I’d always wanted an encounter with a genuine personality cult, the type I’ve read about in books on Stalin’s Soviet Union or Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. And this year – joy of joys! - I’ve already been fortunate enough to visit two places where leaders are not merely leaders, but ubermensch.
My first experience came this March, when I visited Russia’s North Caucasus republic of Chechnya, ruled over by former militant and Kremlin favorite (the feeling is mutual) Ramzan Kadyrov. The second was in October, in North Korea, the Asian branch of George Bush’s Axis of Evil, where Dear Leader Kim Jong-il has called the shots for almost two decades now.
Despite the obvious cultural and historical differences, the two places were surprisingly similar. Granted, the North Koreans are someway ahead in the whole cult of personality thing, with Kim regarded as something akin to a divine being. But Chechnya is steadily catching up.
The glories of both Kim and Kadyrov are trumpeted in street signs, portraits and billboards across their respective kingdoms. Both men are also pretty much the main focus of local media outlets, with their daily visits to farms and so on often the news of the day. In North Korea, everyone over the age of fourteen is required to wear a loyalty badge and portraits of Kim and his late father Kim Il-sung hang in every apartment, office and public building.
While Kadyrov might not enjoy such unparalleled devotion, he recently excelled in the personality cult stakes by having Hollywood stars Jean-Claude Van Damme and Hilary Swank fly into Chechnya to wish him a “Happy Birthday!” (Kadyrov’s birthday is City Day in Grozny, although the official line is that this is mere coincidence.)
Deceased fathers play a major role in both societies. North Korea may be ruled by Kim Jong-il, but his father was awarded the status of eternal president after his death in 1994. There are eternal life monuments throughout the country, and North Koreans visit these to pay homage to the eternal prez on the anniversary of his death and birth. Like Lenin, Kim Il-sung has been embalmed and lies in a mausoleum, albeit one at least fifty times bigger than the tomb of the father of the October Revolution.
Chechnya, and especially the capital, Grozny, is covered in images of Kadyrov’s father, the first Kremlin-backed Chechen leader Akhmad Kadyrov, who was killed in a militant attack in 2004. “He left undefeated,” a huge poster of Ahmad Kadyrov states on the main street, Putin Avenue. (Yes, as in Vladimir Putin, who installed Ramzan Kadyrov as Chechen leader.)
It’s also par for course for ordinary people in both places to spontaneously glorify the various Kims and Kadyrovs. In North Korea, every single thing of any worth is said to emanate from the greatness of one or both of the Kims. “Our leader, Kim Jong-il, is a genius in all spheres,” my guide told me. “Ramzan Kadyrov saved our republic,” is the mantra in Chechnya.
Coincidentally or not, both the North Koreans and the Chechen authorities have been accused of massive human rights abuses. But was that fear I saw in the people’s eyes? Or eyes moist with gratefulness for their happy lives?
Ramzan Kadyrov may be on his way to establishing a personality cult, but, well, at least he has a personality. When asked recently by a foreign journalist why there were so many portraits of him across Chechnya, he replied, “I feel embarrassed when I see these portraits. But, hey, if they want to put them up, why shouldn’t they? After all, I’m a handsome guy.” He’s also a keen dancer, leaping up to perform the lezginka, a North Caucasus popular dance, at every opportunity. He may have been accused of countless human rights abuses, but he also seems like someone it would be at least interesting to spend a couple of hours with (depending on the circumstances of course).
Kim Jong-il, on the other hand, is an enigma to his own people. Very little is known of his life, and his voice is very rarely heard. News footage simply shows images of him, and reports his thoughts by way of indirect speech. Despite the ban on Internet access for ordinary people in North Korea, Kim is, however, known to be something of a computer buff and famously asked U.S. Secretary State Madeline Albright for her email address during her 2000 visit to Pyongyang. It’s not known if she obliged. Intriguingly, he is also rumored to have admitted that the cult of personality around him and his late father was a necessary “nonsense.”
It was easy to see, in both North Korea and Chechnya, how effective propaganda can be. While it may seem – from a distance at least – ridiculous to link the fortunes of a republic of country with one man (and his dad), the message somehow starts to work its way into your head. In North Korea, the pressure to conform was so great that Western tourists who had been in the country for less than a week were already bowing to statues of Kim, even when the North Koreans hadn’t asked them too. In Chechnya, the Russian journalists who accompanied me on my trip sang the praises of Kadyrov (He’s done a lot for Chechnya!”) all the way back to Moscow.
Faced with all this, it’s easy to start doubting yourself. Maybe I’m the one who is wrong? a little voice begins to ask. Perhaps Kim/Kadyrov really is as great as they say and I am just a hopeless cynic? Fortunately, I reread George Orwell’s 1984 earlier this year and was well aware that “Being in a minority, even a minority of one, did not make you mad.”
That is, of course, if I was in a minority of one. In both North Korea and Chechnya, folk tend not to speak their thoughts aloud. I certainly didn’t, that’s for sure.
The views expressed in this article are the author's and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
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