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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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4. The (Historical) Geography of the Black Market in the Polish People’s Republic

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4.The (Historical) Geography of the Black Market in the Polish People’s Republic

4.1General Remarks

This chapter does not aspire to present detailed characteristics of the centers of illicit distilling, illegal slaughter, smuggling, or of the hard currency trade. It aims rather to demonstrate correlations between black market phenomena and the geographical and historical context. There is no doubt, for example, that the partitions of Poland or the border changes and mass migrations after Second World War to this day continue to influence the political, social, economic and cultural situation in Poland.418

The geographical and historical determinants of the second economy were already in evidence immediately after the war. It was already clear in January 1948 that the local representative powers of the Special Commission for Combating Fraud and Corruption had to stand up against specific, at times endemic, phenomena. The Kraków and Bielsko sections of the Commission had to deal with smuggling, Kielce – with illegal leather tanning, Szczecin – also with contraband but mostly with looting.419 The capital of Poland, Warsaw, was traditionally considered the center and the seedbed of all “speculation operations”.

The post‑partition legacy was also apparent. For example in 1957 when operations began against “economic criminals” who were also Party members, the greatest challenges arose in the regions where different historical traditions met. While in the Upper Silesia part of the Katowice voivodship, there were few, if any, problems in the former Polish Kingdom – created in 1815 by the Congress of Vienna and informally known as Congress Poland – the task was much more onerous. “In Częstochowa,” it was reported in 1957, “where the economic underground is particularly extensive, the comrades are dealing with the largest number of cases. Especially when it comes to trade, there are several instances that are serious and difficult to tackle because of the connections between the people ←137 | 138→involved, such as family ties. This is one reason why nobody was expelled from the Party in Częstochowa this year.”420

There was also a reason why (until the 1980s) illegal alcohol production thrived in the lands formerly under Russian and Austrian partition and in the territories where a high percentage of population had originated from those areas. And, at least during the first decade after the war, regional differences were also reflected in different approaches to what was considered the store of value of choice, especially in conservative, rural areas. Peasants in the former Polish Kingdom preferred gold tsarist roubles, whereas in the former Galicia, they favored Austrian ducats and gold dollars.

The deliberate and autonomous actions of the voivods and the PUWP’s local secretaries had a significant influence on the historic regional differences and divisions, especially during the initial phase of the rationing system in 1981.421

Individual administrative units conducted their own rationing policy “under the pressure of trade unions and voivodship committees, or following the initiatives of voivods, or generally under some kind of pressure.”422 Even in neighboring voivodships the same goods (coffee, cigarettes, alcohol, clothing, or fats) could be available on the market or under strict rationing. In accordance with the law of communicating vessels, goods trickled from the regions where they were available to the regions where their sale was limited.423

The national system of rationing included, even in its most restrictive phase at the turn of 1981 and 1982, only a portion of market goods, which left the regional decision makers with substantial room for maneuver. Already in April 1982, it had become clear that the “country is a mosaic of rationing and trade particularisms.”424 Inspections of the efficiency in implementing the rationing rules conducted in 48 voivodships found some irregularities in half of them. In parallel ←138 | 139→with sales based on centrally issued ration coupons, there developed autonomous regional distribution of goods in exchange for vouchers, ID documents, and tax receipts. The heads of town and community councils often chose to grant “special allocations”. The latter usually involved additional (frequently quite substantial) amounts of alcohol awarded “not only for weddings and baptism celebrations but also nameday parties, anniversaries and other undocumented occasions.” Until the end of the 1980s, knowledge of the complicated rationing geography was an important part of black market strategies.425

4.2Center – Periphery

The main dividing line on the black market map did not run along the old or current administrative borders but rather along the boundaries separating the big cities – the “centers” – from the “periphery”, small towns and rural areas. The opposition between center and periphery is usually explored in cultural discourse but it is also of significance in economic discourse. In post‑war Poland, the center and periphery represented two quite different worlds.

4.2.1Center – Big Cities

A big city provided a wonderful backdrop for devising black market strategies. Industry and other state institutions were like bottomless coffers from which both the private sector and the “state” swindlers helped themselves by the handful. The following excerpt refers to Warsaw but it is also representative of Kraków, Katowice, Łódź or Gdańsk: “Warsaw industry produces many attractive articles, providing opportunities for theft. Various manufactories operating under the disguise of craft have their headquarters in Warsaw. Most of the time, they are doomed to rely on stolen materials for supplies. Various enterprises, for example publishing houses, in many instances ignore strict rules of financial discipline. If one adds to this a widespread practice of contract projects and an abundance of private subcontractors, it all creates even more opportunities for fraud and misuse.”426

In 1957 in Szpilki magazine no. 35, the well-known cartoonist Karol Ferster published a telling caricature: a petty‑bourgeois couple apply for a permit to open a store; handing their application to the clerk, they remark, “We are about to open a store in an area where there are no nationalized outlets. Where are we supposed to get our supplies from?” For contemporaries, the context was ←139 | 140→immediately understandable. In 1957, the network of private traders comprised 26 thousand stores, twice as many as in the previous year; however, stores kept opening not in the outskirts and small towns where demand was great but mostly in downtown areas of big cities. In the free market system, merchants find the centers attractive, because this is where the wealthy clientele lives. In communist Poland, it was the concentration of nationalized trade in the big cities that drew the private merchants there. “Some private stores engage in the illegal practice of buying from nationalized stores large quantities of goods in short supply on the official market in order to sell them on the black market. With the increased speculation in private trade, the prices of goods from small private manufacturers are rising.”427 Year 1957 brought a veritable revolution: the number of private eateries grew fivefold. It was easier for the authorities to influence their location by granting (or withholding) liquor license but still the majority of the new restaurants opened in the central districts of the biggest cities.428 State or coop trade constituted one of the most crucial sources of supply for private merchants (official and unofficial) until the late 1980s.

The big cities offered not only more business opportunities, but also a clientele more wised-up to the then current trends. These arrived first in Warsaw, the Tri‑City (Gdańsk, Gdynia, and Sopot), Wrocław and Kraków. For this reason, demand in the big cities was the most sophisticated and developed, and their residents had the money to buy goods. Trade in the big cities, including the black market, differed from the traditional, often pre‑industrial ways of conducting transactions in rural areas. It was not limited to group of acquaintances and often used modern methods of marketing such as press advertisements.

Big city public space facilitated the “modernization” of the second economy by delineating permanent, easily recognizable areas of black market activity. Traditionally these were located in large market places or long established market halls.429 This was the case in Łódź, Kraków, and Wrocław430 but especially in Warsaw, where the Różycki Bazaar, the Rembertów Marketplace or (in the 1980s) ←140 | 141→and the Skra marketplace on the fields of an athletic club had cross‑regional or national significance.431

Transport centers such as railroad stations were also black market hubs. One such, from the 1960s to the 1980s, was Katowice. “The crowd swirled right in front of my eyes,” Romuald Teyszerski described the Katowice railroad station in 1968. “The foreign traders sat impassively against the walls, while Poles were excitedly rummaging in the piles of polo shirts, sweaters and non‑iron shirts. The vendors – Hungarians, Czechs, citizens of Yugoslavia, and Austrians – were experts on the topic of current prices […]. My friends later told me this was a normal sight. Katowice is a central hub for incoming traffic ‘from the West’ (this is where foreign tourists often start their visit to Poland) and with the arrival of each train, the trading begins. It’s important to sell quickly, to get rid of the goods, to make money quickly and venture into Poland. The travelers come here having been told by their friends that this is the place for trading. And to do that, they don’t even have to leave the station building.”432

Every big city also had a well‑known site where the illegal hard currency trading took place. In Warsaw, this was initially the area around the Hotel Polonia, near the corner of Marszałkowska Street and Aleje Jerozolimskie. Later, the area near Jasna, Traugutta, and Kredytowa Streets, where the banks were located, became known for hard currency black market deals.433 In Kraków, Rynek Główny (the Main Market) and adjacent streets became the location of choice for the moneychangers’ (known as cinkciarze434). In Gdynia it was Świętojańska Street (and to a lesser extent, all the other streets leading to the port), in Szczecin – the Piast Café and Kaskada restaurant,435 in Wrocław – the restaurant in the Hotel Metropol, among other places.436 The hard currency black market in Lublin was located between the PKO bank on Tysiąclecie Avenue and the market place across the street (on Ruska Street). “A dream location for the money dealers;” a journalist commented in 1988, “there, they had everything in one place – an official bank, underground passage, black marketeers, and a real market.”437 ←141 | 142→The money dealing spots moved around, depending on the meandering of the official hard currency policies. In early 1970s, Pewex stores became the location of choice for the money dealers. The immediately recognizable moneychangers were a permanent fixture of the big city landscape in communist Poland.

Warsaw was undoubtedly the most important black market center in the Polish People’s Republic. The Warsaw dealers who sold gold, US dollars, alcohol and other products in short supply on the official market, effectively took advantage of their experience gained during the Second World War. They were indeed efficient, as one can conclude from the fact that 11.4% of all black market crimes investigated by the Special Commission in 1946 and 22.7% in 1947 were committed in Warsaw.438 The Polish capital became a city with a high exposure to crime. In the early 1960s, the national crime rate in Poland was 130 incidents per 10 000 people. In Warsaw it was 211 (only Szczecin voivodship beat the record). It was also in Warsaw that the highest rate of crime against public property and black market offenses were reported. While the national average rate in crimes involving public property was 30 per 10 000 people, in Warsaw it was 50. For black market offenses, the national average was 2.2 cases per 10 000 people; in Warsaw – it was 7.3.439 Warsaw was a big city and it was easy to engage in illegal trade there “without attracting any unwanted attention”, even when this required international contacts. “In Warsaw,” it was reported in 1964, “there are groups of active hard currency dealers (waluciarze) who have extensive connections with various international groups and maintain trade relations with economic swindlers, who buy from them foreign hard currency and gold using stolen money.”440 In 1976, seventy five percent of the 220 cases of “professional speculation” (Item 221, Clause 4 of the Criminal Code) were committed in the Warsaw voivodship, as was the highest number, that is – 820 of all speculation crimes (Items 221–225 of the Criminal Code); Katowice voivodship was in second place with 379 incidents, and Łódź voivodship was third with 274.441

Warsaw had the greatest number of private stores: in the early 1960s – there were 621 stores per 1.2 million city residents and 915 stores per 2.4 million Warsaw voivodship residents. In comparison, in the Katowice voivodship with a population of 3.4 million, there were 726 private stores. At the same time in Warsaw ←142 | 143→and vicinity, there were to be found 30% of all artisan shops in Poland.442 In 1969, in Warsaw and vicinity, there were some 40 thousand artisan shops, industrial plants, trade and service outlets – a similar number as those of Łódź, Kraków, and Wrocław put together. Almost half of the private export production came from Warsaw. One third of Polish “private millionaire businesses” (some 700) was located here.443

The private sector was an important but not the only factor influencing the shape and size of the Warsaw black market. Warsaw was the center of the cultural, scientific, economic, and political life of the country. Many Warsaw residents had at their disposal a substantial amount of illegally acquired cash. They needed to invest it discreetly. At the same time international diplomatic and trade representatives stationed in Warsaw and most of the foreign media correspondents also resided there. Already in the 1940s, foreign embassies had partially covered their operational costs with Polish money purchased on the black market. Their staff, including the diplomats, undertook their own illegal trading and smuggling operations (more in chapter 8). At that time, the only Polish international airport hosting intercontinental flights was located in Warsaw. As a result, not only did western patterns of consumption spread faster in the Polish capital city, but also western currencies flooded the local market.

As the capital of Poland, Warsaw was a “hotbed of all kinds of speculation.”444 In other Polish cities it was their history, geography, and economy that determined the characteristics of the black market. Port cities will be discussed in the next sub‑chapter. Kraków based its black market on tourist traffic, Poznań on International Fair visitors.445 Particular circumstances, especially historical ones, could strongly influence local black market prosperity. For example, Radom became in the 1950s one of the richest cities in Poland, although this was not officially acknowledged.

Radom owed its fame to its tradition of leatherworking going back to the Middle Ages. In the mid‑1950s, the output of Radom tanneries was half of what they had been producing before the Second World War, and it barely covered the needs of the state‑owned shoe factories. At the same time, 120 private shoemaker’s shops were registered in Radom and vicinity. In 1957, they manufactured 56 thousand pairs of shoes, using 15 thousand square meters of soft leather and about 20 tons of hard leather. The official allowance covered one third of the needs (six thousand ←143 | 144→square meters of soft leather and six tons of hard leather). The remaining leather came from three thousand illegal tanneries located in various places in the city and its vicinity. The unofficial tanning shops based their production also on that of state‑owned factories, which were the source of otherwise unavailable tannins and strictly rationed raw leather. Substantial profits446 both from stealing and production were invested primarily on the black market. Unofficial businesses requiring a special supply base influenced the development of illegal alcohol production and trade.447 As a result of show trials in 1960 and 1961, which ended with some leather swindlers being sentenced to death448 (albeit the sentences were not carried out), the black market in Radom gradually grew poorer and lost its luster.449 Even in the 1970s, when the city became the voivodship capital, Radom’s second economy had nothing special to offer.

It can be said that Radom belonged somewhere in between the center and the periphery. In the early 1960s, a Polityka journalist wrote: “A city that is big, grey, and ugly. The streets are crowded but the crowds are sluggish, spiritless, gray. It is a cross between a big industrial center and a small county town”.450 A “big city” characteristic was the fact that the more significant cases of illegal trading did end up in court. But Radom’s “small town” ambiance was apparent from the fact that its second economy sailed under the radar for such a long time in theory only; in fact, the authorities kept their eyes more or less shut to its existence quite deliberately and not entirely disinterestedly.

4.2.2Periphery: Municipal and District Poland

Writing about the Soviet Union in the 1940s, the American historian Julie Hessler noted: “At the local level, the repression of the unofficial economy was combined ←144 | 145→with grudging toleration; police, prosecutors, market administrators, and financial agencies treated private exchange at the bazaar as an inevitable, though in many cases illegal, part of economic life.”451 There is no doubt that the further away the regions were from the decision‑making political center, the more its population reliant on agriculture for their income, the lower the number of inhabitants per square kilometer, and the more conservative its social structures, the more liberal its authorities tended to be towards spontaneous economic activities of citizens. Often the official liberalism was associated with corruption, or informal, sometimes family‑based, obligations and relations. Not infrequently, some altogether pragmatic reasons were behind official support for black market “tycoons”.452 The periphery (referred to as “greenfield” in the Polish People’s Republic) was usually underprivileged in comparison with the big cities, and with smaller but industrialized cities,453 as far as supplies were concerned. Local decision makers accepted a wider margin of economic freedom as a way of filling in the gaps in supply. The official trade coordinator in the Siedlce voivodship was characteristically sympathetic, when in 1981 he commented on the arrest of a black marketeer in the small town Żelechów: the “speculator was selling meat and meat products to the population. The police and my employer intervened. However, I must say that the reaction of the community, the buyers, was the very opposite. They did not want him punished severely, they did not want him destroyed – because he [was] the only meat supplier in the town and community.”454 In the years that followed, such reports became commonplace.455

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In small, closed communities, where people were interdependent and bound to deal with one another on a regular basis, the “patron‑client” relationship was paramount. This situation led to the development of efficient social networks with a tight‑knit structure, which successfully buffered any intervention from outside, with the help of the relationships that local entrepreneurs, state and private, legal and illegal, had with the local power elite. It was a tall order to infiltrate and fight such local arrangements, as can be illustrated by the efforts undertaken by the Central Team for Combating Fraud and Corruption (Zespół Centralny do Walki z Nadużyciami i Korupcją), created in 1957 (introduced in the previous chapter). In the big cities, sections of the unofficial economy were connected mostly by business links and they were easy to identify and expunge. In local communities, the family connections and client links were much less clear but more durable and, resistant to external influence. The local cliques were tightly knit, loyal and included lower level Party activists, salespeople and inspectors but also Party functionaries, policemen or prosecutors who, if need be, could hide incriminating documents in the deepest drawers. For example in the Upper Silesia town of Mysłowice in 1957, a local Team for Combating Fraud “excluded the chief prosecutor and his deputy from the Party for drunkenness and links with private enterprise. After they had been kicked out, it came to light that this chief prosecutor was having a villa built for him in Dąbrówka, and prisoners were building it for him. One has to wonder how he could have ever been able to prosecute crimes and abuses…”456

One can reasonably conclude that, as social trust in the economic capabilities of the state diminished in the late 1970s, the informal – and most certainly unlawful – economic activity that was of benefit to the local community gained the tacit acceptance of local authorities. This was clear from the way that they tended to adapt orders from the headquarters to local circumstances, and carry them out only when big city functionaries were really paying attention. But even then, the actions were often feigned. A report from September 1981 noted: “In villages and subdivisions the battle against speculation is so far highly unsatisfactory. We may say there are blind spots on the map of our fight against speculation. The specific relations among people in the rural areas, the nepotism in distributing the goods, the warning systems in place and the low frequency of inspections all allow the local black marketeers to get away with their operations.”457

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In the following years, the blind spots were only superficially identified and certainly not removed. Of course, anti‑speculation commissions were also set up in the peripheral areas, with meetings taking place and official reports submitted, but the results were usually modest. The regional‑level, internal inspections of individual institutions such as the Peasants’ Self‑Help Cooperative (Samopomoc Chłopska) were often a pro forma, ritualized activity. Even if the inspections actually took place, they usually included local functionaries who were prone to not notice the shortcomings – which an external commission would uncover immediately on arrival.458

As a consequence, the number of speculation cases brought before the provincial courts was small. According to the police and judicial data, 90% (in 1982), and 76.5% (in 1983) of all speculation crimes occurred in the cities. Warsaw reacted with irritation to the regional prosecution statistics. For example in September 1983, in the Suwałki voivodship the courts did not hear a single speculation case, and in Białystok – only one. During the same period, Warsaw courts delivered 105 verdicts. Six months later, in March 1984, Polish courts sentenced 618 citizens for speculation crimes. In the Suwałki voivodship, as usual, no one was sentenced for speculation at all; in the Legnica, Zielona Góra, Tarnobrzeg, Łomża, Sieradz, Skierniewice, Opole, Kielce, Bielsko‑Biała, Elbląg, Konin, Koszalin, Krosno, Piotrków, Płock, Tarnobrzeg, Nowy Sącz, and Olsztyn voivodships – between 2 and 10 people were sentenced. In the Katowice voivodship there were 69 sentences, and in Warsaw voivodship – 123.459

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It was clear to many that the reality of the black market outside the big cities did not look rosy. By the second part of 1981, it was already apparent that the black marketeers were intercepting almost all means of productions in rural areas – tractors, farming equipment, building materials, coal, insecticides, “even pitchforks and rubber boots”.460 To a significant extent, it was the residents of the big cities who subsidized the black market prices of those items by purchasing food products in short supply, mostly meat, which flowed to the cities via independent channels.

4.3The North versus the South

In the mid‑1980s, as part of the step‑up of the battle against the hard currency black market, the chief of the Police Headquarters department in charge of economic crime conducted “disciplinary talks regarding the unsatisfactory results of combating this type of crime with the chief of departments for combating economic crime in the following voivodship headquarters: Białystok, Biała Podlaska, Konin, Bydgoszcz, Ciechanów, Chełm, Częstochowa, Gorzów Wielkopolski, Kalisz, Koszalin, Krosno, Piła, Sieradz, Skierniewice, and Zamość.”461 All the conversations were conducted over the phone but in two cases, in Kraków and Gdańsk, at the opposite ends of the country, he showed up personally. This was not surprising – it was the mountainous region in the South and the coast in the North that were the black market hubs of socialist Poland. This was a result of the geographical and historical factors that influenced social behavior (economical, political, etc.), and could be best observed in Zakopane and on the coast, and especially in the Tri‑city.462

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4.3.1The South: It Is Impossible to Bring Socialism to the Polish Highlands!

Of all the Polish post‑war land borders, only the section of the southern border running east from, Racibórz could pride itself on going back to the Middle Ages. The residents of this mountain borderland identified themselves not in terms of politics but rather of geography and culture and “more important than borders was kinship, in pursuit of which all the residents of the Carpathian region visited each other regardless of the obstructions posed by territorial administration. Being a góral, a highlander, mattered more than being a Pole or a Romanian. This tradition was so engrained that border patrols were quite unable to keep their compatriots under control.”463 Mountain societies all over the world (and the Polish highlanders are no exception) live in conservative social structures where the dominant role is held by the “big family” and the authorities and their law enforcement are approached in a utilitarian manner. Well aware of their inability to control the highlanders, the authorities tended to allow them quite a bit of leeway. A Radio Free Europe report from 1961 got it right when observing that the “highlanders’ prosperity is usually derived from overt violations of legal regulations”.464

Difficult geographical and climate conditions that hindered any possibilities for productive agriculture or industry forced the górals to develop specific survival strategies. One such was social mobility, manifested in emigration and seasonal work migrations. Emigration from the Podhale region to North America (between 1870 and 1930 approximately 42 thousand people left this region) had a significant impact on local strategies. From the US or Canada, the emigrants sent money and parcels with western products, which made post‑war Podhale a center for trading fashionable western clothing.465 The emigrants already settled ←149 | 150→in the West provided support for their compatriots from the region who were also looking for opportunities to earn money overseas (especially after 1956, when it became easier to leave Poland). Only 223 people left Zakopane for the US and Canada; in 1967 and in 1971, the number rose sixfold. After working overseas for one year, a Podhale woman brought home on average $3.5 000, a man – between 5 and 7 000. We can safely assume that the returning seasonal workers pumped annually into Zakopane and Podhale economy several million dollars.

Tradition going back a long time and easily available raw materials made Nowy Targ the center of a (mostly illegal) fur industry. According to Radio Free Europe: the “financial elite of the highlanders […] is created by furriers […]. There are many furrier workshops in Podhale and apart from an official workshop, every furrier has several other concealed in different shacks.”466 When in the 1960s, demand for the products of Podhale furriers increased significantly, thanks also to the winter Olympics in Grenoble, where the stylish sheepskin coats from Zakopane were a big hit, the highlanders started to bring in sheep even from faraway regions of Poland. In the past, a similar long‑distance trade had existed in horses, which the highlanders bought in the Suwałki voivodship in the North, among others, in order to smuggle them into Czechoslovakia.

Already in the 19th century, the highlanders had recognized smuggling as an effective survival strategy, which they often considered a profession. Smuggling maintained its position as a significant source of income during most of the 20th century, adapting with ease to outside circumstances such as fluctuating demand and a rise in tourism. In its1959 report on economic crime, the Supreme Audit Office (Najwyższa Izba Kontroli) paid special attention to the “smuggling on the southern border, in which the highlander population engages on a professional level.”467 In the first post-war decade, smuggling routes traditionally led to Slovakia, with Slovakian zippers brought in covering the entire Polish nationwide ←150 | 151→demand for this product. In the next decade, the routes extended to reach Italy and Yugoslavia.468

Tourism discovered Zakopane and the Podhale region in the 1870s, becoming an important engine of change. In a few decades, Zakopane was turned into the best known resort in Poland, a center of high culture, and a magnet for the intellectual elite. After the Second World War, Zakopane was able to maintain its position and consolidate it, especially after the events of 1956, when accelerated modernization boosted demand for recreational activities. When the state was unable to meet this demand, the private sector seized the opportunity and quickly outdid, usually in an unofficial manner, the sluggish state infrastructure, overloaded with regulations. In Zakopane, private money reserves were put to good use and invested in the development of a tourist empire, practically independent from the state and extremely profitable. The privatization of the state in the winter capital of Poland went so far that, in the words of a statement of the Party commission dispatched to Zakopane in 1972, “the state in Zakopane was put in a position much worse than it would have been in capitalism; it was sidelined to the position of not even janitor but to that of an unpaid crossing guard or street sweeper.”469

From the 1960s onward, each year some 2.5 million tourists visited Zakopane and nearby villages; they all required food, shelter, transportation, and entertainment and successfully supported if not forced the development of local black market strategies. Investment in tourist infrastructure yielded between 20% and 35% profit on accommodation and 50% on catering. Under favorable conditions, the capital invested could be recovered within two to five years. In the 1960s, organized groups of private builders had already descended on Zakopane. They pressurized the highlanders, often aided and abetted by city officials, to sell their land, which the entrepreneurs later re‑sold at much higher prices. The same groups tried to control the market for construction services. The building boom entailed a thriving development of the black market for building materials. They were often imported from distant regions of the country or even smuggled from abroad, from Czechoslovakia, Hungary or Yugoslavia.

In the early 1970s, illegal craft studios that manufactured souvenirs (local members of the intelligentsia commonly did some outwork to supplement their income) had a revenue perhaps as much as ten times higher than the profits ←151 | 152→(some 37 million zloty) of the 700 registered private enterprises. The necessity to provide food for the tourists led to the development of usually illegal strategies of acquiring products that were hard to get (such as meat) and boosted the illegal distilling and sale of alcohol. “There are streets in Zakopane,” the 1972 Party report continued, “where in every second house, there is an illegal joint selling alcohol (it seems Zakopane has the highest alcohol consumption rate in the country, because, as the locals put it, ‘It’s an exceptionally good place to have a drink’.”470

The real gold mine, however, was the hard currency trade. According to estimates, Zakopane residents and its 180 local “professional” hard currency dealers, as well as some 250 dealers visiting from different parts of Poland and another 450 dealers from abroad were jointly able to turn over 16 million dollars in total annually. In a year, foreign tourists left between two and three million dollars in the town. Of some 400 000 foreigners annually, only 10% (including the 40 000 from the capitalist states) availed themselves of the accommodation provided by the state; the overwhelming majority opted for private rooms or houses where they paid the rent in hard currency (or goods) at an exchange rate favorable for both parties. In the late 1950s, when the borders regulations between the member countries of the Soviet Bloc countries were relaxed to a certain extent, Zakopane became a vacation favorite for tourists from Czechoslovakia, Hungary and the GDR. There, they could find vacation options different from those offered by standard holiday resorts and free from state control.471 In the summer of 1970, the acclaimed opposition writer and journalist Stefan Kisielewski commented on the tourist situation in Zakopane: “there is a lot of Germans from the GDR, Czechs, Hungarians, even Russians. I don’t know how they can afford it here […], they must have their own calculations, if they come here in such numbers.”472

Podhale took advantage of the heavy traffic at the main southern border crossing. In 1968, for example, some 900 000 people crossed the border at Łysa Polana.473 High demand in Poland for Soviet Bloc currencies,474 favorable exchange rates, and easy access made this region an attractive destination for Soviet Bloc citizens. In the 1970s, the Thursday market in Nowy Targ turned into a ←152 | 153→currency exchange hub thanks to some 30 000 Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, Bulgarians, Yugoslavia citizens, and GDR Germans who visited in high season. The visitors brought money, exchanged it at the black market rate and went shopping (for food, textiles, auto parts, sport equipment, and radio and TV sets) at very attractive prices.475

The Party commission report from 1972 offered a relatively reliable estimate of the profits of the Zakopane second economy. The annual revenue that flowed to Zakopane from vacation rentals, food industry, transportation, trade (including hard currency), and prostitution reached the dizzy heights of over one billion zloty – the equivalent of state investment in the infrastructure of Zakopane in the entire decade of the 1960s! The magnitude of this income stream certainly had an impact on local government structures – an important part of this quasi‑capitalist machine. The informal groups that had formed around particular interests and were actively involved in their implementation had a key role in Podhale. The financial means at their disposal were such that the problem tended to be not “how can we afford to bribe him?” but rather “why won’t he take the bribe?” These groups effectively corrupted members of the Party apparatus, city clerks, tax collectors, and police and prosecution officials. As a result, the Party and state authority was “delivered through direct contacts between the first secretary of the PUWP Municipal Committee and the directors of the enterprises and managers of various institutions and agencies.” This “directorial group” was the proper, or indeed the ultimate authority. Having spent several years in the Party apparatus, lower‑level administration employees would move on to lucrative posts such as resort managers. The distinction between the state and private ownership as well as between legal and illegal operations became even more blurred.

Unfortunately, no academic analysis of the “underground” Zakopane of the 1970s and 1980s exists. We can safely assume that the attempts of the authorities, mostly in the 1970s, to force the owners of private rentals to use the state agencies and to obey the building by‑laws altered only minimally the existing structure of power. What they certainly did achieve was to trigger new accommodative strategies. In December 1975, a report on implementing the government’s resolution suggested that the “dynamic increase in tourist numbers […] calls for a program that would reign in this phenomenon and foster conditions to control it fully.”476 There is also a paucity of primary sources recording “the war on speculation” ←153 | 154→waged in the Nowy Sącz voivodship in the 1980s.477 However, careful scrutiny of the contemporary Podhale and Zakopane can teach us a thing or two about how old practices can be adapted to new circumstances.478

4.3.2The North: “The Land Fills Your Belly, the Sea Fills Your Pockets”479

In socialist Poland, this aphorism was true also in the context of the black market. The size of the second economy on the Baltic coast was comparable with the Podhale region’s black market, even though the objects of trade and the local environment were different. Port cities tend to evolve characteristic economic, cultural, and social structures. In comparison with traditional, conservative, highland communities – culturally homogenous and static, the populations of port cities are usually dynamic, open to the outside world, and creative, as well as multicultural and multi‑ethnic.480 They are more open to modernization. New models of behavior that come in from the outside thick and fast are absorbed with ease. While emigration is often a part of highlanders’ experience, coastal communities are open to the reverse phenomenon – immigration. The characteristics of port cities influence their social structure and the behavior of their residents. Pre‑modern bonds (such as in the extended families of the highlanders) are less important than the modern factors that exist outside a family, work or place of residence.

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Initially, Gdynia stood out among the port cities of post‑war Poland. Less destroyed than Gdańsk, subject to fewer restrictions than Szczecin, which for many years after the war was more of a Soviet than a Polish port, Gdynia was able to retain some of its pre‑war residents, including the entrepreneurs. Soon, it became a Polish window to the world. This happened thanks to the private and coop owned businesses, whose participation in total trade was initially greater than that of the state owned enterprises. Already in the 1940s, trade in Gdynia had re‑attained its pre-war level. Because of the importance of foreign trade to the Polish economy, the authorities looked favorably on the operations of Gdynia’s private sector. In Gdynia, it had existed longer than anywhere else in Poland. There is no doubt, even if it is difficult to find conclusive source evidence, that the uninterrupted long‑term settlement and ability to maintain the pre‑war tradition of creativity and entrepreneurship had an impact on the behavior of Gdynia’s inhabitants, and their willingness to engage in black market activities.

Newcomers searching for work in Gdynia during the interwar period, even those unfamiliar with port cities, instantly adapted to what the city had to offer; by the end of the 1930s, a high proportion of them identified with Gdynia.481 A similar phenomenon was apparent in Szczecin, Świnoujście and Gdańsk, where after 1945, the population was almost entirely displaced by new settlers, attracted by the proximity of the sea, with the opportunities and advantages that it provided. According to estimates from early 1984, “during the interwar period and especially after the war, large population cohorts arrived in the Gdańsk voivodship from various regions of Poland […].The newcomers usually settled in greater Gdańsk. They were often young, dynamic, and looking for a new and easier way of life as well as demanding rapid social and professional advancement. These large migrations fundamentally changed the population structure in the voivodship. People between the ages of 15 to 25 constitute more than 30% of people of working age, and 50% of all employed have post‑primary education […]. The numerous residents employed in international transportation, fishing, and foreign trade enjoy the additional lucrative proceeds of price differentials and currency parity. These people have substantial financial reserves and accept the petty bourgeois system of values, treating money as a fetish, and are under the influence of social‑democratic and clerical ideology.”482

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The factor that spurred on the black market in Polish port cities was not so much tourism, as was the case with Zakopane, but a multi‑layered “seafaring” factor. The opening of the ports in Gdynia and Gdańsk in mid‑July 1945, and later also in Szczecin, set in motion an unofficial flow of goods and money that even Stalinism could not stop. The port cities opened up a crack in the Iron Curtain wider than usually appreciated (and certainly wider than anywhere else in Poland). Regardless of the international situation, Polish ships sailed west and Western ships entered Polish ports. Until 1952, Western seamen, often from the Netherlands, worked on Polish fishing vessels. During Stalinism, the Polish fishing fleet had at its disposal permanent bases in the ports of Western Europe, for example in Ostend and Cuxhaven. Ship operators from Gdynia or Szczecin tried at all costs to maintain permanent trade connections with capitalist countries and create new ones (for example in 1953, between Szczecin and the Finnish ports). The first Polish Baltic ferry, Gdynia–Trelleborg, began to operate in April 1946. A real boom in passenger and freight traffic began at the turn of the 1960s and the 1970s. The new ferry connections with the Scandinavian countries were crucial in the development of black market phenomena, in which not only Poles but also Germans, Danes, Swedes or Finns were involved.483 The Polish marine navy was often ironically referred to as “merchandise” rather than “merchant”, but crews from other countries did not refrain from smuggling, either.484

Ships were capacious enough to conceal even a very large amount of contraband and the perspicacity of the custom officers often could not keep up with the ingenuity of the crew members. To start with, there were not enough customs officers, and at first, their equipment was modest, or non-existent. For example in late 1946, the Polish customs on the Baltic coast did not have a single motor boat485 or enough time to inspect each ship thoroughly. Sometimes the contraband was picked up outside of a port, in the open sea with the help of fishing or leisure ←156 | 157→boats.486 The smuggling network comprised seafarers, fishermen, longshoremen and – surprisingly frequently – also custom officers, whose official wages were never very high, which gave them an incentive to augment them by extramural activities.

Port warehouses were vulnerable to theft. All attractive items such as textiles, wool, plastics, alcohol, cigarettes, citrus fruits, canned food, leather, non‑ferrous metals, and auto parts went missing on a daily basis. In the late 1950s, in Gdynia alone, ten thousand cases of theft were recorded annually.487 Local port authorities and local police were not keen to intervene and tended to turn a blind eye. On the one hand, longshoremen all over the world considered theft a part of their rightfully earned wages,488 on the other – “brazen accumulation of wealth by seamen in a relatively short time creates a glaring disparity in the material circumstances of different strata of the working class”. For the authorities to give the longshoremen a chance to make extra money constituted a peculiar form of bonus, and contributed to maintaining social peace.489 The introduction of containers limited the opportunities for theft but did not eliminate them.

While theft was by nature a crime of opportunity, trading by seafarers was a goal‑oriented activity geared towards achieving the highest gains possible. It required flexibility and a good knowledge of the market, as well as efficient cooperation of the crew.490 Good reconnaissance and preparation could yield truly enormous profits. The crew of the cargo ship Kopalnia Wirek proved this when they brought a ton of garlic from Spain. On selling it, for an outlay of one dollar – at that time worth 100 zloty on the black market – they gained 3 100 zloty.491 Gold smuggling was also lucrative during the post‑war period. However, the precious-metals branch of the second economy required not only large‑scale capital investment but also entailed high risk, so the majority of seamen and fishermen limited their operations to smuggling goods, focusing on what sold well at any particular time. In the 1950s and 1960s, artificial jewelry was the bestseller; ←157 | 158→between 1956 and 1960 – beauty products, especially lipstick, were popular. Between 1955 and 1966, watches were in high demand and between 1960 and 1965 – clothing (for example nylon raincoats).492 Smuggling on a mass scale of electronic watches and mini calculators came into vogue in the early 1970s. The goods – from gold and watches to wigs and chewing gum – were supplied by specialized firms usually managed by Polish emigrants and located in ports of Western Europe such as Hamburg, Kiel or Rotterdam.493

Although customs duties on private imports diminished their profitability, some of the time the seafarers declared part of the incoming cargo to the customs; this usually occurred when they expected the duties to be not too high and the profits to be worthwhile, or when the size of the cargo made a clandestine transfer ashore unviable. However, most of the goods were probably undeclared to the customs and remained concealed. We do not have reliable tools to gauge the proportion of goods that remained undeclared, but a comparison of Central Customs Office (GUC) data with the volume of wholesale purchases of foreign articles by the state institutions provides an insight (see Table 2).

The regulations, from the late 1950s onward increasingly liberal, made operations easier. “A special instruction says,” a journalist from Trybuna Ludu commented in 1960, “that it is only forbidden to purchase goods from people who are intoxicated or show visible signs of mental illness, and the third clause says the delivered goods must not bear any indication of having been stolen.”494 Transactions of up to six thousand zloty in value could be carried out anonymously. For higher amounts, the wholesalers had to show their ID, but this was not a problem, because “in port cities there was an army of touts and patsies willing – for a fee – to ‘lend’ their ID to help close a transaction. Wholesale depot managers are fully aware of this practice but they ignore it because they get paid and receive bonuses only if the official targets have been met.”495 It is important to emphasize that ←158 | 159→we are only able to consider articles that had gone through the commercial and bureaucratic apparatus of the state. It is difficult to estimate the volume sold via private channels outside of any control apparatus, both in Poland496 and abroad. We can assume that the crews of Polish ships met a large part of the demand for chewing gum in Czechoslovakia (in the late 1950s) and for wigs and jeans in the Soviet Union (a decade later).

Table 2. Foreign goods from private imports 1959–1961

Source: AAN, NIK II, 19/46, fol. 36.

Before the crisis of 1981 emptied all the shelves in Polish stores, private import arriving through Baltic ports had played a supplementary role on the Polish market, delivering articles commonly considered as luxury goods. However, after the state channels of distribution had failed completely, it became one of the most important sources of supply (for example of cosmetics). In mid‑1981, the situation was so catastrophic that on July 15, the customs import duties on the majority of goods were abolished. The decision of the Gdańsk and Szczecin voivods to relieve state‑owned warehouses of the obligation to prove the identity of suppliers of foreign articles gave a new impetus to private importers. Before the tax authorities realized that as a result of the new regulations the state treasury was suffering great losses, the private importers managed to make fortunes in Szczecin and the Tri‑City. Just in the period August 1 to November 20, 1981, ←159 | 160→state institutions in Szczecin bought cosmetics worth 300 million zloty and in the Tri‑City – over 180 million zloty. A later investigation showed that private merchants had imported a staggering volume of goods. For example an “unemployed” man from Rumia near the port of Gdynia imported from Sweden 9 600 kg of washing machine detergent and 2 300 kg of soap; a bartender on a Polish ferry bought, also in Sweden and in October 1981 alone, 2 750 liters of shampoo. The calculation showed that at least 200 thousand dollars must have left Szczecin in order to buy cosmetics alone.497

Naturally, the goods arriving in Polish ports through private channels had been purchased for hard currency, whether illegal or not. Since the government recognized the fact that a Polish wage would not go far even in the humblest canteens of exotic ports all over the world, Polish merchant seafarers received a hard currency allowance on top of their wages. These allowances were, however, only a drop in the ocean of need. For example in 1964, seafarers were paid a “hard currency supplement” of 1 369 000 dollars. Some of this they could, and did, spend in state-run dollar stores, such as the Baltona chain; after this “official” shopping, a healthy surplus of 1 080 000 dollars still remained in the pockets of merchant seafarers and fishermen. In the same year, various warehouses – officially! – bought from seafarers goods worth 465 million zloty (285 million in Szczecin, and the rest in the Tri‑City). This was four times as much as seafarers’ dollar earnings even if calculated at the black market exchange rate – much higher than the official one.498 What accounted for the difference was the smuggling out of goods or – even more frequently, since it was easier to accomplish – of hard currency.499 Strategies to acquire hard currency had been developing on the Baltic coast since 1945. They were driven by the huge differential between the ←160 | 161→official and black market exchange rates500 that persisted in post‑war Poland and deterred visitors and seafarers from using banks and official hard currency agencies, where the rates offered were quite unattractive. In September 1945 (according to the data from November 1946) of the twenty institutions operating from Szczecin to Gdańsk and authorized to buy hard currency, twelve did not record any transaction due to a “lack of any offers”. Similarly, the majority of the hard currency recovered for the state by the Treasury Protection Brigades (Brygady Ochrony Skarbowej) came from confiscations from currency dealers rather than purchases.501 Prostitution, which targeted foreign visitors, also brought in large quantities of foreign money. According to police records, in the early 1970s more than 1 220 prostitutes were registered in the Tri‑City, of which 700 in Gdańsk alone.502 It is difficult to estimate the number of currency traders (the previously mentioned cinkciarze) that operated in restaurants and hotels in the Tri‑City, Szczecin and Świnoujście.503 One thing is certain: the demand for hard currency on the Baltic coast vastly exceeded the quantities of dollars, marks or crowns that the dealers and the prostitutes could supply. The goods taken to Lublin or Przemyśl were sold there for hard currency, the currency obtained then “imported” back to the coast. According to police records, the hard currency gangs of the coast had “their agents everywhere in Poland – in Warsaw, Kraków, Wrocław, in Silesia, and in the Sub‑Carpathian region. They [bought] dollars there and [took] them back to the Baltic coast.”504

The infamous “December 1970” brought protests, sparked mainly on the coast in Gdańsk, Gdynia and Szczecin by a sudden increase in the price of food and other everyday items. The riots were extinguished by the Polish People’s Army and the police (MO), with at least 42 people killed and more than 1 000 wounded. In the wake of the riots, the authorities examined thoroughly all aspects of political and social life in the Gdańsk voivodship.505 The analysis showed the mechanism by which black market phenomena influenced the behavior of the local ←161 | 162→population. In Zakopane the profits were usually invested in tourist infrastructure, on the Baltic coast in private (legal or otherwise) production and trade. As a result, in the 1960s, the private sector on the Baltic coast was much more dynamic than the state sector, for obvious reasons: wages paid by private manufacturers, artisans and merchants were much higher.506 Most of the artisan workshops in Poland were in private ownership. In the Gdańsk voivodship, especially in the Tri‑City, the private sector was dominant in trade (50% of all outlets) and catering (60% of outlets). In private manufacturing, the fastest growing branches of industry were those based on new technologies, such as the chemical sector.507 This can be attributed to the regional connections with the West, closer than elsewhere in Poland, and to the importation of raw materials and equipment by seamen.508 Already in the late 1960s, almost a quarter of private industrial and artisan production was exported, mostly to the capitalist countries, which shows how innovative Gdańsk businessmen were. In 1970 alone, private exports grew by 240%.509

While residents of the Podhale region, afraid of entrusting their money to the state, had for a long time preferred to put their money under the proverbial mattress, the financial elite in the Tri‑City commonly used modern savings instruments. High‑rate term accounts and “automobile saving accounts” constituted only 10% of all bank accounts but accumulated half of all deposits in the Gdańsk voivodship (over three billion zloty). The fastest growing accounts (threefold growth between 1965 and 1970) were the anonymous saving accounts, used as safe currency in large‑scale transactions. “It seems that many deposits on those accounts come from hidden, untaxed income from private enterprise and illegal machinations. Such accounts make black market trading much easier.”510

A large proportion of the profits acquired from illegal hard currency smuggling as well as legal private enterprise operations (all, as the tax authorities claimed, ←162 | 163→deeply rooted in the grey market) was invested in residential construction for own need, as in the Podhale region. Private investors financed 26% of all residential dwellings built between 1956 and 1969; these “utilized, probably not always legally, a quarter of building materials and potential.”511 In 1969, the usable floor area of an average apartment built by the state was 42.6m2 and of those built privately – 93m2. In the same year, 30% of private single-family houses and 70% of private apartments were constructed in large cities; this was “in blatant contrast to the ‘dwelling hunger’ among employees of the nationalized economy, especially the workers.”512

The authors of the analysis were probably right in saying that “there exists a close link and interdependency […] of criminal phenomena involving hard currency. Seafarers are exposed to regular contacts with the ‘western way of living’, the existence of substantial private wealth on the Baltic coast, and the demoralizing influence that this way of life has […] on certain groups of young people, especially workers on the lowest wages. This influence manifests itself by involving some of them in this kind of life for example as currency traders, which elicits among some workers strong feelings of hatred towards the world of wealth and resentment towards the authorities who tolerate such a state of affairs. These factors all played some role in the December events [of 1970].”513


The 1980s were the twilight of the golden era of trading by seafarers. The economic crisis and Martial Law diminished both sea traffic and the volume of foreign trade. More seamen than ever before were waiting to be signed up, and once they got the job, were anxious to keep it. Mariners lost their privileged position as monopolists. Large volumes of goods now arrived in Poland directly from Turkey, India and the Far East, brought in by private tourist importers, usually by air. Seafarers now focused on the, often arcane, trading operations between foreign ports, and continued to be a conduit of bringing hard currency to Poland.514 Amateur outsiders filled in the gap in the market vacated by the seafarers, and smuggled goods including alcohol, bed linen, and food as well as various knick‑knacks on ←163 | 164→ferries arriving from Sweden, Denmark and Finland. In the mid‑1980s, travel agencies began to organize short ferry trips to Scandinavian countries, without even bothering to conceal their commercial goal.515 A similar process of “domesticating” the cross‑border black market took place on the western and eastern borders of the country, along, respectively, the Oder and the Bug rivers.

While the southern and northern borders of Poland largely retained their prewar shape, the eastern and western borders had been completely re‑drawn after the war; this had political, social, and economic consequences. The rivers Oder, Lusatian Neisse and Bug now flowed through, and divided, previously cohesive territories. After the end of the war, the more complicated the everyday relations between communities on either side of the rivers (as in the divided cities on the Oder and the Neisse516) became, the more the practical aspects of life dominated the political imponderables. Despite being in different countries, the riverside communities (more so in the west than in the east) remained parts of a self‑regulating system for some time after the war.517 This phenomenon was reinforced by the presence of the remaining original local population unwilling to accept the political and geographical changes. Forced and voluntary mass‑scale migrations effectively prolonged the chaos (which facilitated black market operations) and made impossible any efforts to control effectively the new borders. Corruption thrived along the Oder and the Bug rivers. While in the east it was often triggered simply by the will to survive – and to bribe guards or ticket collectors could shorten a lengthy journey or improve its conditions – in the west, the usual incentive was an opportunity to make big money. Industrial products, ←164 | 165→cars, currencies, and gold were smuggled out of Germany; large amounts of food, especially fats, not to mention people, were smuggled from Poland.

During the chaotic post-war years, even state institutions, including the Ministry of Public Security, participated in black market operations.518 The Chief of the Polish Military Mission in Berlin, Jakub Prawin, reported in late January 1946: “In Berlin there are numerous Poles, who are involved in loitering and speculation on black markets; there are even incidents of robbery. A certain German black marketeer came to me complaining that he had been robbed by a Pole, who was wearing the uniform of a captain. People arrive, even for business trips, without visas, sometimes without passports.”519

The stiffening of the passport regulations in 1946 limited illegal travel from the interior of the country but did not mean much for the borderland residents who could always find a weak spot even along the best‑guarded border. Geographical conditions facilitated illegal border crossing; low morale and modest wages made the guards more open to accepting bribes.520 Polish and German railroad workers successfully smuggled goods (and people).521 They also took business advantage of the transports of displaced Germans, where supervision was haphazard.522 As long as the divided border cities were dependent on each other and German workers worked in Polish factories and mines, the smuggling thrived.523

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The high demand for animal fat in Germany, which local production could not meet, forced the Polish “exporters” to bring them even from remote places in Poland. For example, in mid-1947, in Zgorzelec and other border towns, packages with pork fat began to arrive, sent by mail from the Lublin region, and were later smuggled across the border. It was a profitable business: “In exchange for two kg of fat, the smugglers could buy a decent radio.”524 This practice reached such proportions that on June 30, 1948, the Polish Workers Party (PPR) committee issued a special circular: “The smuggler is the enemy of our heroic Nation! A smuggler is a spy! […] The well‑being of our Democratic State and the security of our borders demand that we decry and destroy all smugglers and their helpers. Not one gram of fat will be allowed to leave our People’s State.”525 Central authorities used the exhortation to fight the smuggling as one of the pretexts to close the border even for the petty border traffic. Although in the 1960s, the border on the Oder‑Neisse was not entirely devoid of activity, and tourism (especially from the GDR to Poland) was growing slowly but steadily, it was only in January 1972 that the real turning point came.526

Traffic on the new eastern border came to a standstill even earlier than on the western border. From 1944 to 1946, there were still wide gaps in that border, which allowed into Poland, beside those coming as part of the official resettlement program, approximately 200 thousand additional people. These were Home Army soldiers who wanted to keep a low profile or peasants from Eastern Galicia and Volhynia running away from Ukrainian terror, as well as those from the Vilnius Region that did not want to wait any longer for official repatriation. It was much more difficult to cross this border in subsequent years, whether lawfully or otherwise. Black market phenomena similar to those at the Oder‑Neisse border could not develop along the Bug, because on neither sides of the border with the Soviet Union did people have much to offer in the way of goods to be traded. The migrant population on both sides of the river focused their efforts rather on survival than on illegal, profitable transactions. They either wanted to sell personal belongings that they could not take to Poland, stock up on their food supply, and hide from border guards and robbers items not allowed across ←166 | 167→the border, or make sure that at least they took their religious objects with them when they set off to leave home.527 Those who were returning from the interior of the Soviet Union did not usually have any personal possessions and required immediate assistance. The main phase of resettlement from the Soviet Union to Poland, as well as in the reverse direction, ended in late 1946 and thereafter “the friendship border” was friendly only in name. For the average citizen it was as difficult to get across as the Iron Curtain.528

Certainly, the eastern border of Poland was sealed better than the border on the Oder‑Neisse. Even in the early 1950s, reports of successful smuggling operations and numerous clandestine escapes across the western border were quite frequent.529 The Polish, German and Soviet boat crews sailing along the Oder largely eliminated the imbalance of supply to the two banks of the river. For example in the fall of 1951, “the citizen Maria Cyprys from Golszewice, in the county of Niemodlin, killed a hog weighing approximately 100 kg, handed the meat to the crew of a river boat run by German citizens on the Oder and in return received four tons of coal and a substantial supply of clothing fabric.”530

Facing hunger brought on by the natural disasters of 1946 and 1947 – a severe winter and spring flooding, residents on both sides of the Bug realized there were hidden gateways also on the eastern border. In the spring of 1947, reports started circulating about “Soviet citizens [buying out grain], particularly in the Lublin, Kielce, and Łódź voivodships. For example, in the Lublin voivodship in Lubartów, Biała Podlaska, Kraśnik, Łęczna, and Włodawa, unknown Russian ←167 | 168→speaking individuals arrived at the market place and bought all the grain – outbidding everybody else. On May 13, similar individuals purchased grain in Chełm Lubelski, paying 15 thousand zloty for 100 kg of rye and 20 thousand zloty for [100 kg] of wheat.”531

The railroad, especially the transit connection between Germany and the Soviet Union, allowed for significant improvements in black market operations on the eastern and western borders. While Soviet ships entering Gdynia or Szczecin played an important role in maritime contraband traffic, it was railroad transport, mainly military, that had the same function on land. At the turn of the 1940s and 1950s, Soviet citizens, usually in uniform, constituted the majority of people crossing both the border on the Oder and that on the Bug. Convoys of supplies travelled both ways. They contained installations disassembled in Germany, war loot, war reparations, and demobilized as well as freshly conscripted soldiers.532 Every time that the train stopped, its crew wasted no time in bonding with the locals. Kutno was an important east–west junction. “After the lecture […], some of Kutno’s residents came over to tell me about their town,” Maria Dąbrowska noted in her diary on February 10, 1948. “Kutno is a center for trading German loot brought by Soviet military personnel. For pork fat, vodka, and spirits one can get radios, bicycles, silk, etc. They told me that they have a saying: ‘Who knows not Kutno, knows not life’.”533 As far as the experience of life based on illegal trade went, other towns on this route, including Warsaw, were not far behind Kutno.

Soviet convoys were always more difficult to inspect than all others, and, from 1947, arrest of their personnel became forbidden even if it had been established that smuggling had taken place. There is little wonder that there was always a place for contraband in a Soviet train’s storage area.534 Despite an agreement signed in the late 1950, which gave the Polish authorities more opportunities for inspection, the results were meager. A customs official from Rzepin remembered how “transit passenger and freight trains from the GDR to the Soviet Union and in the reverse direction were manned on the Frankfurt (Oder) – Brest (Brześć) route by GDR ←168 | 169→railroad employees. The crews engaged in large-scale smuggling on trains in both directions.”535 It is difficult to trust claims that smuggling operations decreased after Polish crews had replaced the German ones on transit trains. Such operations became rather more professional while cross‑border private traffic, increasing after 1956, deprived the railroad workers of their monopoly position. There is no doubt that trains from the West continued for a long time to play a pivotal role in transporting “high value” contraband such as gold, watches, and currency. In the instructions for custom officials issued in 1958, the examples of hiding places for contraband to look out for were based on French or German rolling stock.536 Some of the hiding places, especially those containing gold ruble coins, a favorite store of value for Soviet savers, were probably only searched once the train had reached the Soviet side of the border, and not any sooner.

The turning point came in 1956 when, thanks to the political thaw, former Polish citizens living in the Soviet Union could be resettled back home; by 1959, almost 250 000 people had returned to Poland. The Poles going home were aware they would have to rebuild their life from scratch and so tried to bring along any goods that would easily sell in Poland. In the Soviet Union, they bought radios, motorcycles, or even cars.537 For the people released from labor camps and for the exiles, often not short of money but lacking lacking opportunities to invest it, the authorities arranged ad-hoc solutions. “Everywhere in railroad stations,” Barbara Skarga remembered from her journey across the Soviet Union on a train full of former deportees, “we encounter hastily set up jewelry kiosks. We are allowed to take everything to Poland with us without paying any customs duty but we are not allowed to take rubles out. Any rubles that we have on us, we have to spend on something. Those who had cashed in a substantial number of bonds buy silver: rings, powder boxes, or cigarette cases. They are often in bad taste but the metal is of high quality.”538 Customs exemptions for personal effects facilitated the use of the repatriation process as a way of bringing in substantial ←169 | 170→amounts of contraband, which often belonged to a different “investor” and not the actual re‑settler. Those returning from the West used a similar strategy.539 After 1956, tourists and visitors could cross the eastern border more easily and successful black market dealing was part-and-parcel of their trips. A real breakthrough came two decades later.

When, in the late 1940s, the borders were sealed, the volume of the small‑scale black market operations conducted by railroad workers across the borders on the Oder and the Bug was not significant for the second economy of the borderlands. The image of the black market both in the South and that in the North began to change radically soon after 1956; the former – thanks to the local tourism and stable settlements on both sides of the border, whereas the latter benefited from the sea factor. However, the eastern and the western border areas required time and an external impulse to change. In the case of the western border, this happened quite abruptly on January 1, 1972 when the passage between Poland and the GDR opened for passport‑free and visa‑free traffic. Much has been written about this decision and its political consequences on both sides of the Oder– Neisse.540 It allows us to focus here on the transformation of the borderland black market image. Naturally, residents living close to the bridges on the Oder and the Neisse rivers became the beneficiaries of the new situation. Until October 1980, when the border was closed again, they made up between a third to a half of all those visiting the neighboring country.

The sleepy towns on the Polish side of the border such as Zgorzelec, Słubice, Gubin, and Kostrzyn, all of a sudden found themselves much closer to Berlin or Dresden than to Warsaw or Poznań. In 1972, Hanna Krall wrote, “Słubice and Gubin became part of Europe literally overnight.”541 And overnight, Poles discovered the contents of the stores in the GDR. Mass buying alerted the government in East Berlin and forced it to introduce stricter customs inspections. In response to pressure from the GDR authorities, the Polish authorities limited the mark exchange allowance to 200 per month (by the regulation issued by the Governor of the Polish ←170 | 171→National Bank on December 21, 1972).542 Of course, this decision influenced the local black market situation. Border officials tended to treat more favorably the residents of border towns who frequently crossed the Oder–Neisse line. “Cottage manufacturers” from even remote regions of the country immediately took advantage of such leniency and began to hire Zgorzelec or Słubice residents, many of whom worked in the GDR, to carry small amounts of goods across the border. In the mid‑1970s, “smuggling communities” developed in the border towns.543