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Monday, 01 December 2014 00:00

Children of the Revolution: Looking Back at Poland

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640px-Solidarity 1984 August 31
Photo: Thomas Hedden (Wikimedia Commons); Licence: Public domain
A Solidarity demonstration on the streets of Warsaw back in 1984

 

In the second part of our series commemorating a quarter of a century since the fall of communism in many parts of Central and Southeastern Europe, we hear the views and recollections of Szymon Pozimski, who was born in Poland in 1988.

This year we have witnessed the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall, one of the historical milestones that, along with other memorable events like the first partially free elections in Poland in June 1989, the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia and the toppling of Ceauseșcu in Romania, marks the end of communism in Eastern Europe.

Naturally, it only makes sense to consider the events of 1989 in reference to the decades that preceded them, decades of struggle for the oppressed peoples of Eastern Europe. Without at least a cursory glance at what it was like to live in a communist state, it is impossible to understand what sort of a victory we celebrate. Placing the great triumph in its wider context is all the more important, as with the passage of time the recollection of the period 1945-89 becomes more and more obliterated in the common memory – and this goes for both sides of the now-defunct Iron Curtain.

Communist rule was obviously not the same thing everywhere. And so Poland, where I originally come from, boasts itself on having gained what was probably the greatest degree of freedom and relative independence within the Soviet sphere of influence. Still, everyday life was, to put it very bluntly, hard. (Unless, of course, you happened to be a high ranking official of the Polish United Workers Party, in which case it was slightly more bearable. But even communist dignitaries fared well only in comparison to the rest of society – in the West they would have ranked well below the average). Things were in fact so miserable that when you compare late 1980s to 2014 the jump that took place in this relatively short period seems nothing short of a miracle.

Nowadays it is, for instance, incredible to think that before 1989 you never physically possessed your passport – whenever you came back from abroad you immediately had to leave your passport in at a designated police station. Procedures to obtain permission varied, but both the length of stay and the exact programme of your visit had to be approved beforehand. Permission to travel was not always granted, even if your planned destination was a "bratni kraj socjalistyczny" – a fraternal socialist country. In case of the "decadent West" you could be certain you would be turned down. And if you happened to have stayed abroad even for a day or two longer than it had been agreed, you faced a proper interrogation upon your return. Thus for my parents, a brief holiday in Romania or Czechoslovakia was the peak of their dreams, whereas I, their son, have already spent seven whole years studying and working in as many as four countries, even though I have barely turned 26.

SHORTCUTS AND SHORTAGES

In the Polish People's Republic, satisfying even the most basic consumer needs required no small efforts. Mismanagement and miscalculations in the centrally-planned economy caused shortages of, well, pretty much everything. It sounds like a bad joke, but even lavatory paper was in extremely short supply; shops rumoured to have it in stock suffered a virtual onslaught, and word about them spread at the speed of light. No wonder that the Polish expression "papiery wartościowe" (literally "valuable papers") denoting bonds, IOUs and securities soon extended its meaning to incorporate lavatory paper as well...

No wonder that the Polish expression "papiery wartościowe" (literally "valuable papers") denoting bonds, IOUs and securities soon extended its meaning to incorporate lavatory paper as well...

 

From 1976 onwards goods like milk, butter, meat, flour and rice were rationed. You were, for instance, only entitled to buy 3 kg of meat and 100g of chocolate in any given month. "Entitled" does not mean that those goods were actually easily available. People regularly rose at 5 o'clock on a Saturday morning to get to a shop before the queue became too long, something which radically diminished the chances of actually getting anything. The means people employed to overcome those hardships became legendary and are still passed to the next generation in many families. Fortunately, now they only serve the purpose of humour and entertainment and are no longer treated as pieces of knowledge to help you to cope in life or even survive.

When I was born, my father had to smuggle baby food from Czechoslovakia. Having discovered he was actually Polish, the Czech shopkeepers often didn't want to sell anything to him.  One of them, hard pressed to find a reason with which to justify her refusal, said that food for me meant a Czech child would die of starvation. So much for friendship between fraternal socialist countries.

A friend of my friend's father once sold his three-year-old car at a price vastly exceeding the price of a new one (and no, dear reader, your eyes are not deceiving you: this was possible because like almost everything else cars were in short supply and as you had to wait years to buy one, people would often overpay to get a secondhand car on the spot). The car was paid for in kind, in timber to be precise, which he was later able to exchange for bricks and mortar, so badly needed to complete the construction of his house, having previously acquired some land by similar means.

SO THOSE TIMES ARE GONE. OR ARE THEY?

I think it is fair to say the communist era itself – sad as it was – and the early years of transformation in the 1990s were the golden age of Polish satire and comedy, as the absurdities of reality provided a never-ending stimulus to the mind of actors and writers. It is the feeling of many that we indirectly owe the greatest achievements of Polish humour to communism. As the late lamented Jan Kaczmarek once said: "Samo się pisało" – "Things just wrote themselves". And so, even though it's been a quarter of a century, communism often still serves as a superb object of ridicule when you want to laugh at something, and personally I doubt whether anybody will ever be able to surpass the ingenious comedies of the legendary director Stanisław Bareja.

640px-Gdańsk kościół parafialny NMP Królowej Różańca Świętego tablica
Photo: Artur Andrzej (Wikimedia Commons); Licence: CC BY-SA 3.0
A monument to the Polish Solidarity movement

Another useful by-product of communism in Poland was a unique alliance of all social groups, of workers and the intelligentsia, that spawned the famous "Solidarność" or Solidarity movement, the first independent trade union in the whole of the Eastern bloc, aimed at securing a reform of the system and – in the longer term – independence from the Soviet Union. A phenomenon with no counterparts in history, Solidarność had over 10 million registered members – more than a quarter of the entire Polish population! Whenever anybody asks me what I am most proud of as a Pole, Solidarność is always my first answer.

It is all the more disheartening to see how after 1989 the people, who had up to that point worked together to regain independence, began to misuse it in order to engage in mutual conflicts of their own. It is no exaggeration to say that since around 2005-2007, divisions within Polish society have been greater than ever before. What is perhaps even worse is that animosities are most severe between two political parties which, very broadly speaking, trace their origins back to Solidarność. One of the major bones of contention is whose contribution to the downfall of communism was the more significant – who was imprisoned for longer, whose conditions of incarceration were harsher, who was more severely beaten, and so on. Yes, unfortunately this is indeed often the level of political and public discourse in Poland nowadays. It could potentially be something to disregard and simply laugh at – if it was not for the fact that there are very genuine threats to face and problems to solve.

Recent developments in Ukraine have made me realise in a very brutal way that all those great privileges my generation enjoys, and which the generation of my parents was deprived of, like the freedom to travel and to study abroad, and – to put it simply – to enjoy a better quality of life, are not given once and forever. In the long term, peace and prosperity for my part of the world can only be secured only if we manage to take full advantage of the historic opportunities the present time offers us. Since 2004 more than two million Poles have emigrated, as they saw no future and stability in their own country. It will only be a strong and thriving Poland that will resist and survive if somebody attempts to build another Berlin Wall. And so there is no time for fussing and fighting among ourselves.

As time goes by, the events of 1989 seem more and more to have been only a step towards victory, but not yet perhaps victory itself. Now is the hour when solidarity is very much called for once again. Let us hope that those who try to unleash the sleeping demons of the past will not succeed.

Last modified on Sunday, 25 January 2015 20:15
Szymon Pozimski

Szymon comes from Upper Silesia in Poland. He studied modern languages at the University of Oxford. Having completed a translation traineeship at the Council of the European Union, he now works in the North of England. He devotes most of his free time to chess, cycling, foreign languages, football, and reading.

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