor around the nose.  I look at the broken nose.  I look at the banner, spread nearby.   Then I look up at Stalin, now without a nose.   It doesn’t take much to know what will happen next…

the guards will arrive to arrest me.  It won’t be a mistake like with my dad, I should be arrested… I have become an enemy of the people, a wrecker….  who’s going to believe me?  Nobody saw how it happened.


He quickly moves past the statue and hopes that nobody saw him, but a few minutes later the broken nose is spotted in the hallway.   The school authorities see this as an anti-Soviet act, though they don’t know who is responsible.   The teacher starts pressuring the students to inform on each other in order to find the culprit.

“I’ll make it easy for you.   Write down the names of the pupils who you’re sure didn’t do it…  Just make sure you are right.   You know what will happen if even one name on your list turns out to be unreliable?”… “You, yourself, will be suspected…  We’ll know that Zina Krivko is covering for the enemies of the people.”…  


Zaichik is saved when, inexplicably, Finkelstein confesses for the act.   It soon dawns on him that his classmate is hoping to be sent to the prison where his parents are, foolishly believing they can be together again as a family.    Of course, the teacher sees this as confirmation that no son of enemies of the people can be trusted.

“We should have known better than to permit Finkelstein to remain in our ranks after his parents were arrested.   We have failed, class, slackened in our vigilance.  But this will not happen again.”

Nina Petrovna rises, walks to where the group photograph of our class hangs on the wall, and blackens Four-Eyes’s face with her ink pen.   That’s what we always do to pictures of enemies of the people, and it usually feels good, but not this time.  Four-Eyes is not an enemy.  He just wanted to see his parents.


Zaichik is soon summoned to the principal’s office anyway, as the news has arrived that his father was arrested.   He reflects on what has happened to another classmate, Vovka, who also had a father arrested.   The principal then rubs salt in the wounds by lecturing Zaichik on how he should have acted after the arrest.

When Vovka and I were friends, I went to his apartment hundreds of times.  I liked his dad.  He was a good Soviet citizen, modest, a devoted Communist.  How could he be a wrecker?…  It’s just too confusing.   Then I remember what my dad used to say;  “There’s no smoke without a fire.”   If someone is arrested and executed, there must be a good reason for it…  What about my dad then? 



“You, Zaichik.  Your father has been arrested and locked up… You think I didn’t know?”… “So why not come to me and say, ‘Sergei Ivanych, I want to purify myself from the rotten influence of my father.  I want to march with my school…’ “ … “Had you done that,” Sergei Ivanych says, “I would have let you denounce your father at today’s Pioneers rally…  But no, you chose to pretend that you are still one of us.”


Upset, the boy flees from the principal’s office and hides in an unused part of the school.  Out of fear and exhaustion, he faints, and has a bizarre hallucinatory conversation with the statue’s severed nose.   Among other topics, it retells a dark joke that was popular in Stalin’s day, though few could dare to tell it aloud:

“Once, I received a delegation of workers from the provinces.  When they left, I looked for my pipe but did not see it.   I called the chairman of the State Security….  ‘Yes, Comrade Stalin, I’ll immediately take the proper measures.’   Ten minutes later, I pulled out a drawer in my desk and saw my pipe.  I dialed the State Security again.  ‘Nikolai Ivanych, my pipe’s been found.’ ‘What a shame,’ he said.  ‘All of the workers have already confessed.’”


Finally, in the end, Zaichik runs away from the school, and decides to get in line at the prison to try and see his father.   It will be a long time until that happens, as he sees a gigantic queue in front of the prison doors, thousands of people lined up for multiple blocks.   But on that line, for the first time, he sees genuine human warmth and camaraderie not tainted by obsequiousness to authorities or constant fear.

 After a while, a woman in front of me turns around.  “You must be cold”, she says…  She stares at me for a moment, then digs into her bag and pulls out a woolen scarf.  “I made this for my son,” she says.  “Wrap it around.  I’ll take it back when we get to the door.”…  She doesn’t even ask if I’m hungry, just takes out something wrapped in a cloth and hands it to me.  I unwrap it— a baked potato, still hot….  “Now that my son’s cot is empty, you’re welcome to it if you want.”


<closing conversation with Manuel>

If you liked these excerpts and have a young reader in your life, be sure to get them a copy of “Breaking Stalin’s Nose” by Eugene Yelchin, linked in the show notes at storiesofcommunism.com .

And this has been your Story of Communism for today.