Josef Svoboda is an Arctic ecologist and professor emeritus in biology at the University of Toronto. He migrated to Canada in 1968, fleeing from the communist regime of Czechoslovakia. Photo from Radio Praha (

A biologist's epic tale from a Communist regime to the Canadian Arctic

By  Geoffrey Woollard, A Catholic Register Special
  • March 20, 2018
Wine from Raisins, A Life Transformed through Communist Gulag to Canadian Arctic by Josef Svoboda (Novalis, softcover, 240 pages, $27.95)

Josef Svoboda tells the story of a life that encompassed 20th-century history and winds up facing the most important questions of the 21st century — questions about what we have learned from nature, what we have done to our environment and who we will become as we drift away from the natural world. 

“A boy from Moravia survived the Second World War. Then, as a student, he was arrested by the post-war Communist regime and spent almost nine years in various prisons and concentration camps, his life seemingly ruined in the process. But he endured, succeeded in finding freedom on a different continent and, at the end and with God’s help, became a recognized Arctic tundra scientist,” is how Svoboda summarized his life to a Czech radio station in 2010. 

Svoboda tells us this story because he wants us to understand “that nothing is ever lost in life; that it is possible to start anew, even after age 40.”

This epic tale delivers a dose of historical realism to any romantic vision of life behind the Iron Curtain. Svoboda’s life story is rich nourishment for blossoming scientists. 

svoboda gulagWine From Raisins will also help the mature reader fly over a mid-life crisis like an Arctic bush plane flies over half-thawed swamps before touching down on solid ground. 

Svoboda’s love of nature was planted by his Scout leader at an early age and watered by the poems and literature of Ernest Thompson Seton, Thoreau, Ruskin and Kipling.

However, his idyllic boyhood is darkened by Nazi clouds and the armies and political systems that replaced them after the Second World War. Svoboda was only in university for a short time before he was arrested at the age of 20. He would spend his 20s in the forge of the gulag, caught running a parcel for the political resistance. 

This dark section of the book is filled with raw life stories, which Svoboda tells clearly and concisely. This period of formation, in which Svoboda was formally taught courses in philosophy and theology, influenced his intellectual approach to science and religion. The bishops and prelates he lived with behind bars in Leopoldov “carried on very lively discussions about the scientific perception of creation, evolution and Darwinism.” 

His dizzying transfer between prisons and labour camps ends after more than eight years with his release in 1958. Svoboda was sent home a few months shy of his 29th birthday.

“During all those years, I had had the incredible honour of meeting the cream of our nation…. Nowhere else would I have been able to receive such a  thorough physical, moral and even professional formation — not in the army, not in university, not even in the seminary,” he writes.
Blessed with his own hard work, determination and persistence, Svoboda eventually moved forward in his professional life. He landed a research position at the Academy of Science in Brno. 

Svoboda had been pondering a flight to Canada for some time, but he only had a few days to finalize his decision once the circumstances presented themselves. He hit the ground running in Canada. After rapidly finished off his science degree at the University of Western Ontario, he completed a PhD at the University of Alberta in Edmonton and launched an independent research career in the Canadian North.

The author spent decades in the Canadian Arctic on summer research trips. He provides sufficient scientific context without being pedantic and this enables readers to see the beauty of the Arctic with the heart of Josef Svoboda.

A personal letter from Cardinal Štěpán Trochta, Bishop of Litoměřice, imparts a deeply spiritual message about approaching God through nature.

“When you are in that virgin nature... let the living God speak to your heart through nature, and experience that not-yet-deformed, mysterious language with which your intangible Father will speak to you through nature,” the bishop wrote.

Svoboda’s relationship with nature was not stunted by childhood Disney films. This mature and realistic vision is the result of study, dedication and a sense that reality is bigger and deeper than it first appears.

Svoboda’s contemplative gaze at nature spread to his students and the northern silence provided ample space for questions at the boundaries of science.

“In our conversations, we discussed fundamental questions: How did everything originate? Why are we here? What is our mission?” writes Svoboda, who lives in Burlington, Ont.

“As a biologist, I continue to be interested in origins: the beginnings of the world, of life and of future humanity,” he writes. “Philosophically, I would like to figure out where we are heading. Where is this technological civilization taking us?”

I hope this noble scientist and human being has other writing projects planned. Wine from Raisins lights a fire in the belly while also soothing the soul. 

(Woollard is an Associate Scientist for Structura Biotechnology Inc. in Toronto.)

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