Poland, the country I no longer know

Warning: a long read on the subject I know little about, but when did that stop anybody?


Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza (Election Gazette) used to be my favourite source of news and gossip from Poland. The journalists were of decent quality, the writing entertaining. Alas, Gazeta Wyborcza became subscription-only a few years ago, not even one free taster article a month, just a few lines fading away before it got interesting. Subscription fee is negligible but it’s the principle that I object to; so Gazeta was out.

I do not watch Polish TV, not since I got tired of maintaining the charade that the Cyfra+ satellite dish affixed to the side of my London house was in fact firmly screwed onto a wall somewhere in Poland. The owners of this particular satellite TV insisted that only people who resided in Poland could access their services; Cyfra+ was out too.

My visits to Poland over the years have been short and far between and when I did go, it was to immerse myself in a picture perfect countryside, my tourist status shielding me from everyday Polish realities.

I left Poland more than three decades ago. For several years after that I busied myself designing, building, destroying, and re-building my new life in London. My days were spent moving and decorating houses, giving births, getting and losing jobs, and performing similar life-defining rituals. All this left me with no time to follow the news from Poland. I did not keep up with any of the major political, social, and cultural changes that Poland was going through after the end of Communism.

The crazy 1990s came and went, my stormy personal dramas went with them, replaced by so-called life stability. At about the same time, the Internet started to gain momentum, so I could read the latest news from around the world with my morning coffee.

Gazeta Wyborcza was in its infancy, but it was still free of charge. I understood little of what I read; with a few exceptions, all names and faces in Polish public life had changed when I was busy elsewhere, which was frustrating. I felt the growing sense of detachment. Poland was slipping through my fingers.

A few more years had passed, my life was running at full speed, and then suddenly, wham! Poland joined the EU, and the job seeking Poles began to arrive on these shores in their tens (hundreds?) of thousands.

Names of new generation of Polish politicians and public figures were slowly finding their way to my consciousness again, but it was all strange, foreign, and surreal. Donald Tusk stood out with his speech about the power of love after he won the general election, possibly in 2007, but don’t quote me on dates. Tusk is better known here as the EU President during recent Brexit negotiations, but he is also an ex-PM of Poland.

The only thing I was still able to understand was the language, but even that had morphed into an inevitable twenty first century version of itself, which did not exist when I lived there.

Around the same time, but my time frames are wonky, reading about Poland online led me to a few shock discoveries. The biggest one was that Lech Wałęsa was no longer the Gdansk dockyard strike hero I remembered him to be.  His widely respected status as the Solidarity leader, the Peace Nobel Prize winner all forgotten; he was suddenly being denounced as a double agent and a traitor, seen as bringing nothing but shame and embarrassment to Poland worldwide. The shift in perception, brought about as a result of ongoing political in-fighting and mud-slinging, stayed mainly within Polish borders; the world at large continued to see Wałęsa as before – the one man symbol of Poland’s fight against Communism in the 1980s. The discovery of the change in Wałęsa’s status in Poland was a definite sign that Poland had become the country I no longer knew, the country in which nothing made sense any more.

Where am I going with this? Good question.

Let’s fast forward to the present day. Year 2020, glorious springtime weather.

The world that I do know is making shaky small steps out of lockdown. Public discussions revolve around when and under what conditions it might be safe to open schools, pubs, restaurants and IKEA stores. The threat of the second wave is paralysing the hope of long term return to normality. Finding the vaccine is the Holy Grail. We nervously listen to any new information coming out of China, just in case it’s more bad news. We read about what is happening in the US, and we shake our heads with disbelief. We are curious whether the Swedish way might prove a winner after all.  That’s more or less the mood of the last few weeks.

What is happening in Poland at these unprecedented times?

Poland is getting ready for their presidential election. Again. The election was originally scheduled for the 10th of May, the government refused to cancel it until the very last moment, there was a plan to hold it entirely by postal vote, but that caused issues with GDPR (Poland is held hostage to GDPR on the scale we cannot imagine here), it was finally postponed and now due to take place in July.

A new candidate has emerged recently, to join a long list of already existing candidates. Social media revel in comparing the level of spoken English the new candidate displays, against that of the incumbent president, to a marked disadvantage of the latter.

In other news, Polish small business owners have travelled to Warsaw every other Saturday afternoon for the last few weeks, to hold a ‘strike action’ as they call it, on the streets of the capital, where they are being challenged by the police for breaking social distancing rules. Arrests are made, faces are burned with nasty government-issue spray. From what I’ve seen online, the protests do not attract huge numbers of people, and from where I stand, it is not entirely clear what exactly their demands are. Admittedly, I might be standing too far. I asked a few better informed friends, but I got classic Polish answers – we are fighting for freedom, democracy, justice, dignity and did I mention freedom?

Poland walked away from Communism in 1989. That was a trendy thing to do at the time if you were an Eastern European country, with the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Velvet Revolution in Czechoslovakia all happening the same year.

Poland followed its own unique path to that historical junction, after an eventful decade of changes, taking the birth of Solidarity in 1980 and the Martial Law of 1981 in its stride.

What happened next continues, unbelievably, to this day.

31 years later people still accuse each other of past or present Communist sympathies, they call their political opponents ‘the commies’, although it is unclear to me what this term even means in 2020 Poland.

Catholic Church continues to play a huge part in Polish lives, their iron grip on the country’s ‘morality’ is unprecedented in Europe. The country is currently governed by a far right, ultra-Catholic, socially conservative Law and Justice party (L&J), their opponents quick to point out that Lawlessness and Injustice would be a more fitting name.
Abortion is illegal except in the most extreme life-saving situations.
Gay marriage is an offensive concept among considerable portion of Polish population. Homosexuality in general is seen as an abomination by more people than you would think possible in the 21st century.
Large shops are closed on three out of every four Sundays a month to allow Catholic Poles to respect God’s day of rest and spend this day with family, focused on worship and spiritual reflection.

There is more. There is an ongoing ‘assault on the independence of Polish judiciary’ if you listen to the opposition, or ‘the purging of the justice system of deep-rooted corruption’, if you are the government supporter.

Polish public has learnt to live with these rules and attitudes, although a large number of progressive liberal Poles despair about the country’s political direction.

The opposition is hopelessly fragmented and as such cannot agree a united front against the government. Every now and again a fresh face appears among the liberals – I use this term loosely, a catch-all for the anti L&J activists – and captures the hopes of all those who oppose current rule of hard-line Catholics. None of them stays long enough to mount successful campaign though, because nobody has recently managed to unite large enough numbers under their leadership. They either lack charisma, or they manage to offend various sections of society with their ill-advised comments, or both.
And then there are those who fantasise about bringing back Donald Tusk as the nation’s saviour in its hour of need. It’s all a mess.

Remember the outrage a few years ago when it was discovered that Polish immigrants in the UK were claiming British Child Benefit for children living in Poland? It would not happen now, the new Polish child benefit is five times higher than ours. No kidding. How can Polish government afford it? No idea, but their investment paid off and the Law and Justice party won their second term in office in October 2019. Their opponents say that they bribed their way to victory by offering generous packet of welfare benefits to the worst off sections of the population.

All these political squabbles and relentless anti-government mockery on social media continues this year, almost entirely undisturbed by Covid-19.  Official figures coming from Poland suggest that the pandemic had been kind to Poland with total of 1025 deaths at the time of writing (26/5/2020) in the country of nearly 38 million.

Are these figures to be trusted?
Who knows? It’s Poland. The country I no longer know, no longer comprehend.



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