4th of June marked the 28th anniversary of the end of communism in Poland. The end was announced by a Polish actress on the main Polish news programme (still run by the communist party) to the confusion of the presenters. ‘Nobody’ expected the end. Nobody! It was unbelievable. As we started living after communism, it turned out, at least for me, to be much more difficult than I had expected.
I’ve been planning write this post for some time. I’m still not entirely certain I’m ready, but I want to give it a go. It’s a brief, truncated, heavily self-censored story of what it means to be a child of communism who came to live in the West. For, yes, I am a child of communism. I completed my entire education, from primary school all the way to university studies in communism. When I graduated (5-year Polish philology, Jagiellonian University, graduated in 1988), communism was still well, though perhaps not exactly going strong.
Why do I want to write it? There are three half-reasons that I can think of at the moment. First, it’s my account of being an immigrant. As this identity is made more and more pronounced, I want tell the story of what it means to be an immigrant from that particular part of the world. The second reason is more private. This post, I hope, will be read at some point by my (still hypothetical) grandchild. My both grandfathers died before I met them (one, a physician, about whom legends were told, was killed in the so-called Katyn massacre, the other, well, we tend not to talk about him – gambling debts are not exactly something to boast of) and I missed them, their stories. I want to make sure….Third, I want it to be a story of caution – I fear we are slowly losing what we have achieved.
And so, I often (probably half-jokingly) refer to myself as a ‘child of communism’. So what does it mean? Well, for me it means a number of things; over the years they have of course been blunted, nuanced, less clear, but they are always there, at the back of my mind, almost not there, and yet, sometimes, you become painfully aware of them. Still, it’s only my own perspective.
So, let’s start with that for me, being a child of communism means that things can change at the whim of someone in power. As regulations are for the minions like me, those in power should be looked at with caution, reserve, perhaps with some fear. If you challenge them, you must be prepared for the worst, because the worst can come at moment’s notice. When I speak (talk back) to power, I suspect no one realises how difficult it is for me. Speaking truth to power means something very very different to me than to you.
When I tell a story of my first encounter with a UK immigration officer, no one here really understands it. You see, after a number of questions, I was asked “So, what’s your name?” to which I said: “Surely, you can read, can’t you?”. It almost said itself, because this response was just about the bravest response in my life. For me I was risking my entire (professional) life. As it happened, the immigration officer looked at me for a moment or two and let me into the UK. What a relief!
Communism had also taught me to appreciate my freedom. Today I despair how easily it is given away. There is a Polish poem by one of our national poets (Adam Mickiewicz), oh, it’s so patriotic, which starts with a reference to health – you can only appreciate it, when you’ve lost it. The same is freedom/liberty. You don’t experiment with it.
You see, when I go to Poland in the summer, I tend to drive. Partly, it’s because I like driving long distances, especially on the fast German motorways, but partly, it’s because after so many years, I still enjoy the freedom of movement. I can simply drive across the French-Belgian border, then the Belgian-Dutch (you barely notice it), then Dutch-German. I remember queues at the Polish-German border, sometimes kilometres long, when Poland was not a member of the EU. Today, you can just drive across, just like that. I suspect, many of you who read this, take it for granted. I don’t. It’s something precious. For well over 20 years of my life I could only dream of having a passport!
(Yes, sorry, I need to say it here. I simply don’t understand voting Brexit – just driving freely in Europe is worth the membership. But, hey, that’s me, a child a communism. )
Now, one of the things I realised quite soon after moving here, was my social/cultural frame of reference. And it’s not about cultural differences such as Christmas Eve being the focal point of Christmas for us, Poles. Or that we eat carp. No, I am talking about explaining that I lived in a different world. A person my age in the UK could think of studying, say, in the USA, I so couldn’t that I had probably never thought about it.
I came here for a post-doctoral fellowship at the University of Lancaster (at the time Geoff Leech was there – I so wanted to meet him). I was staying in postgraduate halls of residence and one day there was a fire alarm. I still don’t know whether it was real fire or just a drill. It all happened when I was coming back to the building; the alarm sounded and I realised that my passport was in my room. And so, as everybody was rushing out, I was running up the stairs to get to my room. The idea that I could be left without an identification document was just about impossible to deal with. How do I prove who I am to the police, immigration, fire brigade or who knows who else? Fire or not, I had to get to my room and take my passport. Yes, I still remember the looks of people running down – I was the only one running up the stairs. The need to document who I am was way stronger than any fire.
So, what’s left of all that after 28 years? To a considerable extent, all of it. It’s just blunted, a little. What’s still left, however, is that as a child of communism, I see the nonchalance with which things you have achieved are taken. And I despair. Your life here is precious; your freedom is precious. Cherish it, before you lose it. Both you, here in the West, and you, my fellow Poles, in the East. Iron Curtains (of all sorts) are so very easy to build.