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Modern myths and legends about communist past in Poland


TheOther 5 | 3,643
23 Jul 2019  #31
Communist countries focused on heavy industry.

Well, they concentrated on the fields that their central planning told them to focus on. The economic activities within the COMECON were coordinated and based on each members' Five-year Plan, if I recall correctly.
mafketis 20 | 7,046
24 Jul 2019  #32
Communist countries focused on heavy industry

communist economics were something like the cargo cults of the south pacific, the USSR simply thought that if they industrialized they would achieve western standards of prosperity... (that's a lot of Russian history right there - wanting the fruits of western civilization without doing the real work).

this is what was behind the stakhanovite movement (critically examined in Man of Marble) if quotas were exceeded then that meant things were going great... never mind if more was needed or not..
OP pawian 157 | 9,121
24 Jul 2019  #33
electronics.

In communist times as a young man I was interested in stereo systems, I knew all products, their prices, where they were available (shortages). Poles produced a lot of radios, tape recorders, record players etc. Unfortunately, they were either full licenses or Polish cases with Western components. Truly Polish products were non existent. After the purchase of a license, the production lasted for decades because there was no money for a new one - there were only slight modifications.

The same with other goods. I mentioned cars - licenses since 1960s. Polski Fiat 125p started in 1967 later gave rise to Polonez in 1978 - the same engine and mechanisms, only the body was new but still designed by an Italian! Can you imagine that Polski Fiat 125p was produced till 1991?? 24 years!

Tractors - Massey Ferguson from Britain since 1970s. City buses - Berliet from France. And hundreds other things. Communists bought Western technology with Western loans which were cheap in 1970s before the oil crisis. They hoped that Polish goods produced under the licenses could be exported to the West and the loans would be repaid. Unfortunately, it didn`t work. In result, the industry, both heavy and light, was becoming more and more obsolete and there was no money for investment.

Finally, communists realised the collapse of the system was inevitable because even the production of tanks was endangered by the total chaos in underinvested economy.
TheOther 5 | 3,643
24 Jul 2019  #34
if quotas were exceeded

Quotas were always exceeded - at least on paper. The party leaders needed something to celebrate and pat themselves on the shoulder.
mafketis 20 | 7,046
24 Jul 2019  #35
Quotas were always exceeded - at least on paper.

Even if they were.... why would this be good? That was my point, simply producing more without considering how it is needed is kind of dumb...

On the other hand, the communists at all costs avoided 'over production' of consumer items which is why nobody could find anything.... it's over production that makes it possible to always be able to buy things like towels or combs or pots and pans etc...
OP pawian 157 | 9,121
24 Jul 2019  #36
This is a film about communist electronics.

youtube.com/watch?v=VRXo1WXe_vc

One of commenters called PRLstory seems to be an expert on it. He loves to explain to all fanatics of communist times that most Polish sound systems were obsolete and of poor quality.. Their sound parametres were crippled. Serious music fans struggled to buy Western products and communist ones were for amateurs.

Why were these things produced at all? Good quality was only available in Western products but they were too expensive for communist clientele. The Chinese cheap stuff wasn`t produced yet. There was no other option - better poor quality than none, right?

The economic activities within the COMECON were coordinated

Yes, within COMECOM, the production of electronics, ships and cosmetics was assigned to Poland. Obsolete or not, that stuff was exported to the Soviet Union and elsewhere.

Quotas were always exceeded - at least on paper.

Yes, and eventually nobody knew what the real situation was, even communists. The system was incorrigible because they didn`t even know what to improve.
TheOther 5 | 3,643
24 Jul 2019  #37
why would this be good?

It wasn't. The apparatschiks pretended to be successful, but the people never saw the results. Lines at grocery stores, empty shelves, a decade waiting time for a crappy car ... you name it ... while the surplus (if there actually was one) was often shipped to the USSR or some proxies like Cuba, Angola or Vietnam.

the communists at all costs avoided 'over production' of consumer items

That was probably more a political decision as they wanted to avoid "westernization" of their populace.

The system was incorrigible

Which is why it came crashing down in the end.
OP pawian 157 | 9,121
24 Jul 2019  #38
That was probably more a political decision as they wanted to avoid "westernization" of their populace.

No, Polish communists didn`t always fear Westernisation, after all Poles are Western Slavs. :)) During Gierek`s rule 1970 - 1980 the opening for the West was substantial.

The reason was simpler - heavy industry consumed most resources. A lot of consumer goods, especially advanced, required Western components which were available for hard currency which communists always lacked. I remember how I tried to replace a broken flourescent bulb in the kitchen lamp in 1980s - I wasn`t able to buy it anywhere cause it was out of stock in ALL shops - only available in whole new lamps.
TheOther 5 | 3,643
24 Jul 2019  #39
Most consumer goods, especially advanced, required Western components

What about clothing, shoes, and such? Why wasn't it possible to buy certain simple food items without lining up for half a day?

hard currency which communists always lacked

That is very true. I remember the mandatory 1:1 conversion of Deutsch Mark to (East German) Mark and also the "entrance fee" you had to pay when you wanted to visit East Berlin. The taxi drivers over there loved it when you paid them in DM because the black market demanded hard currency.
OP pawian 157 | 9,121
24 Jul 2019  #40
What about clothing, shoes, and such?

When Gierek`s rule ended in 1980, the loans amounted to 22 billion dollars. When communism fell in 1989, the loans were over 40 billion.

The crisis of late 1970s and early1980s toppled Gierek and caused an acute deficit of consumer goods, even basic ones. People traveled from city to city buy children shoes. Clothing was available but nobody wanted to wear those cheap (cotton was imported) plastic textiles becaue they resembled rural fashion of previous decades.

Why wasn't it possible to buy certain simple food items without lining up for half a day?

Loans had to be paid somehow, so communists exported surpluses of whatever was produced in Poland. But eventually there were no surpluses cause the economy was in a very bad state - efficiency was tragic, there were shortages of energy and materials.

If one is really interested, there are dozens of films on youtube. Despite their customs woith censorship, communists openly admited there was a crisis and they allowed to talk about shortages in media. Paradoxically, compared to state propaganda in PiS controlled media today, communist media lied less. It is sad but true.

E..g, why was there a shortage of pots, pans, etc?

See a film from one factory which made that stuff - people work in extremely harmful conditions without any protection. Look what they are doing at 1.20 - manually put in and take out metal buckets into that chrome liquid.

youtube.com/watch?v=mVyeEmdSshA

The 1988 film about Jaruzelski`s visit to a metal parts factory, they complain about the poor quality of steel they get. Look at the old machinery they work on.

youtube.com/watch?v=YeLNoV3XqZM

Jaruzelski`s visit to a local supermarket, people complain about shortages. Famous words: What? It is natural that meat is unavailable. But potatoes, too??? Potatoes were out of stock cause state farms were innefficient (no spare parts for farm machines) and individual farmers prefered to sell their produce in open air markets. Later in the film a factory worker complains that the machinery he works on is too old and often breaks down.

youtube.com/watch?v=gcrOGaugfjE

And so on and so on. I could show you many more.

because the black market demanded hard currency.

The black market was controlled by communist secret police, that was one of sources of hard currency for the system, that is why it existed at all - if communists wanted, they could get rid of it within a week. But they didn`t.

Perfectly illustrated in a gangster comedy Sztos 2. Try to find it with English subtitles.
mafketis 20 | 7,046
24 Jul 2019  #41
loves to explain to all fanatics of communist times that most Polish sound systems were obsolete and of poor quality..

During my first visit to Poland (PRL for a couple of months) I decided to buy a new radio since none was supplied in my dorm room. The price was pretty hefty for PRL wages and I intended to give it to a friend when I left.

Anyhoo.... it worked fine for a week or so and then the tuning mechanism broke, after a few days the friend I was going to give it to managed to get it fixed.. partly. I could choose between four (Polish) stations... which was better than nothing I guess.
OP pawian 157 | 9,121
24 Jul 2019  #42
So, we have run into certain inconsistency. On the first page, we praised some communist made goods for their quality, durability.

One thing that is not a myth. Washing machines. My MIL had hers' for 30 years, and it never saw a repair man.

Yes, this myth has been functioning for decades now and mostly it is true.

On this page we critisize them without mercy.

Where is the truth? Some products were durable indeed, on condition
- they didn`t contain advanced electronics
- contained Western components
- were made on new imported machinery.

E.g., washing machines: the first top-open washing machine in Poland was made under German licence in 1976. Like with many licenses, the initial production was based on many foreign parts because the Polish industry wasn`t able to provide them at the beginning. When it was, and all parts came from Polish factories in 1980s, and after the production machinery became worn out, the quality dropped substantially.

pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Polar_P-565

The price was pretty hefty for PRL wages and I intended to give it to a friend when I left.

Yes, consumer goods were always expensive, one had to save for months or years to buy a TV etc.
OP pawian 157 | 9,121
24 Jul 2019  #43
it worked fine for a week or so and then the tuning mechanism broke,

Of course, there were some highlights too. Polish electronics had its great days when Polish engineers developed a series of their computers ODRA in 1960s and 70s. They were good quality and some of them were still used by various institutions in 21st century.

en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odra_(computer)
delphiandomine 83 | 17,596
25 Jul 2019  #44
Elwro were quite ahead of their time, and it's a shame that the company never had any real long term focus. I've read an interesting article about their activities, and had they been allowed to keep operating as a company focusing on institutions and not consumers, they might have still been around today.

It's quite a legendary company, and I had the pleasure of meeting a former worker there who had been working as a programmer back in the 70's. She said that there was no system of patriarchy in the company, and that they had some incredibly talented people working there.
OP pawian 157 | 9,121
25 Jul 2019  #45
I had the pleasure of meeting a former worker there who had been working as a programmer

Did you by any chance also meet the inventor of lasers which were used in medicine and industry since 1960s? They were very modern inventions at the time, attracted attention of Western buyers too. His name was Zbigniew Puzewicz. E.g., the first eye operation with laser technology was conducted in Poland.

pl.wikipedia.org/wiki/Zbigniew_Puzewicz

Unfortunately, those dim lights in the tunnel weren`t enough to make Polish economy thrive.

The same with other goods. I mentioned cars - licenses since 1960s.

Sorry, car licenses since 1950s - the first one was Soviet Pobeda, in Poland called Warszawa. Soon most Warszawa`s mechanisms were used to design the first Polish van - Beetle. Great - no license necessary! Unfortunately, its greatest and probably the only assets were multiple versions and affordable price compared to imported vans. They were produced for 39 years with slight modifications. However, don`t expect any gigantic amounts - only 600.000 were made. Some exported to communist countries. And assembled in Egypt.

Such was communist innovative and efficient economy in most industry branches in Poland. I think it is time to finish off this myth.

Read the history of Beetle
auto-swiat.pl/klasyki/oldtimer/60-urodziny-zuka/jzmwvfz#slajd-1


  • Beetle
Zlatko
25 Jul 2019  #46
Why are most photos online from the 60s, 70s and even 80s Warsaw and other cities in grayscale? I think it's to symbolise how dark the period was but I bet it wasn't as bad.
TheOther 5 | 3,643
25 Jul 2019  #47
They are in B/W because color film was very hard to find and even harder to get developed in those days.
OP pawian 157 | 9,121
25 Jul 2019  #48
Why are most photos online from the 60s, 70s and even 80s

60s and 70s are mostly black and white. 80s - more colours but still most bw. Colour photographic films were never produced in Poland. Sometimes East German ORWO films were used, cheaper than Western but still expensive.
Dirk diggler 9 | 4,372
26 Jul 2019  #49
I've long heard a myth (or maybe it is true) that during PRL if you went into a 'milk bar' (bar mleczny, or stolowka) the silverware was chained to the table... or you had to bring your own..

My mom was telling me a funny story how during PRL a certain family member figured out a way to remove the ink from the rations card after it was marked off. So basically, he could get the stuff repeatedly at different stores. However, stores later began just cutting them out. I actually still have a rations card from the 80s as a keepsake.
mafketis 20 | 7,046
26 Jul 2019  #50
if you went into a 'milk bar' (bar mleczny, or stolowka)

Two different things...

the silverware was chained to the table...

Myth, doubtless caused by an iconic scene (one of many) in Miś...

youtube.com/watch?v=UN3aWBqdcoc
Ziemowit 12 | 3,398
26 Jul 2019  #51
Sometimes East German ORWO films were used

They were very good quality.

certain family member figured out a way to remove the ink from the rations card after it was marked off.

Typically, coupons from it were being cut out after selling an item to the customer.

City buses - Berliet from France.

They were of not too good quality altogether and rather bad for roads in the PRL cities. In the end, they were replaced gradually by the Hungarian "Ikarus" buses, at least in Warsaw.
Dirk diggler 9 | 4,372
26 Jul 2019  #52
Two different things...

I know that's why I wrote , or stolowka basically cheap places to eat. Either way I guess that puts the myth to rest.
OP pawian 157 | 9,121
26 Jul 2019  #53
Myth, doubtless caused by an iconic scene (one of many) in Miś.

Yes, Dirk, you accidentally or deliberately reminded us of that scene from cult comedy Teddy Bear. Actually, cutlery wasn`t chained to the tables but it was marked in different ways, e,g.., they drilled holes in handles. There was one chained item, though - directory books in phone booths, probably in 1960s.

They were of not too good quality altogether and rather bad for roads in the PRL cities

Well, another way. Berliets were very modern but unsuitable for such load of passengers as happened in Polish buses on the daily basis. There weren`t enough of them and people crowded inside like cattle. And bumpy roads, too. Belriet buses were too delicate for such conditions. Hungarian buses were simple and sturdy.



Dirk diggler 9 | 4,372
26 Jul 2019  #54
Ah yeah I've seen that in the USA too though the phone books chained and also of course in banks the pen chained to the counter that always cracked me up.

I think my favorite thing about PRL the way my family describes is that life was simple, everyone had what they needed, and families were tight knit. Having multi generation homes was common. Now everyone's adapted the western consumerist culture thanks to globalization.

Oh and cztery pancerni I pies. I use to watch that all the time as a kid.
mafketis 20 | 7,046
26 Jul 2019  #55
I know that's why I wrote , or stolowka

your parenthesis suggested that you were treating them as synonyms... it should have been milk bar (bar mleczny) or stołowka
OP pawian 157 | 9,121
26 Jul 2019  #56
There weren`t enough of them and people crowded inside like cattle

One more photo of a congested Berliet city bus - the best illustration of communist reality. People couldn`t afford cars so they had to rely on public transport which was scarce.

In case sb tried to propagate the myth that public transport was well organised and widely available in communist times, call them a liar. But I haven`t heard such an opinion yet.



TheOther 5 | 3,643
26 Jul 2019  #57
Speaking of transportation: I always wondered how the Polish communist government managed to get past the Soviets and let their citizens travel to and work in the West. Just remembered the fully loaded Polski Fiats on the highways.
OP pawian 157 | 9,121
26 Jul 2019  #58
how the Polish communist government managed to get past the Soviets and let their citizens travel to and work in the West.

4 reasons:
1/ I already said: Poles are Western Slavs who feel strong cultural connection with the West. Anybody who tries to block that connection is doomed to fail. Communists allowed average Poles to travel West because they felt it was natural. They prefered to let some steam off than to risk another outburst in streets.

2/ Hard currency that Poles brought from those trips was later spent in the country in Pewex shops (income for the state) or bought by secret police for their dirty activities.

3/ Communists allowed a lot of Poles of German origin to leave for West Germany in 1970s - it was called uniting families. If those Poles could go, why others not ?

4/ Getting past Soviets. Polish communists had some independence - as long as they were loyal to the idea of the eternal friendship with the Soviet Union, they could do their own things in Poland. Remember Romanian Caucescu in 1968 when he condemned the Soviet crackdown on Prague Spring? Did anything happen to him later on? No.

Soviet people couldn`t travel to the West or even talk to Western tourists because:
1/ communism lasted longer in Russia and really brainwashed people`s minds.
2. Russians, being both Europan and Asian, feel a bit suspicious about the West - sort of national tradition.
TheOther 5 | 3,643
26 Jul 2019  #59
Thanks, Pawian. Interestingly, the East Germans below the age of 65 couldn't travel to the west either, unless they were high(er) ranking party members. Much like the Czechs and Romanians for example. Seems the Poles were comparatively lucky in that respect.
OP pawian 157 | 9,121
26 Jul 2019  #60
Poles were always restive and stubborn. If communists tried to crack on society`s aspirations too much (e.g, Western ones), they risked another anticommunist revolt with strikes and street riots. Therefore, there was more freedom of travel in Poland than in Romania. Of course, it doesn`t mean anybody could go anywhere. Passports were kept at local police offices, you had to apply for the right to receive one, many people were turned down for various reasons. Sometimes people agreed to cooperate with secret police to get a passport, hundreds such cases has been revealed since the collapse of communism.

Have we accidentally run into another myth which should be abolished? Namely, a typical communist country was like a prison or concentration camp for its citizens and they had no chance to leave. Well, Poland wasn`t. We were actually called the merriest barracks in the Warsaw Pact countries. :):)


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