50: Our Favorite Stories

 Audio Link

Stories of Communism 50:  Our Favorite Stories

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.
Well, we’ve finally made it to episode 50!  To celebrate the big round number, we thought we would do something a bit different today:   Manuel and I are going to count down our 10 favorite stories, from among the ones we have shared over the past 6 years of the podcast.   So let’s go ahead & begin. 

<BTW, if you’re reading this in our show notes, as you’ll hear, the audio doesn’t precisely follow this original script, as we tried to use each one as a kickoff for some on-the-fly discussion.   So be sure to both read here & listen to the audio if you like the show!>

Manuel’s #5:  Episode 31, Forbidden Romance, where we discussed Teodor Flonta’s Romanian memoir, “Paper Rings”.    https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2020/10/   This was the story of how, while acting as a tour guide for the Romanian Communist government, he met and fell in love with an Italian visitor.   Let’s listen to an excerpt from that book:

“There should be no obstacles for people in love,” I dared to say. “Besides, I don’t see any reason we should be denied this right. We are not harming anyone by marrying.” 
He smiled and looked me straight in the eyes. “Of course, of course, but in a society like ours the individual cannot put his personal interests above those of the State. You know this, don’t you?…
“It’s very simple. There is no big effort on your part. When you are in Italy, if everything goes well, keep an eye open and let us know what we need to know.” “You mean… spying.” “I wouldn’t put it that way.” “How would you put it?” “Observing is the better word.” “And if I don’t agree?” “Then you are on your own, and we cannot help you.”..
How could I say yes to a regime which had arrested my father, tortured him and deprived me and my mother of his presence for years on end? …  I could not forgive them for that. And I could not forget all the humiliations I was subjected to for being a son of a man labelled enemy of the people. The regime made the laws, but the way in which they behaved was as lawless criminals. I could not become an accomplice to their crimes…

In the end, Flonta gave in and signed, correctly reasoning that once he was out of the country, they had no way to enforce his agreement to spy for them.   
This story highlighted the ways Communist countries universally try to deceive foreigners into not realizing their dire poverty and inconceivable lack of freedom.    It is also one of the few stories we told with a truly happy ending, as Flonta eventually succeeded in leaving Romania to marry Ariella in Italy, and celebrated their 50th anniversary soon after we released the episode!

Erik’s #5:  Episode 40, Little Socialist Women.  https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2021/10/.  Yes, Louisa May Alcott, author of the classic “Little Women”, spent time as a child on an absurdly impractical socialist commune, Fruitlands, created by her father.    Let’s look at an excerpt from her memoir about that time from her sarcastic memoir, “Transcendental Wild Oats”:

Such farming probably was never seen before since Adam delved. The band of brothers began by spading garden and field; but a few days of it lessened their ardor amazingly. Blistered hands and aching backs suggested the expediency of permitting the use of cattle till the workers were better fitted for noble toil by a summer of the new life.
Brother Moses brought a yoke of oxen from his farm,—at least, the philosophers thought so till it was discovered that one of the animals was a cow…
Great was Dictator Lion’s indignation at this lapse from virtue. But time pressed, the work must be done; so the meek cow was permitted to wear the yoke…
The garden was planted with a generous supply of useful roots and herbs; but, as manure was not allowed to profane the virgin soil, few of these vegetable treasures ever came up…
Transcendental wild oats were sown broadcast that year, and the fame thereof has not yet ceased in the land; for, futile as this crop seemed to outsiders, it bore an invisible harvest, worth much to those who planted in earnest.

It’s a relatively small aside in US history, but provides some humorous insight into the impractical ideas of many intellectuals.   The humor of this situation starts to fade when we realize that in the Soviet Union and China, similarly (though maybe not quite as over-the-top) misinformed ideas of correct farming were enforced on nationwide scales, and resulted in man-made famines that caused the starvation of millions.

Manuel’s #4:  Episode 13, Communists Take A Bath, where we discussed Mikhail Zoshenko’s hilarious Soviet satires of the 1920s.   https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2018/11/  Let’s look at an excerpt from Zoshenko’s work:

Last Saturday I went to one of our bathhouses… and they gave me two tickets.  One for my linen, the other for my hat and coat.   But where is a naked man going to put tickets?  To say it straight— no place.  No pockets.  Look around— all stomach and legs…  Can’t tie them to your beard.   Well, I tied a ticket to each leg so as not to lose them both at once.

All right.  So I’m standing.  I’m holding the bucket in one hand and I’m washing myself.  But all around me everyone’s scrubbing clothes like mad.   One is washing his trousers, another’s rubbing his drawers, a third’s wringing something out.   You no sooner get yourself all washed up than you’re dirty again.   They’re splattering me, the bastards…

I go back to the locker room.   I give them one ticket, they give me my linen.  I look.  Everything’s mine, but the trousers aren’t mine.   “Citizens, “ I say, “Mine didn’t have a hole here.  Mine had a hole over there. “  But the attendant says, “We aren’t here”, he says, “just to watch for your holes.”

These stories exemplify the critical role humor plays in enabling people to deal with the arbitrary, absurd, and frustrating rules often created by bureaucracies.   And sadly, nations that don’t allow such humor— the Soviet government eventually cracked down on Zoshenko— magnify the misery of their citizens.

Erik’s #4: Episode 41, In Search of Used Toothpaste.   Here we talked about Romanian immigrant Gyuszi Suto’s memoir, “I Tried”, a lighthearted look at his early life in Romania before moving to the U.S.   This one was especially significant for me, as I had worked with Gyuszi for over 20 years at Intel, but was never aware of his colorful background.     Let’s look at an excerpt.

The Romanian train cars emptied their toilets directly down onto the tracks. There was a sign in the bathrooms asking comrades not to use the toilets while the train was stopped in stations, but nobody paid attention. When a comrade had to go, the comrade went. As a result, the railroad tracks had the highest concentration of human manure in the whole desert—a straight line of putrid fertility cutting across the barren landscape.
Weird plants would pop up from the middle of the tracks, enjoying the unusually high level of fertilizers engulfing the crushed rocks of the ballast. Some weeds would grow a foot a day, much to the station chiefs’ dismay, who were supposed to keep their little kingdom clean and tidy. Since power tools for gardening did not exist, they would send out a poor guy to walk along the [poopy] tracks and try to whack down the thick weeds with a hoe.
I was thinking that if they’d build railroad tracks crisscrossing the Sahara desert and give free rides to the Romanian comrades—eating the same crappy food that we, the Camp workers got—pretty soon, they would revegetate the desert.
Maybe even animals would reappear. Never underestimate the climate changing potential of twenty million proletarians with diarrhea.

Once again we see the power of humor in coping with the completely irrational obstacles and challenges, and resulting dire poverty, created by the government. 

Manuel’s #3:    Episode 20, Outsmarting the Bureaucrats.  https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2019/09/  There we looked at Vladimir Bukovsky’s memoir “Judgement in Moscow”, where he talked about his efforts just after the fall of Communism to preserve its records.

I took the precaution of acquiring a miracle of Japanese technology: a portable computer with a handheld scanner. At that time this piece of technology had only just appeared in the West, and it was completely unknown to our Russian savages. Because of this I was able to sit right under their noses and scan piles of documents, page after page, with no worries about the curious, who kept coming up to admire my machine. “Look at that!” would exclaim the leaders of democratic Russia, peering admiringly over my shoulder. “Now that must have cost a few bucks!” 
Nobody realized what I was doing until the court hearing was almost over, until December 1992, when one of them suddenly saw the light and yelled loudly enough to be heard a block away: “He’s copying everything!!!” There was a deathly hush. I kept scanning, as though I had not heard. “He’ll publish everything over there!!!” I finished working, packed up my computer, and headed calmly for the door, looking neither left nor right. From the corner of my eye I could see the horrified faces of Yeltsin’s elite… Nobody said a word as I made my way to the door. They were probably busy calculating what untold millions I would make in the West.

This story emphasizes one of the major reasons why the abuses of communism are so seldom discussed:   both the bureaucrats in charge, and the intellectuals who are emotionally invested in the concept, actively hide and ignore documented records when they are available.    And we all need to be thankful that Bukovsky’s ruse succeeded, and with the records he was able to take out of the country, it is now even harder for anyone to deny the truths of the Soviet system.  

Erik’s #3:  Episode 25, An American In The Gulag.  https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2020/03/ .  This was the harrowing tale of Thomas Sgovio, one of the thousands of Americans who were fooled by the positive propaganda from such outlets as the New York Times, and emigrated to the Soviet Union to seek a better life.   Let’s look at what he saw there:

We made propaganda speeches describing the miserable workers' existence under capitalism ... and how fortunate the Russian workers were to live under Socialism! … I could not help noticing the contrast in the appearance of the Russian people at those meetings with the audiences in the communist meetings in Buffalo. First, I was struck by the uniformity in dress, then by a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the plain, ordinary men and women beyond the first and second rows. There was not that spark which ignited eyes to gleam and bristle with fire, there was not that wild applause I had so often experienced back home….
Our guides constantly reminded us to shut our eyes to the somberness of the poor Russian people. They had been worse off under the Czar. How wonderful everything would be in twenty or thirty years! I noticed that the charwomen in the House of Political Emigrants lived very poorly… I felt so terrible when I saw those women sitting in a corner sipping a glass of hot water and nibbling on a piece of rock sugar. They could not afford to buy a glass of tea - and here we polit-emigrants had all the tea we desired.

At some point, Stalin soured on the idea of American emigres living in his country, and most of the surviving immigrants like Sgovio ended up getting arrested.   His memoir describes a terrifying adventure lasting decades, where several times he ended up near death in the Gulag prison camps.   Eventually his ability to tell amusing stories of American criminals, and to draw pornographic cartoons, earned the favor of the prison gangs and saved his life.   Here he describes his low point in the prison camps:

When we awoke in the morning, we glanced at the fellow next to us. Was he alive? If he was dead, we hurriedly took his rags and covered the corpse…
The bodies were piled like logs. When three or four hundred accumulated, holes were bored, and blasting took place. The corpses were thrown into a mass grave, then covered…
When I looked at my bones I was scared. I was worse than any of the walking skeletons in the Srednikan recovery barrack. There was no flesh on my bones - only gray, scaly skin. Someone told me to sit down and wait my turn. I could not sit-it hurt terribly. I felt my buttocks - there were none…
The doctor pulled me aside from the others. In a low voice he said, "Tomas, to look at your body - it's as emaciated as any I've ever seen. It is fearful to look at your bones - but I can't find anything that will justify my listing you in the infirmary.

This story not only tells of the horrors of the slave labor camps created under Communism, but also lays bare some real human consequences of the fawning adoration that the Western press provides to Communist systems.   

Manuel’s #2:  Episode 27:  The First Massachusetts Commune.  https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2020/05/   This is the story you are likely to hear repeated by a conservative around Thanksgiving:   how the early American colonists attempted a form of communism in the 1600s, and nearly starved, before finally turning in a more individualistic direction.   Let’s look at an excerpt from the diary of Wiliam Bradford, an early governor of Plymouth:  (apologies for the antiquated English style)

In the end, they came to that misery, that some starved & dyed with could & hunger. One in geathering shell-fish was so weake as he stuck fast in the mudd, and was found dead in the place. At last most of them left their dwellings & scatered up & downe in the woods, & by the water sids, wher they could find ground nuts & clames,
…. At length, after much debate of things, the Gov r (with the advise of the cheefest amongest them) gave way that they should set corne every man for his owne perticuler, and in that regard trust to them selves…   And so assigned to every family a parcell of land, according to the proportion of their number for that end… 
This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corne was planted then other waise would have bene by any means the Gov r or any other could use, and saved him a great deall of trouble, and gave farr better contente. The women now wente willingly into the feild, and tooke their litle-ons with them to set corne, which before would aledg weaknes, and inabilitie; whom to have compelled would have bene thought great tiranie and oppression. 

Perhaps if this story was taught more thoroughly in school, we wouldn’t have so many young people embracing socialist ideas so enthusastically.

Erik’s #2:   Episode 6: Willful Ignorance.   https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2018/03/.       You may be surprised we haven’t had too much by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the most famous Soviet dissident and exposer of Communist atrocities, in this podcast.   That’s intentional, since we are trying to expose lesser-known stories, and he is probably the one universally known author in this category.   But in Episode 6, we did feature one story retold in his Gulag Archipelago:   the visit to the Solovki Island labor camp by famous populist author Maxim Gorky.     The prisoners, who were kept in overcrowded conditions, worked to the point of near-death, and tortured on a regular basis, thought Gorky, the author known for his love of the common laborer, would save them.    However, Gorky was exposed to a carefully curated visit, and when forced to confront the truth, simply ignored it.    Let’s look at some excerpts:

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! “  

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.  

The teenage boy was executed as soon as Gorky left.   After he returned home, Gorky issued the report expected by Stalin:  everything was fine at Solovki, and the prisoners were treated well.    This really hammers in the ability of supposedly idealistic intellectuals to intentionally ignore real atrocities, out of self-interest or fear, when it’s convenient— despite the human cost.

Manuel’s #1:   Episode 48, “Broken Promises”, https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2023/04/ .    This was a pretty recent one, so you may recall our discussion of Nelson Rodriguez Chartrand’s “The Revolution of Promises”, talking about how the Cuban Communist revolution was fundamentally built on a mountain of promises that were immediately broken.   Let’s look at an excerpt:

A health system cannot be of excellence where, literally, the vast majority of its hospitals lack the most basic hygiene conditions.    Cuban hospitals feature locked and fetid bathrooms, dirty and stinking mattresses, and patient clothes and blood-stained sheets aged by time.  Hospitals are in terrible construction conditions, unpainted; they commonly feature leaks and broken doors; and windows are in poor condition or non-existent.  The lack of security promotes the occurrence of robberies and thefts, with patients being the main victims.  In addition the peace of mind of the sick are threatened by the large influx of street vendors who turn hospital wards into true trade fairs.
There cannot be a health system of excellence in a country where, in order to have a bone scan, an axial tomography, or an MRI, the people have to wait up to six months in the best of cases, unless they pay a bribe that exceeds the monthly salary of any worker.
To make up for the shortage of doctors caused by their massive deployment to provide services outside of Cuba, the government was forced to place medical students in hospitals without the required knowledge and experience.   This has resulted in a considerable increase in wrong diagnoses and negligence, increasing the cases of damage to the health of patients, as well as the number of preventable deaths.

Chartrand also discusses the broken promises in many other areas of society, such as education, employment, a free press, and free speech.   His memoir is especially important because he left Cuba less than a decade ago, and his insights relate directly to what’s happening there right now.
By the way, I helped translate and publish the English version of this memoir, “The Revolution of Promises”, in the United States.   If you like it, be sure to post an Amazon review!

Erik’s #1:  Episode 17, A Poet’s Awakening.   https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2019/05/  .   This episode discussed the memoir “Dear Leader” by Jang Jin-Sung, one of North Korea’s top propagandists in the 1990s.   He talks about how his personal experience meeting dictator Kim Jong-Il, along with his personal observation of the nation’s poverty, turned him against the regime that had granted him a privileged position and numerous accolades.   Let’s look at a couple of excerpts from this one:

In return for our specialist work, and on top of our standard rations, we received additional rations of imported food every Saturday. .. the resources we received—different each time—came from the outside world. They were taken from humanitarian materials donated by the UN and the rest of the international community, as well as from South Korean NGOs and religious organizations.  The existence of such international aid was viewed as a shameful secret that the regime could not afford to reveal to its ordinary citizens at a time of widespread famine, as it would undermine the state’s ideology of “self-reliance.” 
[Later when visiting a non-elite friend]
That night, at the dinner prepared by Young-nam’s mother, I had to choke back my tears again. She proudly explained how she was able to offer me, her guest, a half-full bowl of rice—she had stashed away ten grains of rice at every meal. … When I asked how long it had taken to save up the rice, she replied, “Three months.” I could not believe that they were eating rice by the grain, instead of in servings. I muttered an excuse, saying that I had indigestion after eating lunch on the train.

This book is significant for a number of important reasons.   As with Cuba, this describes a regime that is essentially still with us today:  the famine of the 90s eventually ended, but the people still live in incredible poverty by world standards.   And, of course, he makes important points about the supposedly compassionate “foreign aid” provided by well-meaning citizens of free countries— which ends up just propping up the oppressors.     This book is also a great read because the second half, which we didn’t cover much, is a great adventure story about his escape from North Korea and path to safety in the West.

Well, that about wraps it up for our Top 10 list and discussion.   You can find the links to each of the episodes discussed in our show page at storiesofcommunism.com .
You also may have noticed that there has been quite a bit of time since our last episode.   Due to our lives being busy in many ways, we’re going to put this podcast on a bit of a hiatus.   But I think in our 50 episodes, we have accomplished what we set out to do:   show that the truth about the horrors of Communism is easily available, with many prolific authors risking their lives and putting in many thankless hours of labor to tell the world about their system.    
It’s also a stern rebuke to the education, media, and entertainment industries of the free world, who have intentionally failed to tell these stories, favoring emotionally satisfying left-wing narratives.     The material from just the authors we covered could probably inspire a few dozen TV shows or movies:   comedies, drama, romance, adventure, or pretty much any genre you can imagine.
And failing to tell these stories has led us to the real dangers of democratic nations around the world falling for the unfulfillable promises and taking the one-way trip into socialist and communist systems.    If you know anybody in these industries, ask them directly:   why are you failing to tell the stories of human struggle against a system that has enslaved or killed hundreds of millions of people, of nearly every race, creed, and religion, around the world over the last century? 

And this concludes your stories of Communism for today.

Manuel’s Top 5:  

  1. https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2023/04/ :  Nelson Chartrand's memoir, especially important since relevant today to Cuba's ongoing problems
  2. https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2020/05/ :  Not-often-enough told story about how early American colonists initially attempted communism & nearly starved
  3. https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2019/09/ :  Vladimir Bukovsky stands up to ex-Soviet bureaucrats and preserves history
  4. https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2018/11/ : Mikhail Zoshenko's Soviet satires of the 1920s, show importance of sense of humor to cope
  5. https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2020/10/:  Teodor Flonta's cross-iron-curtain romance, nice to have at least one story with a happy ending! 

Erik’s Top 5:

  1. https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2019/05/:  “A Poet’s Awakening”:  How North Korean propaganda leader Jang Jin-Sung learned the truth and decided to flee his country.
  2. https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2018/03/:  “Willful Ignorance”: The shameful story of how “the people’s writer” Maxim Gorky sacrificed a teenage boy to avoid facing the truth.
  3. https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2020/03/ :  “An American In The Gulag”:  Thomas Sgovio’s harrowing account of his experiences immigrating to the Soviet Union and then being imprisoned by Stalin.
  4. https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2021/12/ :  “In Search of Used Toothpaste”, immigrant engineer Gyuszi Suto’s lighthearted account of the oddities of living in Communist Romania.
  5. https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2021/10/:  “Little Socialist Women”, our discussion of famous author Louisa May Alcott’s surprising experience in communal living.

49: They Never Make Mistakes

 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, along with co-host Manuel Castaneda in Oregon.

Since China has been in the news a lot lately, we thought it would be good to cover another Chinese story.   Today we’ll be looking at Anhua Gao’s memoir “To The Edge of the Sky”.   Gao was born at about the same time Mao’s Communist regime took over China, in 1949, and thus lived through all the major phases, crises, and upheavals of that regime until she finally managed to emigrate to the UK in the early 1990s.   She grew up along with Communist China, and experienced many of that government’s worst human rights abuses firsthand.

Gao’s parents both fought in Mao Zedong’s revolutionary army, earning positions as senior government officials after their victory, and thus lived very well during the early days of Communist China.   She had a happy early childhood, and was close with her sister Andong and brother Wei-Guo, though her oldest sister Pei-gen, who had been traumatized while living through the war, was always somewhat distant.    Already during her childhood it was clear that the new “classless” society was developing its own social classes, as Gao points out:

Pei-gen attended a weekday boarding-school, which had been founded exclusively for children of officials from the East China Army Unit. She came home on Saturday afternoons and went back on Sunday evenings. … There were similar schools in all the major cities of China, which ensured a good education for the children of every important Communist. The Party was building a new structure of privilege similar to that of the Kuomintang, thus creating an √©lite class, exactly what they had fought to eliminate. There have to be people in charge, but when the ordinary people had so little, it was shameful that those in government took so much for themselves. At that time, I think my parents simply took what they were given without thinking about what was happening. They had lived through years of privation, and probably accepted this new, good life as their reward.

Gao, Anhua. To the Edge of the Sky (p. 44). Lume Books. Kindle Edition. 

In 1956 Mao announced that he wanted people to speak freely, to let “one hundred flowers blossom”, and criticize the regime in order to improve it.   This turned out to be a trick— after giving people the courage to criticize him in public, Mao soon announced that those who had done this were secret “rightists” who were attempting to overthrow the government and had to be punished.   One day Gao saw a visitor sitting in her mother’s room and crying.    Even though Gao’s parents had high standing, her uncle Zhou Ru-Sheng was one of those labelled a rightist:  he had suggested that maybe China shouldn’t be copying the USSR so much.   He had been an officer in the army, but lost his career, and was dishonorably discharged and sentenced for punishment.   It would be 30 years until Gao could see him again.

In the Anti-rightist Campaign, every work unit, including the army, was given a 5 per cent quota. … Once a person was branded a rightist, he or she was dismissed from their place of work and sent to the poorest rural area to ‘receive reform through hard labour’. The work was unpaid and thousands of kilometers away from any big city. …. My uncle Zhou Ru-sheng was one of the unlucky 5 per cent. Though his senior officer felt sorry for him, he had to fulfill the quota…

All the exiles had to wear black caps to denote their status as class enemies. My uncle remained single because no girl would dare to marry a rightist. He had nothing to offer: no status, no money, no prospects. Most of the married exiles lost their spouses by divorce and lost touch with their children because they were not allowed to correspond.   Many killed themselves to escape their unhappiness.


But the anti-rightist campaign was just a small inconvenience compared to the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s set of programs which destroyed farm productivity and resulted in the starvation of millions.   The “Leap” consisted of several initiatives Mao created based on personal reading and observation, and forced on the entire nation of China without anyone in the government daring to contradict him.    For example, since it was reported that sparrows ate a small part of the annual grain harvest, Mao enlisted the whole nation, even schoolchildren like Gao, to slaughter as many sparrows as they could— but he didn’t realize that these birds also helped to eat pests that would otherwise destroy far more crops than the sparrows ate.  Another big initiative in the Leap was the push for industrialization.   Many farmers were pulled from their fields to participate, and every citizen had to contribute metal items to help manufacture steel.   Gao’s mother gave up their family wok, so they had to start eating at a public canteen.   As a result of all this, crop yields were horrible for several years, which the government attempted to label the “years of natural calamities” to deflect blame.   

The streets began to fill with desperate beggars, telling tales of starvation and even cannibalism in the countryside.   Many of Gao’s distant relatives, who she had never heard of before, showed up at their house to beg for help.  Her mother gave them meals out of her own meager rations and let them stay a few days, but even this angered her grandmother, who was worried about their immediate family’s survival.   Gao’s grandfather started planting a few vegetables in the yard, successfully producing some food for the family, who were surprised that the so-called “years of natural calamities” weren’t affecting their plot.   Many others who had some land had similar ideas, and some sold their surplus production— though many who were caught were executed as “saboteurs of the socialist economic order.”    Despite all this, government propaganda continued to convince the citizens that they were living better than any other country in the world.

Gao’s childhood ended up being interrupted by more personal concerns, though, as her mother became ill, and died after a long hospital stay.   Her father had already died several years earlier.    Ironically, the fact that both her parents died would benefit her immensely:  since they had been in Mao’s army, she got certificates labelling both her parents “revolutionary martyrs”, a very high status that would not be lost (as status was for many living leaders) in Mao’s purges.   She and her siblings wanted to remain in their house and be raised by their grandparents, who had been living with them already and handling most of their day-to-day needs while her parents worked, but China’s new class system made this impossible.  They had owned property before the Revolution, an unforgivable sin.   The children were even warned to avoid visiting their grandparents, since association with them could hurt their future careers.

I couldn’t understand why there had been no problem for them to live with us when Mother was alive and now they had no right to look after us. My uncle explained that, with Mother in charge of the household, there had been no political difficulty: she had been a senior Party official and could give us guidance. Now, without her influence, it was too dangerous for us to live with our grandparents. We were ‘revolutionary successors’ and could not be allowed to live under the influence of a landlord. 


Gao and her siblings were taken in by several uncles.   They were sent to good schools, and Gao excelled in her schoolwork as well as making some good friends.   But she was swept into another of Mao’s mass movements:  sending children from the city to work as slaves in the countryside farms for a period of time, in an effort to increase production.     The conditions there were horrible.    Gao was lucky that she was relatively young at this time, so only had to go for two weeks:  many of the older children were sent for years, having their lives ruined forever.   The forced workers had to sleep on the floor with no bedding, worked to exhaustion, and lived in unsanitary conditions that resulted in continual diarrhea.    Their main breaks were propaganda sessions, where farmers were supposed to tell them how much worse things were under pre-communist oppression.   But one of the farmers made a critical mistake:

She was made to do all kinds of hard labour, but never had good food to eat. She had no shoes and went barefoot all the year round, even in the icy winters, and she was beaten regularly by her cruel landlord. She cried as she remembered those terrible times and her audience, including me, felt sad about her unhappy life as compared to the sweetness of our own. However, it was not long before we noticed something wrong with her report. She dwelt on the terrible hunger of 1960 to 1962, which had occurred under the Communists! She was clearly unaware of her mistake, because she was illiterate and could not distinguish between the Kuomintang and Communist governments. All she knew was the hard life she had endured, and to her the old past and the recent past had blurred into one. As soon as the leaders realized her mistake, they led her away from the meeting. The commune leader explained that she was too old and sad and her mind was muddled… I don’t think many of us were fooled but, as usual, nothing was said.


Her short experience in the countryside motivated Gao to study even harder and try to be a top student, so she would not have to risk getting sent there for a longer term, or even permanently.   She would end up being sent again for other short stints of countryside labor while in school, with the conditions being just as horrible, and her body getting covered with insect bites that would take months to heal.   This also started her seriously questioning Mao’s teachings for the first time:  nothing she saw in the farmlands matched the idyllic picture that the official propaganda had painted.   A former schoolmate who was now living permanently on a farm confessed to her that she hated everything about this life and desperately wanted to go back to the city.

Then in 1966 Mao’s Cultural Revolution began.   As you may recall, this is the period when Mao unleashed teenage and young adult mobs to attack and destroy anyone suspected of not fully supporting his form of Communism, or taking the ‘capitalist road’.    The requirement for blind loyalty in Mao was reinforced, with everyone being required to own a copy of the “little red book” of his quotations.   Students in Gao’s school began putting up posters criticizing their teachers, and soon it went further.

Within a few days, writing defamatory posters was no longer enough for them. The poster-writers were strutting around the school, ready for mischief, and it pained me to see my own brother among them. It wasn’t long before the students were in control of the school, and the rabble was in charge of the students. Then the first beating occurred. 

It came, as these things usually do, from nowhere. A teacher came into school and discovered her students tearing pages out of a book from the school library. She tried to take it from them, failed, and was pushed to the floor. The students laughed, and one girl picked up a torn-out page. ‘Eat!’ she shouted, and pushed the paper into the face of the teacher. ‘Eat this!’ She forced the page into the mouth of the teacher, and made her chew it, urged on by a few slaps across the face. Then one of the boys punched her. Punching became kicking, which progressed to a full-scale severe beating. Only the intervention of several other teachers saved her. 

It was expected that the students responsible for the beating would be punished, but they weren’t. So more and more students, wanting to settle old scores, joined the gang, and every day we had to watch as one teacher after another was beaten up by the students….

I dared not read English now, or do any kind of study, because I was a typical example of those students who had taken the ‘white academic road’. However, I wasn’t attacked by other students, like so many of my classmates, because I was protected by the certificates of revolutionary martyrs. They shielded me from danger for many years.


Schooling and industrial production were virtually paralyzed, as different factions of “Red Guards”, also known as “Rebels”, began fighting each other in addition to preying on the public.   But one other element that upset Gao was that her oldest sister, Pei-gen, became a senior leader in one of the Guards factions, and her brother Wei-guo seemed to also be adopting her level of fanaticism.   When Gao tried to bring her some good food she had cooked at home, her sister scolded her for her bourgeois decadence.   

But Gao then faced another danger— Mao again announced that spoiled middle-class kids in the cities needed to spend time in the countryside, and would be once again sent out to do farm labor, this time for an unspecified amount of time.   She was terrified to be trapped as a farm slave again, and the one way to be exempted from this command was to join the army.   Luckily she had a few contacts who were still military officers, and managed to get accepted as a nurse in training.   Army life had its challenges, but was nowhere near as bad as the country farms had been.   Grateful for this safety valve, she performed well as a soldier and nurse, and was soon popular and well-respected among her colleagues there.   Other than having to study Mao’s little red book and constantly attend propaganda meetings, most of the worst effects of the Cultural Revolution didn’t directly impact the army bases.   But her unit was assigned to provide healthcare for some of the students in the countryside, and she observed even worse conditions than she had known:

The young people who came to us all told the same story. The boys were subjected to brutal treatment by the peasant officials, and the girls were raped repeatedly by the production brigade leaders. If they resisted, they were given the worst jobs with the lowest work-points. There was no joy in their lives, only terror, pain and ill-treatment. Sadly we could do nothing to help the majority of them – we did not dare issue false certificates, because there would be more tests when they returned home. 

Some, mostly girls, got a false certificate [of disability or illness] by giving their bodies and money to those who had power over them. But all too often the leaders took the money and continued to rape them, with no intention of ever letting them go. Many young people of both sexes committed suicide, often by drowning. Others fell on sharpened sticks or hanged themselves. Of those who returned home, many were in poor health and out of their minds. Some never recovered.

p. 301-302

During her time in the army, Gao missed her family, and sent lots of letters to them— including to her oldest sister Pei-gen, despite their strained relationship.   Surprisingly, Pei-gen seemed to want to mend fences, and actually wrote back, which she hadn’t done in the past.   Gao became more and more comfortable writing to her sister, and open about her feelings, including her frustration at the constant propaganda and the excesses of the Cultural Revolution.   But this was a mistake:  she should have realized that her sister was still a fanatic follower of Mao, and loved him more than her family.   There was probably also a strong element of jealousy, as Gao had written that she was being considered for Communist Party membership, an honor that her sister had not yet achieved.   Pei-gen sent letters to Gao’s commanders, pointing out her disloyalty and demanding that she be expelled from the army.   

Luckily, Gao was so well-liked that her commanders contrived an excuse to discharge her due to ill health rather than disloyalty, so she was sent to a city to find a less physically demanding job, rather than exiled to the farm labor camps.   She got a job in a factory, and soon began making friends and becoming popular there.   But for her first few years, most time was spent on propaganda meetings and struggle sessions rather than work.   The Cultural Revolution was still in progress, and she was forced to observe beatings and even deaths of accused counter-revolutionaries at the factory.

Things changed for Gao again when China’s relations with the West began to open up, and knowledge of English became an important resource.   She had been a good student in school, before the Cultural Revolution, and had been lucky enough to be assigned to take English classes back then.   She retained enough of the language to impress her co-workers, and her factory sent her to some more advanced English classes.     In a few years, she was approved to transfer to a more prestigious job, translating English for foreign contacts.   But she ran up against another barrier.

I was a worker, not an intellectual. And, according to the peculiar system of different areas of work in China, all workers belonged to the labour-force department and all intellectuals were run by the cadre department. Nobody was allowed to cross between the two. At that time, I was a lowly grade-two worker, and usually it was impossible for a worker to become a cadre, unless he or she had a special skill. Therefore, when Mao said the working class was the leading class, he deliberately misled them to keep them happy: in fact, the workers could never occupy leading positions…

It became clear that the only way was for me to go through the back door. I contacted Liu Lin, who had once been a friend of our family…

Two weeks later a formal notice of my transfer arrived. The Jiangsu Provincial Personnel Bureau had accepted me at Liu’s suggestion because some worker Rebels were now employed in government offices… Apparently it was a ‘new socialist emerging thing’, or so it said in the transfer notice. In other words they had found a way round the rules.

p. 380-383

Things continued to go well for Gao’s career, with her English becoming increasingly important after Mao’s death.   Deng Xiaoping encouraged new business relationships with the West, and Gao was soon in a position where she was negotiating contracts with foreign businesspeople.   Then in 1985, she was suddenly arrested by the State Security Bureau, or SSB, as a foreign spy.    They burst into her house, destroying everything they could in their search for evidence, even smashing her TV and typewriter.   They were furious when they couldn’t find any actual evidence of espionage, and ludicrously asserted that her English-language copy of “A Tale of Two Cities” must be a secret foreign codebook, demanding that she show them how to decode the hidden messages.    They then hauled her off to jail, and put her in a dirty, unfurnished, bug-filled cell with a few other prisoners, and a hole in the ground to use as a toilet.

It took Gao a while to figure out why she had been arrested, based on questions asked during the interrogations.    Meanwhile, she was constantly threatened, beaten, and pressured to confess, with the promise that things would go easy on her if she did.   But she was smart not to fall into that trap— fellow prisoners confirmed to her that a confession would just result in a long sentence.   Finally she realized that this had all come about because of a contract she recently negotiated, with someone named David Wei in Hong Kong.   Her boss had been furious because he had wanted to reserve that contract for a personal friend, but she had told him it was too late, as the contract was signed.    To punish her, he reported her as spying for this David Wei.   But her boss, and the SSB, had made one critical mistake— while currently residing in Hong Kong, and going by the Anglicized name ‘David’ to make things easier there, Wei was actually a Chinese citizen and full Communist Party member.    

When the SSB realized that their ‘espionage’ accusation involved an actual Communist Party member, they realized their mistake.   But to save face, they kept Gao in jail for months, pressuring her in regular interrogation meetings to confess to something.  Due to the complications of the case, Gao was spared from the torture suffered by other prisoners, though she could sometimes hear their screams.

‘They wanted confessions because most of the cases had no evidence to support the charges. Most were imaginary accusations, so only a confession could be used as proof of guilt. They did this all the time, and every confession proved that their methods of arrest were correct. Many of the prisoners confessed on the threat of being harmed, and often confessed to much more than their original charges. 

Many of these people were ignorant peasants and they did not understand what was going on. They believed the interrogators when they promised freedom on confession. ‘In fact, it was stupid to confess to anything that was not true. The more crimes they confessed to, the more guilty they appeared. “Confession earns lenient treatment” was just a trick to get prisoners to provide their own evidence to meet the charges made against them. But to resist was to be branded an “anti-Party person” which was a great crime and severe punishment naturally followed. In other words, once someone was in here, they had no chance of ever getting out with a clean name. They were guilty, guilty, guilty! Never innocent. Because the Party is always right…

‘The gaolers here have invented a new punishment called a Tiger Jacket…It is a very heavy thing made of iron, and it looks like the chest part of ancient armour. But it is very small and tight. The gaolers first bound the arms of the woman behind her back. Then the Tiger Jacket was put on to her. They squeezed her upper body into it so that she couldn’t move any part of her torso from the neck down to her hips. It was so tight, she could hardly breathe. The minimum time for having the Tiger Jacket on was forty-eight hours. If the prisoner complained, the time was prolonged.

p. 438-440

On the other hand, Gao still had some friends in the party, and the judge of the case actually recognized the injustice here and tried to convince the SSB to just drop it.    As it dragged on, the case essentially became a power struggle between the court and the SSB.   Eventually they reached a compromise:  Gao would be released from jail, but be given a conviction with a suspended sentence.   This would be in her record for the rest of her life, preventing any hope of advancement or better jobs, but she would be allowed to go back to her current job.   She was angry at this:  since she was completely innocent, why should her record be corrupted?  But she realized that escaping at all from the clutches of the SSB was a minor miracle— usually there was no hope at all once someone had been arrested like this.   Later the judge tried to explain the situation:

‘You know, of course, our Party will always find a scapegoat to take the blame for any mistake. The SSB do the same just to save their own faces. They contacted me saying that the image of the Party must never be tarnished, therefore Gao Anhua must be sacrificed.’ He stopped to drink. ‘I regret to say I have knowingly judged innocent people to be guilty in the past, simply because it was demanded of me by the Party. But your case was so blatantly unfair, that I hesitated. I needed time to think. In my heart I knew it was wrong to convict you. 

When the SSB tried to bully me into giving a guilty verdict, that made up my mind. I resented their threatening attitude and decided not to do as they demanded. I have seen enough futures destroyed for no good reason. Sometimes I have been involved in making such things happen. And every time I felt very bad afterwards, unable to eat and sleep for days on end. Evil is evil, no matter how justified it can be made to appear. So it was not only you who was on trial … I put myself on trial too.’

p. 462-463 

Readjusting to life after release was hard.   Despite the sentence officially allowing her to return to her job, her factory no longer wanted her and kept making excuses to prevent her from returning or collecting her salary.    She was broke, and her young daughter had been taken away.   Luckily, the judge took a personal interest in her, giving her some starting money and helping her through the bureaucratic mazes needed to restart her life.   Ironically, the SSB now attempted to pressure her into helping them make a case against the judge, for revealing secrets of the judicial process in his conversations with her, but she was too smart to fall for any of those tricks.   With lots of help from the judge and other friends, Gao managed to get her daughter back, return to work, and start living a normal life again.   

The autobiography continues after this, eventually reaching a happy ending where Gao marries an Englishman who she met through a personal ad, and through this was able to finally leave China.

<closing conversation with Manuel>

Be sure to check out Anhua Gao’s memoir, “To the Edge of the Sky”, if you want to learn more about Gao’s story.   You can find the book’s Amazon link in the show notes at storiesofcommunism.com .

By the way, don’t forget that former podcast guest Nelson Rodriguez Chartrand’s new memoir of life under Cuban communism, “The Revolution of Promises”, is now available.   Find it on Amazon or use the link at storiesofcommunism.com to order!

And this has been your Story of Communism for today.