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.

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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.

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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.

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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’.

 

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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.

The Revelations of Belarus

Belarus? Is that a real country? Or so I was asked on more than one occasion after a recent visit.

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Some countries are simply off the radar, slipping in between the cracks of larger neighbours. Belarus is one of those places, a land-locked country that you might transit on an overland journey between Russia and Poland. Traditionally part of Russia’s sphere of influence, it was until not so long ago the western border of the USSR. But I was intrigued, for I had heard rumours and whispers that the place was worth some time. So we boarded a slow train from Moscow to Minsk, one of those old, solid affairs that had been constructed during the soviet era. For comfort and decent, sturdy workmanship, it left any train of Western Europe for dead. It gave every sign that it would have many years of service yet.

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As we rocked along at a steady pace, I wondered: would Belarus be in the dishevelled state of so many places in Eastern Europe after 1989? Would there be crumbling facades, falling bricks and abandoned factories? Would there be carts hauled by horses, since fuel cost so much? Would there be rampant unemployment, with people roughing it and begging for morsels? And what about shepherds with flocks of sheep and goats in the re-agriculturalisation that happened in Eastern Europe, as a rough and brutal capitalism was imposed upon them as punishment? In short, would we witness yet more ruinous results of almost 25 years of ‘shock therapy’, wrought with vicious glee by a Western Europe keen to punish the east for daring to entertain communism?

I was to be completely surprised by Belarus at almost every turn.

The first was the border, or rather the lack of one between Russia and Belarus. Given the elaborate and expensive process of obtaining a Belarusian visa – with lengthy contracts, couriers to London (only a few places have embassies), required pre-booking of travel and hotels – I anticipated nothing less than x-rays and internal cavity searches upon arriving at the border. But no, we simply trundled on, with no change in the rolling landscape. I was later to learn that Belarus, under the leadership of the formidable Lukashenko, and Russia had agreed to open borders between the two countries.

2013 September 248 (Minsk 18 09 13)a

The second surprise was Minsk. In the post-communist era of Eastern Europe, I had become used to run-down towns, where there is a real risk that a brick will fall on your head at any moment. Broken footpaths, peeling paint, cracked and sad rendering on buildings, worn cars – these and more have become so common over the last two decades. To be sure, an occasional shiny new structure rises from the semi-ruins, or perhaps an older structure has been restored, but only through the ill-gotten funds of some oligarch, who had grasped the collectively-owned assets during the business-gang warfare of the 1990s. Not Minsk. Here was a city that had been largely rebuilt after the Second World War, during which it was often at the battle front or military headquarters. Eighty per cent of the city had been destroyed, so much of it was rebuilt when Belarus was a member of the Soviet Union. Above all, the town struck us as very well-maintained indeed. Elegantly simple apartment blocks were tidy and painted, roads newly-paved, public transport efficient and frequent, shops full of goods and people, footpaths swept and smooth. People may not be rich, but they are well-fed, well-dressed, and helpful to an almost embarrassing excess for foreigners who could barely put a sentence together in the language (thanks especially to the two university students, who dropped everything to help us buy train tickets at the last minute). The feel of the place was clean, open, and safe. How could this be? We wondered.

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Third, we were virtually the only foreign travellers in town. To be sure, Hotel Sputnik did a lively trade, with people coming and going. But they were mostly Belarusians, in town for this purpose and that. We encountered one or two Chinese men downstairs at the Hotel Sputnik – they were festooned with cameras and backpacks, and the myriad pockets of their khaki vests were stuffed with every imaginable item, as well as a few beyond one’s imagination. But their time for sight-seeing was soon to pass, for the next day they were met by a couple of official looking people and they went off to do what business was awaiting them. As for us, we had no such official duties, so we explored the city.

And that led to our fourth surprise: the extensive Stalinist architecture. Admittedly, we had heard rumours about these Stalin Baroque structures in Belarus, but we were not prepared for how they determine the nature and feel of the place. Down Nezavisimosti (Independence) Avenue we walked, a wide boulevard along which nearly all that counts may be found. The human sights may have been intriguing enough, with myriad pointy leather shoes, leather jackets, impossibly high heels, tight jeans, and – on some more mature people – the most impressive double-chins. But we were more taken with the architectural sights.

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We stood back to take in the government buildings, spreading wide to the left and right. We craned our necks at the university, with its distinctive tower and clock. We marvelled at the baroque Post Office, at the simple lines of the Concert Hall, and at the classicism of the Trade Union building. Baroque too was the military headquarters and museum, slightly off the boulevard and guarded by a mounted A-34/85 tank – standard issue of the Red Army tank corps during the Great Patriotic War. And we were smitten – we must admit – with the glorious Stalin Baroque of the KGB headquarters. KGB? Yes, in Belarus the national police force is still called the KGB. It had all the features one would expect of Stalin Baroque: a tower at the corner, quality stone, columns, relief sculptures, tiled motifs, and careful attention to detail. I could find no high fences, bristling security cameras, or even menacing guards. Instead, the building faces the main street. One simply walks past the front of the KGB as if it is the most normal thing in the world.

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At the furthest point of our hike was the memorial to the Great Patriotic War (Second Wold War), in which Minsk had suffered so much through playing its pivotal role. In the midst of a traffic island is a pillar with a red star atop it. An eternal flame burns at its base, and pedestals commemorate the great battles of the Red Army in its march westward. On the relief sculptures you find the expected soldiers and civilians, eager to tackle the foe. For me, the highlight of these sculptures was the huge flag held aloft, an image of Lenin imprinted upon as his spirit inspired the troops on their victorious path. They were, after all, defeating fascism.

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This image of Lenin was but the initial taste of the fifth surprise: one soviet symbol after another.

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On the war memorial, you might expect red stars and hammer-and-sickles, or perhaps even on the military museum. Yet we spied them on the post office, on the government offices, on the KGB building, and on metro murals. Were these relics from the soviet era, left on buildings due to architectural integrity and for historical reference? In some cases, you might be able to argue so. But the metro is a recent construction, and the mural at its entrance is full of soviet symbols – hammer-and-sickle, red star, Trotsky’s iron train, busy industry, agricultural plenty, even the CCCP in bold red letters.

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More recent still is the perimeter fence around the construction site for the international ice hockey championships, to be held in Minsk in 2014. Here too is a massive hammer-and-sickle, now inside a red star, and here is the CCCP boldly and loudly proclaimed. Right on the main street, no one can miss them. It was nothing less than old-style soviet propaganda.

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So what is going on in Belarus? Western countries like to describe it as an economic and cultural basket-case, with widespread poverty and rampant inflation. Its president, Lukashenko, has been dubbed ‘Europe’s last dictator’. So Western countries, along with the IMF and the World Bank, try to punish Belarus, using whatever economic and political means at their disposal. Why? From the time he became president in 1994, Lukashenko resisted the capitalist ‘shock therapy’ that destroyed the economies of so many Eastern European countries. They were de-industrialised, re-agriculturalised, and criminals seized land and public assets to become the oligarchs of today. Unemployment skyrocketed, millions died as victims, and millions more left to build lives elsewhere. What better way to drive down wages and conditions in the rest of Europe than flood those countries with cheap labour from the east?

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Not so Lukashenko. He has the balls to resist and block every effort to bring Belarus to heel. Already in 1991, he voted against dissolving the Soviet Union, when he was a member of the Belarus government (in his representative role as head of a collective farm). Soon enough, he became president, and has enjoyed significant, if controversial, popularity since. The result is that today nearly all industry and utilities have stayed in state hands. Rightly suspicion of western European motives, he has looked east for support. Russia, of course, has always seen Belarus as part of its western buffer, so support has been strong, although not without criticism. But Lukashenko openly states a desire to build a Union State, a new version of the USSR.

Is it possible that a socialist country has persisted in Eastern Europe? It seems so, replete with that tried and true tradition of authoritarian communism.

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Party Branch Secretary

Her phone tingles with yet another message. In response to my unspoken question, she says, ‘Elections’.

‘Elections?’ I say.

‘For party branch secretary’, she says.

‘Party branch secretary?’ I say. ‘Of the communist party?’

‘Of course’ she says.

But who is this party branch secretary?

She works in a local school in Yichang, teaching children up to the age of twelve. She confesses that the gift of fostering the enthusiasm of thirty or so young children is one granted to few. It is easy enough to learn the techniques of discipline, especially in a country where children are still taught respect for elders (xiao). But it is another thing entirely to draw out the spark of excitement, the desire and eagerness for knowledge within children. It is something on which she works continuously, at times disheartened since she feels it is beyond her, at other times thrilled when she breaks through and the children are with her.

In all this she carries on a family tradition, for her father too was a school teacher in the village in which she grew up. As a child in the 1970s, her village in the Shandong countryside had a single well in the village square, no doctor or shops, and one school teacher – her father. He had seen immense changes in China’s history, for he had been born in a vastly different era. It was 1933, in the midst of the long struggle by the communists to win their revolution. His marriage had been arranged when still a child, to a woman who is seven years his senior. That woman came from a ‘respectable’ family, and so she has ‘small feet’ – the painful binding and twisting of bones and toes as the feet grew, inflicted on young girls from such families. Indeed, during the struggles of the 1930s, the White Armies of Chang Kai-Shek would shoot young women who had ‘natural feet’ and hair cut short in bobs. Why? They were obviously liberated women, working and fighting for the Reds. My friend knew full well that the end of foot-binding and her own natural feet were among the many outcomes of the revolution.

Yet my friend is a woman who is very much in between, squeezing through the gaps of history to carve out her own space. She is the last of six children, with three brothers and two sisters – a very fortunate combination, or so I am told, with a balance of boys and girls. But she was even more fortunate, for she was born in 1972, barely a few years before the one child policy for the Han majority. Had her parents been a little younger, she would not have been born at all.

Further, it may seem as though she is carrying on the tradition of teachers from her father and his father before him. Yet all is not quite as it seems, for she was the only one of her siblings who received a full education. Unlike her brothers and sisters, she began school at six years of age and went right through to university. Why did they not receive such an education? The Cultural Revolution. Given that the highest calling for the ruling class in Chinese tradition was to be an intellectual (from which position one engaged in the dirty business of politics out of necessity), given that the country was still largely run by such people, and given that the new communist government was tending in that direction as well, intellectuals were famously ‘sent to countryside’ during the Cultural Revolution. They were to learn peasant values, to work, eat and sleep alongside and often with them. Meanwhile, formal education largely went into hiatus. So her brothers and sisters did not go to regular schools, with the result that even now they work as peasants or builders or workers. What of her father, the teacher who is the son of a teacher? During the Cultural Revolution, he became a teacher in potentia. He became a peasant, replacing his chalk and hair brush with a pick and shovel. He would return to teaching only in the 1980s.

As for my friend, she may have been born early enough to slip outside the one child policy, but she was born late enough to get a formal education. With her father’s intelligence, she topped the class in her village, travelled some distance to attend high school, and then quite some distance to go to university – the only one of her family to do so.

Here it was that she became a party member. In a country where the communist party is woven deeply into the fabric of society, from the local Tai Chi group to the national government, the invitation comes already at high school and university. A bright student perhaps, one whose eyes twinkle in the thirst for knowledge, or perhaps one who shows an aptitude for sport, or to whom the others look for leadership. The reasons are as myriad as the members themselves, as are the motivations for those who join. They range from the practical to the idealistic, all the way from better job prospects for party members through to belief in the cause.

When I first met my friend some years ago she made little of being a party member. Other events had happened in her life, including marriage and then a painful divorce, living for a while overseas (in Oxford), joining a Christian fellowship group (intermittently), and meeting foreigners like me. Of course, she was free with the information that she was a party member, but she was highly critical of a party and a government that was concerned only for itself and not for the people they it supposed to serve.

So imagine my surprise when she mentioned her election to be party branch secretary.

‘What branch?’ I ask.

‘Oh, it’s just the local branch in our primary school’, she says.

‘I thought you weren’t all that interested in the party’, I say.

‘This is just local’, she says. ‘It’s … what is the right word? … trivial. Nothing special; just ordinary’.

Is this not precisely the way party work is represented? Ordinary, everyday work; nothing special, the mundane tasks of rank and file members. In downplaying her role, she fulfils the age-old and well-worked narrative of the ordinary member, whose minor tasks are vital for the whole. Perhaps she is more deeply enmeshed than she cares to admit.