Monday, September 12, 2005

Communist Heroes in a Post-Communist World

The news from Mongolia is that the remains of her two Communist-era heroes have been turned out of their mausoleum in front of the government palace.

The two heroes are Sukhebaatur (also spelled Sukhbaatar), the machine-gunner turned general who helped lead Mongolia’s Soviet-supported national revolution, and Choibalsang (also spelled Choibalsan), the dictator who smashed Buddhism, personally ensured the execution of at least 20,000 Mongols on trumped-up charges, and turned Mongolia into a full-fledged Communist dictatorship.

Despite this demotion, the two heroes retain their place in the nation’s pantheon. Sukhebaatur’s statue is still in the square named after him, and that of Choibalsang is still in front of the National University. Their cremated remains were relocated with honors to Altan-Olgii, the state cemetery. In their place in front of the government palace will be a new Genghis Khan (Chinggis Khan to the Mongols) memorial complex, the latest step in the often kitsch-infested recrudescence of the Mongols’ long-standing reverence of the conqueror as their political founder and culture hero. The new memorial is being built to honor the 800th anniversary of Chinggis Khan’s unification of the Mongols in 1206.

Ironies abound:

The remains of Choibalsang, whose greatest achievement was destroying Mongolian Buddhism, was given a Buddhist cremation conducted by five lamas headed by G. Purewbat at an astrologically determined time.

Likewise, Sukhebaatur’s death in 1923 was blamed by Soviet doctors on poisoning by the lamas. After 1990, many believed Sukhebaatur was poisoned by the Russians. (In fact, there is no reason to believe General Sukhebaatur’s death was not natural.)

The two Communist-era heroes were demoted in favor of Chinggis Khan by a coalition government of the old Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party, founded in part by Sukhebaatur and Choibalsang in 1920, and the only legal party from 1924 to 1990, and a coaltion of democratic parties formed in the 1990 Democratic Revolution. In its day the MPRP had criticized Chinggis Khan as a feudal oppressor whose wars had "damaged the productive forces" all over Eurasia. The Democratic coalition, which had controlled the Presidency from 1993 to 1997 and the Parliament and Prime Ministry from 1996 to 2000, had left the old Communist heroes in place.

The tomb in front of the Government Palace was built after World War II as an imitation of Lenin’s tomb in Moscow, but Sukhebaatur had died too long before for his remains to be remotely viewable, and Choibalsang’s embalming was botched, so the unviewable corpses were enclosed in marble sarcophagi.

Above these ironies is the greater one that the national narrative, the story of Mongolia, has now seamlessly sewn together so many new regimes each determined in the beginning to make a clean sweep of the past. And Mongolia is typical, not exceptional of Communist states in this regard.

After the fall of the Soviet bloc in 1989-1991, the expectation in the West was that Communism would be seen, like Nazism, as some strange aberration, a demon from the past to be exorcised by a new democratic regime. A few, however, figured the deluded East blockers would soon realize their mistake and rehabilitate the ideology of Marxism-Leninism as their bulwark against neo-liberal corporate domination.

With the exception of the strongly Westernized countries of Central Europe — Poland, Hungary, Lithuania, and so on — where Communism had always been an unpopular import neither scenario happened.

In some places, like Russia, Communism has been succeeded by one-man boss rule with a democratic facade, in others, like Turkmenistan, by weird megalomaniac isolationists evidently bent on following the successful model of North Korea. In a few — Mongolia being the prime example — real multi-party democracy has been established. But east of Estonia, the new regimes have not, and most likely will never, rewrite the national narrative to make the Communist era a fleeting episode of madness or tyranny. Lenin, Stalin, Sukhebaatur, Choibalsang: these figures will remain part of their national narratives alongside Boris and Gleb, Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Chinggis Khan.

On the other hand, there is no point of view more dead in the old Soviet block than the internationalist, culturally radical, and resolutely materialist and rationalist Marxist left. Everywhere the ideologues and alienated poets most desperately nostalgic for the Communist regime are the same ones peddling xenophobia, cloudy national messianism, and religion in its most rigid, pre-modern, and ritualistic forms (Orthodoxy, Islam, Buddhism, whatever, as long as its traditional), and most fervently denouncing feminism, sexual degeneracy, declining birth rates, and missionaries for "cults."

What those expecting de-Communization failed to realize was the degree to which Communism had become identified with twentieth century history in nations like Russia or Mongolia. Nor did the Russians, like the Germans or Japanese after World War II, by and large accept that they had been perpetrators of a criminal imperialism. Instead all the fragments of the East block viewed themselves as victims, even the Russians. And in Mongolia, it was the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party that presided over the entire introduction of the twentieth century in Mongolia: not just vaccinations, universal literacy, automobiles, and airplanes, but even voting (even if only for one candidate), defense attorneys (even if largely perfunctory at the best of times), bills of rights (even if at times grotesquely disconnected from the reality of universal terror), and equal rights of all citizens (even if at times that only meant an equal right to be tortured into confessing to imaginary crimes). Theoretically, Mongolia might have gone farther and better under a modern, democratic government from the 1920s on, but such a modern, democratic government was never in the cards. It was a tough neighborhood and the Mongolians had to make their choice: satellite of Soviet Russia, with all the internal repression that implied, or else neglected colony of China to be swamped by immigrants and deliberately kept under the dukes and princes and incarnate lamas so as to keep the commoners in line. Those Mongolians who had a choice chose the former and never regretted it.

Communism may look like a failure to those in the West, but for many it was a success in one thing: making the country big and feared on the international stage. Under Stalin, Russia finally achieved the kind of international weight and admiration that Russians had long come to expect of their nation as the Third Rome. Under Mao, Chinese saw their nation battle the Americans to a stalemate in Korea (the Americans! The ones who had destroyed the same Japanese who had held China in a humiliating occupation not five years before!), and become the center of world revolution.

And even little countries could argue that the Communists at least made their nation something. Whatever one think about Fidel Castro and Ho Chi Minh, they did humiliate their nations’ traditional enemies. And in Mongolia, it was Choibalsang and his Communist regime that won recognition of national independence from China in 1946 and got the nation into the UN in 1961. Can the Tibetans under the Dalai Lama say that much? In each case there was a price to be paid – was it really worth it for Cuba to be renting her soldiers out as mercenaries for Russia in Africa? – but as the fable of the horse seeking revenge against the stag shows, those in the grip of humiliation do not finely calculate the odds.

It is easy to misread this continued cult of Communist heroes as necessarily reflecting admiration for the ideology they ostensibly believed in. In Mongolia, the Mongolian People’s Revolutionary Party is, despite its name, thoroughly and completely converted to market democracy (its main achievement in the 2000-2004 Parliament was initiating the privatization of residential and farm land). Choibalsang and Sukhebaatur are honored not as MPRP leaders, still less as Marxists or part of the international Communist movement, but as Mongols who saved their country from becoming a degraded and oppressed "autonomous region" of China. Nor do the Mongolians despise their parents and grandparents who believed in the Communist system. For them (85% in the latest polls), the 1990 Democratic Revolution was a great thing, but at the same time, they do not see their ancestors as having been bad people for not anticipating it in their thoughts and feelings. Just as a Southerner might be firmly convinced that the end of Jim Crow was a good thing, and yet resist the (supposedly logical) inference that his parents and grandparents were bad people for not joining the struggle to end it, so in the same way most Mongols see the end of Communism. For them, the old regime before 1990 was not some aberration, but a partial good that may well have been necessary under the unforgiving conditions of the time, but one which had by 1990 definitely outlived its purpose, and fortunately gave way to a different and better reality.

This ability of histories to swallow up conflicting ideologies and passion in one pantheon of nation-builders gives clues for the future of China. Given what we see in Russia and Mongolia, Mao is unlikely to be ever dislodged from his position as a national hero, even in a post-Communist China. His vinidication of China’s unity (with the loss only of Mongolia) by crushing the warlord armies, his ability to stick a finger in the eye of America, Japan, and Russia, the sheer scale of the events surrounding his life, even the vulgarity and sensuality evident in recent warts and all biographies will all contribute to making him a classically Chinese character, the lovable, bad-tempered, roguish, and brutal dynastic founder like Zhu Yuanzhang of the Ming or Liu Bang of the Han. A minority will continue to argue that he was more of the cold despot like Qin Shihuangdi or Han Wudi, but given that recent China movies like Hero glorify even those figures as nation-builders and unifiers, such a charge, even if made to stick, would hardly dent his reputation.

Marx's ideology has been a flop, mystifying the real workings of history and power far more effectively than any miracle-mongering religion, but the nationalist heroes it created will live on.

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