Episode 20: Outsmarting The Bureaucrats

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

Today we’re going to talk about a well-known Soviet dissident, Vladimir Bukovsky, who has made it his life’s mission not to let people forget the abuses of Communism.   Many critiques of the Soviet Union and similar regimes tend to focus on the Stalin years, a natural tendency given the tens of millions of deaths.    But Bukovsky began his dissident career during the Krushchev “thaw”, when the regime was still spreading violence and death throughout the world, suppressing political speech, and causing widespread economic misery for its population.   He has repeatedly made efforts to point out that when Communist regimes seem to be promoting peace, slight economic reforms, or improved relations with the West, they are usually just engaging in intensive PR for what is still a fundamentally totalitarian system causing untold human misery.    Naturally, his outspokenness on these issues resulted in over 12 years of imprisonment, at various times in prisons, mental hospitals, or in labor camps.

When the Soviet Union fell in the early 1990s, Bukovsky thought it especially important that the documentation of the government’s actions over the past few decades be preserved.   He knew that there would be a tendency to gloss over the more recent abuses, since the officials involved were in most cases still alive and often in positions of power in the “new” Russian government.   And that’s not accounting for their many collaborators in the West, who would have a similar interest in papering over such issues.  Thus, he headed to Moscow as soon as he could, to gather any available information and preserve documents before they could be destroyed.   The story of his attempts to preserve documents, and the shocking contents he found, is told in his memoir “Judgement in Moscow:  Soviet Crimes and Western Complicity”.

Bukovsky returned to Moscow in 1991, hoping to initiate something equivalent to the Nuremberg Trials for Communism.   As he summarizes it, this wasn’t about revenge, but about exposing the massive scale of Communist human rights abuses so they could never be denied or papered over.    He considered it an important principle that he would not try to name and expose every “informer” who collaborated with the police— he knew that many had been pressured into cooperation by threats against themselves or their families.    His worst fear is that a few bad leaders, like Stalin, would be blamed, and the fundamental horrors of the system would never be exposed:

The aim was not to winnow the more guilty from the less guilty and punish the latter, but to attain a moral cleansing of society. Not mass hysteria, reprisals, denunciations, and suicides … but repentance. And in order to achieve this, the entire system and the crimes it perpetrated should have been put on trial, while it would have been quite sufficient to pronounce judgment on its leaders, who were already in prison…  
I considered it vital to show the millions of people who would see the program that we, former political prisoners and dissidents, had no desire to seek revenge, that the foundation for my proposals was not vengeance but interests much more far-reaching and not at all personal.

Bukovsky, Vladimir. Judgment in Moscow: Soviet Crimes and Western Complicity (Kindle Locations 1605-1612. Ninth of November. Kindle Edition. 

After Bukovsky began his attempts to gather critical documents from the archives, various Russian media outlets and KGB officers began spreading rumors that there was nothing to be found, and the crimes of Communism had been exaggerated.  Various mid-level employees started giving Bukovsky various excuses and delays when he asked for documents— and he even discovered that some critical ones had been burned.    He was frustrated to realize the the so-called “reform” of the KGB after Yeltsin took over was largely an illusion:

Splitting up the KGB into separate directorates and services… was as pointless as chopping off a lizard’s tail or dividing an amoeba. The result was that every unit regenerated itself and even expanded, just as in the fairy tale in which every dragon tooth grows into a new dragon. Those archives were the essence of the KGB, the heart of the dragon, hidden behind seven seals. The only way to vanquish the beast was to pierce its heart, but the hero of the story, who was supposed to accomplish this magnificent feat, went on a drunken spree instead…
Meanwhile, mysterious “commercial structures” began to appear around the archives, and a brisk trade in documents ensued, but only those deals that profit the KGB, and only through the reliable hands of those who suit the KGB.
(Kindle Locations 1723-1735).

Walking into the buildings of the supposedly reformed KGB, Bukovsky’s description sounds like a mix of a Kafka novel and a Three Stooges movie:

The archive administration occupied only one floor of Number 12; the rest was like the labyrinth of the Minotaur, the entrance and exit of which could not be found without Ariadne’s thread. The superb parquet flooring of the corridors seemed to stretch into infinity past sealed office doors that still bore the nameplates of their former occupants… Here and there, mounds of files and papers marked “top secret” lay right on the floor. I picked up one at random and glanced at the contents: it was a report by some regional party committee about youth work…

The decree ordering the seizure of the party archives had been signed by Yeltsin on 24 August, and the commission with the new guards had entered the Central Committee buildings that same night. At first the electricity supply was cut off to prevent any use of shredding machines, but then it had to be turned on again, because it was impossible to find anything in the dark. The shredding machines were already jammed with hurriedly destroyed documents and not in working order….

It was a fact that all the entrances and exits were manned by sturdy young men with submachine guns. We literally stumbled into one of them, a strapping young fellow with a childish, bewildered face, as we turned a corner: “Can you tell me where the canteen is?” he asked pleadingly. “I’ve been wandering around for half an hour, and still can’t find it….”

Experience showed that it was well-nigh impossible to destroy any archive material selectively, or, for that matter, to forge it. In the first place because it had been established that there were at least 162 archives, totally unconnected to each other by cross-referencing in card indexes or by computer; the communist regime trusted nobody, even its own apparatus. It would take months of searching just to establish whether there were any copies of a document from one archive in another…

(Kindle Locations 1747-1770).

Fortunately, the ultimate disorganization and lack of internal trust ensured that despite attempts to cover the tracks of past Soviet officials, plenty of papers would remain available somewhere in the archives.   But Bukovsky gradually came to realize he was facing another critical obstacle, the lifetime of conditioning of petty bureaucrats under the Soviet system:

In reality, the administrators of the archive were in no hurry… They were no fighters, just typical Soviet bureaucrats who had built their careers under the old regime, cowardly and cunning, like all slaves. Their attitude toward the authorities, their overlords, was a slave’s mixture of fear and hatred, and the more they hated, the more they wanted to cheat their masters in some way. So they regarded the unexpected bounty that fell into their hands as their personal windfall, to be guarded jealously from all outsiders….

It stands to reason that from their point of view, I was an outsider, a thief eyeing their riches from whom they tacitly agreed to protect their “personal property.” Moreover, they simply could not understand my motives—what was it I was after, anyway? Was I trying to get a cut for myself?…
they agreed with me in everything just in case, but managed to invent new excuses for delay every day.
(Kindle Locations 1783-1798)

As the holders of the archives created endless delays, Bukovsky was dismayed to see the continued increase in former Soviet officials attaining positions of power under Yeltsin’s supposedly reformed government.   They even pressured Yeltsin to pass a 1992 law on “preserving state secrets”, yet another obstacle to any attempts to gather more data from the archives.   

Fortunately, later in 1992 the former officials got a bit too brazen for their own good, filing an appeal with the new Constitutional Court of Russia to try to force Yeltsin to re-recognize the Communist Party.    If they succeeded, Yeltsin might even be forced to return buildings and property that his new government had taken from the Communist Party— so it was a very serious threat.    Now, the reputation Bukovsky had for trying to independently document past abuses became an advantage.

 Alarm, even panic seized all the president’s men. And this led to what I had spent almost a year trying to achieve: the CPSU archives were opened, at least in part, and I, who had been hurriedly summoned to Moscow as an expert witness to the proceedings, received access to them. That was the categorical condition I made—payment, if you like, for my participation in the pending farce.
(Kindle Locations 1941-1943)

But even this new power didn’t solve the issue of the stubborn bureaucrats, who were still the ones controlling the archives day-to-day, and could still create endless delays.  Nobody refused him directly, but there was always a reason some document couldn’t be found.   Or they would come back with a request for an exact “date and reference number”, details which could not be known without directly searching the archives for the document.    He suspected that some of them just wanted bribes, but this was a line he refused to cross:

From the arsenal of our prison stratagems, there was only one I consciously never employed: bribery. Maybe I was wrong, but it seemed to me that it would be too demeaning to descend to this level, as it would have been offensive to, say, a former inmate of a Nazi concentration camp to try to buy documents indicting the Nazis from the SS. The thought that the scum who had built their former well-being on our bones would derive profit now… was too repugnant to contemplate.
(Kindle Locations 1989-1992)

Bukovsky managed to slowly gather some documents, but knew his access would soon end as the relevant court case came to a close.   Even worse, while he had gathered a large number of relevant documents, they were still stored in another part of the archive building, where he could permanently lose all the documents he had put so much effort into gathering.   Luckily, he had one more trick up his sleeve.

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.
(Kindle Locations 2071-2082)

Thus, Bukovsky was able to escape with copies of thousands of pages of authentic Communist Party documents.   While most of the abuses were already well known, there were plenty of explosive revelations.   He solidly documents how many Western political and media figures were collaborating directly with the Soviet government, even though similar collaboration with Reagan or Thatcher would have resulted in their ostracism from fashionable society.  He discusses in detail how Gorbachev, the supposedly reformist Soviet leader,  was at all times in firm control and in solid agreement with the so-called Kremlin “conservatives”—  he never wanted to overturn the totalitarian Soviet system, but merely to make it more robust in the face of Western challenges.       But perhaps worst of all, as had long been suspected, the Soviets directly had a hand in most of the “national liberation movements” that caused chaos in South America, Africa, Asia, and the Middle East throughout the 1970s and 1980s.   As Bukovsky writes,

Even I was amazed by the scope of this murderous activity across five continents. Even Hitler could not have dreamed up something like this. The tempest they unleashed swept away millions of lives in Ethiopia, Vietnam, and Central America; it will rage on in Angola, Sudan, Somalia, and Afghanistan long after the last communist regime vanishes from the face of the earth.
(Kindle Locations 1040-1042)

We won’t elaborate more on these topics here, since this podcast is about telling personal stories, but you can find all this information in detail in Bukovsky’s book.    One item uncovered in the items did hit Bukovsky personally though, due to his having spent several years confined to Soviet insane asylums:  he uncovered plans for a new “Psychiatric Gulag”.  In the key document, we can see:

The KGB under the Council of Ministers of the USSR in the Krasnodar region possesses materials that indicate that there is a significant number of mentally ill persons who exhibit socially dangerous and hostile signs, harbor criminal, politically harmful intentions, and have a demoralizing effect on the lives of Soviet people…
Many of those suffering mental illness attempt to create new “parties,” various organizations and councils, prepare and disseminate draft charters, program documents and laws…
At present, according to data supplied by regional health authorities, eleven to twelve thousand persons stand in need of hospitalization…
(Kindle Locations 4087-4126)

This document was written with respect to only one of around 100 administrative regions— so if the plan had actually been implemented, over a million Soviet citizens would likely have ended up in Brezhnev’s new psychiatry-based gulag.  Luckily, a few dissidents including Bukovsky had managed to report their abuse to foreign psychiatric associations at just the right time to embarrass the KGB into giving up this plan.

…it turned out that our campaign had hit the bull’s-eye. Half a year had not yet passed, and the Politburo had not reached a final decision, when my first interviews appeared in the Western press, and by summer they were on television, where the question of psychiatric repression became a top story. It was as though we had caught them red-handed at the scene of the crime, and quite by chance at that. It is probably like this in wartime, when a rogue shell hits the arsenal… The regime had to defend itself with all it had, and the decision to create a psychiatric gulag was shelved…
(Kindle Locations 4169-4173)

Anyway, as you can probably guess, many of Bukovsky’s revelations were very embarrassing for Western liberals who had continually collaborated with Brezhnev and his successors in the name of “peace”, “disarmament”, and similar causes, or supported the many Soviet-sponsored “national liberation” movements.   As a result, even though Bukovsky first published his book in 1996, it took over 20 years for the first English language edition to come out.   At first he was connected with the wrong publishers, who turned out to be more concerned with protecting their liberal friends than letting the truth be revealed.    They kept demanding that he cut passages that would be embarrassing to various public figures, and he completely refused.   Then he found a smaller publisher, who was planning to print the book but got intimidated into silence by continual threats of lawsuits.    These threats successfully suppressed the edition from being published by anyone for years, until an independent group of supporters in the U.S. decided to publish it on their own last year.

Overall, thanks in part to Bukovsky’s work, nobody can now deny the human rights abuses of the later period of Soviet history, the past actions of many officials who are even now active in the Russian government, or the corrosive effect that Soviet Communism had as they exported violence throughout the world.  Or, for that matter, the guilt of Western liberals who continually supported the Soviet Communist party line throughout the 1970s and 1980s.    The next time someone accuses you of paranoia or “McCarthyism” for worrying about the dangers of Communism, be sure to refer them to Bukovsky’s “Judgement In Moscow.”

<closing conversation with Manuel>

By the way, we’d like to thank listener Dusty from Sunup Creative for sending us a nice new logo for the podcast.  Remember, if you want to help but aren’t as artistic, we could always use a few more nice reviews at Apple Podcasts or similar sites.

And this has been your story of Communism for today.


Episode 19: Stories of Che

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<closing conversation with Manuel>

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

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

And this has been your story of communism for today.


Episode 18: The True Believer

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

And this has been your story of communism for today.


Episode 17: A Poet's Awakening

Audio Link

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

In this episode, we are shifting our focus to North Korea, one of the world’s most repressive Communist regimes.   We’ll be discussing the first part of “Dear Leader”, the memoir of Jang Jin-Sung, a poet who was one of the top propaganda poets serving Kim Jong-il in the 1990s, before he fled the country and eventually defected to South Korea.   This was a period of economic prosperity worldwide, though due to the failure of North Korea’s command economy, a time of major famine and shortages in North Korea.   As we’ll see, North Korea is also one of the worst examples of a “cult of personality” arising around a powerful leader, with Kim Jong il (and now his son Kim Jong Un) being worshipped like a god.

Jang was born in a small village, but by his teenage years his parents were important Communist officials, and his family was living in Pyongyang, the capital.   His family had the unusual luxury of a piano in the living room, so he was given music lessons from a young age, and sent to a high school focusing on music.   The plan was for him to embark on a career track as one of the regime’s court musicians, a nice, low-risk trajectory for a young member of the party elite.    But even as he studied this music, he started to suspect something wasn’t quite right about how music was developed in North Korea as compared to the West.

As time went on, I was confirmed in my conviction that Western music was artistically superior to the North Korean music I was being taught. It wasn’t that I preferred one set of stylistic rules to the other. Western music had its rules too; but what it had that North Korean music didn’t was the infinite possibilities of breaking an established rule, to make a new one of your own.

Jin-sung, Jang. Dear Leader: My Escape from North Korea (pp. 30-31). Simon & Schuster. Kindle Edition. 

However, Jang experienced a major shift in outlook after coming across a rare book of poetry by Lord Byron.   This book wasn’t widely available in North Korea, but was part of a small edition of only 100 copies, designated for distribution among the party elite.   Apparently the government assumed that this small group of people was already so loyal that they couldn’t be noticeably contaminated by foreign influences.   But in this case, that wasn’t quite correct.

Before encountering Byron’s poetry, I had thought that adjectives such as “Dear” and “Respected” were a special form of pronoun in the Korean language reserved for Kim Il-sung and Kim Jong-il. … I had assumed that these adjectives were names just like Kim and therefore … purely Korean. But I learnt, through Byron’s poetry, that these words were terms of respect that were part of a universal language and not uniquely Korean. I felt strangely elated by the discovery that these terms might be applied to an individual…. these poems were proof that emotions could be experienced in a personal sphere that did not include the Leader.


He decided that he now wanted to be a poet rather than a musician.   He heard that one of the regime’s top poets, Kim Sang-o, lived nearby, and through a common acquaintance managed to arrange a meeting with him.    He was worried at first that the independence of his poetry might anger the great poet, but it actually had the opposite effect:

When he had finished reading my attempt at an epic poem, he laughed heartily… To my astonishment, he did not scold me, but was accepting of it: “If you had come to me with something like, ‘Oh, my homeland! Oh, my Party!’ I would have refused to talk to you. I enjoyed your personal narrative of love. I can see that you’re faithful to your own voice.”

The great poet took Jang under his wing, and helped him further develop his poetic skills.   Later, on his deathbed, he left Jang an amazing parting gift.   High-ranking Communists were expected to write declarations of loyalty to the leader before they died, indicating that even in the afterlife they would continue to serve him.   But Sang-o added a note to his, that he had left behind unfinished work to be completed by his student— meaning Jang.   This brought Jang to the attention of the Party leadership, and enabled him to get a job at the UFD, or United Front Department, the main propaganda organization of the regime.   This was a stroke of luck, since it was only as a part of this or a similar department that he could actually be allowed to continue to write poetry.

Anyone who composes a work that has not been assigned to the writer through …chain of command is by definition guilty of treason. All written works in North Korea must be initiated in response to a specific request from the Workers’ Party.….It is not the job of a writer to articulate new ideas or to experiment with aesthetics on his or her own whim…

The epic genre of Kim Jong-il poetry in particular was restricted to just six poets, who were also the poets laureate of North Korea. At the age of twenty-eight, in 1999, I became the youngest of this tiny elite of court poets.  

Ironically, this entry into the bowels of the regime’s propaganda machine was what enabled Jang to learn the truth about the outside world.  Because Kim Jong-Il wanted propaganda to be generated in the style of South Korean writing, to appear more authentic, the writers in the UFD had abundant access to otherwise forbidden literature.    Although Jang was continuing to write his personal non-propaganda-related poetry at home, he was grateful to have his job and privileges at the UFD, and composed the official, loyalist poetry that was required.   One of his poems in particular, “Spring Rests on the Gun Barrel of the Lord”, led to yet another level of official recognition:

So this is the Gun 
that in the hands of an inferior man 
can only commit murder, 
but, when wielded by a great man, 
can overcome anything. 
As history has shown, 
war and carnage belong
to the weak. 
General Kim Jong-il, 
the General alone, 
is Lord of the Gun, 
Lord of Justice, 
Lord of Peace, 
Lord of Unification. 
Ah, the true Leader of the Korean people!

(pp 18-19)

This poem was distributed nationally, and led to an invitation for Jang to meet Kim Jong-il and become one of the “Admitted”.   An “Admitted” person was one who had spent at least 20 minutes in the actual presence of the great leader— once you had achieved this milestone, you had many special privileges, including extra rations, personal freedom, and immunity from arbitrary harassment by the secret police.   Jang describes his dinner with the leader, where he finally confirmed that Kim Jong-Il was merely human.

… I can see his feet under the tablecloth. He has taken off his shoes. Even the General suffers the curse of sore feet! I had always thought him divine, not even needing to use the toilet.
That’s what we were taught at school and that’s what the party says: our General’s life is a continuous series of blessed miracles, incapable of being matched even by all our mortal lifetimes put together. With this glorious invitation into his circle, I had thought I would enter and partake of a divine dimension in time. But here I am, looking into his shoes, which have high heels and an inner platform at least two and a half inches high. Those shoes have deceived his people.
(p. xxiv)

But the incident that definitively led Jang to break with the regime was when he visited his old village, during a vacation period after the success of his great poem.   He already knew that things were harder outside the capitol than in Pyongyang, but he had been very insulated from the lives of common people.   He even personally received large amounts of food aid that international charities had intended for the country’s starving population:

In return for our specialist work, and on top of our standard rations, we received additional rations of imported food every Saturday. .. the resources we received—different each time—came from the outside world. They were taken from humanitarian materials donated by the UN and the rest of the international community, as well as from South Korean NGOs and religious organizations…  
The existence of such international aid was viewed as a shameful secret that the regime could not afford to reveal to its ordinary citizens at a time of widespread famine, as it would undermine the state’s ideology of “self-reliance.” But as our department’s role was to live and work as outsiders, it seemed logical that we should receive outside goods.


When Jang arrived at the village’s train station and walked through the market square, he was hit all at once with the extent of the suffering in the countryside.   Even the basic rations that were promised by Communism were no longer being provided, having been replaced by a campaign of “self-sufficiency” promoted by the government.   

I grimaced as I took in every sort of poverty known to North Korea’s provinces, gathered together here and put on display in this miserable plot. The stench of unwashed bodies in the air was rank. The wares optimistically placed on display by grimy hands were not the kind one would expect to pay for. I asked one woman why she was selling an empty insulated flask for twenty won. She replied by saying that if I filled it with hot water, I could hug it during the night to keep warm. It also bewildered me to see tap water on sale. It cost ten won to wash your face with soap and water and five to wash with water alone.

He was even more shocked when he saw some men removing dead bodies from the area.

“They’re from the Corpse Division,” he said. “Dispatched by the city’s party committee.” “Corpse Division? What do you mean?” “Why, they get rid of the corpses! Maybe you don’t have this in Pyongyang, but the committees in all the other provinces dispatch them to their main park near the station. All sorts of people move through the station, so they come here to beg, until they die.”   … “Apparently, the party secretary for Hamheung thought of the idea, and received a state medal for it. Good for him!”

While in the village, he stayed with the family of his childhood friend Young-nam.   He was even more distressed to see how his old friend lived now, compared to his own lifestyle.  

That night, at the dinner prepared by Young-nam’s mother, I had to choke back my tears again. She proudly explained how she was able to offer me, her guest, a half-full bowl of rice—she had stashed away ten grains of rice at every meal. … When I asked how long it had taken to save up the rice, she replied, “Three months.” I could not believe that they were eating rice by the grain, instead of in servings. I muttered an excuse, saying that I had indigestion after eating lunch on the train.

Realizing that he could not impose further on their hospitality, Jang cut his stay short the next day, after giving Young-nam’s family all the gifts he could.   Before leaving town, he wanted to go with Young-nam to the market to buy a few more things for him, but was in for another nasty surprise.    There was a loud siren, and everyone was suddenly herded by the police into the center of the market— forced witnesses to a public execution.   This was regarded as a form of moral education, so nobody was allowed to leave until the sentence was complete.

… an execution in the market? As I looked confusedly at Young-nam, he reassured me that these executions took place almost on a weekly basis. …  The People’s Trial was over in less than five minutes. It was not really a trial. A military officer merely read out his judgment. The prisoner’s crime was declared to be the theft of one sack of rice….

“Death by firing squad!” As soon as the judge pronounced his sentence, one of the two soldiers who was restraining the prisoner shoved something into his mouth in a swift, practiced motion. It was a V-shaped spring that expanded once it was put inside the mouth, preventing the prisoner from speaking intelligibly. … a prisoner could not utter rebellious sentiments in the final moments of his life before it was taken from him. Bang! Bang! Bang! I had never been so close to a gun being fired. The blood froze in my veins. Not daring to look at the prisoner at the moment of his death, I flicked my gaze upward….
The man riddled with bullets for stealing rice had been a starving farmer. Even someone who worked the land could not find enough to eat.

AS SOON as I returned home to Pyongyang, far away from the People’s Trial in Sariwon, I got into the shower. It felt like bits of the prisoner’s skin and blood had been sprayed onto my skin, and I scrubbed myself again and again. For over a week, whenever I sat at the table to eat, I was overcome with nausea and could not bear the thought of food.

After this, Jang could no longer comfortably participate in the nation’s propaganda efforts, and it was only a matter of time until he fled the country.   The second half of the book covers his harrowing journey across the border and as a refugee in China, where the police pursue him for a murder charge trumped up by the North Korean authorities.   It’s a really exciting story that we don’t want to spoil here— check out the book and enjoy it for yourself!

<Closing conversation with Manuel>

And this has been your story of communism for today.