The Semi-Adventures of a Nomadic Mathematician Rotating Header Image

Contemporary Communism

Spending my early childhood on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain, I had to voluntarily become a Young Pioneer upon entering primary school. We were lined up in the sports hall of the school, and a soldier went around tying a red tie on the fresh members. I had no idea what was going on. I went to school to learn reading and writing, I did not know how to build the socialism or fight imperialist infiltrators. History did not give me enough time to figure out these questions.

The fall of communism had a fundamental impact on my life: I could purchase Lego sets in the local currency, which made them so much easier to procure. Previously only dollar shops sold the coveted plastic bricks, and possessing foreign currency was never entirely legal, especially not for a six-year-old. Despite such temptations of consumerism, some countries still resist, and they proudly carry on the torch of socialism to enlighten the life of the proletariat.

1980's Lego castle

Keep us from temptation.

Belarus, the last hermit state in Europe, strictly adheres to Lenin’s words. Stalin got most of the bad press for the secret police, political trials, work camps, and mass executions, but most of it was actually Lenin’s idea. So President Lukashenko’s almost self-sufficient, almost democratic republic is replete with policemen — secret or not. I was there as a humanitarian aid worker with an Irish charity, spending time in institutions where kids with intellectual disabilities lived. The government did not make a fuss about surveillance, we were closely watched at all times. When we saw the same guy coming our way in an awkward mackintosh coat for the fifth time on the same day, we knew he was one of our watchers. The main square of Minsk was just like in any other former communist country: a gigantic open space cast in concrete exclusively for parades on the 1st of May. What made it unique was the social dynamics. Congregating in groups of larger than three was banned. So youngsters filled the square in groups of three, and if a new arrival came, a previous member immediately left and joined a different group, from where a member detached rightaway, and so on. From a distance, it looked like a Brownian motion of people. Communism never liked crowds, apart from parading.

Tank stationed at a monument near Minsk

If you gather in a group of more than three in Minsk, you will be run over by this very tank.

Communism never liked free elections either, but India can pull it off: the state of Kerala regularly elects one of the communist parties of India. For 1.3 billion people, you obviously need more than one communist party, and accordingly India has a fair number of communist parties. As an innocent sightseer in Kerala, I wound up in a rally organized by the Communist Party of India (Marxist). Participants waved red flags and shouted angrily in Malayalam. I did not catch what they were angry about, but I surmised they had a problem with the Communist Party of India (Trotskyist), and perhaps also with the Communist Party of India (Bolshevik-Leninist). Comrades, we are all equal in a classless society, except that the Trotskyist are class enemies and the bolsheviks are traitors.

Communist rally in Kochi

Something upset the comrades in Kerala. Probably the Trotskyists.

A communist state is characterized by a fervent class struggle in which the industrial proletariat achieves social justice and eliminates oppression. It was hard to notice any of the ferventness in the slow-moving Lao People’s Democratic Republic. As I rode my bicycle across the border, the only things that reminded me of communism were a rusting red star and the customary ten-dollar bribe paid to the immigration officer. The struggle of classes was not going strong. A few days later I learned that the telecommunication system was fit for a socialist society: phones never worked and the bandwidth of mobile internet rarely exceeded one kilobyte per second. While Youtube was not banned in the country, only the most intrepid comrades had enough patience to watch dancing kitties online. Most hole-in-the-wall restaurants displayed a picture of Marx, Lenin, and Ho Chi Min — it was nice to have my lunch breaks in such distinguished company. This was an issue I never managed to understand: commies always loathed religion and idolatry, yet they were always keen on personality cult and iconography. My deceased lunch mates had a halo painted around their wise heads. Why is it better to stare at the gleaming forehead of Lenin than at Buddha or Ganeshji?

Picture of Marx, Lenin, and Ho Chi Min

Exciting lunch companions.

The struggle to topple the bourgeoisie is much more ardent in the Bolivarian Republic of Venezuela. Bolivarian socialism is a form of social Darwinism in which the weak are naturally eliminated. Political corruption and high crime rate are mandatory. Caracas was by far the most dangerous place I visited — even Kabul was a safe haven in comparison. I was on the way to Europe for a conference, and the flight was cheaper if I made a two-day stopover in Caracas. The tension was tangible the moment I landed. I splurged on an official taxi, I did not want to take any risk. The cab driver’s one-hour rant hinted that Hugo Chavez was not quite the villain the Western media loved to depict him, but he was not universally loved either. I was intrigued, and I went sightseeing to the only safe district in the city, and returned to my hotel safe and sound, well before sunset. The next day I intended to the same thing before heading to the airport. I finished my morning sightseeing and I was about to take the subway back to my hotel. That was the moment when two policemen on a motorbike stopped by me, asked for my ID, checked how bad my Spanish was (very), and frisked me. Since I left all my valuables in the hotel for safe-keeping, I had only a copy of my passport, twenty bucks, and my camera on me. It was a nice camera, so the policemen confiscated it in the name of the Bolivarian republic, and rode away. I was lucky. If they took me in, I would still be rotting in a Venezuelan jail as an accidental imperialist.

Propaganda painting of Hugo Chavez

In the name of the Bolivarian republic, your electronic appliances will be confiscated. The suppressed people of Latin America are grateful for your generous compliance.

For reasons I cannot fully explain to myself, once I worked from Cuba for a month. The island is shaped like a sausage and the country’s great friend, the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics, envisioned a highway that would go from one end of the sausage to the other. Halfway through the Soviet Union dissolved, and Cuba now has a highway that leads from nowhere to nowhere. The highway is also notable for not having any traffic, for cars are not common in Cuba. Some overhead bridges were already constructed, but not the driveways. Today there is only corn growing on either side. It is surreal. The daily newspapers Granma and Juventud Rebelde regularly publish old articles by Ho Chi Min, and yes, also by Trotsky, to show how open-minded the leaders are. There are also reports on the scientific advances made by Cuban researchers — it must be great fun to do research without Internet access. As Graham Greene put it, “[t]o live in Havana was to live in a factory that turned out human beauty on a conveyor-belt.” Cuba has no economy, the country produces only two things: beautiful people and cigars. The loss of Soviet support meant more than a decade of extreme hardship for Cubans. While they still do not have an economy, they have new friends. China dumped a few thousand buses on Cuba a couple of years ago, which run on oil donated by Venezuela. The truth is that Cuba is such an odd time warp, we would all love to preserve it as it is. That must be the reason why other countries keep donating unsolicited items to Cuba. I also donated an entire T-shirt. Viva la revoluciĆ³n!

Painted flag with Che Guevara's image

Cuba que lindos son tus paisajes.

The greatest communist country of them all is, of course, the People’s Republic of China. Chairman Mao’s pickled corpse still haunts visitors at Tiananmen Square, there is also a smattering of red stars on government buildings, but otherwise the country is about as communist as the McCarthy-era United States. Beijing explodes with creative energy. Enterprising locals make a kwai from literally anything: oil collected from the gutters gets resold to street food vendors, hair collected from barbers magically converts to soy sauce, the impossible is unknown! One day fourteen thousand dead pigs are fished out from a river, the next day a different river turns purple, while officials insist that every health indicator is within normal range. This is wild capitalism at its unregulated best! While I lived in Beijing, I sinned against nature by having breakfast at the McDonald’s once a week — I needed food that underwent at least rudimentary safety checks.

Mao's image on the main entrance to the Forbidden City

Chairman Mao is watching over the new developments — not sure if he is happy.

What would happen if these last bastions of communism and pseudo-communism vanish? A flavour would be gone. Human kind strives on diversity. We cannot survive on eating canned beans alone. We also need expired broccoli in our diet. Otherwise our body breaks down.

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