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A journey through communism

A journey through communism
 
 
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TRAVELLING across Eurasia, I was passing through a succession of communist countries – or more correctly, countries that were once communist. One person I showed my list to in Mongolia had pointed to every country and said “communist, communist, communist, communist”. One colleague of mine back home told me the story of travelling the Trans-Siberian train from Moscow to Vladivostok in 1976, the year I started school. That was back at a time when the Soviet Union was in full swing and he and his travel group were constantly monitored and treated as foreign spies.

Railway station in Siberia

Railway station in Siberia

My trip took place forty years later in 2016, at a time when communism has all but died out. Every country that had been communist would still carry the scars and remnants of this powerful social experiment now failed.

Abandoned factory in Irkutsk

Abandoned factory in Irkutsk

My first challenge was to find a country still fully communist. There was one, and time was running out. The tiny mountainous hermit kingdom of North Korea was the only fully communist country left on the planet. Uniquely this was only country run by a necrocracy, where its people worship their dead president Kim Il Sung as their god. He had delivered them from the Japanese invaders in the 1940s and held the Americans at bay in the Korean war of the early 1950s.

Kim Il-sung Square

Kim Il-sung Square, Pyongyang

It was a land where the people are restricted from travelling to the next town, yet alone anywhere else in the world. Isolated from the rest of the world by two rivers spanning from their sacred Mount Paektu to the north, and the famous Demilitarised Zone to the south, this highly micromanaged and isolated country remains the last fully communist bastion.

Workers' Party Monument

Workers' Party Monument, Pyongyang

Stuck in a time warp in the 1950s, North Korea has proportionately the largest military in the world, still at war despite a sixty-year armistice with the south. The clutter of offensive advertising in most western cities is replaced with military propaganda painted with bright colours in a distinctive 1950s style. Disturbingly the artistry of the propaganda was aesthetically pleasant, its near uniformity fits in very well with the landscape, unlike the random chaos of Western advertising.

Commuters, Pyongyang Metro

Commuters, Pyongyang Metro

All the communist countries used to have propaganda saying how wonderful communism is and glorify their leaders. North Korea does it to an even higher level, where their founder and eternal president Kim Il Sung is their god. The propaganda is a constant reminder to the people to worship President Kim Il Sung, his son General Kim Jong Il and his grandson the current leader Marshall Kim Jong-un. In other communist countries, their leaders were revered, but not worshipped. Atheism ruled in the other countries but the Juche system conceived by Kim Il Sung and developed and perfected by his artistic son Kim Jong Il took the communism to the level of a full-blown religion. That I had not expected.

Juche Tower

Juche Tower, Pyongyang

Even the hermit kingdom was showing signs of breaking out of communism. On the streets of Pyongyang stood small stalls from where private traders were trading. Even out in the country we stopped at a rural stall selling fruit. A fellow traveller from Beijing pointed out North Korea is like China back in the late 1970s when it was starting to move back to capitalism.

Commuters, Pyongyang Station

Commuters, Pyongyang Station

Heading across the Yalu River into the Chinese border city of Dandong, the contrast couldn’t be greater. Although a little dour, Dandong filled with its high-rise apartment towers clearly showed decades of progression now it has broken free and moved forward from socialism.

Mao Zedong Statue

Mao Zedong Statue, Dandong

Despite the one child policies designed to keep China’s population under control, the country has a sprawling population approaching one and a half billion people crammed into towering high-rise apartments in an almost continuous progression of cities with little rural land in between them. Just a few days exploring this amazing country epitomised by view that parts of the world were already seriously overcrowded with the gaps to be filled over the following decade.

Tiananmen Square, Beijing

Tiananmen Square, Beijing

The world can only support so much population and although it was only September, scientists say we have already used the years’ worth of resources Earth can cope with us using. Earth is straining from overpopulation with the temperature and sea levels rising significantly despite solar and orbital cycles telling us we should actually be heading into a mini ice age. Instead we are running into a runaway greenhouse effect soon to put enormous strain on the exponentially increasing population.

Beijing smog

Beijing smog

Whilst China cannot be to blame, its substantially large crowded population contributes to the global issue. Communism came in by Mao Zedong in the early twentieth century. Although it seemed to be a great idea at the time, socialism did not work. People need goals and incentives to motivate them. Communism quashed that.

New high rises under construction

New high rises under construction

Since breaking out of communism, the Chinese have taken on capitalism in a big way. Australia has done very well in recent decades supplying raw minerals to feed China’s enormous construction boom, still controlled by the government. Unfortunately, they have gone overboard building entire cities to excess, which are not ghost cities as there just aren’t the people to occupy them. This has resulted in a contraction of China’s phenomenal post-communist growth. Despite the phenomenal growth and increase in wealth, there is still a large proportion of the country still living in poverty, showing little improvement from socialist times. Many still live in the tiny socialist apartments and the old hutongs (the clutters of derelict huts crammed together in tiny streets barely wide enough to walk along.

In the suburbs

In the suburbs

A strong middle class has emerged though, contributing to the massive increase in tourism in recent years. Fortunately, the Chinese tourists tend to congregate in touristy areas. This is a broad generalisation, but a large portion of the Chinese tourists visit popular areas for the passport stamps and to buy the souvenirs. Fortunately there are still a large number of places that remain largely untouched but these are now being commonly explored by people like me – the tourists who hate tourists. As the world’s population continues to explode those quiet areas will also be taken over by the tourist crowds putting pressure on the world homogenising it into the pervasive commercialism diluting the once vast diversity of culture.

Power station

Power station, China

After leaving China, I arrived in Mongolia. This was another country that had turned its back on the clutches of communism to become quite successful as its own democracy largely due to its mineral wealth. Once a mighty empire stretching from the Korean Peninsula right across Asia and well into Europe reaching the Atlantic Ocean in places, Mongolia has shrunk into a land locked wilderness wasteland sandwiched in between the Russian and Chinese superpowers.

Ulaanbaatar

Ulaanbaatar

The southern half of the country straddles the freezing Gobi Desert and the northern half stretches to the headwaters of enormous rivers draining through Siberia. Nearly half of the country’s population of three million live in Ulaanbaatar, the coldest capital city in the world, where sheltered areas are in permafrost. Aside from Antarctica, Mongolia is the least densely populated country in the world.

Ulaanbaatar

Ulaanbaatar

Although next door to China, Mongolia comes across as being a lot friendlier with its people better mannered. In China, the hugely crowded city portrays its people under the thick clouds of smoke as being quite rude, having little knowledge of personal space, the thick clouds of cigarette smoke and spitting. This is not as obvious in Mongolia, and although the smoking rates in North Korea are disturbingly high, the towns and cities are perfectly clean without a piece of rubbish or cigarette butt in sight. The people of North Korea I met were very friendly, perhaps because they were told to be nice by their leader.

Ulaanbaatar

Ulaanbaatar

Mongolia’s wealth is largely built on its minerals, being extracted out of the ground and transported by train down into China, and less so into Russia. The decline of growth in China in recent years has had some impact on Mongolia, but like any country with mineral resources, these are going to run out some day.

Ulaanbaatar

Ulaanbaatar

Natural processes of the formation and recycling of continental plates is not keeping up with our mineral consumption. This is a big problem for Mongolia as its second industry farming is a very difficult thing in such an inhospitable climate. Although many farmers have adapted over thousands of years living in gers as nomads, it is very tough out there. A particularly cold winter in 2010 killed off twenty percent of the livestock, forcing many farmers to relocate into the city to look for work.

Traditional Mongolian art

Traditional Mongolian art

Despite the problems, the Mongolians are a happy people having broken free of communism living free lives in this tiny remote corner of the world.

Old building under the high rises

Old building under the high rises

From Mongolia, I headed north into Russia, the largest country in the world spanning two continents. The ultimate in socialism with its impressive railway system spanning around the country and enormous industrial centres impossible in modern capitalism. Russia is the largest remnant of what had once been the Soviet Union formed in 1922, covering 22.4 million square kilometres.

Soviet building, Irkutsk

Soviet building, Irkutsk

Although the population density is very low (though similar to Australia and a lot higher than Mongolia), Russia doesn’t have the friendliness of Mongolia though. The sheer coldness of socialism (and probably of the cold climate as well) has made the Russian people (particularly to the east of the country) seemingly unhappy and unfriendly. They are a lot politer than the Chinese, and do become friendly when you do get to know them, but there is a lot of ice to break through to get on their good side.

Old housing, Irkutsk

Old housing, Irkutsk

The country still has a lot of the socialist culture, but they have moved on. Crossing the country, I saw a lot of derelict factories decaying. The heavy industry of communism has over recent decades been swept away in favour of modern capitalism.

Abandoned factory

Abandoned factory

Heading across to Moscow, the city was still filled with its old socialist and a few pre-socialist buildings that had survived the revolution, but the city does have a tightly clustered group of glass high rises towering into the sky indicating the city’s adaptation into modern society. Some western nations still consider Russia to be the enemy, still being a very powerful nation.

The Kremlin, Moscow

The Kremlin, Moscow

My final stop on my journey across the communist countries was Ukraine, a former part of the Soviet Union. Although very unstable politically, it provides some of the answers as to why communism has now failed in all but one country.

Kiev

Kiev

Ukraine is currently in conflict with Russia, the latter having taken the Crimea Peninsula and its government is struggling to survive. A rag tag memorial stands in the middle of Independence Square as a reminder of a huge protest a couple of years ago resulting in numerous deaths and the president of Ukraine fleeing the country into Russia.

Kiev

Kiev

Heading north of Kiev, I reached the Chernobyl power plant. Once epitomising the Soviet Union’s massive industrialisation, the four nuclear power plants were going well until the accident in reactor 4 on April 25 1986. Although locally known, communication of the accident was suppressed by the Soviet government to even its people until they were forced to admit it following the detection of huge amounts of radiation over Scandinavia.

Chernobyl plant 4

Chernobyl plant 4

The accident itself and the poor communication following it started a chain reaction of events leading to the break-up of the Soviet Union. Ukraine led the break-up. Communism had failed.

Ruins near Chernobyl

Ruins near Chernobyl

The collapse of communism was dramatic. Although some small parts of the world still follow the communist ideology, it has all but gone. Communism has been replaced with modern capitalism. For now the world continues moving forward in its social evolution until the exponentially growing population and capitalism hits a saturation point of overpopulation out forcing us to rethink new social models and adapt to them.

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Sept-Oct 2016

 

Pyongyang - Kiev

DPRK - Ukraine

 

39°54'27"N
116°26'05"E
44m ASL

 

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