Behind the Iron Curtain part 30 – Panslavism

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.


A little cross-over with Slavic Saturday today, because it is not a coincidence that majority of the nations behind the Iron Curtain were Slavic nations. It was a direct consequence of history.

In early middle ages many Slavic nations were fairly influential – both Czechs and Poles were at the center of big kingdoms and even empires. As time went however, this changed and virtually all Slavic nations but one (Russians) were conquered and incorporated into empires and kingdoms ruled by other nationalities – German-speaking nations in the central and northern west Europe, Ottomans in the South and Russians in the east and north-east. The minority Slavic nations were treated poorly, to say the least, and some groups were slowly essentially absorbed by majority into non-existence. That is why there is no Polabian language today. In my country, Habsburgs attempted over these centuries to germanize Czechs in the same way and to eliminate Czech language altogether.

This has obviously failed and one of the reasons was so-called Czech national revival in nineteenth century. This was active political movement in Bohemia, aimed at what it says in the name – revival and preservation of Czech culture and Czech language. To this day some commonly used Czech words still have germanic origin, but some such words were replaced by artificial neologisms that were crafted by activists during this period and were good enough to take hold among the general populace.

In this period in time the so-called Panslavic Movement started, an active attempt to make Slavs stick together around shared identity. After all, “Slav” originates in essence from “he who speaks as I do”. The movement did and did not take off at the same time. It was and remained for long big sentiment in Czech and Slovak speaking lands, but not among Poles. Why is this? Because the movement was quickly dominated by Russia and there were many who advocated for all Slavs attempting to get under Russian leadership. But among the many Slavic nations, Poled had first-hand, centuries long experience with being ruled by Russians and they knew that they are not better off than Czechs under German rule and that voluntary russification is not the way to go.

But some sentiments took hold among the populace and when Communists took hold of power after WWII outside of Russia, the panslavic idea was incorporated into the party ideology. It was one of the reasons why Russian language was compulsively taught in all states behind the Iron Curtain, and the idea of Panslavism was part of school curriculum even towards the end of the regime short before its fall.

Today, when you look under some succesful video on YouTube made by someone of Slavic origin (like the video I shared before) you will find comments that can be interpreted as some expression of lingering panslavic sentiments in there. And as you might guess – correctly – there is some of this sentiment in me too.

But overall I think my yesterday’s post demonstrates clearly that the idea of Panslavism did not take very strong hold overall. The diversity among Slavs today is really, really big. For example on religion alone – there are Slavic nations that are predominantly Catholic, nations that are Orthodox Christian, nations that are Muslims and at least one nation which is decidedly Not Giving a Fuckist. And many of those nations tie their national identity strongly together with their religious identity which makes it hard to feel common bond with those whose religion is significantly different. Language similarities, even as big as between Czechs and Slovaks, are just not enough to build a strong common bond artificially after centuries of cultural divergence.

And thus when the last attempt to tie this identity together with political ideology of authoritarian communism failed, so did Panslavism fade into insignificance. The Iron Curtain was not strong enough to keep people apart. Unfortunately it was thus because it also was not good enough to keep them willingly together.

Slavic Saturday

The Brexit fiasco reminded me of a few events in recent history of Slavic nations, events that happened shortly after the fall of the Iron Curtain – the breakups of former federate states from the eastern bloc. I am going to talk a bit about two of them, one of them is very typical and one of them is very atypical.

The first one I want to mention is the breakup of former Yugoslavia. I am no expert on this (I am no expert on anything), but from the outside it has followed up a fairly typical pattern. First multiple nations with historical tensions and grievances against each other were held together in one state where they were all supposedly equal, but in reality some were more equal than others. There was a lot of religious and national diversity, but it was separated not integrated diversity and so the tensions and grievances remained and bubbled under the surface. When the grip of communist regimes over their countries started to falter, nationalism and religious fanaticism started to rise their ugly heads in all of them, which quickly escalated into armed conflicts and full-blown wars, in Yugoslavia with genocide included. It is unlikely the wounds of this recent conflict will heal in foreseeable future as those ancient grievances got exacerbated and embedded in the minds of new generations. Even I know personally people who got displaced from their home country by this conflict, despite having had the luxury of not even being close to a military conflict my whole life.

The second breakup I want to mention is one that I have lived through – the breakup of former Czechoslovakia into two separate states, Czechia and Slovakia. This one was very atypical. It started differently – after the WWI when nation states were being formed, Czechs and Slovaks have voluntarily decided to form together one state, Czechoslovakia. An attempt was made to officialy blend them into one “Czechoslovak” nation, but this never took really hold – it was clear the two nations have their own distinct languages and cultures, and they retained them.

It was not all roses. Slovakia was significantly less developed both culturally (lower literacy) and economically than Czechia from the onset, and thus it was more rural and poorer. Unfortunately it remained poorer throughout the whole time the two nations shared one state (which was several generations with short disruption during WWII), because Czechs were a majority and power was concentrated in Prague. This has led to development of understandable resentment and nationalist tendencies among Slovaks, who wanted to take the reigns of their land into their own hands. And so they did. But not through revolution, or armed conflict, but through purely peaceful political means. Elected leaders of the two countries got together, discussed things, agreed on a separation, some money was exchanged, some treaties were signed, not too enthusiastically hard customs border was added and that was it. Most inconvenienced were people who lived along the border, who sometimes had to traverse the border on a commute to-from work, but nobody got actually hurt.

From what I know from history this is pretty rare, and my personal opinion about reasons for why this happened thus are:
1) One important factor here is the voluntary nature of the union in the first place.
2) Lack of historical conflict between the two nations. There was no past history of conflicts between the two nations anyone could remember, none whatsoever. Within the Austro-Hungarian Empire under Habsburgs, Czechs main grievance was against Germans (to which I will return in future musings) and Slovaks against Hungarians.
3) There was no religious fanaticism or even strong dividing religious identity involved. Technically both nations were predominantly catholic, but Czechs attitude towards religion could best be described as “meh” for almost a hundred years by that time, and Slovaks, whilst being more religious than Czechs, were no wannabe-crusaders either.
4) The party that initiated the dissolution – Slovaks – did not hold the economic majority. So Czechs had no economical incentive to hold onto the Slovak state. Quite the opposite, it was felt that it would be Slovaks who lose, so if the want to go, they should be left to do so..

I am not sure what conclusions can be drawn from this, or if any can be drawn at all, but I think both cases are worth remembering.

The Woman with Lapislazuli in her Teeth

I’ve had this tab open for ages because I really wanted to share this story with you, which is cool and sad atb the same time, as it shows how modern notions of society have clouded the vision on the past.

What Anita Radini noticed under the microscope was the blue—a brilliant blue that seemed so unnatural, so out of place in the 1,000-year-old dental tartar she was gently dissolving in weak acid.

It was ultramarine, she would later learn, a pigment that a millennium ago could only have come from lapis lazuli originating in a single region of Afghanistan. This blue was once worth its weight in gold. It was used, most notably, to give the Virgin Mary’s robes their striking color in centuries of artwork. And the teeth that were embedded with this blue likely belonged to a scribe or painter of medieval manuscripts.

Who was that person? A woman, first of all. According to radiocarbon dating, she lived around 997 to 1162, and she was buried at a women’s monastery in Dalheim, Germany. And so these embedded blue particles in her teeth illuminate a forgotten history of medieval manuscripts: Not just monks made them. In the medieval ages, nuns also produced the famously laborious and beautiful books. And some of these women must have been very good, if they were using pigment as precious and rare as ultramarine.

Read the whole story here.

Behind the Iron Curtain part 29 – Crime

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, if I want to see the official crime rate in my country, I can just go to google and look it up. There are even handy pre-made comparisons with USA to be found. When I was a child, this was not the case, and essentially nobody knew what crime rate the Czechoslovak Socialist Republic actually has.

But it was not due to the nonexistence of internet as some might think. It was due to state’s secrecy about matters that might speak unfavourably about the regime.

Part of our education were occasional visits of schools by party dignitaries, local law-enforcement officers or border patrol officers etcetera. On several such occasions the talks veered into the territory of law trespassers and sometimes some kid has asked “how much crime X happens”? Invariably, the answer to this was “that is a state secret”. So nobody, except a few officials, had a chance to know pretty much anything specific.

But I do not want to talk about some generic crime rates today, I want to concentrate on one specific crime and how it was used to control people – unemployment, or, as it was officially called, “the crime of parasitism”. Under the regime, everyone had a right to a job, but that came with the duty to have a job. Every able person had a duty to work and it was literally against the law to not fulfill this duty.

And whilst it is reasonable to have measures to discourage or perhaps even punish slackers and hangers-on in a social state, that was not the only purpose and the only use of the law. Because since jobs were to great extent assigned centrally, the state had a huge control over what kind of job one can get, or whether one can get a job at all. And therefore political dissidents were sometimes pushed to jobs where it was clear that they are at odds with their qualifications and needs, so they could eventually be pushed towards joblessness – and thus criminalized. It was also a way to completely criminalize any form of sex work, which officialy did not exist so any sex worker was automatically a parasite without the regime having to acknowledge even the existence of sex workers publicly.

In TV there was a regular broadcast “Federal Criminal Headquarters Searches, Advises, Informats” where names and faces of searched criminals were shown so that general populace can help in finding them. I did not give it too much thought at the time – it was just one adult thing in the background – but I do remember hearing the phrase “is searched for the crime of parasitism” quite often. In retrospect today I wonder how many of those people actually were real moochers and how many were slowly and deliberately pushed out of society for being inconvenient to the reigning powers.

Slavic Saturday

My oral graduation exam in highschool* was not looked forward to by my Czech language and literature teacher.  All the others (Biology, Chemistry, German language) have expected me to do reasonably well or even excel, but he had some reservations. I already had a 1 for my essay writing, but the oral exam was essentially going to be about history of Czech literature, and I had great dislike towards learning that history.

The reasons for this were multiple. Firstly history was taught as a sequence of dates  and names to memorize, and I have always had very, very poor memory for numbers and names, despite having excellent memory in general. It is extremely difficult for me to remember birth dates, even of the closest people I know. Secondly I was never convinced by the argument that learning history is important in order to avoid repeating mistakes, because I saw very early on that the whole of history actualy consists of repeating said mistakes by people who knew about them. And thirdly I did not go on well with that teacher on personal level.

So my knowledge of Czech literary history and theory was very, very sketchy. I have honestly tried my best to memorize all the dull and unpalatable shit that I was supposed to know for the exam, but it just did not hold. About the only thing I had a really detailed knowledge about was Karel Čapek, because I liked his books and I have read everything he wrote that I could get my hands on. The teacher knew this and later on I learned that he actually expressly said that he is apprehensive of my exam because “Čapek is all (Charly) knows”.

I was lucky during my exam. I have drawn a question where the main component was some poetry shit I knew nearly nothing about, and secondary question was something vaguely connected to Karel Čapek. I took my chance when preparing my notes and during talking I managed to drift to Čapeks works just after a few sentences and I stayed there talking in minute detail for the whole 15 minutes the exam took. The teacher, relieved, has let me. The observing teacher (an independent assessor from another school) did not intervene either, for whatever reason. And so I got lucky and passed.

Actually, to say that I liked Čapek is an understatement, I admired him greatly. Čapek is in my opinion unsurpassed in Czech literature. Very progressive for his time, and, above all, a fervent pacifist. In today’s world he would probably be left of Bernie Sanders, but he would not be radical leftist in a real sense of the word “radical” not how it is viewed in Anglophone world today, where anyone arguing that not everything should be privatized is labeled as radical leftie. He might even be accused of centrism by true radicals.

Čapek was very outspoken critic of Nazi Germany and its policies, so much so that his personal safety was threatened by local Nazi sympathisers. Allegedly some friends recommended to him to carry a weapon for self-defense after he received death threats, but his commitment to pacifism was such that all he could manage to do was to carry a small starter pistol and when confronted about it he replied “I know that I won’t hurt anyone this way”. Many of his works center around criticizing authoritarian regimes, social injustices and war horrors, and there is absolutely no uncertainty about where he stood on social issues.

But he did not like Marx and communism. And neither do I. And to this day I think his essay “Why I am not a communist” bears weight. Some parts are of course not well aged after nearly a hundred years (the casual sexism f.e.), some parts can be seen as predictive of the massive social and scientific failure that was Russia under Stalin. If we are to learn from the mistakes of the past, I would everyone recommend to go, read that essay and think about it.


*the closest translation I can get to anglophone equivalents)

 

Slavic Saturday

Czechs and Polish languages are reasonably similar. Not mutually intelligible, but similar enough that we can somewhat understand each other when spoken very, very slowly (which can be hard, especially for Poles). Our histories are also reasonably similar – both our nations wandered in from east and south, displaced local Germanic and Celtic nations, both established their foot on the ground by fighting and subjugating smaller slavic tribes and selling them to slavery to richer tribes to the south and west. Both eventually became big kingdoms of significant clout and with great ambitions.

But whilst the Lands of the Bohemian Crown were torn from within with Hussite wars and subsequently came as a whole under Habsburg rule, the Poland-Lithuanian commonwealth was not only torn from within by squabbles between its different religious and national groups (like Orthodox Cossacks vs. Catholic Poles), but the part of commonwealth inhabited by Poles was itself totally plundered by Swedes and in few centuries torn from outside and divided between Austria, Prussia and Russia. This difference in historical development has, to my mind, played a significant role in one of the most significant cultural differences between our nations today.

I was blissfully unaware of this difference until my twenties when I decided that a literate and educated person should have at least passing knowledge of the writings of Henryk Sienkiewicz. I have already read one of his books as a child – In Desert and Wilderness – but that is more or less just an adventure book, nothing special (with extra helpings of racism, which flew over my head at that time). I have decided to start with Quo Vadis, because that is his most prominent book internationally and has brought him in the end the Nobel Prize in Literature.

And thus my attempt at reading his works started … and immediately ended. After I have read Quo Vadis I was left with a huge “What The Actual Fuck Did I Just Read?!?” feeling and I could not bring myself to pick up that book or any other of Sienkiewicz’s works ever again. I was appalled, I was totally disgusted and repelled. The writing is excellent, I have no reason to not believe that it is historically well researched, the story is captivating but…

The whole book reeked to me of christian, specifically catholic, propaganda. And this is the difference that I was talking about.

The Czech nation has undergone internal religious divide around Jan Hus, a significant portion of it has challenged the authority of the Holy Roman Church, was beaten into submission and had Catholicism forced it. But it retained some religious diversity and freedom throughout – and ever since then there always were Catholic Czechs as well as Protestant Czechs living with each other in no insignificant numbers. When national revival came, Czechs did identify mostly around shared language and religion has always played second fiddle (even though Catholics were seen as “no true Czechs” by some, that point of view never really became mainstream) and that fiddle became more and more insignificant with each generation ever since.

Polish nation was beaten up from outside and divided into different empires, each with different ruling religion – Orthodoxy in Russian Empire, Protestantism in Prussia and a teensy bit in the predominantly catholic Austria-Hungaria. And although they were not persecuted due to their religion per se in their respective parts throughout this whole time, language as well as religion remained at the core of Polish identity for most, because the non-polish invaders were also mostly non-catholics.

And thus, through a complicated historical route we arrive at present situation. Czechs are one of the world’s leaders in “Not Giving A Fuck” about religion, and Poles are still predominantly actively observant catholics. Czech Republic has freedom of religion, freedom from religion and freedom to say just about anything about any religion you like, as long as you are not engaging in hate speech. Republic of Poland has still has anti-blasphemy laws on books and you can get into trouble for making a mildly amusing parody video making fun or being critical of the Pope.

TNET 30: Woke Brands

I noticed yesterday that TNET is overdue, so today’s video topic is a new TNET too. Sorry for not writing too much lately. I got over the winter depression, but I just did not get any inspiration the last few weeks. Combined with problems at work it made me grumpy and reclusive like a hermit. And to top it all off today I got down with flu-like symptoms, I had to excuse myself from work early due to a splitting headache and at home I found out I have a fever as well.

The latest video by hbobmerguy is really well made and thoughtful. It is important to remember, that corporations are not people, they are cynical and opportunistic entities that might, but also might not, contain good people in them, and rarely (very rarely) some good people might even be at the top management levels. When a company does something seemingly good, it probably is not without ulterior motive.

Open thread, talk about whatever you want, just don’t be an asshole.

Previous topic.

Tree Tuesday

 

This graceful bonsai is the Yamaki Pine and it resides at the U.S. National Arboretum in Washington D.C. The tree, a Japanese White Pine, was gifted to the U.S. by the family of bonsai master Masaru Yamaki  in 1976. The tree is close to 400 years old and had been kept in the Yamaki family for at least six generations. It isn’t its age or its looks that makes this tree special, though. This plucky little tree actually survived the bombing of Hiroshima, Japan in 1945.

On August 6, 1945, at a quarter-past 8 a.m., bonsai master Masaru Yamaki was inside his home when glass fragments hurtled past him, cutting his skin, after a strong force blew out the windows of the house. The U.S. B-29 bomber called the “Enola Gay” had just dropped the world’s first atomic bomb over the city of Hiroshima, at a site just two miles from the Yamaki home.

The bomb wiped out 90 percent of the city, killing 80,000 Japanese immediately and eventually contributing to the death of at least 100,000 more. But besides some minor glass-related injuries, Yamaki and his family survived the blast, as did their prized bonsai trees, which were protected by a tall wall surrounding the outdoor nursery.

After going through what the family had gone through, to even donate one was pretty special and to donate this one was even more special,” says Jack Sustic, curator of the Bonsai and Penjing museum. Yamaki’s donation of this tree, which had been in his family for at least six generations, is a symbol of the amicable relationship that emerged between the countries in the years following World War II.

The full story is at Smithsonian.com.

New Books to Read Arrived

The situation at my work slowly deteriorates further*, nobody is sure whether they will have work tomorrow or not, management assurances to the contrary notwithstanding (we have been lied to before). I have already decided that should I get the sack, I will not be looking for a new job forthwith but I will dedicate a year to learning and perfecting my crafts – knife-making and wood-carving.

I already have decent knowledge of metallurgy, some rudimentary knowledge of history and even some skill, but there is a lot of potential for improvement on both the practical and theoretical side. And to expand my knowledge of theory, I have just invested non-trivial money into these beautiful books.

©Charly, all rights reserved. Click for full size.

They arrived today and I am eager to dive into them. I expect to already know some of it, but by far not all, or even most, so I hope to get a real knowledge boost. Which will be of course mostly forgotten afterwards, but that is the way of the world. I still should get out of it ahead knowledge-wise. I glanced through each, some are more pictures than text, some the opposite, but they all seem to be cramped with information on each site and right now I have no regrets of buying any of them.

If anything I still think they are not enough, I wanted to buy much more, but many books that I have got my eyes on were not available. Well, after I am done with these, I will look again. These should occupy me for a few weeks, or even months.

If you have some recommendations on the theme of blade making and blade history, feel free to post them in comments.


  • Honestly, in the pursuit of their greed, american corporate managers are capable of dying of thirst by refusing to drink when given a bottle of water instead of the lake they demanded.

Harakka in Autumn: Chapter 10

Ice Swimmer’s here and today he has rocks to show us. Be still my heart…..

Chapter 10 – Southwestern Rocks on Sunday, I

Shaped by Ice Age. ©Ice Swimmer, all rights reserved 

The rounded forms of the rocks come from the Ice Age. The bottom of the glacier was full of rocks embedded into the ice that was quite flexible under the huge pressure, grinding the rocks into rounded shapes. [Read more…]

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).

[Read more…]