Red days better than dead days?

Where two systems resemble each other - and where they don't

I have given a lot of thought recently to comparing what was called “socialism” in the Czechoslovakia I grew up in and what’s called “state of emergency” in the United States in the third decade of the 21st century - more than 50 years later. I have been brooding upon this topic for hours on end, to the point of alienating even friends who agree with me but whose minds are less obsessive. Well, it turns out that many of my followers on Twitter - and I want to thank each and every one for almost doubling my follower count within days and for the unending interest in my blurbs - also want to hear what really, truly are the differences. On its face, the question is ridiculous: Czechoslovakia became a one party state in February 1948 and, with a brief happy interregnum in 1968, remained one for 41 years, until 1989. And even that happy little break in 68, the dizzying happiness did not really bring forth an opposing political party - just the promise of one in the future. Soviet tanks made sure that future never arrived.

I was 15 and a half when I left Czechoslovakia on September 3, 1968. I was a mature lad for my age, I read Dostoyevsky (oy!) and took a keen interest in what was going on in the country, but you still need to keep my age in mind when reading this piece. Daily existence at that age is too eventful, too happy, to full of promise to take life too seriously, even under adverse circumstances. Nevertheless, I’ll do my best to describe things as they were, so we can make a somewhat valid comparison.

By 1965, the tough part was over. And the REALLY awful part had been over since the late 50’s. As I have written previously on Substack, after 1948, the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia initiated a reign of terror. Thousands were jailed and sent to perform forced labor in uranium mines and coal mines, often serving 10 and 15 year sentences for the “crime” of being petite bourgeoisie, owners of small businesses, factory owners, landowners and farmers. In many case, whole families were punished for these “crimes”. In addition, emulating Soviet practice, the Party began devouring its own to achieve maximum ideological purity. Hundreds were purged, exiled to small border communities, or given jail time on such trumped up charges as “devotion to Titoism” (expressing agreement with Yugoslavian dissenter Josip Broz Tito who had been excommunicated from the Communist “brotherhood” for not unquestioningly bowing to Stalin’s will) “Zionism”, of course, always came in handy. “Collaborating with Zionist counter-revolutionary elements” was a useful fallback. The largest trial of the era, that of the circle of devoted Communists around Rudolf Slansky, formerly Chief Secretary of the Party, was overtly anti-Semitic. Of the 13 accused, 10 were Jews. All were found guilty of high treason, of having been in contact with “imperialist, Zionist circles in the United States” and other trumped-up absurdities. In one fell swoop, the Party (read Joe Stalin directing from Moscow), eliminated all the important people in its leadership. All proclaimed their guilt, signed tearful confessions and begged for forgiveness for their horrendous crimes (never committed, of course). Ten men, including Slansky, were hanged in December 1952. Three were sentenced to life in prison, among them one Artur London, deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs. London was freed only two years into his sentence, once Stalin was dead, and eventually moved to France in 1963. He is the author of “The Confession” which was made into a movie starring Yves Montand. I highly recommend this movie. It offers a detailed look into the methods of the Communist secret police (NKVD/KGB in the Soviet Union, STB in Czechoslovakia). There is no doubt my parents had gone through a hellish time under the early Communist regime, especially when you consider World War 2 had only ended seven years before and they were already scarred for life from that experience. During the purges of the 1950’s, my uncle Martin was also arrested, held without trial for almost two years and released without an explanation. Martin had been working as an economist for the government. He and his family lived in Kosice, which was about as far from Prague as you could travel and still be in the same country. Kosice is in Eastern Slovakia, about 500 miles east of Prague. After his release, he resumed his career as an economist. He never received as much as a letter of apology until the late 60’s, 15 years after his incarceration.

With the death of Stalin in March 1953 (I must mention here that Uncle Joe died two days after I was born), a very slow, gradual thaw began. During the famous 20th Congress of the Communist Party of the Soviet Union in May 1956, Nikita Khrushchev, a former intimate of Stalin’s, stood up and denounced the dictator, declaring that the Soviet nation had been lured into a “cult of personality”. Everyone thought at the time that good old Nikita wouldn’t last a day past the Congress, but he did and Stalinism was officially over.

By the mid-60’s, life - at least in Prague - was quite pleasant. Gone were the days when my mother had to get up at 5 am and wait in line for milk, another line for bread and another line for a few mealy apples. The Commies improved the supply lines somewhat and we even had supermarkets. Selection was still very limited but no one was going hungry. Obtaining a permit to travel abroad, a total impossibility in the 1950’s, was now a relatively common occurrence. It was still a major hassle: exit permits, visas for every country you needed to travel through, a permit to purchase foreign currency and more. It was labor-intensive, it was complicated but it was possible. People began buying more cars. There was always a waiting list - but, again, possible. Almost everyone we knew had a small country cottage, where folks spent weekends and summers in the truly glorious Czech countryside. As I said, life was quite pleasant. Radio Free Europe and The Voice of America, previously furiously scrambled, were suddenly clearly audible on the radio dial - in late 66, early 67. Economists started talking about overhauling the creaking system, about permitting small business owners to run their shops - things that ten years before would have been unthinkable…by which I means LITERALLY unthinkable. If you had such thoughts, you had to suppress them quickly before you inadvertently blurted something and found yourself in a uranium mine, 300 miles away from Prague. Western music, western fashions began to be glimpsed on the streets. More tourists from the West streamed in. The vibe was good and we all felt even better things were around the corner.

Lest I get too carried away with all this mirth and joy, you must keep a few things in mind: censorship was total. Criticizing the Communist Party publicly was career suicide. No longer was there a threat of jail or the gallows but you could still be “unpersoned”: kicked out of work, denied permission to study, your children barred from attending college. Everyone knew that and so instead of direct criticism, you head to learn to express yourself obliquely and learn how to read between the lines. Prague was awash with what we called “divadla malych forem” - “small form theaters”. These were tiny spaces, with perhaps a 50 seat capacity but they were enormously popular. They staged musicals, poetry readings, one-act plays - all of it covertly political. People laughed their heads off at political jokes so subtle, no one could be accused of “direct criticism”. The artists knew how to make everything political - without being political. A fine art indeed, and one the Czechs are well versed in, having mastered it for centuries of their national existence under various foreign potentates, including a three hundred years long stint in the Austro-Hungarian monarchy.

In addition to the general easing of tensions and an atmosphere of cautious optimism, there were several areas in which Czechs were much freer than Americans are today. No one worried about over-controlling alcohol, freely available to anyone over 18 in every corner store. If you were 16 or 17 and looked a bit older, no one checked ID. We had no food police, no seat belts, no helmets for riding bikes, no anxiety about playing on monkey bars or venturing alone into public parks, no helicopter parents biting their nails anxiously. We rode our bikes across railway tracks and into fields that likely still contained unexploded WW2 ordinance. If the streetcar was full, you hung onto the handrail, your body sticking out into traffic. No one batted an eyelid. Kids that were a bit older hitchhiked all over the country with little fear. Crime was practically non-existent. In a police state, it’s not just political dissenters that are scared, there are no velvet gloves for criminals either. To sum up: our lives in the mid- to late 1960’s were pretty good because folks knew the worst excesses of Stalinism were in the rear view mirror and there was well-founded hope that regulations would keep easing and life would get even better. Add the richness of our cultural life, the magnificent architecture of the city and BEER! Beer is the only thing Czech will go to war for. As long as the beer flows, there shall be no revolution, friends!

As a point of contrast, I would say that our current situation in the USA and in the West generally is precisely the opposite of the 1960’s Eastern Bloc. There are some freedoms we still have: political criticism is common and constant - though on far, far fewer outlets than one would wish. Much of the media is really no different than the Czechoslovak Party rag, “Rude Pravo” (“Red Justice”), mouthing regime supporting slogans and shabby, empty phrases. Still, you won’t be barred from attending college if you say Joe Biden is an idiot - though you WILL be barred for not getting vaccinated. Our travel is not restricted by exit visas and currency permits but it’s actually much more efficiently restricted by vaccine requirements, testing and quarantines. The regime makes you bend to its will in a different manner - but with the same or greater amount of contraction of your rights. Compared to 1960’s Eastern Europe, we are culturally dead. This essay is not about how abominably bad our culture is (perhaps worth writing about in the future) but it was the engagement in national culture than enabled whatever political easing we DID experience back in the 60’s. Playing video games, watching dreck on Netflix and listening to auto-tuned music will not elevate anyone or encourage them to look around and rise up in protest. In fact, it’s designed to do the opposite.

And here are the two most important differences. In Communist Prague, NOBODY believed the bullshit. We all knew the regime was a charade. We played along but we laughed at the sclerotic old fools, waving from a high podium to the throngs of red-scarved youths parading below. The youth paraded with a smile on their face and with the thought in their head: you stupid doddering dunces, if only you knew how ridiculous you are. No one believed the propaganda. No one bought into the crap the Party was selling. The newspapers served two purposes - the sports page and as toilet paper in case of a shortage. Today, we have millions of fellow citizens who eagerly believe Comrade Fauci, Comrade Wallenski, Comrade Biden. They hang on their lips! They believe these nobodies, these lying, threatening, doom and gloom spouting career apparatchiks, who live on empty words and grift. Millions believe them and they believe the media, the Rachel Maddows, the Don Lemons who repeat and amplify their lies. In Prague, you could construct an independent life, away from the crap that surrounded you because a) you weren’t buying what they were selling and b) the sellers knew they were selling a crappy product. Well, how can you do that here when you are living a lie without even being aware of living a lie? Following liars who are your prophets! (“This vaccine will end the pandemic. I can promise you that one hundred percent”, Comrade Fauci told us in February 2021)

And lastly…we live in an atmosphere of apocalyptic doom. For years we watched the zombie apocalypse on TV, now we’re living it, as fellow Substack writer Eugyppius points out. There’s nothing to look forward to. Even the Stockholm syndrome-affected believers know that. What can we look forward to? The fifth booster? Flying without masks? Entering countries without vax papers and test papers and quarantines? The fear is so pervasive, millions have not eaten in a restaurant in almost two years. Thousands of businesses have been destroyed and are never coming back! Even the few friendly podcasts and broadcasts are not able to shake the gloom. Fear and loathing has never been this successfully sold since the Fuehrer’s early Munich speeches.

I do have quite a few optimistic thoughts to offer - but that’s for another piece. I will conclude this one by summing up thusly: in 1967 Eastern Europe, the Communism had become stupid, laughable and lethargic. It felt - perhaps only briefly - like there was something to look forward to - the senile Commies were well past their best-before date. Culture thrived and small personal freedoms, as I have outlined above, did indeed exist. Conversely, our time is a period of darkness. There’s regret, sadness, hopelessness. Our social media censorship is draconian. Our travel is curtailed. Our family life is riven apart by split loyalties and enforced lying. The emperor is naked but no one is talking. And those who do talk, seem to be enjoying and cheering on the royal nudity.