Brash journalist-turned-regime mouthpiece-turned-brash journalist, 1933-
A few years after the fall of the communist regime, many Poles were enraged by a photograph of Jerzy Urban relaxing poolside at his villa in a posh Warsaw suburb. How could this hated Communist, the face of martial law, be living in such opulence?
Urban himself would say many times that in the new era he might very well have ended up hated, marginalized, and poor. That he was now hated, marginalized, and rich didn’t bother him.
Urban earned an infamous place in Poland’s collective memory when he took the job of government spokesman in August 1981, only months before Wojciech Jaruzelski – whom Urban professes to admire greatly – imposed martial law to quash Solidarity. Serving until April 1989, he became the despised face of power, laying bare the authorities’ cynicism in regularly televised press conferences.(Commenting on the Reagan administration’s economic sanctions on Poland, Urban said the people would suffer but “the government will somehow manage to feed itself.”)
Few at the time had any inkling why Urban, a renowned journalist and longtime critic of the regime (his writing was banned for a time in the 1960s) would take such a job. Later, in the 1990s, Urban would say he was irked by Solidarity’s populism, clericalism, and nationalistic bent, an attitude he has held to this day regarding the post-Solidarity political parties left, right, and center.
On the brink of personal and professional failure come 1989, Urban rescued himself with Urban’s Alphabet, a collection of short, cheeky, sometimes malicious sketches of politicians, artists, and journalists. The book became a bestseller and helped fund the creation of a weekly magazine, Nie, fullof profanity, porn, and scathing attacks on the new political elites. Its circulation soon climbed to 600,000 – a clear demonstration that other threads were running through post-communist Poland than the Catholic Church, the new politics, and economic liberalism.
“Ninety-four percent of adult Poles knew who Urban was. Enough people were interested in what that scumbag was up to to buy out the entire print run,” Urban recalled in Nie in 2004.
Still published and edited by Urban and now selling about 75,000 copies an issue, Nie in recent years has become more serious, at least compared to its early days. Urban even became something of a journalistic cause celebre when he was criminally charged in 2002 for publishing a mocking attack on Pope John Paul II. (In January 2005 he was convicted and fined 20,000 zlotys, about $6,400 at the time). The bald, elfin media mogul is a frequent talk-show guest, and his pungent remarks on Polish politicians continue to entertain or enrage millions of his fellow citizens.