Behind the Iron Curtain part 28 – Guns

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.


Guns were not something one would see every day and in every household. They were indeed very, very rare. But they were not non-existent, there was some limited access to guns for the general populace and I got to see and even handle guns as a child. In fact, shooting was a skill that was positively encouraged, although gun ownership was not.

The most obvious case are hunting rifles and shotguns. I live in a small rural town, and there were plenty of gamekeepers around who were sometimes seen walking through the town with their guns slung on the shoulder whilst on the way to/from the forest. The safety requirement was for them to carry the guns unloaded and I do not remember anyone not observing this.

One gamekeeper was a leader of very small (5 people at most) local pionýr club which I attended, centered around nature and care for it. I learned a lot in that club, including how to shoot a varmint rifle. The gamekeeper took us one day far into the forest, to an inaccessible spot near a place where WW2 american aeroplane fell into bog, and he allowed us to take turns in shooting varmint rifle at a paper box hung from a tree. I still remember how my childhood bully (who was unfortunately also a member of the club) got dismayed that my shooting was better than his. But the best shot in the group was of course boy who had a gun at home.

A gun at home, you say? Impossible! Well, air guns were not illegal, although they were not cheap and easy to come by. Everybody got a chance to shoot them at some point. Shooting competitions were very common on fairs when the merry-go-rounds came into town, and they were also ubiquitous in summer camps for kids. Boys and girls were equally encouraged to learn shooting from the regime, although the general culture saw this more as a “boy’s” thing.

The regime wanted everyone to know at least the basic of how to shoot a gun, and since military service was compulsory for men, every man eventually learned how to handle firearms, including automatic and semi-automatic weapons. Not everybody got a chance to handle those weapons outside of military or People’s Militia, but in my town everybody got to see them. Because it is a border town near the iron curtain, and the border patrol was everywhere. Seeing an AK-47 was not something completely unusual, especially outside the town limits.

But getting your hands on one was more difficult. And getting your hands on ammunition even more so. The access to guns was very tightly regulated, and this had one positive outcome – no mass shootings whatsoever. When Olga Hepnarová, an infamous mass-murderer, has planned her deed, she initially wanted to either set off explosives or shoot a crowd from an automatic weapon. She learned how to shoot – which was easy – but was later forced to change her plan due to the difficulty of getting a gun and ammo So she decided to use a truck instead and managed to kill 8 and injure 12 people. American gun-nuts would no doubt use this as a proof of “guns don’t kill people, people kill people”, but to me it is a proof that gun regulations work, because there is no doubt that had she had easy access to guns, the damage she would do would be even greater.

Fossil Find

An interesting find from Avalus.

I found this little piece of (oil) shale next to roadway currently under maintenance/construction. It is the imprint of a fern and something else. The stone might have come from the near Saar-region, where coal was dug up from the ground. The ‘waste-rocks’ are used as road-gravel.

‘We are walking on history’ gets a deeper meaning here, I guess.

(I need to take a picture of the fossil fern next to a living fern in spring :) )

schieferfossil, ©Avalus, all rights reserved

Cracking the Iron Curtain

[Note: This is not a historian’s overview of the events, so if you want to pick at the historical details, feel free to do so but don’t expect me to participate. I have compiled several sources of information and added my own personal impressions. That is all.]

It was two weeks in the frigid January air, two weeks waiting for an unknown future, two weeks that culminated in a night of violence but a final victory, of sorts.

The Barricades (LatvianBarikādes) were a series of confrontations between the Republic of Latvia and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics in January 1991 which took place mainly in Riga. The events are named for the popular effort of building and protecting barricades from 13 January until about 27 January. Latvia, which had declared restoration of independence from the Soviet Union a year earlier, anticipated that Soviet Union might attempt to regain control over the country by force. After attacks by the Soviet OMON on Riga in early January, the government called on people to build barricades for protection of possible targets (mainly in the capital city of Riga and nearby Ulbroka, as well as Kuldīga and Liepāja). Six people were killed in further attacks, several were wounded in shootings or beaten by OMON. Most victims were shot during the Soviet attack on the Latvian Ministry of the Interior on January 20. One other person died in a building accident reinforcing the barricades. Casualties among Soviet loyalists are considered likely, but the exact number remains unknown. A total of 15,611 people have registered as having been participants of the Barricades,[citation needed] but other data suggests that more than 32,000 Latvians took part.

(wikipedia)

There’s a small photo gallery here (25 photos).

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Behind the Iron Curtain part 27 – Propaganda

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.


Marcus has shown old propaganda posters on his blog from time to time, and they are interesting to see, but that is not actually how the main bulk of the propaganda was done during my lifetime. In fact, that is not how it was done in my lifetime at all.

Of course I lived after Stalin has been dead and rotten for a while and the regime has mellowed a bit. But I got to see a lot of propaganda from earlier times nevertheless. And I – and most of my countrymen – do occasionally see it to this very day, and enjoy it. How come?

Because it was in the movies. Czech cinematography during the regime was quite well-off. The regime has recognized the importance of a good story for persuading people, especially children, and they capitalized on this. They shot a lot, and I mean a lot, of fairy-tales and movies for children and young people. The quality was often very high, which is why they are still popular until today – and quite frankly, Hollywood flicks cannot hold a candle to many of them in terms of historical(ish) accuracy and detail regarding the costumes and settings. If this -click- is accessible to you click through a few scenes of the movie and see for yourself. What has helped of course is that medieval architecture of whole streets and even towns is not hard to come by here and need not be built from scratch.

The movie that I linked to is first in a two-movie series about Prague during the reign of Rudolf II, the last Habsburg who made Prague the capital city of the Austrian empire and elected to live there permanently. It is a story of a young baker, who is the emperor’s doppelgänger and gets coincidentally swapped for the emperor at a time when the emperor has drunk a youth potion. The movie was very succesful and according to Wikipedia it was even distributed in USA with english subtitles -click-.

I am not going to relate the whole story to you, but in short the whole movie is about exposing the corruption of a feudal system, the shallowness of people who are always out there for themselves. And the importance of us all just getting along and pulling together in one direction. The selfish and greedy are to be ostracised and punished, and there is no greater achievement than to work for the good of the collective. The good ol’ communism in a nutshell.

And that theme was common in movie production of that time, sometimes overtly, sometimes covertly, but it was always there. As a child I of course did not see anything wrong with that message. As an adult I see plenty wrong with that message.

I agree with the principle in theory, but not in praxis. Because, in the words of Terry Pratchett, it approaches societal problems instead with “this is how people are, what can we do about it?” with “this is how people should be, how can we make them?”. Trying to build a society that depends on most people being an ideal that said society requires to work properly is just as silly as trying to build a society depending on ideal environmental/economic conditions*. The world contains neither ideal conditions, nor ideal people. All people are a complex mixture of selfishness and altruism, bigotry and acceptance, wisdom and stupidity and a lot more in the mix. Similarly all societies contain hierarchies and barriers that are outside of an individual’s control, and a plenty of built-in inequalities and unfairness. And it all changes continuously.

I admit that even today I watch these movies with a pang of nostalgia. I wish the message in them were applicable in real world. It isn’t. It only works in fairy tales.


*I summed it up for myself a few years ago thus: Communism can only work with perfectly round people and libertarianism can only work in perfect vacuum.

Behind the Iron Curtain part 26 – Five Year Plans

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.


This seems like a fitting theme for the beginning of a new year.

A few years ago somewhere around FtB I have said that “socialism doesn’t work” and I got immediately criticized for that statement. That day I learned that some people understand the word “socialism” to mean something different from what it means to me. Because when I say the word “socialism” without qualifiers, I mean the economic system that was practiced in the eastern bloc.

Central to the economy were so-called Five Year Plans, which right until the very end of the regime were touted as the bestest and greatest of things ever, a universal solution to every single economical problem there is. And as it is with universal solutions, it was everything but.

So how did it work? The head honchos of the Communist Party got together, looked at what the economy is doing – how much is produced of this, how much is produced of that, how many people work here and there – and then they have drawn a plan for next year delineating what shall be done in next five years – i.e. how much shall be produced of this, how much of that, and how many people will work doing it. This plan was really very detailed and specific, so not only how much steel ore shall be mined, but also how many cars will be produced, even how much of which agricultural products will be grown etc. The planing also included wages and all costs.

And, as the saying goes, the devil is in the details.

There is nothing inherently wrong in setting a specific long-term goal for yourself, for a company, for a country, or even a conglomerate of countries. The problem is too many and too specific goals. Any change of direction or rescheduling was only possible after the party’s say so, and that has proven too slow and sluggish in today’s world.

The results were twofold.

Firstly the economy could not react to demand for new goods. If during the five-year period a new product appeared for which there was demand, or a demand for an existing product increased unexpectedly, there was no room for meeting that demand. This was one of the reasons for the existence of “under the counter” goods that I mentioned previously. For some goods, like cars, there were waiting lists long many years, even decades. Some goods were sometimes scarce, and not only luxury goods, but even toilet paper and menstrual pads – when those appeared on the counters, they disappeared fairly quickly because everybody stocked up since you never knew when you will be able to buy them again. And people’s grumbling was of no consequence to the manufacturers, because as long as they met or slightly exceeded the plan, everything was officially hunky-dory.

Secondly sometimes goods were produced even if there was no longer demand for them, because meeting the planned target was paramount. A huge waste of resources and manpower. And of course another cause for backwardness. Imagine in today’s world the quick transition from old cellphones to smartphones, which happened in a year. Under the five-year plan a goal would be set to produce X cellphones, so cellphones would be produced for five years, even if a year into the plan the invention of smartphone made them nearly obsolete.

This sluggishness was one of the reasons why the eastern bloc was unable to keep up with the west economically. But the regime had all the best answers and critics were not allowed to speak up, so the system was bone headedly used right until the very end, when the regime started to fall apart.


As a side note, I see similar thinking in today’s USA owned corporations. I have personal experience with two of them. The first one was trying to plan everything centrally, allotting manpower from top down according to the numbers in their theoretical tables and allowing little to no space for local decisions. This has led to a lot of problems and actual waste of money, because instead of workers contractors had to be hired for prolonged times – and in Europe, contractors are more expensive than employees, even when taking into account mandatory severance packages. HR manager tried to tell me otherwise, but when he found out that I can count he shut up and said that he knows that I am right, but the commands from USA say it has to be done like this, so he is doing it.

The second company pretends to give local managers some leeway without actually doing so, and in addition to that forces everybody to use one decision tool, a tool they think is the holy grail of all business tools, the bestest there is, the one solution to all problems. Unfortunately I am not allowed to criticize it or point out its many fold problems in the open, but I have done so to my supervisors, who agreed with me, but were powerless to do anything about it – because despite the pretense, there is still heavy top-down management style. I am very skeptical of everyone who says they have a universal solution. Universal solutions do not exist.

Tummy Thursday: Gumbo or what makes an easy meal

Since I told you all in depth about our New Years Eve dinner, here’s the recipe for my American main course.

I searched the internet for a gumbo recipe that seemed doable and delicious and then had a trial cooking.

The first problem was to get some sausage that resembles Andouille. As you can see at that link, there is a sausage called anduille in France, but it sounds very different from the creole version and actually I detest it. I decided to go with smoked polish sausage that was very hearty, but did not have caraway seed (Eastern European sausages often have generous amounts of caraway seed and I don’t like that either). I think it made a great substitute and got used both times.

Next was the okra. I had never used okra before, and I even went to a Turkish supermarket to get some fresh okra especially for this, but, let me tell you, they aren’t called “slime fruit” in German for nothing. The little “stars” looked nice, but I don’t think they added much taste and really, I can do without the added consistency of slime, so they got left out the second time.

I changed the seasoning somewhat, leaving out the “hot sauce” but adding a “Cajun” spice and pepper mix that I quite like and the result was simply to die for.

gumbo

©Giliell, all rights reserved

This is the trial version before i added the shrimp.

Making the gumbo got me thinking of how the idea of “easy meal” probably changed with women’s work shifting to the outside (I hate the insinuation that housewives “didn’t work”. I want to to see those people scrub the laundry). I can imagine that for a woman who had to do all the chores and probably some farming on the side, this gumbo would have been an “easy meal”. Sure, the roux requires a bit of your attention, but you can use that time to chop your veggies. Then you just hang it high above the fire or put it on the side of the wood stove and go about your day and do your work, while the meal is cooking itself. And you can make a big serving and don’t have a lot of dishes afterwards. Perfect meal for getting your family through a busy workday.

Nowadays, the idea of making something that needs to stew for three hours screams “festive meal” to any person who work outside.

 

Behind the Iron Curtain part 25 – Christmas

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.


Not only the Christians have realized that trying to ban solstice celebrations that have gone on for thousands of years is like pissing against a hurricane. Communists realized that too. To my knowledge, they did not even try to eradicate or co-opt it. They just went along with it as it was.

I mentioned already that the regime was in fact actively anti-religion and anti-theism in general. This had little to no effect on the general population though. Czechs were heathens before, during and after the Iron Curtain, Slovaks and Poles were strongly catholic before, during and after the Iron Curtain. And since I live in one of the most heathen parts of Czech Republic, my childhood Christmas had nothing to do with any religious mumbo-jumbo whatsoever.

So how did we actually approach the Christmas? As a family holiday, a time for spending time together and gift-giving. The TV run mostly light entertainment (and still does) for three days straight, with emphasis on fairy-tales, whose airing on TV literally became a new christmas tradition in itself. There are fairy-tales that are expected to be aired for generations, and when they ceased to be aired after the fall of Iron Curtain, because they do contain some propaganda stuff hidden in them, they were nevertheless demanded by the public and thus got aired again.

My parents tried, not very enthusiastically and therefore with little success to bring some “magic” to the gifts appearing under the christmas tree by being brought by Ježíšek (Baby Jesus), whom they never defined to me. However it did not last long and I in fact remember nearly nothing about it. By the time I started to go to school one girl in our class got mercilessly mocked by most of the class for openly saying she believes in Baby Jesus bringing gifts. Most of the kids by that time already knew how gift giving really works.

First time I have learned what Ježíšek is actually supposed to be that I remember was when reading the book by Josef Lada “Kocour Mikeš” (Mikes the (male) cat). The book contains the whole biblical story of how Jesus was born in Bethlehem, sanitized for children audience into a fairy-tale form. Which is how I got exposed to most of religious ideas – as fairy tales. Which is what they are.

As soon as I gained some skills, I was trying to make christmas presents for my parents and siblings. The first succesful attempt that I remember was making simple paper models of a church (for my Mum) a castle (for my father) and a fort (for my brother). Blast it, I completely forgot what I have given to my sister that year. Nevermind, this was and remained for me the true meaning of christmas, but I grew up to resent the mandatory gift giving because life obligations are not so kind as to align with arbitrary date in the calendar, so nowadays if I come across something that would be suitable as a christmas gift, I give it on christmas, but I do not fuss about it. I give gifts to family and friends when opportunity and/or need arises, Christmas or no.

The one tradition that endured all political changes in our country, and which even our heathen family still observes, is eating of fish – specifically carp – for dinner on 24. of December. The fish are generally sold alive a few days prior. And since my mom was the boss at local food store, she was in charge of these yearly fish sales. So as a child I have spent a few adventurous days from 4:00 a.m. till 5:00 p.m. with my dad and a few other people outside, near the huge vats in which the carp swam. I learned to kill, gut and dismember fish before I finished school. I learned to recognize a few fish species that way too, because other fish got occasionally caught with the carp. I had a lot of fun there and I looked forward to that part of Christmas the most – when I was healthy enough to actually participate that is.

I like the fish soup and less so the fish steaks, but what I do not like at all is the killing and dismembering the poor animal. I am not opposed to eating meat and killing animals for that purpose, but I do not enjoy it either. However since my father has a really bad eyesight now, it is nowadays my duty to do these chores. I usually let the fish being killed at the stall however, so the poor animal’s suffering is over quickly

A tangent – how Chuck Norris was unable to kill christmas carp. The man at the end says “Everyone can be tough on TV”. I know Chuck Norris is a bit whacko and a Republican, but there is no denying he does have a sense of humor:

 

Happy whatever, everyone.

Slavic Saturday

Lets put Christ back in Christmas, shall we? Christ is the reason for the season, after all! That’s why it’s called Christmas!

Whenever I hear this nonsense from American Christians, I am reminded how shallow and uninformed their view of the world is. They actually really think that English language is prescriptive of how reality works and that Christians invented solstice celebrations.

So lets today just briefly look at the Czech term Vánoce. It is not actually slavic word in origin. It comes from German word “Weihnachten”, which probably just means “holy nights”. We borrowed quite a few words from our neighbors over the centuries. The original Slavic word was possibly “god” or “gody”, which has nothing whatsoever to do with any deity, it is a word for a celebration, holiday and/or feast.

Like I mentioned, there are no written records from old Slavic cultures, but something can be ascertained from what others wrote about them, especially christians before and when they started converting Slavic pagans to Christianity around 800 A.D. From this it seems that on the night of solstice Slavs celebrated the death and rebirth of a god Dažbog (Daž – give, bog – god), who was the sun-god. The celebrations consisted of having a huge bonfire lasting from sunset to dawn and feasting (without meat foods) around it. The feasting has lasted for a few days, cookies ornated with crosses and swastikas were a part of it, as well as going around singing carols and receiving/giving gifts. Note that these were de-facto celebrations of a new year – old man Dažbog has died on the evening, and he was re-born in the morning to grow (spring), gain strength (summer) age (fall) and die again next solstice. Whilst Dažbog was alive, world was safe. But during the night he was dead the chaos and evil could enter the world – thus the bonfires to keep his strength in the world and people safe from chaos through the night.

I won’t go into details, because I do not know them – I am not an expert, just a guy who read something about these things now and then throughout his life. And even experts must rely a lot on extrapolations from linguistic and still living traditions. There might be mistakes in what I wrote and it by no mean is comprehensive. Whole books are written about it. However one thing is sure – these traditions were old, predated christianity (at least here) and many of them never died.

Similar traditions at this time of year were also held by Germanic (hence christmas trees) and Celtic (mistletoes) pagans.

Christian missionaries were fully aware that trying to eradicate such traditions is akin to pissing against a hurricane, so they co-opted them. Instead of re-birth of the sun-god, it was told Baby Jesus was born. You can keep your crosses and your feasts, but instead of holding a wake at a bonfire, go to a mass at midnight etc. etc. at bleeding nauseam.

Christ was never the “reason for the season”. The sun was.

Behind the Iron Curtain part 24 – LGBTQ rights

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 do not actually remember how much I was informed about these issues as a child before and after the fall of the Iron Curtain, but what I do remember is that my first encounter was not with an actual (known) homosexual person, but with a homophobic slur. The sad reality is, that Czechs were and to great extent still are very homophobic, or at least “I am not a homophobe, but…”, which is a distinction without difference.

However from legal standpoint Czechoslovak Socialist Republic was actually relatively progressive, or at least not less progressive than many western countries. Homosexuality was decriminalized in 1962, 5 years before the United Kingdom. And gender reassignment therapy and surgery, although with more than a few bureaucratic hurdles to jump through, were (and are) available and paid for from state health insurance.

Nevertheless, despite gay rights being on the left side of the political spectrum in current USA and most of western world, it was not so behind the Iron Curtain. As avid reader and a very curious child, I have read behind my parents’ back magazines for adults (as opposed to magazines for children), which even in the puritanical culture did contain some information about sex and sexuality. And on one such occasion I came across an article that mentioned a peculiar fact – whilst homosexual acts between consenting adults were decriminalized in ČSSR, this was not the case everywhere in the Eastern Bloc. In USSR, male homosexuality was still illegal and punishable by imprisonment. The rationale mentioned in the article was homophobic, patriarchal and misogynistic all at once, and I remember recognizing it as such even at the time, although of course I did not know those fancy words back then: “A woman’s weakness can be forgiven, but a soldier must control his urges.”

After the fall of the iron curtain this discrepancy between the two countries sadly progressed. Whilst Czech Republic slowly but steadily progresses towards more and more legal rights for LGBTQ people along with public opinion progressing as well, in Russian Federation the trend actually reversed after a brief period of attempted progress.

So to me this, together with before mentioned environmentalism, is another one of the issues that actually is not left or right and it is just a coincidence that it is considered so in current political climate in the west. But lets not forget that political left can be just as adept at finding rationalizations for the homophobia of their power base as political right currently is. Hate of the other can, unfortunately, be quite the unifying issue in all kinds of political context.

David Ruston’s Roses

From Lofty, the story of the man behind Australia’s famous Ruston’s Roses.

This is a statue of David Ruston in a park in Renmark, a tribute to the man and his contribution.

… Ruston’s Roses in Renmark, once Australia’s biggest rose garden. David Ruston began working here at 18, and developed a life long passion for roses. He became world renowned, and was for a time President of the World Federation of Rose Societies.  He built his father’s original collection of 500 rose bushes in to over 50,000 bushes. But he didn’t just grow roses, he was also an expert floral arranger.

Sadly, his health declined, as did the gardens, although they are still open to the public and with new ownership I hope the garden will return to its previous splendor and supply roses to the world once again.  The garden currently has a contract to supply rose petals to the Nineteenth Street Distillery in Renmark for use in their Gin.

David had a fall a year ago, and although he was present for the opening of the Renmark Rose Festival he was unable to participate.

I like the use of hard steel to display a man of flowers.

©David Brindley, all rights reserved

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