Prior to its removal, the statue had a prominent place in a city park beside Peace Avenue:
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?
The entire recording archives of Alan Lomax went online recently. An ethnomusicologist, Lomax travelled the length and breadth of America recording music that we might call ‘folk’, ‘traditional’, or other similar labels. He was one of those rare obsessive heroes who believed that his mission to preserve changing and dying traditions was an important public good, and that his field recordings should be owned by all of us.
Not only did he travel across the United States, he travelled the world, and in 1964 he visited the Soviet Union to attend the International Anthropological and Ethnological Congress in Moscow. While there, ethnomusicologist Anna Rudneva helped Lomax access Soviet archives in Leningrad and Moscow, where he made copies of recordings from various Soviet nationalities and ethnic groups. He brought these recordings back and added them to his incredible collection, now public property. It’s a shame he didn’t get to travel to many of regions he archived, but perhaps the Cold War was so frosty that the KGB might have suspected he was on a spy mission.
Still, it probably stands as an interesting example of US-USSR co-operation during the Cold War. A sharing of cultural resources across metaphorical and literal walls in the name of common understanding.
(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.
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 is a re-post of exactly the same video which was posted here this day last year: the footage, from Russian state TV, of the lowering of the last flag of the USSR, on the roof of the Kremlin, on December 26th, 1991 — twenty years ago today.
On that day, the post-soviet era started, and the USSR began to slide into history. The front page of the New York Times looked like this:
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’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.
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.
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.
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.