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?

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.

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.

Lana Peters/Svetlana Alliluyeva

November 30th, 2011

Of all the people in the world who were directly ‘haunted’ by the existence and the aftermath of twentieth-century soviet communism, perhaps nobody was as personally affected as Lana Peters, who has died this week at the age of 85 in Wisconsin, USA. Born Svetlana Alliluyeva in 1926, she was Stalin’s only daughter.

Both the BBC and the New York Times have well-researched and detailed obituaries, and both make the point that Lana apparently found it impossible to come to terms with the hand that fate dealt her, spending her life moving from country to country, defecting from the USSR, re-defecting back, re-re-defecting away again, living in a bewildering array of places, marrying and divorcing numerous times, adhering to various religions and philosophies, apparently spending her whole life trying to run away from her own demons.

It is probably somewhat inevitable that most of the coverage of her death has been accompanied by the two famous photos of her as a child: the first showing Svetlana in her father’s arms, and the second showing her in the arms of the sadistic NKVD chief Lavrentiy Beria. The images — famous for their implicit ironic juxtaposition between the savagery of these men and the innocence of the child they hold — represent exactly what Svetlana spent her life attempting to escape.

Given this lifelong effort, it seems appropriate not to show those images here. Instead, perhaps it’s better to let Lana hold the stage in her own right. Here she is in 1967, talking to the press after her initial defection from the USSR to the USA.

Silviculture propaganda: Soviet forest signs

November 7th, 2011

One of the stranger manifestations of Soviet messaging in the 1950s and 1960s was the use of silviculture propaganda: giant signs created in fields and forests by carefully-planted plots of trees. Back in the mid-20th century, these were presumably thought of as tokens to be seen by future generations from communist spaceships above the earth.

The content of the messages were fairly simple, but they are still visible today. And through Google Maps, anyone can now see them, even decades after their aspirational creation.

Click the images to view them larger, or click the titles to view on Google Maps (smaller embedded maps are below each image — zoom in to get more detail).

Lenin 100 Years

Lenin – 100 Years









60 Years USSR

60 Years USSR

Lenin 100 Years

Lenin 100 Years

The Lost World of Communism

October 31st, 2011

The BBC’s documentary series from 2009, The Lost World of Communism, examined the legacy of communism twenty years after the fall of the Stalinist regimes of the Eastern Bloc, focusing on personal memories and descriptions of daily life. The three programmes of the series were each about a different country — East Germany, Czechoslovkia and Romania. Part 1, about East Germany, is below.

If you like it, please buy the DVD of the series, or the accompanying book from the BBC shop.