5. The slow-down of the new century
The 1990s were both the time of freedom and the time of profit. People who wanted to learn English kept knocking on my door, and it was easy to get a position as a teacher in any state or private school. Being young and naive, I thought that this would continue forever.
The Polish people in general expected miracles and after a decade of working very hard in unstable conditions they were simply tired. Many of them were disappointed, many lost their jobs, many didn’t want to accept the basic fact that the reality got different and it would stay different. I think that the best example will be the situation in the diesel engine factory in which both my parents worked.
The factory employed thousand of people in a town which had around 20,000 inhabitants, and it went through turbulent times at the beginning of the 1990s. There was the inflation, there was the introduction of new taxes – the income tax and VAT were most hated words – so everybody was afraid. What was going to happen next week? What was going to happen next month? What was going to happen to the factory? What was going to happen to us?
It turned out that the Koreans happened. One of the Korean chaebols, Daewoo, took over the factory in the mid-90s. The Koreans tried to introduce the type of work culture which they had in South Korea, but they simply overlooked the fact that Polish people were poor learners and masters of passive resistance. The Koreans had problems with communication: they wanted too much, too fast, but they didn’t understand the local culture. The Polish management of the factory were happy to sign fat contracts with golden parachutes; even the then-retired (!) CEO came back and offered his services which were eagerly accepted.
Although the Koreans tried very hard to restructure the factory, they constantly struggled. However, this would still be not enough to make the company bankrupt. What actually happened was a result of overoptimistic assumptions and poor implementations. Daewoo acquired another Polish car plant which produced vans. Their strategy was to keep prices low in order to attract customers and the engines for the vans had to have constant prices. They bought thousands of diesel units from the Andrychów factory which had problems with keeping the costs down, and in this way they intentionally – or more probably unintentionally – subsidised the van factory. The diesel engine factory literally bled to death, although this bleeding was not red but green in colour.
The factory went bankrupt and so did hundreds of families in Andrychów. It is no wonder that people were happy to embrace the so-called post-communists. We had a leftist majority in our parliament, we had a leftist government, and of course a leftist president. The economy slowed downed, and the government decided that it had to offer some kind of protection to the people. They introduced the programme of early pensions which they called ‘bridge’ pensions. It worked like this: when you met certain conditions like having been employed for a number of years, you were entitled to early retirement and the government paid you some percentage of your future pension. When you reached your proper retirement age, you started receiving your full pension.
You can now put the pieces of the puzzle together. There were millions of people who were disappointed with ‘capitalism’. These people were scared because they saw factories being closed down. In 1989 they were forty or fifty years old, which meant that they were already too old to enjoy change, and a decade later they were even older. So these people loved the way out which the leftist government offered. Tens of thousands were laid off every year and they were more than delighted to accept a small but steady monthly income. And that is the reason why Poland has the highest rate of pensioners and people with disabilities in Europe.
This solution did for the economy the same thing which a plank does when it is driven through a vampire’s heart. In order to pay billions to early pensioners, the government had to raise taxes. Raising taxes slowed the economy even more and the vicious circled started to spin faster and faster: now, there are fewer people to pay taxes, so they have to be taxed more heavily. More and more young people keep emigrating to the UK, Ireland, Germany, Holland or wherever they perceive a safe harbour. Our national debt is sky-rocketing and nobody has the courage to say: ‘Sorry guys, we have to start paying our debts off. There will be no more money for you.’
Despite the government propaganda which kept singing praises to the EU, things got much worse in Poland after our joining this structure. Or organisation? Or superstate? I still have problems with grasping the very concept of the EU. Nevertheless, prices went up, Polish companies were hit again and the combined effect of introducing early retirement and accession to the EU was disastrous.
This economic slow-down had consequences for me. There were fewer clients, salaries paid by the institutions for which my wife and I worked were ridiculous, we hit the bottom. I was forced to spend a year working in a Tesco Superstore in the UK to help our family budget. It was not easy to leave a wife with a daughter, but sometimes a man has to do what a man has to do. And now I can see that although it was a dark period, it was also a profitable period. My English got substantially better and I learned how the English work. This was an illuminating experience. Although I hated my managers, I admire them because I saw them working twelve hours per night shit without a word of complaint. I saw them struggling to open the store looking clean and neat. I had never seen this kind of dedication and attention to detail in Poland.
I also met a couple of wonderful people, both Polish and non-Polish. I got reunited with my friend who chose to live in the UK in the 1990s. I had time to rethink the first 34 years of my life and I swore to myself: ‘Never again.’ My stay in the UK was also the period when I decided to become a full-time writer. No, I was not walking with my head in the clouds. I wanted to become an ELT writer, producing textbooks for people learning English. And I have been determined on implementing this plan for the past nine years.
6. Challenges of 2010s
The second decade of the 21st century is one big question mark in Poland. What I mean is not the unpredictability of the future, but simply the quickly-rising number of questions which many Polish people ask. Why are they young forced to emigrate? Why are we forced to sponsor the early pensioners? Why are certain groups (e.g. miners and teachers) constantly getting more and more privileges? Why are schools being closed down? Why is our army so weak and inefficient? Why can’t we have effective transportation? Why is our internal and external debt growing at a staggering rate? Why do politicians keep lying to us?
And the last question – Why do politicians keep lying to us? – seems to be the pivot of this decade. For many years we trusted our politicians, partly because there was no one else to trust, partly because we felt weak and inadequate. This is what the forty-five years of communism did to us. The system denied us opportunities for experimenting and making mistakes. The system made us mistrust our judgement. The system taught us that you can trust only your closest family. The system made us feeble and shy. And it took us years to overcome this.
In the past twenty-five years we learnt that we can rely only on ourselves. There is nobody we can go to; the politicians lie and steal, the rich care only about themselves, the Church is spiritual only on the outside. We kept asking questions and nobody answered, so now we understand that we have to seek answers by ourselves. And probably this is the largest change: we learnt to think for ourselves. We know that we can trust our judgement. We know that experimenting and making mistakes teaches us something. We know that we can trust other people. We are no longer feeble nor shy. We fear no more.
7. Change is good
The communist system which we experienced was evil because it led to the fossilisation of the society. It was like a badly-designed machine; you could push it and pull it, you could pour money into it, you could curse and swear, but it would never work properly. And finally it would grind to a halt because this is what you get when you design the ‘mechanism’ of the country according to the principles of communism: a monster which will die because it is not able to support itself.
As a society, we learned to live without hope of a better life. We accepted the idea that life would always be the same, and that any change would mean deterioration of our condition. And I think that this is the most dangerous legacy of communism; goods may be easily imported, factories may be re-opened, the environment may be cleaned quickly, but the sediment in our brains does take a long time to wash out.
Yet, we have to learn to embrace change because when we do, we are finally able to accept life as it is: a never-ending path of ups and downs which brings us new experiences every day. Then we learn to cope with novelty, and we understand that we need to use the good things, and the bad things just need fixing or ignoring.
So, it turns out that my friend was right: as long as there is room for change, there is room for hope.