Today the role of the Catholic Church in Polish statecraft is a matter of some debate, but 20 years ago it would have been unthinkable to overlook the church in the political arena. The ruling Communists recognized the church as a hostile yet powerful player; for Solidarity, it was a potent if at times uncertain ally.
In 1989 Josef Glemp was in his eighth year as the head of the Polish church, steering a careful course between the regime and opposition through difficult times, most notably the introduction of martial law in 1981 and the 1984 murder by state security officers of the popular dissident priest Jerzy Popieluszko. While Lech Walesa viewed the interests of the church and Solidarity as the same, some dissidents suspected the Catholic leadership was too willing to settle for peaceful coexistence with the Communist government.
But according to some historians, by 1989 Glemp recognized that an agreement with the regime was possible, and he didn’t want it to happen without church involvement. The primate played an important role in preparations for the Round Table, which paved the way for the multiparty elections of 4 June 1989. Following the peaceful transition of power, Glemp came to be seen less as a conservative unwilling to confront the regime in support of the opposition and more as a long-term strategist whose non-confrontational approach helped smooth the road to democracy.
Glemp, who had been made a cardinal by Pope John Paul II in 1983, remained the primate of the Polish church until 2006, and as such played a role in the key social and cultural controversies of post-communist Poland. He has been dogged for yeas by allegations of antisemitism, accused by Jewish groups of insensitivity to their concerns during the rancorous arguments over the construction of a Catholic convent outside Auschwitz in 1989 and the unauthorized erection of crosses near the camp nine years laters.
His attitudes toward Poland’s all-but-vanished Jewish community resurfaced in the firestorm over Neighbors,  a 2001 book detailing how Catholic Poles massacred hundreds of Jews in the town of Jedwabne during World War II. Pre-war conflicts between Poles and Jews had an “economic basis,” Glemp told the Catholic news agency KAI. “Jews were cleverer, and they knew how to take advantage of Poles. That, in any case, was the perception.”
In 2005 Glemp was publicly critical of the Catholic and stridently conservative Radio Maryja, saying it was causing a rift in the church. Politics intervened again just as he was leaving office, when the man named to succeed him as archbishop of Warsaw, Stanislaw Wielgus, was accused of collaboration with the communist-era secret police. Glemp defended Wielgus, saying the accusations against him were exaggerated, but Wielgus resigned only a month after his appointment.
Through the two decades of democracy, as the Polish Catholic Church gradually receded from its former position as the dominant reference point for many social groups, Glemp’s influence faded, but his presence is still felt. This year, remarkably for any cleric – much less a cardinal – he appeared in a feature film, playing himself in the biopic Popieluszko. In the view of some commentators, Glemp’s screen appearance was an act of homage to the charismatic priest by a church leader who had been criticized in the past for not doing enough to protect Popieluszko in the tense period leading up to his murder.
Polish journalist, dissident, and politician, 1927–
When Poland needed a recipe for national reconciliation after five decades of totalitarian rule, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, the first non-communist prime ministerin Central and Eastern Europesince the late 1940s, came up with the gruba linia – the notorious“thick line” that was to be drawn over the past. Whether this was a better solution than the harsh lustration law proposed by the government of former Prime Minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski remains a bone of contention in Poland.
The legacy of Mazowiecki’s 17-month tenure (August 1989-January 1991) includes more than the “thick line” formula – which, whether or not it was intended that way, has come to be seen as a conciliatory gesture to the outgoing totalitarian regime. He undertook radical steps aimed at moving Poland toward a free-market economy. The crash reforms were successful, but only at the cost of sharply rising unemployment and a fall in real wages – fallout that cost him a shot at the presidency in November 1990, when, in a shocking setback for his policies, Mazowiecki finished third behind his erstwhile ally, Solidarity titan Lech Walesa.
That year marked a split within the Solidarity camp, which Walesa and Mazowiecki had co-led for a decade. Mazowiecki, a former parliamentary deputy, was one of the principal legal advisers to the striking shipyard workers and helped mobilize intellectual support for the union. In 1981 Walesa entrusted the first Solidarity publication, Tygodnik Solidarnosc, to Mazowiecki, who was imprisoned when martial law was declared in December of that year. In early 1989 he was a key figure in the Round Table Talks that opened the door to political competition.
For the next decade and a half Mazowiecki remained in the thick of Polish political life, serving in the Sejm until 2001 and co-founding two parties, the Polish Democratic Union in 1991 and the Democratic Party in 2005. He also served as a special UN rapporteur in Bosnia and Herzegovina from 1992 until 1995, when he resigned to protest the big powers’ inaction over the bloodshed there, including the massacre at Srebrenica.
Mazowiecki left high politics in 2006, but he is still active on the public stage as a journalist and commentator. On 31 October, in Berlin, he joined other statesmen in office in 1989 – from conservatives George H.W. Bush and Helmut Kohl to reform Communists Mikhail Gorbachev and Miklos Nemeth of Hungary – for an informal commemoration of the events of 20 years ago.
The last time the Polish farmers’ unions managed to make headlines was last year, when one of the most radical announced a “warning protest” of 3,000 farmers in Warsaw against the “critical situation” in Polish agricultural and rural areas. When the day of the protest arrived, however, the number of protesters had dwindled to a mere 1,000.
It was a far cry from the early 1990s, when protests led by Andrzej Lepper paralyzed Poland, as he led farmers to block roads. Populism calculated to gain the support of rural and small-town Poland later elevated Lepper to the posts of deputy speaker of the Polish parliament, deputy prime minister, and minister of agriculture.
In retrospect it looks as if Lepper’s rise was the swan song of populists’ efforts to build their support on the parlous situation of Poland’s rural communities. Continue reading …
David Hlynsky’s introduction to communist Europe was “a gut-level impression of a change of color.” It was 1986, and the U.S.-born, Canada-based photographer was en route to Krakow, where he’d been invited to exhibit his work. Freshly over the West German border, driving through the Czech city of Plzen, “suddenly I had this feeling of a cinnamon brown and ocher cityscape, which was very unusual.”
“It seems like a minor thing, but it was quite a horrible thing at the time,” Hlynsky recalls 23 years later. “It wasn’t until later that I realized that what I was actually experiencing was a lack of highly saturated primary colors … that were part of Western advertising.”
From this earth-toned first impression grew, indirectly and at times without the artist even being fully aware of it, a fascination with the commercial culture of the communist world. On that trip and three more to the Eastern bloc in its last throes, Hlynsky increasingly focused on shop windows and storefront signs, a deceptively simple urban landscape he recalls now as a “museum of a different kind of materialism.”
The results, which have been the subject of shows in Prague, Berlin, and New York, are a remarkable record of the period just before the wave of consumerism broke over Central and Eastern Europe. Ranging in style and tone from spartan to sweetly decorative, the windows in Hlynsky’s lens both reinforce and belie Cold War-era tropes of grim eastern deprivation, and bring into sharp relief the difference between labeling a product for sale and branding it for mass consumption.
The 62-year-old photographer says the shop-windows series is perhaps the closest to his heart of nearly 40 years of published and exhibited work, and he is shopping a book-length collection. He talked to Transitions Online about the genesis and development of the project by telephone from his home in Toronto.
TOL: What led you to begin traveling to communist Europe in the late 1980s?
David Hlynsky: I’ve been an artist in Toronto. I immigrated to Toronto in 1971 from the U.S., and a Polish immigrant to Canada was organizing an exhibition in Poland and she asked me to be part of it in 1986. So I basically took it as an opportunity to travel to Poland and to exhibit my work.
I grew up in the U.S. during the Cold War, and during that time, anybody with Eastern European heritage was considered kind of a backwoods bumpkin. There were anti-Polack jokes, and the Russians were cheap thugs, and, you know, all of my own ethnic heritage was kind of put into a category of being less sophisticated than most of Western Europe. All of my relatives were from Eastern Europe, Central Europe, and kept on talking about the “old country.” When I had the opportunity to go to Poland, I thought, here was a perfect time to go see what the old country really was. The first trip was about a two-week trip, and it really opened my eyes.
How and why did you begin photographing shop windows, and what drew you to them as a subject?
When I was invited to this exhibition, I took a Hasselblad camera with me, thinking I was going to shoot portraits. This camera is really a studio camera, a portrait camera; it’s not the kind of camera you would use on the street at all. But as soon as I got into this landscape, I realized that it was an unusual landscape, and it was the camera that I had, and I started taking photographs of the street. I didn’t know how far I could tempt the system, but my instinct was that the business of the landscape, the business that the people were carrying on, was so banal that if I presented myself as part of that banal landscape, I wouldn’t be in trouble.
My impulse first is to photograph what I thought was representative of people on the street. My technique was to find somebody interesting, move ahead of them, find the background, and then wait for them to enter it. Well, the backgrounds were store windows. And there is a picture, it’s in a folder on my photo website, of a woman walking down the street [in Krakow] with a Marlboro bag. If you look in the background of that picture, it’s a shoe store, and there’s almost nothing in the shoe store. When I got back to Toronto and I started looking at these pictures, I started seeing them in much greater detail. I saw that the woman was dressed a certain way, there was a Marlboro bag in her hand, I wondered where that came from. I saw that she was right in front of a shoe store. I saw that the store was empty. I saw that there was a lottery sign in the window. All of these things start to become like clues to a bigger mystery, and the picture gets more and more interesting and more and more mysterious as you study it. At that point I said, “Wow, that’s an interesting store window.” So the next time I went back, two years later, I said, “Well, I want to shoot a few more store windows.” By the time I made my third trip, the secondary theme was a much stronger theme.
It doesn’t sound like you started out with a documentary intent, to go capture what shop windows are like or what advertising is like in the communist world.
No, I didn’t start out with that intent at all. It became intentional after I started noticing the backgrounds in my street portraits. It wasn’t, philosophically, until later, after I had finished the shoot, that I started to be able to articulate for myself what was interesting about these images. What I had come to realize was that the Cold War was about this vague kind of word, “freedom.” It was kind of tossed around, especially in American media and especially through the American government. Well, you know, the McCarthy era wasn’t very free in the U.S., and the Vietnam era wasn’t very free in the U.S. I saw my friends being clubbed in the streets for protesting the war. So “freedom” was this expression that didn’t really seem like it gelled with this idea of freedom, although I’ve come to realize over the years that we did have considerably more freedom of expression than people in the Eastern bloc. But there were artists over there [whose] artistic expression was quite critical of the government, but it was couched in all kinds of interesting symbols. So freedom of expression was kind of an odd one to wrap your head around. What was this freedom that we were trying to get hold of? What were we protecting?
And then I gradually came to realize that there were all kinds of freedoms – freedom of religion, freedom of expression, freedom of assembly, and all that – but there was another freedom, and that was free enterprise. That seemed to me more the root of the Cold War than much of what the propaganda was trying to say. At least, it seemed like kind of a hidden agenda. And the Cold War then became for me not only about liberating poor, oppressed people, but also liberating a marketplace. Then I started looking at the store windows, and it was a very interesting kind of museum of a different kind of materialism, and this museum contained all kinds of things. It contained artifacts of a culture. It contained the necessities for daily life. It contained design strategies of the shop owners. It contained advertising strategies of the state-run factories and corporations. And all of these were things that were parallel to what I was seeing in the West.
That’s what became interesting to me. I started to realize one of the differences in the aspects of those two cultures was that in the West, because of free enterprise, capitalist enterprise, all of our products were branded, they were labeled, they had a certain logo, the logo had a certain mystique, they were surrounded by images of sexuality and pleasure. These illusions were part of Western branding. The fundamental difference, I found, was that in the West we branded things, in the East things were labeled. The mystique was removed when a product was displayed. And what that did was it, oddly, made that landscape much more relaxed to me. As I walked down the street, I felt myself exhaling, taking in a deep breath, because I wasn’t being seduced. I was like, “OK, I’m walking down the street and if I need a carrot, there it is. If I need a pedicure, there it is.”
For years or generations, Western eyes were trained to look at that as confirming the stereotypes about this sort of drab world of deprivation behind the Iron Curtain. Was this something you had that got leeched away by immersion, or as an artist were you able to look at it in a very different way than someone who is used to this notion [that] a butcher shop that just has a picture of meat out front is something naïve, or gray and deprived?
I didn’t see it as gray and deprived. Probably before I went there, I became disillusioned with the advertising world. I had a lot of experiences photographing advertising photographs with people who were blatantly dishonest and wanted me to participate in that, so I didn’t see this, when I got there, as a deprived environment. I was already skeptical about Western advertising and what it meant. I saw it as a fascinating environment because the graphic display and the presentation of products was so different.
On my very first trip, on the second day I was in the East bloc, I was in Krakow, and I was introduced to a Polish photographer there who became a good friend. The outside of the building was shabby and rundown and covered in soot. I went inside of his apartment and he had a grand piano in there, and he had a full library, he had this beautiful, beautiful meal laid out that his wife made, and his young son was quite articulate in English and acted as a translator. We talked all night long. He took a book off the shelf, there were books of Western literature, and we talked about it. And I thought, this guy isn’t deprived, he’s clearly quite sophisticated, much more sophisticated than I was led to believe. It didn’t gel with the propaganda pictures of the Cold War of this guy with locked chains wrapped around his head.
Once you finished these pictures and started exhibiting them, were you concerned they would reinforce these notions? This sort of equivalence in people’s minds of communist material culture with bread lines and shortages, and that a visual image of a butcher shop or a bakery with a single piece of meat or a single loaf of bread in the window was going to reinforce that notion?
I think what reinforced that notion more are the words you just spoke. The verbal description of it is a lot more damning than a visual picture. The visual picture is a sort of inadvertent, mundane detail, and we get caught up in that. I look at the hunk of meat and I think, that’s an interesting depiction of meat, isn’t that an interesting curtain in the background, isn’t that interesting to see the fluorescent lights back there? The narrative becomes richer when you look at the photograph.
In any post-communist city, you see how purely utilitarian a lot of the communist-era architecture was. Some of the shop displays seem to be examples of that same kind of utilitarian thinking … this idea that nothing but what is absolutely required to be communicated should be communicated, and communicating anything more is unnecessary and bourgeois.
I kind of wondered too about that, but you do see little snippets of folk art coming through.
You do. You’re certainly struck by these really playful touches. There was a picture of a zipper store in Bulgaria that really showed that.
There was a little fish in the picture. Yeah, I mean, this is the art. The literal descriptions we have of that are quite severe, but in actual fact the borderline of what was [decorative and] what was not was probably a little more blurred.
What kind of response have you gotten in the countries of the former Eastern bloc when you’ve exhibited these photos?
What I’m discovering now is that there is a generation that grew up before the wall came down, and there’s a generation that was born after. I’d put these pictures up at a show that I had in Prague [in 2005], and a mixed age group comes in. The teenagers are looking at these pictures and giggling, like, “What stupid, silly landscape is this?” You know, how naïve, how backward. The older people are looking at it with tears in their eyes and thinking, no, it was a lot more complicated than that. These images are full of representations of our daily lives, and this is how we negotiated material culture, this is how we got around the shortages. I remember where that thing was, I remember that street. Isn’t it bittersweet that it’s gone? Some people were quite vehement about saying that what’s replaced it is vulgar and fast, they can’t keep up with it and all that. These pictures, I think they’ve got very complex readings, because the arguments are so complex.
I think it might have something to do with how you ended up capturing these images on a portrait camera. They really have this quality of “portrait,” the still, stately capturing of something. It’s not like a street scene from Prague in 1986 or 1988. It’s got the quality of a daguerreotype, like when you look at a picture from the 1880s and you see it’s almost formally composed in a way that’s lost, not just the image itself is lost.
I think the camera did do that, and there’s a kind of formality to it. I think the camera slowed me down. It made me frame things in very non-dramatic ways. But that fit entirely into, ultimately, what my agenda was, which was to create a view that wasn’t cloak-and-dagger, that wasn’t McCarthy-ist, that wasn’t sensationalist. It was just totally ordinary. I do believe, and not only in this but in other work, that the real value of photography is not in sensationalism, but the real value is in banality, where a photograph identifies us with a time and place that somehow is real because of the ordinary things in it. And that’s what I wanted.
By Boyko Vassilev, Lucie Kavanova, Anita Komuves, Wojciech Kosc, Sinziana Demian, and Pavol Szalai
As we look at how life has changed – or stayed the same – over the past 20 years, TOL correspondents in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia asked people in various professions to describe their working life today compared with conditions before 1989. This collection of interviews with history teachers is the second in the series that resulted. Continue reading …
By Boyko Vassilev, Lucie Kavanova, Anita Komuves, Wojciech Kosc, Sinziana Demian, and Pavol Szalai
As we look at how life has changed – or stayed the same – over the past 20 years, TOL correspondents in Bulgaria, the Czech Republic, Hungary, Poland, Romania, and Slovakia asked people in various professions to describe their working life today compared with conditions before 1989. This collection of interviews with artists is the first in the series that resulted.
Part 1: What does an artist, accustomed to using metaphor and subterfuge under communism, do when the lid comes off? Continue reading …
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 ajournalistic 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.
Why the reality of post-Communist Europe has not measured up to the expectations of 1989.
By Jiri Pehe
“Now we have a democracy,” Tomas G. Masaryk, the first president of Czechoslovakia, said of his new country upon its founding 90 years ago. “What we also need are democrats.”
These words could be applied as aptly to the post-communist countries of contemporary East-Central Europe. The problem of “democracies without democrats” is as real today as it was when Masaryk’s new state rose from the ashes of World War I. Continue reading …