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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Behind the Iron Curtain part 23 – Military

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.


The cold war was not called war for nothing – military has played a significant role in it. There was mandatory draft – one year for university students and two years for everyone else – and it could only be avoided for medical reasons. Sometimes not even for that (more on that later). No conscientious objections either.

Behind the iron curtain the role of military composed of several things. First was propaganda. In the school we were regularly shown propaganda videos showing how technically superior is the Soviet bloc military to USA. And how depraved USA military is, how comparable to Nazis – Vietnam war has provided very nice and even true examples for such propaganda. And we were constantly reminded how important is army for our country, and how honorably is serving in it. There was even a moderately popular propagandist TV series “Chlapci a chlapi” (Boys and Men) that was entirely about how wonderful life in the army is. I do not remember much from the TV series and I do not ever want to watch it again.

As a child living right in the shade of the barbed wire curtains, my experience with military was sometimes more up close and personal – with its second function, border patrol. In our little town were military barracks, my mothers first husband was an officer of the border patrol, and later on father of one of my schoolmates was a captain of the border patrol. Seeing a couple of soldiers in uniform was nothing uncommon for me, because my mother was boss at local grocery shop and the barracks were buying some of their supplies there.

The border patrol guys had relatively miserable life, which I only learned later on. Suicides or suicide attempts were not uncommon. Due to the common practice of sending soldiers as far away from their home as possible, many of them were from as far as Slovakia near the Hungarian border. Not only was it quite depressing being torn away from your family and loved ones and sent across the whole country away with dismal chance at a leave maybe once or twice for a few days (which has led to many breakups), the border patrol had another problem – the prospect of having to really shoot at people. Only it was not a prospect of shooting enemies, but civilians. Because as I learned fairly early on, although the implications took quite a few years to sink in, the real purpose of the iron curtain was not to keep enemies out, it was to prevent people from escaping.

I have avoided draft – I was not of age before the Iron Curtain fell, and although we kept compulsory draft untill 2004, well after  I have finished university, the regulations were slightly relaxed at the time so I have managed to convince the draft physician that my atopic dermatitis is severe enough for me to be deemed ineligible.

I am glad I did. My older brother was not that lucky. He got drafted despite much worse atopic dermatitis than I ever had, and he served in military in its third prominent function – cheap labor. He was ordered to sweep dusty factory hall, to which he of course objected for health reasons. However his objections were ignored and as a result, his dermatitis worsened significantly and he has spent few months sick with hands bandaged up to the armpits – but that did not matter to the green brains too much, orders must be obeyed! Afterward he was given to sign a declaration that he is completely healed, which he declined to sign on advice of a family friend. I do not actually know a lot about his experience in the army, because we never talked about it much. From my perspective it is a two-year hole in my childhood where he was absent. What I know for sure that it instilled in him neither love for the military, nor for the country – quite the opposite. When he heard the leading song of the Boys and Men TV series, which contains a line ♪ it is a two years vacation, nothing more ♪ he actually screamed at the TV in rage.

It was not all bad, allegedly. The miliary offered free education in some skills that were difficult to obtain otherwise – like truck/bus driving licenses. Some relationships started that way because sending people across the country has led to of course meeting new people. Some of the working units got actually paid, but the money was not given to them until after the service, so they had a decent starting money after that. But there are people, even some of my friends, who decry the abandonment of compulsory draft because “it teaches young men discipline” and I do not buy that. Maybe it did sometimes break their spirit. But the way I see it, mostly the result for any given individual was two years of life lost without adequate recompense.

And there is no need to guard a fence around half of the country anymore. For now.

Bauska – Part 1

I have two posts for the town of Bauska – the castle of Bauska (you’ve seen the grand tree out front), actually: Old Bauska and New Bauska. Well, “New” Bauska, since the new castle still dates back to the 17th century, I think. Old Bauska is from the 15th century or so. Since WWII, when it was destroyed with the German retreat, both parts lay in ruins – reconstruction was begun in 2008, and as always, is done mostly by serious and seriously dedicated hobbyists. Strategically located on a peninsula between two rivers, it was geographically convenient for both defense and trade, and is now a wonderful place to spend an afternoon with overactive children, since the territory is perfect for some educational wandering, followed by rambunctious running around in the former park-slash-dendrarium.

We visited at the end of summer, and I was very pleasantly surprised by the tourist-friendly reconstruction – and even more, I was impressed by the craftsmanship that has gone into creating a historically informative experience.

But I think what stays in my memory the most is the amount of light these rooms get – a lot of movies with castles portray them as dark and smoky, with little natural light. Granted, this was summer, full sunlight, and nary a smoky torch to be found. In any case, have a look and bask in the light and craftsmanship of the new Bauska castle:

Courtyard, angle 1 – the brick towers in the background are the remnants of the old castle, saving that for part 2.
©rq, all rights reserved.

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Behind the Iron Curtain part 22 – Visual Arts

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 have mentioned comedy in particular, but today I would like to talk a bit about visual arts – painting and sculpting.

The regime did recognize that art is an important communicating medium, and there was great use of art for propaganda. The statues to Lenin and Stalin were everywhere, although statues of Stalin were again all removed at my time of life with the regime pretending it never happened.

But putting that aside, was there another art, of the non-propaganda kind? Was there art the artists created themselves? There was, to a degree.

What was considered an acceptable art by the regime was somewhat constrained. In fact, the regime had one thing in common with fascists – a great dislike of abstract art. so the artists were encouraged to pursue a style of “socialist realism” which constrained the expression to depictions of real objects as realistically and precisely as given medium allows. So any artist who wanted to get paid for their work – that is, who wanted to get commissions from the state – had to at least do some of their work in this style. And as a consequence most of the art presented to people was in this style.

This fact does to this day warp the perceptions of many people here, me included. I used to be passably good at drawing and sculpting, but I have always struggled with achieving the nearly photograph-like precision we were told is a sign of a good artist. I think it might be a contributing factor to me never developing my own style and being so lousy at making abstractions and simplifications of human and animal forms. And to this day a lot of abstract art simply does not speak to me, because I was only exposed to most it fairly late in my life. What saved me somewhat was early exposure to cave art from Altamira, which has taught me that not everything has to be pin-point precise for a picture to be pretty and recognizable.

Perhaps art appreciation is in this regard like language – it is best and easiest taught as a child, the later you come to it, the more difficult it becomes.

But do not think that the constraints prevented artists from making great art – they did not. There were great pieces of art produced, some of the war memorials for example are very expressive and convey their meaning pretty well. But in retrospect I think that one of the worst things a regime can do to its populace is to try to regulate artist’s expressions, because that inevitably leads to blinkered and short-sighted populace.