How come I remember 1989 so well, when I don’t remember what I was doing yesterday? Maybe it’s because the 1980s in Poland were so different from what came after. The 1980s were like a sticky, slow reality where everything happened without haste and nothing worked, where often there was no water or electricity. Only the food was somewhat similar to today’s. Now we have Coke Zero and decaf. Back then we had caffeine-free “coffee” (cereal-based) and chocolate-like products – we didn’t have real chocolate or real coffee. In the 1980s, ham was only for holidays. Today, Warsaw is among the most vegan-friendly cities in Europe.
I lead Poland’s united opposition. We will bring the country back to Europe | Grzegorz Schetyna
We spent a lot of time waiting in queues. For a kid, that was torturously boring. But mothers knew how to remind children this was their only shot at getting anything. Children were key to the process. You had to get in line several hours before the goods even arrived at the store, sometimes about 4pm.
A child’s other function was changing the channels on the TV, which would constantly break down. But nothing competed with the atavistic pleasure of banging on a malfunctioning television – it helped work out your frustration at the fact that everything was so shoddy. Glue didn’t stick. Pens didn’t have ink.
Still, this period was, in its own way, uniquely peaceful. It was very safe in our police state. We didn’t have competition, or the accompanying stress. There was no rat race. And while that was a source of backwardness, it was also a major advantage that disappeared after 1989. Longing for that old state of things has caused long-lasting, not always irrational nostalgia for communism.
Of course, 1989 brought a unique atmosphere of excitement. I was living with my mother in a typically large and ugly block of flats. I was almost 10, but could feel the spirit of the time because my mother was so caught up in it. She was glued to the television, constantly sighing. There were discussions and interviews with people from the opposition who we’d never seen before. They were intelligent, had a great sense of humour, and said things that had previously been unutterable. My mother would never have imagined something like this could happen. But when I wrote the slogan “Down with communism” on a paper airplane and launched it from the balcony, she told me off : there might be trouble. No one knew how the round-table discussions between the regime and the opposition would end.
The first free elections, 30 years ago on 4 June 1989, marked a great victory for the Solidarity movement. Suddenly everything accelerated. Everything became colourful and exotic. The omnipresent kitsch did not bother anyone. The first bazaars and the first entrepreneurial startups had already appeared. For the first time in my life I saw bananas: I so desperately wanted one that I burst into tears when my mother said it cost a fortune and she didn’t have the money. She eventually gave in.
Suddenly there were colourful key rings, Turbo gum with pictures of cars on the wrappers, the German-language magazine Bravo. Before, we had only known the packaging of such western luxuries. Under communism, apartments were all identical. There was only one kind of everything – furniture, kefir, yoghurt – and there were no brands. People used empty cans with the beautiful logos of Pepsi or 7up as decorative objects, lined up next to each other. After 1989, they appeared with their contents. But they were damn expensive. Warsaw’s first McDonald’s became the fanciest place in the city.
After 1989, reality swiftly became dramatic also. The life I experienced was fairly typical of transformation-era society. My mother worked as a middle manager in a large lightbulb factory in Warsaw named after Rosa Luxemburg. We lived in a 38sq m apartment. This was not the social sphere of the opposition, which primarily belonged to the intelligentsia. She quickly came to fear that she would lose her job, that the factory would be privatised and that 8,000 people would become unemployed.
Indeed, 3 million people in Poland lost their jobs in just a few years. The finance minister Leszek Balcerowicz introduced a nationwide shock therapy that was aimed primarily at large enterprises. With the opening of the market and the inflow of western goods, the country’s outdated factories collapsed. Today, there is no trace of the massive factory where my mother once worked. Even the buildings have been demolished.
That constant fear characterised my teenage years. I knew I had to study to get into the right high school and go to university. Otherwise I wouldn’t stand a chance. My mother warned me that otherwise I might have to become a cowherd.
The education boom was one of the most important features of the 1990s– but it was also another source of stress. My generation is very different from those that came afterwards. We are much less relaxed. We are much more concerned with security, because a sense of security is what everyone lost so suddenly in 1989. Many people never recovered from losing their jobs; inequality increased drastically.
Another shocking development was a new, bitter antagonism between politicians. Before, the Sejm (parliament) worked very harmoniously. There were no squabbles –everything was passed quickly and smoothly. But since 1989, the Polish parliament has been constantly embroiled in quarrels. By 1991, we had 29 parties in the Sejm.
As change washed over the country, abortion suddenly became the most important issue for the Polish right. The Catholic church bestowed on itself the right to intervene in political life, as a reward for its previous support of the opposition. Everything that could possibly be baptised was baptised: streets, fire engines, the stock exchange.
This was so overdone that the electorate replaced the former opposition with former communists, who by 1993 returned to power as part of a coalition. In 1995, Lech Wałęsa, the hero of Solidarity, was defeated by Aleksander Kwaśniewski, a former minister for sport under the communist regime. Wałęsa had turned out to be such a bad president (egocentric, intemperate, conflictual) that my mother, previously an ardent supporter of the opposition, would mute the television when he spoke. By then we had a remote, so I no longer had to run up to the TV set.
Looking back, I believe the true success of 1989 was that former communists remained true to democracy. They did not violate the constitution. They had their faults, of course, but they proved loyal to the newly created democratic system.
Recently, those very same former communists ran in the EU elections as defenders of democracy, in opposition to the ruling populists of the Law and Justice party, who are supported by the Solidarity trade-union and the Catholic church. More than anything, this very paradox embodies the success of 1989 – the year our lives became complicated but free. It was the best time in three centuries of Polish history.
• Sławomir Sierakowski is a Polish writer and founder of the Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique) movement
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