A Dirty Shirt Collar

What do I remember? I remember a dirty shirt collar.

Back in the 1970s in the Soviet Union school children were required to wear a uniform. For girls it was a dark brown dress and a black apron. For boys it was dark blue pants and short jacket. The only acceptable color for a shirt was white.

By the end of the day my white shirt collar was always dirty. Especially in the winter. I didn’t pay much attention to that. I just washed the collar with the soap in the sink and let it dry overnight on the radiator. Or I took my other shirt if it was clean from the Sunday laundry. Shirt is a shirt. Not the biggest priority in the life of a little boy.

Only much later I realized why my shirt collar was always dirty. Now we call it air pollution. Really freaking bad air pollution. The air outside was literally a thick soup of soot. But nobody cared much about it.

In the winter when it was getting below minus thirty the air inversion effect usually kicked in: the heavy cold air was getting settled in the valley and it didn’t move for days. With all the soot and dust trapped inside.

I liked cross country skiing in winter. Our house was on the edge of the town next to the edge of the pine forest, the taiga which stretched uninterrupted for hundreds of miles. From the top of the hills surrounding the town I could see the sea of green pines covered in sparkling frost rolling in waves into the horizon. Crisp air, blue skies, bright winter sun.

On the other side in the valley below there was a bowl grey smog covering the town. It was so thick that the whole town ceased to be visible. It was eerie. It looked like a picture from some toxic alien planet.

The reason for the smog was pretty obvious. One of them stood across the street from our apartment building. It was a heating plant with two metal smokestacks blowing black smoke day and night. Next to the building there were two piles of coal three stories high. The snow around them was covered in black coal dust.

Heat plants like that were a common sight in Siberian towns. They provided hot water and radiator heating for the apartment buildings around them. It was called “the central heating”. I know, it sounds ridiculous. Who in a right mind would build underground hot water pipelines in the permafrost? If it blows up (and it happened on a regular basis) the whole neighborhood would be left without heat. Only an Orwellian state of mind of the Soviet apparatchiks.

Individual water heaters were unheard of. It was a mystery. Not because of shortage of natural gas. Where, in Siberia? I suppose they didn’t know how to make them. You couldn’t buy them, that’s for sure. I suspect the reason was purely ideological. You see, an individual water heater is the sign of capitalist individualism. But the central heating system is a sign of socialist collectivism.

There was a ironic joke in Soviet times about situation like that: “marazm krepchal”. It’s obviously untranslatable, but it means something like “the craziness was getting stronger.”

But as a kid I was oblivious to these explanations why my shirt collar was always dirty. It just was. If nobody talks about the problem, the problem doesn’t exist.