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Through the Back Door

The Black Market in Poland 1944–1989


Jerzy Kochanowski

This book analyzes the history of the black market in Poland before the 1940s and the development of black-market phenomena in post-war Poland. The author evaluates the interrelation between black-market phenomena and historical and geographical conditions. At first, the black market stabilized the system by making it more flexible and creating a margin of freedom, albeit in the short term. In the long run, the informal economic activities of the people ran counter to and undermined the official ideology of the state. The author concludes that in post-war Poland, owing to a singular coincidence of historical, political, economic and social factors, the second economy had its own unique character and an endemic presence that loomed large in the Soviet Bloc.

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1. Terms and Methods


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1.  Terms and Methods

“During the war one could get anything at all”, reminisced the Polish painter Franciszek Starowieyski, “but once the socialist shambles began its reign, even trivial things became unavailable. Very quickly people realized that socialism was a force of “desertification.” “What will happen in the Sahara once the socialists arrive? They will run out of sand,” ran a popular joke that did the rounds in 1945, when it became clear how quickly everything was disappearing and falling apart, once socialism took hold.”1 This book is dedicated to all the efforts undertaken by post-war Polish society to irrigate the “socialist desert” and squeeze from it as much as possible. Bearing in mind that most of the oases and water reserves and oases had been nationalized; Poles were obliged to engage in a complicated, and usually illegal, game playing with the state. This went on for almost half a century.

1.1  What Color was the Black Market?

This book does not aspire to be an economic, sociological or anthropological analysis. It aims at an interdisciplinary (albeit history-focused) reconstruction of various behaviors, mechanisms, phenomena, practices, processes and strategies united under the shared umbrella of the term “black market”. These mechanisms and strategies were unusually multilayered; they varied in time and geography. They reacted instantly to external and internal circumstances. Black market players spoke their own language and had a distinct set of values. They were involved in the black...

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