Lessons of history

New Communism, Old Fears

Doug Firby
September 14, 2020
Supporting or working to bring about “democratic” socialism has become an alluring option for ever-more voters across North America. It is ascending on clouds of virtuous intentions, high hopes and utopian goals, backed by elaborate theories, with good doses of anger and envy adding punch. Yet it has all been tried before – and failed calamitously, an unmitigated horror ending in ruination. Luckily, people who have personally lived through it are still around to tell the tale. Through the eyes of one survivor of Eastern European communism, Doug Firby issues a stark reminder of what real oppression looks like and a plea to younger Canadians to resist the seductive call of socialism.
Lessons of history

New Communism, Old Fears

Doug Firby
September 14, 2020
Supporting or working to bring about “democratic” socialism has become an alluring option for ever-more voters across North America. It is ascending on clouds of virtuous intentions, high hopes and utopian goals, backed by elaborate theories, with good doses of anger and envy adding punch. Yet it has all been tried before – and failed calamitously, an unmitigated horror ending in ruination. Luckily, people who have personally lived through it are still around to tell the tale. Through the eyes of one survivor of Eastern European communism, Doug Firby issues a stark reminder of what real oppression looks like and a plea to younger Canadians to resist the seductive call of socialism.
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As a child who had never seen a democratic country, Zuzana Janosova believed communist Czechoslovakia was the best place in the world. “I remember this absolutely good feeling in me,” she recalls today. “‘How lucky I am to live in this society.’” But one terrible incident – in which police ran her 17-year-old brother’s motorcycle off the road and left him there to die – provided her first glimpse behind the paper-thin utopian veneer. That case, in which police were never held to account for their criminal act, planted the seed of doubt that would eventually grow into the horrifying discovery of a cruel and heartless world where social order and conformity of thinking were maintained with an iron fist.

Janosova, today married and with the last name of Den Boer, says her parents never recovered from the death of her brother. The tragedy and outrage also left her deeply bitter. The police force, known as veřejná bezpečnost (or VB), “had the power to do as they please” and, because officers also belonged to the Communist Party, they knew they were beyond reproach. For in Cold War-era Czechoslovakia, the Communist Party, its ideology and its various organizations held absolute authority. 

Pictured, Zuzana Den Boe is old enough to remember living under true communism in Czechoslovakia, and is resisting the allure of
Pictured in her twenties before the fall of the Berlin Wall, Zuzana Den Boer remembers the real oppression of communism and is fearful of
Pictured today in Calgary, Zuzana thought she had escaped her past, but trends of new communism are appearing throughout North America
Zuzana Den Boer (née Janosova) experienced first-hand the horrors of communist rule: (From top to bottom) As a young girl growing up in Kosice, Czechoslovakia in the 1960s, as a twenty-year old prior to the fall of the Berlin Wall, and today in Calgary.

“There was no respect for one single human life in communist Czechoslovakia,” said Den Boer during a long interview. “Ordinary people were expendable and disposable. Their lives were of no consequence.” Growing up in the dark world of a post-Stalinist but still very much Soviet-dominated society, Den Boer saw how people could be seduced by the insidious promises of an idealized society, and the tactics used to co-opt them into becoming back-stabbing tools of the state.

‘Lives were of no consequence’: Soviet-dominated Czechoslovakia was repressive, malign and corrupt.

The horrifying record of communism (in many countries called “socialism” since communism was to be their end-state one day) along with its fiendish ability to mesmerize and seduce millions until it’s too late to turn back is why Den Boer is sounding the alarm today about the renewed romance in Canada and the U.S. with the ideology of socialism. It is, she believes, the equivalent of a gateway drug to full communism.  

In Alberta, the 2015 election of the NDP awoke Den Boer to the reality that socialism – which many thought had been swept into the dustbin of history – is staging a comeback, not just in one Canadian province, but across the continent. In the U.S., for example, avowed “democratic socialist” Bernie Sanders (who in the 1980s took his new wife to the communist Soviet Union for their honeymoon, but failed to notice any of the deep problems that just a few years later caused the Communist regime’s disintegration), garnered so much support in his bid for the Democratic presidential nomination that rival Joe Biden had to make a hard-left to court Sanders’ young liberal supporters. According to a 2018 Gallup poll, more than half the young people in that country (51 per cent) have a positive view of socialism.

Uncle Joe is watching: A massive granite monument to Stalin once towered over Prague.

In Canada, the trend is even more pronounced. A 2019 poll by Forum Research found that 58 per cent of Canadian voters have a positive view of socialism. Those most likely to respond favourably include people aged 18 to 44. Parliament now has four left-of-centre parties: the Liberals, NDP, Greens and Bloc Québécois, and Justin Trudeau’s government is tilting ever-further leftward to prop up his minority government. Meanwhile, the Conservative Party of Canada is deeply divided, debating whether it should remain clearly aligned with small-c conservative principles and policies or shift back to “Red Tory” positioning and tactics in order to regain power. At the provincial level, the NDP holds onto office in British Columbia with the support of the Greens, and Liberals rule in Nova Scotia and Newfoundland & Labrador.

Perhaps most telling of all is the Green New Deal. It is a package of U.S. legislation proposed by the Democratic Party that would nationalize and reorder vast sectors of the American economy, including the energy sector, at a cost of trillions of dollars, in the name of social justice. The Green New Deal brings to life Den Boer’s fear that environmentalism is being used as a tool to lead citizens of Western society – the very societies that stared down the Communist threat during the Cold War – like lemmings into a world in which personal freedom is sacrificed on the altar of a fictitious “greater good.” 

Without adequate training in the oppressive reality of communist regimes, many youth today are increasingly infatuated with new communism leaders.
A communist comeback? Untutored in the true consequences of communism, many youth today find the movement politically appealing.

Older Canadians and Americans remember in vivid (and sometimes personal) detail stories of the iron-fisted life in the former Soviet Union and its Eastern European client states – stories in which dissent was smothered through intimidation, torture and, too often, murder. Czechoslovakia was a small part of a vast empire of oppression that took in all of eastern and southeastern Europe and was overseen by the Soviet Union, organized into the Warsaw Pact military alliance. These regimes in Eastern Europe and, after 1949, in China unleashed a vast tide of tyranny and mass murder as they sought to impose their will.

An ideological imbalance: Canada currently boasts four left-of-centre parties. (Clockwise from upper right: NDP leader Jagmeet Singh, Bloc Québécois leader Yves-François Blanchet, Green Party leader Elizabeth May and Liberal leader Justin Trudeau.)

Estimates of the total number of people killed under communism since the Bolsheviks seized the Winter Palace in Petrograd (now St. Petersburg) in 1917 run as high as 100 million. Throughout this period, political prisoners often numbered in the millions at a time. And, after 1960, when the Berlin Wall was constructed and the entire border from the Baltic to the Adriatic seas was fortified with military-style facilities – but mainly facing inward – there was virtually no way out. Over the decades, thousands were shot or otherwise killed merely in attempting to escape to the West.

Those who were not killed faced severe repression, including the lifelong absence of freedom of speech, freedom of religion, freedom of association, the right to pursue higher education and careers, and the complete absence of property rights. Even ordinary economic activity was made criminal. Den Boer knows communism’s modus operandi all too well – because she lived it. But those born after the epochal day of November 9, 1989, when East Germans began to tear down the Berlin Wall are so distant from the bitter reality of communism that history is unlikely to serve as a warning, much less a deterrent. Like generations from the mid-1800s through the mid-1900s , they are therefore more likely to be open to socialism’s utopian promises. And, warns Den Boer, socialism is just a whistle-stop on the road to a full communist system. The renewed threat to liberal democracy makes it urgent, Den Boer believes, that today’s youth be educated in the failures, dangers and plain evil of communism. 

The Green New Deal, as promoted by U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (top), can be viewed as a traditional communist endeavour that threatens to erode personal freedoms in pursuit of a fictionalized notion of the ‘greater good.’

Den Boer grew up in the 1960s and ’70s in the city of Kosice in the Slovakia half of the former Czechoslovakia. Her Slovak parents worked as professionals. Her early life was virtually devoid of politics, partly because her parents studiously avoided such discussions around the dinner table. Years later, she realized they did so because they knew that children could innocently repeat their parents’ words to others – leading to severe consequences.

One thing today's
If life is so perfect, why build walls? The Berlin Wall once stood as a monument to communism’s essential authoritarianism.

A second-generation Communist, the young Zuzana saw nothing odd about the rules under which she and her friends lived, because it’s all she had ever seen. Today, she likens it to the frog who doesn’t realize it’s in a pot of water that will soon reach the boiling point. She was a six-year-old child when Czechoslovakia’s brief period of liberalization, dubbed “socialism with a human face”, swept the country in 1968 before being violently crushed by Soviet tanks and troops that pointedly included contingents of East Germans, a symbolic signal that the Czechs had no allies. “If you don’t know anything else, then you accept it,” she says. “Growing up through communism as a child, you don’t realize something is wrong with society.” 

But things were terribly wrong, and it took a family tragedy to cause Den Boer to first doubt the Communist Party’s claim of moral superiority. In 1988, when she was 26, her 17-year-old brother went to a party with friends. She admits they were drinking, and some of the kids took a car from the garage where the party was being held. Police came, and Den Boer’s brother rode off on a motorcycle to distract police. He didn’t make it far. Den Boer says police “drove him into the curb, causing him to crash and suffer serious injuries.”

Hopes springs eternal: In a scene from the Prague Spring, citizens surround Soviet tanks in central Prague during the Soviet-led invasion of 1968; the last Soviet troops did not leave Czechoslovakia until 1991.

What happened next shocked her to the core. Instead of calling for an ambulance to help the mortally injured youth, she says, “They left him there to die.” The VB police simply labeled it a motorcycle “accident” and there was no investigation. As she bitterly observed, “Nobody complained about VB.” Even today, Den Boer finds memories of that incident intensely painful. And, she says, “My parents never recovered from this tragedy.” 

Den Boer’s life would never be the same. Glimpses of Communism’s ugliness and horror were slowly revealed, like crumbling stucco falling off a brick wall. The country was rife with corruption. Bribery was the price of business. “Good” Communists who toed the line got the promotions and nice apartments, while independent thinkers suffered with next to nothing. Snitches were everywhere. In her university years, she saw several incidents in which parents lost jobs because of what their kids confided to trusted friends over a couple of beers. Too often, those “friends” would report those parents to authorities in the belief that the betrayal might lead to future personal favours. “You’d go to a pub, and if anything slipped out, they’d report it,” Den Boer says.

Free at last: The Berlin Wall falls in 1989.

Although health care was “free” in the society that authorities often insisted on calling the “socialist worker’s paradise”, those very workers would have to bribe a doctor even to get an appointment. Police were so duplicitous that the young Zuzana’s mistrust of official authorities endured for years after she had fled to Canada. “Police were the absolute worst,” says Den Boer, now an engineer with a large energy-producing company in Calgary. “They were so corrupt. When I moved here, it took me 20 years to trust them.” 

The public feared the VB and its parallel state security arm, Štátna bezpečnosť (or StB), and for good reason. “The lure of such absolute power attracted the worst sort of individuals to the police – people who would be considered criminals and psychopaths in any decent civilized society,” says Den Boer. As a result, Den Boer wrote in a recent essay, citizens lived in constant fear: “Fear of being arrested, of being tortured, of dying as a political prisoner in a prison, labour camp or uranium mine (slow death from radiation poisoning), incarceration in an insane asylum…or of the same thing happening to someone you love.” Those who did not comply were interrogated, tortured, intimidated, put under surveillance for eventual liquidation, or just killed outright.

Constant surveillance: Life in communist Czechoslovakia was dominated by the fearsome state security force státna bezpečnost, or StB (top) and the notoriously corrupt national police force veřejná bezpečnost, or VB (bottom).

Overall physical casualties at the hands of Communist authorities in Czechoslovakia were, however, much lower than in other countries. The eventual toll totalled approximately 200,000 political prisoners, about the same number exiled, and about 5,000 executed, died in prison or murdered while trying to escape. This made Czechoslovakia one of the Communist world’s best places. Given Den Boer’s life story, the mind reels at how bad things were in other countries. East Germans, for example, hankered to visit Czechoslovakia on holiday to access a few more consumer goods and better beer, to see a slightly risqué theatre production and simply to breathe the “freer” air.

As she reached her late teens, Den Boer’s cynicism about communism deepened. She saw that a friend of her older sister’s was denied entry to university, even though she had exceptional marks, because the state deemed that it needed labourers instead. Two years later, after working in a trade, the friend gained entry to school through a well-placed bribe. “Everything was ‘free’, but nothing was free,” says Den Boer. “Always, everybody was looking for connections. If you had an important position in the Communist Party, then you got admission [to university] without good marks.” Like many of her generation, Den Boer said she had a strong desire for social justice, but she could see that “children in our society were brainwashed.” 

Conformity above all else: Throughout history, the practice of communism in Europe, China and elsewhere has treated individualism and personal freedom as existential threats.

The economic consequences of communism are always the same: poverty of an entire society. “And this one comes with an ironclad guarantee – a lifetime warranty,” Den Boer notes drily. The creation of what is known as a “command” economy, decoupled from the supply and demand dynamic and pricing signals found in market economies, inevitably results in profligate waste and inefficiency on a monumental scale. This means shortages of basic items like bread, milk and toilet paper, and lineups sometimes beginning at 3 am. For larger items it was common to experience a 10-year wait to buy a car, which was often a 1940s design with a stinking, polluting two-stroke engine. 

The shortages of everything, in turn, promote the corruption, bribery and theft that party apparatchiks use to enrich themselves and that ordinary people use to get by. And, among the bitterest ironies of all, communist countries are filthy and polluted on a scale and to a degree never witnessed in the Western world.

In addition to the life-changing trauma of losing her brother, two much smaller incidents stand out as key intellectual events that completed Den Boer’s alienation from communism. One occurred during one of the many lectures that students were required to attend in which a Communist Party member would expound on why their system was the best. During the question time at the end of one such event, a student asked why Czechoslovakia didn’t have a republican party even though Italy – a democracy – allowed a Communist Party. “I was shocked,” said Den Boer. “I was 100 per cent sure other countries didn’t have a Communist Party.”

Communism in Prague forced lineups and shortages of life's most basic necessities.
Many of today's youth who are infatuated with
Long lines and low quality: Communist regimes habitually fail to meet the material needs of their people. Citizens queueing for groceries in Prague in 1968 (above) and driving clunky East German Trabant cars (bottom).

After getting married at age 23, Zuzana and her first husband found themselves mixing with other anti-communists. Despite the risks, they would talk about how oppressive their society truly was. “We were becoming rebels, slowly but steadily,” Den Boer recalls. They were always careful, however, to huddle in private and avoid the snitches. 

The second incident occurred at another indoctrination lecture after Den Boer graduated from university. Now 24, she was working as a civil engineer at a construction enterprise. A Communist Party member was assigned full-time to the state-owned company to hold political seminars and watch over employees for any deviations from official ideology. After completing one presentation, the official had each person in turn stand up and asked them if they’d like to join the Party. Den Boer saw her male peers crumble under the pressure to conform. “One by one, they said, ‘Yes. Yes. Yes.’” But when it came to her, the only women, she said, “No. There was absolute silence. Everyone was stunned.” 

Immediately afterwards, the Party lecturer called her into his office and began screaming. He threatened that, because of her choice, if she ever wanted to have children she could forget about having day care, forget about getting her own apartment, and forget about ever getting a pay raise. Den Boer was terrified. “I went back to my desk, and I was trembling,” she said. Den Boer’s personal courage and integrity, it seemed, had consigned her to an even more arduous future under the eternal Communist regime.

Yet unbeknownst to her the Czechoslovak regime, like those of the other East Bloc nations and the Soviet Union itself, was as rotten and weak as it was corrupt, arbitrary and oppressive. Just three years later – and only days after the Berlin Wall came down – what was soon dubbed the Velvet Revolution took hold in Czechoslovakia. Within weeks, the Communist regime was overthrown – remarkably, without bloodshed – and democracy was restored to Czechoslovakia after 50 years of oppression that had begun with Nazi occupation just before the Second World War. Suddenly, Den Boer and her more than 15 million compatriots were free. 

Including being free to leave. Initially, the couple wanted to stay in their home country and help rebuild it as a liberated democracy with a Western-style free market economy. But, she recalls, the early post-Communist days were chaotic. “After all those years in a cage, the people were like pets who are suddenly released. They didn’t know what to do.”

Den Boer was deeply disappointed that the new parliament, under severe political pressure from separatists in both regions, in 1992 voted to hive the country in two – the Czech Republic and Slovakia – without holding a referendum. She wondered whether the country had truly realized the promise of democracy. “I found it highly undemocratic,” she said. “If they had called for a referendum, I would have voted against the split.”

Proponents of
The Velvet Revolution in action: On November 26, 1989, half a million protestors gathered in Prague to hear speeches by opposition leaders as the communist regime crumbled. (Source: CTK)

After researching their immigration options the family, now with two small children, Michal, 9, and Zuzana, 10, decided to apply to Canada. They landed in Toronto in 1997 with no place to stay, then moved to Vancouver. Despite its beauty, Den Boer just didn’t like that city. “I still don’t know why, but I did not feel good there,” she says, laughing at her initial unawareness of its leftist political leanings. “Now, I know I would not fit in Vancouver.” The couple saw an article in a Vancouver newspaper about Calgary being a good place to invest, and decided to gamble on moving the family there. She would come to love Calgary and Alberta with all her heart.

Perhaps because she loves Alberta so much, Den Boer has grown alarmed about signs that signify to her a slow slide towards socialism. Not only were the NDP elected in 2015 for the first time in the province’s history, but that party’s leaders used some of the same politically loaded language in their discussions about climate change – especially the word “denier” – as Czechoslovakia’s Communists did when they talked about Western capitalism. Climate change, which should be a scientific issue, was being suborned to a political agenda, and dissenters were being demonized. It was then that Den Boer concluded that the environmental movement had been hijacked and redirected to a new purpose: to undermine the West’s free enterprise-based economic system. 

Coincidentally, a few years earlier Den Boer had divorced and remarried in Calgary. Her second husband, Lennert Den Boer, is a geophysicist who has self-published a book, It’s The Sun, Not Us: How Global Warming and Green Ideology have Hijacked Science. It challenges the dominant theories of climate change. 

A substantial body of academic literature as well as the personal experiences of hundreds of millions of survivors have demonstrated that Communists use sophisticated tools of psychological manipulation to subvert not only the societies they initially take over, but their “enemies” in the West. They typically polarize the debate. 

Communists know that most people have an innate desire for social justice and, ultimately, for survival. When they are told that an injustice is happening to them, they develop a sense of victimization. In Communist countries, it was always the stereotypical dirty, cigar-chomping capitalists who were said to be committing the injustices, threatening the people and victimizing the little guy. People who didn’t buy into the resulting Communist ideology – both before and after the revolution – were dismissed as “deniers.” Individualism was bad; people were constantly told to think of the interests of the collective. “If you had any individual needs, then you were seen as selfish,” Den Boer says. 

In Canada today, Den Boer asserts, the environmental movement is using the same conceptual process (minus the physical violence of Communist revolutions). Among its familiar tactics are painting Big Oil as the heartless, profit-obsessed bad guys who are undermining people’s future through reckless disregard for the environment and are stepping on anyone who gets in the way. 

And just as the Communists did, the believers in an imminent “climate crisis”, their goal of “saving the planet” wrapping them in a mantle of virtue, denounce any who disagree as “deniers,” attempt to have them fired from high-profile jobs and drummed out of public life, and in some cases even call for them to be prosecuted and imprisoned. Every abuse, in fact, short of physical torture and death. “I knew that they would use climate change as a way to swing votes, and they’ve been very successful,” Den Boer says. “They are playing with emotions, and they are good at it.” 

As a survivor of actual, real-world Communism, Den Boer has been spurred by this disturbing trend to become politically active, trying to warn Canadians about their nation’s slow slide into socialism. People are being indoctrinated in our schools, in the media, and in the workplace, yet she says most of them don’t realize it. “They have infiltrated our schools already,” she says. “It’s terrifying, absolutely terrifying.” To her, there is a worldwide movement, fueled by the UN’s Agenda 21 resolution, which is nothing more than a massive scheme to redistribute wealth. 

Although her ideas definitely count as heterodox in present-day Canada, Den Boer notes that they are supported by indisputably credible figures, such as Vaclav Klaus, twice prime minister of the post-communist Czech Republic. Klaus thinks that environmentalism is a political agenda pushed by extremely wealthy and powerful left-wing people, most of whom themselves made their money exploiting the environment. The movement’s success in fomenting alarm about global warming and the associated campaign to reduce carbon dioxide emissions, Klaus has said, represent the greatest threat to human liberty since Communism itself. 

In his 2007 book Blue Planet in Green Shackles, Klaus writes: “It should be clear by now to everyone that activist environmentalism (or environmental activism) is becoming a general ideology about humans, about their freedom, about the relationship between the individual and the state, and about the manipulation of people under the guise of a ‘noble’ idea.”

In addition to such external criticism, Den Boer points out that every now and then the mask slips within the environmental movement itself. A particularly revealing example came when the then-co-chair of the UN’s Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change Working Group III, Ottmar Edenhofer, told Switzerland’s leading newspaper that, “One has to free oneself from the illusion that international climate policy is environmental policy. Instead, climate change policy is about how we redistribute de facto the world’s wealth…” The view of a top insider, in other words, is that climate change really is a Trojan Horse for, if not actual socialism, then massive economic interventions by governments worldwide.

Sometimes the mask slips: In 2010 former UN bureaucrat Ottmar Edenhofer admitted that climate change policy is really about “how we redistribute…the world’s wealth.”

“It was ‘scientifically proven’ that communism is the only social-economic system providing the masses with justice and equality,” Den Boer notes. Her professor would remind students that, “One-hundred percent of scientists agreed on this. The topic was not up for debate.” Now, she says, “Try to imagine how I feel, now as a Canadian, when I see the same tactics, hear the same phrases, I saw and heard for years under communism, only this time in English.” But real science, notes the trained engineer, “is not about ‘consensus’; ideology is.” 

Den Boer urgently believes that all small “c” conservatives across Canada need to inform themselves about and stand up to the renewed threat of socialism. She believes the hour is late – perhaps too late for some provinces. Her primary focus remains her beloved Alberta which, with its more-than-healthy conservative movement, she believes is probably still equipped to do so. And that goes for whether a particular right-of-centre voter might support Premier Jason Kenney’s UCP government or believe something even more toughly conservative is needed – or perhaps even that Alberta can only save itself by becoming an independent country.

While Den Boer’s specific views may not be for everyone, two things are incontrovertible. First, in her personal witness to the soul-crushing oppressiveness of Communism, she knows of what she speaks. Second, socialism has gained a renewed grip on the minds and hearts of tens of millions of younger people in countries around the globe.

For Den Boer, the reason is clear. The words and tactics of numerous organizations and movements in the contemporary left – prominently among them the environmental movements – are clear signs that our once-free democracy and market economy are drifting into a new variant of a calamitous world she knows all too well. But she also believes there is still hope for Alberta, for most of its people are not yet indoctrinated by green propaganda. “Alberta is the last place of free enterprise and the free spirit [in Canada],” Den Boer says. “How can we live under socialism? It’s like mixing oil and water.” 

Doug Firby is an award-winning veteran journalist and newspaper manager based in Calgary who has worked in print and electronic media for more than 40 years, is a weekly columnist with Troy Media and has travelled in post-Cold War eastern Europe. 

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