Polish Communist Party fought hard the Catholic Church basically in the 50's (they even imprisoned the head of the Church in Poland, Primate Stefan Wyszynski), but they basically failed (like they failed in another field of the so-called socialist "reforms" - nationalization of the agriculture, all those forms of collective farming - kolkhoz and sovkhoz - didn't have much success here, except for the territories that were German before the World War II, so they had no private owners after 1945), so later the persecutions of the Church were smaller (relatively of course, they still happened to murder a priest now and then, like famous Jerzy Popiełuszko in the 80's). Later on, the communists of lower relevance weren't forbidden to follow the traditional costums (strongly connected with the church), if they weren't manifesting their religiousness, they were allowed for example to have marriage at Church, to baptize their children and get other sacraments, to go to Church for Christmas and Easter.
And of course there were some convinced communist too, who rejected all forms of religion, but their views didn't appeal to the masses.
I thought good communists are supposed to be atheists?
you know the saying "A good Indian is a dead Indian"?
(and I know it was origanally ""The only good Indians I ever saw were dead.")
About drugs, it's hard to say because borders were controlled quite effectively, so one may assume the import of drugs to Poland wasn't significative, but we had some home-made version of heroin, it was made from poppies, no reliable statistics on the use of drugs (as the dictatorships tend to manipulate the statistics at their will), besides they could easily put you in a psychiatric clinic for that, so you didn't see many people under the influence (of drugs, because drunk people were a completely different story) in the streets.
Some other questions of dannyboy:
- What sports were popular under communisim?
- footbal (or soccer as some wish to call it), boxing, athletics, cycling, volleyball, handball, weightlifting, fencing, tennis table and many others.
What is strange we had almost no swimming pools, so no good swimmers, tennis was considered too "western", so only good palyer was W. Fibak (in the 70's/80's), golf was virtually non existant.
- Were steroids widely available?
Probably, but only among the professional sportsmen, you must have heard how Eastern Germany and also Soviet Union mass produced their "supermen" to win the Olympic medals "for the glory of Party/Country". As much as I'd love to believe that Poland was clean, I can't be that naive, sure we couldn't match with the communist Germany, but I'm convinced the "brothers" helped us sometimes with "medical" supplies, we probably had our own production as well.
In the 90's Poland became one of the biggest producers of synthetic drugs (like amphetamine).
- Were guns widely available?
No. There were of course some guns availble from the World War II for a while, Later some "normal" people could have shotguns for hunting, but it was rare. There was also a small amount of pneumatic guns, but everything was under strict control of the police.
- A Russian guy I used to know absolutely hated standing in a group of people on a corner because during the communist times they would be beaten by police for doing this (different rules for Russia I assume), he didn't realise it was normal for people to have a conversation like this.
- Generally, there were rules about "public gathering", so if a certain number (I don't remember the limit) of people were simply standing together in the street, they could be considered as an "illegal manifestation", but in my city I din't experience the problem with police beating you for that (unless it really was an illegal manifestation, then they let the dogs lose - as dogs I mean "pigs") - There were also police forces (ZOMO) specialised in dealing with demonstrations, they were effective (beating you without leaving marks), and they could even beat you to death.
- What would be the singlest biggest and most visible difference between now and then?
I guess it's too hard to answer, for some people personal freedom is the most important thing (you can talk what you want without being afraid that government doesn't like, you can read books that were censored without risking persecutions, you can travel abroad, as a tourist if you can afford it or to work, without waiting months for a passport and get your application rejected).
For other people economic changes are the most imprtant, no matter how far we are from the Western welfare, because under communism you couldn't just establish a company and have success, only small firms were allowed, and if some were making too much profit, the tax offices could destroy them in the blink of an eye.
And there's also social life, it's chaning too, some things to the better, some to the worse. And many other aspects, it really depends on what you value the most.