• Behind the Iron Curtain: Komsomol

    I am not sure what to make of the fact that one year anniversary of this blog falls on the 90th anniversary of Komsomol – Communist Union of Youth which I joined at the ge 14 back in 1983. Komsomol was a third step in the Soviet brainwashing pyramid after the Little Octobrists and the Young Pioneers. Knowing that the big 90th anniversary is coming up I was trying to think what do I remember about being in Komsomol and couldn’t come up with anything. By 1983 joining all the communist organizations while still mandatory, became more or less a formality. People who refused to join were constantly harassed by Komsomol leaders appealing to their non-existent communist spirit; on the other hand, “troublemakers” and openly religious people weren’t easily accepted, which could have had a negative influence on their future lives and chances of getting into college.
    In order to join one had to fill out an application and be recommended by two members of Komsomol and/or Communist Party and also by a local Young Pioneer Organization. To make it look even more serious the candidate had to study the Komsomol Bylaws and be able to answer specific questions. If I remember correctly “specific” questions were supplied to us ahead of time. An artist’s depiction of the ceremony in 1962 looked like this:

    For your homework find a difference between the painting above and its previous version from 1949. Discuss amongst yourself.

    In my case it didn’t look anything like that; several people got accepted at once after answering some questions with prepared answers. A member of Komsomol had a membership ID like this

    and a pin like this

    On the right side of the membership ID you see one of the pages where a payment of membership dues was marked with a special stamp. Komsomol was the first of the Communist Organizations that had actual dues. Since the Soviet kids didn’t work (unlike poor exploited children in the West) the monthly dues were two kopecks, pretty much a pocket change but multiplied by millions of members it added up to huge amounts of money.

    I continued to pay membership dues throughout the technical school and in the army. It increased a little but was always a small amount.

    One could stay in Komsomol until the age of 28. Some joined the communist party before that, some just let their membership run out. For my generation Komsomol slowly dissipated without a trace and no memories. When I was leaving the country in 1992 I didn’t even know where my ID was. Many Komsomol leaders used their positions, connections,probably some of the dues and other property to acquire huge amounts of wealth and become oligarchs. The rest of us just moved on…

    Just like many other attributes of the USSR Komsomol is now fondly remembered by some. Big celebrations were held this week to commemorate the 90th anniversary. Years are like beer-goggles of history, they make even the ugly past look better.

    And now we dance…

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  • Kansas Roadtrips: Museums of Hutchinson

    Most people come to Hutchinson, KS to visit its world-class museums – Kansas Cosmosphere and the Kansas Underground Salt Museum. Only few visit prairie dogs. Even fewer do all three. We were in the smallest of minorities who did all that and had a dinner at the Dutch Kitchen restaurant.

    Note to a future visitor: Visiting the Salt Museum takes about 2 hours, while the Cosmosphere can keep you busy all day. Plan accordingly and attend the latter when you have plenty of time.

    Given Hutchinson’s salt-mining roots and multiple working and abandoned mines in the area, it’ no surprise that one of the biggest museums of that kind in the world is located there.

    Although numerous old people are seen approaching the building with the sign “Underground Bound”, it’s not an old people recycling facility. Many of them actually make it back to the top.

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  • Old-Timey entertainment

    I had to double-check the title to make sure that the word “old-timey” doesn’t have any dirty meaning known only to Chimpo. Seems like I am safe for now but you can’t be too sure with him.

    Long time ago, before the word “mail” got itself attached to the letter “e”, people wrote letters and exchanged postcards. Even I was in on the pen pal craze writing a couple of letters in broken English to some unfortunate American girl from Minnesota who wasted her parents’ money on a trip to the Soviet Union. Nowadays the post office is dying a slow death surviving only by delivering junk mail and bills. The email is faster, easer, more convenient and free, but one thing that’s being lost is the appreciation of the distances it travels making our world seem smaller and without borders. When an old card or a letter traveled for weeks crossing many countries and continents , it was an event to open a mailbox to find something touched by your friend or a relative and then be every mail person on the way. Email arrives instantly and no one touches it except the government’s supercomputer which makes sure you are not an evildoer. Many Americans grow up to think that the world looks like this. Many studies have been done to show that Americans can’t find other countries and even their own states on the map even if threatened with waterboarding. I always hated geography myself but I can still point out most countries on the map and even the majority of American states, except the little ones in the East, but they don’t count anyway.
    Recently I’ve found an interesting website that preserves or, maybe, even resurrects an old hobby of exchanging postcards. Postcrossing.com has 43,693 members in 178 countries who connect through the website to send and receive postcards to each other. After registration you can initially send up to 5 cards to random members and then become eligible to receive up five cards from others. In the first batch my daughter and I mailed cards to Taiwan, Finland, Australia, Netherlands and Germany for a total of 23,344 miles traveled. Some of these arrived in less than 5map.jpgdays. We received messages from all of the recipients thanking us for the cards. Many people post their cards online and one local girl even made a presentation in her club with cards from around the world.
    Hopefully, after some time our map of the world will be filled with cards we mailed. So far it looks like this. Again, like many years ago, I run (OK, walk) to the mailbox to see if there is anything there for me, besides bills and pizza coupons. I like the feeling. Try it for yourself.


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  • Berlin Wall: Many Years Later

    In 1989 I was in the military and the events in Berlin went largely unnoticed in our little installation. We watched the news as long as it didn’t distract us from the our main occupation – counting days until the discharge. 20 years later, when the excitement of breaking down a hated symbol of the Cold War died down many people are still not sure if it was a good thing.

    In a poll this year, 50 percent of easterners agreed with the statement that “East Germany had more good sides than bad sides.” Eight percent signed off on the statement: “People there were happier and better off than today in reunified Germany.”
    Just as some easterners long for their lost paradise, many westerners think they would have been better off without reunification.

    In the end, the Wall couldn’t really exist any longer and the resentment most likely resides in the generation who had to bear the brunt of  the reunification and all the hardships associated with it. History is moving along and today is a good day to take a look back at the way it was just a short 20 years ago.

    The image below was painted in 1990, later destroyed and was being repainted last summer.

    The best and the funniest movie about that time is the award-winning Good Bye Lenin! It’s truly worth suffering through the subtitles.

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  • Behind the Iron Curtain: Portyanki

    Memory is a strange thing. One minute I am reading a story about outpatient surgery in prison and the next minute it takes me back about 20 years when I was sitting in a small army hospital room and another soldier, who was supposed to be a nurse, was poking a scalpel at the infected cyst on my own foot. But this is not about some gruesome sadistic surgery forced on a newly drafted Soviet Soldier, although I still have a scar to show for it. This is a post about portyanki – a foot wrap worn in the Russian and later in the Soviet army instead of socks until just a year or two ago.

    After a long and tumultuous day of saying good-byes to civilian life and traveling by train and then inside a truck in the dark, lining up, multiple counts, marching with a group of half-scared schmucks and finally arriving at a place where most of us will spend the next two years, our group of fresh draftees finally settled down for an uneasy night of exhausted sleep. In the morning we were to shed whatever else connected us to our previous lives and become bona fide soldiers in the Soviet Army. After watching in horror other soldiers jump off their bunk-beds and stampede to their morning exercise routine we proceeded to the warehouse to receive our uniforms. The Soviet military uniform changed very little since WWII and there were always rumors of giant stashes of old uniforms sitting around waiting for the time “when enemy strikes”. The boots were the heavy non-laced kind from some fake leather material called kirza (sometimes translated as canvas, I am not exactly sure), uncomplicated by lining or any other comfort features. There were no socks, instead we received two pieces of cloth about the size, shape and thickness of a tea towel (13.6 by 35 inches) and some vague instructions about how to put them on. Given the quality of boots and the fact that this was the only kind of footwear for all occasions except for the rare weekend off, portyanki were not such a bad choice. What we didn’t realize was that putting them on correctly was an art, mastering which for most people required persistence, patience and a lot of foot damage. Another useful but unavailable at that time piece of information was that although the boot may have felt tight at first, getting a larger size was a big mistake. After some trial, error and confusion I ended up with a new uniform, two portyanki and a set of boots one or two sizes too large. Everything seemed to be OK until my first 10K run in full gear. During my whole life before that day my cumulative running distance equaled to about 10 or 20 kilometers. Needless to say that I crawled back half-dead with my portyanki bunched up inside my boots and a big bloody blister on one of my feet, which then got infected, blossomed into a big cyst and brought me to the scalpel wielding failed medical student from the beginning of this post. For the next two weeks one could tell inexperienced portyanki wearer by his distinct limp and walking around in slippers instead of boots. I almost had to wear slippers to my swearing-in ceremony but after the infamous surgery I recovered enough to fit in the boots again.

    I could go on and on about portyanki, about the summer and winter kinds, about the smell when everyone aired theirs at night (laundry was once a week), or about how I eventually mastered the art of putting them on and wore them until I was discharged even when I was allowed to wear normal socks. They were comfortable in the end, easier and faster to put on, warmer in winter and cooler during the summer. When I see American soldiers running around in sneakers I smile to myself: what a bunch of pussies! (I am kidding, do not write me threatening comments). For those of you who don’t believe me here is a short instructional video. And that’s, my American friends, how we won the cold war!

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