Memories of the communist era (Republic of Poland) are usually connected with a difficult time characterized by a scarcity of products and the struggle of obtaining them. Since capitalism has strongly influenced the lifestyle and mentality of modern Poles it has become difficult to find the same appreciation for chocolate or have the same sense of victory over acquiring toilet paper.
This is perhaps what the nostalgia is rooted in – a longing for the same absurdities that governed everyday life before 1989 and the feeling of appreciation for small things that modern consumerism has taken away.
Of course not everyone remembers these times fondly, for some it was a time of struggle and waiting for basic amenities such as food and an apartment while others remember it as a time of clever tricks based on connections and deals that got them what they wanted.
Read on to find out more about everyday life in the times of the Peoples Republic of Poland (PRL)
A turbulent and shaky time in Polish politics continued after the second world war when the country acted as a puppet controlled by the Soviet Union which with time developed into its satellite state.
Fraudulent elections that led to a Soviet majority left the country controlled by the Soviet Regime and the future uncertain for Poland and its democracy.
What followed was the onset of socialism, food shortages, centralization of most aspects of life including food and education. Another consequence was a radical change in the countries boundaries, with a large shift to the west and the relocation of people of from the east.
Due to these changes as well as the horrific ethnic cleansing of the second world war Poland lost its multi-ethnicity and the population became rather heterogeneous.
Despite these difficulties and limitations placed by the Soviet Union many Poles managed to work around the rules which created a culture based on absurdities which now in the times of capitalism are reminisced about fondly.
The precise political context of this period is a complicated topic with many dynamic changes.
A source of hope during the years of People’s Republic of Poland was the Pope John Paul II who was was chosen in 1978 and remains an important icon to this day. This event unified Poles and acted as a source of national pride.
The most promising event occurred two years later when in 1980 the party “Solidarity” was founded. The party led by Lech Walesa was the first mass independent trade union in communist states which by 1989 broke Soviet control in the Eastern block.
It was then that the country began to transition from communism to a captialistic economy and parliamentary democracy which function to this day.
Everyday life in Republic of Poland was governed by the limitations of government issued commodities. Food stamps were necessary to obtain food for the family. Of course food stamps were used in many countries after the war, however, in Poland this continued into the late 1980’s. Throughout the food stamp period items included bread, flour, grains, potatoes, vegetables, mat, fats, sugar, sweets, milk, tea or coffee, salt, vinegar, matches. In the 80’s they came to include alcohol, chocolate, laundry detergent, toilet paper and gasoline.
Men and women received different proportions, pregnant women for example could get additional chocolate. The system did not function well as people had wait to for long hours in queues only to find out that the shelves are empty and that the only thing available is for example vinegar.
State run shops and shortages of food and supplies created a difficult situation for citizens who relied on rationed food for their livelihood. This built a strong reliance on trading, those who did not enjoy alcohol could for example trade someone else for cleaning products.
Another way of dealing with food shortages was growing one’s own fruits and vegetables and making preserves. Preserving food remains a part of Polish culture to this day.
Every person with memories of that time is able to share a story of the sense of victory they felt when after waiting for hours on end in a queue they managed to get sweets or toilet paper – a true commodity.
The best memories are those of receiving packages from ones family or friends in Germany or America with western goods that were unavailable in Poland at the times, real chocolate, exotic fruits and brand name items simply did not exist and were a source of true excitement when tried for the first time.
My grandfather proudly tells an anecdote of the absurdity of going to a business meeting with a briefcase of apple scented shampoo which he traded for bricks. Building a house during the time of PRL was a real challenge since gathering materials was not as simple as going to the store to get what was needed.
From each according to his ability, to each according to his need
Despite the ideals of communism a lot of inequality existed within society, how well of you were depended on the position you had at work and whether you were a member of a political party.
For some it was a time of struggle and waiting for basic amenities such as food and an apartment while others remember it as a time of clever tricks based on connections and deals that got them what they wanted.
Members of political parties had access to food, cars and apartments that were either unavailable to the rest or required a very long waiting time.
Cars were the most valuable asset and were issued with coupons, important politicians had easier access to coupons which they could sell with a huge profit to those who did not want to wait.
The most common cars that everyone dreamed of were the Fiat 126 p, Polonez and Trabant. Even working for a political party had its benefits as the employees would receive bonuses in the form of dinners, holidays, summer camps, parties.
Managers, secretaries and directors also enjoyed more luxuries than the physical labourer, their wages were not significantly higher however there were enough perks in those jobs to make the times easier for them.
PRL (Republic of Poland) in Modern Times
The remains of PRL are a rather cool aspect of Polish culture that can be discovered when traveling through the country. You can still see a lot of the architecture of the time which is characterized by rectangular gray concrete buildings with very little frills that make up large communities within cities.
Now an element of modern pop culture, with sentimental value for older generations and a source of fascination for the young the times of PRL have a nostalgic charm. PRL themed bars are perfect for Poles who want a throwback to the times of their youth or for students looking for an alternative bar scene.
The prices of alcohol are very affordable and the décor is usually characteristic of the times. Bars are full of antiques from the 70’s, propaganda posters, newspaper articles and old school music. Many bars serve cheap food among which is a funny named combo which translates to “jellyfish with binoculars”.
If you are wondering what on earth this might be it is two shots of vodka with a portion of meat jello. Enjoy!
These bars are nice places to feel the vibe of the times but they are rather artificial. If you are looking for a more authentic experience make sure to look for remaining PRL diners called “bar mleczny“.
Here you can eat cheap traditional food, they are almost always self service so make sure to be prepared to order quickly and in Polish :). Films from that period have a large cult following, the most popular titles influenced by PRL culture are “Miś”, “Seksmija” or “Rejs” they are worth checking out as they are rather eccentric and absurd.
Museum of Poland under the Communist Regime
If you are looking for a more educational experience that will deepen your knowledge of that era then I truly recommend going to the Museum of Poland under the Communist Regime in Nowa Huta.
The museum is meant to be a place for understanding and discussing the political, social, moral and cultural aspects of the communist period. It is highly interactive and based on personal stories of people who lived in those times as well as on interdisciplinary studies. The museum is located in an old cinema in a district of Krakow that is known for its social realist architecture.