Hero Worship

We entered the bedroom of the simple casa particular in Santa Clara, Cuba. A wooden cupboard, a sagging double bed, two small side tables and flowered curtains that barely cushioned the sun’s rays.

“Comrade Che slept here, you know.” intoned our host in strongly accented English.

“Really” we replied, keeping our smiles to ourselves. We’d already been told by another host that Che had slept in his guest bedroom. Rather than imagining that Ernesto ‘Che’ Guevera slept around a lot, we preferred to believe that Cubans were so proud of their revolutionary hero that they wanted to appropriate his memory wherever possible.

Santa Clara is the sleepy little town in the centre of Cuba where Che and a handful of revolutionary colleagues ambushed a train filled with Batista’s soldiers. They won a decisive battle that was the beginning of the end for the long-time Cuban dictator. Che of course became a hero not only to Cubans but to the marginalized and dispossessed all over Latin America, and the world. Having slept in the same room he once graced, I felt a strange affinity to this charismatic figure.

There is a massive statue of Che in a huge square on the outskirts of Santa Clara, and as I got my picture taken near one of the soldiers guarding the statue, I started to think about how different societies celebrate and remember their revolutionaries…this, of course, is worthy of a Ph.D thesis but in this short piece, let me share a some thoughts about the way we commemorate a few who have brought cataclysmic changes to their societies.

Let’s start with Vladimir Ilyich Lenin. Intellectual founder of the Soviet revolution, Head of the new Soviet Government from 1917 to his death in 1924, revered patriot, and icon of Russian history. Lenin has his own tomb, right in Red Square. His body was embalmed right after his death, and he has been a must see item on tourist visits to Moscow ever since.

A few years ago, I was there in Moscow, pacing across the cobblestones of Red Square, and I waited in a very long line, mostly of Russians with smattering of Westerners, for a 30 second tour of his body, which was enclosed in a glass container in an underground chamber not more than 100 metres from the walls of the Kremlin. Armed soldiers stood at each corner of the chamber, and we were hurried along. No photographs of course. And no talking either. Viewing Comrade Lenin was serious business. In 1924, the best Soviet scientists had been called into action, and even today, 90 years after his death, he looks not bad.

In the aftermath of the break-up of the Soviet Union, there was widespread destruction of monuments to some of the old Soviet heroes, but Lenin was often left alone. And especially in smaller towns and cities across the vast stretches of Russia, statues of Lenin can still be found presiding over innumerable squares and parks.

Mao Tse-Tung is another revolutionary hero who has retained the respect, if not the full affection of his descendants. In1949, Mao led the Communists to victory, and united China as it had not been united in hundreds of years. As with so many dictators, his 27 year reign was brutal, uncompromising and pretty effective. Let’s not forget that the economic and political colossus that is China today was an impoverished and divided state in the same year that Newfoundland joined Canada’s Confederation.

Mao’s Mausoleum is in Tiananmen Square, and his body is another embalmed masterpiece, based on the Russian technique, and his remains are daily on display for the admiration and curiosity of the Chinese people, and their tourist visitors. Mao had wanted to be cremated, but his successors knew that his body would be more valuable as an enduring symbol of the Communist Party.

I remember going there and watching the lines of Chinese people waiting patiently from very early in the day to enter Mao’s building. His little Red Book, “Quotations from Chairman Mao” was a must-have in the 60s, and it remains a best seller in China, and required reading in the schools. His iconic face is everywhere including over the main gate of the Forbidden City in Tiananmen Square.

Conveniently, his disastrous Cultural Revolution is forgotten in China, recalled mainly in novels by Westerners, such as Madeleine Thien in her “Do Not Say We Have Nothing.” Similarly, the brutal events of 1989 in the square where his mausoleum is located have also been conveniently swept under the Communist Party rug.

This is characteristic of many historical figures. Their edges are smoothed out. Their real history is highly nuanced, but what lasts over the years tends often to be a more simplified story.

So I’ve given you three revolutionary heroes of the past century: Che Guevera, Vladimir Ilyich Lenin, and Mao Tse-Tung.

Now I want to share someone who is my personal revolutionary hero, Lester B. Pearson, our former Prime Minister.

What, I can hear you say, “Mike Pearson, a revolutionary?” Not possible, he’s Canadian for one thing, he spoke with a perceptible lisp, and he wore bow ties. And where’s his mausoleum?

Pearson is buried in the MacLaren Cemetery in Wakefield, a small village just north of Ottawa, in the Gatineau Hills. His stone memorial is in plain lettering, black and grey and about 3 feet tall, not unlike the other grave markers in this simple country cemetery. His grave is on a small rise, looking towards the nearby hills and lakes. Anyone can walk to this plot of ground which serves as his final resting place. No mausoleum, no armed soldiers to guard it, no embalmed body.

But look around you, and you will see the impact of this remarkable revolutionary. The flag of Canada. Universal health care. The Canada Pension Plan. A tradition of peace-keeping for which he won the Nobel Peace Prize. A bilingual and multicultural society, which emerged from the Royal Commission he created. And a society firmly based on gender equality, which blossomed from another royal commission he set up on the Status of Women.

All this he accomplished in a mere five years, all the while leading a minority government.

Schools have been named after him. There is Pearson International Airport in Toronto. The Lester B Pearson College in Sooke, part of the United World Colleges. The Pearson Peace-Keeping Centre in New Brunswick.

But perhaps the tribute that would have pleased him the most is that the students of Carleton University named their pub “Mike’s Place”.

Full disclosure here. In my youth, I met Mr. Pearson a few times. His Government had also created the Company of Young Canadians, an agency to combine community development with the youth activism of the Sixties. I worked for the CYC for four years, and actually wrote the speech which Pearson used in the House of Commons when he introduced legislation that created the CYC. Back then, I was a semi radical guy, not the buttoned-down bureaucrat I later become. But whether I had met Pearson or not, I would still be an admirer.

Leonard Cohen starts off one of his poems “There are some men, who should have mountains to bear their names to time.” Pearson is such a man.

I’ve walked past the embalmed bodies of Lenin and Mao. I’ve had my picture taken in front of Che’s statue.

But nothing compares to standing quietly in front of the grave of a former Prime Minister, Mike Pearson, and remembering a decent, and oh so Canadian revolutionary hero.

By Stewart Goodings
Denman Island Readers and Writers Festival, July 16, 2017