El Campesino

The book jacket to El Campesino: Life and and Death in Soviet Russia boasts that, “this is not another memoir of a tortured intellectual wrestling with his conscience.  This book is in every sense a tense narrative of action, played out against the world’s most important struggle.”

Enough obsessive Russians!  “I was elected to lead, not to read!”

This blurb is accurate, however.  The main character, Valentin Gonzalez, “El Campesino” (the Peasant), is indeed a man of action and not reflection.  His narrative tells the story of his struggle in the Spanish Civil War, which makes him a hero of the Communist Party.  Feted by the Soviets, they whisk him away to Russia for specialized training.  He quickly grew disillusioned with the El CampesinoSoviet system.  His fiery personality led to numerous conflicts with party officials, which led to his imprisonment.  Gonzalez’s relentless forward-looking energy helps him escape not once but twice from prison camps, and eventually to freedom–the stuff of legend.

Such a triumph would indeed never happen with a more introspective “intellectual wrestling with his conscience.”  Gonzalez’s accomplishments come with a host of morally questionable actions he takes, but true to his nature, he hardly blinks an eye.  Gonzalez tells us that in the gulags the political prisoners often die within six months, while the ordinary criminals find ways to survive.

He decided to survive.

Of course one can’t help but root for him.  In many respects we certainly should root for him–for one, we obviously have to root against the Soviets.  Some introspection, some torturing of his conscience, however, might have helped him do more than merely survive.

One incident fairly early in the book jumped out at me that illumined the dark caverns of the Soviet system, and humanity besides.

Upon their arrival in Moscow Gonzalez and other “Heroes of the Revolution” received royal treatment.  Each of them had a “maid” assigned to them.  These maids came young, pretty, perfumed, and quite willing to do anything at all.  In fact the girls sought to sleep with them.  This, they knew, would be part of their weekly evaluations.

Possibly one of these “heroes” might have traditional ideas about sexual behavior and marriage (Gonzalez did not).  But such a man would face a terrible dilemma.  If he did not sleep with her, she might receive poor evaluations and perhaps even a punishment.  He would feel sympathy and wants to protect her.  So he sleeps with her.  But the maids sleep with the men primarily to put them off their guard so that they might reveal “anti-Soviet” thoughts.  They received big rewards for successfully extracting useful information for the NKVD.

The Soviets certainly recognized our need for fellowship and intimacy, but they exploited this not only to turn people against each other, but to turn someone against their very selves.  This result seems almost inevitable given the circumstances.

The life of Father George Calciu, however, shows us a different path.

Father George lived in Romania and came of age just prior to the communist takeover after World War II.  They arrested him in 1948 not so much for any specific crime, but mainly because he was one of the younger, educated set that the communists needed to make their own.  The old did not matter so much.  Romania’s traditional culture and deep roots in the Orthodox faith could die out with them.

Father George and others like him went to an Orwellian style prison designed to break them psychologically more than physically.  Their captors sought via a variety of techniques to separate them from the past and themselves straight out of 1984.  Father George confessed that such methods worked.  He said things to his interrogators he regretted.  After some months he found that he could not remember much about his childhood.  He could not remember how to pray.

Father George CalciuThen two things happened.  First, he realized that he did remember one prayer–“Lord Jesus Christ, Son of God, have mercy upon me, a sinner.”  This helped him remember himself and led to his remembering the the Lord’s Prayer and a few others.  Second, the interrogation process culminated when they successfully recruited prisoners to help them torture other prisoners.  Father George had said things he regretted, but this he would not do.  He felt terribly alone, for if he had agreed to this, he would have found at least some form of fellowship, some kind of sense of team with the other guards.

But then a curious thing happened.  The jailers lumped all the resistant prisoners together, perhaps not wanting them to infect their own converts.  Here Father George found a new community centered around their mutual faith in Christ and a commitment to human dignity.

Now, he knew himself again.

Some years after his release he felt called to deliver a series of Lenten sermons to Romania’s youth and a similar pattern emerged.  The seminary where he taught knew these messages might provoke trouble with the authorities.  They refused to support him, and once again Father George found himself alone.  But he went forward anyway, and to his utter shock, thousands and thousands of students came to hear him each week.  His “Seven Homilies to the Youth” had an international distribution.  He faced a second term in prison.  But now he was an internationally known dissident, and this gave him a small measure of protection.  In both instances, Father George refused to give in to the communist inspired ideals of community.

I admire the courage and audacity of Valentin Gonzalez.  But Father George Calciu showed us a better way.






A Cronyism Dilemma

A friend of mine related that he had begun to contemplate retirement.  He wanted to teach about another 10 years or so and then thought about opening a small barbershop.  He reasoned that, having spent almost the entirety of his teaching career in one small town, he would hypothetically know a large percentage of the population.  The barber shop need not be a scheme to make his fortune, so much as a pleasant way to stay connected to the townspeople.

He did some research and to his horror discovered that between the mandated schooling, permitting, and licensing requirements forced upon one by Pennsylvania, he would be in the red $20,000 before he plunked down his first rent check on the property.

All this just to have “permission” from the state to cut hair.

He abandoned his retirement plans.

Often we think of regulations as the little guy limiting the power of the big guy.  But sometimes wealthy companies are the ones who favor regulations because they are the only ones who can afford it.  Regulations can serve as a way to limit competition.  This kind of “crony-capitalism” is possibly an extreme example, yet many have noted the vast increases recently in the number of jobs that need state permits, licenses, and so on.  In these polarized political times, this is an issue Republicans and Democrats could unite on.  Republicans could talk about fostering individual initiative.  Democrats could talk about limiting the reach of big corporations.  It’s a win-win for both sides.  One problem is that these regulations come largely at the state level and not the federal level.  Few people pay much attention to state politics anymore (including myself), and so creating pressure for change would require more patience and diligence.

I thought about this issue while reading the “Aristocrats and Semi-Aristocrats” chapter in R.G. Starr’s Economic and Social Growth in Early Greece.  He mentions that the city-state system got its beginnings when aristocrats came together to try and combine their power.  Of course, this same city-state system would eventually significantly limit the power of the aristocracy in Greece.  This seems counter-intuitive. Why did this happen?

Some see an “aristocracy” in the age that Homer describes.  Starr rightly disagrees.  Certainly one can see a social hierarchy in The Iliad, but not I think, an aristocracy in the sense the word usually carries.  True, Odysseus was king of Ithaca and had some men bound to serve him militarily like medieval lords.  Odysseus tried to escape the Trojan War by pretending to be insane.  It was not, however, that fact that he plowed land that gave him away, but that he would not plow over his son.  Odysseus was a farmer in ways that a typical aristocrat never would have dreamed.

By “aristocracy” we mean an established code of behavior and dress that sets one apart from the rest of the population.  Without some kind of population concentration, one cannot have an aristocracy in the truest sense of the word.  This concentration allows for more accentuation of difference.  In Odysseus’ world you have him as king and then everyone else.  But, bring aristocrats together and you can have stratified layers–“Aristocrats and Semi-Aristocrats.”

The initial coming together of aristocrats naturally did increase their power, as Athens’ literally “Draconian” law code evidences (the name comes from an aristocrat named Draco).  But shortly after this apparent victory their power began to erode, eventually ending up with a fairly radical democracy a century and a half after Draco.

Many reasons exist for this shift, I’m sure.  I feel that one of them has to do with the nature of aristocratic stratification.  Distinguishing oneself by birth has never been quite satisfactory in almost any aristocratic society.  Certainly birth alone never quite worked for the Greeks.  Their ideals called for achieving glory for oneself via striving and competition.  Naturally, these aristocrats would seek for allies in this competitive world, even including the “average Joe.”

But be careful, aristocrats.  The average Joe’s outnumber you, and they eventually took over the competition and established the possibility of “arete” for all.  Something similar happened in Rome.  From about 500-200 B.C. an aristocracy largely ran Rome quite effectively by most measures.  Again, the story has complexity, but the aristocracy began to decline when their competitiveness no longer had a foreign outlet.  Their competition against each other naturally led to their enlistment of the commoners for allies.  A vast network of clients & patrons formed.  By the time Octavian triumphed about 100 years after this process began in earnest, the aristocracy had essentially killed themselves off in fratricidal warfare–a war made possible in part by their enlistment of the common man.

We assume that Rome’s emperors continued aristocratic dominance.  But the Emperors, much like the early Roman kings, tended to side with the “people” and rule in their name.  Rome’s aristocracy led the revolution that exiled the Tarquin kings in their early history.  The worst of Rome’s emperors, like Caligula and Nero, did many of their worst deeds to the senatorial class.  Of course many others abused their power in various ways.  Ending the power of the aristocracy meant the creation of, in the end, an even great power.

Such are the dilemmas of politics.

The decline of the Greek aristocracy did not lead to the kind of absolute rule Rome experienced.  But . . . without the healthy tension between democratic and aristocratic ideas that existed in the time of Pericles, Athenian democracy acquired a kind of absolute power of its own in the form of its laws.  The death of Socrates serves as ‘Exhibit A’ of this transition.

For the sake of my friend and many others like him, I hope for an end to crony-capitalism.  As to what power we will need to dislodge it, I cannot say.  As to whether or not the trade-off will be worth it . . . that too we cannot say for sure.

Such are the dilemmas of politics.