The Meat Queue


Originally published as part of the 'Dispatches from a Stricken Planet' series at Dark Mountain

During the 1950s, a towering granite Stalin emerged from a hilltop in the centre of Prague. The dictator looked down from one of the city's highest points, flanked by a line of equally monumental workers, farmers and, of course, a heroic soldier. The largest group statue ever built in Europe, this was a symbol of obedience to the Soviet cause. It was - at more than 15 metres tall, and weighing some 17,000 tonnes - the largest statue of Stalin to be found anywhere in the world.

By all accounts, the monument's sculptor, Otakar Švec, was no admirer of the Soviet project. After receiving an invitation from the authorities to enter the design competition, however, he had done so out of fear. Refuse the regime, in those times, and you might never work again. Švec was more famous for works of futurism during the 1920s than this puffed-up socialist realism, and he had little intention of winning. Assuming that victory would be reserved for a communist party acolyte, it was much to his surprise that his work was chosen.

The artist would not live to see the monument finished. His personal life fell apart and, depressed at being forced to dedicate his life to a work he never intended to create, Švec killed himself shortly before its official unveiling in 1955. Stalin too died before the monument was finished, and de-Stalinisation began shortly after. The reluctant artist's tragic creation was destroyed a mere seven years after it was unveiled.

During its short life, the statue became a focus of typical Czech dark humour. Locals said that when the statue was demolished, the dictator's enormous head rolled down the hill, ending up in the Vltava river. Comprised of a line of people, it became known colloquially as "The Meat Queue" (fronta na maso), in reference to the ongoing food shortages. At that time, if you didn't have family in the countryside who could smuggle meat to you, you would have to queue for hours to get some. Arrive later than 3am, however, and you were likely to leave with an empty basket. To this day, Czechs refer to a long queue as being 'like for the meat' (jako na maso) or 'like for the bananas' (jako na banány).

On the other side of the Iron Curtain, however, from the 1950s onwards, the story being spun of capitalism was quite the opposite. The age of mass consumption had arrived, with goods stacked high in any colour you could desire. That seductive story has endured, albeit through the occasional crisis, but has once again teetered in recent months.

I watched from afar, as panic buying took hold in the United States, England, Australia and other parts of the world. Gaps began to appear on supermarket shelves. Pure animal fear set in, hair being torn out in brawls over toilet paper, hospitals pilfered of basic hygiene products. Perhaps because a collective memory of those meat queues lives on, however, the Czechs around me stayed relatively stoic.

All along, beneath the shining veneer of plenty, capitalism has been founded on scarcity, hoarding and, when push comes to shove, a fight to the death. While the overnight queues for some goods, such as iPhones, started long ago, it was only a matter of time before this became more generalised.

Is there much of a difference between the socialist 'meat queue' of 65 years ago and the queues for food banks being seen across 'the West' today, as millions are thrown out of work? The spell of false choices was cast long ago. No matter the ideology, no matter the 'ism', systems dependent on a bubble of fossil fuels take parallel trajectories, asking the impossible of the earth. The West has long come to resemble the USSR: Land is stripped from communities, concentrated into enormous parcels, and left devoid of nature. Huge centralised warehouses, operated by power-mad oligarchs, pock-mark the landscape. Bureaucracies of surveillance, of a complexity which Stalin could only dream, creep into place. The worker is reduced to an expendable cog.

In 1991, after the Soviet Union shattered, a 23-metre-high metronome, painted red, was erected on the exact site where Stalin's Meat Queue once stood. What is it keeping time for? Many saw it as measuring the new era: the arrival of democracy, the victory of capitalism. This time-keeper would mark the end of history.

The metronome didn't take long to stop ticking, however, and the locals now have another folly to joke about. The last time I went there, it remained still.