1. The Conversation
A couple of years ago, one of my English friends uttered a sentence which made me rethink my whole life. We went on a trip to Pszczyna, which boasts a fantastic piece of architecture surrounded by a still improving park. After walking for some time we enjoyed some ice-cream and coffee in a cafe in the former gatehouse of the palace. One remark about homosexuals sparkled quite a lively debate, although judging by the tone of our voices, the word ‘row’ would seem more appropriate. When we both ran out of arguments, my friend went quiet for a minute and then he blurted: ‘Roman, I think that you have to learn to absorb change.’
I was immediately exhilarated by the absurdity of this remark. Me, moi, myself being preached on absorbing change? What did my interlocutor know about the times when the world turns upside-down in a matter of weeks? When did he experience transition from the clumsy implementation of the socialist doctrine into the not-so-well working implementation of so-called ‘capitalism?’ What did he know about change?
Angry and frustrated with the outcome of our conversation, I pushed it somewhere deep in my head. However, to my surprise, the notorious utterance kept coming back to me. The idea of change seemingly did not want to be kept on the back burner. It nudged me and prodded me, it kept me awake late at late, it emerged suddenly when I was travelling on the train. It was a real pain and I didn’t know why.
2. The Stability of Communism
Being born in 1972, I belong to the generation which spent the first half of their lives in the kindergartens and schools run by the communist state. What kind of life was it?
The communist system implemented in Poland had it darker days in the 1940s and 1950s. The 1960s were the times of growing stability which was further strengthened by the money poured into the economy by Gierek, the leader of the Communist Party. He shamelessly borrowed billions of dollars from eager Western bankers for so-called development and investments. Surprisingly, some of this money was invested, but the rest reached us in the form of better food and clothes.
The first decade of my life was happy. We had a flat which consisted of three rooms, a kitchen with a gas cooker, a bathroom with a real bathtub and a separate toilet. For my father, who was brought up in a single room with a simple stove, that must have been a real improvement. Of course, we had running hot and cold water, and electricity (not just a tap in the yard as my father had back in his school days). My parents even bought a car, one of those small, weak-engined Fiats produced locally, whose capacity for transporting furniture, refrigerators and even live animals such as pigs quickly became legendary.
We moved in due time, when my parents got a larger flat ‘from the factory’ because three factories were the institutions which governed life and death in our little Andrychów. There were four of us now, and what we didn’t know was that life was about to change because our dear red country went bankrupt. One of the consequence of this bankruptcy was General Jaruzelski’s decision to turn against its own people and declare martial law in 1981 which lasted for one and a half years. Another consequence was a huge economic crisis; inflation sky-rocketed, goods disappeared from the shelves, we had to buy everything with coupons. They were badly printed pieces of paper which stated how much meat, butter or vodka you were allowed to buy every month. Only children were entitled to chocolate, and when you managed to get it, you had a small celebration. Anyway, our parents refused us the taste of sweets because they were a valuable trading commodity on the black market. You wanted something fixed or arranged? Well, vodka and chocolate were the best currency.
From the perspective of a child these years were not hard. Life was simply… life. We had to endure occasional blackouts, as our power plants fuelled with coal couldn’t produce enough electricity. Would you believe it? This is the country whose coal deposits would sustain Europe for the next one hundred years. True is the saying which states that if you let communists manage the Sahara Desert, there would soon be no sand left…
Winters were harsh, and poorly built blocks of flats were difficult to heat. We lived in a kind of box constructed with concrete walls floors, and ceilings. These ‘building blocks’ were stacked atop one another and held together with some kind of steel or iron links. I’ve heard that in the Silesian area these links are becoming corroded and a segment of a wall sometimes… falls off. You might wake up in the middle of the night and see that, well, one of your walls is gone.
Regardless of everything, the 1970s and 1980s may be declared the times of relative stability. Life was entirely predictable. You were born, your mother had a long maternity leave as the communists supported the family, and then she could take another three-year leave. One of my mother’s friend had four children consecutively, so she spent over a decade out of her office. When your children were three or four, you sent them to the kindergarten. And then school started.
School was predictable to the same degree as anything else in this rotten country. In little towns teachers were real institutions: in high school I was taught mathematics by the same guy who taught my mother. What did lessons look like? We had to sit at our desks and we were… bored. There was no excitement of learning something new. There was no debate, no questioning, no experimenting, no exploration. School drilled us into thinking that the Party was the ultimate institution governing our lives. School taught us that being average and not ‘sticking-out’ was good. Primary school divided us into the bright who would go on to high school, the not-so-bright who would go on to technical or vocational high schools, and the dim who would be denied a chance of taking the ‘maturity’ exam. In short, our lives had been programmed even before we were born.
In doing this, the communist state was evil. It produced millions of handicapped people who were denied a chance of developing the skills of innovation and adaptation. ‘Keep to yourself, don’t stick out,’ they would say. ‘Children and fish make no sound,’ they would say. ‘Know your place,’ they would drill this into our heads, because in this replica of hell on earth everybody had a place designed for them. There was no changing it. Ambition was doused, talent was squandered, and curiosity was killed like the proverbial cat. During the mid-1980s change was a non-existent commodity, and neither was hope.