Memoirs of a (Highly) Political Economist

by Jan Winiecki (Author)
©2016 Monographs 205 Pages


These memoirs portray an individual coping with the adversities and surrealistic qualities of life and work under communism. The author recollects his adolescence, next, how he tried to avoid head-on conflicts, dissented, and how he finally became a known critic of the system. As such, he belonged to a group of advisers to the underground «Solidarity» leadership. His memoirs help to understand the collapse of the communist system and the stormy period of systemic change from a personal perspective. The author participated in these changes as an already well known Sovietologist, as well as through his own on- and off involvements in post-communist transition politics, participating in various advisory bodies (including that advising President Walesa).

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Part I: Communism: Between Horror and Political Cabaret
  • Chapter 1: An Inquisitive Youngster in the Stalinist World
  • Chapter 2: Studying and Working under Communist Orthodoxy
  • Chapter 3: Mane-Thekel-Fares: The (Still Barely Visible) Writing on the Wall
  • Chapter 4: “Solidarity Picnic” and Its Aftermath
  • Chapter 5: Communism – Game Over!
  • Part II: Back to Western Civilization (Or Else…)
  • Chapter 6: Long Term Economic Trends and Transition to Freedom
  • Chapter 7: Vanishing Output and Intellectual Invasion of Doubting Thomases
  • Chapter 8: Coming to the Rescue of Transition: The Power of the Market…
  • Chapter 9: A Collision of Emotions, Ideology and Economics
  • Postscript: Looking Back, Looking Forward
  • References

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Part I:

Communism: Between Horror and Political Cabaret

| 9 →

Chapter 1: An Inquisitive Youngster in the Stalinist World

My earliest reminiscences, going back to 1945, were associated with travels from central Poland, where my family lived during the war, to my birthplace, Sopot, on the Baltic coast. My father went ahead of us during the last months of the war, intent on helping to establish Polish administration there, and we joined him in the spring of 1945. The trip of less than 350 km took in these very uncertain times about a week.

The uncertainty did not end upon arrival, either. The so-called Ziemie Zachodnie (Western Lands), allocated to Poland at Yalta by the great powers as a compensation for the loss of almost half of the pre-war Polish territories to the Soviets, were at the time something of a Wild West. There were overlapping Polish and Soviet administrations here and there and the balance of power was very uncertain, indeed.

One day a group of Soviet soldiers arrived and started robbing house after house on our street of whatever movable goods they hoped to take with them back to the Soviet Union. Local Sopot authorities, where my father worked, alerted the Polish security police and we observed a real battle between the Russians and Poles along Kosciuszko Street, where we lived. Interestingly, Poles won, took away the booty from the Russians, but never bothered themselves to return them to their rightful owners…

I saw many times on railway wagons, transporting Russian soldiers or Russian booty, carried from Western Poland and Soviet-occupied zone of Germany to Soviet Russia, a scrawled sentence:

Wezcie zegarki, wezcie rowery

i idzcie do jasnej cholery

[Take our watches, take our bicycles,

and go to hell, where you belong]

A relevant story at this point is a 1960s official literary competition under the pretentious title: “The First Day of Freedom,” which was to mean the day we were “liberated” by the Soviets. In fact, one totalitarian dictatorship superseded another, with the difference that the communists had their own Polish offshoot. A writer from Cracow, Jacek Stwora, later also a co-founder of one of the best Polish political cabarets (a Polish specialty in East-Central Europe!) wrote a very short, to-the-point, story and sent it to the competition committee. It ran approximately as follows: ← 9 | 10 →

I do not need to add that Mr. Stwora did not get any prize for his story in the literary competition.

Some months later, in early 1946, my family experienced another display of Wild West patterns, combined with the growing communist lawlessness. As it soon turned out, a neighbor living on the first floor in the same house as ourselves was a ranking communist security police officer. As such he felt he was above the law. So, when some radiators in his apartment broke he simply ordered workers to disassemble some radiators … from our apartment and reassemble them in his own. My mother called father who came in and threw the workers out. The neighbor came furious to our apartment, but my father kicked him down the stairs as well.

Hours later, however, my father was arrested and kept for 48 hours under interrogation at the Gdansk security police headquarter. Yet, even the communist lawlessness had some limits, and this type of plain robbery was not a good advertisement for the new regime. So, my father was freed after extensive interrogation, but it was he (not the security policeman!) who was charged with “petty hooliganism” and given a six months suspended sentence.

The whole story had its cabaret side as well. The sentence was published in a local newspaper, but with a surprising twist. Due to a printer’s error, a part of the sentence shifted from one column on the newspaper’s page to the neighboring one, as it happened devoted to the commemoration of some anniversary of the Soviet military. So, the readers were surprised to learn that my father got “six month suspended sentence for petty hooliganism to commemorate the anniversary of the Red Army.”

Increasingly, however, my family – as well as most other Poles – experienced more and more cases of pure communist horror. Without cabaret. A distant relative received in 1947 a life sentence for an alleged sabotage act made at the behest of the British intelligence service. He was an engineer and a production manager in a Gdansk factory, whose general manager was a semi-literate communist party apparatchik (popular word also in Poland, although born in Soviet Russia). This apparatchik, in order to increase production, ordered workers to raise pressure in the boiler above the safety level. The boiler exploded and the relative in question, not the apparatchik, was charged with sabotage.

He was put in the special room, full of water, in the building of the Gdansk office of security police. They told him to sign an admission of working at the instigation ← 10 | 11 → of British intelligence. He refused, so they left him in the room, standing in water up to his chest. The next step of pressure was to put in the same room his wife and their small son, whom they carried in turn on their arms. At a certain point his wife said she cannot keep the child above water anymore and would soon collapse. So, he knocked on the door and said to the guard that if they free his wife and a child, he would sign what they wished. After the end of Stalinism he was freed in 1955 (having spent 8 years in prison anyway).

The foregoing was, so to say, a kind of general education of a youngster living under communism. A sad joke was popular at the time: “What was the safest answer to the question – put to a child – whom he or she loves more: his father or his mother?” The safest answer was that she loves most “Uncle Stalin”…

As far as economic education was concerned, I received it primarily from my mother. She was to me a source of knowledge that made a stark contrast with the propaganda, with which I and other youngsters were bombarded at school and elsewhere about the country and the world – and inevitably about the superiority of the communist present over the pre-communist past.

So, for example, I came one day from my elementary school and informed my mother that we were told that a janitor in a building earns now 600 zlotys, while before the war he earned only 60 zlotys per month. The implication was that earlier he must have been obviously worse off.

My mother put her arm around me and gently suggested to take a place at the table. She took a pencil and a paper and said: “If they say so, they are quite probably right. But let us see how much such janitor could buy then and now. I still remember pre-war prices.”


ISBN (Hardcover)
Publication date
2015 (October)
Solidarnosc post-communist transition Lech Walesa communism
Frankfurt am Main, Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Wien, 2015. 205 pp., 7 graphs

Biographical notes

Jan Winiecki (Author)

Jan Winiecki worked predominantly in research institutions and taught economics at the Catholic University of Lublin (Poland), Aalborg University (Denmark), and European University Viadrina in Frankfurt (Oder), Germany. He teaches at the University of Information Technology and Management in Rzeszow, Poland, and has published numerous books and articles.


Title: Memoirs of a (Highly) Political Economist
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208 pages