Episode 14: Losing Your Humanity

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.

Today we shift our focus to one of the most brutal Communist regimes of the 20th century, the Khmer Rouge rule of Cambodia in the 1970s.   We will be learning about this period through the memoir of Chhalith Ou, who was a young teenager when the Khmer Rouge took over, and eventually made his way to the United States.   He wrote a memoir of his experiences under Communism, called “Spare Them? No Profit— Remove Them? No Loss”.   As you can guess from the  title, the Khmer Rouge basically considered all human lives disposable, in the pursuit of the greater good of a fully Communist society.   Let’s take a look at Chhalith’s  story.

In April 1975, Chhalith and his family lived in Battambang City in Cambodia.   His father worked for the American embassy in Phnom Penh, so the family was mostly prosperous, middle-class and urban.    Life was relatively normal, though there had been some disturbing signs in the city, such as an influx of refugees and skyrocketing prices.   When the Khmer Rouge suddenly entered Phnom Penh, Chhalith’s father fled just in time and joined his family in Battambang, desperately trying to arrange a flight out of the country.    He didn’t manage to get his family away, however, before the airport was closed, and soon the Khmer Rouge army was marching into the city.    As often happens in Communist revolutions, many of their new subjects cheered their entry— there had been serious problems with the previous government, and the new rulers promised a new era of peace and justice.   Chhalith’s father was not fooled, and quickly got the family to work burning anything that could connect him to the Americans.    The next day at school, soldiers escorted all the children into a meeting.

Here in this meeting the Khmer Rouge speaker told us that all of the people had to get out of the city and out onto the farms.  … He outlined the master plan in which all the people in the city had to work on farms to produce rice so that weapons could be purchased with the rice to defend Cambodia against its enemies.  “This war will last a long time,” the speaker said.  “Everybody in the country will now be equal.  There are no longer any rich.  There are no longer any poor.  We will all live in equality.”
This all seemed unreal, crazy really.  I didn’t know what to believe, but these speakers were deadly serious, and for the first time, I was hearing the sayings that would become the mantras by which the Communist Khmer Rouge controlled the people, …
While the speaker was talking to us, the teacher on the stage was pointing at certain teachers in the audience that had voiced opinions against the revolution, and these were quietly removed and did not come back. 

Halleson, R. Z. . Spare Them? No Profit. Remove Them? No Loss. (Kindle Locations 373-383). Kindle Edition. 

Chhalith didn’t see what happened next to the removed teachers, but from his father’s description of the Khmer Rouge’s murderous rampage in Phnom Penh, it was pretty clear that they were executed.   The next day soldiers arrived at the family home to enforce the evacuation order, and the family had to pack up whatever they could carry and leave the city.   Since they could not take farm animals with them, the neighbors who had animals immediately began to kill them all— this made it easy to buy and barter for meat before leaving, but of course would have disastrous long-term effects on the food supply, as we will later see.   The family joined a gigantic march of citizens out of the city, escorted by the Khmer Rouge soldiers.

The streets were jammed with thousands of stunned, scared people, leaving the city, men and women, children getting lost from their parents, and crying babies and toddlers.   It was so crowded that we were bumping into each other and it seemed sometimes as if we were hardly moving. …Khmer Rouge soldiers were stationed all along the road and at checkpoints making sure that no one turned back.  Everyone had to walk or ride in a single direction.  If anyone tried to turn back for any reason, they were shot, sometimes just as an example to scare the people into obedience.

(Kindle Locations 415-419).

Chhalith’s family was actually in a somewhat better position than most of the other urban families being evacuated, in that they were only one generation removed from the agrarian life— his father had grown up on a farm in the area where they were being directed.   Thus, they were able to move onto the farm of his father’s sister and her family, and their relatives helped them to build a bamboo hut and learn about living off the land.   The accommodations were primitive, but at least it looked for the moment like they could survive.   They were in much better shape that the majority of city-dwellers, who were confused by the new situation, had no idea how to handle themselves outside the city, and were sleeping in open fields.   It was a terrifying change, and when soldiers killed a local man named Cheet who had been nice to his family, Chhalith began to fully understand the nature of the new leaders.

When the Khmer Rouge succeeded in conquering the country, they held all the power and could take revenge on whomever they wished.   This was the first time that the meaning of what revenge could look like became clear to me.  I had liked Cheet.  He was a nice man, and now he was dead.  In remembering this incident, I wonder now if the Khmer Rouge had left the wife and children alive because it was so early in the revolution and the soldiers had not yet become the murderous killers that they would become as the years wore on.  Later, nobody connected to targeted victims would survive.  If someone was even suspected of being a traitor to Angkar (the “organization”) the Khmer Rouge murdered the entire family and anyone else suspected of having had ties to the traitor whether related or not.

(Kindle Locations 498-503).

This began a long period of subsistence living on the farm, where his family tried their best to produce, forage, hunt, or trade for enough food to survive, while staying out of the way of the soldiers as much as possible.   They were hungry all the time, but managed to stay alive and together, except for the unfortunate death of his 4 year old sister Vilei in a farming accident.    Of the rice that was produced on the farm, the government confiscated the majority— they were afraid that if anyone had even a little food to spare, they would stock up provisions for a counter-revolutionary army.    During the rainy season, things got even harder, but Chhalith realized how relatively lucky his family was.

Rain fell day and night.  It was a difficult time for my family emotionally.  We didn’t have enough food, not enough medicine, and the place where we slept was not secure enough to keep the water out.  The walls of our hut were made of poles and leaves, and when the wind blew and the rains came, the entire interior of our hut became drenched.
 Sometimes we were so scared, in a panic really, but we looked at the other people, many of whom slept in the wet fields, the people from the city, and we knew we were more fortunate… 

(Kindle Locations 684-691).

…death from exposure and hunger was widespread throughout all of Cambodia, especially among the evacuees from Battambang City, Phnom Penn and other larger towns and cities.  These had been the shopkeepers, the taxi drivers, the teachers, nurses, factory workers, housewives, and all the others who had been born and raised in the city and knew nothing about foraging for food in the country, and who had no knowledge at all of planting and harvesting.  Many had spent months staying in waterlogged fields and in the forest under bushes and trees competing for shelter and food with thousands of others.

(Kindle Locations 1038-1042). Kindle Edition.

Those who survived learned various tricks to gain extra food and supplies and stay alive.  For example, they could trap fish and crabs and sometimes catch rats, satisfying their need for meat.   But poisonous snakes were a constant danger when poking around holes and animal burrows.   The Communists didn’t produce any shoes, so many went barefoot, but Chhalith learned how to make sandals from the tires of abandoned cars.   

Soon new challenges arrived:   the Khmer Rouge soldiers started recruiting village “volunteers” to join collective work teams.   It was clear that if they did not get enough volunteers, the soldiers would be angry, and Chhalith knew what the consequences of that would be— so he and a friend agreed to volunteer together.   Their first assignment was to help with the harvest in areas where there were not enough villagers to do the job.

One day after we had eaten our lunch, I went to visit the village to talk to the people.  I asked the villagers, “Why did you put the seedlings in the ground, but you didn’t have enough people to do the harvest?”  They answered that when they were finished planting, some people moved to other places, and some people died of disease, but others were taken away by Angkar.  They didn’t know what happened to them.

(Kindle Locations 1016-1019).

Later Chhalith’s work teams were assigned to even more difficult tasks, such as building dikes, constructing buildings, and removing trees.   Even in the hot sun or pouring rain, the soldiers forced the constantly hungry work teams to continue at the assigned pace.   As you might guess, this caused the supply of volunteers to dwindle— but the soldiers soon solved that problem by declaring that every single citizen between the ages of 15 and 45 must join the work teams.   The requirements to be loyal only to the State became even more draconian:

“You are the front line working force.  You will eat together, work together, and sleep together.  None of you will go back to live with your family ever again.  You may be able to go back and see them from time to time, but your group is your family now.
 “Get rid of the enemy that lurks inside you.  The old regime taught you to be too individualistic.  From now on, you can only be one with your group.  Destroy the old way so that we can all be equal under Angkar.”  We heard these sayings again and again….
If anybody was seen to be independent, trying to get more for himself, they would be killed because their behavior was not according to the philosophy of the Communists.  If anyone was caught stealing, they were taking something just for themselves, and if they were caught, they were killed.  No mercy.  The same was true about other rules.

(Kindle Locations 1193-1202).

Amazingly, despite this constant atmosphere of fear, Chhalith and some of his work group colleagues still retained a spark of defiance, and took incredible risks to retain some element of their old lives.   At one point, they managed to get an old cassette player working, and spent a few minutes listening to tapes of popular music from a few years before.   Just as they were enjoying their accomplishment, a local Khmer Rouge guard known for his murderous rages, nicknamed Moe, walked in on them.   Fortunately, there were ten people in Chhalith’s group and Moe was alone— afraid for their lives and having nothing to lose, they might possibly have rushed him, sacrificing a few lives to seize his gun.   After sizing up the situation, Moe decided to accept a bribe of food and let the group off with a warning.   But each member of the group was afraid afterwards that Moe would find some other pretext to execute them, and Chhalith made an extra effort to volunteer for work assignments outside the village.

We were scared all the time, all the time.  We trusted no one, but still we had to work together in structured groups for the preservation of ourselves as individuals.  There was no other way…  In the first year, the Khmer Rouge killed any soldiers from any factions that had fought against them.  Then they killed all the family members of these soldiers who had come into the villages.  Next they killed anyone that they thought might start a revolution against them.

(Kindle Locations 1453-1461).

As the population grew sicker and weaker, the soldiers got angrier and angrier at the lack of production.    They tried to hold entire groups accountable when any individual failed to do enough work, but in many cases this was futile:  

…only two people in  a group of ten had shown up to work in the field.  The rest stayed home sick, and these two people had to try and complete the work that ten should have done.  When they went home at the end of the day, they were killed because their group as a whole had failed to perform.  The next day, the rest of the group was still sick, but they had to go out to work anyway.

(Kindle Locations 1577-1579).

All around us, the situation was deteriorating.  Nobody had enough energy, but Angkar made them work more and more to meet its deadlines.  People died in the rice fields, at the building sites, and walking to and from work.  They forced sick people to work.  Whole families died and the dead could not be buried so they just lay there.  We could smell the bodies from a long way away.  People were trying to run away, but the soldiers caught them and killed them.  The people had no more sympathy for the Khmer Rouge or its revolution.  All they wanted was food to eat.

(Kindle Locations 1495-1499).

Chhalith continued to labor on the work crews, his youth and vigor enabling him to survive numerous work assignments that were fatal to the weak and starving.   He had to get used to the constant hunger and disease, the looming threats from the Khmer Rouge soldiers, and the continuous atmosphere of death all around him.   He survived for four years like this, until eventually being felled by a combination of a foot infection and malaria.   Luckily, he was previously known as a good worker, so the Khmer Rouge recognized that he was seriously ill, and sent him to recover with his parents in his village.   

By this time, after four years of Khmer Rouge rule, the regime was beginning to deteriorate in the midst of corruption and factional fighting.  In addition, war began with the neighboring Vietnam.     Incidentally, Vietnamese occupation was not any kind of real deliverance from Khmer Rouge brutality— they were another Communist regime and only slightly less brutal, having murdered about 1 million of their countrymen, as opposed to the Khmer Rouge’s 2 million.   However, with all this chaos going on, families living in the villages were able to go back to their old homes in the cities.   Chhalith and his family returned to Battambang, but soon realized that there was no food coming into the city, so there was no way to survive there long-term. 

Chhalith and his family once again packed all the supplies they could carry, and this time headed to the Thai border.   It was quite a struggle to get across, but eventually they made it to a refugee camp run by the UN, and his father was able to get in contact with Americans who remembered him from his work in Phnom Penh.   Due to this connection, they were able to get accelerated immigration visas, and his family soon began their new life in America.   Chhalith eventually grew up and became a successful banker.    Hopefully this left some of his former Khmer Rouge oppressors spinning in their graves.

<closing conversation with Manuel>

If you want to learn more about what it was like to live firsthand under one of the most brutal Communist regimes of the 20th century, be sure to check out Chhalith Ou’s memoir, “Spare Them? No Profit. Remove Them? No Loss”, linked in the show notes.

And this has been your Story of Communism for today.

References:


Episode 13: Communists Take a Bath

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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.

Having made it through a few more serious episodes, we’re now going to take another look at the lighter side of Communism, through the eyes of famous Soviet author Mikhail Zoshchenko.    You might call Zoshchenko the Seinfeld of 1920s Russia— he loved to poke fun at the little details of daily life, and the silly behavior of common people who didn’t quite understand what they were doing, or just weren’t quite competent at their jobs.    Most of his stories are not overtly political, but if you read between the lines, you can often spot an embedded critique of the Communist system and its effects on people’s daily lives.   Today we’ll be looking at a few selections from his classic short story collection “Scenes from the Bathhouse”, as translated by Sidney Monas.

Perhaps Zoshchenko’s most famous story is the title story of that collection, “The Bathhouse”, where he describes the challenges of visiting a rather poorly run public bathhouse.   Here’s an excerpt:

Last Saturday I went to one of our bathhouses… and they gave me two tickets.  One for my linen, the other for my hat and coat.   But where is a naked man going to put tickets?  To say it straight— no place.  No pockets.  Look around— all stomach and legs…  Can’t tie them to your beard.   Well, I tied a ticket to each leg so as not to lose them both at once.
All right.  So I’m standing.  I’m holding the bucket in one hand and I’m washing myself.  But all around me everyone’s scrubbing clothes like mad.   One is washing his trousers, another’s rubbing his drawers, a third’s wringing something out.   You no sooner get yourself all washed up than you’re dirty again.   They’re splattering me, the bastards…
I go back to the locker room.   I give them one ticket, they give me my linen.  I look.  Everything’s mine, but the trousers aren’t mine.   “Citizens, “ I say, “Mine didn’t have a hole here.  Mine had a hole over there. “  But the attendant says, “We aren’t here”, he says, “just to watch for your holes.”

You can see that even though he’s not explicitly making a political critique, there are a lot of possible interpretations here about the society of his day.    A similarly absurd situation occurs in another story of his, “The Overshoe”, where he has to deal with an overly bureaucratic lost-and-found office after losing an overshoe on a trolley:

“Is it possible, brothers,” I say, “to get my overshoe back?   I lost it in the trolley.   “Possible”, they say.  “What kind of overshoe?”  “Oh,” I say, “the ordinary kind, number twelve.”   “We have,” they say, “twleve thousand number twelves.   Describe its features.”…  “The back, of course, is a bit torn.  There’s no lining on the inside.  The lining wore out…  The toe looks as thought it was cut clean off, but it’s still hanging on.”…
And right away they bring back my overshoe.  Naturally, I was beside myself with joy.  Really touched…  “Now it’s found, I thank you.”  “No,” they say, “respected comrade, we cannot give it to you.  We,” they say, “don’t know; maybe it wasn't you who lost it… Bring us some certification that you really did lose the shoe.”

In the end, the narrator finally succeeds in convincing the office to let him reclaim his old, worn overshoe, thanks to a written declaration he gets signed by his building manager, but in the intervening week he has lost his other overshoe.    In the story “Kitten and People”, he describes a similar situation that doesn’t end quite as well, when he tries to get some needed repairs approved by his building cooperative:

“The stove I have works very badly.  Sitting around it, my whole family is always stifling from the fumes.   And that housing cooperative of devils refuses to make any repairs.  They’re economizing.  On current expenses…. “Nothing wrong,” they say.  “One can live.”  
“Comrades,” I say, “it’s downright shameful to utter words like that… even our kitten stifled from the fumes….” … “In that case,” they say, “we’ll set up an experiment now and have a look whether your stove is really stifling.”…
We warmed up the stove.   We deposited ourselves around it.  We sit.  We sniff…. Naturally, the fumes soon begin to spread through the room.   The chairman took a sniff, and he says:  “Not a thing.  Don’t smell a thing.”…   The kitten comes.  Sits herself down on the bed.  Sits calmly… she’s already gotten a bit used to it…
Suddenly, the treasurer rocks on the bed and says, “You know, I’ve got to hurry, I’ve got business to attend to.”  And he goes over to the window and breathes through the chink.  And he’s turning green and swaying on his feet.

Eventually the chairman is taken away by an ambulance, but still refuses to acknowledge an issue with the stove.   It’s interesting to note that this story is getting dangerously close to a political point, mocking the widespread “economization” initiative promoted by the government at that time.

In some of Zoshchenko’s stories, though, he takes more direct aim at the incompetence of low-level Communist bureaucrats and the way they gain power.   In “A Metropolitan Deal”, he discusses the efforts of a village to elect a local chairman to replace the rich “parasite” previously in charge.   This is indirectly referring to the public jealousy and resentment over the growth of rich “kulaks”, successful business owners, in the 1920s— you may recall, from Episode 1, the violent rage the government would unleash against them a few years later.   But that’s not the focus here, it’s just on selecting the new chair.

“Brothers!” someone shrieked.  “This is no election…  We need to choose advanced-type comrades…  Someone who’ll know his way around in the city— that’s the kind we need…  Who’d know everything through and through….”   “Right!” they shrieked in the crowd.  “Some advanced types we need…  That’s the way it’s done around here.”…  
“How about Leshka Konovalov?”  someone said timidly.  He’s the only one who’s come from the city  He’s— a metropolitan deal.”  “Leshka!” they shrieked in the crowd.  “Step out, Leshka.  Tell the group.” …
“Well now, said Leshka, a bit confused.   “Me you can choose… I scratched around the city for about two years.  Me you can choose….”  “Speak. Leshka!  Report to the group!” the crowd shrieked once again.  
“I can speak”, said Leshka.  “Why not speak,when I know it all.  Unlike you call, I’m a cultured man.  For two years I shook loose from the grayness of country life.   In the second place, my tongue is very fluent— I can make speeches.   Nowadays that isn’t just a pound of steam.”   “You’re right Leshka,” they said in the crowd.  “Without a tongue a man’s a sheep.  Only the tongue makes men.”
“That’s just it,” Leshka confirmed.  “…The tongue makes knowledge.   Of course, one needs to know— the law code, statues, decrees.  All his I know… I’m sitting in my cell, and they come running up to you.  Explain, Leshka, looks here, what does this note added on to the decree mean.”

Someone in the crowd picks up on the mention of the “cell”, and they soon discover that Leshka gained all his metropolitan sophistication while in jail for theft.   In the end they choose not to put him in charge, though the clear implication is that he would have been fine if he didn’t slip up and mention his cell.    Similarly, in another of Zoshchenko’s tales, “An Instructive Story”, he takes even more direct aim at poorly chosen leaders and fat, lazy bureaucrats: 

So, once, in a certain administration, a certain rather large worker named Ch was employed.   In the course of twenty years he occupied solid positions in the administration… at one time he was the head of the local committee.   They he was moved to the position of administrative director.  Then he was made the boss of something else…  
Of course, Ch was not an engineer or technician…  And even in general, it seems, his education was rather on the weak side.   Anything special, he did not know how to do.  He didn’t even have a very good handwriting….
This is what happened at the last meeting. … He had made a burning and passionate speech:  “The workers, that is… labor… they’re working… alertness… solidarity…”…  And suddenly, just think, a certain worker gets up, one of the motormen…
“Now that we’ve hear the convincing speech of Comrade Ch, I would like to ask him— well, what is it he wanted to say?…  What does Ch contribute to our work?….  The point is that he doesn’t know how to do anything.  He only makes empty speeches.    But just think, in twenty years we’ve outgrown this…”
The chairman got a little scared.  He didn’t know how he was supposed to react to all this.

Don’t worry too much about poor Comrade Ch though— after he admits that he doesn’t know anything and never claimed to, the meeting ends with everyone laughing together and still friends.

In a darker turn, though  there are a few cases where Zoshchenko directly attacks the low-level corruption that common citizens had to face at every turn, as in the story “A Weak Container.”

Nowadays, bribes aren’t taken.  Formerly, it was impossible to move a step without either giving or taking….
Lately, we’ve been dispatching goods from the freight station…  The weigher, an employee of the highest and most noble type, spouts numbers rapidly, takes notes, applies the weights, pastes labels, and issues explanations.     
Only suddenly we notice that, for all the beauty of his work, the weigher is very demanding about the rules.   He watches the interests of his fellow citizens and the state very closely…  to every third or fourth person, he refuses to accept their freight.  The container is a bit loose— he won’t take it…  “Instead of feeling badly, reinforce your container.  There’s a man loafing somewhere around here with some nails…” 

Eventually, a frustrated customer tries to solve the problem the traditional way, before the narrator finally gets to the heart of the issue:

He flushes, remembers something long forgotten… and digs out five rubles’ worth of money in single ruble notes.  And he wants to give them to the weigher.   Then the weigher turns purple at the sight of the money.  He yells:  “Is this how you get it?  A bribe you want to give me, you four-eyed horse?”
Of course, the one in glasses grasps right away the complete shamefulness of his position…  The weigher says:  “For shame!  Bribes are not taken here…”…
I approach the worker and ask him in any case to reinforce my dubious container.   He asks me for eight rubles.   I say:  “You’re kidding.  Eight rubles,” I say, “for three nails?”  He says to me in an intimate tone… “put yourself in my delicate position— I have to share up with this crocodile.”…”you share up with the weigher?”

With all this direct and indirect criticism of various aspects of 1920s Soviet society, it’s a bit surprising that Zoshchenko didn’t end up arrested or killed like so many of his fellow writers in the following years.    There were certainly many Soviet critics who considered his work offensive and denounced him, but he was saved by his large number of fans, even among Communist officials, who considered his writings hilarious.    One aspect that helped was Zoshchenko’s instinctive focus on the bottom rungs of the hierarchy:  he never criticized the upper leadership or the system itself, so he could be said to be merely mocking local incompetence & poor implementation of the new systems.   He also tended to put words in the mouth of seemingly clueless or buffoonish characters, so he could often claim any controversial statements were not his own.   

During the Stalinist period of the 1930s, however, Zoshchenko apparently got nervous about his future, and tried to please officials by writing some orthodox propaganda for the government.   Most notoriously, he contributed to the essay collection “The White Sea Canal”, which praised Stalin’s wasteful and inefficient canal project that cost the lives of thousands of Gulag prisoners.    This may have helped him avoid arrest during the mass purges of the 1930s, but his irreverent attitude towards Communism could not be tolerated forever.   Finally in 1946 he was denounced and expelled from the Soviet Writer’s Union, and did not publish any more major stories after that.   But his hilarious writings from the 1920s will be sure to live on for a long time to come.

[Closing conversation with Manuel]

If you need a lighthearted break from the grim retelling of Communist history in our other episodes, be sure to check out Michail Zoshchenko’s “Scenes from the Bathhouse”, as well as his other short story collections available in translation.

And this has been your Story of Communism for today.

References:



Episode 12: Fighting for Cuban Freedom

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.

This week we have a really amazing guest, Nelson Rodriguez Chartrand from Cuba, one of the modern heroes of the movement for freedom worldwide.    You may remember that a few episodes back we interviewed a documentary filmmaker who mentioned the story of his friend Nelson, who had defied the Cuban authorities to teach capitalist and libertarian ideas to his neighbors.   After we recorded that episode, I managed to connect directly with Nelson online to learn more about his work.  

Since the time we recorded that earlier episode, Nelson’s life has changed dramatically.   As you may recall, Nelson’s teaching was, for a while, grudgingly tolerated by the authorities, though they did threaten him and take away his right to practice as a lawyer.   But earlier this year, the Cuban government took a renewed interest in him, and he had to flee the country.   You’ll hear the full story in this interview.

One aspect that made this a little tricky is that Nelson isn’t fluent in English, and I’m not fluent in Spanish.   But luckily my co-host Manuel is bilingual, so his translation abilities enabled us to conduct the interview.   I decided that the listeners deserved to hear Nelson’s voice directly, so you will hear his Spanish answers in the audio as well as Manuel’s translations.   But to keep the flow a little smoother, I edited out Manuel’s Spanish translations of my questions.  Here you go!

<interview is included in the audio podcast>

I hope you enjoyed Nelson’s amazing story; we'll be sure to update you if there are further developments in his struggle.    By the way, if you want to aid Nelson’s cause, he suggests donating to the Instituto Mises-Mambi De Cuba, and they have a PayPal link in the show notes.   You can also find both the Instituto and Nelson’s Movmiento Anarcocapitalista de Cuba on Facebook and other social media.

And this concludes your Story of Communism for today.

References:





Episode 11: More Harsh Realities of Cuba

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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 doing another interview podcast, talking to two immigrants who fled Communist Cuba and built successful lives in the US, Roger Rivero and Eduardo Norell.   This episode is a bit longer than usual, but you will see that it is full of fascinating information.    You’ll hear a strong rebuttal of Cuba’s health care boasts, and stories of the absurd ways college students had to obtain paper for their homework.

Here’s the audio of the interview.

<interview available in Audio Link>

I think that was a really great interview;  please email us your comments as well.   We’ll be sure to check in with Roger and Eduardo some more, as we continue to see changes in Cuba’s government and culture in this post-Castro era.

And this concludes your Story of Communism for today.

References:

Episode 10: Orwell Betrayed

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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.

If you attended high school in the US, you are almost certainly familiar with George Owell’s two classic novels about the dangers of totalitarianism, Animal Farm & 1984.  Because they are so abstract, people of all political stripes like to claim that these depict what would happen if their opponents gained control.    But did you know that they were partially inspired by Orwell’s short real-life experiences living under Communist rule, in revolutionary Spain in the 1930s?   Despite Orwell’s fame, fans of socialism in our media and education industries have largely buried Orwell’s classic memoir of this period, Homage to Catalonia.    By the way, George Orwell was a pen name, but for the sake of consistency we’ll refer to him by that name throughout this episode.  

The Homage describes Orwell’s experiences fighting in the Spanish Civil War of the 1930s.  This war involved a number of different groups, but was primarily a conflict between the fragile Soviet-sponsored socialist Government of Spain against the fascist military rebellion led by Francisco Franco.   Realizing they were outgunned, the Government, aided by Stalin’s Communist International, called for foreign volunteers to help defend it— and thousands poured into Spain from around the world.   It’s pretty amazing if you thing about it:  young, idealistic socialists & Communists from Western countries believed so strongly that they put their jobs, homes, and families on hold to risk their lives fighting for this cause.   Among these was a young George Orwell.    When he first arrived, the people of the Spanish Republic really did seem to have taken their socialist ideals of equality seriously:

Every shop and café had an inscription saying that it had been collectivized; even the bootblacks had been collectivized and their boxes painted red and black. Waiters and shop-walkers looked you in the face and treated you as an equal.… There were no private motor cars, they had all been commandeered, and all the trams and taxis and much of the other transport were painted red and black….

In outward appearance it was a town in which the wealthy classes had practically ceased to exist. Except for a small number of women and foreigners there were no ‘well-dressed’ people at all. Practically everyone wore rough working-class clothes, or blue overalls or some variant of the militia uniform. All this was queer and moving. There was much in it that I did not understand, in some ways I did not even like it, but I recognized it immediately as a state of affairs worth fighting for.

[Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia (pp. 3-4). Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. Kindle Edition. ]

A large part of the memoir is taken up by a vivid, harrowing description of what life was like on the front lines of the conflict, from the point of view of an undersuppled, underfed footsoldier in a woefully inexperienced and untrained army.   It’s a classic depiction of life in wartime, which I would highly recommend if you’re interested in such topics.   Today we’re going to gloss over that aspect of the book, though, since the point of this podcast is the politics.    After several months on the front lines, Orwell was wounded, and given leave to spend some time recuperating in Barcelona, where political issues once more came into focus.   When he arrived, he noticed that there had been some unfortunate changes in the ideal “classless society” while he was gone:

Fat prosperous men, elegant women, and sleek cars were everywhere. (It appeared that there were still no private cars; nevertheless, anyone who ‘was anyone’ seemed able to command a car.) The officers of the new Popular Army, a type that had scarcely existed when I left Barcelona, swarmed in surprising numbers… the majority were young men who had gone to the School of War in preference to joining the militia….  all of them had automatic pistols strapped to their belts; we, at the front, could not get pistols for love or money…

A deep change had come over the town. There were two facts that were the keynote of all else. One was that the people—the civil population—had lost much of their interest in the war; the other was that the normal division of society into rich and poor, upper class and lower class, was reasserting itself.  [p. 94-95]


Even worse, the various factions involved in the Government coalition had become increasingly suspicious of each other.   The Soviet-sponsored Communists of the Popular Army wanted to ensure their control, so they began to issue continuous propaganda against the militias of the other factions in their coalition— including the POUM, the smaller socialist party to which Orwell belonged.     Here we can also see some of the origin of Orwell’s concept of “doublespeak” from his novel 1984:

Meanwhile there was going on a systematic propaganda against the party militias and in favor of the Popular Army…over the radio and in the Communist Press there was a ceaseless and sometimes very malignant jibing against the militias, who were described as ill-trained, undisciplined, etc. etc.; the Popular Army was always described as ‘heroic’. 

From much of this propaganda you would have derived the impression that there was something disgraceful in having gone to the front voluntarily… The fact that the militia troops were also, on paper, Popular Army troops, was skillfully used in the Press propaganda. Any credit that happened to be going was automatically handed to the Popular Army, while all blame was reserved for the militias. It sometimes happened that the same troops were praised in one capacity and blamed in the other.   [p.96-98]

It reached the level where some minor street fighting actually broke out in the city.   Orwell was disgusted that his comrades were fighting each other rather than working towards their great cause, but had no choice but to join in on the side of his faction, helping to defend a building.    Eventually the  Popular Army took control of the city and ended the factional fighting, and Orwell returned to the front.   Once more, however, he was wounded, and after a difficult recovery in some horribly supplied and understaffed medical facilities, he returned to Barcelona.   But now his POUM membership put him in real danger, as he learned when drying to visit his wife’s hotel.   Luckily she had been expecting him, and intercepted him by the entrance.

‘Listen! You mustn’t come in here. Get out quickly and hide yourself before they ring up the police.’ And behold! at the bottom of the stairs one of the hotel staff, who was a POUM member (unknown to the management, I fancy), slipped furtively out of the lift and told me in broken English to get out. Even now I did not grasp what had happened. ‘What the devil is all this about?’ I said as soon as we were on the pavement. ‘Haven’t you heard?’ ‘No. Heard what? I’ve heard nothing.’ ‘The POUM’s been suppressed. They’ve seized all the buildings. Practically everyone’s in prison. And they say they’re shooting people already.’…

On 15 June the police had suddenly arrested Andrés Nin in his office, and the same evening had raided the Hotel Falcón and arrested all the people in it, mostly militiamen on leave. The place was converted immediately into a prison, and in a very little while it was filled to the brim with prisoners of all kinds. Next day the POUM was declared an illegal organization and all its offices, bookstalls, sanatoria, Red Aid centres and so forth were seized. Meanwhile the police were arresting everyone they could lay hands on who was known to have any connection with the POUM… In some cases the police had even gone to the length of dragging wounded militiamen out of the hospitals…

Apparently the suppression of the POUM had a retrospective effect; the POUM was now illegal, and therefore one was breaking the law by having previously belonged to it. As usual, none of the arrested people had been charged. Meanwhile, however, the Valencia Communist papers were flaming with the story of a huge ‘Fascist plot’,   [p.166-167]

The Communists had decided to blame the POUM for the recent street fighting, and label them as fascist agents.    POUM members, or anyone whose loyalty to the Communist Party was not proven, could now be arrested on sight.    The upbeat, revolutionary spirit that Orwell had observed in the people a few months before seemed to have been frittered away, though some of the true believers who hadn’t been immediately targeted still managed to hold on to their idealistic convictions.

And it was queer how everyone expressed it in almost the same words: ‘The atmosphere of this place—it’s horrible. Like being in a lunatic asylum.’ But perhaps I ought not to say everyone. Some of the English visitors who flitted briefly through Spain, from hotel to hotel, seem not to have noticed that there was anything wrong with the general atmosphere…  [p.156-159]

Orwell then had to spend some time essentially in hiding— he could blend in with the crowds during the day, but did not dare to sleep at his wife’s hotel room or appear in places where he was known, or he would be arrested.   Even more cruelly, he found out that the Government was attempting to keep the POUM’s suppression a secret from the front lines, so its soldiers would continue to risk their lives without knowing that, as soon as they returned home, they would be arrested or executed.

In the whole business the detail that most sticks in my throat, though perhaps it is not of great importance, is that all news of what was happening was kept from the troops at the front. As you will have seen, neither I nor anyone else at the front had heard anything about the suppression of the POUM. …about 100 miles from Barcelona, no one had heard what was happening. All word of it was kept out of the Barcelona papers ..

This kind of thing is a little difficult to forgive. I know it was the usual policy to keep bad news from the troops, and perhaps as a rule that is justified. But it is a different matter to send men into battle and not even tell them that behind their backs their party is being suppressed, their leaders accused of treachery, and their friends and relatives thrown into prison.  [pp.169-170]


Orwell was also horrified that despite the mass arrest of POUM members, there was no real legal process for them to follow once arrested.   They were generally thrown in crowded, dirty jails and left there to eventually die, or at best be arbitrarily released years later with lasting effects on their physical and mental health.    He wrote about several idealistic friends of his who had given up everything at home to come fight for the cause, only to find themselves confined without trial or executed by their supposed comrades.   One example is Orwell’s young friend Bob Smiile:

Smillie’s death is not a thing I can easily forgive. Here was this brave and gifted boy, who had thrown up his career at Glasgow University in order to come and fight against Fascism, and who, as I saw for myself, had done his job at the front with faultless courage and willingness; and all they could find to do with him was to fling him into jail and let him die like a neglected animal. 

I know that in the middle of a huge and bloody war it is no use making too much fuss over an individual death. One aeroplane bomb in a crowded street causes more suffering than quite a lot of political persecution. But what angers one about a death like this is its utter pointlessness. To be killed in battle—yes, that is what one expects; but to be flung into jail, not even for any imaginary offence, but simply owing to dull blind spite, and then left to die in solitude—that is a different matter.   [pp. 179-180]

While still on the run, Orwell and his wife attempted to use their small amount of influence and contacts to help another of their friends, Georges Kopp, who was still imprisoned.   Their efforts proved essentially futile, however, and they realized that their only reasonable course of action was to flee the country before being forced to join him.   In the end, Orwell and his wife managed to escape from Spain and head back to England, where he resumed his literary career and eventually produced his well-known classics.  

[Closing conversation with Manuel]

Anyway, Orwell’s time in Spain had been relatively brief, but he had directly experienced many of the worst failures of socialist and Communist governments:   government doublespeak and propaganda, the fundamental inability to sufficiently supply and feed their people, the emergence of new classes based on government loyalty, purges and unjustified mass arrests, and the total arbitrariness of the judicial and legal processes.    Knowing about these experiences definitely provides some new insights when trying to interpret 1984 and Animal Farm.

And this concludes your Story of Communism for today.


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Episode 9: Capitalism In Cuba

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.

Apologies for the delay in getting this episode out.   We wanted to try something different, and got delayed a bit by logistical issues.    Until now we’ve focused on the written records of Communism, but of course there are a lot of living people who have knowledge and experience in this area.   A few episodes ago we discussed Iris Diaz’s memoir of Cuban Communism around the time of Fidel Castro’s revolution.   But today we will be discussing a very different aspect of Cuban Communist society.   Manuel and I were surprised to be contacted by a filmmaker named Jesus Areola Vega, who is working on a documentary about the “anarcho-capitalist” movement in Cuba, and the growth of private businesses.    Apparently a lot has changed since Fidel Castro stepped down.   Here is our interview of Jesus, where he discusses more details about this topic, and the personal stories of some of those struggling to advance capitalist ideas in Cuba today.

[Audio interview- click audio link above to listen.]

As you can see, things are looking somewhat hopeful in Cuba—  I hope Jesus is right that the opening of their society will continue to accelerate due to exposure to the outside world.     Jesus’s website, https://jesusarzolavega.myportfolio.com/, is also linked in the show notes on our website in case you’re not quite sure how to spell his name.

By the way, we are interested in doing more interview-type episodes as well:  if you have lived in or spent time in a Communist country and would be willing to chat on this podcast, email us at erik@storiesofcommunism.com .    

Also, we would like to thank listeners Glenn, JJGidds, and Msnecken for posting nice reviews in Apple Podcasts.  Please consider posting one of your own if you enjoy the podcast!

And this concludes your Story of Communism for today.

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Episode 8: Concealing Your True Self

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.

Well, we’ve had a few more very serious episodes, so now I think it’s time for another lighthearted one.  Today we’re going to discuss a wacky sci-fi spoof from 1970’s Poland that, at its heart, conceals some pointed commentary on its Communist government.   I’m talking about “The Star Diaries”, a collection of satirical science fiction stories by Stanislaw Lem.   In particular, today we’ll be focusing on “The Eleventh Voyage”, one of the stories from that volume, focusing on a planet run completely by robots.   

Lem is an unusual figure in this podcast for a number of reasons.   Unlike most of the other authors we discuss, he was not a dissident or an exile:  he was a successful author who lived in Poland throughout its Communist period.   He didn’t originally set out to be a science fiction writer, but after realizing the constraints of his government’s censorship early in his writing career, he turned to science fiction as a way to escape them.    While the rules of the time could only tolerate propaganda such as “socialist realism” in books set in modern times, they didn’t really have rules that applied to crazy fantasies about aliens and robots.     Although politics wasn’t usually the central focus of his writing, this looser censorship did enable Lem to sneak political points into his work.

Lem’s science fiction novels and stories actually contain an interesting mix of topics.   Some are dense philosophical meditations on the future of humanity— his Wikipedia page actually mentions that some of his books are used as texts in college philosophy classes.   But my favorite of his are the bizarre satires.   Today’s focus, “The Eleventh Voyage”, falls squarely into that category.   It tells the story of a famous star pilot, Ijon Tichy, who is sent to investigate a planet taken over by robots.    It starts out with a glib summary of Tichy’s somewhat strained relationship with machines, as he gets angry with his robotic servant:

There were mice nesting in my meteor collection… While I was making coffee the milk boiled over. That electrical numskull had hidden the dishrags along with my handkerchiefs. I really should have taken him in for an overhaul back when he started shining my shoes on the inside.    [Kindle Locations 695-698]

Tichy is soon summoned by a group of corporate executives, who explain to him that a computer mutinied on one of their ships several decades ago, and crashed it into an unknown planet named Cercia.   It then started a new society, populated entirely by robots, and with a deadly hatred of humans.

…the youthful nationalism of the Robcol had taken the form of an unreasonable hatred of all things human. The Cercian press never tires of repeating that we are abominable slaveowners, who illegally exploit and prey upon innocent robots.   [Kindle Locations 793-795].
…The robots’ printing houses are turning out, on a mass basis, leaflets and fliers addressed to the robots of Earth and in which men, portrayed as grasping voltsuckers and villains, are called injurious names—thus, for example, in the official pronouncements we are referred to as mucilids, and the whole human race—as gook.  [Kindle locations 802-805]

The Company has apparently sent thousands of agents over the decades to try to investigate or negotiate with the mad robots, but none has returned alive.   So, as often happens in these types of stories, Tichy bravely steps forward and volunteers to investigate.   He will disguise himself as a robot, and sneak into their capital and see what he can find out.   Naturally, he needs to be careful of a few issues:

“Mr. Tichy,” said the make-up man in charge, “there are a few important things you must remember. The first is, not to breathe.” “You must be mad,” I said. “How can I not breathe? I’ll suffocate!” “A misunderstanding. Obviously you are allowed to breathe, but do it quietly. No sighs, no panting or puffing, no deep inhalation—keep everything inaudible, and for the love of God don’t sneeze. That would be the end of you.” [Kindle locations 875-879]

Tichy successfully lands on the planet and infiltrates the robot society, making friends with a few of the locals.   He tries to participate in their social activities, including the theater:

They were putting on a play called “Carbazarius.” It was about a handsome young robot mercilessly persecuted by man—that is, by mucilids—who doused him with water, sprinkled sand in his oil, loosened his screws so that he kept falling down, etc. The audience clanged angrily. In the second act an emissary of the Computer appeared, the young robot was freed, and the third act dealt at length with the fate of man, which, as one might imagine, was not particularly pleasant.  (Kindle Locations 1062-1065).

He spends some time just getting to understand the strange machines around him, but one day notices something suspicious:  a robot heading towards a berry patch.   While berries are tasty, they should be of no use to robots.   As he suspects, it turns out that this robot is also a disguised human!   Relieved to find a likely ally, Tichy reveals his own identity and makes arrangements to meet his fellow human to discuss their next steps.   Alas, it turns out to be a trap— the fellow human, despite their shared nature, has turned him in to the authorities and he is placed under arrest.    This is a pretty serious situation, given what he saw in the recent play.  His robot public defender is not very helpful:

“Tell me, Klaustron Fredrax, what am I accused of?” “Of mussiliditee,” he replied at once. “A capitall offence. And also: of the intent to werken tresoun upon us, of espiaillement on behaff of Gookum, of blasphemous conspiracye to liften a hond agayn Hiss Inductivitude—do that sufficeth, excressent muscilid? Confess you to thes crymes?” “Are you really my lawyer?” I asked. “For you speak like a prosecutor or examining magistrate.” “I am your defendour.” “Good. I confess to none of the above crimes.” “The sparkes they shal flye!” he roared.  [Kindle Locations 1108-1113]

But, he is saved when at his sentencing, the Computer offers Tichy a deal:  he can keep living in the city in his robot disguise, as long as he agrees to seek out and report on other humans, or “mucilids”, that may be sneaking around.    He accepts the deal, thinking he can then escape the planet, but his rocket has been found and dismantled, so he is truly trapped.   At the low point of his despair, a thought occurs to him.   He starts pretending to be a member of the secret police, pretending to arrest arbitrary robots in the street, taking them to secluded places, and unscrewing their heads.   In every case, they turn out to be disguised humans.   

The planet was wet, humid, rheumatic—and for robots, unhealthy in the highest degree . . . they must have rusted en masse, and perhaps too there was, as the years passed, an increasing lack of spare parts, and they began to break down, going one by one to that vast cemetery outside of town, where only the wind rang their death knell over sheets of crumbling metal. 

That was when the Computer, seeing its ranks melt away, seeing its reign endangered, had conceived the most ingenious machination. From its enemies, from the spies dispatched to destroy it, it began to build its own army, its own agents, its own people! Not one of those who were unmasked could betray it—not one of them dared attempt to contact others, other men, having no way of knowing that they weren’t robots, and even if he did find out about this one or that, he’d be afraid that at the first overture the other man would turn him in.   (Kindle Locations 1196-1202).

In other words, the Computer had filled up its society with disguised humans, the very agents that had been sent to investigate it.    All the actual robots had rusted away long ago.

Were there any robots left among those ironclad minions? I seriously doubted it. And the zeal with which they persecuted men, that too became clear. For being men themselves, they had to be…  more robotlike than the authentic robots. Hence that fanatical hatred displayed by my lawyer. Hence that dastardly attempt to turn me in by the man I had first unmasked. Oh what fiendishness of coils and circuitry was here, what electrical finesse!  (Kindle Locations 1211-1214)

After further investigation, Tichy finds that even the Computer itself is not really a machine— sitting inside is a bureaucrat shuffling paperwork, following (and probably misinterpreting) instructions whose exact purpose and details he lost track of long ago.   Tichy solves the whole problem by calling a giant assembly in the town square, and having everyone unscrew their neighbors’ heads at once, finally revealing the truth to all.

If you’re a listener of this podcast, I probably don’t have to do too much explanation of Lem’s allegory.   The totalitarian robot society with its violent hatred for outsiders clearly represents Communism, down to the details of the propaganda play, the lawyer’s behavior, etc.    The most interesting aspect to think about is that Lem’s central thesis, that Communist countries are filled with people who are not Communist at all at their core, is in a sense proven by this story’s mere publication.   After all, a true believer in the Polish censor’s office would have clearly recognized the allegory and blocked its publication.   But the sci-fi dressing gave them just enough plausible deniability to claim that they missed that aspect, and accept it as just a zany comedy about alien robots.   

[Closing discussion with Manuel]

Anyway, if you enjoyed our summary of this hilarious story, be sure to check out the rest of Stanislaw Lem’s “Star Diaries”, as well as his numerous other works.    Whether you’re a science fiction fan, a student of Communism, someone who enjoys wacky humor, or are a bit of each of those, Lem is definitely an author worth checking out. 

And this concludes your Story of Communism for today.


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