Behind the Iron Curtain part 4 – Healthcare

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.


Content warning, graphical description of illness.

 

Ever since childhood my health was not great. I was allergic to almost anything one can be allergic to, I got sunburned in an instant and to add insult to injury I was wearing glasses. Twice I got blind due to allergy – once when mosquitoes bit my face and it has swollen so much that I could not open my eyes, and once when we were outside with school class and the teacher has allowed us to go into a field of rye. Where a piece of awn got stuck under my eye and again caused my lids to swell to the point I could not see. I had to be led out of the forest by my classmates, and we had to keep in shade because light has made my eyes hurt like hell.

That was not the worst of it. At early age I have developed chronic tonsilitis. It could be treated with antibiotics, but it did not work in the long run. The illnesses came more and more often and a pattern has developed – two to maybe three weeks of relatively normal life, then suddenly my neck tonsils got swollen and I vomited pus and congealed blood during the night wishing I die. Then I developed fever and I could barely eat for a week during which I was on the antibiotics. After the antibiotics (penicillin mostly) have done what they could I was weakly for another week and I had to abstain from any physically challenging tasks and I was excused from gym classes.

Thus about two years have passed in this rhythm. My growth was stunted and I was not behind in school only thanks to my high intelligence and a help from our neighbour’s sister, who was a teacher and tutored me one year during my illnesses.

The problem was of course that I should have been sent for tonsilectomy after the second or third bout of antibiotics at the most. The children’s physician for our district insisted on not doing this because it might, in her words, cause asthma later on. So when the antibiotics did not seem to work in the long-term after years of torturing me, she tried to prescribe a “preventional” course of penicillin, where I was taking half a pill each day. Needles to say this did not work at all, quite the opposite. I developed an allergy to penicillin and another antibiotic had to be used from then on.

She also tried to send me for a month on a recuperation vacation stay in the mountains. Something that was intended for children living in smog-covered cities. Needless to say it was useless for a country kid and I was sick during that vacation too.

My parents have only vocational education and they lacked the knowledge to challenge the physician’s authority. They did the right thing – they delegated the problem to the expert. Unfortunately the expert was an idiot. I do not blame my parents in the least, but I refuse to greet the physician on the rare occasion I meet her although she seems to think I should like her. She should have known better.

I had a stroke of luck in that I almost died and when my parents had to call an ambulance, the arriving doctor was the general practitioner for our district. And he was competent so he explained to them that the antibiotics are now doing nothing for me and are only de-facto poisoning me. And that tonsilectomy is the only viable long-term option. After I got tonsilectomy, the last in a long string of tortures, I could not eat properly for a few weeks, and I had to avoid some foods for a few years, but the wounds healed, one tonsil even grew back, and I only had tonsilitis once or twice ever since and never as serious as it once was.

My story highlights both the strengths and the weaknesses of the system.

First strength was accessibility. Each district had a general practitioner, gynaecologist, dentist and children’s physician that rarely were more than two bus-stops or half an hour walking distance away. Hospitals were relatively regularly dispersed, so the travel to one was not too long either. Getting to a doctor was usually not a problem. The same for apothecaries. Whenever I was sick, we could mostly just walk to the doctor and pick the medicaments on the way back.

Second strength was availability. My parents did never need to worry about the costs of any of this. Everything was paid for in taxes, and everybody had available all the care they needed (even the dentist). And they got paid leave to take care for me whenever needed. That does not mean there were no economical decisions made – some rare illnesses might not be treated because the costs were too high for the state to afford. But nobody had to worry about slightly complicated flu bankrupting them, or having their teeth pulled out because they cannot afford the repair.

But the weakness was that people had their assigned physicians and there was no real choice. There was no “second opinion” really available and people did not even know that such thing exists. So if your physician was an idiot, you were foobared.

But I still think that this is one of the things the regime actually got mostly, even though not completely, right.

Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts.

Page from Wake by Rebecca Hall and Hugo Martinez (all images courtesy Hugo Martinez).

Page from Wake by Rebecca Hall and Hugo Martinez (all images courtesy Hugo Martinez).

In 1712, New York City witnessed a dramatic uprising when over 20 black slaves, fighting against their unjust conditions, set fire to several houses of white slaveowners and fatally shot nine. Known today as the New York Slave Revolt of 1712, the insurgence resulted in the conviction and public execution of 21 slaves, as well as more severe slave codes. While sources often state that these rebels were all men, the historian Dr. Rebecca Hall has identified four women who were captured during the clashing and were tried. Their names were Amba, Lilly, Sarah, and Abigail.

Erased from history books, their stories will now be told in vivid form by Hall, who has devoted much of her career to unearthing the roles of women in slave revolts. Hall is currently working on her first graphic novel, which will highlight female rebels in various 18th-century uprisings, from three in New York to those that broke out on slave ships. Titled Wake: The Hidden History of Women-Led Slave Revolts, the 150-page work emerges out of Hall’s 2004 dissertation on the same topic. She is now collaborating with independent comic artist Hugo Martinez to produce the storyboards and, through Friday, May 4, is raising $5,900 on Kickstarter to realize it for submission to publishers.

“The way the history of slave resistance has been written, this very gendered narrative developed about how manly and masculine enslaved men actually were, which served to elide the role that women played,” Hall told Hyperallergic. “I was going against everything being taught in women’s roles in slave resistance by insisting that, if I looked, I bet I would find these women.” She recalled how her dissertation advisor had told her that she wouldn’t find any sources to realize her chosen topic; how one archive claimed that it had no related material.

This is a fascinating, and I think, a necessary work. You can read and see much more at Hyperallergic, as well as on the kickstarter page, where there’s also a video. They are close to their goal, but could use a bit more help, so if you can’t donate, you can help to spread the word!

Youtube Videos: European and Japanese Armor Mobility

Two short videos comparing two different types of medieval armor from practical point of view. One by an enthusiast owning a medieval armour replica in European style, and one by an enthusiast owning a medieval armour replica in Japanese style. Both armors were made specifically for these individuals, so they are fitted as well as they should be.

A lot of the things I learned in school about medieval armor and swords was evidently completely wrong. Like that armor restricted movement so much that it was impossible to move quickly, or that swords in Europe were blunt metal bars out of poor quality steel.

The Amazing Egg Dance: Peasants to Politics.

Contrast between Carnival and Fasting (ca. 1550–99), artist unknown — Source.

Contrast between Carnival and Fasting (ca. 1550–99), artist unknown — Source. Click for full size.

Whoever the artist of the above piece was, I’d say they had been most impressed with Hieronymus Bosch. The Egg Dance, from village revelry to romance to politics. This is a wonderful piece of history, which demonstrates several cultural shifts throughout the centuries.

The egg dance was a traditional Easter game involving the laying down of eggs on the ground and dancing among them whilst trying to break as few as possible. Another variation (depicted in many of the images featured here) involved tipping an egg from a bowl, and then trying to flip the bowl over on top of it, all with only using one’s feet and staying within a chalk circle drawn on the ground. Although, as shown in many of its depictions in art, the pastime is associated with peasant villages of the 16th and 17th century, one of the earliest references to egg-dancing relates to the marriage of Margaret of Austria and Philibert of Savoy on Easter Monday in 1498.

[…]

This blindfolded version of the egg dance features in Goethe’s novel Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship (1795). … According to some scholars Goethe’s mention gave birth to the phrase “einen wahren Eiertanz aufführen” (to perform a true egg dance) which refers to moving carefully in a difficult situation. This particularly association of the egg dance with navigating danger was expressed time and time again in political cartoons of the 19th-century: various political figures, from Bismarck to Disraeli, precariously trying to make there way about a floor strewn with potential upsets.

Democracy’s Disastrous Egg-dance, (1884), Joseph Keppler. A woman labeled “Democracy” wearing a blindfold labeled “Stupidity” is pushed by Samuel J. Randall toward a chair labeled “Presidenti[al] Chair”, with several eggs in the way on the ground, they are labeled “Honest Naval Appropriation, Civil Service Reform, Honest River – Harbor Appropriation, Economy, Anti-Silver Coinage, National Banking System, Tariff Reform, [and] Prompt Legislation”, two of the eggs are broken; among a group of men laughing, in the background on the right, are John Logan, John Sherman, and William D. Kelley. — Source.

Democracy’s Disastrous Egg-dance, (1884), Joseph Keppler. A woman labeled “Democracy” wearing a blindfold labeled “Stupidity” is pushed by Samuel J. Randall toward a chair labeled “Presidenti[al] Chair”, with several eggs in the way on the ground, they are labeled “Honest Naval Appropriation, Civil Service Reform, Honest River – Harbor Appropriation, Economy, Anti-Silver Coinage, National Banking System, Tariff Reform, [and] Prompt Legislation”, two of the eggs are broken; among a group of men laughing, in the background on the right, are John Logan, John Sherman, and William D. Kelley. — Source.

The Journalistic Egg Dance (ca. 1840), Andreas Geiger. A caricature of press censorship before the 1848 revolution in Austria. During the Restoration after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the European powers, led by Austrian Chancellor Clemens von Metternich (1773-1859), restricted the freedom of speech and expression to contain any kind of critical, nationalist or anti-authoritarian movement — Source.

The Journalistic Egg Dance (ca. 1840), Andreas Geiger. A caricature of press censorship before the 1848 revolution in Austria. During the Restoration after the defeat of Napoleon in 1815, the European powers, led by Austrian Chancellor Clemens von Metternich (1773-1859), restricted the freedom of speech and expression to contain any kind of critical, nationalist or anti-authoritarian movement — Source.

You read and see much more at The Public Domain Review.

Swedish House-Gymnastics (1913).

These exercises and the photographic illustrations are splendid! Exercises anyone can do, without taking up much time, and can be done conveniently at home.

These wonderful photographs, which make such innovative use of multiple exposure, are from a 1913 German book titled Schwedische Haus-Gymnastik nach dem System P.H. Ling’s by Theodor Bergquist, Director of the Swedish Gymnastic Institute in the Bavarian spa town of Bad Wörishofen. As the title tells us, this style of “Swedish house-gymnastics” demonstrated by Bergquist (and his mysterious female colleague) is based on a system developed by Pehr Henrik Ling (1776–1839), a pioneer in the teaching of physical education in Sweden. Inventor of various physical education apparatus including the box horse, wall bars, and beams, Ling is also credited with establishing calisthenics as a distinct discipline and is considered by some as the father of Swedish massage.

I think I could choose a series to do each day from these, without over exertion, and it might really help to be a bit more flexible these days. You can see much more at The Public Domain Review.

Sunday Facepalm.

Great Again: Restoring Faith In America from EverBright Media on Vimeo. WARNING: if you’re going to watch, turn your sound waaaaaaay down. The initial blast of horns could cause a heart attack.

Mike Huckabee has a ‘free’ dvd for you, featuring time traveling kids who learn about how “god” founded Amerikka. I think all  the lunatic christians should be made to take the citizenship test for this country, they would all fail miserably, then we could kick them out. If you’re in the mood for godawful glurge, it’s all here.

Behind the Iron Curtain part 3 – Religion

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.


Today’s Czech Republic is one of the most, if not the most, atheist countries in the world. I encountered people both in meatspace and on the internet who “blame” the former totalitarian socialist regime for this. Mostly such people are coincidentally also people who assign to this godlessness all kinds of moral failings of today’s Czechs and blame their lack of faith for exceedingly high divorce rates, crime rates etc.

When one looks at the actual data though, none of this does fit. Today’s Slovak Republic was under the same regime in the former Czechoslovak Socialist Republic, yet Slovaks are much more religious. Not to mention Poles, who are almost 90% catholic until today. The crime rates etc. are similar in these countries, only abortion rate is very low in Poland – but only because it is mostly illegal and inaccessible, during the socialist regime when abortion was legal, Poles used it at a rate that was not out of the ordinary for the time.

So my (lack of) religious experiences as a child were not to be ascribed only to the regime, but at least partially they were. It was complicated.

The regime was in fact overtly anti-religious. Priests were poorly paid state employees and private donations to churches etc. were not legal to my knowledge. Being religious was not illegal per se, but it was not encouraged either and there were some obstacles put in the way of exercising beliefs. Like all official religions had to register with the state and there were some specific religions and religious sects that were illegal (like Jehovah’s Witnesses).

My grandfather was a devout catholic asshole on whose grave I do not spit only out of respect for my father. My father became disillusioned with religion early on and possibly as an act of rebellion against it he entered the communist party at the age of 18 and was banished by my grandfather as a consequence. My father is the only atheist in that branch of the family. After I was born and my grandfather became deadly sick, my mother and father took care of him in his last years. Grandfather has obliquely acknowledged the child abuse he inflicted on my father, but he never apologized to him directly, only indirectly by saying to my mother that he wronged him yet he is the only one who cares for him on his sickbed. He died before I was old enough to know him.

So I grew up in an atheistic family and went to public school in a regime that did not acknowledge any religion as true and only reluctantly allowed people to exercise some religious beliefs.

At home, religion was never spoken about and I never felt the need to ask about anything. We had plenty of books and I was an avid reader, so I knew about the existence of religions and mystical figures. I feared the devils from fairy tales despite never believing in their real existence. Similarly I knew christian God also only as a fairy-tale father figure granting favors for good deeds. It was not before ten years of age that I learned that there are still people who really believe in Christianity, including in my family. Until that age I thought it was all over, a thing of the past just like Zeus and Hera. After I learned that my favourite auntie is religious, I was completely flummoxed and to this day I never broached the subject with her.

At school, there was some talk about religion in civics, history and literature classes. In fact a very good overview of the development of religion from polytheism to monotheism in Europe from Classical age through Middle ages to Modern era. I do not remember any overt hostility towards any religion during the lectures, only dry information about them and an occasional argument that proves false some specific claim. Later on I learned that religious parents could send children to a sort of sunday school, but I never knew anyone who did so.

Even the christian creation myth was taught – as a myth. And the gorgeous movie La Création du Monde was aired on TV and I loved it as a child.

All in all in my opinion the regime did a good job informing children about religion but did discourage indoctrinating them with any. However I do not think the Iron Curtain played exquisite or even major role in it because Czechs as a whole were seemingly lukewarm about religion for centuries. Which, again, is a different story.

YouTube Video – Putting the Middle Ages in Perspective

I really like videos made by Ian LaSpina who goes under the handle Knight Errant on Youtube. They are short, to the point and are packed with well researched information (at least as far as I can tell). In this video he explains how Middle Ages were not stagnant from technological point of view and progress was being made.

I’m Fully In Favour of Fivity.

Count lascases — Since sixt week j learn the Englich and j do not any progress. Six week do fourty and two day. If might have learn fivity word four day I could know it two thusands and two hundred. It is in the dictionary more of fourty thousand; even he could must twinty bout much of tems for know it our hundred and twenty week, which do more two yars. After this you shall agrée that to study one tongue is a great labour who it must do into the young aged.

The Public Domain has a fascinating article up about Napoleon’s attempt to learn English, which he disliked and had some trouble with, to say the least.

…His English teacher was Count Emmanuel de Las Cases, an historian and loyal supporter who had been allowed to voyage with him to Saint Helena. The Count would later turn their fifteen months of conversations into a publishing sensation, Mémorial de Sainte-Hélène (1822–23). The book recorded Napoleon’s day-to-day life on the island, his sentiments on religion and philosophy, his argument that the ideals of the French Revolution had lived on in the empire. It would be printed and reprinted throughout the century, and do much to turn the perception of Napoleon from a dictator into a liberator — a slayer of tyrannical dynasties more than a founder of his own. It is also the primary window through which we can view the development of Napoleon’s English.

According to Count Las Cases, his pupil “had an extraordinary intelligence but a very bad memory: this latter particularly upset him.” As a result, Napoleon grasped English grammar with an impressive ease but vocabulary with a painful slowness.

When it came to speaking English, the Count relates, “The pupil wished only to recognise [French] pronunciation.” Perhaps the former emperor could not bear to do his vanquishers the honour of speaking their language their way. Perhaps his approach to English mirrored his general approach to foreign territory — he liked to make it his own:

Click on over to The Public Domain for the full story!

The Drolatic Dreams of Pantagruel (1565).

The Drolatic Dreams of Pantagruel is an accompanying work of François Rabelais’ The Life of Gargantua and of Pantagruel. The woodcuts are wonderfully creepy, and well worth a look even though they were most certainly not done by Rabelais.

The Public Domain has an article up about this work, and there’s an excellent post about it at Poemas del río Wang. Or, you can head right to the original images at Gallica.

Behind the Iron Curtain Part 2 – Education

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.


I was born towards the end of summer, which effectively means I was almost a year younger than many of other kids who were supposed to go to school that year. This has led to concerns whether I will be mentally mature enough to cope so I was brought in for preliminary evaluation in the spring prior to my first school year. I do not remember almost anything of it, only that it was a pleasant conversation with some old lady whom I did not know.

After I was deemed eligible, the education started. It was pretty normal as an education anywhere else at that time. Children sitting in rows in cheap, uncomfortable chairs behind small tables. Teacher standing in front of the class talking. Don’t talk unless asked, raise your hand if you want to say something or ask.

The regime had somewhat ambiguous attitude to education. On one hand it has recognized that knowledge is empowering and completely ignorant and uneducated populace is useless. Therefore eight years of elementary school were compulsory and the regime took pride in nearly universal literacy and numeracy.

On the other hand it has also recognized that educated and well-informed people are harder to control because they have that unpredictable tendency to be critical of the information presented to them and reach their own conclusion. which has proven correct, since the velvet revolution was initiated by massive student protests.

So the higher education was theoretically available to anyone who was capable, but there were caveats that had nothing to do with capability and everything to do with how much one was perceived to be a threat.

Ever since childhood I was recognized as a university material. I was top of the class and despite year-long health problems that impeded me significantly for a few years I did not need to repeat classes. My father was a member of the communist party and of Peoples Militia, and he was working class. This was considered a good thing in my yearly evaluations and was always mentioned together with my good notes. However one of my uncles was a political dissident who has emigrated to USA and was in the employ of US government. This was considered a bad thing although I was never told this and I only learned about this later on. Further, by a twist of destiny, my father, the communist, was the only one from the family who remained on good terms with his dissident brother. So there was always a big question mark about my future education and whether I will be allowed to pursue either my love of science or my passion for painting.

The regime seems to have had some sort of poorly thought out and poorly formulated concept of hereditary sin. Children and even grandchildren of aristocrats or bourgeois or anyone really even remotely related to dissidents were treated as a threat and were put under close scrutiny. As I grew older I learned about this and I have tried to understand it but I never did. It did not make any logical sense to deny someone higher education just because their grandfather was a bourgeois factory owner. They are not factory owner, they live in this wonderful socialist country where everyone is equal just like everyone else. They did not do anything wrong, their grandfather did. Where is the logic in this?

That way I learned there is another iron curtain in addition to the corporeal one in the forests. An invisible social barrier creating a tangled maze nearly impossible to navigate, because the rules were never clear and were subject to the whims of the powers that be. There was only one sure way to higher education, and that was being a relative of a high party affiliate. Everyone else could be denied for reasons they will never fully learn.

Luckily for me when I was a the end of elementary school, the regime fell and the Iron Curtain was torn down. And with it fell the artificial barriers that might prevent me from getting adequate education. There were other barriers still and new ones emerged, but that is a different story.

Stephen Shames.

Stephen Shames photograph archive.

The Briscoe Center has acquired the photographic archive of Stephen Shames. Perhaps best known for his role as the Black Panther Party’s photographer between 1967 and 1973, Shames has also documented many political and social issues over a 50-year career.

“Shames has used his camera to document the intimate histories of a wide range of subjects, including black political activism in the Bay Area, everyday life in New York City, and child poverty across America,” said Don Carleton, executive director of the Briscoe Center. “His archive will not only be preserved here at the center, it will be actively utilized in our mission to foster exploration of the American past, which is why a selection of his work prints is currently on display in the center’s exhibit hall.”

[…]

“As a young man I was privileged to have inside access to the Black Panther Party. Later, as a photojournalist and artist I traveled the world and embedded myself in the lives of many living on the edges of society,” said Stephen Shames. “I hope students and scholars can use these archives to enter worlds they cannot see in person, but can experience through historic photography. I learned a great deal from the people I photographed. I hope others can expand their knowledge and understanding of our world through my work.”

An exhibit of Stephen Shames’s photography is now on display at the Briscoe Center, University of Texas at Austin. You can read more here.

Nazis: All About Taking Guns Away.

Image credit: STILLFX.

Frances Swaggart, wife of Jimmy Swaggart, has been mouthing off about the recent marches for gun control and reform, and she doesn’t like it, no sir. Ms. Swaggart did pop up with some interesting reasoning, which she claims is historical fact:

“Hitler’s regime took away guns from the people in Germany and then he herded all of those who did not like it into box cars and shipped them to concentration camps where they were enslaved, beaten, raped and murdered,” she said. “The victims didn’t fire a shot in self defense because their guns had been taken away. That’s a fact.”

“And that’s why evil people want to take the guns away from law-abiding citizens here in the United States of America,” the host opined. “Everybody says, ‘Let’s get rid of the guns.’ It’s the worst decisions that could be ever made. Get rid of the guns. No! No! No! Put God back into the schools.”

Um…how in the hell do you even address this level of wrong? I, uh, can’t even figure out where to start. Perhaps with this: if everyone was armed, maybe the time to go on a nazi shooting spree would have been before the herding into box cars? No, I just can’t do this, it all seems terribly frivolous to even address this monstrous falsity in the face of such evil. I certainly know where the evil lies in this country, and that’s with christian conservatives, who keep falling further off the cliff of lunacy. Dangerous lunacy. Unfortunately, there’s more of this, but even reading it makes me feel sick. You can read the rest at RawStory.