Six Places to Visit in Red Petrograd

St. Petersburg may boast many sights, such as the Hermitage Museum and its Rembrandts, the bustling stretch of Nevsky Prospect, the stunning theatres with ballet and opera, or the Orthodox Cathedrals. But a very different city beckons anyone who is interested in its red history. This was the place where the Russian Revolution first happened, the home of massive strikes, protests, the overthrow of the tsar, counter-revolutionary and revolutionary waves, especially the victory of the Bolsheviks in October 1917. What parts are ‘left’ of Red Petrograd, as it was known?

Finland Station

Arrive by train from Finland, or simply walk over the Neva River. Finlandskii, the Finland Station, will greet you. Or rather, Lenin’s statue will greet you – with his arm outstretched, addressing the gathered crowds as he did on his arrival at the station in April of 1917. He and other Bolsheviks had returned to Russia from exile in Switzerland in the ‘sealed train’. They were stunned by the sheer enthusiasm of the massive crowds, including many soldiers, who greeted them on arrival. But Lenin was to stun the crowds in return, calling on the people to complete the revolution that had merely begun in February of that year with the overthrow of Tsar Nicholas II. No one was persuaded at the time, but by October he had done so. The rest, as they say, is history. If you are prepared to search more diligently, the original train engine that hauled their carriages into the station may be found in a glass shed and the armoured car from which he delivered his speech is held in the Russian Museum.

Smolny

Slightly away from the centre of town lies the Smolny Institute, now the residence and offices of the governor of St. Petersburg (one of two cities in the Russian Federation, the other being Moscow). But Smolny’s claim to fame is that it was the buzzing nerve centre of the October Revolution. At that time in 1917, cars and trucks would race off and back, with urgent messages, leaflets, posters, Red Guards, equipment and what have you. Armoured cars stood guard, lights blared, people barely slept, keeping up a frenzied pace as the revolution unfolded.

Here too Lenin stands at the foot of the steps leading into the institute. He is poised in a gesture of urgent speech, clothes swirling about him, intense look on his face. Behind his back, in the institute itself, is a Lenin room, his office during the revolution. It still has many of the memorabilia from the time, but you need to make an appointment. But he faces the Square of the Proletarian Dictatorship, which stretches before Smolny. Walk down the wide avenue through its centre and you meet Engels, framed by the cupolas of the Smolny Cathedral. Engels looks across to Marx, who stands there in eternal reflection. Beneath them both children play with each other.

Aurora

On the Neva sits the cruiser Aurora at anchor, a ship more than a century old. On board you will find that it was the ship that came up the river in support of the revolution, firing the shot that was the signal for the storming of the Winter Palace, where the government (Provisional Assembly) was holed up. Its crew was run not by officers but by a soviet (council) of sailors, which made all of the decisions. The ship itself came from Kronstadt naval base, the radical core of the military that had gone over to the Bolsheviks (and a reminder that any successful revolution needs to win over the military). Wander the decks, stand by the gun that fired the famous shot, ponder how 570 men made a small ship their home, and encounter item after item that commemorates its role in the revolution. Flags, medals, plates, insignia, all with hammers and sickles aplenty.

Peter-Paul Fortress

Crossing the Neva you cannot miss the stunning gold spires of Peter-Paul fortress. It was a place of dread for revolutionaries before October 1917, for here they were incarcerated while awaiting sentence (usually to Siberia). With little warmth, dreadful food and over-crowding, it took a sturdy soul indeed to hold up under what was regarded as ‘normal’ punishment at the time. Siberia was a holiday by comparison. Every single one of the Bolsheviks spent time here, Lenin included.

But come the revolution and Peter-Paul became a vital point, for here was the all-important Petrograd military garrison. Would they come over to the revolution or not? They met and met again, discussing the question endlessly. Members from the communist movement would address them and so would opponents. In the end, some of the garrison went over, while the rest decided not to assist one way or the other. (At this decision, the Aurora, which has trained its guns on the fortress, swung them over to aim at the Winter Palace.) When the revolution was won, they all joined in to defend the new order.

Mars Field

Less known but well worth a visit is Mars Field, where political protests would first gather before marching out on the streets. In the centre of the vast open space is square a surrounded by a two-metre stone wall. An opening in the middle of each wall, three fir trees and a red flag in each corner, an eternal flame burning in the centre in memory of those who fell in the October Revolution and in the ‘civil’ war that followed for some four years – ‘civil’ since the White Armies were funded, equipped and assisted with troops by the international forces opposed to the new communist state.

Each entryway has poetic texts engraved in stone, using religiously inspired language of  martyrs, seeds sprouting from the fields of the fallen, the new world that was being created, the sheer moments of grandeur to which their grandchildren would bow down in awe. But who was the author of these texts? Look carefully and you will find the plaque that tells you they were penned by Anatoly Vasilyevich Lunacharsky. He was the ‘poet of the revolution’, but also a ‘God-builder’, playwright, polemicist, gifted orator, romantic, art and literary critic, prolific writer, expert on the history of religions, revolutionary, inspired first Commissar for Enlightenment in the new Soviet government, key to winning over the intelligentsia to the new project, and even the one who coined the term ‘cultural revolution’.  He was hailed by admirers throughout the new Russia as ‘a true apostle of enlightenment’.

Leningrad

St. Petersburg may have returned to its former name after 1989, but is Leningrad still to be found? Arrive by plane and look closely at the international airport code. LED it is, short for Leningrad. And go into the country outside the city; there you will find that it is called Leningrad Oblost (region). But the greatest surprise is to depart the port by ship. Not a passenger ferry or liner, which leaves from the other side of the port, but the container terminal Ro Ro. If you are lucky, a container ship carrying passengers may be about to set sail (I took a Finnlines ship, full of Russian truck drivers with massive guts and huge, bristling moustaches). If it is winter, or even on the edges of winter, the port and the Gulf of Finland in which it lies may be frozen over. So as the ship crunches its way out of the port, keep a watch for the headlands. There, in massive letters, welcoming and farewell sailors and their ships, is the word ЛЕНИНГРАД.

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Berlin, Between East and West

‘Berlin – oh, what a great city! I’d rather not be anywhere else’.

Mention Berlin to most people and they will respond in some such fashion.

It is the hip place to be. No matter whether you seek the ultimate shopping experience, a weekend party, a worthwhile property investment as part of your portfolio, or revel in its anti-capitalist reputation, everyone seems to be able to find a reason to go to Berlin. After all, Berlin is now harmoniously one. The monstrous wall – the symbol of the iron curtain, of communist repression – was pulled down more than two decades ago. And so Berlin has at last been able to recover its historical place as a major, global city, with something for everyone.

But live in Berlin for a while – as I did for some months in 2012-13 – and a different picture emerges. Almost every day you are bombarded in an ideological war that seeks to cast the former DDR, East Germany, as a grey, repressed place. The standard of living was low, there was no industry or initiative, people were not free, all they wanted to do was escape. Throughout the city, plaques and denkmale – points of interest – seek to peddle the official, western narrative, the narrative of the victors. Westerners continue to resent the east, spinning a narrative concerning the cost of integrating the east, resenting the tax that still applies for ‘redevelopment’, while rapidly attempting the gentrify to inner city that was part of east Berlin. In the east, they resent the way ‘reunification’ has been a one-way process, steam-rolling a Western, capitalist agenda on an east that has lost nearly everything. And they fume at the misrepresentations of the east. Why is it that photographs of the former DDR are nearly always in black and white, often grainy and grim and grey? Did the sun not shine occasionally? Did people not enjoy and make the most of life?

So I set myself to find out a little more about a city that is still very much struggling over these tensions between east and west.

Denigration

Three people, three conversations, each an instance of denigrating the east. One concerned dialects, another focussed on ideology, and third simply on discrimination.

Dialects

‘Were you born in Berlin?’ I asked her after she sat down next to me on the train to Berlin. Thrilled to find someone from Australia since she had lived there recently, she was keen to talk.

‘Yes’, she said.

‘So do you speak the Berlin dialect – Berlinerisch?’ I said.

‘Only when I am angry’, she replied. ‘My mother is from outside Berlin, so she made sure that I did not grow up speaking the dialect. But my father, he is from Neukölln and he speaks it well and truly’.

‘But why do you speak it only when angry’, I said.

‘It’s not a good dialect’, she said.

‘But why not?’ I said.

‘It’s a working class dialect’, she said. ‘In the west, it was very much the dialect of the lower class, while the upper class looked down on it’.

‘What about the east?’ I said.

‘There it was the official language, spoken by everyone’, she said.

‘Is that still the case?’ I said.

‘Of course, east and west no longer exist as such’, she said. ‘But these differences are still present’.

‘Yeah, I guess such deeper differences don’t disappear overnight’, I said. ‘But do you think that’s a result of the emphasis on workers in the communist east? The language of the lower class becomes the official language’.

‘I suppose so’, she said. ‘But now that difference, between a capitalist west and communist east, is overlaid by the difference between middle class and working class’.

‘So a double condemnation’, I said. ‘It marks one as either from the old east or from the working class, or both – at least in terms of the ruling class’.

‘Yes’, she said, laughing. ‘But it’s still not a good dialect’.

Ideology and Science

‘I could have left’, he said. ‘I could have gone to the west, but then I would not have seen my family for a long time’.

In a modest apartment we sit and talk late into the evening. He was a professor of theology at one of the universities, but grew up in the east.

‘Where did you study?’ I asked.

‘Leipzig’, he said.

‘And why?’ I asked.

‘It was an obvious development’, he said. ‘I was one of the few who showed an interest in Christianity and went to church. So it was assumed that I would study theology’.

‘Did you work in a parish?’ I said.

‘Yes, around my home in Saxony’, he said. ‘I had five small churches in villages. The congregations were small, but now they are even smaller. We would apply for money from the state to maintain or restore the churches. And then everyone in the village would join us to work on the church, for even if they didn’t go to church, the people felt that the church was very important for the village. People forget that about Germany. Even in the east, the church was so much part of the culture that is was inconceivable not to have one in a village’.

I mentioned a theologian from Amsterdam, who had been called as a minister to a Reformed parish in the DDR. The congregation was quite left-wing and wished to provide resources for a renewal of the DDR.

‘Yes, we had those in the theological faculties’, Stefan said. ‘They were the ideological ones, working for the state and for the Stasi, and not the “scientific” scholars. The state took two approaches. At Humboldt, they took over the faculty, ensuring appointments by those who were left-wing. But at Leipzig they took a different approach: every second appointment was made by the state, while the other one was made by the churches. So at least we had a few “scientific” scholars where I studied’.

‘But were not the church appointees also “ideological” in their own way?’ I asked.

‘Not at all’, he said. ‘They carried on “scientific” research. You need to understand that anyone who was in some way employed in the public service of East Germany, who cooperated with the government, who was an enthusiastic supporter of the DDR – they were all ideological. It was the same as working for the Stasi’.

‘Easterner’

‘I have just lost my court case’, she said. Dejected, she sat across from me at a table in a minuscule shop, imbibing the other beloved beverage of Germans – coffee.

‘You, a court case!’ I said. ‘What was that about?’

‘Discrimination’, she said.

‘Sexism?’ I asked. ‘Homophobia? Age?’

‘None of the above’, she said. ‘Political discrimination’.

‘Political discrimination?’ I said. ‘How so?’

‘I recently applied for a job’, she said. ‘But I did not get it’.

‘But that happens all the time’, I said.

‘Yes, but I was reasonably sure that I was the best qualified for the position’, she said. ‘So – against my nature – I wanted access to all the documents, you know, associated with the application and decision’.

‘Freedom of information?’ I said.

‘Exactly’, she said. ‘And you know what: scrawled across the front of my application in large red letters was the word “Ossi,” Easterner. It gets worse, since throughout my application every single one of my qualifications was circled in red’.

‘What in the hell for?’ I said.

‘I gained all of my qualifications in the DDR’, she said.

‘But what about the other applicants?’ I asked.

‘As I suspected’, she said. ‘Their qualifications and experience were quite inferior to mine’.

‘So you were denied the job simple because you were from Communist East Germany’, I said.

‘Exactly’, she said. ‘That’s why I took the case to court’.

‘That didn’t work either, by the sound of it’, I said.

‘No’, she said, ‘but I wanted to test the system. They have all sorts of anti-discrimination legislation: gender discrimination – tick’, she drew a large tick in the air. ‘Racial discrimination – tick; discrimination of the basis of sexual orientation – tick; age discrimination – tick; discrimination due to disability – tick …’

‘But not political discrimination’, I said. ‘Especially against former communist countries in Europe’.

‘No, that is acceptable’, she said. ‘It doesn’t count as discrimination, since my training was obviously tainted, “ideological,” and therefore not acceptable. It smacked me in the face how the very framework of the anti-discrimination legislation is determined by Western, capitalist assumptions. And you sure as hell can’t challenge these “natural” and “universal” categories.

Origins

With these conversations in mind, revisited from myriad angles, I decided to dig a little deeper into the history of east and west. Of course, that difference goes back much further, to the emergence of capitalism in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the small variations in economics and social realities (land shortages in the west, labour shortages in the east) that led to significantly distinct paths. Or perhaps it goes back to the split between eastern and western Christianity in the early centuries of the Common Era, along with the successive waves of peoples who invaded the east during the massive shifts in populations over the centuries. But I was particularly interested in the specific history that followed in the wake of the Second World War.

East and West

How and why were the two Germanies divided after the Second World War? Was it because of Stalin’s aggressive policy to put under the Soviet yoke as much of Europe as possible? Was it a defensive act on the part of the occupying powers in western Germany against communist world domination, all of which was embodied in the ‘Berlin blockade’ of 1948-49?

Not quite. Let us go back to the Potsdam and Yalta conferences, where Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt had agreed to three key items in post-war Europe:

  1. The four Ds: disarmament, demilitarisation, denazification and democratisation of Germany.
  2. Reparations, vital for the USSR’s recovery.
  3. German unity.

Stalin had even agreed to three occupation zones, with each symbolically represented in Berlin, despite it being deep in the Soviet zone. (How the French ever managed to get a toe in was beyond many, since they had embraced the Nazis a little too enthusiastically.) This was despite the fact that the USSR had exerted by far the major effort and lost the most in winning the war.

How did these three items fare after the end of the war?

  1. The four Ds. Only in the eastern, Soviet sector was there any significant progress on these items. The occupying forces in the western areas were too keen to rearm Germany, which already began by the early 1950s. They found ‘ex-’ Nazis willing participants in the anti-communist struggle, and they fostered pliant governments. Of course, Stalin too favoured a government sympathetic to the USSR’s concerns, but he believed this would happen through popular groundswell.
  2. Reparations. Soon enough, the occupying forces in the western zones reneged on the earlier agreements. The last thing the Anglo-Americans wanted was for significant resources, technology and money going to the USSR, so they stalled and blocked reparations from the west of Germany.
  3. Unity. In contrast to the standard narrative, Stalin favoured political unity, the Anglo-Americans did not – this is perfectly clear from the increasingly rancorous discussions over what was to be done with Germany. Whenever Stalin or Molotov or other Soviet representatives pushed for a unified German government, the Anglo-Americans countered by arguing that the economic situation had to be addressed first. In other words, they wanted to axe reparations and keep Germany divided.

Why? The Americans and British could see that communist parties were becoming extremely popular, not only in Germany but across Europe. For his part, Stalin hoped that this ‘new democratic’ wave would continue in a united Germany and lead to a government favourably disposed to the USSR. In March 1948, Stalin urged the east German communists to draft a constitution for the whole of Germany as a beginning point for discussion with western politicians. He was even prepared for a non-socialist government as long as it was ‘democratic and peace-loving’. Yet he was realistic enough to see that the Americans in particular would not agree since it would threaten their desire to control western Europe. On that point he was correct: the Anglo-Americans were certainly not interested in such a united Germany, for then it would risk falling out of their control. So they preferred a divided Germany.

Events unfolded. In June 1948, the UK, France and USA issued a communiqué stating their intention to form a western German state. A few days later a new currency was introduced in the western zones. By the end of June, Stalin ordered restrictions on access to West Berlin. Despite all the western propaganda concerning the ‘Berlin blockade’, it was not a blockade. Air access was permitted the whole time, for the purpose of supplies. Stalin’s reason for the restrictions was simple: he wanted to get the former allies back to the negotiating table. As soon as they agreed, the restrictions were lifted in May 1949.

Despite clear Soviet desires for unity, the fours Ds and reparations, the Anglo-Americans were simply buying time. By this time NATO had been formed. In September 1949, the Federal Republic of Germany was declared and the first formal meetings of government held. The east had no option but to respond, reluctantly, with its own state soon afterwards.

Representing the Wall

A little more than a decade later the wall went up, reinforcing the perception of vast divide. Its remains were not far from where I lived in the east. A few sections stand still, perhaps preserved from the wrecking balls at the last moment because someone in the west realised their tourist and propaganda potential. The Mauerpark, with its museum, plaques and tastefully sprinkled sculptures of wall-parts, or the ‘East-Side Gallery’, a collection of murals along the River Spree, or the tackiness of ‘Checkpoint Charlie’ – they all work a little too hard to assert that life in the east was grey and grim and deathly. The ‘wall of shame’, Willi Brandt – the West German chancellor – called it. For Winston Churchill it was the clearest marker of the ‘iron curtain’.

At first sight, the finality of the wall’s fall is marked by a double-row of bricks – cutting across roads, footpaths and intersections – that traces the path of the former wall. Bronze plaques appear regularly, at least through the city: ‘Berliner Mauer, 1961-1989’. Contained, interpreted, neatly packaged – all in order to present the perspective of the supposed ‘winners’. Yet at nearly every point along the former wall, one finds more ambiguous dimensions of a memory and a project that cannot so easily be contained in this fashion.

Soon enough, in my search some facts emerged from the mists of that narrative. First, the wall does not cut the city in ‘half’, between a communist east and a capitalist west. Rather, the centre of Berlin is mostly in the east, with the suburban rump of the western part left to the occupying American, British and French forces after the Second World War – a deal to which Stalin had graciously agreed even though the Red Army had captured Berlin.

Second, it actually circles the whole of west Berlin, covering some 155 kilometres that includes canals, lakes, villages, fields and vast forests. Far from the grainy pictures purveyed by the ‘official’ history of the wall, towards the south-west it skirts the holiday playground of the Wannsee. Here inland beaches where nudists still frolic in summer – for nudism was fostered in the DDR – sit cheek by jowl with extensive forests and their tracks. I can imagine the pleasure of the builders as they cut through the areas where mansions of the rich and famous are found, isolating some – in the western part – from the water and thereby their source of value, and turning others – on the eastern side and beside the water – into places for all to visit on holidays, subsidised by the government.

But who did the wall seek to stop? In western mythology it was the whole population of the DDR, desperate as they were to flee to the land flowing with milk and honey. According to this story, a good number had already left the DDR due to communist ‘repression’, so the wall was built to prevent more – neglecting the facts that most of the border had no wall at all and that many of those who did leave had connections with the Nazis. But let us look more closely and see precisely who was preventing whom from crossing over in the early days of the two Germanies.

Since I have already traced the origins of the two countries, let me begin in 1950, when Konrad Adenauer was chancellor of West Germany, with massive army bases manned by American, British, French and many other troops. In that year the Korean War was underway and rabid McCarthyism was dominating not only US politics but all those parts of the world now under its imperial sway. So Adenauer proposed a combined European force with a German contingent, which would be sent to attack the communists in the east. With hardly time to draw a breath, after the Second World War, West Germany was on the path to rearmament. Back home, the West German government announced a new decree concerning ‘Anti-Democratic Activities by Public Employees’ – a McCarthyist code for anyone who was vaguely left. Actually, anyone who was not openly and vocally anti-communist was subjected to defamation and discrimination. For example, the Roman Catholic writer, Reinhold Schneider, wrote a couple of articles urging public debate on rearmament and the need to come to an understanding with East Germany. Given the repression of public debate in the West, he published them in East Germany. After that ‘mistake’, most West German avenues for Schneider to express his views were closed to him. Newspapers, magazines and radio refused to deal with him.

Further, the police were deployed to prevent West Germans from making contact with the East. In 1950, the police arrested more than 10,000 young West Germans at the border. They were returning from a meeting in East Berlin and were held at the border for over 24 hours until they agreed to register their names and undergo a ‘health’ examination. The following year, in May, the police arrested another large group, again over 10,000, which was returning from a ‘Meeting on Germany’ in East Berlin. This group refused to register their names, so they were held under arrest for more than 48 hours. Another event was on the calendar later in the year, the ‘Third Youth and Student World Peace Festival’ (5-9 August). The West German government ordered the police to close the border, which was at this time open and through which free passage was possible. And in May of 1952, a member of the Free German Youth was shot dead by police during a banned protest in Essen.

So the movement was very much from the west to the east, especially by young people seeking a way forward for a united Germany. The western powers were less than keen on the idea, so they did their best to block such movement. Not a story that is told in the lead-up to the wall’s construction.

But what is the wall actually like? My initial impression of the sections left standing was, ‘How low it is and how thin!’ Western representations of the wall presented it as a massive fortification, towering to the heavens. But the reality was less than the political spin. It was barely two metres high and perhaps 20 cm thick, a rather flimsy construction really. I was therefore surprised at the foundations that had been too difficult to remove, that were now used as the basis for other constructions. In quiet corners I encountered unexpected slabs of concrete, a twisted piece of cement reinforcement, a run of foundation blocks that proved too much to remove. In some cases, the line of bricks and concrete at ground level merged into a newer wall that had been built – behind an apartment block, a warehouse on the outskirts, a house that needed some sturdy grounding. Solid foundations it would seem, which can still be used in order to build again. Perhaps that effort at socialism was not so fragile after all, its foundations running deeper than one might have expected.

Denazification (Entnazifizierung)?

The wall’s real name is as telling as it is little known: the Antifaschistischer Schutzwall, the Anti-Fascist Security Rampart. Was this merely hyperbole in the face of western aggression? Was it really a screen to keep east Germans out of the western rump of Berlin? Or was there some truth in the name? In order to find an answer, we need to revisit I some more detail one of the four D’s, denazification, since it has become a hot issue once again.

Spend a little time in Berlin and one of the standard lines you hear trotted out these days is that East Germany never went through a proper process of ‘denazification’ (Entnazifizierung), unlike the good people in the West. Instead, goes the narrative, nearly all the ex-Nazis in the east simply joined the new communist government, which explains the ‘totalitarian regime’, the dreaded Stasi and now the supposed burgeoning of neo-Nazi groups in the east.

The problem with this convenient story is that it ignores a rather inconvenient fact: communism was and is implacably anti-fascist. Stalin’s victory over Hitler’s Germany (for which the western front was a diversionary tactic of limited success) was explicitly celebrated as a victory over fascism. As soon as the war over, virtually all the Nazis in the east were arrested, banned from any involvement whatsoever and put in ‘re-education camps’. And in good old Stalinist fashion, a goodly number of them were granted an early funeral.

Meanwhile in the western occupation zones, the Americans made a show of denazification, with a massive censorship program that spent most of its time censoring criticism of the occupation. At the same time, the Americans shipped out most of the Third Reich’s leading nuclear scientists, ‘intelligence’ officers and whatnot, in order to bolster their anti-communist struggle. Not a few of them were awarded prestigious US medals. The British and French didn’t even bother with the show of denazification. They wanted people to run the civil service and since a significant number of the intelligentsia and the civil service had been Nazis not long before, they were simply reappointed. The British and French made some token arrests of a few elite members of the Nazi party.

But even the Americans gave up on their efforts by the early 1950s, under pressure from Chancellor Konrad Adenauer. In one measure after another, ‘former’ Nazis were released from prisons and pardoned. Those pardoned included Nazis responsible for dragging people off to prison, for shootings, executions, causing bodily injury and so on. Above all, ‘article 31’ removed restrictions on persons ‘incriminated’ with the Third Reich, since they had suffered so much since the end of the war. In an early example of anti-discrimination laws, they were given preferential treatment for government, educational, medical and many other positions. Thus, whenever a vacancy occurred, the committee was instructed to check with a list provided by the Ministry of the Interior to see whether someone with this past was available so that he or she could be given preferential treatment for the post ahead of better qualified candidates. Once in positions of influence, these ‘ex-’Nazis worked hard to ensure their buddies gained posts elsewhere. Why? The new enemy was communism and who better to fight the good fight against communism than unreconstructed fascists.

Benefits of ‘Reunification’

What is the German economic secret, especially since a capitalist West Germany overran the east? How has a ‘reunified’ Germany managed to become the economic powerhouse of a once again crumbling Europe? Is it due to the good, solid, hard-working Germans, putting their shoulder to the wheel of commerce? Is it because they have been prudent with their finances, not letting the welfare system get out of hand, unlike those lazy and profligate Mediterraneans? No, it is due to the internalisation of western and eastern Europe. Despite all the complaints from the western side, ‘reunification’ – a euphemism for a capitalist west overrunning the east – has been immensely beneficial for German big capital.

Unlike the increasingly racist countries in other parts of western Europe, Germany includes the cheap labour of eastern Europe and the exploitation of western Europe within itself. While others focus on racialised class conflict, with desperate and ugly efforts to keep out those dreadful Poles, Balts, Slovaks, Balkans, Romanians, Hungarians and Bulgarians who both take jobs and drain their welfare systems (no contradiction there, of course), Germany has much of it nicely within. This has enabled the suppression of wages for the whole of Germany for the last couple of decades. For example, the university system is in tatters, living on reputation alone. Public services are minimal, a non-computerised labyrinth that repels even the doughtiest. People work harder for less pay – apart from the unemployed owners of capital. As a result, the other countries of western and southern Europe find themselves outmanoeuvred, for German manufacturing is cheaper, wages are lower, profit margins higher.

Further, the German banks ensure that the capital flow from the rest of Europe is centripetal. Interest rates for the whole Eurozone suit Germany. And while they may tout their loans as benefitting all, prophesying dire warnings should a cash-strapped country exit the Eurozone, the reality is a little different. They need everyone stay in the Eurozone to ensure a steady run in their own direction.

In fact, I had my own experience of how the German approach to debt operates. At one point I purchased a ‘Bahn 25’ card: at 25 Euro it gives you 25% discount on all travel on the German rail network for three months. The German network is adequate, not brilliant, but the deal sounded attractive. Soon enough, the outlay seemed to be returned. Generous buggers, I thought, especially if you book early, get a 29 Euro ticket for anywhere and then an additional 25% off.

But … when the initial period of my Bahn 25 card ran out, I was sent a friendly looking notice about renewing it, now for a year. This time it was over 60 Euro. Since this one wasn’t worth my while, I simply ignored it. Before I knew it, a stern letter arrived in the mail. Pay up, it said. You have seven days or the debt collectors will call, with leather straps, pliers and chains, in order to extract that amount. A flurry of inquiries ascertained that I had automatically, without any acquiescence on my part or even notification, been signed up for the year-long contract and that I was now – without warning – indebted to the German state.

A small insight into the experiences of Greece, Spain, Portugal, Italy, Ireland, let alone all those countries in eastern Europe?

Resistance and Persistence

Is the story all grim? In the midst of the denigration and overdone efforts to assert the narrative of the victors, is there not any sign of resistance? What about ‘Ostalgie’, the various efforts to recall life in the DDR? Trabiworld, close by the Brandenburg Gate, offers Trabi Tours, parties, hire cars, even a Trabant limousine. Ostel, near Ostbahnhof, presents an ‘authentic’ DDR experience, should you wish to stay there overnight. The DDR museum gives a hands-on display of life as it was supposedly lived. And the DDR shop, which sells all manner of items from before 1989 – from egg cups to school textbooks, salt shakers to writing paper. Plenty of material, to be sure, but is it really a form of resistance? Not really, for it fits within the larger narrative: the DDR is carefully contained, sealed off and located in the past. Relics, kitsch, flotsam and jetsam – all that left from a failed experiment in communism. No resistance here.

But find resistance I did, in some unexpected places. Some are small glimpses, moments that one may pass over without noticing, signals of an approach to life that offers a better possibility. I think here of the cups, jugs and plates that turn up occasionally at the flea markets. Not any crockery, piled in the worn boxes hauled out of trucks every weekend, rain, snowstorm or shine. No, the ones marked ‘Made in the DDR’ are of a simple, functional design. Each milk jug is of the same dimensions as the other, with perhaps different decoration. And each fits neatly within the other so that they may be stacked compactly and efficiently. So too with the cups, plates, saucers, bowls and so on. The same dimensions, the same curve, the same size. So what is so spectacular about that? In the false ideology of choice under capitalism, one finds all manner of designs and shapes, most of them useless, all of them faux variations on what should be a simple, functional item. Simplicity, function, efficiency, singularity – when you have the right item, why change it?

Second is the Ampelmann, the little traffic light man. The West tried to abolish this one, but the innovative design from Karl Peglau, the traffic psychologist, has become more popular than ever. Introduced in 1961, the Ampelmännchen became extremely popular in education, children’s stories, television and so on. Soon they were joined by the Ampelfrau, sometimes sitting on a bicycle at special crossings. After a failed effort by the West to remove the Ampelmännchen and enforce their own images, the Ampelmann and Ampelfrau had the last laugh, since now they even adorn western parts of the city and parts of the rest of Germany. As Peglau put it: ‘It is presumably their special, almost indescribable aura of human snugness and warmth, when humans are comfortably touched by this traffic symbol figure and find a piece of honest historical identification’.

Third is the truly stunning ‘Stalinbauten’ or Stalin baroque of Karl-Marx Allee. At once grand and very human, elaborate and restrained, these are true examples of the availability of decent accommodation for workers. After the victory of the Second World War, Stalin was handed a gift – a ruined street (previously called Große Frankfurter Straße). His response was to launch an architectural competition for the construction of what would come to be called ‘Europe’s last great street’ (Aldo Rossi). The result was something that draws me back again and again. Stone and architectural tile, metalwork and high quality timber, frescoes and grand stairways, facing facades with traditional Berlin motifs, open spaces and theatres, restaurants and shops, matching towers at either end (Frankfurter Tor and Strausberger Platz) – all of it constructed a distinct sense of proportion that is very welcoming indeed. Everywhere are opening and walkways, leading out to back streets that contain yet more award-winning examples. Apart from celebrating the boulevard, or allee, itself, the Stalinbauten also provides wide green spaces in squares and fields (although one or two of these have been filled in by dolts since). Completed in 1962 and running more than two kilometres along (and back) from Karl-Marx Allee, it became one of the models for Stalin Baroque or socialist classicism – works of architecture that still stand and are acknowledged from east Germany to Siberia.

Fourth, there is nudism. Nudism? Like Lenin and many of the leading Bolsheviks, the East Germans were and remain much more enthusiastic about nudism, or FKK (Freikoerperkultur). Stemming from the naturalist movement in the 19th century, the communists were much more advanced on this score and fostered the tradition. Indeed, they were more relaxed about bodies and sexuality more generally, so much so that the first sex change took place in the DDR, paid for by the state. Probably the best area for nudism still is the Mecklenberg Lake District, particularly the beautiful Müritz National Park. Here one engages in nude camping and hiking, for there are nude beaches and holiday places for the whole family. But one also continues to find nude trains and airlines. My love is nude cycling, not merely since it means you need carry less with you. The trick, as I have found, is not to stand up in the pedals too often, especially when people are behind you.

Finally, the memory and practice of communism still runs deep. Many in the DDR supported it to the end. All the activity during the ‘Wende’ (turn) of the 1980s indicates as much – by groups in the new civic movements (Bürgerbewegungen: Neues Forum, Demokratischer Aufbruch), the Church and the sections of the government working for renewal. They produced a manifesto, For Our Country (Für unser Land), which was signed by no less than 1,167,048 signatures. And it was one effort among many, seeking to renew the socialist project from within.

What is that project? I mean not an ossified government that faced the inevitable difficulties of maintaining legitimacy, that made many mistakes such as restricting travel by its citizens. I mean the assumption of communality, that we are all – especially workers – one. I mean the assumption that each gives according to ability and to each is given according to need. I mean the assumption that whenever oppression and exploitation arise, people will desire liberation. And I mean that a far better way to live is not to produce much, but to desire little. It assumes a simple life shared by all, without the obscene acquisition of useless wealth.

On Visiting a Museum to the ‘Victims’ of Communism

I had come to Transylvania for the last time, for life was calling me to other realms. Part of this visit entailed a return to one of the museums nearby dedicated to the ‘victims’ of communism. I had been taken here some years before, so this was my second visit.

The museum is located in a former prison that had once been a monastery. It is laid out in white paint, with pictures, cells, sculptures, and a distinct story, concerning both the master narrative of the evils of communism and various micro-narratives that are meant to fit within the larger whole. One may spend a few minutes or a few hours perusing the neat and well-designed display. Who could not be swayed by such a depiction, of the misery experienced by those who had simply, for the sake of ‘freedom’ and ‘democracy’, opposed the communist ‘regime’ in Romania?

On the first occasion, I was somewhat confronted by it all, wondering whether such treatment of enemies of the state, aided and abetted by foreign powers, should have so. Did it not breed more resentment and resistance? Would it not have been wiser to follow a gentler, but no less firm path?

However, on the first occasion I had noticed a few anomalies in the smooth narrative. To begin with, those who had actually died in the prison were of reasonably advanced age, between their late sixties and into their eighties. Reading between the lines, one gained a sense that they had died of natural causes. And I could not help notice that there was a reasonable number of former politicians (from before 1947), military leaders and church figures. Common people, such as workers and farmers, were distinctly under-represented. How to make sense of all this?

Not until the second visit some five years later did the pieces begin to fall into place. Four features stood out in stark relief. To begin with, the museum is clearly modelled on the style of a Holocaust Museum, with portrait walls of those imprisoned, brief biographies, copies of hand-written materials, and individual cell experiences. One could stand before a touch-screen and select an individual from the picture and read very briefly about his or her experiences. One could go outside and pause for thought among the sculptures and trees of the remembrance garden. One could be brought up-to-date on the destruction of cultural artefacts (actually, only a cathedral) by the communists. Indeed, one could enter one cell and find a display of communist-era activities, such as newspapers, posters, young pioneer clothes and so on.

The intended effect was what might be called the reductio ad Hitlerum. This became clear when I overheard a discussion outside the museum. Three foreign visitors had just emerged from viewing the display, and one of them commented that it reminded him of Nazi Germany and the museums they had visited there. Another observed that they should go and see the graveyard where the victims had been executed and buried. In other words, the communist ‘regime’ was no different from the fascists.

As I stood by, I recalled the many names I had encountered inside, names of those who were released after two, three or five years. Indeed, the majority of those imprisoned had been released at some time (unless they died of age or illness). It was difficult to see how they could also have been executed and buried. Yet, this is part of the reductio ad Hitlerum, in which the fundamental difference between fascist concentration camps and communist prisons is conveniently glossed over. For the fascists, the camp was the first step to death for the majority of those who were irredeemable, whether for political (communist) or racial reasons (Jews and gypsies). For the communists, imprisonment was for the purpose of re-education and rehabilitation. No matter how much the process may have failed to live up to this motivation, it was reflected in the way many were released.

Perhaps more telling was the way fascism itself was airbrushed out of the representations and narrative. For example, the communist revolution in Romania encountered significant opposition from fascist forces, especially in the southeast near Bucharest. Romanian troops had fought with the Wehrmacht on the eastern front, many generals felt at home among the Nazis, as did politicians during the second world war. Yet all of these simply became the part of the ‘resistance’ to communism, a resistance that was recast as a desire for ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom’. After all, fascists do make the best anti-communists.

And this brings me back to the former detainees of this monastery-cum-prison. Most, although not all, were what would count as the old ruling class: ancient nobles, landlords, political leaders, generals, priests, and bourgeoisie. They would have been pointedly disgruntled at losing their assumed power under the barbarian workers and common people. Indeed, the period of communism was too short in Romania, and the communists made too many mistakes – such as prisons like this – in their attempt to overcome entrenched assumptions about class privilege. In many respects, this old ruling class is now back in power in Romania, feeling the world is once again as it should be, that Romanian society is ordered for their benefit. And they are the ones who tell the story and build museums like this one.

Only in China

Is it still possible to have a unique experience, one that you cannot have anywhere else? Or has the world become thoroughly homogenised? Sometimes it seems so. Wherever you go, it is the same experience, over and over again. A European city centre, a restored historical village, a hotel room, a museum, food, coffee, beer – in one place after another they seem eerily the same. Should tourism begin on Mars, it too would have the same experience.

I beg to differ. It is the unexpected moments that are unique, moments that can easily pass you by in the myriad events of everyday. To see them, you need a peripheral vision, a seeing out of the corner of your eye; or, as I prefer, a relaxing of the shoulders, a slowing of the breath and an easing of the mind so that you can catch them before they pass.

Mao’s Statue

We had been talking about a possible trip to Suzhou, a little up the road from Shanghai. She was keen to show me around the fabled town, with its canals and boats and cuisine. Indeed, beautiful girls come from Suzhou … or so goes one of the sayings.

As a neophyte to matters Chinese, I asked: ‘what time suits you best?’

‘How about Friday morning?’ She said.

‘Excellent’, I said. ‘Where shall we meet?’

‘I’ll meet you by Mao’s statue – the big white one at the front gates – at 9.00 am’. She said it as though it was the normal suggestion in the world.

Student party meeting

Over a simple lunch of long noodles, two students and I sat talking. Spring it was, after the first rains of spring in a cool Beijing. They had wanted to take me to a kosher dining hall, provided for the Chinese Muslim students. It had the reputation for good quality clean food. We had lined up to order our dishes and I tried to read the menu on the wall above. Some characters I could recognise, some not. They translated where necessary while we waited our turn. Soon enough, the dishes were ready, announced on the loudspeaker. We picked up our bowls, found some seats and slurped away.

The dapper student looked at his watch and made to move.

‘Excuse me’, he said. ‘I need to go to a student party’.

‘A party’, I said, thinking it was one of the regular student parties that happened with extraordinary frequency. ‘At lunchtime?’

They laughed.

‘No’, he said. ‘It’s the student branch party meeting. I am the secretary’.

It hit me: ‘Are you a member of the student branch of the communist party?’ He had not struck me as a typical member, but then what is a typical party member?

He smiled. ‘Yes, and I am the secretary, so I need to be at the meeting’.

Young Pioneers

Intrigued, I began to ask students about party membership. At an afternoon gathering some weeks later, we discussed reasons for joining the party. Some said it was for a better job, others because a grandparent was a member and had influenced them deeply, and others because they felt they could contribute on their own small way to the collective good.

‘What about young pioneers?’ I asked.

‘We have that in the schools’, a young woman said. ‘It is a mark of honour to be invited to join the young pioneers. It may be for academic achievement or for sport or even for some service’.

‘Were any of you members?’ I asked.

Nearly all of them nodded.

‘Do you have young pioneers in your country?’ Said the young woman.

Of course, every country should have such an organisation.

Foot Binding

A slightly older student, of about 30, had finally realised her dream to come to Australia and spend a year of study here. She spent a good deal of the time travelling and a little less on her study.

In one of our many discussions, she said:

‘When I was six years old, my grandmother said to me that I should have my feet bound, just like her. I was really frightened and lay awake at night’.

‘She must have been born before the communist revolution’, I said.

‘Yes’, she said. ‘But she was very traditional in her attitudes’.

I had thought that such a practice had been abolished with the communist revolutionary victory of 1949. Perhaps not in the minds of some.

She continued: ‘During the revolutionary war, women used to fight in the Red Army. They would have natural feet and cut their hair. When one of them was captured by the Guomindang nationalist forces, she would be shot immediately. They assumed that if she had natural feet, she was a communist. The practice of foot-binding goes back to the Qing emperors. Since they were Manchu nationality, they made the majority Han women bind their feet as a sign of subjection – or at least those of the upper class. It became a custom.’

‘Did your grandmother ever make moves to bind your feet?’ I asked.

‘No’, she said. ‘But it really frightened me, since children are supposed to show deep respect for grandparents’.

That’s Socialism

Another young woman and I were walking past a student dormitory, where washing hung in the windows.

‘How many students share a dormitory?’ I asked.

‘Six to eight for undergraduates’, she said. ‘Four for masters and two for doctoral students’.

‘Does anyone have a single room?’ I asked.

She laughed. ‘No, we all share’.

A little later we had eaten in a dining hall and were on our way out.

‘I usually eat there’, she said. ‘The food is cheap but freshly cooked’

‘Who else eats in a dining hall?’ I asked.

‘Everyone’, she said. ‘Students, professors, gardeners, maintenance workers …’.

She paused for a moment and said: ‘That may be socialism! I guess we have it in ways we do not realise’.

The Politics of Script

‘If we are unable to read the script, then we are unable to read’. So it is said concerning the ‘traditional’ Chinese script. The saying is really a lament concerning the most recent process of simplification of the script. Of course, it was Mao Zedong and others who instigated this change, which unfolded over half a century from the 1930s to the script used by the vast majority of Chinese, in the People’s Republic and around the globe.

But why lament the process of simplifying the script? For some, the very nature of the script has become a marker of an intellectual and scriptural tradition of more than three millennia. For others, a script that can be used by so many diverse languages and dialects acts as a potent sense of unity. So to simplify the script is seen by these people as an attack on the tradition and on the unity of China. However, the script has also been a symbol of class, or better, caste. The ability to read and write belonged to the select few in the imperial administration, especially those who had undergone the arduous examination system for entry and promotion into that service. The result was that no more than ten per cent of the population as a whole were able to use this formidable and complex script. The remaining ninety per cent – peasants – had no hope of learning it and were actively prevented from using it. Writing was not only a means of power, as Lévi-Strauss would have it, but also of caste.

Compare, for instance, the traditional character for ‘horse’ (馬) with the simplified version (马), or indeed the second character in ‘university’ (學 versus 学).

The communist challenge to the traditional script was therefore a challenge to the power of that scribal ruling class. It was, of course, not simply a challenge to the script. The primary motivation was to empower the peasants, not merely through a new socio-economic system and army training, but also through the ability to read and write. The simplification of the script was therefore a means to this empowerment. The first steps were taken back in the 1930s, in the Yan’an Soviet (where the Red Army had ended the Long March). In the makeshift schools established in huts, cave-houses, and in the open, peasants were taught to read and write in large numbers. To ease the process, a simplified script along with the pinyin (Romanised) system was developed along the lines proposed by Qian Xuantong. The success of the project ensured that the new and easier script would eventually become national policy, a policy that continues today with the latest List of Commonly Used Standardized Characters published in June, 2013. Needless to say, the initial act of simplifying the script undermined the very claim to superiority by the intellectuals who had preserved the traditional script for themselves.

In this respect, some of these intellectuals have never forgiven Mao for what he did. Their response has been to establish a common assumption that the simplified script was a dumbing down – for peasants – of China’s literary and cultural heritage. They also managed to secure the astonishing assumption that Taiwan is more traditional than the mainland. Any visitor to Taiwan can see that it is deeply Americanised and more pervasively capitalised than the mainland. ‘Traditional’ is certainly not a word that comes to mind easily, if at all. Yet, many on the mainland insist it is more traditional. Why? It is simply because Taiwan has not broken with the traditional script. Forget the fact that the Guomintang kept that script as an explicitly elitist, anti-communist measure once it had escaped to Taiwan. Indeed, forget the fact that the process of simplification has itself gone through waves from the time of the Qin dynasty of the late third century BCE, with perhaps the most significant effort during the May Fourth Movement after 1919.

In light of all this, it becomes a little easier to understand the Cultural Revolution. ‘To the countryside’ was the slogan. The intellectuals accustomed to their caste superiority, to keeping the cogs of bureaucracy running, to keeping the peasants ignorant, were now told to learn from the peasants. The intellectuals were not, of course, to give up being intellectuals, but to learn a new way of being so. And a crucial part of that process was to use the simplified script. It is a useful reminder of the depth of Mao’s challenge to the vested interests of intellectuals that he also pondered whether to abolish the script entirely and simply use the Romanised pinyin system. Perhaps he took to heart Lu Xun’s statement, ‘If Chinese characters are not destroyed, then China will die’.

I, for one, am grateful for the simplification. Given that it is a little more difficult to learn a new language as one gets older, and given that Chinese is a challenge at the best of times, the process of learning is somewhat easier with the new script. That is not to say it easy in itself, but I am thankful indeed that I do not need to learn the traditional script.

The Villages of Hebei

2014 April 239a

‘Qing jin’, she says. ‘Come in’.

Her wind-browned face opens up with a smile and crinkles in the corners of her eyes as she shows me the kitchen. A large wok-shaped bowl sits in a low brick platform. Beneath it the fire of corn stalks is about to be lit to cook the midday meal. Nearby is a simple cutting board propped upon an up-ended barrel; a knife and some fresh green onions lie upon it.

‘Water?’ I wonder. She points outside to the pump, which brings water up from the well. Immediately, she hands me a bowl of water to taste. My eyes light up! Ah, the freshest and sweetest water I have sipped in a long time, especially since I have been living in Beijing for a few months.

2014 April 202a

But now I am not in Beijing. I am in the mountains of Hebei province, visiting some small villages. A visit such as this is not really possible for a foreigner travelling on his or her own. In fact, it is difficult even for Chinese people from other parts of this vast country. Dialect is the key, for when locals hear someone speaking their own tongue, they automatically trust them and invite them into their simple homes. Fortunately, I have a local man, along with a couple of his friends, to show me around. Only in this way can we be invited into people’s homes, sit around and talk, share some food and a smoke or two.

Keeping It Simple

Simplicity – this is the key to village life hereabouts, some of them having as few as half a dozen families. As our car pulls up in the narrow laneway of the first village, the local boy (our driver) blasts his horn a few times to let people know we have arrived. Out of the house comes his sister, with the wonderful smiling face and wise, inquisitive eyes. A couple of her children are there too, as well as her mother. After many ‘nihaos’ and shaking of hands, I am invited inside. I duck and pass beneath the lintel of the double wooden gate, with its two fierce demon posters to keep the evil spirits away. All around me are vegetable gardens with new spring crops poking through the soil – the ubiquitous onion family of these parts, joined by some chillies and bitter cucumbers. I pause beside a large barrow, with its handbrake to keep a heavy load from rolling away down a slope (and in the mountains, level ground is scarce). Before I know it, I am persuaded to push the barrow across the yard, posing in ridiculous positions for the inevitable photos. The barrow rolls to a stop beside a wooden lid on the ground and our local boy lifts the lid and beckons me down, down into the depths of an underground storage facility for vegetables during the winter (where they do not freeze).

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As soon as I have squeezed out of the narrow hole in the ground – while pondering the diminutive size of the human beings for whom the hole was constructed – I am led inside, into the kitchen with its cooking stove and peanut-shaped heater. Here are some well-worn stools, for around the heater people sit during the bitter winters, warming themselves, smoking, talking. I walk through to the living area, which doubles up as the first bedroom. Again, simplicity strikes me: a worn lounge, a large bed, a single dressing table resting against the wall, in which all of the family’s clothes are kept. Scanning the plastered walls covered with old print as wall paper, my eyes light up.

‘Xi Jiping!’ I say.

All laugh and nod at the colourful poster of President Xi Jiping and his wife.

But the second and more dedicated bedroom is the highlight, into which we walk from the living space. Here the bed is a large wooden structure with a colourful cover and blankest neatly folded in the corner. Hard beds are simply the norm – good for one’s back I am told repeatedly. To eat, one sits on the bed cross-legged (which I do with delight), with a very low table lifted into place for the bowls of food.

Looking up, I cry out again: ‘Chairman Mao!’

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On the wall is a large poster of Chairman Mao sitting in his wicker chair, cigarette in hand and the mountains of Hunan in the background. What better way to sleep than with the chairman watching over you?

By now others have turned up, hearing quickly of the laowai visiting the village. More ‘nihaos’ and requests for the photographs follow, while the master of the house crouches down to prepare a snack for me. I join her, enjoying the company. She hands me some fresh shallots, freshly picked from the garden. I pass a few around, and munch gleefully on the remainder. Some berries follow, which I have never eaten before. And then she sits in the sun and lights a cigarette. My quizzical look evinces the explanation that women in the countryside smoke more, for they do not have the inhibitions of city girls.

 

As we talk, I am reminded of a comment from Marshall Sahlins: ‘There are after all two roads to satisfaction, to reducing the gap between means and ends: producing much or desiring little’. Clearly, these people desire little. Even their clothes are few and worn for days, if not weeks at a time. The sheer simplicity of their lives is immensely appealing, an impression that is reinforced by a few other homes. One has only two rooms, a kitchen and a bedroom-living room. Up on the hill of a village with only five families, the home is close to the goat herd, with which I mingle as they thrust their mouths into my hands for the corn I hold. Inside the home, I admire the view from the front door, while their younger son comes up beside me and pisses out of the door onto the slope below. In yet another small village, another woman with an immensely pleasant face invites us into her home.

04

No matter that we – including a foreigner – have emerged from the trees on foot as she is working in a field with her twin daughters. She welcomes us in and calls her daughters to say hello in English – which they do, proudly. Here a mule or two are still used for traction, and a heavy stone hand-mill stands in the midst of the village for hulling grain. Here too the water is fresh from a well, but we must drink it all and not waste it, for otherwise the local dragon will be angry as such wastage.

As we leave she returns to the field with her daughters, engaging in the age-old practices of manual agriculture. An almost fossilised man leading a mule passes us by.

07

I ask: how is the absence of private property managed? I am told that every ten years or so, the land to be cultivated is reallocated among the villagers depending on family needs and abilities. Now this is an ancient practice, one that goes back millennia: the social determination of production, in which communal concerns are paramount. Private property in land is simply useless in such an environment, apart from the fact that it negates speculation in land.

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The Teacher

In each village, our presence draws out others, who gather not so much to gape at the foreigner, but to welcome us all. Unlike the provincial cities and towns, a foreigner seems no big deal. One of those who says hello is the local teacher in charge of the school. Neatly dressed in white shirt and pants, he invites me to come and look at his school.

A short walk along the dirt road reveals a pair of high gates, behind which are two white-washed buildings with a playground in between. With a massive bunch of keys, the teacher opens one colourful and well-ordered room after another. He shows me walls and blackboards full of the careful examples of how to write Chinese characters, textbooks with stories of the Long March, and – with much pride – the new computer room. But my delight is the teacher’s office, festooned with images of Gorki and Lu Xun … and Engels. Beneath the bearded Engels he stands for a moment, and I manage to capture the moment.

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An even greater delight is the final moment of my visit. In my honour, he pulls the Chinese flag, all red with its stars in the corner. I hold the flag as he raises it aloft on the flagpole, where it unfurls its announcement to the rest of the village.

Socialist the village may be, but it is also traditional. As I pass outside the school gates, I notice a small structure to our right.

‘Is that a shrine’, I ask while walking towards it.

‘Yes,’ says my translator. ‘Here we pray to the local gods’.

‘For what?’ I say.

‘Oh, for rain’, she says. ‘And for good crops’.

The red flag of the People’s Republic flutters close by.

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Kinship

My access to the villages, to the school, inside people’s homes, and even into the intimacy of conversation in the simplicity of life is predicated on the fact that we have a local boy with us. He may live in the big smoke (a term that takes on whole new meaning in Beijing), but his home is still here. One of the extended family homes is his, and his sisters and brothers are all about. The homes – bar one – that we visit are of his family. A sister here, a brother there, while sons and daughters and parents and grandparent are always present, let alone uncles, aunts, cousins ….

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I would still be welcome if this were not the case, but the intimate closeness would not be felt. No embarrassment that a foreigner may have to use a toilet that is little more than a hole in the ground (with a shed), or that he may have to sit on a lounge that has seen far better days. Instead, they simply assume: this is our life, take us as we are, since we take you as you are.

Knowing the strength of kinship structures in theory is all very well, in all it benefits and drawbacks. But experiencing it in the way I do is another matter entirely. It strikes me one evening as we sit around a dinner table, eating local food of goat and fresh vegetables, mostly of the onion family. You wrap the various items in a large lettuce leaf, make a roll of sorts, and daub it liberally with a pungent sauce. And you drink a local and fiery brew. As the spirited toasts begin, I offer a few Australian expressions, repeating them so my hosts learn the specific feel of the drawn-out vowels and their intonations.

‘What is the word for one’s closest friend?’ I am asked.

‘Maaaaaate’, I say, with a drop and then slow rise in inflection as the vowel passes through its various modulations. ‘Actually, it’s a “good maaaaaate,” or “good on’ya maaate”’.

We practice and practice again until they have mastered the peculiarities of Australian dialects.

‘What about Chinese?’ I ask.

‘Bi xuuuuuuuuuude!’ Says our local boy, with a high a sustained ‘uuuu’.

In my turn I practice until I come close.

‘But what does it mean?’ I ask.

‘It’s what you say to your gemener’, he says. ‘Your closest brother. From now on, you are my gemener’.

 

2014 April 212a

Dining Hall in China

Puffed and peaked hats weave around one another. At times, they dip in concentration over a wok or large saucepan; at others they sway as the wearer lugs a heavy pot from stove to bench; at yet other times they lean towards one another as they work on the same dish. I see them from my window at first light, preparing for a breakfast that begins at 6.30 am.

Is this some trendy café or restaurant preparing signature dishes for well-heeled clientele? Are the chefs stoned and chain-smokers, as is the case so often in other countries? No and no. I am looking upon one of many dining halls at a school or university campus in China. And these are hard-working chefs preparing food for the masses, so there is little time to indulge in the past-times of chefs in other places. Needless to say, such preparation requires not one or two chefs, but fifty or more, decked all in white.

Soon enough the masses arrive: hundreds upon hundreds of students and staff for the first meal of the day. My empty stomach draws me to the fining hall too, where I join the throng. Despite the milling crowd, everyone makes way for one another. I grab a simple stainless steel platter with indentations for different types of food. Chopsticks complete the collection. What will I eat? Long, fried breakfast buns to dip in warm soymilk? Noodles and freshly cooked vegetables? Fried dumplings or Chinese breakfast pancakes? Rice porridge with red bean paste? Flat cakes filled with green vegetables and egg? The possibilities are almost endless, but I opt for the soymilk, a long bun and the flat cakes – for less than a dollar (in comparison).

Sitting at a table with three others (for sharing space is the norm), I pause to look out across the vast dining hall. I am surrounded on all sides by heads of straight black hair bent over their meals. Chopsticks blur, slurps are loud, talk is subdued during the more important task of eating. I estimate about three hundred people as my breakfast companions – and this is only for the fifteen minutes or so that it takes for me to eat my own morning meal. Multiply that number for the full breakfast period, for the two and half hours from 6.30 to 9.00 am. Multiply again for lunch and then dinner, each of the same length of time. And multiply again for the dozen or so dining halls on this campus, let alone the sixty campuses across Beijing.

As I look out I ponder whether this is the practical response to a massive population. Perhaps it is of the same ilk as the practice of half a dozen students sharing the same dormitory room for their undergraduate years. The same may apply to sleeping berths on a train, which are also shared with many others. I wonder whether those practical issues are overlaid with the history of socialism in this country. To be sure, one can find plenty of relatively expensive restaurants in town. But even those are less patronised now as the president (Xi Jiping) invokes Mao’s call for party cadres and many other to continue to live a simple life. So in the dining halls, students, staff, children of staff, even visitors may be found. Everyone eats in the sample simple manner – freshly cooked food costing next to nothing.

What about those chefs with their puffy hats? What do they do when the meal time is finally over? On one occasion I arrive a little late for a meal, when students and staff have departed. The dining hall is full of white hats, all of them bent over their own bowls. A moment to eat after the hard work, to chat and rest. Not for long, however, since preparation for the next meal time soon begins. It starts in a little over an hour.