Episode 47: A View From The Top

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

Today we’re going to 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.


Episode 46: The Miracles of Socialist Healthcare

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<closing conversation with Manuel>

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

And this has been your Story of Communism for today.



Episode 45: The Heights Of Absurdity

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

[Closing conversation with Manuel]

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

And this has been your Story of Communism for today.