Episode 36: Radioactive Spinach for Kids

 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 Portland, Oregon, this is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda.

Today we’re going to interview Nora Clinton, author of “Quarantine Reflections Across Two Worlds”.   Nora discusses her early life in Communist Bulgaria, her experiences on moving to the West, and the ways in which recent events remind her a bit too much of her past.   Let’s hear what she has to say directly.

<Listen to audio for interview,

Here are some of the quotes from the book that we noted down, for discussion in the interview:

I had always considered a ham-and-cheese sandwich to be nothing more than what the name suggested. Little did I know this would be a memorable paragon of free-market economy and a kaleidoscope of magical abundance. 

The server asked with a gentle smile, “What kind of bread would you like?” I was confused. “What kind do you have?” “White, wheat, rye, pumpernickel, pita, sprouted, flourless …” After I hesitantly chose, he continued, “Cheddar, provolone, brie, gouda, Havarti, pepper jack, or American?” Followed by, “Do you want mustard, mayo, butter, or cream cheese? Peppers, tomatoes, relish, onions, lettuce, arugula, or sprouts?” And to top it all off, “How about a pickle?” 

I felt exhausted after ordering my first American sandwich, yet almost tearful with amazement and appreciation.

Clinton, Nora D.. Quarantine Reflections Across Two Worlds (p. 16). Archway Publishing. Kindle Edition. 

The communists then nationalized the company but needed experts to teach them basic skills at the state-owned insurance outfit. They hired my grandfather to manage this effort but soon ordered him to dismiss two employees for political reasons. Their crime was “harboring ill musings toward the government.” My grandfather refused to fire the employees on political grounds. And he disappeared overnight.


In 1968, the comrades’ tanks invaded Prague, and my grandfather vanished again. An informant sitting at a café had recorded his conversation with a friend, in which both men expressed disapproval of the invasion. The government exiled my grandfather to an isolated, poverty-stricken village in northeast Bulgaria for one year, without permission to see his family. He was denied the simple joy of attending his daughter’s high school graduation.


 We did not have a telephone; visitors merely dropped by. Phones, cars, apartments, and other essential possessions were a privilege—people had to deserve them. They often waited five, ten, twenty, or more years to obtain them.


When I was five, I attended kindergarten. While some teachers were warm and humane, the communist directive mandated that children be indoctrinated and humiliated every step of the way. This would serve as an instructive preview early on of what was to come in adulthood. We sang a song about the party being our one true mother. It went like this: “You love your mother, and she may be a very fine person, but she only cares about you and your sister. We all, however, have one true mother—the communist party that cares for us all.”


Few people in the West are aware that high school and college students, soldiers, and other groups were engaged in forced labor to help the unsustainable communist economy. They dug ditches, painted buildings, worked in the fields or can factories—the so-called “merry brigades.”


A few days after the explosion, my classmates and I were to collect spinach at a vast cooperative farm, after spring rains and gusts of wind had spread the radioactive cloud across great swaths of territory in many countries. Our principal called the Ministry of Health to inquire if this was safe. “We are talking about eighth-grade children,” she pleaded. The ministry assured her there was no risk, and we gathered radioactive spinach from dawn to dusk, when a new order arrived from above: “Destroy the spinach!”

My extended family included a number of medical doctors, who were aghast upon learning that I had spent the day picking radioactive spinach. “You must take iodine,” they urged me, “immediately!” They diluted some iodine in water and made me chug it. It left a burning sensation in my esophagus, but perhaps it saved my life.


One professor I knew, who earned a six-figure salary, was an unabashed self-proclaimed communist, who enjoyed a luxurious house with acres of majestic pines and an emerald pond. He incessantly directed invectives at the United States and sang “The Internationale” at his bon-vivant soirees, after distributing gaudy pink brochures with this dreadful anthem’s lyrics to his unfortunate guests. 

The French have fittingly labeled this phenomenon “left caviar” or “champagne socialism.” Just think of George Bernard Shaw, who shamelessly propagated eugenics and genocide, offered to assist Hitler and Mussolini, and lauded Stalin’s extermination camps as though they were a quaint holiday arrangement of voluntary duration.



As always, you can see a link to Nora Clinton’s book, as well as one to her foundation’s website about victims of Communism in Bulgaria, in the show notes at storiesofcommunism.com .  

And this has been your story of Communism for today.


Episode 35: Repeating History in Venezuela

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 Portland, Oregon, this is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda.

After the last episode’s impassioned personal stories by two Venezuelans who had been forced to abandon their country, I attempted a search for memoirs or novels published by other Venezuelans who had lived through their country’s economic collapse.   Due to the events being so recent, it was difficult to find such works.   But I did find an entertaining account by an American journalist named Raul Gallegos called “Crude Nation:  How Oil Riches Ruined Venezuela”.   It was published in 2016, and in addition to talking about a bit of the history, talks about Gallegos’s experiences in Venezuela during the preceding decade, spending time among the normal people as well as government officials.

As you might guess from the title, one of Gallegos’s key points is that despite having been among the richest nations in the Western hemisphere for a time, there was a constant inherent weakness to Venezuela’s economy:  the over-dependence on oil wealth.    This led to a lack of diversification in their industries, an over-dependence on foreign imports, and a foolish tendency to elect governments that would spend money indiscriminately.   Perhaps to increase the chance of the book being accepted by American leftists, he avoids using the word “socialism” too much, and phrases his conclusion like this:  “Venezuela’s reality is a tale of how hubris, oil dependence, spendthrift ways, and economic ignorance can drive a country to ruin.”     But really, once you start talking about “spendthrift ways and economic ignorance”, it’s hard to avoid relating that to socialist policies.    

Venezuela’s modern problems began in the 1990s, when Venezuela seemed to have an endless supply of oil wealth.    Hugo Chavez was elected president on a platform of spending the country’s riches to help the poor, and fundamentally transforming the country in the name of social justice.    Naturally, he also demonized the “savage capitalists” who managed private companies, and promised the government would fix that problem too.   He started out by enacting policies like price controls on consumer goods, to make them more accessible, and outlawed corporate layoffs.    As Gallegos writes,

Voters elect politicians who promise economic miracles and hand out as much money as possible. This is the people’s money, after all. …  Under Chávez’s movement the government has lavished billions of dollars on fighter jets, helicopters, and advanced military technology for armed forces that have never fought a war. Politicians spend untold sums on social programs but fail to invest enough to keep pumping oil, the original source of the country’s fantastic riches. Chávez, convinced the state could run companies better than they were already being managed, nationalized dozens of them in every industry but turned them into corporate zombies instead. The companies operate, employ thousands of workers, and are seemingly alive. But they produce little, lose gobs of money, and survive because the government props them up.

[Gallegos, Raúl. Crude Nation: How Oil Riches Ruined Venezuela . Potomac Books. Kindle Edition.   Loc 319]

One confusing aspect of spending time in Venezuela is the varying exchange rates of the currency.    There is a small elite, mostly people working with the government or with powerful political connections, who are paid in foreign dollars and can exchange money at a rate of 6.3 bolivars to the dollar.    However, the unlimited printing of money by the government has continually driven down the bolivar’s real value.    Common people are charged much more— and due to government controls on how much currency each person can exchange, mostly had to use the black market to buy anything significant.

As I edit this text in March 2016, the black market dollar stands at nearly 1,200 bolivars per dollar, a 5,600 percent increase in roughly a year. The truth is, I cannot write fast enough to keep up with the bolivar’s loss of value. In this country, those who earn dollars can live like royalty, and those who don’t do whatever they can to get their hands on them…

Under normal circumstances a weaker currency shouldn’t hurt people too much, but in Venezuela where almost everything people consume comes from abroad, especially from the United States, a weaker bolivar means virtually everything a family might need or want, from food to clothes, television sets, fridges, washers, and cellular phones, can become more expensive in just days.

[Loc 401-441]

Angry government officials accused currency traders of sabotaging the economy.    Naturally, the leaders of Venezuela decided that a government-based solution was the key to solving this problem, as with all problems.    The government expanded its takeovers of private companies, and became a leading importer of food, medicine, and related items— but then small groups of well-connected con artists and corrupt officials started creating sham companies to launder this spending for themselves.

Jorge Giordani, a seventy-six-year-old electronics engineer and the main architect of Venezuela’s economic policies under Chávez—known as “the Monk” for his ascetic ways and almost religious devotion to orthodox leftist ideas—famously admitted that US$20 billion, or one-third of the country’s total import bill, was lost to obscure enterprises in 2012 alone.  Seen another way, corrupt foreign currency dealings took US$658 from the pocket of every Venezuelan that year.

[Loc 492]

Gallegos’s journalistic work led to a personal clash with “The Monk”, after he asked a question during a press conference, about whether giving the president too much control over the central bank and allowing it to freely create money might lead to overspending and government abuses.   

The Monk’s response was an angry forty-minute rant during which he accused me of showing a “lack of respect” for central bank board members and President Chávez. “The reserves belong to the nation, not the bank,” he said. “What discretion are we talking about?” The president, as the people’s elected representative, he insisted, had every right to decide how to spend that money. … Other reporters in the audience seemed stunned. 

Later that night a friend called to inform me that I was being called an enemy of the revolution on a well-known government propaganda television program. A nationally televised show called La Hojilla (“the Razorblade”), known for attacking the government’s perceived enemies, replayed the incident and accused my employer, Dow Jones and Company, and me of manipulating information. The Monk and the government’s media apparatus had made an example of me for the entire country, especially those who questioned the government’s economic policies. Debating the idea of turning the bank into the president’s petty cash fund would not be tolerated.

[Loc 693]

By 2015, Venezuela was suffering a dire shortage of consumer goods.   Price controls led to inefficiency and inability to produce in many areas:  prices were often so low that companies could not recover the cost of supplies, and couldn’t attempt to cut costs by laying off employees.

I made it my goal in January 2015 to buy a household roll of toilet paper somewhere, anywhere in the Caracas metropolitan area within three weeks. … It had been roughly two years since store shelves were regularly stocked with toilet paper rolls in Caracas, the city in Venezuela where consumers were most likely to find scarce products. Other major cities and towns in this oil-rich nation were worse off: their store shelves were barren almost all the time. People traveled to Caracas from all over the country hoping to find body soap, laundry detergent, and toilet tissue somewhere in the capital.  When delivery trucks carrying toilet paper drove into stores, dozens or even hundreds of Venezuelans already stood in lines that were blocks long, waiting for hours…

Odd things happen when toilet tissue disappears. At the Nugantina café, a fixture in the Los Palos Grandes neighborhood in eastern Caracas, a stack of brown paper towels normally used to dry hands sat atop the toilet in the unisex bathroom. There was no toilet tissue available for customers… A Renaissance manager told me the hotel took the precaution of keeping a three-month stock of toilet tissue. “It’s all about having the right suppliers. And having lots of them,” the manager said. The hotel devoted one whole floor of the building exclusively to storing its inventory of prized toiletries.

Shopping for toilet paper, or anything else in Venezuela, became a fraught experience. Visiting more than a dozen supermarkets and pharmacies in Caracas over several days left me with nothing. People stood in one line or another outside supermarkets at all hours of the day….

On a Saturday, at the state-owned Bicentenario supermarket in Plaza Venezuela, a middle-class enclave, people showed up in droves to shop…  Outside, several hundred people lined up in a dirt field under the sun, holding umbrellas and sitting on folding chairs, to wait for a chance to enter the building. Entire families of mostly low-income Venezuelans showed up with children of all ages to sit in the heat. A handful of portable toilets were strategically placed on the edges of the field for those who needed to relieve themselves, a woefully inadequate number given the growing mass of people in line. Of course shoppers were expected to bring their own toilet tissue if they planned to use the toilets.

[Loc 825-835]

And of course, the government discovered the alleged real root cause of the toilet paper shortage:  an orchestrated campaign of right-wing sabotage.    When this pronouncement was received with skepticism, another government official pointed to the shortage as a sign of prosperity:  if people needed toilet paper, it must mean they were eating well, due to the success of the socialist government in bringing them food.   But the government continued to blame sabotage as well, attempting to crack down on the hoarders who supposedly were keeping the products off the market.   If a store was found to be holding back stock of this or any other price-controlled good, its owners could find themselves in prison for 8-10 years. 

As you would expect, this uncertainty about if and when any particular product would be available also leads to the perverse incentive to buy more than you need, whenever you can find it.   

To witness the Venezuelan tendency to stock up on goods I met Ramón Barrios, a sixty-eight-year-old retired policeman, who lives in a spartan home on a slope in the low-income barrio La Pastora. Barrios developed the habit of leaving his home with a folded plastic bag in his back pocket to carry the products he could find in the streets. “If there are people lining up somewhere I will get in line and buy whatever is for sale,” if no ID number is required, Barrios told me. … He opened his old wooden cupboards and allowed me to take out whatever I could find. Several minutes later, I had managed to dig out at least twenty-two pounds of white rice bags, another twenty pounds or so of sugar, roughly ten pounds of black beans, at least a dozen packs of pasta, fifteen pounds of corn flour, bottles of cooking oil, ketchup, mayonnaise: goods that were almost impossible to find and buy in large quantities anywhere. And far more than a retired man living alone would need.

[Loc 1201]

To gain some insight into the still-fanatic core supporters of the Venezuelan leadership, Gallegos also spent some time with a colorful local leader nicknamed “Che”, who modeled his life after Cuba’s Che Guevara.   Apparently he wasn’t a listener of this podcast, since as you may recall, we have discussed how Cuba’s Che was actually an incompetent but bloodthirsty fraud, whose only actual successes were in the public relations arena.    Anyway, this Che was the leader of a local armed Marxist group that controlled his neighborhood, ensuring votes for Chavez and Maduro.   

“We’re in an economic war,” Che said, referring to food scarcity. “And when you’re at war, you bring out the military. Take the companies, militarize the economy!” Che didn’t finish high school, but claims to read Marx and other thinkers on which he bases a mélange of ideas similar to the ideological mix Chavismo calls Twenty-First-Century Socialism. … “We don’t threaten people to get what we need,” he said of his Colectivo friends. “Some [armed] groups do it, but we don’t….  He told me he doesn’t use toilet paper and has some handy only for visitors.

Che claims he has never benefited from government largess, but like many Venezuelans in the D and E segment, those closest to him have gained from social programs…  [his girlfriend’s] mother managed to get a two-bedroom apartment assigned to her by the government even though she is a retiree living by herself (government apartments are usually assigned to families). Che assured me he did nothing to help her get a new home but admitted that she did mention to housing officials that he was practically her son-in-law and “that may have helped.”

[Loc 2298-2313]

But this government generosity isn’t quite what you might expect, once you look closely at the details.    Government-contracted construction companies suffer from the same waste and inefficiency created across the economy.  Gallegos describes the apartment:

The apartment complex was roughly two years old but looked much older. Its facade had cracks in various places, and the paint was peeling. The lobby of the building had dirty concrete floors and an abandoned commercial space, with broken ceiling tiles, trash, and a small mountain of loose gravel on the floor, that no business had found fit to lease. The whole building looked like it was unfinished when residents moved in…  the building’s elevator doesn’t work, so residents have to trek up and down the stairs every day, which is a pain for those who live on the top floors.  …I noticed the bathroom and the shower had no tile, the walls were cracked, and a hole in the floor to the left of the toilet—crudely covered with a piece of cardboard and tape—emitted a foul odor. Rosa and her neighbors later informed me the sewer pipes in the building often got clogged and this caused bad smells in people’s bathrooms. 

[Loc 3603]

Gallegos also spent some time talking in depth with managers and employees at various struggling Venezuelan companies, learning how constant and often contradictory mandates from the state make it impossible to produce goods efficiently.    Perhaps the most notorious is the case of the oil companies, which under the Chavez and Maduro governments have become money-losing enterprises despite Venezuela’s massive oil reserves.   

State-owned giant PDVSA, which controls the country’s vast oil empire, has become as unusual as the country’s own economy: it controls the richest accumulation of oil in the world but doesn’t have enough cash to pay its bills.  The company has earned more than US$100 billion from oil sales annually in recent years and has sold every barrel of crude for at least twice what it cost to produce it, which means the company typically mints money every time it pumps a barrel of oil. Yet PDVSA takes months, even years to pay its suppliers and has accumulated billions of dollars of unpaid bills to the point that now its own contractors lend money to the troubled company…

…PDVSA has consistently spent more money on social programs during the five years ending in early 2015 than it did on operating and oil exploration costs combined, and on the equipment it needs to increase oil output over time, the main reason for the company’s existence in the first place.

…PDVSA produces lumber, roof tiles, and cinder blocks to build the homes the government gives the poor almost for free. And unlike the business of pumping crude, the company loses money on these activities. Keeping those loss-making businesses going, however, provides jobs to thousands of workers and Chavismo’s political supporters.

Since Chávez fired more than nineteen thousand PDVSA oil workers and executives after the 2002 strike, his administration and his successor’s favored hiring politically loyal people over those with technical expertise. …And its new slogan, “PDVSA now belongs to everyone,” became a Chavista rallying cry.

[Loc 3005-3029]

<closing conversation with Manuel>

Amusingly, American leftists seem to have held out as long as they could before admitting that there really was something wrong with Venezuela.   Gallegos had trouble getting his book published in 2016, because major publishers insisted that Venezuela’s problems were only temporary, and that things would “return to normal” soon and readers would lose interest.   I think history has pronounced its verdict on that idea.     Be sure to check out his book, linked in the show notes at storiesofcommunism.com, if you want to learn more about the decline of this once-rich nation under socialism.

And this has been your story of Communism for today.


Episode 34: Cuba's New Colony

 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 Portland, Oregon, this is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda.

Today we’ll be interviewing two Venezuelan refugees, Dory and Maria, about their nation’s fall from the richest to one of the poorest nations in South America.   As you’ll hear, the empty promises of socialism there have led to widespread misery, and their leaders have effectively handed over much of the government apparatus to Cuban so-called advisors.    Let’s go on to the interview.

<Listen to audio for interview>

If you enjoyed this chat, a video interview with Dory and Maria is also available from our friends at the anti-communist site “Spider And The Fly”.   You can find a link in the show notes at storiesofcommunism.com .

And this has been your story of Communism for today.



Episode 33: Special Circumstances

 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 Portland, Oregon, this is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda.

You may recall that back in episode 19, we discussed Vladimir Voinovich’s satirical novel “Monumental Propaganda”, about a loyal bureaucrat who never lost her faith in Stalin.  Today we’re going to discuss another work of Voinovich’s— but this time, a nonfiction memoir about an actual incident from his life.   In “The Ivankiad”, Voinovich tells the tale of his struggle to get an upgraded apartment in early 1970s Moscow, a seemingly simple task that led to a dangerous clash with a government official.   While some of his actions could have had grave consequences, Voinovich managed to maintain his sense of humor throughout.

The incident started off simply enough.   Voinovich and his wife had been living in a one-room apartment in the Writers’ Union apartment building in Moscow for a long time, one of the smallest in the building, and thought they might try to upgrade to a two-room apartment.   He hadn’t attempted such a request before.

As much as possible I try to avoid any struggle for my personal well-being.  I hate going to the authorities and making an effort to get things.   I am by nature undemanding, content with very little.  I am no gourmet, no dandy, and have no interest in luxury items.  Simple food, modest clothes, and a roof over my head, that’s all I need…  True, under that roof I’ve always wanted to have a separate room all for myself, but such a desire could scarcely be considered excessive.

The process seemed simple enough:  there were periodic assembly meetings in their building, and the assembly had to vote on who would get the next apartment.   Voinovich presented his case, and there was nobody who disagreed that he and his wife deserved the upgrade, so the vote was unanimous that they would get the next larger apartment that became available.   When an elderly writer with a nicer apartment died a few months later, he was excited that they were finally about to get an upgraded apartment.

Now I will have my own room, where in blessed silence I will be able to create my works, immortal or otherwise.  Just imagine, a separate room!   As long as I’ve lived, I’ve never known such luxury.   I some kind magician were to appear and ask my one desire, I would say, “I want a room to myself.”

But soon, Voinovich began to sense that something was wrong.   Neighbors were whispering and making cryptic remarks, indicating that they didn’t think he would actually be moving into the new apartment.    This was very confusing:  hadn’t the assembly voted?   What more was there to discuss?   One friend even whispered, “You have to keep your eyes open, you should put up a fight”.   Who was he going to need to fight?   Soon he started hearing that the building manager had a plan to convert the open two-room apartment to a one-room apartment.  This didn’t seem to make a lot of sense.

I still didn’t understand…  Why should it be necessary to make a one-room apartment out of a two-room apartment?   And what would happen to the room left over, without kitchen, bath, or toilet?   

It turned out that the whole crux of the matter was this leftover room.  Sergei Sergeevich Ivanko had requested an improvement in his living conditions:  the addition of this room to his apartment.   

I still didn’t get it.  How was this Ivanko so badly off?  Did he have a poor apartment?  No, he had a three-room apartment for three people, one of the best in our building.   Perhaps he had waited a long time?   No, he had lived in our building a shorter time than others… and in October of last year he put in an application for an improvement in his living conditions, requesting a fourth room….  On what basis?  You can request anything you like.  I, too, could request four rooms, but no one would give them to me.

Having not ever heard of any writings by this fellow Writers’ Union member Ivanko, Voinovich did some research.  He discovered that Ivanko was a relative of a former KGB director, a close friend of the national Writers’ Union secretary, and on the board that supervised all publications in the Soviet Union.   Thus, he had the power to halt publication— or guarantee publication— of any book in the country.    As for actual writing, all he could find was that Ivanko had written a 44-page pamphlet on the status of Taiwan two decades earlier, perhaps giving him some expertise in territorial disputes.   Voinovich’s friends advised him not to make a fuss, and to just wait for the next 2-room apartment to open.   

It was a bit surprising that Ivanko wanted to expand an apartment in their building; with such high government connections, he could have gotten a space in a much better building altogether.   But Voinovich got even more annoyed when he discovered why Ivanko wanted to stay:

“Because, as he says himself, he equipped this apartment.   He brought a stove from America, a toilet, an air conditioner, special wallpaper, some other special stuff…  stuck in the walls, the floors, the ceilings.   Equipping an apartment costs an enormous amount of money, and to tear it all out would wreck it.   

“…did you see when he moved in?”… “No?  Well, we did.  Two trucks with containers, and everything American.  The toilet, the stove, the devil knows what.   A sled, even a child’s sled, he brought that from America too!….  five rooms would be too small for him.”

The thought occurred to Voinovich that maybe he had an advantage due to the fact that Ivanko wasn’t a real writer, but he quickly dismissed that issue.

I saw that 90 percent of more of the members of the [Writers’] Union were non-writers.  Which is to say that they cover a certain quantity of paper with a text which is then set in type, printed, bound in a hard or soft cover, and, before being made into pulp, displayed on shop counters.   But most of the time this text has no content.  Neither moral nor aesthetic, nor even political.   I stopped carping at non-writers.

Voinovich started speaking to the building chair and other officials, pointing out that there was a unanimous vote in the assembly granting him the right to the next apartment, so he clearly should get priority over Ivanko.   But they began to criticize him on grounds of being too impolite, difficult, or demanding, and not showing a proper collective Soviet spirit of loyalty.

I began to wonder, Why do these people interpret my every word so negatively?   Perhaps I really wasn’t conducting myself properly.   No, don’t think I’m trying to be witty.  In the preceding few pages I’ve tried to produce a certain comic effect, but not here.   Here I’m trying to be completely serious. I was confused.   I thought that all rights, not only legal but moral, were so much on my side that I would be given immediate support, and that no one would stay on Ivanko’s side…  Is it good manners to try to please a bureaucrat?   Maybe I really didn’t understand something, maybe there were some special circumstances in Ivanko’s case. 

As he started to reconsider his position, he received a strange call from an old woman in his building.    

Vladimir Nikolaevich, I beg of you, don’t hang up, hear me out.  I understand, you’re in a bad situation, you’re impatient, but I have cirrhosis of the liver, general arteriosclerosis, I assure you, you won’t have long to wait.”

I suppose I started to get angry.

“Why are you bothering me?”, I said.  “Why should I wait for you to die?”

“Vladimir Nikolaevich.”  I suppose she was getting angry too.  “I was told you are a decent man.”

“Well, what of it, Why should I wait for you to die?”

“So you mean you don’t want to wait?”

“No, I don’t.”

“Yes, now I see”— again, tears in her voice— “you are not a decent man.  You… you.. you…”


After this strange call, he made a few inquiries.  He discovered that Ivanko had attempted to resolve the issue by proposing to kick an elderly writer out of her apartment, forcing her to switch with Voinovich’s smaller one, in order to free up another larger apartment.   But Voinovich refused to accept this proposal, unwilling to make another neighbor suffer in order to please a bureaucrat who was fundamentally in the wrong.   He sent a formal letter to his apartment board, pointing out again that the assembly had made a decision and it had to be enforced.

After this, the apartment board chair, Turganov, convened a meeting to discuss the “unhealthy situation”  and  “threatening statements” that had been coming from Voinovich.   Once again his manners were criticized for pressing the issue so stridently, with Ivanko commenting that the committee was too tolerant of such “outrages”.   But Ivanko failed to get the assembly to revote in his favor, and for a while it even looked like Voinovich would win.

But Voinovich was still getting second-hand advice to give in, so was a but worried about what was coming next.   He was again advised to apologize to Ivanko and ask for his help getting a better apartment.   Apparently the board had received orders from high-level Soviet officials to “help Ivanko”, and while they couldn’t overturn the decision to give the apartment to Voinovich, they could delay it indefinitely, playing a game of attrition.   Meanwhile Voinovich continued to appeal to various government officials, always being criticized for his “selfishness”, “manners”, “provocative actions”, and similar issues.

I’m afraid I’ll be accused of slander.  Did I really not meet a single positive official on my path?  I did.   Two.   One at first also reprimanded me for acting provocatively, but then said anyway (and thanks to him for this), “Ivanko is acting illegally, but he is powerful.   You’ll never get in to see Promyslov, but Ivanko can go to see him any time.   You can’t even imagine what kind of people plead for Ivanko over this telephone.”…

The second positive official was a worker at the Central Committee of the CPSU, to whom I managed to tell this story.

“Ivanko?” he asked.  “Sergei Sergeevich?”

“Ivanko”, I affirmed.  “Sergei Sergeevich.”

“What a scoundrel!” said my interlocutor, shaking his head.

That was all the reaction I got from the two positive comrades.

Finally tired of this war of waiting and attrition, Voinovich made a bold move:  he and his wife went ahead and moved into the new apartment on their own.   After all, they had the legal right to it, so why wait for actions by others?   When officials came around to tell him and his wife to leave, they presented the written document from the original assembly meeting, showing that they had a right to the apartment.   They also pointed out that his wife is pregnant, and did they really want to force a pregnant woman to move?    Voinovich, being a famous satirical writer at the time, was also popular among his neighbors, so they consistently confirmed his claim.

Miraculously, various officials seemed to start to come around to accepting that he really did have a right to the apartment, and allowed him to stay.   Apparently Ivanko wasn’t quite powerful enough, or the issue just wasn’t that important enough, that the higher-level Soviet officials would want to get directly involved in overriding the local apartment board.   The assembly was convened once more, and held another vote confirming Voinovich’s right to the apartment.  

Although a number of factors affected our victory, I would suggest the following in particular:  the pregnancy of woman, a unified collective, and my own stubbornness.   Now that the conflict is over, I am quite content with the fact that in the future my writings won’t be published; I am prepared for the Minister of Culture… to condemn my writings.

To save face, Ivanko blamed the whole fiasco on incompetence by the apartment board chair, Turganov, and arranged to have him impeached, as well as preventing the publication of a two-volume collection of his works.   Perhaps not wanting to face his neighbors after all this, Ivanko then transferred to a job in the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, where he got to spend some time living in the US again.

Now our respected colleague represents our great country at the United Nations…  I believe, however, that he still has a bit of time and money left to prowl around the Manhattan shops for new equipment for his little nest… Perhaps in Manhattan they’re selling toilets of the latest design.  What kind?   My fancy is insufficient to imagine…  Perhaps some sort of stereophonic toilet, or one that turns the raw materials it devours into pure gold.

In the end, Voinovich only got to enjoy his apartment for a few years:   an official harassment campaign by the government began soon after, he lost telephone access in 1976, and he and his family were forced into exile in 1980.   

Afterwards, Voinovich reflected on this series of events:

When you examine the principal factors of our story and attempt to find and explain the reasons for great social changes… do not overlook the humble drudge with the simple, unmemorable, greedy face.   Gentle, smiling, obliging, efficient, ready to do you a good turn, flatter your self-esteem, he is present in every cell of our society, breathing life into all those changes.    And when you plan great reform programs, build castles in the air… or try to see an X chromosome through a microscope, our humble drudge, with his sharp little eyes, watches carefully to see if, under the guise of struggling against alien ideology, he can get something from you:  an apartment, a wife, a cow, an invention, a position, an academic title.   Gradually, in a leisurely fashion, he heats up the atmosphere, and then you notice, on his humble face, not a smile but a wolfish grin.

Before leaving the Soviet Union, the novelist Viktor Nekrasov wrote a letter about the condition of our culture, about the fact that many honest and talented people are subjected to senseless badgering and are forced to leave the country where they were born and grew up, which they served, and without which life is inconceivable.

“Who needs this system?”  Nekrasov asked.

Well, just take our hero for example, Sergei Sergeevich Ivanko.

He needs it!

<closing conversation with Manuel>

If you enjoyed today’s podcast, be sure to check out Voinovich’s memoir, “The Ivankiad”, available at the link in the show notes at storiesofcommunism.com .

And this has been your story of Communism for today.