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.

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.