Poles apart: Marci Shore is looking for Communist survivors in all the wrong places.
Marci Shore’s new book The Taste of Ashes (reviewed on page 54) describes the lives of the earnest, hardline Communists of Eastern Europe who survived in their countries after the fall of the Berlin Wall. In Poland, there were not many of them for her to write about. Some such Poles had already been murdered by Stalin before the war. From my experience when I was teaching English literature in Poland in the 1960s, I believe there were virtually no Communists anywhere in Poland in the whole 40 years of the Communist regime.
It is often forgotten that the mature Polish population in those years came from families that were in existence before the Russians imposed Communism. They knew a different way of life and of thinking. Among them, though they had to endure it, scepticism or hatred of Communism were almost universal. There was a joke about a village woman who lost the cow she depended on for her livelihood. She went into church and begged God to send her another. As she came out, the local Party secretary saw her. “I know you were asking for a new cow,” he said, “but you won’t get anything from God. However the Party will give you half the price of one.” The woman rushed back into church. “Dear God,” she said, “the Party secretary is a wicked man. He has stolen half the cow you sent me.” Such jokes swept through Poland with the speed, nowadays, of a blog gone viral.
Of course, nearly everyone in any kind of position had to join the Party, but that meant nothing — it was no more than applying for a work permit. Nevertheless many total non-believers — doctors, engineers, school and university teachers, musicians — did their jobs conscientiously. But they did that as good men and women, and frequently as good Catholics, out of loyalty to their country, not to its government. Apart from Russian support, the Party more or less rode on the backs of its opponents.
One of the men I particularly admired was a professor of sociology. He addressed his new students every year. “Here,” he told them, “you have a choice. You can become a sociologist, or you can become a success. That is entirely up to you.” They all knew what he meant — they could become genuine scholars, or toe the Communist line. And of course there were many students who did the latter, in all fields, for the sake of their careers, but without believing it.
Another friend of mine was a pianist. I asked him once what a socialist realist composer was. He thought for a moment, then said: “Those who are dead, and those who say they are.” A student once came up to me and said: “I feel I should tell you I have to report on you to the police.” Beaming, he continued: “But I always say nice things.”
So Poles kept their minds and spirits pretty free of Communism during those hard years. It is one reason why they have managed to create so quickly the well-performing two-party democracy that they now have.