Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we discuss what life is really like for those unfortunate enough to live under communist or socialist governments. Recording from the suburbs of Wichita, Kansas, this is Erik Seligman, your co-host, along with Manuel Castaneda in Oregon. Apologies for the long gap since the last episode— as you have just heard, I’ve been relocating with my family halfway across the country, which has taken up a lot of time. Hopefully we’ll get back to a more regular schedule soon.
Today we’re focusing on a very unusual book by Croatian author Slavonia Draculic, titled “A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism: Fables from a Mouse, a Parrot, a Bear, a Cat, a Mole, a Pig, a Dog, and a Raven”. From the title you might expect it to be some kind of absurd satire— but each of the animals in the book is narrating adapted stories based on real events that occurred in Eastern Europe under Communist rule, though told from their unique point of view. Some of the stories are darkly humorous, all are informative, and a few are quite chilling. Let’s look at a few of the stories her animals tell us.
The book is introduced by a Czechoslovakian mouse, who is said to live in the cabinets of a physical museum.
Permit me to say that, from what I have heard from the professor, Communism is not so much about exhibits, about seeing. It is more about how one lived in those times, or more to the point, how one survived them. From the lack of food or shoes to the lack of freedom and human rights. The question is, How do you present that kind of shortage, shortages that were not just poverty-induced, to somebody who knows very little about it? Because people who experienced life under Communism tend not to come here, anyway….
Drakulic, Slavenka. A Guided Tour Through the Museum of Communism (p. 6-). Penguin Publishing Group. Kindle Edition
The mouse recommends we get some perspective from his friend Milena, the elderly cleaning lady who tends to the museum. She provides a key insight into why it is so hard for former residents of these countries to truly confront their past and expose the kind of stories we’ve been sharing in this podcast:
Our young people people don’t care, for them Communism is the ancient past. Those old enough to remember it want to forget it now. And why? Because they went along with it. As I did. As my husband did, and our neighbors, and everybody we knew, every Pavel and Elena around us,” I heard her say….
10 percent of the population were party members, plain and simple. That means one million seven hundred thousand people! I understand that not all of them were believers; they were only formally members because of the job and career and benefits that went with membership. But no regime, however totalitarian, could exist without complicity on the part of the people—however unwilling it might be,” I remember Professor Perlík saying. “Let us not kid ourselves; most of us complied in order not only to survive—because Czechoslovakia was not the USSR—but just to live better. I admit it’s a hard fact to face now…
Maybe the absence of individual stories is the best illustration of the fact that individualism was the biggest sin one could commit.
This fact that so many people collaborated with the regime in order to survive is a common theme under all these systems. Even famous dissident author Milan Kundera is said to have a black spot in his record:
Kundera left Czechoslovakia and went to France after the invasion in 1968 and never returned. After that he became one of the best-known dissidents from the Communist world, next to Alexander Solzhenitsyn. Suddenly, this same Kundera is in the middle of a scandal! I heard about it from a couple discussing it very loudly in this room just recently. In fact, they woke me up in the middle of my regular afternoon nap. What happened?
In October 2008 a certain historian found a document that is taken as proof that Kundera is not what he seems to be. Not a moral man, but a denouncer no less. A document from 1950 is there to prove it. It is a police report, a short one. It states that Milan Kundera, at that time a student at the FAMU film academy and an ardent member of the CP, reported to the undersigned police inspector that there was a suspicious person staying in his dormitory.
Following this, the police arrested Miroslav Dvoraček, a pilot and a spy for the American-supported Czech intelligence agency of that time. Dvoraček had illegally crossed the border back into Czechoslovakia and was on his way out again. Following Kundera’s report, the man was arrested and sentenced to twenty-two years of hard labor. Dvoraček served his sentence mostly in uranium mines. Yet, in his writing and interviews, Kundera never mentioned this episode….
You see, true or not, the real problem is that this whole devilish story is believable. Convincing. Everybody agrees that it could have happened. It could have been that Kundera saw reporting on Dvoraček as his patriotic duty: He was a party member, he himself was in danger of going to prison if he didn’t report it, such were the times. It could have happened to anyone—or so the argument goes…. There is a certain malevolent triumph in the ‘fact’ … that the best of us all could have failed.
Another of the more memorable chapters is the one narrated by Tosho the dancing bear. Draculic uses the idea of a Bulgarian peasant training a bear to dance as a metaphor for the way the Communist party, inherently a small, weak group of people, manage to control entire populations and force them to do their bidding. After the fall of Communism, an animal rights activist named Evelina tries to rehabilitate Tosho, but is confused by the fact that the bear seems to miss his trainer.
But then I realized that she was troubled not only by the fact that we had been tortured, but also that we had withstood torture without even a squeak. She could not understand our passiveness. Evelina belongs to a new generation that grew up after the fall of Zhivkov’s regime, free from Communist Party ideology.
I realized that recently, when she asked me, “But why didn’t you do something? You are so much bigger, so much stronger than the people who held you imprisoned! ʺ Yes, why didn’t we? “I’ll tell you why, young lady: Because the thought never occurred to us, that’s why! That was the secret of both Zhivkov’s and Angel’s rule—not only was your body captured, but so was your mind. I learned only in hindsight that what keeps one enslaved is one’s own captive mind,” I told her. “And if you are still wondering, Was there no one else to stand up for our rights, no one to stop this unbearable torture?—like neighbors or the police, or other citizens—I tell you: No! They all watched us dance and laughed! It amused them to see a huge and dangerous animal reduced to a pitiful clown. It proved their domination. A sad story of how beastly people can be, given the chance.”
I believed that Angel and I were friends after all those years of living and performing together. This in spite of the fact that he kept me on a chain, with a ring through my nose. He convinced me that it was more for the sake of appearance. “This is for your own safety, eh! People would go mad if they saw a bear walking free in the street,” he used to say, reassuringly. “They would kill you right away. People are cruel, believe you me. I have seen it many times in my life.” As if I did not know that!
The needs of the animals and the humans enter a strange sort of conflict as the bear reminisces about Zhivkov’s eccentric daughter Lyudmila, who was openly a vegetarian, an almost unheard-of lifestyle in Bulgaria. At the same time, these reflections apply just as well to the relationship between Communist leaders like Lyudmila and the masses of people they claim to be, and often even intend to be, helping.
At first I thought that to be a vegetarian in a country where many people could not afford to eat meat—where such a diet was not a matter of taste or choice—was an extraordinary, enlightened decision. You have to be really high-minded and spiritually oriented….
Long after Lyudmila was gone I understood how easy it had been for her to be a vegetarian. She defended the rights of other living beings, mostly mammals, because animals are like people; they feel pain, they feel fear. Therefore, she appeared more human herself. On the other hand, she did nothing to change their conditions. Her activity in our favor was restricted to just that—not eating meat…
I naively imagined how, for example, she could have given the order to ban the capture and torture of wild bears. Or, for that matter, to let people travel abroad and then decide for themselves what beauty and light and harmony are. But this would have required much more from her than grand words. It would have also been more dangerous to deal with human than with animal rights. At the time, human life was seldom perceived in its single form; it was usually seen as only a mass, a crowd….
There was no real change; there could not be any. In the end, even if her intentions were good, our life went on without change. Freedom—be it for animals or for humans—was not her priority. How could it be? She had little or no contact with real life, with real underdogs and underbears. She simply did not see us as being enslaved.
Probably the funniest chapter is the one narrated by a mole, who lives in the vicinity of the former site of the Berlin Wall. He was born after the Wall fell, but has heard many stories about it from his mole relatives. Given his easy traversal between the two sides, he at first is mystified as to why the humans made such a big deal about it. He views some museum artifacts showing the lengths various residents of East Berlin went through to get across the wall:
This collection proves the existence of the Wall(s) beyond any doubt. There were huge machines on wheels called trucks, which were used to crush the turnpike at the border crossing in Friedrichstrasse. And a homemade chairlift! A father sent his small son over the Wall(s) by using this invention. Unbelievable as it is, I also saw a hot-air balloon. Imagine, in anno domini 1979 two families escaped by using it to climb twenty-six hundred meters! There was a cable drum that smuggled people, too. I was also most impressed by ordinary cars. It was amazing how a gigantic creature, such as a grown-up male or female Man, could squeeze himself or herself into a small trunk, and thus became invisible to the border guards. One kind of car was built so low that it actually passed under the horizontal bar at the checkpoint, transporting three people.
As he seeks wisdom from his fellow moles, he finally hits upon a reason why the humans are so interested in this crossing:
“Well… have you never heard of the banana issue!?” … “They are a delicacy. You should imagine a banana as an exquisite, extremely succulent, tasty kind of earthworm. Even the mere mentioning of bananas makes Men’s mouth water,” he said. “Oh, I do understand that, the mere thought of a special kind of fat earthworm… makes my mouth water as well!” I exclaimed, happy to have learned something new.
In the old days, before the Berlin Wall went down, bananas were a very popular food among Men. “But in those days,” Andreas continued, “unlike other popular foods, there was something particular about bananas. While on the West side of the Wall (the banana side, so to speak) Men did not especially appreciate them, probably because they could indulge in them every day; on the nonbanana side they were literally dying for them.”
Following up on this discussion, the mole does some research, and learns of a popular joke told by humans about the situation:
Two Berliner children are speaking to each other over the Wall (but let me remark here that this was hardly possible; the Wall was much too high!). The little boy in the West says, while eating a banana, “Look, I have a banana.” The boy in the East answers: “Yes, but we have socialism!” The boy in the West counters: “We, too, will have socialism soon.” But the boy in the East says triumphantly: “Tough luck, then; you won’t have bananas anymore!”
Obviously, you had either bananas or “socialism”; the two of them didn’t grow together. But what was this socialism? “Another kind of food?” I asked myself. Based on available sources, I soon came to the conclusion that socialism must have been not food but a kind of pestilence that prevented bananas from growing in the Eastern part of the Overland…
After having pondered a while, I thought that there could be only one answer: The Men on the nonbanana side built the Wall(s) to protect the prisoners and bananas from socialism. They surely demonstrated extraordinary care for the others, a noble characteristic of human beings.
[Closing conversation with Manuel]
As you can see, the author’s odd choice of narrators enabled her to approach each of the stories from a rather unique perspective. While providing plenty of humor, she succeeds in conveying the ironies, the failures, and in some places even the horrors of Communist rule in Eastern Europe throughout the Cold War period. I’m sure if you’re interested enough in the topic to be listening to this podcast, you’ll thoroughly enjoy Draculic’s Guided Tour.
And this has been your Story of Communism for today.