10 Mind-Boggling Oddities of Communist Poland
small, 10 Mind-Boggling Oddities of Communist Poland, A swimming area on the outskirts of Wroclaw, summer 1982, photo by Chris Niedenthal / Forum, kapielisko_wroclaw_1982_fot_chris_niedenthal_forum.jpg
We are all taught at school about communism as a social system, but do we really understand what it meant for those who had a chance to experience it firsthand? Empty stores, propaganda, and censorship, but also a plethora of funny details, born of attempts to make the best out of life.
1. You could hire someone to stand in line for you
The shortage of most common products could make everyday life a nightmare. During many of the frequent economic crises, store shelves would literally be empty. Memories of huge shops supplied with only vinegar and Georgian tea are one of the most commonly recalled flashbacks to the communist period.
Furthermore, most products were subject to a rationing system which made some products available only to the bearers of special cards. All these inconveniences resulted in what is called a ‘queue culture’. People would queue for hours and days to get a washing machine, a pram or a pound of meat. Spontaneous queueing committees watched the order of queues, and retirees would make additional money by being a ‘stander’ (stacz in Polish) – a person who stands in a queue for somebody else.
2. There was 0% unemployment, but a lot of workers with nothing to do
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We want to achieve a new and better order of society: in this new and better society there must be neither rich nor poor; all will have to work. Not a handful of rich people, but all the working people must enjoy the fruits of their common labour.
– Vladimir Lenin
The right to work is a foundation of the communist socio-political system, thus the Polish United Workers' Party put enormous effort into maintaining 100% employment, even if it was completely inefficient. This is why workers would have nothing to do at work for weeks, and would instead just pretend they were working. Danuta Nowak, a lathe operator at the Żerań Factory, says:
I worked on the morning shift. I would come to work at 6AM, punch in, get a coffee, chat with people for hours and have nothing to do until 1PM or so… People were so bored that they often did terribly stupid pranks that not once or twice had serious consequences.
3. Attending parades was mandatory
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May 1st, International Workers' Day, was celebrated more uproariously than any other occasion. The most important part of the yearly celebrations was the huge parade that aimed at presenting support for the Polish United Workers' Party and for communism, as well as the overall happiness and motivation to work.
The celebration was to be joyful, spontaneous and reminiscent of a hoedown. Yet, it was far from spontaneity – the plan was carefully laid out, roles cast and the marching crowd thoroughly controlled by the organisers.
– Tomasz Leszkowicz, histmag.org.
Because spontaneous participation in the parade was mandatory and absence could bring on unpleasant consequences, people used to sign the attendance list and then use every opportunity to escape. Nevertheless, the May 1st parade was critical for propaganda reasons, and, regardless of its real result, was always proclaimed to be a huge success and proof of the nation’s love for the Polish United Workers' Party.
4. There were inferior quality substitute goods for everything
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Petrol was not the only imported good that was missing on the market. Chocolate, good cigarettes, acceptable-quality cars as well as all kinds of innovative products were an unaffordable rarity. Without appropriate resources, domestic producers came up with 'something-like' products. Chocolate-like products used vegetable oil instead of cocoa, while God knows what the substitute of quality tobacco was in cigarettes like Giewonty or Sporty. The most popular car of the period, the toy-sized Maluch, could, with no offence to its quality, be classified as a car-like product.
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5. Dachshunds were crazily popular
This noble breed of dog, the creation of which dates back to the times of ancient Egypt (at least, according to its fans), was by far the most popular of 1980s communist Poland. Ladies walking with two or more dachshunds on a leash was a very common sight, and the breed somehow fitted the mundane reality of the Polish People’s Republic: not too big, not too small, cheap in upkeep and (what is always important in a police state) highly unobtrusive.
Surprisingly, dachshunds are almost absent on the streets of present-day Poland. According to a recent ranking of the popularity of dog breeds, they have dropped out of the top 10 in terms of ownership. Where are you, sausage dogs? That being said, they do reappear once a year in a special parade in Kraków dedicated purely to these particular canines.
6. There was normal petrol and 'commercial' petrol
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In 1988, the communist economic system of everything being state-owned and state-controlled started to seriously waver. It forced the Polish United Workers' Party to introduce signs of liberalisation; one of those was ‘commercial petrol’. How could petrol, one of the most popular commercial goods, not have been commercial before?
Up till then, every driver had a yearly allocation of several litres that they were entitled to buy. After running out of this limit, their cars would become useless for the rest of the year unless they bought some petrol on the black market (which was severely penalised). From July 1988, every Polish citizen could buy some ‘komercyjna’ (the Polish adjective for 'commercial') petrol, which was much more expensive than normal even though it was exactly the same type and quality of petrol. It was sold in only 64 stations in all of Poland, but free of the rationing system.
7. There was hardly anything to watch on the telly
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Television in the Polish People’s Republic was state-owned and carefully controlled by the censorship office. Despite several educational and cultural programmes (some still loved, such as The Old Timer's Cabaret or Four Tank-Men and a Dog), the communist powers used TV as their main means of distributing propaganda. Programmes like Film Chronicles of the Polish People’s Republic or Daily News conveyed messages ordered by the Communist Party and often blatantly blurred the truth. In response, Polish citizens organised massive acts of civil disobedience, such as turning their TV screens to the windows or gathering on casual walks during these news shows in the times of Martial Law.
8. There were vending machines with glasses attached
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This was surely one of the grossest inventions communist-era engineers created. The machine in this photo was used to serve carbonated water with or without raspberry juice. The ugly part is that it didn’t dispense disposable plastic cups but had glass cups attached by string. After each use, they were merely rinsed with water and assumed ready for the next person to use. No wonder it made it into history with the nickname gruźliczanka, which can be translated as 'tuberculosis-lady'.
9. You needed to wait 20 years to have a phone installed
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To have a phone line allocated and installed, one could wait as long as 20 years. The deficit of private phones was not only a result of poor infrastructure, it was also very lowly prioritised by the communist powers. Fewer phones meant fewer conversations to control, and less conspiracy and trouble.
In the village Sierpowo, from 7:45AM till 3PM the school phone was used in the office, but during afternoons it became a public device […] numerous visitors who had urgent calls to make would come to use it. People would call ambulances or the police or to inform their family about a new child or a death. It was the only phone in a radius of several miles.
– Radek, bufetprl.com
10. There was only one shop selling foreign goods, and it did not accept local currency
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Pewex is short for Internal Export Company, and that should already give you an idea of how crazy it was, because:
The term export means shipping the goods and services out of a country.
Pewex was introduced in 1970s to help the country's foreign currency deficit and offered most goods unavailable elsewhere (such as toilet paper, jeans and electronics), but it only accepted foreign currencies The exchange ratio was outrageous and possession of foreign currency in cash was forbidden (it had to be exchanged for bank cheques), but Pewex had no competition and so became one of Poland's most beloved shops until the fall of communism.
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Written by Wojciech Oleksiak, 10 March 2015