The Odors of Communism

I grew up in an industrial part of Prague called Holesovice. It was not industrial in the contemporary meaning of the word, because small factories, a river harbor and a large railroad station all coexisted reasonably happily with six-story residential buildings dating back to the early 20th century. To a kid, the industry was not a nuisance; it was a source of goodies and adventure. At the back of our apartment was a factory making sheets of polystyrene. Because they knew that even small pieces, the off-cuts from the edges, could be useful to us, the workers always left a few pieces for us in a bin by the gate. Down the street was a small workshop that made ball bearings that could be broken up and the shiny steel balls removed. Another street had a vast warehouse filled with jars of pickles. There were huge mounds of sand and coal in the harbor itself...the opportunities were just endless.

But not all of the industry was benign and some almost created a mini climate with their by-products and emissions. I always knew which way the wind was blowing. To the South was a large bakery and the smell of fresh bread and rolls was most pleasant. To the West was a brewery that emited the instantly recognizable, wholesome bitter-sweet smell of hops, grain and malt. Oddly enough, a brewery does not smell like beer. To the East was the source of the mother of all stenches; the municipal slaughterhouse - a sprawling compound of low slung buildings where meat was processed for the entire city. The smell of animal death, boiled blood and the other, unique odors of unimaginable origin, lingered over my neighborhood like a toxic cloud when the wind was right.

Regardless of these olfactory treats, life went on with its own rhythm. For example, on November 7th every year, the anniversary of the October Revolution had to be celebrated. On that day, back in 1917, Lenin's followers stormed the Winter Palace in Saint Petersburg and the communist takeover of Russia began. Celebrating an October Revolution in November was due to Russia using a different calendar at the time. As school kids, we were required to participate in the March of Paper Lanterns to mark this historic event. Here's how it went. At school, we were told to buy a paper lantern, the harmonica kind, attach it to a six feet long stick of bamboo and fix a small, battery powered lightbulb inside it. A candle inside the lantern did the same trick without the installation hassle. Usually a little switch was taped to the bamboo pole and the festive device was ready.

At dusk we'd gather by our school, and we were herded into a procession of six to ten abreast. It was a pretty loose formation as neither the kids or the adults really gave a damn. Once it got dark, we lit our lanterns and we marched—in the most liberal sense of the word—through the darkened streets. Usually the start was noisy and boisterous with a lot of horseplay and jostling for position. But after a few blocks, we settled down into an eerie silence - instead of the usual kid chatter, squeals and laughs, we were quiet and only whispered to each other. Our route took us through the local streets and then on a footbridge over the railroad siding of the railroad station. This was the staging area where cattle cars filled with pigs where kept until they were shuttled to the nearby slaughterhouse.

And there we were, several hundred kids, carrying festive, lit paper lanterns, walking on a footbridge only a few feet above hundreds of squealing condemned pigs packed into wooden railroad cars. I do not know if animals sense when they are about to meet their maker, but I am sure these poor hogs ands sows knew their fate. They were literally scared shitless. The stench rising from the cattle cars was so thick it was almost visible. The lanterns that were powered by candles shone brighter and whiter and some simply combusted in the air rich with pig waste mixture, burning like magnesium flares as they spiraled down onto the cattle car roofs so that us kids were left holding the suddenly useless sticks of bamboo. We were choking dramatically, holding our noses in disgust and some of us broke out in hives. Yet, we pushed through the fetid cloud along the footbridge spurned by the promise of air beyond that was free of noxious farm smells.

I do not remember how the March of Paper Lanterns usually ended. Must have been a whimper rather than a bang. Our batteries ran out and the lanterns died one by one as we made our way back to school. There were, blissfully, no speeches, no pep talks. We just headed home.

That is what communism was all about. Putting on a happy face while collectively marching through fresh pig shit.

I have no images to accompany this story. I searched for a picture of the March of the Paper Lanterns (Lampionovy Pruvod) without success. If anyone has a photograph of the march from the fifties or the sixties, I'd appreciate the donation.

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© 2007 Karel Kriz and Bouncing Czech Productions