Ever true to his pro-Soviet cold warrior persona, Democrat presidential candidate Bernie Sanders recently created a stir by insisting communist dictator Fidel Castro’s Cuba had excellent literacy programs. In a “60 Minutes” interview with Anderson Cooper on Sunday, Sanders said:
We’re very opposed to the authoritarian nature of Cuba, but you know, it’s unfair to simply say everything is bad. You know? When Fidel Castro came into office, you know what he did? He had a massive literacy program. Is that a bad thing? Even though Fidel Castro did it?
Writing is the key component of civilization, allowing for reliable accumulation and transmission of knowledge. A Russian proverb, “What is written with a quill can’t be chopped with an ax,” illustrates that the written word is enduring and tangible.
Why communist dictatorships are so fond of literacy is a whole different matter. Political commentator Ana Navarro tweeted, “I was in 2nd Grade when Sandinistas came to power in Nicaragua. They adopted Cuban education model. The books/curriculum taught ideological indoctrination. Children had to recite communist, revolutionary, anti-American slogans. That’s how communist teach people to read and write.”
Polish-British academic Andrzej Kozlowski echoed her sentiment:
‘Literacy’ was always the most basic tool of totalitarian propaganda. If you are not literate you can’t be fed communist propaganda. The most steadfast anti-communist I knew in my childhood was my maternal grandfather who was illiterate. Communist propaganda did not reach him at all. The more one read, the more one was subject to indoctrination, which is something which of course I experienced myself.
For this reason, achieving ‘literacy’ is always the first aim of communist regimes. Elementary.
Kozlowski draws a distinction between literacy and education, the former being merely an ability to comprehend a text. Going to grade school in the Soviet Union, I was subjected to a constant barrage of propaganda. All first-graders across the vast country were given the same book, called “Bukvar,” from which to learn our letters. It was decorated with pictures of the Kremlin, record harvests, and boys riding tanks. The introduction read:
Today you are beginning your journey into a wonderful country, the country of knowledge! You will learn to read and write, and for the first time will write the words most dear to us: mama, Motherland, Lenin. (Emphasis in the original).
That was Soviet literacy.
Literacy as a Vehicle for Propaganda
The bleeding of actual education into indoctrination backfired spectacularly. Bolshevik leaders, as cream-of-the-crop Russian intellectuals, sought to include beloved literary works in the country’s curriculum, solidifying the 19th-century Russian canon.
In a highly instructive though unfortunately titled “How to Parent Like A Bolshevik” essay, Yuri Slezkine explained why Bolsheviks raised anti-Bolshevik children. Confident in their one true “scientific” ideology, they gave their children the classic books that had informed their thought. Their children read those books and came up with very different conclusions.
Soviet schoolchildren read Alexander Pushkin, Leo Tolstoy, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky and often saw beyond the cheap spin the regime put on their works. The later-period dissidents were driven by the values and sensibilities they picked up from classics. This is why the current American call to eradicate the English-language canon is so troubling: It leaves children without a frame of cultural and moral reference.
Because literacy was only useful to the regime as a vehicle for propaganda, the state tightly controlled all publishing houses. Contemporary works that came out of the Soviet press amounted to some kind of socialist realism, which mostly didn’t age well. Schools assigned these works, but in most cases, the dubious moral and aesthetic quality of this type of literature was obvious.
These literacy programs arose only after the death of Stalin. Historians trace them back to the underground circulation of the 1957 Nobel Prize-winning novel “Doctor Zhivago” by Boris Pasternak.
The most important books of the period were published abroad and underground. Tamizdat, or “published over there,” materials were smuggled out of the country, printed by small publishing houses, then smuggled back. Samizdat, literally meaning “self-published,” was typically reproduced on typewriters in sets of four, with carbon paper placed between the sheets. The books were then passed on within circles of trusted friends.
Writing, producing, and circulating uncensored books carried the risk of punishments — prison, exile abroad, or confinement to psychiatric hospitals. Possession of a forbidden book was an act of bravery — “What is written with a quill can’t be chopped with an ax.” It was tangible proof of wrongthink.
Finding Other Ways to Get Information
A safer way to access information was through shortwave radio. The sclerotic Soviet state prided itself on manufacturing copious amounts of shortwave radios. Ostensibly, it facilitated the reach of patriotic programming, but the radio sets picked up signals from foreign stations, such as Voice of America, Voice of Europe, and the BBC. The signals were jammed, but it was still possible to catch information.
Possession of a radio set was not a crime, and as the words came out, they dissipated into the air. In as much as they were untraceable, the foreign voices were a safer way of obtaining information. We, for instance, first learned about the Chernobyl disaster from foreign radio.
The reach of samizdat was extremely limited: an estimated 200,000 people in the country of hundreds of millions, all cultural elites living in large cities. Unstoppable was the oral folk culture communists considered to be backward and intended to conquer — see Kozlowski’s testimony about his illiterate grandfather.
To stock patriotic sentiment, the authorities carefully curated printed items of folklore, such as the slightly sinister proverb I’ve cited. At the same time, they tried to stomp out any authentically resurgent form of oral literature, especially humor.
Jokes are spontaneous and leave no traces, although confidants can potentially turn on each other. They are easy to share and enormously satisfying. The late Soviet period became the golden age of Russian anekdot, or joke. People who had no access to samizdat or interest in foreign radio were able to fall back on folk culture, engaging in what was essentially communal therapy sessions through anekdot.
There is no magic literacy bullet that transforms society into a paragon of freedom and prosperity. Even if writing is essential to civilization, in difficult times, oral culture has filled in where printing presses have failed. In a socialist society where literacy comes with the side of censorship, that happens a lot. Communist Cuba may have a 99 percent literacy rate, but it still imprisons poets.