Every year, the Student Union hosts a travelling poster pop-up shop run by the company On Campus Art. In December, a particularly memorable poster was both advertised outside the Union and sold inside. The foreground of the poster features Joseph Stalin sipping a martini, Fidel Castro nursing a pint, and Karl Marx and Vladimir Lenin break-dancing. Behind them, Mao Zedong stands behind a set of decks, one hand cupped to his ear. The words Welcome to the Party sprawl out across the top in bold red.
Even by the most conservative estimates, these men were responsible for the deaths of 65 million human beings during the twentieth-century. Staring at the poster it was difficult to work out what was more perplexing – why the Student Union had permitted the poster to be sold in the first place, or why no one had thought to mention it since. It goes without saying that uproar that would rightly be caused if the Union began selling posters depicting Franco, Mussolini, and Hitler. I personally agree with the view that the crimes of the Holocaust are singular and unprecedented. Nonetheless, going by the grim metric of the count of cold bodies, the devastation caused by these men – Mao and Stalin most importantly – is unparalleled in human history. That their faces should be displayed, should be sold, inside the Student Union is historically illiterate, offensive, and just fundamentally weird.
In the most traumatic episode in the history of the Baltic states, in June 1940 the USSR launched a full-scale, illegal, invasion of the three countries. Stalin initiated mass deportations of innocent civilians and in Estonia alone one in every five people were either murdered, deported, or imprisoned. The scale and brutality of these repressions left major psychological scars on the Baltics, and it remains commonplace to speak of a Soviet ‘genocide’. This one example, among hundreds of Soviet imperial crimes, speaks to the gross insensitivity of the poster and lack of public discourse surrounding communist crimes in the east. That Stalin’s face should be sold for profit in the Student Union and be adorned, unthinkingly, on student walls across the campus is an offence to the people of eastern Europe, as well as the descendants of the millions of Stalin’s victims.
And what of the more famous crimes, the ones of such severity that they should not really need repeating here? In Ukraine, a policy of terror and forced grain requisitioning led directly to the Holodomor – the starvation of well over three million innocent people. In Russia, the NKVD murdered at least 750,000 citizens, dragged unwittingly from their beds and shot for non-existent crimes. Stalin’s depraved police chief and right-hand man Lavrentiy Beria was a mass murderer and sexual predator who was responsible for compiling lists of the innocent to be executed before cruising the streets of Moscow and picking women at random to be taken to his dacha and raped. In the antisemitic ‘Doctor’s plot’ affair, Jewish doctors were rounded up and tortured to produce admissions of a made-up conspiracy.
What feels most shocking is the pure disregard for human suffering. The moral chasm separating the brutal suffering of these people with the adoration of these murdering psychopaths feels violent in its thoughtlessness. How can the purchase of this poster by left-leaning students be reconciled with the long-overdue destruction of slave-trader statues in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement? How have we ended up in this confused place where the smiling faces of some of the worst individuals in modern history are rendered part of edgy-student décor? To me, being a part of the left means a commitment to human liberation, equality, and freedom from oppression for all people. The faces of the men on display in the Student Union came to represent the precise opposite of these ideals for millions of people living across the world.
The veneration of the communist regimes of the last century is a common feature of left-wing student discourse. The slogans ‘anti-imperialism’ and ‘anti-racism’ are hallmarks of every socialist pamphlet and newspaper. Greater education about the crimes of Stalinism and the CCP would encourage an awareness of how incompatible those two ideals are with the reality of the two regimes. I really believe that if most students knew of the extent and horror of the crimes detailed above, few would feel comfortable buying these posters and unwittingly endorsing their actions. But what does it say that the Student Union and the company selling the poster allowed it to get this far? Despite an acute sensitivity to the persisting injustices of the modern world, there still exists a shameful cultural and historical blind-spot on the left for the crimes of communism in the twentieth century. A modest starting point here in Edinburgh would be for the Student Union to ensure no poster of the sort is ever displayed again.
Image via Openclipart