The Communist Regime in Poland in 10 Astonishing Pictures
small, The Communist Regime in Poland in 10 Astonishing Pictures, Gdańsk, 1988. Strike at the Lenin shipyard, photo: Chris Niedenthal / promotional materials, strajk_w_stoczni_lenina_05-1988a.jpg
Between 1952 and 1989, Poland was called the Polish People's Republic. The country was subjected to the USSR during these 37 years. For its inhabitants, this meant being watched, censored and deprived of basic necessities. But Poles managed to circumvent rules and restrictions – and Chris Niedenthal's camera captured their attempts.
Niedenthal's life would make for a great film. The London-born Pole was raised and educated in the United Kingdom. He decided to come to the land of his forefathers, where he received citizenship in 1998. He settled in Warsaw in 1973 and photographed the grey reality of life under the communist regime until 1989.
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The socialist surveillance system impeded Niedenthal from developing his pictures in Poland. 'I was scared of leaving Poland. I was afraid that if I left, they wouldn't let me back in', he shared with the website Szeroki Kadr (Wide Frame). But he found a way to cheat the system. With two rolls of film in his pockets – one with photographs, the other with descriptions of these photographs – Niedenthal wandered the train stations in search of 'friendly tourists'. They would then transport these photographs to the newsrooms of The Times and Newsweek.
The photographer himself didn't exactly know or remember what was on the photosensitive spool. The album Chris Niedenthal: Selected Photographs 1973-1989 contains unpublished pictures – moments of the reality of Polish socialism caught on camera.
1. 'Apocalypse Now'
This may be Niedenthal's best-known photo. The iconic image captures a somewhat ironic superimposition of the first days of the martial law in Poland against a background featuring an equally legendary American film showing at the cinema. American films started being shown in Poland in the late '70s, and they enjoyed tremendous popularity. Martial law was implemented by General Jaruzelski on December 13th, 1981.
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Niedenthal reminisces about this particular shot in his autobiography, Profession: Photographer:
We were turning, and from behind the trees, I could see a new, better scene. If it wasn't enough that there was a banner with 'Apocalypse Now' on the cinema building, in front of it, there stood an armoured personnel carrier – SKOT – and soldiers around it. The setting looked as if it were staged. I couldn't have asked for a better photo opportunity! Yes, but how to capture it on camera?
He took the picture from the building on the other side of the street in a hurry. He placed himself at the end of the halfway point, so that the reflection from the lens wouldn't capture the attention of the soldiers.
2. Pork food stamps
Ration stamps for sugar were introduced on 12th August 1976. Meat was distributed only through food stamps from 1981. Nine standards regulated the complicated system of distribution. Who, when and how much depended on age and profession. Food stamps were not used as a substitute for money, but rather as a tool to control in which quantities people could buy the most sought-after goods: meat, sugar and alcohol.
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Since these items sold out rapidly, virtually everyone relied on the black market to supplement their purchases. Unofficial sellers would often travel to flats and factories. The practise was so widespread that it was nearly impossible to eradicate or penalise.
3. Distilled spirits made in the basement
Food stores were practically empty – only vodka was seldom lacking. Profits from the sale of spirits were an important source of income for the country. With high sales, a stagnating economy and a decrease in other sources of income, record alcohol sales reached 14% of the budget by the year 1980. Wine and beer were only rarely available. When the ration stamps for vodka did run out, Poles made bimber, a home-distilled alcohol, out of sugar, grain or potatoes.
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4. Product-free stores
Most stores were small, with one salesperson. The product range was limited; only the basic products (one type of bread, buns and baguettes) could be found. There were also characteristic months when there were so few products that everything disappeared instantaneously. Only vinegar was left. There was always vinegar,
shares Karolina Szamańska, the author of Stores in the Polish People's Republic.
5. 120% of the norm
The Vistula clothing factory was one of the plants which thrived not only under the communist regime, but after the transition – and it still exists to this day. Massive production halls, the monotony of the work, the pressure to reach quotas... Niedenthal expresses all of this in one image.
6. Hundreds of kilometres from God
Religious rituals helped Polish society stay connected, cultivating a national spirit. Young Poles often took part in pilgrimages, going on foot to places of particular significance to Polish Catholicism – for example, to the Black Madonna of Częstochowa.
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7. Carp every day (& on holidays)
'Carp as an important dish for Christmas Eve is a recent custom', says Jan Łoziński, the co-author of The History of Polish Taste. Cuisine, the Table and Customs in an interview for Polish Radio:
It was once one of the many different fish dishes served on Christmas Eve. It gained popularity when it turned out to be the easiest fish to raise.
8. Urban (im)perfections
Centralised urban planning had many 'holes'. In Wrocław, a woman walks in front of two ruined town houses – an image of the urban failure of the Polish People's Republic, as well as an example of Niedenthal's excellently framed photographic constructions.
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I run away from people. I don't want to be a part of a group – I want to be alone. I could never fit in; I would ruin the fun for the others. I like to look at what's happening in the front from the back.
While searching for oil in Karlino (western Pomerania) in December 1980, a fire broke out. A rumour went around that it was a ploy by the authorities to distract Poles and people outside of Poland from the activities of the Solidarity movement.
10. Lech Wałęsa – an electrician turned national leader
I was going through boxes and came across a photo that had been lying there for 30 years. I was invited over there for breakfast. Lech was getting ready for work; we were supposed to go to the new offices of Solidarity. He put on his coat, he gave his wife a kiss, and his mother-in-law was walking around in the back with a cup of tea in one hand and a sandwich in the other – that moment is starting to come back to me, but I didn't remember it. I was really happy to have found that picture. A moment of tenderness from a very important person.
Chris Niedenthal, interview with 'Gazeta Wyborcza', trans. DS
For more on Chris Niedenthal, watch this short film about him, which was made by the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs:
Written by Dagmara Staga; translated by MJ, 31 Oct 2014
polish people's republic
the polish people's republic in photos
Sources: 'Chris Niedenthal: Wybrane Fotografie 1973-1989' (Bosz), 'Zawód: Fotograf' by Chris Niedenthal, 'Historia Polskiego Smaku: Kuchnia, Stół i Obyczaje' by Jan Łoziński, 'Gazeta Wyborcza', Polskie Radio, own materials, 'Wrzask w Przestrzeni' blog by Piotr Sarzyński, 'Sklepy w Czasach PRL' by Karolina Szamańska