Episode 5: A Prophetic Warning

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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.
Some of you might be skeptical that today’s topic really belongs in this podcast.   On the other hand, one might argue that this topic is absolutely essential.   I’m talking about Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic 1871 novel, “The Possessed”, sometimes also translated as “The Demons” or “The Devils”.   You’re probably aware that Dostoyevsky was one of the greatest novelists of the 19th century, but most of his writing occurred around half a century before the Russian Revolution.   So how does Dostoyevsky fit into a podcast about Communism?

Actually, the Communist movements that culminated in the Russian Revolution had begun around Dostoyevsky’s time, starting in the first half of the 19th century.   When Marx’s
Communist Manifesto was published in 1848, it was just one of many revolutionary “manifestos” describing how a perfect society could be obtained by replacing current unjust governments with various forms of socialism.    A young Dostoyevsky was caught up in one of these radical movements, and was arrested in 1849 for spreading subversive literature.   He spent several years at hard labor in a Tsarist prison and exile as a result— a few episodes ago, you may recall that we mentioned his memoir of this period, “The House of the Dead”. 

But by the time Dostoyevsky wrote “The Possessed”, in the 1860s, he had started to see a number of dangers inherent in these movements.   Young “nihilists” were so sure of their ideas that they would stop at nothing to implement them, and could justify any act of destruction or violence.   This novel contains a number of shockingly accurate predictions about how these Communist revolutionaries would come to power, and what they would do with this power once they obtained it.   That’s why we believe it fits nicely into this podcast’s topic:   Dostoyevsky was one of the first witnesses to clearly depict the philosophy and mindset of those who would, only a generation after his death, control the fate of the Russian people.   He predicted the fomenting of chaos, the destruction of existing institutions like churches, the use of fear and mutual suspicion to control the population, the cults of personality, and the ultimate necessity of mass murder to cement the Communist system in place.

Summarizing the plot of The Possessed can be a bit tricky.   Like all great novels, it has many layers, and here we’re trying to concentrate on one specific aspect:  its political predictions about Communism.   Also, as is common in 19th-century Russian literature, there are dozens of active characters, again far too many to accurately summarize in this podcast.    At its core, the novel describes a presumably typical Russian town full of ordinary people, with a sparkling of well-meaning liberals and socialists hoping to bring about change.   Cynical, manipulative revolutionary Pyotr Verkhovensky arrives in town, and quickly starts working behind the scenes to cause chaos and tension, while quietly assembling a small group, a “quintet”, of dedicated revolutionaries.   At the climax of the novel, he arranges for the quintet to participate in an act of murder.

The desire to foment chaos was apparent in Verkhovensky’s followers from the beginning, and they are not shy about admitting it. 

“…it was with the idea of systematically undermining the foundations, systematically destroying society and all principles; with the idea of nonplussing every one and making hay of everything, and then, when society was tottering, sick and out of joint, cynical and sceptical though filled with an intense eagerness for self-preservation and for some guiding idea, suddenly to seize it in their hands, raising the standard of revolt and relying on a complete network of quintets, which were actively, meanwhile, gathering recruits and seeking out the weak spots which could be attacked.” [p.631]
As one would expect, this general idea to destroy society and build it anew would require, among other things, the destruction of the churches, ironically out of fear that religion would “brutalize” people:

"But here, for instance, is an incitement to destroy churches…  you know perfectly well that you need religion to brutalise the people. Truth is honester than falsehood... ." ...""And how can you be an official of the government after that, when you agree to demolishing churches, and marching on Petersburg armed with staves, and make it all simply a question of date?"
With the original institutions of the nation destroyed, Dostoyevsky’s revolutionaries would be faced with the question of how to influence and control the people.   One aspect of their solution would be to use mutual fear and shame to keep people under control:

Every member of the society spies on the others, and it's his duty to inform against them. Every one belongs to all and all to every one. All are slaves and equal in their slavery. In extreme cases he advocates slander and murder, but the great thing about it is equality.  [p.384]
…And the most important force of all— the cement that holds everything together— is their being ashamed of having an opinion of their own. That is a force! And whose work is it, whose precious achievement is it, that not one idea of their own is left in their heads! They think originality a disgrace.”  [p.363]
This method culminates in Verkhovensky’s murder plot.   While he claims the murder is necessary because their victim, Shatov, is planning to inform the police about their movement, he reveals a more important motive to a confidante:

“All that business of titles and sentimentalism is a very good cement, but there is something better; persuade four members of the circle to do for a fifth on the pretense that he is a traitor, and you'll tie them all together with the blood they've shed as though it were a knot. They'll be your slaves, they won't dare to rebel or call you to account. Ha ha ha! “
When people are tied together in this way, it’s not a surprise that the most manipulative and bloodthirsty ones would end up in control.   Dostoyevsky eerily predicts how in the name of ‘“equality”, the vast majority of the population will effectively become slaves:

…The one thing wanting in the world is discipline. The thirst for culture is an aristocratic thirst. The moment you have family ties or love you get the desire for property. We will destroy that desire; we'll make use of drunkenness, slander, spying; we'll make use of incredible corruption; we'll stifle every genius in its infancy. We'll reduce all to a common denominator! Complete equality! … But it needs a shock. That's for us, the directors, to look after. Slaves must have directors. Absolute submission, absolute loss of individuality, but once in thirty years Shigalov would let them have a shock and they would all suddenly begin eating one another up, to a certain point, simply as a precaution against boredom.   [p.395]
.… In every period of transition this riff-raff, which exists in every society, rises to the surface, and is not only without any aim but has not even a symptom of an idea, and merely does its utmost to give expression to uneasiness and impatience. Moreover, this riff-raff almost always falls unconsciously under the control of the little group of "advanced people" who do act with a definite aim, and this little group can direct all this rabble as it pleases, if only it does not itself consist of absolute idiots, which, however, is sometimes the case.  [p.432]
At one point, Dostoyevsky might arguably be predicting the eventual rise of Stalin’s and Mao’s cults of personality, as he describes the mindset of Erkel, one of Verkhovensky’s followers:

A craving for active service was characteristic of this shallow, unreflecting nature, which was for ever yearning to follow the lead of another man's will, of course for the good of "the common" or "the great" cause. Not that that made any difference, for little fanatics like Erkel can never imagine serving a cause except by identifying it with the person who, to their minds, is the expression of it.  [p.540]
In addition, the expectation of mass murder as a necessary tool to truly destroy the old institutions and put the new system in place is a theme that recurs several times in the book.  You have to enjoy the typical Communist doublespeak of the need for mass murder being part of a “Peace Congress”:

“And, indeed, he rejects morality itself altogether, and holds with the last new principle of general destruction for the sake of ultimate good. He demands already more than a hundred million heads for the establishment of common sense in Europe; many more than they demanded at the last Peace Congress.”  [p.79]
“It's urged that, however much you tinker with the world, you can't make a good job of it, but that by cutting off a hundred million heads and so lightening one's burden, one can jump over the ditch more safely.” [p.383]
Several other well-known flaws of the Communist system are also predicted in the novel.   He accurately foresees that the idealists who supposedly fix society by removing greed and materialism will themselves end up closely guarding their perks, including property and material privileges, under the new system:

”Why is it, as I've noticed," Stepan Trofimovitch whispered to me once, "why is it that all these desperate socialists and communists are at the same time such incredible skinflints, so avaricious, so keen over property, and, in fact, the more socialistic, the more extreme they are, the keener they are over property ... why is it?” [p.64]
Dostoyevsky also shines a critical eye on the idea that Communism is somehow “scientific”, and that logic and reason demand its implementation as the next stage of societal progress:

Reason has never had the power to define good and evil, or even to distinguish between good and evil, even approximately; on the contrary, it has always mixed them up in a disgraceful and pitiful way; science has even given the solution by the fist. This is particularly characteristic of the half-truths of science, the most terrible scourge of humanity, unknown till this century, and worse than plague, famine, or war. A half-truth is a despot .. such as has never been in the world before. A despot that has its priests and its slaves, a despot to whom all do homage with love and superstition hitherto inconceivable, before which science itself trembles and cringes in a shameful way.  [p.233]
[Closing conversation]

It’s pretty amazing to us that all these words, which might be said to accurately describe events and philosophies of the Communist regimes of the 20th century, were written almost fifty years before the Russian Revolution.     And  it’s especially important in light of the arguments we hear about discussions like this podcast being “unfair” to Communism,  due to stressing examples of particular corrupt, failed implementations of the system.   Some say the problems are not with the system or ideas, but just with particularly poor implementations of Communism in the 20th century.    But ask yourself this:  if destructiveness, totalitarianism, bloodthirstiness, and human cruelty were not inherent to Communism, but just were the faults of particular leaders, how is it that Dostoyevsky was able to predict all these abuses, purely based on his experience with Communist and socialist philosophy, half a century in advance of them actually being implemented?     
As biographer Ronald Hingley wrote in 1978,   The Possessed was “an awesome, prophetic warning which humanity, no less possessed of collective and individual devilry in the 1970s than in the 1870s, shows alarmingly few signs of heeding.”     Seeing recent news reports, there’s no doubt that the 2010s could fit just as easily into that sentence.
This concludes your Story of Communism for today.

Episode 4: Mao's American Friend

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

Today we’re going to discuss the extraordinary life of Sidney Rittenberg, an Amercian who abandoned his country to become part of Mao Zedong’s Communist revolution in China.   He then lived there for almost thirty years— sixteen of which were spent in solitary confinement, as he fell in and out of favor with the Party over those three decades.   His autobiography, “The Man Who Stayed Behind”, was published in 1993 to rave reviews in the U.S.   As Mike Wallace wrote, “It reads like a riveting historical novel.   But there’s no fiction here…  it’s Mao Zedong and Zhou Enlai, the Long March, solitary confinement, despair, romance, and redemption.  Sidney Rittenberg’s story is a classic.”

Rittenberg’s youthful fascination with Communism is pretty understandable, given his
Depression-era childhood, when many in the U.S. questioned whether there was a better way.   This was followed by influence from various radical forces when he attended Stanford University.   As he wrote,

“I had joined the American Communist Party in 1940 while I was in college…it was the Communists, with their strong posture on free speech and ethnic equality in America,  and their roots in the American labor movement, who seemed to offer a hope of righting the injustices I saw all around me.”
He was deployed to China with the U.S. army towards the end of World War II, and had an opportunity there to seek out his fellow Communists.   He was swept up in the romance of China’s revolution, as well as the personal charisma of Chairman Mao:

“This was the Mao Zedong I had been reading about in the daily press, the Mao whose words I had studied in Stanford.  I respected his vision for China and admired his philosophical brilliance.  And here I was, twenty-five years old… sitting and chatting with Mao Zedong as an equal…  Mao had a way of focusing his gaze squarely on whoever was speaking, shutting out the rest of the room.  The attention was intense and flattering.”
He became a vital part of Mao’s staff, fulfilling the important role of English-Chinese translation.  
He had many friends among Mao’s inner circle, and soon married a fellow party member named Wei Lin.   The romance didn’t last too long though, as only a few years after joining the revolution, Rittenberg found himself suddenly arrested, as a supposed American spy.   He was carried off to solitary confinement, taken out only for periodic interrogations, where his protests of innocence were ignored, and the only issue was how to confess to his crimes.   Amazingly, his faith in Communism did not waiver as he spent six years alone in a cell:

“I loved the party, its aims, and its struggle to change the world….  They were prosecuting my case because they considered it in the interest of the much oppressed, long wronged Chinese people.  They had to purge themselves of enemies, I told myself.   It was just that in my case they were wrong…  The problem wasn’t with the party or its methods…  If the fact that they wrongly charged me with a horrible crime became known, it could harm the party.
I made up my mind.  This dark little room would be a test for me and a proving ground for my philosophy— and philosophy would win.  If I came through this ordeal, it would be with perfect understanding.”
As it turned out, the Party had actually arrested him on orders from their sponsor, Soviet General Secretary Joseph Stalin, rather than out of a serious belief that he was a spy.   Thus, a few years after Stalin’s death, his friends in the leadership were able to get him released and rehabilitated.  They even appointed him a high-level trusted position in the Broadcast Administration, a propaganda arm of Mao’s government.    He had, however, lost his wife, who had divorced him while he was locked away.

You would think that his experience would generate some sympathy towards others falsely accused by the regime, but that’s not how he thought.   When some young translators in his group were later arrested on similar political charges, he didn’t do much to help them.   As he wrote:

“… their real crime seemed to be that while outwardly quiet and respectful, underneath they were arrogant and exclusive, with the kind of rich man’s air that had been so common before the Revolution.

“In the end, Cheng Hongkui was pronounced a member of a reactionary clique, and he and his wife and their new baby were sent with their friends to a labor camp in the cold wastelands of Manchuria.   I never saw any of them again…  For me, I felt that good honest farm labor would do them some good.  Hadn’t I been willing myself to undergo years of privation for the sake of the party?”
As events moved forward in China, Rittenberg doubled down on his faith in Communism.   In 1958 he enthusiastically supported the Great Leap Forward, Mao’s program to rapidly collectivize farms, industrialize the country, and build infrastructure.   Similar to the Soviet activities of the 1930s that we described a few episodes ago, the government tried to eliminate private farms, arresting and imprisoning any farmers who resisted collectivization.   Farmers were also redirected by the millions into activities like steel production and construction, supposedly no longer needed on the farms due to their increased efficiency under state management.   The results were similar to those achieved by Stalin in the Ukraine:

“It was late in 1961 when the first symptoms appeared…  People began swelling around their necks and going through the day in a listless haze…  as the months wore on, it became increasingly difficult to overlook the real reason for people’s distress:  malnutrition.   We had all watched the food begin to vanish from the shops late in 1960.”

“Few in China knew the truth until decades later.   The Chinese were not just hungry, they were starving, starving to death in the countryside by the tens of millions.  Fewer still knew the main cause:  not bad harvests, not the Soviet debt…  but the Great Leap Forward itself.”
Again blinded by his faith in the system, Rittenberg continued in the Broadcast Administration.  At least the deadly results of the Great Leap Forward resulted in some criticism of Mao and reduction in his power over the next few years.   However, as the nation slowly recovered, Mao grew jealous of those in control, and decided to engineer the “Cultural Revolution” to restore Communist purity.   He set loose mobs of teenagers to purge the nation of remnants of capitalism and of non-Communist Chinese tradition.  Rittenberg still maintained his faith in his leader:

“With the advent of the Cultural Revolution in the late 1960s, I became an outspoken activist and advocate of returning power to the people…   without the least suspicion that this new revolution was a cynical strategy by Mao— and his wife, Jiang Qing— to foment unrest and rebellion and to vastly increase their own power.”
He didn’t see the danger of mobs of teenagers brutally enforcing Communist doctrine, until a pair of old shopkeepers, in-laws of a co-worker, were beaten to death for practicing “consumerism”.  Ironically, they were actually operating a state-run shop.    Even this wasn’t enough to stop Rittenberg from supporting the Revolution, though he began asking some questions.   After that, it didn’t take too long before the movement turned on him, and he was once again arrested as a suspected American spy,   He was put in solitary confinement again.

This time he was confined for almost ten years.    But even worse than what happened to him were the fates of his second wife Yulin and his four children (ages 2, 7, 9, and 10) while he was gone:

“After that, for the next ten years, Yulin was tossed back and forth.   Sometimes she was returned to the Broadcast Administration, where she was the victim of daily struggle meetings and forced to sit outside the toilet with a sign above her head, “This is the unrepentant wife of the dog of an imperialist spy.”  Sometimes she was beaten, once badly enough to be sent to the hospital.  Always she was reviled and ostracized…  She was forced to spend up to three years at labor camps in the countryside, where she worked for long hours in freezing weather…  For Yulin, it was particularly bitter.  The Communist Party cadre sent to supervise Yulin’s group at one of the labor camps was my ex-wife, Wei Lin…   [as she described:] “They wouldn’t even give me enough to fill my stomach.  I would drag myself to bed at night, legs and back aching, so tired I could hardly move, and hungry at the same time.  I thought of death repeatedly.””
The children had spent some time in prison, though they were cared for by relatives during most of Rittenberg’s absence.   Miraculously, the entire family survived the ordeal, and they were reunited upon his release.    But this experience was finally enough to drive Rittenberg to question the system to which he had devoted his life.   As he wrote,

“…it took me a long time to see the errors of Communist doctrine because of the stake I had acquired in the system and the life I had lived in China, a life of perks, privilege, and deluded complicity.  
…I felt that a genuine renewal for China required a leadership that listened to public opinion, dealt conscientiously with corruption, and thus won the trust of the people.  What I saw was just the opposite….

I had come to China to serve humanity, to serve people, to change China, to change the world.  I had no intention of spending the rest of my life serving those whom power had corrupted, bought by their perquisites, rendered unable to speak or act freely for what I believed in.”
After his second release, Rittenberg moved with his family to the U.S. where he rediscovered his capitalist roots.   He started a successful consulting company with his wife, to provide cultural advice to companies doing business in China.  One of the closing thoughts in his book seems especially relevant to what’s going on in the streets today:

In my twenties, I was sure that there was only one answer, and that I knew what it was: socialist revolution.   Half a century later, I find myself struggling more and more with questions and finding fewer and fewer answers.”
[Closing conversation]

You might argue that despite his sixteen years in solitary confinement, Rittenberg got off kind of lightly, given his central role in the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution, which destroyed the lives of tens of millions of people.   But his autobiography, “The Man Who Stayed Behind”, is essential reading for anyone interested in learning about the 20th century story of Communist China.
This concludes your Story of Communism for today.

Episode 3: Splendid Arses

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Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we review and discuss the firsthand testimony of those who lived through the horrors of Communism over the past century.   This is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda, recording from the suburbs of Portland, Oregon.
After listening to the last two episodes, you might have started to find this topic a bit depressing.  So to shift gears today, we’ll be looking at something a bit more lighthearted.    One of the ironies of Communist literature is that despite the system’s total stifling of the human spirit, there is quite a bit of humor to be found.   Naturally, it is a rather dark humor, in the vein of Kafka or Camus.    But in such systems, this humor formed an important safety valve, a kind of coping mechanism in many cases.    Living in such a world of bizarre double-speak and daily hypocrisy, it’s hard not to find oddities that, under more pleasant circumstances, would be easy to laugh at.  Today, we are going to discuss one classic embodiment of this form of humor, the samizdat novel “Nobody, or The Disgospel According to Maria Dementnaya”.   

Nobody” is an example of what is known as “samizdat” literature.   This means it is a non-Stateapproved writing, which was passed around the Soviet Union and illegally retyped or recopied.  
It’s actually pretty amazing that such works existed— in the time period from the 1960s to
1980s, although things weren’t quite as bad as in the Stalin years, being caught with antiCommunist literature or illegally using a photocopier could still cost you your home, your livelihood, and your freedom.     Yet Soviet dissidents risked all this to create and share literature that defied the authorities.    

Nobody, our focus for today, was apparently written around 1966, and smuggled out of the Soviet Union.   An anonymous French translation then made it into the hands of English translator April FitzLyon, who rendered it into English for us.   Its original author is unclear.   It appears that there was only a single English-language edition published of this book.   I happened to pick up my copy at random when browsing in a used bookstore— otherwise I probably would have never heard of it.   There is surprisingly little further information online; I found one review at Goodreads, and a few used copies can be bought at Amazon, but not much more.   Not even a Wikipedia page, though there is a brief mention on the page of its translator, FitzLyon.    But that’s a shame, because this is great book.     As the blurb on the cover states, it’s “a deeply tragic novel which also succeeds in being extremely funny.”

The novel centers around a former academic named Petatorov, who couldn’t take the hypocrisy of continuing to build his life around loyalty to the Communist party, and long ago left his job and his wife.   Now he wanders around Moscow living from day to day, begging and doing odd jobs to earn just enough to eat.    He prefers this physical poverty to the mental torture of supporting the Communist system.    Here’s how he describes his decision to a surprised friend, who is working as a journalist:
“The toady is dead.  Long live the madman!   I’m as free as a bird.   Consequently— I’m a pauper…  it’s amazing!   I read my favorite books and drink port.   I am sailing on an ice-flow, shouting to the people left behind:  “Greetings, rats and mice!  Ha Ha!’  And you’re one of them too.   Oh Lord!  Stop soiling lavatory paper with words, give it back to the people— clean!”
My favorite part of the book, though, is the description of the new husband, Brandov,  who Petatorov’s ex-wife has married.   His is a rather unintelligent and bland man, but a caring and successful provider for his family.   He works for the government, in the Applause Section, where his job is to attend official speeches and loudly clap.   A slight exaggeration of the offices that existed in real life, but a spot-on spoof of the many useless and unproductive government positions that are created for loyal bureaucrats.   Here’s how Brandov thinks about his job:

“Brandov loved being at work: people treated him with warmth and respect, behind his back they would say, “He’s one of us, a real clapper!”   Brandov gave a cursory glance at his beloved wall-newspaper ‘For All Out Clapping’, to which he contributed, and to which he sent in cartoons.   For that issue too he had drawn a caricature of Pendyulin who, at a meeting, had missed a foreman’s signal and had started to applaud later than was indicated in the scenario.  Pendyulin was represented with huge ears and little tiny hands.  The inscription under the drawing read, ‘You must clap with your hands, not with your ears.’…  On the walls hung diagrams and placards, aids to improve applauding skill: disembodied hands, clapping at a certain angle and at a certain force; incorrect, erroneous ways of clapping, crossed out with a red cross.”
Later it’s revealed that Brandov has to take down this cartoon, because his caricatured coworker has just earned a Ph.D. in applause.   Not as much of an exaggeration as we would hope—  academia in Communist countries is totally subordinated to the nation’s political goals.   Aside from the quality of his clapping, Brandov is also preoccupied with his department’s rivalry with the Public Criers, a nearby department whose work is sometimes seen as more important than his.    But one of the highlights of the book comes when Brandov reveals a new initiative, one that will drive his career to a new pinnacle:

“The organization of our work has not been sufficiently thought out.   In response to the leadership’s appeals, I have joined in the fight to economize state funds.  In order to improve our work I propose the following:  to use apes as applauders, but especially— for exclamations of approval…  I am convinced that the apes will carry out with credit the work entrusted to them.  The training and purchase of a fresh batch of apes will soon pay for itself.”
In order to get this new project started, Brandov invites his family to join him on a trip to the zoo.  Petatorov also happens to be there, observing many ironic metaphors for aspects of Soviet society among the animals on display.    But of course, Brandov is focused on his task, closely studying the primates to find those best suited for this project. 

“‘Those wouldn’t do”’ he muttered.   ‘They’re too small, it would be too obvious…  but they don’t shout badly, you can hear a ring of triumph.   No, no, we must have chimpanzees, or ourangoutangs— bigger ones.   It will be easy to make them up…  But their arses, their arses are good!  If one were to clap on them, one monkey could do the work of five…’   The man began slapping his buttocks.   ‘Splendid!…   A lot of work will have to be put into them,’  the welldressed visitor was saying to himself.  ‘They’re not well-grounded in ideology.  We’ll manage it, we’ll give them ideological education, we’ve managed harder cases then that.   Ah, what splendid arses!   Pity it’s unethical— just imagine, if a delegate suddenly started jumping up and slapping his arse.   What would our dear foreign guests think! …   I’ll put them in little suits— Pavlov’s Reflexes— I’ll go out and get some advice— we’ll work it all out, and full steam ahead in the name of the radiant future.   You’ll be promoted to senior clapper, Brandov!”
Sadly, the book doesn’t get around to describing the final result of Brandov’s experiments. 

[Closing conversation]

As you can see, while still reflecting many of the tragedies of living in the Soviet Union, this novel can be quite hilarious at times.    If you’re interested in learning more about Communism but need a break from heavy-handed exposes like those we discussed in the last two episodes, we think you’ll really enjoy the samizdat novel Nobody.

This concludes your Story of Communism for today.


Episode 2: 20th Century Slavery

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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’ve been following the news, you may be aware that the United Nations has recently
passed some courageous resolutions affirming the radical idea that slavery is a bad thing.
While we naturally agree with this, it’s always frustrating that in such discussions, some of the
largest mass enslavements in human history are ignored: those created under 20th-century
Communism. The best-documented of these is probably the “Gulag” system of slave camps
created by the Soviet Union, which reached its greatest heights in the 1940s and 1950s, but
lasted from only a few years after the Russian Revolution until the Soviet regime’s eventual

The most well-known chronicler of the Gulag was Alexsandr Solzhenitsyn, a fascinating
historical figure. He started out as a mostly loyal Communist citizen, serving as an officer in the
Soviet army during World War II. But near the end of the war, in 1945, he was arrested for
making comments critical of Joseph Stalin in a private letter, and condemned to the Gulag labor
camps. Millions died in those camps due to being forced to do excessive amounts of labor with
inadequate food, clothing, and housing, but Solzhenitsyn miraculously survived, and during a
brief thaw after Stalin’s death was able to publish an autobiographical novel about life in the
Gulag, “One Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich”, in 1962. The authorities soon clamped down
and stopped him from publishing further works in this vein, but the worldwide fame created by
this novel protected him to some degree from the Communist authorities.

After “Ivan Denisovich”, other Gulag survivors from across the Soviet Union began contacting
Solzhenitsyn and sharing their stories. Combining his story with those of many correspondents
to piece together a complete picture of the Gulag system, Solzhenitsyn created a massive
documentary work, “The Gulag Archipelago”. He managed to smuggle it out to the West and
get it published in 1973, though it would not see official publication in his own country until 1989.
That’s not surprising— far from merely a report of isolated abuses, it was a comprehensive
analysis of how the Gulag was an integral component and result of the Communist system.
It’s a fascinating read, by the way; at first I was skeptical that a 2000-page book on Soviet slave
labor camps could hold my attention, but once I started, I literally couldn’t put it down.
Although they may have mostly not been bought and sold explicitly (but in some cases they
were), it’s hard to argue against applying the word “slavery” to the Gulag inmates. Here’s some
of Solzhenitsyn’s description of his camp after first arriving:

“In all the rooms bare multiple bunks… were installed… Two stories of four wooden panels on two cross-shaped supports placed at the head and feet. When one sleeper stirred… three others rocked."

"They did not issue mattresses in this camp, nor sacks to stuff with straw. The words ‘bed
linen’ were unknown… no sheets or pillowcases existed here, and they did not issue or launder underwear. You had what you wore, and you had to look after it yourself… In the evening, when you lay down on the naked panel, you could take off your shoes. But take into consideration that your shoes would be swiped.”

Later Solzhenitsyn describes the work he was assigned, digging in the clay pits, after his failure
as a ‘work foreman’ to successfully drive his brigade to achieve desired targets:

“The work norm there was well known: during one shift one worker was to dig, load up, and deliver to the windlass six cars full of clay— eight cubic yards. For two persons the norm was sixteen. In dry weather, the two of us together could manage six and a half. But an autumn drizzle began. For one day, two, three without wind, it kept on… It was not torrential, so no one was going to take the responsibility for halting the outdoor work. …

"Boris was weaker than I; he could hardly wield his spade, which the sticky clay made heavier and heavier, and he could hardly throw each shovelful up to the edge of the truck…  We loaded as much as we could. Penalty ration? So it would be a penalty ration! The hell  with you! …three times a day that same black, unsalted infusion of nettle leaves, and once a day a ladle of thin gruel, a third of a liter. And the bread… they gave fifteen and a quarter ounces in the morning, and not a crumb more during the day or in the evening. And then we were lined up for roll call out in the rain. And once again we slept on bare bunks in wet clothes, muddled with clay, and we shivered because they weren’t heating the barracks…

"Borya was coughing. There was still a fragment of German tank shell in his lungs. He was thick and yellow… I looked at him closely, and was not sure: would he make it through a winter in camp?”

Now I expect some of you will be arguing that all countries make prisoners do labor to some
degree. But we can’t forget that these were people who haven't committed anything we would
consider a crime— even mildly questioning the government in a private conversation or letter,
reported by an informer or spotted by a censor, could get you sent to these camps. That’s
aside from the mass deportations of regions and ethnic groups thought to be possible threats to
the authorities. And in the last episode we saw how large classes of innocent victims were sent
away just due to their neighbors’ jealousy. In such systems, nobody can dare to publicly
discuss these conditions or advocate for their improvement, unless they are ready to join the
ranks of the enslaved.

One might also argue that there were labor camps for prisoners already, under the Tsars, so the
Gulag was not a major change. But as Solzhenitsyn points out, those Tsarist labor camps
were not designed as death camps— for example, at a mining camp where the Tsar’s work
requirement was 118 pounds per day, Gulag slaves were given a norm of over 20 times as
much, and sentenced to reduced punishment rations if they failed to deliver. Millions died in the
Gulag camps from overwork, malnutrition, and other aspects of the poor conditions; nothing
remotely close to that could be said of the previous prison camps.   He also points out that when 19th-century writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s famously described the  bleak life at a labor camp in his book “The House of the Dead”, Tsarist censors were worried that due to its depiction of prisoners who had clean clothes, limited workdays, and spare recreational time, they might reduce the value of labor camps as a deterrent to crime. While life in a Russian labor camp could never be said to be pleasant, the brutal slave camps that killed millions of prisoners only arose under Communism.

As is typical wherever there is slavery, any remotely attractive female prisoners of the Gulag
were essentially forced into prostitution. They were destined to serve whichever of the
“trusties”, or special prisoner-supervisors favored by the guards, they were allocated to, as soon
as they arrived in camp:

“In the camp bath the naked women were examined like merchandise. Whether there was water in the bath or not, the inspection for lice, the shaving of armpits and pubic hair, gave the barbers, by no means the lowest-ranking aristocrats in the camp, the opportunity to look over the new women. And immediately after that they would be inspected by the other trusties…. the Archipelago hardened, and the procedure became more brazen…. And then the trusties decided among themselves who got whom.”

“…And what of it if you loved someone out in freedom and wanted to remain true to him? What profit is there in the fidelity of a female corpse?”

Because Communism superseded all previous systems of morality, it was easy for officials to
rationalize arbitrarily cruel treatment. Anyone who dared to stand in the way of their perfect
new system of government deserved whatever they got. And why not get some use out of
them, forcing as much labor as they could before the prisoner’s inevitable death?

Solzhenitsyn and his fellow prisoners certainly considered themselves to be slaves. On one
occasion, a Gulag construction brigade found themselves transporting a large number of
handcuffs which the guards had forgotten to count, and decided to preserve a lasting record of
their condition:

“… out of 125 pairs of handcuffs, our lads carried off 23! There, in the work zone, they started by smashing the cuffs with stones and hammers, but soon they had a brighter idea: wrapping them in greased paper, so that they would last better, and bricking them up in the walls and foundations of the buildings on which they were working that day… together with ideologically uninhibited covering notes: “Descendants! These houses were built by Soviet slaves! Here you see the sort of handcuffs they wore!”

As you would expect in this short podcast, we’re really just touching on a tiny sampling of the
many details included in thousands of pages of The Gulag Archipelago. But an inescapable
conclusion is that the tens of millions of prisoners condemned to labor camps for so-called
“political crimes”, and sentenced to decades of forced labor in unbelievably substandard
conditions, should be considered “slaves” in any meaningful sense of the term. And while the
Soviet Union may be gone, existing governments such as China and North Korea maintain
networks of Gulag-inspired camps to this day.

[closing conversation]

So next time you are discussing the moral calamity of slavery, don’t just dwell on events of the
1800s and earlier. Think a bit about what has happened, and is still happening, in socialist and
Communist regimes throughout the world.

This concludes your Story of Communism for today.


Episode 1: Famine In Ukraine

Audio Link

You’ve probably read newspaper articles about the current mass starvation happening in Venezuela. Shortages of food and other necessities have actually been a near-universal feature of societies taken over by socialist and communist ideas. So today we’re going to talk about the horrific 1930s famine in the Ukraine, known as the Holodomor, as described by Soviet journalist and novelist Vasily Grossman. The text we’ll be quoting is from his panoramic novel “Forever Flowing”, the story of a former Gulag prisoner coming to terms with the last three decades of history after Stalin’s death. We’re using Thomas Whitney’s 1973 translation.

In some sense, this novel might be said to contain secondhand testimony, as we’re looking at story told through the voice of one of the characters, from a point of view that doesn’t quite match the author’s. However, since Grossman was an active journalist during the pre-World 
War 2 Soviet era, we can be pretty confident that most of the characters and plot lines in the novel are based on his actual experiences and conversations with his fellow citizens.
The novel contains many short vignettes about life in the Soviet Union under Stalin. We’ll be focusing today on just one chapter, chapter 14, in which the main character, Ivan Grigoryevich, falls in love with a Ukranian woman, and she feels a need to confess to him the story of her life. This story centers around the Holodomor and her own minor role in it, as a local Communist Party activist. She begins by talking about the campaign to “liquidate the kulaks”, the successful peasant farmers. This is one of the main motivations for Communism: looking around, noticing that some people are more successful than others, and deciding that this means the system is fundamentally unfair. Naturally, their success is never attributed to hard work or ability— it can only come from having cheated or exploited their neighbors.

“The campaign to liquidate the kulaks began at the end of 1929… They began to arrest the heads of families only… The arrests were carried out solely by the GPU. Party activists had no part in this at all. All those rounded up in this first stage were shot— to a man.”

“The province authorities sent the plan down to the district authorities— in the form of the total number of ‘kulaks’… And who made up the lists? … three people. Dim-witted, unenlightened people determined on their own who was to live and who was to die. Well, that makes it all clear. Anything could happen on this level There were bribes. Accounts were settled because of jealousy over some woman or because of ancient feuds and quarrels… But the evil done by the honest people was no less than that done by the dishonest ones. These lists were evil in themselves; they were unjust…”

It’s interesting to see that even within the context of their own system, the decisions were seen as arbitrary and unfair. This is a common feature of authoritarian governments: no matter how rational they try to make their strict sets of rules, they have to be implemented by actual human beings, with all their inherent flaws. When such human beings have absolute power over life and death, even at a local level, no good can result. Anyway, the description continues:

“The fathers were already imprisoned, and then, at the beginning of 1930, they began to round up the families too. This was more than the GPU could accomplish by itself. All Party activists were motivated for the job. They were all people who knew one another well, and knew their victims, but in carrying out this task they became dazed, stupefied. They would threaten people with guns, as if they were under a spell, calling small children “kulak bastards”, screaming “Bloodsuckers!”… They looked on the so-called “kulaks” as cattle, swine, loathsome, repulsive; they had no souls; they stank;… and exploited the labor of others.”

“These slogans began to have their impact on me too. I was just a young girl. And they kept repeating them at meetings and in special instructions on the radio; they kept showing them at the movies; writers kept writing them; Stalin himself, too: the kulaks are parasites, they are burning grain, they are killing children… And I too began to fall under the spell of all this, and it began to seem as if everything evil had sprung from the kulaks …. if they were destroyed a happy time would instantly ensue for the peasantry.  And there was no pity for them.”

As we all know, this was not the first time, and would not be the last time, that a country used propaganda to turn the population against some minority. The story goes on to describe the unbelievable suffering endured by the kulaks after being expelled from their villages— many were transported to remote, frozen areas where no prison had yet been built, and told they would be exposed to the elements until they had constructed it. But we’ll focus more on the fate of the prisoners in future episodes of this podcast. Let’s get back to the Party activist’s story:

“And we thought, folks that we were, that there could be no fate worse than that of the kulaks.  How wrong we were! … The execution by famine had arrived. By this time I no longer washed floors but was a bookkeeper instead. And, as a Party activist, I was sent to the Ukraine in order to strengthen a collective farm. In the Ukraine, we were told, they had an instinct for private property…And so I arrived there, and the people there were like everyone else.”
“After the liquidation of the kulaks, the amount of land under cultivation dropped very sharply and so did the crop yield. But meanwhile people continued to report that without the kulaks our whole life was flourishing…. It was clear that Moscow was basing its hopes on the Ukraine.  And the upshot of it was that most of the subsequent anger was directed against the Ukraine… Of course, the grain deliveries could not be fulfilled…. The conclusion reached up top was that the grain had all been concealed, hidden away. By kulaks who had not yet been liquidated, the loafers!”

Here we can see the unintended side effect that universally results from demonizing and punishing the productive: whatever they were producing, grain in this case, ends up in short supply. Yet out of fear of personal consequences, nobody wants to openly point this out. In this case, the lack of food simply caused further rage against the already-dehumanized “kulaks”, who. as the reasoning went, must still be in control of the Ukrainian farms somehow.

“The instructions were to take away the entire seed fund. Grain was searched for as if it were not grain but bombs and machine guns… Cellars were dug up, floors were broken through, and vegetable gardens were turned over… They even took baked bread away from one woman, loaded it onto the cart, and hauled it off to the district. Day and night the carts creaked along, laden with the confiscated grain, and dust hung over the earth. And there were no grain elevators to accommodate it, and they simply dumped it out on the earth and set guards around it. By winter the grain had been soaked by the rains and began to ferment— the Soviet government didn’t even have enough canvas to cover it up!”
“Fathers and mothers wanted to save their children and had a tiny bit of grain, and they were told ‘You hate the country of socialism. You are trying to make the plan fail, you parasites, you pro-kulaks, you rats.’. They tried to answer but it was to no avail… I can tell you the story, but stories are words— and what this was about was life, torture, death from starvation.  Incidentally, when the grain was taken away, the Party activists were told the peasants would be fed from the state grain fund. But it was not true. Not one single kernel of grain was given to the starving.”

Note here that the Party made just enough promises to enable its activists and local officials to rationalize away their cruelty, saying that the peasants would be fed, and it would be someone else’s responsibility. Sadly, despite providing this story as a moral cover, the state did not feed the peasants as promised. The narrator goes on to describe the remaining stages before the final death of the village:

“…It was when the snow began to melt that the village was up to its neck in real starvation…  No dogs and cats were left. They had been slaughtered. And it was hard to catch them too.  The animals had become afraid of people and their eyes were wild… Faces were swollen, legs were swollen like pillows; water bloated their stomachs… And the peasant children! Have you ever seen the newspaper photographs of the children in the German camps? They were just like that: their heads like heavy balls on thin little necks, like storks, and one could see each line of their arms and legs protruding from the skin…. 

"One had to be made of stone to hear all that moaning and at the same time eat one’s own ration of bread. I used to go outdoors with my bread ration and could hear them moaning. I would go farther, and then it would seem as if they had fallen silent. And then I would go a little farther, and it would begin again. At that point, it was the next village down the line. And it seemed as if the whole earth were groaning, together with the people on it.”

This tragic description is from the point of view within a single village, but as we now know, there were many such villages across the Ukraine and neighboring regions. Ultimate estimates range from 2 million to 10 million deaths overall. But even for those in the cities, where most of the confiscated grain that survived ended up, the shortages were life-changing. And that leads to our final quote, another eerie reminder of current Venezuelan news reports, describing the Party activist’s experiences after returning to the city:

“…I went to Kiev. At that time they had begun to sell unrationed bread at high prices in the ‘commercial’ stores, as they were called. You should have seen what went on! The lines were half a kilometer in length the night before the stores even opened… But these lines were of a special kind. I have never seen any like them. People held onto the belts of those ahead and clung for dear life. If one person stumbled, the whole line would shake and quaver as though a wave had passed along it. .. They were terrified of being unable to keep hold of the person in front, of their hands slipping, and losing their place. And the women began to scream out of fear.”

Anyway, that’s where we’ll stop for now. The excerpts we shared are only a small portion of one chapter— if you’re curious for more details, we would encourage you to read the book yourself. The title is translated in two ways, so you may see it as “Forever Flowing” or “Everything Flows”.

[closing conversation]

By the way, since this is a new podcast, we’d also like to hear your feedback and suggestions for this podcast; please send me an email and tell me what you thought!

This concludes your Story of Communism for today.


What is this podcast?

It’s been about a century since the Russian Revolution introduced the world to real-life Communism, one of the most murderous totalitarian political systems ever created by humanity.     Sadly, the Western world is filled with people almost totally unaware of the tens of millions of deaths and the immeasurable level of suffering that have resulted from his system, and a century later, it’s still going strong.   We have active Communists protesting in the streets, teenagers wearing Che Guevara T-shirts, and political leaders lacking an iota of shame about having supported the wrong side in the Cold War.   And, of course, continuing Communist governments, or so-called “socialist” governments different in name only, throughout the world.   

We think a large part of the reason for this ignorance about the horrors of Communism is the lack of popular narratives or stories in the average person’s consciousness.   While certain other 20th-century human tragedies have results in endless coverage on movies and television, Hollywood has been criminally negligent in covering Communism..   And this isn’t due to lack of source material— there has been a constant stream of excellent memoirs, novels, and short stories coming out of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe, Red China, and other affected areas.    When you have a mental vision of a real person suffering through real experiences, it’s just inherently a lot more vivid than dry statistics you may have been formally taught.

Thus, we arrive at the reason for this podcast.   We’re going to look at Communism not from the perspective of global statistics, but through the eyes of those who lived through the system.   We’ll review and discuss stories, novels, and memoirs that reveal what it was really like to live in Communist countries, and what it’s still like for many unfortunate prisoners in its remaining outposts.   This isn’t meant to be an audiobook— these short podcasts won’t replace the need to read the source materials— but we’re hoping it will peak your interest, and whet your curiosity for more details about what it’s really been like to live under this system.   And perhaps, it will open your eyes to the still-present danger that remains if we ignore this bloody phase of history.