Behind the Iron Curtain part 37- 1st of May

These are my recollections of a life behind the iron curtain. I do not aim to give perfect and objective evaluation of anything, but to share my personal experiences and memories. It will explain why I just cannot get misty eyed over some ideas on the political left and why I loathe many ideas on the right.

One of the central dogmas of the regime was the notion that everything is for the common workers, the laborers, and peasants. Those were deemed not only essential for the proper running of society (not wrong), sometimes to ignoring that intellectuals actually have useful functions too.

The International Worker’s Day was a state holiday, and we were taught at school a bit about the history behind it. Not much, as far as I remember, but the actual reasons behind the holiday were discussed and even in hindsight, most of them were valid then and are valid now.

However, as it is with authoritarian regimes, the good came with the sidedish of the bad and sometimes downright ugly.

1st of May was an official day off of work and school, so officially people were free to spend that day as they choose. In every town and moderately sized village, there was a procession and a speech by some party representative, but attending was not compulsory. In the sense “it is voluntary, but you have to go”.

I did not like the processions that much, because I do not like crowds and loud noises. But I did attend. I do not remember much, only two experiences come to mind at least somewhat vividly.

The first experience was an extremely strong feeling of embarrassment when our local firefighter truck was driving along the procession, shouting propaganda and encouragements for cheering from loudspeakers. I did not like it and even to my socially stunted mind, it was clear that nobody else liked it either. If the day is so glorious, if our country is so great and the party so beloved, why on earth do the people need to be egged on to cheer and shout slogans by an obnoxious a-hole with a megaphone? I did not put it in those words exactly, but those were my feelings.

The second experience was the chastising of one of my classmates who was not a member of Pionýr and whose family did not attend the parade one year. In a small town, this did not go unnoticed and our class teacher did call him out publicly during class for this. There were no other repercussions other than the public shaming, but I did not enjoy seeing that at all.

In both of these instances, I have subconsciously sensed a deep disconnect between the messaging we get and the true state of affairs. That cognitive dissonance was not particularly strong, but it was there and it was nagging. When the regime finally fell, a lot of the things that did not make sense to me as a child started to make sense later.

Later in life, I was surprised that much of what I have been taught to see as “Capitalist countries” also celebrate the holiday, oftentimes including the parades and speeches, but without the voluntary compulsory nature. I am afraid that in my mind this holiday will always be tainted, as it is in the minds of many of my generation.


  1. Ice Swimmer says

    Here in Finland, 1st of May is both a workers’ holiday and a students’ holiday. Also, kids get to wear funny masks and get balloons. However, most of the actual student partying is on the day (or week*) before, various statues get student caps either in the evening or at midnight. Student caps are summer caps (peaked caps made of velvet, with a peak made of leather-type material), so they aren’t supposed to be worn before May Day. Some student unions consider it appropriate to put on the cap when the statues has been capped, others consider the midnight to be the beginning of the summer.

    Political parades and speeches are on the actual May day and people do picinics in parks. For students the herring breakfast is a tradition as herring has been hangover food (it’s salty and not hard to eat, though the smell may cause nausea).

    * = Back when I was a technology student for the first time and was able to booze, I usually partied for three days.

  2. brucegee1962 says

    I have often thought that, if I had grown up in the 1920s or 1930s, I probably would have been a Communist up until I had the chance to read Animal Farm. I think that book does the best job of explaining why those types of society just don’t work.

  3. says

    @brucegee1962, there is more than one lesson in the Animal Farm. The pigs did in the end become indistinguishable from the farmer, but that does not make the farmer a good protagonist either. The book points out, correctly, that the problem does not lie in socialism, but in authoritarianism.

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