Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Better Red and Fed?

Hi Everyone,
I came across an interesting poll the other day on the Prague Monitor about how about 28% of Czechs believe their lives were better under communism. I’ve encountered this conundrum many times since moving here almost five years ago. Some Czechs have expressed this feeling to me, and I’ve wondered at the numbers of older Czech people attending Communist rallies in Prague. It is astounding to Westerners to hear that people who lived under communism think life was better back then. 

I have grew up in a free, capitalistic economy—this is what I’ve known most of my life. There are drawbacks to capitalism, too. However, when I’ve read about what it was like to live under the regime, I shudder to think of having to live such a life of repression. So, why are some Czechs feeling as if their lives were better under communism?

Image from Wikipedia
This is a poster for the communist
May Day celebration in 1946.
It reads, " Work and peace for
the Republic, well-being 
for the people."

After conversations with Czechs about the issue of life being better (in some ways) under communism, several points have come together that help to solve part of the puzzle for Westerners.

1.  The law required everyone to work; not many people were without some type of job. As a result, there were almost no homeless people and beggars that you can now see in many places here, in Prague. Those who refused to work were punished, and sometimes even sent to prison.

2.  Most people had their basic needs met. Most families had a home, clothing, food and work. This was guaranteed under communism. The quality of these basic needs was not usually up to Western standards, but was adequate to live a somewhat comfortable life.

3.  Everyone had pretty much the same lifestyle—there was not such a huge gap between rich and poor as we have now. There was not much crime under communism as there is nowadays. People didn’t have much, but at least had enough to survive.

4.  Social care was adequate for most people under communism. Generally, families took care of one another, and took care for their elderly family members. Society took better care of those who suffered from ill health and handicaps. Currently, the Czech government is proposing cuts to all social care, including aid for handicapped and elderly people. I have personally seen many elderly people, near our neighborhood, picking through dumpsters just to find enough food to eat. This was not seen twenty years ago.

5.  All workers’ income was taxed, with part of the funds going toward health care. Everyone had medical insurance through this tax and health care was subsidized. People could freely go to the doctor and receive necessary medicines for a small co-pay. Hospitals were free to all, as were any necessary procedures. The Czech government is working, at this time, to make the Czech healthcare system resemble the one we have in the U.S., including higher costs for health insurance, medications and hospital care.

Periods of Relative Comfort

It is important to note that while life was not easy under the communist regime, there were periods when life was somewhat easier for Czechs. One such period was the Prague Spring, back in 1968, when the government was headed by Alexander Dubček, then elected First Secretary of the Communist Party of Czechoslovakia. 

Dubček initiated moderate changes including decentralization of the economy, democratization and more rights for citizens. The Prague Spring was short-lived. It was ended in August of 1968 with the invasion and occupation of Czechoslovakia by Soviets and Warsaw Pact troops. The Soviets then began a brutal crack-down on Czechoslovakia, and life again became hard. 

One Man's Memories of Life Under Communism  

Jiri Slavicek (Czech Republic) – Remembering... by fondapol

Capitalism Difficult for Some Older Czechs

Typically, older Czechs (40 +) who remember life under communism. For these Czechs, capitalism seems harsh and destructive. Older Czechs remember being able to visit their chata (cottage) on the weekends and during summer holidays. Many people were able to have a garden plot near their flats or houses. You could grow a few vegetables and fruits, and keep a few chickens in the yard, and it was enough to keep your family provided with food. These Czechs view life during the regime as less complicated and easier than it is now, under unbridled capitalism. Though they do not want a return to communism and repression, they do long for the safety net that was provided by the government in that time.

The on-going world economic crisis is hitting most countries very hard, including the Czech Republic. This country is heavily dependent on exports to keep its economy going. A recent report disclosed that economic recovery for the Czech Republic has been slower than in neighboring EU countries. Before the crash of communism, the Czech Republic’s debt was non-existent. Rather, there was a surplus. However, after the switch from communism to capitalism, the process of privatization was accompanied by stealing of national property. Now, there is a 40% of GDP national debt load for the Czech Republic.

Under capitalism, life for many older people is becoming more difficult. Pensions are becoming smaller, while social services provided by the government are being cut. With changes in the healthcare system, going to the doctor and getting medicine is more expensive. Necessary hospitalizations and procedures are also expensive for older people here. During the regime, older people usually had enough money to do a bit of traveling, but now they can hardly make ends meet. There are not many retirement homes in this country, and the ones that do exist are typically not maintained in a manner to allow elderly people to live comfortably. Many families are also cash-strapped, and find it almost impossible to care of their elderly family members.

Effects of the Current Global Economic Crisis

Czechs are feeling the pinch more and more as they have to pay out higher prices and taxes from salaries that are much lower than in other EU countries. The typical Czech salary is about 23,000 CZK/month, which is equal to about $1209.99 (on date of publication). Czechs are being required to pay more due to new austerity measures currently being worked on by the Czech government. Starting in January 2012, for instance, the cost of heating will go up 10%, along with an increase in food prices and VAT. Some Czechs are dismayed by all these changes and find it difficult to cope with a free-market, capitalistic system. Is it any wonder that some look back to life under communism as a better time when they now struggle to keep a roof over their heads and food on the table?

For me, the choice is easy—I would choose freedom of life and economy over communism. Being poor and free is better than life under such repression as existed under communism. But many older Czechs remember life under communism, and while it wasn’t easy to live under the regime, when people usually had the basics of life—a roof over their heads (maybe crowded in with other family members), a job, food and clothing. This was enough to live somewhat comfortably. These are the aspects of life that some Czechs long for. Czechs do not long for the repressive regime, only the basics of life that were promised back in that time. These people feel if you have freedom, but no money, then you really have no freedom at all.

Transition and Recovery Take Time

Transitioning from a repressive, totalitarian regime is difficult. It is similar, in some ways, to when a woman (or man) is in an abusive relationship. They long for a better life, but are afraid to leave the life they are familiar with, even if it is a bad, hard life. The change from living under repression, of any type to a more free way of life, is difficult. The healing process can be lengthy. So it is for Czechs who lived most of their lives under the communist regime. It will take some time for them to adjust to this new way of living. Twenty years is not enough time to erase the marks of the old communist regime. It will take another generation, at least, before Czech society is on the way to a firm recovery from their harsh past.

That’s all for today. Have a great day!

God bless,
Sher :0)

Note:  I have focused mostly on the older generation of Czechs, but I must also make a note about the younger generation. Those who are 35 and younger have fully embraced capitalism in this country.

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© 2011 by Sher Vacik. All rights reserved.


VS said...

I am Czech who reached the age of 40 this year and I believe yours is an excellent analysis.

I have some addition though - socialistic economy where everything was planned by state wasn't very effective and inflicted hidden economic damages. I worked in big steel factory Poldi Kladno and in 1989 most of machinery there was 30 years old. Czechoslovak products and technologies weren't up to West standards - most of export went to other Eastern block countries. Environmental damages was also enormous (communists didn't care much about environment).

Estimates of price for our industry and economy transformation vary, but some of them go up to 600 billions Kc (cca 33 billions dollars)

Sher said...

@VS: Thank you so much for your added insights and your own personal experience of life under communism. I understand those aspects you raise. People often had to line up in long queues for basic necessities, meat was sometimes hard to come by, etc.

As you point out, communism was destructive and has left deep scars not only in peoples' lives, but also in the environment.

I have had some personal experience of living a very repressive life, but I can't begin to imagine what it was like for you and other Czechs who lived during the communist era. Czech survival is a testament to how strong Czech people really are.

This post is only a short look into this issue. There is so much more that could have been added--it would really take a book to thoroughly explore this entire topic. My hope is that Westerners might begin to understand these puzzling aspects of Czech society, and gain an insight and understanding about Czechs.

The Czech Republic is a beautiful country with great people...and I wish for you all a very happy and productive, successful future.

Thanks again for adding your excellent comment to this post!

Have a great day,
Sher :0)

Ivanhoe said...

Excellent review! If I had to make it really simple: You did not have to work hard and got paid for it, you could get an appartment for free (if you did not mind the wait list) and your healthcare was free as well. Was not that a paradise? :)
So I'm surely not surprised about the percentage - especially if it's mostly by the older crowd... As they say - old habits die hard.

Happy Thanksgiving!

Sher said...

@Ivanhoe: I'm so pleased with your comment and the one from VS! You are adding details I didn't have room to include in this long post.

You "hit the nail on the head" as we say back home! And who wouldn't consider that a paradise?!

Thank you for adding your insights to this post, and I'd like to wish you and your family a very happy and blessed Thanksgiving!

Have a great day,
Sher :0)