Tuesday, 18 August 2009

It was twenty years ago today

August 1989, and my wife and I set off for a trip around Poland. It was a year after our wedding, and we planned to drive to Poland to visit family and friends.

This was at the time when the one-third free Polish parliament (elected on 4 June 1989) voted Tadeusz Mazowiecki as the first non-communist premier of any Soviet bloc country since Stalin's day. (I was in the offices of Gazeta Wyborcza at the very moment the parliament confirmed Mazowiecki's nomination. A historic moment, yet a feeling of anti-climax. The hard work of turning fish soup back into an aquarium, to quote Lech Wałęsa, was all ahead*.

That August, we visited 21 families in 13 towns and cities around Poland. Driving in from East Germany, we stopped in Poznań before going on to Warsaw, Radom, Kraków, Katowice, Tychy, Wrocław and many smaller places in between. I could tell when we were staying with communists, and when we were staying with ordinary Poles. The former would say about the absolute mess we were encountering, "to ludzie, to nie system" (it's the people, it's not the system), implying that Stalin was right when he said that imposing communism on Poland was like putting a saddle on a cow. The latter would say "to system, to nie ludzie" (it's the system, not the people), suggesting that once Poland would ditch communism, things would turn out OK. Which indeed they did.

Above: A queue to get into a supermarket. Anytown, Poland, 1989. Inside one could find vinegar, matches, flour, mustard, er... that's it. If you wanted a roll of toilet paper, you needed to bring five kilo of old newspapers to the punkt skupu and you'd get a coupon, which entitled you to stand in line to buy a single toilet roll. (Poznań? Kraków? Can anyone recognise this place?)

Above: "Our hearts, our thoughts, our deeds to You, O Socialist Fatherland". In case anyone has any delusions that the causes of Poland's postwar woes were anything other than socialist in nature. Block of flats on the approaches to Katowice.

Most meat shops were empty. This one, if memory serves, was in Poznań. On offer was Japanese sausage ('nagie haki' - 'naked hooks' - to quote a joke from that time). There were better-stocked meat shops. A queue would start forming at the one across the street from my wife's aunt on ul. Grójecka in Warsaw, at 4am each morning - the shop would open four hours later.

Above: Petrol was in short supply too. Although officially thruppence a gallon, it was hard to come by. That's me by our hired Fiat Uno in the queue at a CPN (remember them?) petrol station in south-west Poland. The Uno was a modern luxury performance car when compared to the Fiat 126P Maluchy or elderly (even then) Fiat 125Ps that stood in front of us. A solution to our continuous problems with getting petrol was the black market. I'd scour the backstreets of Kraków and other cities by night, find likely-looking taxi drivers, and cut deals involving dollar bills and jerry-cans of 95 Octane.

A propos of dollar bills, this is how much they cost back then - 63 grosze in modern zlotys (shave off five zeros). Inflation was rocketing, to reach its peak the following year (1,200% from June 1989 to June 1990, with 80% inflation in the month of December 1989 alone). The deutschmark, which, older readers will recall, converted into the euro at just under two per... so pretty much euro-dollar parity back in 1989. Although by then we were allowed to change money at free market rates, we were obliged to change a certain number of dollars per day at an 'official' rate (something like 2,000 old zlotys to the buck).

The children playing in the foreground would be in their mid-20s right now, Poland's largest demographic group. I wonder how they remember those childhood days, when confectionary was rationed. Looking at these old pics, it is the unmitigated drabness of Poles' everyday existence that struck me. I remember Joasia's flat in Kraków; empty fridge, empty cupboards, decorated inside with empty tea packets. We arrived there in the evening, there was nothing - no thing - to eat. So we all went to the only place in town where food could be bought at this time - the Holiday Inn.

And to quote the punchline of Monty Python's Four Yorkshiremen sketch, "An' you try an' tell young people today that ..... they won't believe you".

* Joke from those times: There's two ways in which Poland can transform its economy. The normal way and the miraculous way. In one, the Blessed Virgin Mary will descend from the heavens, lift up her arms, and the Polish economy will come right. In the miraculous version, Poles will do it themselves. So 20 years on - which way was it? I'll let you be the judge.


toyah said...

Capital account! Nice to see the pictures. I never took any, thinking we still had time, and, besides, what's the point? Now it is obovious we didn't have time and the point was there, indeed.
Good we had you then. Somebody who could take a fresh look on things and make them last. I am very impressed.
Two things, though. I don't think mustrad was that easy to get. And about toilet paper - they just gave you the proper number of rolls on the spot. You provided them with makulatura, and they gave you shit paper.
And one more thing - this Katowice block of flats is still there. Intact. Intact...

toyah said...

One more from my wife - the school she used to go to at that time was just behind the block of flats. So she would have to watch that 'socialist fatherland' thing every day of the week, and she had managed to learn that by heart.
She wants me then to tell you that from her point of view, there's absolutle nothing funny about that.

Ewa said...

Great post! I'm going to have to go dig out the photos I took in 1984 when we came to Krakow for Christmas from London. Ciocia proudly served us liver for lunch when we arrived - having queued up for it since 3am. It's the one thing I have never been able to keep down... Except for that one time. To this day I remember the look Mum gave me when I opened my mouth to say 'nie dziękuje'.

White Horse Pilgrim said...

I guess that, as a student visiting Poland in the mid-80's, I saw the better side of things. Travelling around the countryside in summer by bicycle, petrol queues weren't noticeable, and people were selling farm produce from kiosks and tables. After the crappy life as students in northern England (e.g. we couldn't afford heating in winter thanks to the Thatcherite economy, and it took over a year to find even an ill-paid job), even taking a bicycling holiday in a socialist country and living on (as I recall) pasta and tomatoes did not seem terrible. Most of the people seemed very decent indeed. I shall not forget some wild parties with students in Torun and Krakow (I wonder from where they found that much vodka?)

The communists were the ones who called the police when I photographed a steam train. The policeman who arrived was wearing jeans, and I had to help push-start his van.

Anyway, there were worse places - Romania, for instance. By 1989 that place was as bad, as some Poles put it, "as our country was in 1945."

Michael Dembinski said...

Good point about the countryside, WHP. In the 1980s, villagers were relatively much wealthier in respect to urban dwellers. Put a freshly slaughtered pig carcass into the boot of the old Merc, drive to town at midnight...

I was arrested (briefly) in Olsztyn in 1979 for photographing a steam engine (as if NATO spy satellites couldn't do the job!)

Aphelion said...

Great photos that strike a chord with me, too - things weren't that different in the Soviet Union in the 1960s, either!

Pawel said...

A really nice post! Although a thing to remember is that during the communist time the shortage of goods wasn't permanent. There were better and worse times. Plus many products in this economy were subsidised, as all prices were fixed by the goverenment.

As you called for those who were children then to speak, I thought I'd chip in.

In 1989 I was 6, and attended the kindergaten number 26 in Torun. I have many memories from this time. I remember seeing the round table on tv, and Wałęsa, Jaruzelski... but I didn't understand anything of it. My world was somewhere else. Playing with other kids on the podwórko near our block of flats. You didn't think this world was drab, it was everything you knew. And it was colourful and fun. My kindergarten was orange:)
I remember there was no meat in shops (I even asked my mum, why do they make these shops so big if there is nothing there, they should make it in kiosks).
But we always had meat. Our fridge was able to contain a whole pig, and it did. My dad used to go to the countryside, buy a pig, take to another farmer to have it processed for saussages and stuff. There was no petrol in petrol stations but we drived around and on holiday.
We had barbecue parties at our "działka" in the countryside. I think it was a happy time. Relations between people were very good. We had japanese tv and vcr and i remember it was normal. I watched tapes with Hanna Barbera cartoons. If things weren't in shops people smuggled them. I remember that in the summer when my mum walked me home from the kindergarten we used to make a stop at an ice-cream shop. Prices there were changing very fast.
Some children had relatives in other countries, like West Germany. They would have some beautiful and clolourful things like those bright-coloured crayons my friend had. I envied her so much:) Everyone else's weren't that colourful and beautiful.

Now everyone want's best and newest crayons, and that's what they concentrate on. Consumption, making money. The signs on buildings are still there. Only now they advertise other things. The one I see from my window now says: "Rewolucyjna cena! Apartamenty Pańska 8700zł/m2" (Revolutionary price, Pańska Apts 8700zł per m2).

The quaity of people's lives is compromised in capitalism too.