Smoking Communism

Communism and tobacco 01

The other day we were discussing alternative ways of funding research and I suggested – in all seriousness – that Big Tobacco may be interested in funding a project on ‘Smoking Communism’. Immediately Castro and his cigars, Stalin and his pipe, and Engels’s love of fine tobacco come to mind. But so also does the smoke-filled inner sanctum of the Communist Party of China, or indeed Marx’s own chain-smoking. A little further research reveals a veritable treasure trove of material. It includes the glorious packet designs for cigarettes:

Communism and tobacco 07

Studies of the crucial role tobacco played in developing the economies of places like Bulgaria:

Communism and tobacco 16

Ludicrous Cold War advertising by Big Tobacco in the United States:


You don’t believe it? Well, wait a second. Let’s use the  same kind of statistical analysis the Public Health Service is using to “prove” that cigarettes cause cancer. We’ll use only statistical facts taken from bona fide population surveys.

1. Americans smoke a lot and some of them die of lung cancer. The Dutch smoke  less than Americans, but more of them die of lung cancer.

2. The Australians smoke a lot and some of them die of lung cancer. The British smoke as much as the Australians, but twice as many British have lung cancer.

3. The Norwegians don’t smoke a lot, but some die of lung cancer. The Finns smoke the same as the Norwegians and twice as many Finns die of lung and bronchial cancer.

One statistical inference is very clear. In each pair of countries, the higher cancer rate is in the country closer to the Iron Curtain.

By the same means that some public servants are using to indict cigarettes, we’ve just proved that Communism causes cancer. But you know and we know, Communism is not guilty. And nobody yet knows about cigarettes.

A good old communist joke:

Ivanov applied to the Communist Party. The party committee conducts an interview.

“Comrade Ivanov, do you smoke?”

“Yes, I do a little.”

“Do you know that comrade Lenin did not smoke and advised other communists not to smoke?”

“If comrade Lenin said so, I shall cease smoking.”

“Do you drink?”

“Yes, a little.”

“Comrade Lenin strongly condemned drunkenness.”

“Then I shall cease drinking.”

“Comrade Ivanov, what about women?”

“A little….”

“Do you know that comrade Lenin strongly condemned amoral behavior?”

“If comrade Lenin condemned, I shall not love them any longer.”

“Comrade Ivanov, will you be ready to sacrifice your life for the Party?”

“Of course. Who needs such life?”


And finally, a manifesto of sorts, by Mladen Dolar (from whom I borrowed the title of the project):

Smokers, like proletarians, have no country, but they instantly create liberated territories wherever they appear. Smoking always represented liberty, a fickle freedom against the chains of survival, it is an anti-survivalist stance. It states: I am free in chains, while being chained to this habit that I can’t give up, but these chains allow taking a bit of distance to the overwhelming other ones and I am willing to pay the price. Smoking makes a statement, which can be read in all kinds of ways, cynical, spontaneous, relaxed, neurotic, psychotic, perverse, obsessive, compulsive, guilty pleasure, sinful, dandy, bon-vivant, desperate, anti-stress, aggressive, arrogant, seductive, available, mark of class, mark of lack of class, sociability, anti-social behavior … But against all odds and in a wild fancy I would like this statement to read: communism has a chance.

Stalin's Tobacco 03

 Actually, forget Big Tobacco for this one …





Mao’s personal five-year plan

Mao didn’t restrict the famous and much-debated ‘Five-Year Plans’ to the realm of economics. He also had a personal one, expressed in 1957:

I, too, have a five-year plan. I’d like to live for five more years. If I can live for another 15 years, I’d be completely content and satisfied. … However, there are unexpected storms in the skies, and people are likely to experience sudden reversals of fortune. This, too, is a matter of natural dialectics. If Confucius were still alive today – if someone who had lived more than two thousand years ago is still not dead – that would be awful, wouldn’t it? (The Writings of Mao Zedong 1949-1976, vol. 2, p. 777).

Of course, he died in 1976, so he lived 19 more years. He must have died more than completely content and satisfied …

Stalin’s tobacco preferences

No less iconic than Joseph Stalin’s moustache was his pipe. But what did he put in it? Once he settled on his favoured cherry root pipe, his tobacco of choice was ‘Herzegovina Flor.’ So close did the connection become that the tobacco was also known as ‘Stalin’s Choice’. But this was no ordinary tobacco, for it appeared only in cigarettes. Stalin would take two cigarettes out of a box and shred them into his pipe. Why? Pipe tobacco at the time was cheap and rough and he had become rather fond of the flavour of the cigarettes when he was a young trainee priest and revolutionary.

So what was ‘Herzegovina Flor’? The smokes were produced at the Moscow ‘Java’ factory, which was originally established by Samuel Gabai, from Kharkov, in the 19th century. Gabai’s idea was to produce a tobacco like no other, so he found a tobacco plant in Java, grew it in Herzegovina and then shipped it to Moscow. The products initially became favoured by the elite nobility and fledgling bourgeoisie. So Stalin, as the leader of the first worker’s state was in a quandary. If he smoked the cigarettes, he would give the wrong impression. So he opted for the common man’s pipe, but since he couldn’t tear himself away from the flavour of the tobacco, he decided to use it to fill his pipe. Eventually, the elite origins of the tobacco were forgotten and it became indelibly associated with the man himself. Many others followed suit, among them the famous soviet composer, Mayakovsky.

Of course, with the propagation of the ‘black legend’ of Stalin, Herzegovina Flor sadly fell out of favour. Now it is produced in small amounts, although it is still notable for its rich aroma and high tar content.

Stalin's Tobacco 01

Stalin's Tobacco 02a

Reading Stalin’s pipe

Stalin’s pipe became – along with his moustache – one of his famous attributes. he received many gifts of pipes from around the world, but also has his favourite. The pipe was also a signal of responses to people and ideas. The three key signals were:

1. Pipe taken out of mouth, smoking ceases = moment of thought and possible disagreement or change of mind.

2. Pipe placed carefully on table = someone has stuffed up and is about to be told off.

3. Pipe firmly in mouth and moustache calmly smoothed = deep pleasure and approval.

Signs on the way: from Asiahung to WC Cafe

Quirky signs with unwitting senses – part of the pleasure of travel in distant places.


This is the name of a well endowed cafe at Leipzig railway station. Not to be outdone, the ship from Riga to Stockholm sports a somewhat different culinary experience:


But my favourite is this one, on the old train from Minsk to Riga:


It took me a moment to realise that there is no red line through the lit cigarette, for in the vestibule at the end of each carriage you can indeed smoke. How civilised!

Angry old men, or, the pleasures of withdrawal

On my most recent flight to China, I awoke from my drug-induced slumber to find that we had been diverted from Shanghai to Hangzhou. The reason was fog at Pudong. So we landed at Hangzhou and sat on the tarmac to wait out the fog – for three hours. Meanwhile, some older men became rather irate and criticised the flight attendants. Why? They wanted some ‘fresh air’ while we waited. That ‘fresh air’ turned out to be the sort that came through a cigarette filter. They had managed the flight by anticipating the welcome drag on a smoke at the end of the flight. Now they had to wait for an unspecified time on the tarmac, with no ‘fresh air’ in sight. The flight attendants seemed well used to such antics, and calmly told the cranky old men to take it easy.

I did ponder the usefulness of having some nicotine chewing gum on hand, or perhaps a few e-cigarettes to hand around. But it also made me wonder why those men didn’t take pleasure in the withdrawal symptoms. One of the lost pleasures of age and imminent grand-father status is the loss of that pleasure. Why? I think the thing  I enjoyed about smoking most was the withdrawal from nicotine. On the many occasions of giving up, the greatest pleasure of the craving, the bodily longing for a fix, the mental confusion and slowness of time that ensued. It gave me a different perspective on life and allowed me to indulge in my love of asceticism. On the last occasion that I gave up, I treasured the last time I could experience these feelings. No more, I’m afraid …

I wondered whether this insight would help these cranky old buggers on that flight. For some reason, I kept that advice to myself. Instead, it turned out that the fog stayed at Pudong airport in Shanghai, so we disembarked at Hangzhou and they immediately lit up – in the baggage claim area.

A conference I missed: Can Tobacco Cure Smoking?

Yes indeed, the innocuously named American Legislative Exchange Council held a workshop last year in Salt Lake City called ‘Can Tobacco Cure Smoking?’ It was led by a dentist called Brad Rodu, who is the ‘Chair of Tobacco Harm Research’ at the University of Louisville, a chair funded by … the US Smokeless Tobacco Company. Guess what: they promote snus (chewing tobacco) as a replacement for smokes.  Some more info here and the full at one of the sponsors, the anti-climate change, pro-smoking, and flat-earthers known as the ‘Heartland Institute‘. I’m really pissed off I missed that one.