Josef Svoboda - From uranium mine prison labourer to Arctic ecologist

Josef Svoboda, photo: archive of Josef Svoboda

Josef Svoboda is a professor, Arctic ecologist and author. Born in 1929 in Prague, Mr. Svoboda studied science and philosophy at Masaryk and Charles universities. He was imprisoned for nine years by the communist regime in 1949 for alleged treason and espionage and then emigrated to Canada in 1968, where he has lived ever since. I began by asking Svoboda about his earliest memories of growing up in pre-war Czechoslovakia.

Josef Svoboda,  photo: archive of Josef Svoboda
“Well, I’m an old man now, and it’s a long time ago for me to remember. But I was born in Prague and my father was a locomotive engineer, driving trains and locomotives. So in this respect, my childhood was very poetic as I was able or allowed to drive the locomotives for a few metres forwards and backwards! And then, of course, we had to go through six years of the Nazi occupation.”

Were you able to live a semi-normal life during those times?

“It was a life under duress – under the pressure and threat of various possibilities. My father could have been accused of all kinds of sabotage if the trains had not arrived on time or if he was suspected of having malice towards the system.”

At this point you were growing into a young adult, so what are your memories of witnessing the rise of the communist regime [from 1945 onwards] and the mood in the country?

“There was a kind of sobering and awakening. ‘Is this what we really wanted? We thank them for the liberation - of course the Nazis were a terrible regime – but on the other hand, what they are brining here now is not acceptable either.’”

“I graduated from high school in 1948, and already at that time I was known to have some reservations toward this new system. Consequently, the high school ‘action committee’ run by young communists did not give me a recommendation for university. However, I was already assisting at university for one professor, who called the chairman of the committee – a young student too – and said: ‘Look, you should not definitively condemn such a young person. Give him a chance.’ So I was admitted and chose to study science and philosophy. I finished one full year from 1948-49, and was then arrested for these alleged crimes.”

February 1948,  Prague | Photo: Czech Television
So tell me about that. Were you a trouble maker? Were you just outspoken?

“In our philosophical seminars at this time, we were still discussing concepts of democracy and these kinds of subjects. Because it was only one year [since the communist takeover] and they could not just clamp down so quickly and completely. And one day, one of my colleagues said to me: ‘We’re not going to change the system with all this talking; we have to do something!’ I knew what he meant, but I was not really prepared to join some hardcore underground. So I asked: ‘What should we do? I’m not prepared to take up arms – besides, I don’t even have any…’ And he said: ‘No, no, that’s not necessary. We need the correct information from the West and you could be helpful in that respect.’”

“So in this, I somehow committed myself to be assisting in either the collecting or passing on of information. But in fact, the whole organisation was organised by communist initiators.”

So the anti-communist organisation was organised by the communists to deliberately entrap and root out people who were opposed to the system?

“Exactly. To catch all the hotheads! And that is what happened. So finally I was sentenced in a big group, but within that they made a small group of eight students just from Masaryk university and I was among them.”

What were you hoping to achieve if the group had actually been legitimate? Did you want democratic dialogue or help from the West?

Josef Svoboda in 1970s,  photo: archive of Josef Svoboda
“That came up during the court hearings: ‘What did you want to do? We are a popular democracy. We are those people who are for the people. What did you, who also come from a proletarian origin want to change?’ Well, at the time I was only a student, so I said I wanted democracy, Masaryk-style democracy; a Western type where you can elect and un-elect people. And they said: ‘No, this is a dictatorship of the proletariat! We have to take power now and later we will allow more freedom,’ or something like that. So this was the discussion in the court.”

You ended up being sentenced for treason and espionage and you spent nine years in jail. Those must have been very tough times for you.

“Well, objectively they were very difficult. Nobody would like to experience that and I wouldn’t like to repeat it either! But, because we were young – I was twenty when I was arrested – we still had the biological energy and enthusiasm and the idealism to believe that we were suffering for a good cause. And because the majority of us were political prisoners, we reinforced that idea among ourselves and were really unbreakable by the regime. They were always trying in many ways, but the more they pushed, the more our resistance grew. So there was hunger, there were cruelties and a variety of inhumane actions – they put you in a hole for a month and barely fed you…”

So they wanted you to say that communism was in fact great and you were overtly refusing?

“They didn’t formulate it that way. They said: ‘I you’ll cooperate, maybe sign a piece of paper agreeing to inform us about the others, we will help you to get out of prison sooner.’ And of course 99 percent of prisoners refused. As a result, they were persecuted more during their sentences. I ended up working for four years in uranium mines as a slave worker – a prison worker in the mines.”

Arctic science,  photo: archive of Josef Svoboda
Part of the nine years included four years in uranium mines…

“Yes, in Jáchymov [in the far west of Bohemia] where Marie Curie got the uranium for her experiments. We received a significant radiation load in our bodies. I tried to avoid it, staying away from the hotspots whenever I could. But some people perhaps didn’t have that knowledge and were exposed more. I met so many great people that it is very difficult to enumerate them.”

Tell me about the life you have built up in Canada. You’ve worked as an Arctic ecologist and obviously Canada is an ideal place for that as it has a huge Arctic terrain.

“That is very true and of course I wasn’t geared to end up working in the far north of Canada. But I wanted to finish me degrees and to do that I first had to enrol in two universities to finish my bachelors, because I had credits from my Czechoslovakian educational experience but no diploma. And then I chose the University of Alberta in Edmonton [for further studies] and the professor who read my application said: ‘I’m just looking for a person like you who has research experience and if you wish, you can go with me – you have to be here on June 3rd, because two days later we are flying to the far north.’ I didn’t know much about it and just said yes because it seemed like an adventure to be offered the chance to become an ‘explorer’ and researcher in the Arctic. It took me three years to finish my PhD, and before I was finished, I already got a job as Assistant Professor at the University of Toronto, where I remained for twenty-two years before retiring.”

What kind of things have you researched in your career?

“It was a big project. It was part of the so-called International Biological Programme, part of a global study of ecosystems like tropical forests or prairies or the northern boreal forests and also the tundra, the tree-less landscape behind the tree-line, and it’s a sub-continent, you know. The Canadian Arctic is as big as India.”

Photo: archive of Josef Svoboda
When you were in the Arctic amidst the huge open spaces, did you ever reflect on the idea that you’d been imprisoned in a small confined space and now here you were, and that was the major journey of your life?

“It was like a gift from God for everything I had suffered before! If, let’s say, in 1968, when the Russians came and the cage clamped down, someone told me: ‘Don’t despair, you’ll move to Canada and become a university professor,’ then I’d have probably said: ‘You should have your head checked because you need some psychiatric treatment [laughter]!’ But that is exactly what happened – it’s rare in life, but it happens.”

The episode featured today was first broadcast on December 17, 2012.