April 29, 2011 10:24 pm

Springtime for tyrants

Soviets liked only one thing about Stalinism: the personality cult around the dictator

One night in Beijing recently, a Chinese friend drove me from the shopping district to Tiananmen Square. It was like going from New York in 2011 to Moscow circa 1950: from garish neon to a place where communism still existed.

Tiananmen was empty, sealed off for the National People’s Congress, but I got to goggle at Mao Zedong’s mausoleum. Meanwhile, round-faced Mao stared down at us from his famous portrait. My friend went quiet. After a while, he said that what really bothered him about China – much more than one-party rule – was the state’s veneration of a mass murderer.

The next day we went on an outing with a friend of his. When Mao was mentioned, she said: “Most Chinese people revere him. I do myself.” I pointed out that he was a mass murderer. She said, politely: “That is not proven.”

Her faith reminded me of a strange political fact: many people hate dictatorships but love dictators. If the Arabs manage to kick out, say, Muammer Gaddafi or Bashar al-Assad, lots of them will end up missing these thugs.

Yet life under dictatorships sucks. These regimes give people only one pleasure: the sense of having a personal, loving relationship with an all-seeing superman. The dictator becomes your compensation for living without freedom.

Then there are the laboriously built personality cults that surround the often ludicrous leaders. The historian Ian Kershaw shows in his classic book, The ‘Hitler Myth’, how the Nazis marketed Adolf Hitler as better than and separate from the regime. Using modern advertising techniques, they sold him like soap. It worked: Hitler was popular for years, unlike the Nazis. Many Germans thought that if only Hitler knew what his underlings were doing, he’d put a stop to it. Other Nazis might be high and mighty, but Hitler was at one with the common man. It seems that up to a point, totalitarianism works: if you keep hearing that your leader is a superman, you start to believe it. Even Winston Smith, in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four, ends up loving Big Brother.

You can see where dictatorships got the idea. Personality cults had helped sell Christianity, Islam and Buddhism. People draw comfort from having a direct emotional line to an all-seeing superman. And people who live in a dictatorship need comfort.

Few dictatorships dare ditch personality cults. The Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev denounced Stalin’s crimes in 1956, and the USSR “never fully recovered”, wrote Khrushchev’s biographer William Taubman. It wasn’t just that the party had admitted fallibility. Many Soviets had liked only one thing about Stalinism: the personality cult around Stalin. He was their father-protector in terrible times. Now the party had slain him.

The Chinese weren’t going to make that mistake with Mao. Hence Deng Xiaoping’s famous formula about him: “Seventy per cent positive, 30 per cent negative.” In China, I was struck by Mao’s posthumous omnipresence: on banknotes, posters and even T-shirts. It’s canny of the party to build a cult around a corpse: he’s unlikely to slaughter anymore millions.

But personality cults require a muzzled media. Once the media become free, people start shouting that the emperor has no clothes. That’s what happened to Hosni Mubarak. Some Egyptians actually thought that there was corruption despite Mubarak: if only he knew what was going on, he’d stop it.

Yet for some reason, from about 2005, Mubarak partly freed the media. Inevitably, people started shouting that the emperor had no clothes. Last September, for instance, bloggers caught the main state-run newspaper, Al-Ahram, doctoring Mubarak’s image in a photo. The original picture had shown President Barack Obama striding ahead of other leaders participating in the so-called “Middle East peace talks”, with Mubarak somewhere off to the side. In the doctored picture, Mubarak led. When critics scoffed, the newspaper’s editor could only respond that it had been an “expressionist photo” that visualised Mubarak’s leadership.

Mubarak was left looking silly. That turned out to be good practice. Nowadays the former superman is routinely depicted as an ageing criminal fugitive with dyed hair. In fact, he’s learning what life is like for rulers in democracies. Free media don’t do personality cults. Instead they see it as their job to diminish the leader every day. Recall the British journalist at some weighty summit asking Tony Blair: “Have you got blood on your hands, prime minister?” Britons never even venerated Winston Churchill, instead chucking him out of office at the end of the second world war in 1945.

Happy is the land that has no need of heroes. Whereas many people living under dictatorships cling to their dictator because nothing else works, people in democracies often feel that the leader obstructs the country’s smooth functioning. As political scientists say: weak institutions, strong leader; strong institutions, weak leader.

If Egypt becomes free, then a few years from now many Egyptians will be missing Mubarak and demonstrating on Tahrir Square against the corrupt fool they elected.

simon.kuper@ft.com

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