Kommunism: Living in the Shadow of Hammer and Sickle
Part 1 of 3
“Everyone is equal, but some are more equal than others”.
Communism, the Great Evil. Even now, most Americans feel revulsion and horror when the word is spoken or written. Living it... well that was a somewhat different, multi-faceted experience.
It's a seductive enough concept. The goal is to create a utopian society of equals. In order to accomplish this, one starts by dividing the population into two classes: the rich (or the perceived rich) and the workers whose labor is exploited by the rich. This simplistic concept was first outlined by Karl Marx and Friedrich Engels in "Das Kapital" and later refined by Vladimir Lenin. It worked because Communism (like Nazism) relies heavily on unrealistic populism. Because there are always more workers than the rich, it's easy to convince them that they are being exploited by the rich. Like Robin Hood, the Communists' election promise is to take the wealth from the rich and give it to...everyone else. Now the wealth is shared or common, but in reality nobody has anything.
With me, so far?
A new ruling class is created, the Communist Party, and bingo, we now have a new bunch of power mongers who truly control the wealth, repeating often and loud how righteous and just this new social order is. The workers are feted as the new heroes and the "rich" - the small business owners, the financiers; almost anyone who does not engage in manual labor - are evil and can be punished by imprisonment, hard labor or death. Just to set an example and deter others who might harbor some bourgeois ambitions. This regime is sustained by continual disinformation and ruthless annihilation of any dissent - including suppression of free speech, freedom to travel to other countries and outlawing any private enterprise. This is what happened in Russia in 1917 and in Czechoslovakia in 1948, less then three years before I was born.
In the unsettled postwar years, a pack of street hoodlums and lazy labor union officials led by the syphilitic gangster Klement Gottwald, stole the election in 1948. The Communist Party now controlled everything, and in perpetuity. Overnight, businesses were nationalized, savings plundered, land confiscated, real estate appropriated and business owners and others considered "rich" were imprisoned or simply tried and shot.
While the Communist paradise may have sounded good on paper, it was doomed to fail from the start. Ineptitude, chronic shortages of basic goods and mindless idiocy ruled every day. Six hours of waiting in line to buy a piece of meat, then a mad rush to the other side of town because of a rumor of an imminent delivery of ….panties. Or toilet paper. A sub-economy quickly developed where services were traded for goods and in turn traded for favors. Petty pilfering was a way of life. “If you don't steal from the state, you are stealing from your family” was the handy justifier. Everything was upside down. The uneducated halfwits were in charge and the smart ones, like university professors did hard labor in limestone quarries or uranium mines. It was a pretend society that daily boasted of great achievements yet could not ensure that milk was in regular supply. Industries were monopolized, with only one company making coats and only one making radios for example; no choice, no incentive, no competition. But people plodded through it and there was little visible discontent.
The joke may be an exaggeration, but it is essentially truthful. The domestically produced Skoda and maybe some Soviet and East German makes were the only cars one could buy. They were always in short supply and there was a waiting list. This resulted in an absurd situation where a used car was actually worth more than new one, as one did not have to wait for it. After I left in 1969 my father finally decided to buy a used car. The process involved a week of waiting outside of a dealership 24 hours a day, sharing the duty with my then brother-in-law and camping on the sidewalk
Another desperate shortage was housing. It was not unusual for two families to share a two-room apartment for years. Then the Communists started to build prefabricated concrete panel high rises and the situation was eased somewhat, but even these new apartments were allocated on a quota basis; a party membership being a requirement. Even then one could wait years to be assigned an apartment.
My family lived on a main street in Holesovice, a sector of Prague. The apartment was above a butcher shop on one side and a candy store on the other. The four of us lived in two rooms; a living room that doubled as a bedroom for my parents and a bedroom I shared with my sister. We had a tiny kitchen in the hallway and bathroom with a coal-fired water heater. Like many families, we had our escape. Shortly after I was born my father built a tiny cabin on a rocky outcrop a few miles outside of Prague. It wasn't much; no electricity, no running water, the nearest store was a good hour walk away and there was a granite quarry across the river that was always noisy. Every so often the quarry would have a major blast and we'd be chased into the hills and watch at a safe distance. Sometimes it was spectacular, sometimes it was an inconvenience. Once we found a fist-sized piece of granite in our bedroom that had flown through the wall. We displayed it proudly for years.
A cabin in the country was part of escapist culture with roots in the days of the depression when unemployed men walked the coutryside to escape the boredom and ennui of the economically depressed cities. Gradually, small country settlements evolved and along with those a highly idealized version of the Wild West, complete with westernized songs and clothing. Cowboys and Indians - played by adults. That is how we spent every summer weekend and every vacation until I left at the age of 18.
But the Communist reality was always there. In 1918 Czechoslovakia became an autonomous state for the first time in history when it was carved out from the Austro-Hungarian Empire. For the next twenty years the young country flourished economically and culturally under the leadership of Tomas Garrigue Masaryk*. Yet this period, called the First Republic, was totally ignored in our history books and classes. It was deemed a decadent and bourgeois time by the Communists and it was simply ignored. Instead of religion we received lessons in civil defense. We practiced with gas masks often but we never knew where they were stashed. Every so often someone from the Soviet Union would come to visit, we were then bused from school, and placed strategically on the side of the road leading to the airport, issued flags, told to wave them and smile on command. A few hours later a cavalcade of black Volgas with bullet-proof glass zoomed by containing some sweaty Soviet politruk with vodka on his breath and the flags were taken away from us as we were unceremoniously bused back to school. A pretend state…pretending.
We were reminded constantly that we lived in a worker's paradise and the whole world was watching our great social experiment. The West was evil and always somehow trying to subvert our system. The plight of the blacks in United States, poverty in the South and blighted inner cities were featured as an example of what the "Murderers of Wall Street" could do. At the same time, in Czechoslovakia everyone was spying on everyone else. The secret police established a vast network of informants whose job was to report on any "anti-state" activities. Often these informants were apartment building caretakers who had nothing to do all day but snoop around. There was distrust everywhere and people were careful about what they said and to whom. A word from an informant could easily result in 10 years of hard labor in the uranium mines. A brutal way to live.