Red Hero Lenin

October 14th, 2012

The city of Ulan Bator, capital of Mongolia, has removed its last statue of Lenin from Peace Avenue, one of the city’s main thoroughfares. Erdeniin Bat-Üül, mayor of Ulan Bator, oversaw the removal, and gave a ten-minute speech, calling Lenin a murderer, amongst other things.

Prior to its removal, the statue had a prominent place in a city park beside Peace Avenue:

Lenin statue, Ulan Bator, Mongolia

The removal is something of a piece of political theatre, coming two months after Mr. Bat-Üül’s appointment as mayor, at a time of heightened success for his Democratic party.

What has gone unmentioned in reports about the statue’s removal, however, is the fact that the city of Ulan Bator is itself a communist propaganda remnant: The name ‘Ulan Bator’ literally translates to ‘Red Hero’, a name it adopted in 1924 on the urging of Turar Ryskulov, a Kazakh communist (later executed on Stalin’s orders). Unlike other soviet-era appelations like Leningrad and Karl-Marx-Stadt, the name survived the collapse of communism, partly due to the nonspecific, generic nature of the red hero honoured by the name.

Could it be that Mr. Bat-Üül, having successfully rid the city of Lenin, might next move on to changing the name of the city itself?

Lenin cat

February 26th, 2012

Lenin cat was a meme which emerged in mid-2011 based on an image macro of a cat. A cat that looks like Lenin. Aaand… that’s it.

Lenin cat

Lenin cat

Lenin cat

Plenty more here, here and here.

Lenin cat is pretty absurd, but then, that’s the internet. For cat absurdity of a more real-life sort, take a look at the Wikipedia entry for Operation Acoustic Kitty (no, really), a CIA project from the mid-1960s, which planned to use cats to spy on the Kremlin. It cost twenty million dollars, achieved nothing, and its first mission had to be abandoned when a cat with a spy antenna in its tail was hit and killed by a taxi.

Honecker’s prison diary

February 19th, 2012

The Berliner Kurier, one of the most popular tabloid newspapers in Berlin, has been running a series of articles over the past month based on extracts from the prison diaries of Erich Honecker.

Honecker - Das Gefängnis Tagebuch | Berliner Kurier | 2012

(Photo: “Honecker – The Prison Diaries” – an advertisement for the Berliner Kurier in Friedrichshain, Berlin, February 2012.)

Honecker – leader of East Germany from 1971 until the fall of the Berlin Wall in 1989 – spent most of 1992 in prison, awaiting trial for the deaths of people who had attempted to escape East Germany. He was eventually released due to ill-health, and died in Chile in 1994.

There is a certain aptness in the Kurier being the paper which has published these extracts. The paper was founded in East Berlin in 1949 as BZ am Abend, with the clear intention that it should function as a mouthpiece of the ruling communist SED, of which Honecker was the leader from 1971 onwards.

BZ am Abend

After the Wende, the paper was snapped up by a consortium of publishers (including Gruner + Jahr and Robert Maxwell) and transformed into its current incarnation. Despite this metamorphosis, to this day the paper still sells significantly more copies in the former East Berlin than in the former West Berlin – another of the small daily manifestations of the ‘Mauer im Kopf’ – the wall in the mind.

Perhaps Honecker would have appreciated the irony – the route of the wall lives on in something as mundane as the daily distribution patterns of a newspaper that once did his bidding.

This Ain’t California

February 12th, 2012

Fancy helping to fund a film about skateboarding in East Germany in the 1980s? This Ain’t California is a forthcoming film by Marten Persiel about the skater subculture of the DDR in the run-up to the fall of the Berlin Wall. It’s scheduled for release this summer, but they need money to make it happen.

The filmmakers are hoping to raise €50,000 to get the film finished – €10 will get you a ticket to the premiere.

Kim Jong-il and the ethnic Lenin of Pyongyang

December 20th, 2011

The focus of this blog tends to be on European culture and history, but the news of the death of Kim Jong-il is a good moment to turn briefly towards the tyrannical surrealism of North Korea.

The North Korean state is often described as communist or Stalinist, and it is true that it exhibits many of the identifying features of classic mid-twentieth-century soviet grimness. However, the American academic and writer B.R. Myers makes a convincing case, in his book The Cleanest Race, that the North Korean regime is best considered as an ethno-nationalist dynasty, heavily influenced by the methods and techniques of the Japanese fascists of World War II. Any resemblance to communism (real or imagined) is essentially vestigial, and is used to paper over the cracks of something very different, and utterly unique.

Myers gave an outline of his thinking in a lecture (also called ‘The Cleanest Race’) which he delivered at the World Affairs Council of Northern California in February 2010. The talk was broadcast on the American C-SPAN television network, and the full hour-long lecture is available online. The first ten minutes are embedded below.

Myers’s thesis, essentially, is that the North Korean regime justifies shutting out the outside world through relentless domestic propaganda, which has a racist, quasi-fascist tone and emphasis. The regime also happens to use Stalinist methods to organise society and government – partly through historical accident, and partly because it has a certain brutal effectiveness. There are still occasional ritualised evocations of the name and ideals of communism, but this is window-dressing, which doesn’t always sit well with the propaganda of racial purity and superiority — after all, communism came from Europe, not Korea.

Some evidence of this window-dressing cropped up last year from a somewhat unexpected quarter. In September 2010, the Guardian sent two staff, Dan Chung and Tania Branigan, to Pyongyang to report from North Korea’s largest-ever military parade. Dan Chung later posted a slow-motion video to his Vimeo page of part of the parade.

A brief glimpse is given, at around 19 seconds in, of a huge painting of Lenin. A closer look, however, makes it clear that this is no ordinary portrait — Lenin has magically become ethnically Korean.

Pyongyang Lenin

It’s a glimpse into an Orwellian logic. Lenin, officially still a hero of the North Korean state, is actually a problem for the regime, because he was not Korean, and therefore does not fit with the propaganda. The fix? Simple: edit the public images of Lenin, to imply that he was Korean, and otherwise ignore him.

As the world waits to see what will happen in the post-Kim-Jong-il era, it can only be hoped that the day is coming soon when this kind of harsh absurdity is truly left in the ash heap of history.

Kreuzberg, 1979

December 16th, 2011

This footage, shot by Ingeborg Euler, gives a somewhat spooky glimpse of the Berlin borough of Kreuzberg in 1979, and was originally broadcast on 3sat. Kreuzberg — then part of West Berlin — was surrounded on three sides by East Berlin, and the film gives a sense of the enclave-like nature of Kreuzberg life at the time, including shots of the river and the Oberbaumbrücke — at that time part of the Berlin Wall. The music is by Brian Eno, from Ambient 4.