I recently returned from a trip to North Korea, a country that offers a powerful example of that peculiar moment when political absolutism shades into religious cult. At one point my group of foreign tourists was ushered into a room that displayed a wax mannequin of Kim Il Sung, the founder of the country’s Communist system. His effigy, smiling serenely, stood in a simulated meadow against a painted mountain background. On either side of the diorama stood fake trees, their leaves gently wafted by an artificial breeze. Our government minders nudged us into a line and urged us to bow respectfully.
We were standing outside again, chatting with each other about the experience in bemused tones, when we noticed a North Korean tour group emerging from the same room. They were wiping their eyes, overcome with emotion. One of our guides explained that for them, it was as if they had just met the Great Leader in person. Even though Kim died in 1994, he remains officially the president of North Korea to this day—an impressive example of political life after death.
During my trip I found myself thinking a lot about Vladimir Sorokin, the Russian writer who has spent much of his career exploring the spiritual products of Soviet totalitarianism. A few years back, Sorokin published an essay devoted to a long and admiring description of the film The Fall of Berlin, a late-1940s classic of socialist realism that offers what one might describe as a High Stalinist treatment of the USSR’s victory over Nazi Germany in World War II (see illustration on page 62). In Sorokin’s description, the Stalin of the film is no longer entirely human. He is a god, a transcendent being, wise and gentle, who nobly governs world affairs even while benignly intervening in the love lives of his most modest subjects. As Sorokin writes:
Stalin moves in his own, special space, which corresponds to a special time that does not coincide with the time of ordinary mortals. The illusion that it is not a human being we have before us is so intense that we have the feeling that Stalin needs only to make a wave of his hand in order for the mask on his face to acquire cracks through which will pour the consuming light of absolute power.
Hitler is shown in the film as his complementary opposite, a Satanic figure, a “dethroned Titan” after his defeat, while Stalin descends on the conquered Berlin in his plane like a “god from the East.”
Sorokin explains in his essay that it took him years before he finally managed to see the film. After Stalin’s death The Fall of Berlin, and other socialist realist movies of the kind, were banned for decades in the Soviet Union. Sorokin speculates, probably rightly, that Soviet leaders feared the movies for their mythic power. When he finally managed to see the movie for himself, in Munich in 1991, it evoked a variety …