Wednesday, 6 May 2020

The Man Who Started a Pandemic - Cathy Young

ith the COVID-19 pandemic sucking up much of public discourse, an anniversary of an event whose echoes still affect history went almost unnoticed this spring. April 22 marked the 150th anniversary of the birth of Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov — better known as Lenin — the leader of the Russian Revolution of 1917 and the founder of the Soviet state. There is some irony in the fact that coronavirus-related restrictions made the commemorations of this date in post-Soviet Russia even more low-key than they would have been otherwise. (Only a few dozen communists defiedMoscow's lockdown to place flowers at Lenin's tomb.) After all, Lenin's chief legacy was a political plague that not only put entire nations under a full-time lockdown but killed as many as 100 million. It's not for nothing that Winston Churchill famously compared him to a deadly infection when he wrote, of Lenin's German-aided return from exile in the spring of 1917, that the Germans "transported Lenin in a sealed truck like a plague bacillus from Switzerland to Russia."
Read the rest here. Fascinating. 
I first became fully aware of Lenin when I arrived to study Chinese in what was then "Peking" in 1976.
Of course I'd heard of the man. I graduated from the ANU in '72, like all my classmates vaguely leftie, some of us (not me!) a bit communist-y, agin’ the government, unless it was Labor. Revolutionaries. Just like Lenin! It’s socialism innit?
But this was the sixties and for me and me mates it was sex, drugs and rock and roll, just like they say. Any Revolution we sang about was more John Lennon’s than Vlad Lenin’s.
So Lenin was never as in-your-face as he was when I arrived in Peking. 
I spent six weeks in the Peking Hotel before a room became available at the student dorm. It’s right on Tian'anmen Square, with its (in)famous portraits over the gates of the Forbidden City, Mao in the centre, the other Gang of Four on either side, Marx, Engels, Stalin, and our man, "Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov — better known as Lenin."
Those were final years of China's Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution (文化大革命末年). Though we didn't know at the time that it was the final years. You don't usually know it's the final years, do you, until it's over. To be frank, I didn't even know it was still the Cultural Revolution. I only found out when speaking to my new teachers. Not that they admitted it with any alacrity. Rather only as a kind of embarrassed obligation. "We still practice our Cultural Revolution", they'd say, eyes averted and switch to another topic. After all, it was teachers who'd suffered the worst, paraded in dunce caps, vilified in "struggle sessions", tortured, driven to death, killed.
It was Peking of the seventies, socialist China that cured me of my undergraduate fantasies about socialism.
In the Peking of 1976 we had ration tickets for food and clothing. In winter we had precisely one vegetable —  bai cai. We were followed and monitored. Our thoughts were rationed: I had marks taken off an essay because I called Mme Mao an “ultra leftist”, whereas the approved, the rationed, view at the time was that she was an “ultra rightist”. (later it was changed back to “ultra leftist”, but too late for me to reclaim my marks). It was all too tiring, too drab, too dreary, too poor and hopeless. This was socialism and it had been inspired by Lenin.
Yet Lenin, who inspired this outcome of cabbage and conformity, this brute who mentored Stalin and excited Mao, this pathologically violent monster, this latter day Vlad the Impaler, responsible for 100 million deaths (not counting China!), this man still stares out from the Gate of Heavenly Peace. 
And Russia too. I've driven from Vladivostok to Moscow through all of Siberia, and everywhere are statues of Lenin. We did see one of Stalin, perhaps an oversight. 
And somehow the academy, too, in the west is in thrall to the man. As we see this post at David Thompson's blog. What a tragedy. What a worry.