English Version of "The Revolution of Promises" Is Now Available!

Hi everyone-- sorry for the delay since the last episode.   I've been involved in a side project, completing the translation & enabling the publication of the English version of Cuban dissident Nelson Rodriguez Chartrand's book, "The Revolution of Promises".   

You can find it on Amazon at this link.   

If you like it, posting a good review on Amazon would be helpful.   Thanks!

Episode 48: Broken Promises

 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.

Apologies for the gap since the last episode.   You may recall that in a couple of previous episodes, we interviewed Cuban dissident Nelson Rodriguez Chartrand, who settled in Brazil a few years ago after fleeing the island.   He recently published a short book, “La Revolucion De Las Promesas”, or “The Revolution of Promises”, sharing some of his experiences and perspectives on the Communist system under which he lived most of his life.   Unfortunately, the book was in Spanish, and he told me there was no planned translation to English.   So…. I took the task on myself.   Armed with my high school level Spanish education, email access to the author, and lots of help from Google Translate, over the last few months I’ve been translating the book myself in my spare time.   A professional literary translator could probably do a lot better, but I’m pretty sure I got the basic ideas across, so quotes in this episode will be from my English translation.

Originally, Nelson was a bit nervous about writing a book.   In the introduction, he explains how his friends managed to eventually convince him.

Imagine, just a month ago I had arrived in Brazil after having lived 53 years (all my life) without knowing anything other than the tyranny of man by man.   There, on that Caribbean island,  books that are published must renounce any efforts to capture the traces of suffering that are hidden, by the force of terror and censorship, in the depths of the heart of each Cuban.   Publishers of such government-approved books could obtain the status of a privileged slave.   For followers of a Libertarian ideology, the possibility of publishing a book in Cuba was nil and unimaginable…. The strongest argument was the need to insist on banishing, once and for all from the pages of history, the pernicious myth of philanthropic nature, welfare, and social justice, which had been woven for more than six decades around the Cuban political-social project.

But the truth is that beyond the “excellence” of the health and education system; beyond an “exceptional social justice system” sold with success and endorsed with a seal of guarantee from various international institutions such as UNESCO and the World Health Organization, among others; hides a tyrannical regime governed by despots of the lowest ilk, who have led the Cuban people to an alarming level of material and spiritual misery.

Nurturing the idea that the Cuban revolutionary project is an example to be followed does nothing more than drag the future towards an abyss of gloom.

The title of the book, “The Revolution of Promises”, comes from Nelson’s key point that the Cuban Communist regime has been built on endless promises of promoting freedom, prosperity, and human dignity— all of which have continually been broken.   This started even before the revolution, when Castro firmly promised before the world stage that he was not a Communist, in order to better gain support from the US and other Western nations.   In 1959, he actually promised a lot more than that:

On January 9, already in Havana, Fidel Castro told the people: “We have a free country. We have no censorship and the people can meet freely. We are never going to use force and the day the people don't want me, I will leave”.

Castro was also very clear in showing his lack of interest in power: “Power doesn't interest me. After the victory I want to return to my town and continue my career as a lawyer.”   He said that in 1958, before the victory and on January 3, 3 days after the victory of the revolution, he again 

emphasized this, saying : “I am not interested in power, I do not covet it…”

In February 1959, he promised: "I am sure that in the course of a few short years we will raise the standard of living in Cuba to that of the United States and Russia.”  On March 13 of the same year, he reiterated: “We have said that we will turn Cuba into the most prosperous country in the Americas, we have said that the people of Cuba will achieve the highest standard of living than any country in the world”.

Many decades later, Nelson would learn firsthand the value of the promises about freedom and lack of interest in power:

In 2008 I was sentenced to two years in prison, by the Provincial Court of Havana, for demonstrating in favor of freedom of movement.  In the final part of the trial, when the president of the Chamber urged the acting prosecutor to clarify whether or not he maintained the sanction that he had proposed in the provisional conclusions, he replied "I maintain my provisional conclusions, because it is a policy of the party and the government, that in cases like these we have to be implacable.”    This is a real event which regularly occurs in current Cuban society, clearly demonstrating the arrogance of the Cuban Communist Party, which even goes so far as to challenge and intimidate the judicial bodies.

And far from bringing the prosperity and standard of living that were promised, Castro created a system where it was nearly impossible to keep a family fed on typical wages from a normal job.   So nearly everyone has to struggle to earn money by any means necessary, either in the underground economy or through theft.   Though everyone does it, the consequences are dire for those who are caught.

Cubans live to a large extent on what they can steal.   Consistently, when you offer a job to anyone, they ask you if there is “something to be found”, which means, in popular slang, if there is something to steal.  Everyone steals:  the clerk of a market, the one of a pharmacy, the nurse, the doctor, the teacher, the cleaning assistant, the secretary, the lawyer and the judge of a court, the policeman and the jailer, the dentist and the butcher, the storekeeper and the guard.   They do it not for pleasure, but out of necessity. The verb “to steal” in Cuba changed its meaning to “to survive”.

The storekeeper steals what is in his inventory; it can be screws, shoelaces, etc.  The doctor sells the medical prescriptions; the nurse syringes, cotton, alcohol (this product is in high demand due to the level of alcoholism that exists in the population).   The cleaner appropriates the detergent; the cook, food; the secretary paper, pencils and notebooks.  And thus Cuba is composed of an endless chain of millions of people committing crimes to be able to bring something to eat to their homes daily.    

When I was in prison, there were many inmates who, upon learning I was a captive lawyer, came to me in search of legal advice.   I was able to verify that more than 80% of them were accused of the crimes of embezzlement and theft, and that none of them were well-connected with the rulers.

Every Cuban must be constantly aware of the general lack of freedom in every sphere of existence, to avoid making a misstep and getting into trouble.   Nelson illustrates the extent to which his own mind has been trained by living in this situation for half a century.

Let me give you an idea of the strong repression to which independent journalists are subjected in Cuba, as well as anyone who expresses themselves, in any way, outside the discourse imposed by the rulers, and the consequences that result.   Shortly after arriving in Brazil, I was invited to a demonstration that was held in support of President Bolsonaro prior to the elections.  It happened that a Brazilian friend asked me for a small interview, to which I gladly agreed.

Almost at the end of the conversation I realized, in the middle of that crowd, that two policemen approached slowly; I didn't say another word.   Seeing my facial expression, my interviewer perceived what was happening and with a calm smile, he told me: "Don't worry, you’re in a free country.”     

As you would expect, maintaining such a regime also requires very tight control on information from the outside world.   Trips abroad are an impossible dream for all but the top-ranking Party members, and residents of Cuba have to be very careful when talking to any visiting foreigners.       Children were being built into the Communist ideal of a “new man”, who would have unquestioning loyalty to the party.   Nelson shares a sad story about an international festival that he attended as a young child:   

Back in 1978, the Eleventh World Festival of Youth and Students was held in Cuba.  I was in the José Martí pioneer camp, better known as Tarará, when a young foreign delegate approached me and kindly gave me a pen.   You can't imagine what that gift cost me:  a reprimand in front of everyone and the seizure of the small pen.   But what hurt me the most, I remember, was being told in front of everyone that I was not acting like a good revolutionary, the greatest insult that an aspiring “new man” could receive.

Beyond that, the government had to work to separate children from their families, to ensure that they would grow up with the approved political views:

But to create a New Man it was not enough to place love for the family in the background, giving priority to love for the revolution and its great leader; physical separation from an early age was indispensable.   From the age of 6, children were taken to pioneer camps, where they spent up to a month receiving classes, family customs being replaced with new ones molded by the rulers, thus ending the institution of the family.

In adolescence they forced us to go for forty-five days, in each school year, to the so-called schools in the countryside for forced labor in agricultural activities.   Eventually almost all the secondary and pre-university schools transitioned to the countryside, where the youngsters spent little more than 24 hours a week with their families. About the disastrous result of these schools I will comment later.

I remember my first time, I was 12 years old. There we were, a crowd of waiting children, with traditional rustic wooden suitcases, made in most cases by the parents themselves. Tears flooded the eyes of children and parents.

Already, sitting on the bus that would separate me hundreds of kilometers from my loved ones and the protection of home, I felt like crying.   But I stopped myself:  I didn't want to go through the experience of other children who were teased and labeled soft.    Forty-five days, forced to work and live in inadequate conditions; separated from affection, attention and family customs. My agony, and that of my companions, was justified according to the leaders.  The only motivation we had was to comply with the work norm, in exchange for obtaining a crudely elaborate piece of paper, which endorsed us as an outstanding student.  This was the best gift we could give our parents every Sunday, the day designated for a brief reunion.   How much our parents had to sacrifice to be able to see us for a few hours every Sunday!

To add insult to injury, numerous world bodies uncritically accepted Cuban educational statistics and reports, leading to fawning praise by UNESCO and the World Bank:

  • "For several years now, Cuba's educational system has distinguished itself by its high quality." (UNESCO)
  • “Cuba has the best educational system in Latin America and the Caribbean" (WORLD BANK)
  • "Cuba is a world example of best practices in education" (UNESCO)
  • "Cuban education is an example for the world." (UNESCO)

Aside from the work camps and propaganda, Cuban education also suffers from the same problems affecting all careers:   anyone competent wants a job that offers ways to earn or steal money on the side, and teaching bears few opportunities of this kind.   Many educated professionals earn spare money by tutoring, but actual teachers are not allowed to do this, presumably due to fear of conflict of interest.   The result has been a continual shortage of teachers.   The government tried to solve this by recruiting massive numbers of barely-educated recent graduates to fill the open spots, often incentivized by a chance to avoid military service.   As Nelson summarizes:

The result was disastrous. Cases of sexual harassment, fights between students and teachers, immorality of all kinds, and the collapse of the academic preparation of the students, began to gain space in Cuban schools.

With this poor preparation inherited from years of educational crisis, many young people arrived at the universities practically without knowing how to write.  This greatly worried the university teaching staff to such an extent that the Cuban government had to introduce entrance exams for students leaving pre-university education, to be able to access university studies.   This constituted a tacit recognition by the government of the inadequate preparation of the Cuban student body.

Now I wonder if UNESCO and other UN agencies took this verifiable reality into account when certifying the high quality of the Cuban educational system.

The health care system is another of the great promises made by the Cuban government, and to this day we have Western leftists, on the basis of seeing some elite hospitals reserved for top Communists, praising their success in providing universal health care.   

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.

Even worse than incompetence, though, is active collaboration by health care workers in the government’s oppression.   Nelson shares another personal experience here:

There have been many peaceful Cuban dissidents, who after having received cruel beatings by the repressive organs, have been denied, by orders of state security agents, the right to receive the results of the medical examinations carried out (Medical Certificates).   This prevents them from being used as irrefutable proof of the atrocities and abuses committed by the regime.

I remember as if it were today that night of May 8, 2008, when a doctor from the National Hospital, with a sarcastic smile, proceeded by order of the state security agents who were guarding me as a detainee, to extract some blood without presenting any ailment, despite my refusal and finding myself handcuffed.

But one of the most persistent causes of daily suffering in Cuba is the simple lack of food.   This is another case where uncritical acceptance of government statistics by the UN helps to mislead the world community about the actual problem.

Perhaps you have read news like this: "The Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) recognized that hunger is not a problem in Cuba”.  This constitutes, in my opinion, a great example of mockery, contempt, and disrespect towards the Cuban people who suffer from hunger.   If anything has bathed Cuban homes in tears in the last sixty years of socialism, it has been, above all things, food shortages….

During all this time there has not been a Cuban town-dwelling mother or father who has not suffered the anguish and despair of not having a decent plate of food to give her children.  The Cuban father of a family literally has no space to think about anything other than how to procure food for the day.  It is a thought that accompanies him 24 hours a day, 30 days a month and 365 days a year.

If, as I have already expressed, the price of the basic basket in Cuba is symbolic, the amount of food that Cubans receive for a whole month is as well.   The reality is that the so-called food security that the Cuban government allocates to the population only guarantees ten days of sustenance, no more.

For the remaining twenty days of the month, Cubans have to struggle to be able to eat, since they have no other alternative than to resort to the exorbitant prices of the food that is offered in the agricultural markets, in hard-currency stores that are often out of stock, or in the informal market, prices well beyond the reach of the average Cuban…. The aspirations of the average Cuban do not go beyond subsistence.

… Nor does the FAO say that children in Cuba have guaranteed milk up to the age of 7, with irregular deliveries and of poor quality.  From that age, parents have to procure it, when it appears, on the black market or in stores in hard currency, which is a real headache for Cuban mothers and fathers.

You cannot talk about food security in a country where the majority of its inhabitants cannot have regular access to sufficient nutritious food.

And as you would expect in the face of such scarcity, Cubans cannot be fussy about the quality of the food they do manage to find.

To this we must add the poor quality of food. There are many times that soy hash and mortadella are sold in poor condition, with the color and stench typical of decomposed products, but there is no other option for many Cubans.

In my case, to be able to consume that unworthy hash, I boiled it several times, added a little salt and the odd seasoning if I had it, and that's it. In the case of the mortadella, I washed it well, fried it almost until it burned to kill the bacteria, and that was it.   We ate it, or went hungry, simple as that.

Even the Communist Party had to eventually acknowledge that there was a problem with the food supply.   Their solution, however, was rather ridiculous.

Only insolent rulers, without any political will to procure the well-being of their people, can think of, after sixty years in power, this alternative:  in the face of a deep food crisis, encourage the production of sugarcane “guarapo” (sugar water) and the consumption of lemon juice.

"We have to have lemons in the country. Lemonade is the base of everything. You add anything else to a lemon soda base and it's already a really nice soda, and very good…", this was the recent proposal that the president presented to the people of Cuba to alleviate the deep food crisis.

I very much doubt that there can be a ruler today, even from the poorest country on the planet, who has the shamelessness to propose to his people as a solution to the food problem, "incentivize the production of lemons to guarantee them as a food alternative, for lemon soft drinks.”

Nelson also devotes a chapter to discussing the effects of the US embargo on Cuba.   You have probably heard the constant claims that Cuba’s poverty is due to the US embargo, and thus it is only due to the evil Yankees that Cubans live in such poverty.   While Nelson agrees that the embargo has not accomplished anything, he also points out that it is extremely unlikely to have had any negative effects— if anything, Cuba is an economically privileged country in the arena of world trade.    The US is actually one of Cuba’s largest trading partners anyway, due to embargo exceptions such as food and agricultural products.   And aside from this, Cuba has received preferential trade terms and billions of dollars worth of loan forgiveness from countries such as China, Russia, Venezuela, and even Spain and France.

Nelson concludes by pointing out the many ways in which, before the Communist takeover, Cuba was one of the most prosperous and advanced nations in the Western hemisphere, largely seen as almost comparable to our European allies.   They led the way among Latin American countries in adopting modern industry, steamships, railways, and similar technologies.    They were even leaders in workers’ rights, being the first country in the region to mandate 8 hour work days, and providing the second highest average income in Latin America.   They were recognized internationally for low infant mortality, low illiteracy rates, and a high number of doctors per capita.

Following the most elementary of the senses, common sense, Cuba should be today one of the countries with the best welfare state on the planet in all senses.   However, the legacy left behind by 61 years of communism and tyranny has literally been none other than material misery, spiritual misery, and above all things, great despair.

<closing conversation with Manuel>

If you can read Spanish, be sure to check out Nelson’s book, “La Revolucion De Las Promesas”, at the link in the show notes.   I’m also working on making my English version available, and will add another link there when I get that online.   Be sure to keep Nelson’s points in mind the next time you hear an American leftist praising Cuba.  

And this has been your Story of Communism for today.



Episode 47: A View From The Top

 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.

Today we’re going to look at a fascinating autobiography by a different kind of victim of Communism:   Svetlana Aliluyeva, the daughter of Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin.   Now of course, we can’t have too much sympathy for her, having lived a life of relative security and prosperity at the top of a system that was murdering millions of people.   But she was not directly involved in the government, and had to spend decades watching helplessly as almost all her family and friends fell victim to the horrible fates shared by so many who had the misfortune to live in Stalin’s soviet union.   As we’ll see, her tragic story can give us some new insights into the fundamental nature of the Soviet system.   We’ll be looking at excerpts from her memoir “Twenty Letters to a Friend”, which was released after she escaped the USSR and defected to the United States in the late 1960s.

In Svetlana’s early years, she actually had relatively positive memories of her father, and a lively family life.   There was even a romantic legend about how Stalin first met her mother Nadezhda, many years before they eventually got married as adults:

There is a family legend that as a young man my father rescued my mother from drowning. It happened in Baku when she was two years old. She was playing on the shore and fell in. He is said to have gone in after her and fished her out. Years afterward my mother met my father again. She was a schoolgirl of sixteen by that time, and he an old friend of the family, a thirty-eight-year-old revolutionary just back from exile in Siberia. Maybe the fact that he had rescued her seemed significant to her, for she was a romantic, full of feeling and imagination.

Alliluyeva, Svetlana. Twenty Letters to a Friend (pp. 49-50). HarperCollins. Kindle Edition. 

When Nadezhda and Stalin met again, they were both involved in the revolutionary movement that led to the formation of the Soviet Union.   Both were viewing it somewhat idealistically at that point, though she was probably much more naive, being over two decades younger than her husband.    Both dedicated themselves fully to the Revolution, at first.

My father loved Russia deeply all his life. I know no other Georgian who had so completely sloughed off his qualities as a Georgian and loved everything Russian the way he did. Even in Siberia my father had a real love of Russia—the nature, the people, the language. He always looked back on his years of exile as if they were nothing but hunting, fishing and walks through the taiga. This love remained with him always.

(pp. 125-126)

It was not the thing at that time for a woman, especially a woman Party member, to spend much time with her children. My mother worked first on the staff of a magazine and then enrolled in the Industrial Academy. She was forever attending meetings somewhere, and she spent all her free time with my father. He was her whole life. We children generally had to be content with her simply checking on our progress. She was strict and she had high standards. I cannot recall her kissing or caressing me ever.

(p. 30)

In this first revolutionary generation, many of the leaders seemed to take their beliefs about personal property and luxury very seriously, not trying to accumulate special wealth or privileges directly.    Stalin and his family actually seemed to hold on to these principles longer than most of their allies.   Naturally, they still lived very well compared to the average Russian of the period, but the ostentatious displays and conspicuous consumption that later dominated the Soviet elites did not seem to be very prevalent in this group.    

All the Soviet leaders lived pretty much like this at that time. No one cared about luxury or possessions, though they did try to give a good education to their children. …  All the wives had jobs and read all they could in their spare time. …The women paid no attention to makeup or clothes, but they looked nice just the same. … It was only after my mother died that they started building him special dachas. My mother didn’t live to see all this luxury, paid for out of limitless public funds. That happened after she died, when the house came to be run at state expense, on a military footing, by agents of the secret police. During my mother’s lifetime we had a normal, modest life.

(p. 34)

For all their “golden hands” and their industriousness, both my grandparents were utterly impractical. During later years when they …had some small token privileges, such as ration books, to which Old Bolsheviks were entitled, both of them continued to show the utmost scorn for worldly goods. They kept on wearing the same old clothing left over from before the Revolution. They would wear the same overcoat for twenty years, and out of three old dresses my grandmother would make a perfectly good new one. … The relatives of other important men in the Party, meantime, were using similar positions to carve out lives of luxury for themselves and their relations, both close and not so close.

(pp. 48-49)

My mother… refused to go to the Academy in a car or even let on to the other students who she was. Many of them didn’t know for a long time whom Nadya Alliluyeva was married to. Life was altogether simpler then. … I can give you a good example. After Lenin died, or possibly even before, the Central Committee made a ruling that members of the Party were not to keep the fees they were paid for books and articles but must donate them to the Party. My mother didn’t agree. She thought it more honest to keep what you’ve actually earned than to give it up and spend unlimited funds belonging to the state on the upkeep of your household, on cars, dachas, servants and so forth. …Thank heaven my mother didn’t live to see the day when leaders of the Party, while refusing fees for their work, proceeded to maintain themselves and all their kith and kin at the expense of the state.

(pp. 110-111)

As you may recall from other episodes, Stallin’s international propaganda efforts flowered throughout the 1930s, winning him numerous foreign admirers.   You may remember that we’ve previously alluded to the infamous Pulitzer-Prize-winning New York Times articles on the Ukraine famine, which made the claim that Soviet farming was actually wildly successful.   Foreign officials and his other admirers from around the globe regularly sent lavish gifts to Stalin and his family, but Stalin considered these more appropriately the property of the state.

As for the presents which were sent to [my father] from all corners of the earth, he had them collected in one spot and donated them to a museum. It wasn’t hypocrisy or a pose on his part, as a lot of people say, but simply the fact that he had no idea what to do with this avalanche of objects that were valuable, sometimes priceless: paintings, china, furniture, weapons, clothing, utensils and products of local craftsmanship from everywhere in the world. 

Once in a while he gave one of them, a Rumanian or Bulgarian folk costume or something like that, to me. On the whole, however, he considered it wrong that any personal use should be made even of the things that were sent to me. Maybe he realized that the feelings that went into them were symbolic, and he thought the things themselves deserved to be treated as symbols. In 1950 a Museum of Gifts was opened in Moscow. While my father was still alive and even after, women of my acquaintance used to tell me, “What a wonderful set of furniture!” Or: “What a marvelous record player! Couldn’t they let you keep it?” But there could be no question of that.

(pp. 214-215)

We can’t be too impressed at how noble this sounds, as Stalin was meanwhile involved in launching and expanding the gulag that would imprison millions, and imposing ill-advised economic policies that would lead to mass poverty and famine.   It’s likely the pressure of learning this kind of information, as well as Stalin’s clear prioritization of the State over her family, that led to increasing depression and strains in his marriage to Svetlana’s mother Nadya.    After a major argument at a large party where Stalin prominently toasted “the destruction of the Enemies of the State”, she went back to her bedroom and shot herself.   This was a shock to the entire family, and Svetlana seems to think this fundamentally changed her father, distancing him from humanity in general and hardening his heart against human empathy.

What was the effect of my mother’s death? Did it simply leave my father free to do what he would have done in any case? Or was it that her suicide broke his spirit and made him lose his faith in all his old friends? And then—could she have halted the terrible process had she lived? I doubt it. She, of course, would never have betrayed her old friends. Nothing would ever have convinced her that Yenukidze, her godfather, was an “enemy of the people.” But in that case wouldn’t she have gone the same way as they did? She would never have been a match for her mortal enemy, Beria. One can only speculate. I think fate saved her from an ordeal she could never have borne.

(p. 147)

As power became increasingly concentrated in Stalin himself, Svetlana saw her family surrounded by an army of clever flatterers and manipulators, ready to take advantage of the situation to enrich their own families and friends.  The problem grew as Stalin was now so prominent that only a small circle of trusted advisors could be allowed any form of direct contact, and they were able to filter any information he received secondhand.

I must now mention another general, Nikolai Vlasik, who was first assigned to my father by the Red Army as a bodyguard in 1919 and remained with him for a very long time, finally attaining immense power behind the scenes. He was in charge of all my father’s security arrangements and considered himself closer to my father than anybody else. And though he was incredibly stupid, illiterate and uncouth, he behaved like a grandee and took it on himself in my father’s last years to dictate “Comrade Stalin’s tastes,” which he thought he knew well, to various luminaries in the arts. 

And they had to listen and take his advice. No Bolshoi gala performance on the eve of November 7 or state banquet in St. George’s Hall of the Kremlin was allowed to take place without Vlasik’s passing on the program first. His insolence knew no bounds. He would graciously pass the word to people in the arts whether this or that movie or opera or even the shapes of the skyscrapers being built in those days had found favor or not with my father.

(p. 132)

Stalin seemed to be somewhat aware of what was going on here, but felt that even he was powerless to stop it:  when he replaced these kinds of people, he just ended up with more of the same.

Sometimes he’d pounce on his commandants or the generals of his bodyguard, someone like Vlasik, and start cursing: “You parasites! You’re making a fortune here. Don’t think I don’t know how much money is running through your fingers!” But the fact was, he knew no such thing. His intuition told him huge sums were going out the window, but that was all. 

From time to time he’d make a stab at auditing the household accounts, but nothing ever came of it, of course, because the figures they gave him were faked. He’d be furious, but he couldn’t find out a thing. All-powerful as he was, he was impotent in the face of the frightful system that had grown up around him like a huge honeycomb, and he was helpless either to destroy it or bring it under control.  

General Vlasik laid out millions in my father’s name. He spent it on new houses and trips by enormous special trains, for example. Yet my father was unable even to get a clear explanation of how much money was being paid out, where and to whom.

(pp. 218-219)

But as you might expect, the scariest aspect of Svetlana’s childhood was her father’s campaign of purges and terror that started in the 1930s.   Some of Stalin’s relatives tried to convince him to stop some arrests and save their friends, but this just made Stalin suspect them as well.   Surprisingly, while most senior officials of the regime tried to do their best to protect their family members, he was easily manipulated by secret police leader Lavrenti Beria to approve arrests even of his own relatives.   Many of these victims had been very close to him and his children, such as Svetlana’s uncles and aunts.   

In 1938, after Alexander Svanidze and his wife and my Aunt Anna’s husband, Stanislav Redens, had all been arrested, Uncle Pavel came to my father again and again to plead for colleagues of his in the army who’d been swallowed up in the giant wave. It never did any good. In the autumn of 1938, Pavel went to Sochi on vacation, and it was bad for his weak heart. When he got back he found that every one of his colleagues had disappeared. There had been so many arrests that it was as though the place had been swept by a broom. Pavel dropped dead of a heart attack in his office.

(p. 57)

My father loved both [Uncle Alexander & Aunt Maria], especially Uncle Alexander, and treated them like real members of the family. Did they have their differences when it came to politics? Were there political disagreements between my father and Uncle Alexander or Redens or Uncle Pavel? Maybe. People weren’t afraid of having their own opinions in those days, and they had them on every subject. They were unafraid of life and refused to close their eyes to its complexities….

How could such a thing happen? How could my father do it? The only thing I know is that it couldn’t have been his idea. But if a skillful flatterer, like Beria, whispered slyly in his ear that “these people are against you,” that there were “compromising material!” and “dangerous connections,” such as trips abroad, my father was capable of believing it. I’ll tell you later how shattered he was by the death of both my mother and Kirov. Maybe he never trusted people very much, but after their deaths stopped trusting them at all.

(pp. 79-80)

Once he had cast out of his heart someone he had known a long time, once he had mentally relegated that someone to the ranks of his enemies, it was impossible to talk to him about that person any more. He was constitutionally incapable of the reversal that would turn a fancied enemy back into a friend. Any effort to persuade him to do so only made him furious. … The only thing they accomplished by it was loss of access to my father and total forfeiture of his trust. When he saw each of them for the last time, it was as if he were parting with someone who was no longer a friend, with someone, in fact, who was already an enemy.

 (p. 61)

Despite all this, he still appeared to have a slight soft spot for Svetlana, who was at least able to protect her nurse, nicknamed “Granny” due to their closeness, from being sent to the gulag.   But this was unusual:  in general, he had a standing rule that Svetlana was not allowed to bring up such cases with him or attempt to intervene in police matters.   “Granny” attempted to treat the whole matter lightheartedly, refusing to be overcome by the general culture of fear surrounding her.

They told my father that my nurse was “untrustworthy” and that her son had undesirable friends. My father had no time to go into these things himself. He liked having the people whose job it was go into such matters thoroughly and only bring them to his attention when they had “closed their case.” When I heard there was a plot afoot to get rid of my nurse, I set up an outcry. My father couldn’t stand tears. Besides, maybe he, too, wanted to express some inner protest against all this insanity. In any case, he got angry all of a sudden and commanded them to leave my nurse in peace. She was a member of the family thirty years in all, from 1926 to 1956, when she died at the age of seventy. 

(p. 130)

When, during and even before the war, the entire household staff was put on a military footing, “Granny” was officially listed as an employee of the secret police. … “Granny” was highly amused to be given the rank of junior sergeant! She saluted the cook whenever she went into the kitchen and said things like “Attention!” or “Aye, aye, sir!” She took the whole business like a nonsensical joke or a game. She didn’t want any truck with all these foolish rules. She took care of me and did a good job of it. She couldn’t have cared less what rank they chose to give her. She’d seen all she wanted of life and witnessed a great many changes. “First they abolished ranks,” she liked to point out, “and then they brought them back.” But as she saw it, life went on just the same, and it was up to her to do her job, which in her case was to love children and help people live no matter what might be going on around them.

(pp. 239-240).

Svetlana also tells the tragic story of her two brothers, Yakov and Vasily, who present contrasting attitudes among the Communist elite.   Her oldest brother Yakov tried to live modestly, and avoided taking advantage of his father’s name.  When the Germans invaded, he immediately took on his duty to protect his country by joining the military, not seeking any special privileges.   Yakov was captured at the front, and ended up spending the final years of his life in a German prison camp, eventually being shot after they decided he wasn’t sufficiently useful for propaganda.   Stalin had refused to deal with the Germans to get him out, but sought revenge in the wrong place in his own cruel way, blaming his wife Yulia.

The war broke out on June 22, 1941. My oldest brother Yakov left for the front the next day with his battery and his graduating class at the Frunze Military Academy. They finished just in time to go to war. He never took advantage of who he was, never made the slightest attempt to avoid danger—to be assigned to the rear or to a headquarters behind the battle lines, even to get out of being sent to Belorussia, the worst part of the front. Everything about him, his character and his entire scrupulous, honorable, incorruptible approach to life, precluded any such thing.

(p. 165)

Somehow [Stalin had] gotten the idea that someone had “tricked” Yakov and “betrayed” him intentionally. Mightn’t Yulia have been a party to it? When we got back to Moscow that September he told me, “Yasha’s daughter can stay with you awhile. But it seems that his wife is dishonest. We’ll have to look into it.” So Yulia was arrested in Moscow in the fall of 1941 and was in prison until the spring of 1943 when it “turned out” she’d had nothing to do with Yakov’s capture and when his conduct as a prisoner finally convinced my father that he hadn’t surrendered on purpose.

 (p. 169)

Svetlana’s other brother Vasily presented the opposite picture:  lazy and egotistical, he took advantage of his family privileges at every opportunity, eventually ending up as a penniless drunk and convicted criminal after his father died.

[Vasily’s] life was tragic in a way. He was a product and victim of the same system and environment that nurtured and gave rise to the “cult of personality.” The system that gave rise to the “cult” also enabled Vasily to make a spectacular career. … He was pushed higher and higher. Those responsible couldn’t have cared less about his strengths and weaknesses, any more than they cared what his real abilities were. Their one thought was to curry favor with my father. Vasily was transferred to Moscow from East Germany in 1947 and promptly made chief of aviation of the Moscow Military District. It was an enormous responsibility. Yet everyone knew he was an alcoholic. He was so ill he could no longer fly his own plane. Nobody seemed to care.

(pp. 221-222)

Vasily stopped at nothing. He engaged in intrigue and exploited his proximity to my father. Anybody who’d fallen out of favor with him was kicked out of his path and some even went to jail. No privilege was denied him. … They gave him medals, higher and higher rank, horses, automobiles, privileges, everything. They spoiled and corrupted him, just as long as they needed him. But once my father was dead and they didn’t need him any more, they abandoned and forgot him.

(pp. 222-223)

A military collegium sentenced him to eight years in jail. Vasily couldn’t believe it. He bombarded the government with letters—letters of despair, letters admitting all the accusations against him, even threatening letters. He’d lost sight of who he was or where he was and failed to realize that he was a nobody now. (p. 225)

Svetlana, meanwhile, was growing up.   By the late 1940s she had been married once, to a Jewish man who didn’t meet her father’s approval, but the marriage had not worked out.   For her second husband, she made a more conventional choice, marrying the son of a prominent Communist leader.   But she was soon disgusted by the attitudes and lifestyle of her new family, especially by their treatment of “Granny”, her old nurse, who now visited regularly as a friend.

I found myself in a household where a show, albeit a purely external, hypocritical show, was made of what was called “Party spirit” on the one hand, while on the other hand there existed a dyed-in-the-wool acquisitiveness of the worst female kind. There were trunkloads of possessions. The whole setting, with its vases… and worthless still lifes on the walls, was vulgar and totally lacking in taste. The place was presided over by [my mother-in-law] Zinaida Zhdanov, the widow and the ultimate embodiment of this mixture of Party bigotry and the complacency of the bourgeois woman. 

After we were married my husband’s friends started coming less and less often, our circle narrowed down to the family, and it became hopelessly and intolerably dull. The years 1949 to 1952 were terribly trying for me, as they were for everyone. The whole country was gasping for air. Things were unbearable for everyone. The most orthodox Party spirit reigned in the house I lived in, but it had nothing in common with the spirit of my grandfather and my grandmother, my mother… all the old Party people I knew. It was all hypocritical, a caricature purely for show.

(pp. 205-206).

We’d drink tea and jam when I went out to see [Granny]. She told me about her ailments and we’d talk about our affairs. She came to see me at Uspenskoye, the Zhdanovs’ country house, two or three times, but they treated her with utmost condescension—all except little Josef, who always flung himself on “Granny,” as he called her—and she would leave quickly. She wasn’t used to being treated that way. All her life, no matter whom she worked for, she’d been treated as one of the family. Even the families of the nobility she had worked for before the Revolution treated her better than the Zhdanovs. It hurt her pride.

(pp. 206-207)

At this point, Svetlana saw the final wave of arrests of her own family members.  On this occasion, Stalin stuck with his usual policy, and dismissed his daughter’s attempts to intervene.   And even worse, he added an ominous comment that seemed to indicate she was actually putting herself in danger.

A new wave of arrests got under way at the end of 1948. My two aunts, the widows of Uncle Pavel and Redens, were sent to prison, and so was everyone who knew them. J. G. Morozov, the father of my first husband, was arrested, too. Next there was a campaign against people who were called “cosmopolitan,” and a whole new group of people were arrested.  …. When I asked him, he told me what my aunts were guilty of. “They talked a lot. They knew too much and they talked too much. And it helped our enemies.” He was bitter, as bitter as he could be against the whole world. He saw enemies everywhere. It had reached the point of being pathological, of persecution mania, and it was all a result of being lonely and desolate. “You yourself make anti-Soviet statements,” he told me one day angrily and in complete earnest. I didn’t try to object or ask where he got that from.

(pp. 204-205). 

Her memoirs are continued in a second volume, where she discusses her escape from the Soviet Union and her defection to the United States, though we’re not covering that topic today.   At the end of Twenty Letters, she tries to sum up her thoughts about her father’s crimes and the progress of the Communist revolution during her lifetime:

As for those who wanted to set themselves above the Revolution, who wanted to speed up its progress and make tomorrow come today, those who tried to do good by doing evil and make the wheels of time and progress spin faster, have they accomplished what they wanted? 

Millions were sacrificed senselessly, thousands of talented lives extinguished prematurely. The tale of these losses could not be told in twenty books, never mind twenty letters. …. It’s not for me but for history to decide who served the cause of good and who that of vanity and vainglory. I certainly don’t have the right. All I have is my conscience. …  I do not think they’ll call our era a “progressive” one, or that they’ll say it was all for the “good of Russia.” Hardly . . . 

They will have their say. And what they say will be something new and cogent. Instead of idle whining, they will give voice to a new sense of purpose. They will read through this page in their country’s history with a feeling of pain, contrition and bewilderment, and they’ll be led by this feeling to live their lives differently. But I hope they won’t forget that what is Good never dies—that it lived on in the hearts of men even in the darkest times and was hidden where no one thought to look for it, that it never died out or disappeared completely.

(pp. 244-246).

<closing conversation with Manuel>

You can use the link in the show notes at storiesofcommunism.com to read more of Svetlana Alliluyeva’s fascinating memoir.   

And this has been your Story of Communism for today.