50: Our Favorite Stories

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Stories of Communism 50:  Our Favorite Stories

Welcome to Stories of Communism, the podcast where we discuss what life is really like for those unfortunate enough to live under communist or socialist governments.    Recording from the suburbs of Wichita, Kansas, this is Erik Seligman, your host, along with co-host Manuel Castaneda in Oregon.
Well, we’ve finally made it to episode 50!  To celebrate the big round number, we thought we would do something a bit different today:   Manuel and I are going to count down our 10 favorite stories, from among the ones we have shared over the past 6 years of the podcast.   So let’s go ahead & begin. 

<BTW, if you’re reading this in our show notes, as you’ll hear, the audio doesn’t precisely follow this original script, as we tried to use each one as a kickoff for some on-the-fly discussion.   So be sure to both read here & listen to the audio if you like the show!>

Manuel’s #5:  Episode 31, Forbidden Romance, where we discussed Teodor Flonta’s Romanian memoir, “Paper Rings”.    https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2020/10/   This was the story of how, while acting as a tour guide for the Romanian Communist government, he met and fell in love with an Italian visitor.   Let’s listen to an excerpt from that book:

“There should be no obstacles for people in love,” I dared to say. “Besides, I don’t see any reason we should be denied this right. We are not harming anyone by marrying.” 
He smiled and looked me straight in the eyes. “Of course, of course, but in a society like ours the individual cannot put his personal interests above those of the State. You know this, don’t you?…
“It’s very simple. There is no big effort on your part. When you are in Italy, if everything goes well, keep an eye open and let us know what we need to know.” “You mean… spying.” “I wouldn’t put it that way.” “How would you put it?” “Observing is the better word.” “And if I don’t agree?” “Then you are on your own, and we cannot help you.”..
How could I say yes to a regime which had arrested my father, tortured him and deprived me and my mother of his presence for years on end? …  I could not forgive them for that. And I could not forget all the humiliations I was subjected to for being a son of a man labelled enemy of the people. The regime made the laws, but the way in which they behaved was as lawless criminals. I could not become an accomplice to their crimes…

In the end, Flonta gave in and signed, correctly reasoning that once he was out of the country, they had no way to enforce his agreement to spy for them.   
This story highlighted the ways Communist countries universally try to deceive foreigners into not realizing their dire poverty and inconceivable lack of freedom.    It is also one of the few stories we told with a truly happy ending, as Flonta eventually succeeded in leaving Romania to marry Ariella in Italy, and celebrated their 50th anniversary soon after we released the episode!

Erik’s #5:  Episode 40, Little Socialist Women.  https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2021/10/.  Yes, Louisa May Alcott, author of the classic “Little Women”, spent time as a child on an absurdly impractical socialist commune, Fruitlands, created by her father.    Let’s look at an excerpt from her memoir about that time from her sarcastic memoir, “Transcendental Wild Oats”:

Such farming probably was never seen before since Adam delved. The band of brothers began by spading garden and field; but a few days of it lessened their ardor amazingly. Blistered hands and aching backs suggested the expediency of permitting the use of cattle till the workers were better fitted for noble toil by a summer of the new life.
Brother Moses brought a yoke of oxen from his farm,—at least, the philosophers thought so till it was discovered that one of the animals was a cow…
Great was Dictator Lion’s indignation at this lapse from virtue. But time pressed, the work must be done; so the meek cow was permitted to wear the yoke…
The garden was planted with a generous supply of useful roots and herbs; but, as manure was not allowed to profane the virgin soil, few of these vegetable treasures ever came up…
Transcendental wild oats were sown broadcast that year, and the fame thereof has not yet ceased in the land; for, futile as this crop seemed to outsiders, it bore an invisible harvest, worth much to those who planted in earnest.

It’s a relatively small aside in US history, but provides some humorous insight into the impractical ideas of many intellectuals.   The humor of this situation starts to fade when we realize that in the Soviet Union and China, similarly (though maybe not quite as over-the-top) misinformed ideas of correct farming were enforced on nationwide scales, and resulted in man-made famines that caused the starvation of millions.

Manuel’s #4:  Episode 13, Communists Take A Bath, where we discussed Mikhail Zoshenko’s hilarious Soviet satires of the 1920s.   https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2018/11/  Let’s look at an excerpt from Zoshenko’s work:

Last Saturday I went to one of our bathhouses… and they gave me two tickets.  One for my linen, the other for my hat and coat.   But where is a naked man going to put tickets?  To say it straight— no place.  No pockets.  Look around— all stomach and legs…  Can’t tie them to your beard.   Well, I tied a ticket to each leg so as not to lose them both at once.

All right.  So I’m standing.  I’m holding the bucket in one hand and I’m washing myself.  But all around me everyone’s scrubbing clothes like mad.   One is washing his trousers, another’s rubbing his drawers, a third’s wringing something out.   You no sooner get yourself all washed up than you’re dirty again.   They’re splattering me, the bastards…

I go back to the locker room.   I give them one ticket, they give me my linen.  I look.  Everything’s mine, but the trousers aren’t mine.   “Citizens, “ I say, “Mine didn’t have a hole here.  Mine had a hole over there. “  But the attendant says, “We aren’t here”, he says, “just to watch for your holes.”

These stories exemplify the critical role humor plays in enabling people to deal with the arbitrary, absurd, and frustrating rules often created by bureaucracies.   And sadly, nations that don’t allow such humor— the Soviet government eventually cracked down on Zoshenko— magnify the misery of their citizens.

Erik’s #4: Episode 41, In Search of Used Toothpaste.   Here we talked about Romanian immigrant Gyuszi Suto’s memoir, “I Tried”, a lighthearted look at his early life in Romania before moving to the U.S.   This one was especially significant for me, as I had worked with Gyuszi for over 20 years at Intel, but was never aware of his colorful background.     Let’s look at an excerpt.

The Romanian train cars emptied their toilets directly down onto the tracks. There was a sign in the bathrooms asking comrades not to use the toilets while the train was stopped in stations, but nobody paid attention. When a comrade had to go, the comrade went. As a result, the railroad tracks had the highest concentration of human manure in the whole desert—a straight line of putrid fertility cutting across the barren landscape.
Weird plants would pop up from the middle of the tracks, enjoying the unusually high level of fertilizers engulfing the crushed rocks of the ballast. Some weeds would grow a foot a day, much to the station chiefs’ dismay, who were supposed to keep their little kingdom clean and tidy. Since power tools for gardening did not exist, they would send out a poor guy to walk along the [poopy] tracks and try to whack down the thick weeds with a hoe.
I was thinking that if they’d build railroad tracks crisscrossing the Sahara desert and give free rides to the Romanian comrades—eating the same crappy food that we, the Camp workers got—pretty soon, they would revegetate the desert.
Maybe even animals would reappear. Never underestimate the climate changing potential of twenty million proletarians with diarrhea.

Once again we see the power of humor in coping with the completely irrational obstacles and challenges, and resulting dire poverty, created by the government. 

Manuel’s #3:    Episode 20, Outsmarting the Bureaucrats.  https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2019/09/  There we looked at Vladimir Bukovsky’s memoir “Judgement in Moscow”, where he talked about his efforts just after the fall of Communism to preserve its records.

I took the precaution of acquiring a miracle of Japanese technology: a portable computer with a handheld scanner. At that time this piece of technology had only just appeared in the West, and it was completely unknown to our Russian savages. Because of this I was able to sit right under their noses and scan piles of documents, page after page, with no worries about the curious, who kept coming up to admire my machine. “Look at that!” would exclaim the leaders of democratic Russia, peering admiringly over my shoulder. “Now that must have cost a few bucks!” 
Nobody realized what I was doing until the court hearing was almost over, until December 1992, when one of them suddenly saw the light and yelled loudly enough to be heard a block away: “He’s copying everything!!!” There was a deathly hush. I kept scanning, as though I had not heard. “He’ll publish everything over there!!!” I finished working, packed up my computer, and headed calmly for the door, looking neither left nor right. From the corner of my eye I could see the horrified faces of Yeltsin’s elite… Nobody said a word as I made my way to the door. They were probably busy calculating what untold millions I would make in the West.

This story emphasizes one of the major reasons why the abuses of communism are so seldom discussed:   both the bureaucrats in charge, and the intellectuals who are emotionally invested in the concept, actively hide and ignore documented records when they are available.    And we all need to be thankful that Bukovsky’s ruse succeeded, and with the records he was able to take out of the country, it is now even harder for anyone to deny the truths of the Soviet system.  

Erik’s #3:  Episode 25, An American In The Gulag.  https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2020/03/ .  This was the harrowing tale of Thomas Sgovio, one of the thousands of Americans who were fooled by the positive propaganda from such outlets as the New York Times, and emigrated to the Soviet Union to seek a better life.   Let’s look at what he saw there:

We made propaganda speeches describing the miserable workers' existence under capitalism ... and how fortunate the Russian workers were to live under Socialism! … I could not help noticing the contrast in the appearance of the Russian people at those meetings with the audiences in the communist meetings in Buffalo. First, I was struck by the uniformity in dress, then by a lack of enthusiasm on the part of the plain, ordinary men and women beyond the first and second rows. There was not that spark which ignited eyes to gleam and bristle with fire, there was not that wild applause I had so often experienced back home….
Our guides constantly reminded us to shut our eyes to the somberness of the poor Russian people. They had been worse off under the Czar. How wonderful everything would be in twenty or thirty years! I noticed that the charwomen in the House of Political Emigrants lived very poorly… I felt so terrible when I saw those women sitting in a corner sipping a glass of hot water and nibbling on a piece of rock sugar. They could not afford to buy a glass of tea - and here we polit-emigrants had all the tea we desired.

At some point, Stalin soured on the idea of American emigres living in his country, and most of the surviving immigrants like Sgovio ended up getting arrested.   His memoir describes a terrifying adventure lasting decades, where several times he ended up near death in the Gulag prison camps.   Eventually his ability to tell amusing stories of American criminals, and to draw pornographic cartoons, earned the favor of the prison gangs and saved his life.   Here he describes his low point in the prison camps:

When we awoke in the morning, we glanced at the fellow next to us. Was he alive? If he was dead, we hurriedly took his rags and covered the corpse…
The bodies were piled like logs. When three or four hundred accumulated, holes were bored, and blasting took place. The corpses were thrown into a mass grave, then covered…
When I looked at my bones I was scared. I was worse than any of the walking skeletons in the Srednikan recovery barrack. There was no flesh on my bones - only gray, scaly skin. Someone told me to sit down and wait my turn. I could not sit-it hurt terribly. I felt my buttocks - there were none…
The doctor pulled me aside from the others. In a low voice he said, "Tomas, to look at your body - it's as emaciated as any I've ever seen. It is fearful to look at your bones - but I can't find anything that will justify my listing you in the infirmary.

This story not only tells of the horrors of the slave labor camps created under Communism, but also lays bare some real human consequences of the fawning adoration that the Western press provides to Communist systems.   

Manuel’s #2:  Episode 27:  The First Massachusetts Commune.  https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2020/05/   This is the story you are likely to hear repeated by a conservative around Thanksgiving:   how the early American colonists attempted a form of communism in the 1600s, and nearly starved, before finally turning in a more individualistic direction.   Let’s look at an excerpt from the diary of Wiliam Bradford, an early governor of Plymouth:  (apologies for the antiquated English style)

In the end, they came to that misery, that some starved & dyed with could & hunger. One in geathering shell-fish was so weake as he stuck fast in the mudd, and was found dead in the place. At last most of them left their dwellings & scatered up & downe in the woods, & by the water sids, wher they could find ground nuts & clames,
…. At length, after much debate of things, the Gov r (with the advise of the cheefest amongest them) gave way that they should set corne every man for his owne perticuler, and in that regard trust to them selves…   And so assigned to every family a parcell of land, according to the proportion of their number for that end… 
This had very good success; for it made all hands very industrious, so as much more corne was planted then other waise would have bene by any means the Gov r or any other could use, and saved him a great deall of trouble, and gave farr better contente. The women now wente willingly into the feild, and tooke their litle-ons with them to set corne, which before would aledg weaknes, and inabilitie; whom to have compelled would have bene thought great tiranie and oppression. 

Perhaps if this story was taught more thoroughly in school, we wouldn’t have so many young people embracing socialist ideas so enthusastically.

Erik’s #2:   Episode 6: Willful Ignorance.   https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2018/03/.       You may be surprised we haven’t had too much by Alexander Solzhenitsyn, the most famous Soviet dissident and exposer of Communist atrocities, in this podcast.   That’s intentional, since we are trying to expose lesser-known stories, and he is probably the one universally known author in this category.   But in Episode 6, we did feature one story retold in his Gulag Archipelago:   the visit to the Solovki Island labor camp by famous populist author Maxim Gorky.     The prisoners, who were kept in overcrowded conditions, worked to the point of near-death, and tortured on a regular basis, thought Gorky, the author known for his love of the common laborer, would save them.    However, Gorky was exposed to a carefully curated visit, and when forced to confront the truth, simply ignored it.    Let’s look at some excerpts:

On Popov Island the ship Gleb Boky was being loaded by prisoners in underwear and sacks, when Gorky's retinue appeared out of nowhere to embark on that steamer! … Where can this disgraceful spectacle— these men dressed in sacks— be hidden? The entire journey of the great Humanist will have been for naught if he sees them now. Well, of course, he will try hard not to notice them, but help him! … only a worthy son of the Archipelago could find. a way out of this one. The work assigner ordered: "Stop work! Close ranks! Still closer! Sit down on the ground! Sit still!" And a tarpaulin was thrown over them. "Anyone who moves will be shot!" And the former stevedore Maxim Gorky ascended the ship's ladder and admired the landscape from the steamer for a full hour till sailing time - and he didn't notice! “  

And all of a sudden a.fourteen-year-old boy said: "Listen here, Gorky! Everything you see here is false. Do you want to know the truth?  Shall I tell you?" Yes, nodded the writer. Yes,_he wanted to know the truth. ..   And so everyone was ordered to leave, including the children … and the boy spent an hour and a half telling the whole story to the lanky old man. Gorky left the barracks, streaming tears.  

The teenage boy was executed as soon as Gorky left.   After he returned home, Gorky issued the report expected by Stalin:  everything was fine at Solovki, and the prisoners were treated well.    This really hammers in the ability of supposedly idealistic intellectuals to intentionally ignore real atrocities, out of self-interest or fear, when it’s convenient— despite the human cost.

Manuel’s #1:   Episode 48, “Broken Promises”, https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2023/04/ .    This was a pretty recent one, so you may recall our discussion of Nelson Rodriguez Chartrand’s “The Revolution of Promises”, talking about how the Cuban Communist revolution was fundamentally built on a mountain of promises that were immediately broken.   Let’s look at an excerpt:

A health system cannot be of excellence where, literally, the vast majority of its hospitals lack the most basic hygiene conditions.    Cuban hospitals feature locked and fetid bathrooms, dirty and stinking mattresses, and patient clothes and blood-stained sheets aged by time.  Hospitals are in terrible construction conditions, unpainted; they commonly feature leaks and broken doors; and windows are in poor condition or non-existent.  The lack of security promotes the occurrence of robberies and thefts, with patients being the main victims.  In addition the peace of mind of the sick are threatened by the large influx of street vendors who turn hospital wards into true trade fairs.
There cannot be a health system of excellence in a country where, in order to have a bone scan, an axial tomography, or an MRI, the people have to wait up to six months in the best of cases, unless they pay a bribe that exceeds the monthly salary of any worker.
To make up for the shortage of doctors caused by their massive deployment to provide services outside of Cuba, the government was forced to place medical students in hospitals without the required knowledge and experience.   This has resulted in a considerable increase in wrong diagnoses and negligence, increasing the cases of damage to the health of patients, as well as the number of preventable deaths.

Chartrand also discusses the broken promises in many other areas of society, such as education, employment, a free press, and free speech.   His memoir is especially important because he left Cuba less than a decade ago, and his insights relate directly to what’s happening there right now.
By the way, I helped translate and publish the English version of this memoir, “The Revolution of Promises”, in the United States.   If you like it, be sure to post an Amazon review!

Erik’s #1:  Episode 17, A Poet’s Awakening.   https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2019/05/  .   This episode discussed the memoir “Dear Leader” by Jang Jin-Sung, one of North Korea’s top propagandists in the 1990s.   He talks about how his personal experience meeting dictator Kim Jong-Il, along with his personal observation of the nation’s poverty, turned him against the regime that had granted him a privileged position and numerous accolades.   Let’s look at a couple of excerpts from this one:

In return for our specialist work, and on top of our standard rations, we received additional rations of imported food every Saturday. .. the resources we received—different each time—came from the outside world. They were taken from humanitarian materials donated by the UN and the rest of the international community, as well as from South Korean NGOs and religious organizations.  The existence of such international aid was viewed as a shameful secret that the regime could not afford to reveal to its ordinary citizens at a time of widespread famine, as it would undermine the state’s ideology of “self-reliance.” 
[Later when visiting a non-elite friend]
That night, at the dinner prepared by Young-nam’s mother, I had to choke back my tears again. She proudly explained how she was able to offer me, her guest, a half-full bowl of rice—she had stashed away ten grains of rice at every meal. … When I asked how long it had taken to save up the rice, she replied, “Three months.” I could not believe that they were eating rice by the grain, instead of in servings. I muttered an excuse, saying that I had indigestion after eating lunch on the train.

This book is significant for a number of important reasons.   As with Cuba, this describes a regime that is essentially still with us today:  the famine of the 90s eventually ended, but the people still live in incredible poverty by world standards.   And, of course, he makes important points about the supposedly compassionate “foreign aid” provided by well-meaning citizens of free countries— which ends up just propping up the oppressors.     This book is also a great read because the second half, which we didn’t cover much, is a great adventure story about his escape from North Korea and path to safety in the West.

Well, that about wraps it up for our Top 10 list and discussion.   You can find the links to each of the episodes discussed in our show page at storiesofcommunism.com .
You also may have noticed that there has been quite a bit of time since our last episode.   Due to our lives being busy in many ways, we’re going to put this podcast on a bit of a hiatus.   But I think in our 50 episodes, we have accomplished what we set out to do:   show that the truth about the horrors of Communism is easily available, with many prolific authors risking their lives and putting in many thankless hours of labor to tell the world about their system.    
It’s also a stern rebuke to the education, media, and entertainment industries of the free world, who have intentionally failed to tell these stories, favoring emotionally satisfying left-wing narratives.     The material from just the authors we covered could probably inspire a few dozen TV shows or movies:   comedies, drama, romance, adventure, or pretty much any genre you can imagine.
And failing to tell these stories has led us to the real dangers of democratic nations around the world falling for the unfulfillable promises and taking the one-way trip into socialist and communist systems.    If you know anybody in these industries, ask them directly:   why are you failing to tell the stories of human struggle against a system that has enslaved or killed hundreds of millions of people, of nearly every race, creed, and religion, around the world over the last century? 

And this concludes your stories of Communism for today.

Manuel’s Top 5:  

  1. https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2023/04/ :  Nelson Chartrand's memoir, especially important since relevant today to Cuba's ongoing problems
  2. https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2020/05/ :  Not-often-enough told story about how early American colonists initially attempted communism & nearly starved
  3. https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2019/09/ :  Vladimir Bukovsky stands up to ex-Soviet bureaucrats and preserves history
  4. https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2018/11/ : Mikhail Zoshenko's Soviet satires of the 1920s, show importance of sense of humor to cope
  5. https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2020/10/:  Teodor Flonta's cross-iron-curtain romance, nice to have at least one story with a happy ending! 

Erik’s Top 5:

  1. https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2019/05/:  “A Poet’s Awakening”:  How North Korean propaganda leader Jang Jin-Sung learned the truth and decided to flee his country.
  2. https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2018/03/:  “Willful Ignorance”: The shameful story of how “the people’s writer” Maxim Gorky sacrificed a teenage boy to avoid facing the truth.
  3. https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2020/03/ :  “An American In The Gulag”:  Thomas Sgovio’s harrowing account of his experiences immigrating to the Soviet Union and then being imprisoned by Stalin.
  4. https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2021/12/ :  “In Search of Used Toothpaste”, immigrant engineer Gyuszi Suto’s lighthearted account of the oddities of living in Communist Romania.
  5. https://storiesofcommunism.blogspot.com/2021/10/:  “Little Socialist Women”, our discussion of famous author Louisa May Alcott’s surprising experience in communal living.

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