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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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Małgorzata Mazurek, Columbia University

The pursuit of profit, accompanied by acquisitiveness and avarice, has never been the exclusive domain of capitalism, as Max Weber pointed out almost a century ago, arguing that it could be found throughout the world in any epoch, whether among Chinese officials or Roman aristocrats, pirates or modern peasants. Jerzy Kochanowski tells the story of the pursuit of profit under state socialism, something that many would see as a contradiction in terms. And yet – argues the author – organized, profit-oriented black markets were an organic part of the communist era.

In the course of World War One, and later during World War Two, much of what had previously been considered the legitimate pursuit of profit became classified in Poland as spekulacja, or profiteering: a morally condemned, politically risky and illegal mode of enrichment at the cost of others. In many post-1918 European democracies, the specters of profiteering and hyperinflation loomed as large as those of radical right- and left-wing ideologies. Taking this lesson into account, during, and most of all, after the second world war, many European nation states introduced food rationing and price controls which, they hoped, would protect the consumer purchasing power of their citizens. In the occupied territories of East Central Europe, however, where the predatory extraction of human and material resources and the violence of war had led to mass starvation on a much greater scale than in the West, the black market offered salvation from the occupier’s state intervention.

In the Warsaw of 1945, as in many European cities of the time, the female street vendor symbolized the rebirth of life amidst the ruins and rubble, where the “wind carried russet dust from the ruins onto bread, sausages and fruit, and made street vendors wipe the foodstuff with an alarmingly dirty rag.” One should not forget that the postwar reconstruction went hand in hand with ethnic cleansing and anti-Semitism, historical themes which Jerzy Kochanowski explores elsewhere. In 1949, Załma Gerber, a butcher sentenced to a fine of 500 000 zloty – or a two-year work camp imprisonment – for overcharging, wrote in his appeal to the state Special Commission for Combating Fraud and Corruption: “I find it unjustifiable that I have been sentenced on the basis of an accusation by a single client. After all, everyone knows that Jewish shops are not welcome in local society. […] What makes the severity of the penalty so unfair is the fact that ←9 | 10→I have already lost my life’s work because of the war and the time I had spent in concentration camps.”

In Poland and other East Central European states, consumer self-welfare and the black market undermined the communist welfare state project well beyond the period of postwar reconstruction. As the food shortages dragged on, despite the repeated attempts of government to buy social peace through pro-consumer policies, profit-oriented activities continued to be part of daily experience. This was due not only to flaws in the planned economy, but also because, striving to hold onto their power, communist officials continually restrained and criminalized market mechanisms related to supply and demand as illegal profiteering. Thus, state socialism fought “speculation” as much as it reproduced it.

Jerzy Kochanowski portrays these profit-oriented, illegal self-welfare activities in defiance of state-imposed social welfare as a game. These shenanigans, he argues, lasted half a century, resulting in a pro- and anti-profiteering “sinusoid” that eventually peaked in 1989, when profit-making was confirmed not only as a social, but also political norm. The author of Through the Back Door: The Black Market in Poland 1944–1989 makes it clear that the institutions designed to deal with black markets were in fact helpless. They did not determine reality; they merely reacted to it. Yet in no way was this game a matter of resistance by a heroic society to a villainous one-party state. Rather, the black market was the result of a complex interplay, in which the boundaries between the public and the private, the state and the individual, the legal and the criminal, were often blurred. As Paulina Bren and Mary Neuburger have noted, elsewhere in socialist Eastern Europe, developments in the sphere of consumption proved that the “confounding binaries of ‘official’ and ‘unofficial’ were in many respects far more complex than under capitalism, and certainly more overtly political.”

Today’s historiography on state socialism still carries imprints of the Cold War mindset. Many normative assumptions, idealizations and negative stereotypes of communism or the free market remain unarticulated or taken for granted. History, especially in today’s East Central Europe, has been a hotbed of political claim-making. Historical narratives are created with the aim of establishing yet another edifice of the one-and-only truth, a new gateway to a righteous past. In this world of political passions, stories of everyday life that shed light on mundane details in specific contexts and which show a concern for historical precision are much needed. Jerzy Kochanowski’s is a book that delivers just such a complex and ethnographic representation of the ordinary. Its great virtue is its perspective: through the eponymous “backdoor”, we zoom in on the countless individuals who participated in everyday profiteering, smuggling, and ←10 | 11→barter. Rather than pinpointing the essence of the black market – a futile undertaking if we accept the idea of history as changing reality – Through the Back Door describes the myriad ways in which the profit-oriented informal economy shaped the lives of ordinary people.

Indeed, the historical geography of profiteering in communist Poland is as complex as it is fascinating. While much has been said about the social inequalities created by the state socialist economy and its shadowy underbelly, the black market, we learn here a great deal about the regional diversity of postwar Polish society and its economy. Kochanowski’s spatial history of communist Poland leads us to that affluent mountain resort, Zakopane, where a dollar-based private tourist sector successfully challenged, if not supplanted, the official one. We visit port cities, those traditional hives of illegal money and commodity exchange. We also become acquainted with provincial socialist-era “speakeasies,” where illegal alcohol was produced and sold on a mass scale. Finally, we get a tour across East Central Europe, following cross-border trade routes including the “cosmetics-cum-clothing” pathway to Romania, the “crystal glass and hard currency” channel between Poland and Yugoslavia, and the “linen trail” to Hungary. In the 1970s and 1980s, these established routes flourished and were further extended. Towards the end of communism, cross-border trafficking, often one way to cover the cost of summer vacation, became a truly global affair with its own complex know-how and logistics, based on shared knowledge, which was passed on by word of mouth. Through the Back Door we uncover this fascinating, arcane world, gripped as if following a detective yarn. The transnational centers of tourist trading – the Polenmarkt on the Mexicoplatz in Vienna or Romanian beaches – turned into commodity exchanges for socialist goods reveal the true scale and wealth of the Soviet Bloc’s black markets.

It is always tricky to attempt a single-cause explanation of why communism fell, or why it lasted as long as it did. Jerzy Kochanowski chooses not to venture into these muddy waters, but he does leave us some clues. If we were to picture the East Central European counterpart of the Western “entrepreneur” (in the parlance of the 1980s neoliberals) – an individual both resourceful and creative, perhaps what would appear before our eyes might well turn out to be a woman laden with bags and swathed in a peasant shawl: the ubiquitous “baba with veal,” the villager that sold meat to urbanites. Although this familiar figure disappeared with the fall of communism, she remained an icon of popular and shrewd profit-making. This book gives the baba more than just an engaging contextualization – it gives her a face and a history, as well as affording the reader an informed and sympathetic view.

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