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Through the Back Door

The Black Market in Poland 1944–1989

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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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6. Alcohol

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6.Alcohol

The excessive alcohol consumption in communist Poland has been a topic of extensive research. We therefore need not dwell on the social and cultural context of the phenomenon and focus instead on its most important black market aspects such as illegal alcohol production and unofficial distribution of state‑produced alcohol.773

In communist Poland’s second economy, alcohol vied for top position with meat and the US dollar. Without a doubt, however, it was alcohol that had the longest tradition on the black market. Polish peasants became adept at breaking the state spirit monopoly as early as the 19th century. High alcohol consumption was traditional in their way of life, the ingredients necessary for alcohol production, such as grain and potatoes, were within easy reach and their natural habitat was less easy to keep under official supervision than the cities. No wonder that when the monopolist state encountered financial problems and tried to reach deeper into the wallets of Polish alcohol drinkers, they reacted by developing effective defense strategies.

Ubiquitous moonshine distillation began in the Polish territories at the outbreak of the First World War, with the introduction of prohibition in the Russian Empire. Alcohol production was banned and most of the supply destroyed. German and Austrian occupation of the Kingdom of Poland made little difference, since the new occupiers did not resume local alcohol distillation and rigidly controlled both production and consumption. Unsurprisingly, illegal breweries began to pop up like mushrooms.774

Experience acquired during the First World War was put to good use after the end of hostilities, when alcohol production failed to keep up with demand and the majority of the pauperized population could not afford the alcohol produced by the state monopoly, and worth 10% of state revenue. This situation led to a proliferation of illegal breweries. In 1919, it was estimated that there were 20 000 ←229 | 230→industrial-scale, illegal distilleries (more than the legal ones!) in the territory of the former Kingdom of Poland alone.775 The illegal production of alcohol decreased in the middle of the 1920s when the economic situation improved, only to increase again during the Great Depression. The pauperized rural population was the least able to afford the “monopoly” vodka, the price of which was many multiples of that of moonshine. Naturally, for the connoisseur, the quality and flavor of home‑distilled bimber, as moonshine was known during the war and continued to be referred to thereafter, were not on a par with the officially produced liquor but what counted first and foremost for the rural drinker were its price and potency. In the first half of the 1930s, the authorities ruthlessly combated illegal distillation, each year closing down between three and five thousand such distilleries, mostly in central Poland and in the Eastern borderlands.

In the latter part of the 1930s, bimber production fell in step with the improving economy but during the Second World War, especially in the territory of the General Government, it acquired the status of a “national industry”. Alcohol became both a substitute currency and a basic remedy to help one survive the horrors of the occupation.776 As Kazimierz Brandys remarked in 1945, “alcohol did not hinder the fight and every German defeat was celebrated with an ocean of spirits.”777 The loosening of social and moral norms, the weakening of social discipline, and the absence of firm authority and social control that had prevailed during the war all contributed to the increased consumption of alcohol. Moonshine, until then drunk mostly in the countryside, became common also in the cities and was by no means shunned by the middle class. The demand was so enormous that huge moonshine centers appeared in the vicinities of big cities, such as Legionowo and Jabłonna near Warsaw. The distilleries and distribution networks operated very effectively and bimber became one of the less laudable icons of the time of the German occupation. At the same time, however, since the Germans had monopolized both alcohol production and its profits, making moonshine was a sui generis patriotic act.

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The “heroic” period of moonshine production was over as soon as the German occupation ended but what did stay with the Poles was a deep conviction that illegal production of alcohol did not constitute a crime. The habit of drinking moonshine or indeed moonshine dependency also survived the war. Official production could not satisfy the demand exacerbated by the trials and tribulations of the war and, just as had been the case after the previous world war, many could not afford the expensive officially produced alcohol, revenue from which made a significant contribution to the state budget. Last but not least, all those who had benefited from moonshine – producers, middlemen, and distributors – had no intention of foregoing any opportunity of a healthy profit. The circumstances were perfect for business: the state was weak, there was no shortage of drinkers, and the production and distribution infrastructure was in place. Little wonder that the bimber industry made a smooth transition to peacetime and maintained a, sometimes stronger sometimes weaker, presence during the post-war period. Indeed bimber is not entirely absent from the Polish economy even today.

The price of monopoly alcohol regulated the level of the illegal distillation. The state justified the high price with seemingly contradictory reasons – the well‑being of the state budget and the battle against the scourge of alcoholism. Limiting the accessibility of alcohol (by introducing a minimum age to buy it, decreasing the number of sales outlets and shortening their opening hours) were the measures deployed to the latter end. However, their effectiveness was questionable since they immediately triggered the development of illegal channels of alcohol distribution, usually through melinas, as the drinking dens were called. The phenomenon of these speak‑easies was closer to the standard definition of the black market than illegal distillation; they were often run to satisfy the illegal brewers’ own drinking requirements and with no market transaction involved. Thus, for a considerable period, the melinas did no more than recycle – at a higher price – alcohol bought in state stores. It was the introduction of rationing in 1981 that led to the modification of the existing strategies and the development of sophisticated new ones – from producing fake coupons, through intercepting alcohol from official production or shipment, to redistributing vodka purchased in the “internal export stores” – that is to say, stores where purchases could only be made by those with a handful of greenbacks.

For the record, let’s not forget that it was not only in the internal Polish market that the social players competed with the state but also in the international trade. While the Żytnia and Wyborowa brands of vodka were too expensive for the average Polish consumer, they were very attractively priced from the point of view of a foreign, and particularly Western, buyer. Polish sailors, tourists, and ←231 | 232→athletes (not to mention Polish diplomats and other officials) did a good job of transferring alcohol abroad on a mass scale, especially to the Scandinavian countries, where the mark-up was the most gratifying.778

6.1A National Hobby: Illegal Alcohol Production

6.1.1The Clandestine Distilleries: Moonshine and the Authorities

Illegal alcohol production is at all times a painful blow to any state budget. And so it proved for the post-war, socialist Poland that came into being on July 22, 1944. As early as December 12, 1944, the first Act on combating this practice was issued. Concise, no more than a single sentence, it provided stringent sanctions for illegal alcohol production.779 The new law did not change much, what with the inadequate alcohol supply in official stores and the agencies created to investigate economic crimes merely going through the motions. The Treasury Revenue Protection Department (Ochrona Skarbowa) had no appropriate apparatus at its disposal, and as for the policemen of the recently established “Citizen’s Militia” (MO), as the police were called, they themselves were commonly suspected of excessive consumption of moonshine. All the more so since – after the war, and particularly in rural areas – the police were recruited mostly from the locals, and not eager to make enemies among their neighbors in the closely‑knit communities.

In early October 1945, the government approached the Polish People’s Party (PSL), the Polish Socialist Party (PPS), and Wici the Rural Youth Association with the suggestion of cooperation “in the field of combating moonshine”. The Propaganda Minister was ordered to “develop a propaganda campaign for fighting bimber” and the Minister of Justice was told to order the courts to deal with moonshine cases as a priority.780 The results however, were less than satisfactory – in 1945, no more than 7 100 distilleries were shut down, in spite the fact that illegal alcohol production was common and conducted openly.781

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Stanisław Cieloch, Spirits Séance, “Szpilki”, no. 30, 25 September 1945.

In 1946, mostly thanks to input from paid informers, almost 28 000 distilleries were uncovered. The number looked impressive but in practical terms the operations failed to achieve radical eradication of illegal distillation, which continued to flourish. The penalties meted out were no more than symbolic (the Special Commission sent ninety three bimber distillers to the camps), the demand for moonshine was enormous (in 1946, the state monopoly satisfied barely half of the demand) and the low price of grain made individual production highly profitable. One indication of the scale of the phenomenon was the fact that in 1946, sales of yeast, an ingredient used in distilling, re‑attained the pre‑war level despite the decreased population and lower consumption of bread.782

On January 26, 1947, Maria Dąbrowska wrote in her diary after watching the film Forbidden Songs (Zakazane Piosenki), the popular post‑war musical that mocked the Germans: “The songs have been changed […]. Instead of ‘Axe, hoe, down the bimber’, the actors sing ‘Axe, hoe, ball, glass’ (because bimber is ←233 | 234→now banned)”.783 The year 1947 indeed did not look good for the illegal alcohol producers. Not only did the Polish Spirit Monopoly (Polski Monopol Spirytusowy, Polmos) now become more competitive, expanding in 1947 to cover the whole country with a network of sales outlets but weather anomalies caused the free market price of agricultural products to rise – which included the ingredients used to make moonshine, and the legal system clamped down on the illegal distiller with radically more severe penalties. The Special Commission now took an active part in combating the illegal alcohol production and took over the bimber cases from the courts. The Commission was now also better equipped – on April 11, the Treasury Criminal Law was passed (Journal of Laws, no. 32, item 140). This specified in greater detail crimes against the state monopoly.

Although fewer illicit distilleries (some 20 300) were exposed in 1947 than in the previous year, the sanctions were now drastically steeper – 1 016 bimber manufacturers ended up in labor camps and they constituted almost a quarter (23.4%) of all new prisoners.

Table 5. Number of detected illegal distilleries and labor camp sentences for illegal alcohol production in years 1947–1954.

Source: K. Kosiński, Historia pijaństwa w czasach PRL. Polityka – obyczaje – szara strefa – patologie, Warszawa 2008, pp. 527, 532 (The years 1950 and 1953 have been omitted due to incomplete data).

The fight against illegal alcohol production began slowly to lose its momentum in 1951 when the police took over the duties of the experienced but now defunct Treasury Revenue Protection Department (Ochrona Skarbowa). The year 1953 ←234 | 235→brought important changes with the Act of June 24 (Journal of Laws, no. 34, item 143) on the production and processing of spirits – the first attempt in post‑war Poland to regulate all legal issues surrounding the illegal production of alcohol and marked the end of a fiscal penal approach in favor of administrative penalties.784 Even though the number of labor camp sentences for illegal distilling, at 1 127 in 1953, was still high, the authorities decided the problem was fizzling out and the police stopped recording individual cases.

The decline proved short‑lived. In 1955, the two factors that had always encouraged illegal alcohol production re‑appeared simultaneously: the price of alcohol went up and, with slacker sentencing, courage became cheaper. Although illicit distilling did not reach the level of the late 1940s, the number of alcohol‑related criminal offences such as bimber production and large‑scale theft from state distilleries went up, even in hitherto relatively quiet regions such as the Poznań and Bydgoszcz voivodships.. The moonshine trade re-entered the market in the big cities.785

The problem hit home after the authorities added up the profits of the official spirit industry for the first quarter of 1958. It turned out that Poles had bought 3.6 million liters fewer, calculated in pure alcohol, in comparison with corresponding period of the previous year. Initially, this was taken as a positive outcome of the fight against alcoholism; soon, however, a more rational explanation had to be considered, particularly since in the same period sales of sugar and yeast, especially in rural areas, had grown significantly, for example by 60% in the Warsaw and 40% in the Kielce voivodships respectively.786

It is now difficult to establish whether the wave of anti‑bimber coverage that swept through the Polish press from the early spring of 1958 was part of an orchestrated campaign. The news items identical in respect of facts, people, and places – a fact which, since they were not always supplied by the press agencies, could point to their origin in government briefing – that appeared in newspapers in different parts of the country seem to favor such a hypothesis. The war on illegal distilling was a perfect fit with the crackdown on the economic underground, which began in the middle of 1957. The law and the law‑makers were commonly accused of being too lenient towards the self‑appointed distillers. Over 25% of all cases were dropped straight away by the prosecutors, and those that ended up in front of a judge usually ended either in a suspended sentence, a small fine or a few months of suspended prison sentence. The light sentences were often ←235 | 236→due to the perpetrators pointing their finger as the guilty party at the elderly, single mothers, and the disabled, who could always count on the leniency of the judges.787

In July 1958, police bonuses introduced in 1957 for uncovering illegal distilleries doubled. Policemen who found the whole “works” – the full apparatus, moonshine mash, and moonshine, complete with the perpetrator – could expect a reward of between 500 and 1 000 zloty and 25–50 zloty for each liter of pure alcohol.788 In the summer of 1958 at Police Headquarters, representatives of the Prosecutor General’s Office and the Ministry of Finance met with local police chiefs from the voivodships where illegal distillation was the most prevalent (Białystok, Lublin, Łódź, Rzeszów, and Warsaw). The conclusion was unanimous: tougher sanctions.789

The press changed the mood music to match: the focus was now on “public” expectations of the government and the Sejm, its tardiness gently criticized, to take care of the problem urgently.790 The authorities rose to the challenge and in the spring of 1959, the newspapers featured a steady flow of coverage on the progress of the new law upping the penalties for the illegal distillers. The headlines said it all: Illegal distilling will not be worth it (in Trybuna Ludu), Pogrom of bimber producers imminent (in Słowo Powszechne). The draft of the bill received the “full support of all MPs“,791 as it did in parliament.

The Act of April 22, 1959 on combating the illicit production of spirits792 was to remain in force, with small changes, for over forty‑two years, until April 26, 2001! The secret of its longevity was in the permanency of the phenomenon of illegal distilling as well as in the detailed presentation of the regulations and the severity of the sanctions provided. The fines stipulated were high enough to feel painful even when applied at the turn of the 1970s and the 1980s. The production of bimber even in the smallest quantity for personal use carried a penalty of up to three years in prison and a fine of upwards of five thousand zloty. Where “significant quantities” were involved, the distiller was subject to a prison term of between two and five years and a fine of not less than 30 000 zloty. The offender no longer ←236 | 237→needed to be arrested red‑handed. The possession or storage of the even the simplest moonshine production apparatus was a punishable offence under the Act.

The authorities were keen to prove that the new law was not mere tokenism. Soon after it had entered into force on June 1, 1959, the papers were filled with news of harsh prison sentences and high fines for illicit alcohol producers. Whereas a few months earlier, the tone assumed in the press coverage was portentous, now the matter had become a fait accompli (Illicit distilling is not profitable any more793). Indeed, the number of detected distilleries began to decrease and in 1961, only 1 002 cases of illicit alcohol production were uncovered by the authorities. “The current year,” a journalist on Polityka wrote in spring of 1963, “will be one of the last in which we write about moonshine. Soon enough, it will have become mere folklore, a funny story about an individual case or two but no longer a topic. Bimber as a problem and as a scourge of society will safely descend to its grave.”794

These hopes did not materialize. The alcohol price hike in the fall of 1963 immediately thinned out the customers of the official alcohol stores and triggered increased demand for the raw materials and paraphernalia involved in its production such as sugar, yeast, big kettles, and glass pipes. The number of detected distilleries increased from 1 153 in 1963 to 1 549 in the following year and stayed at that level for several years. The next price hike, in 1969, coincided with the deep economic crisis that was responsible for renewed interest in independent alcohol production. In 1969, the authorities detected 1 847 distilleries, and in 1970 another 2 908, and in 1971 as many as 5 378.795 The significant escalation in 1971 was a result of the operation to “restore public order”, undertaken by the new Minister of Interior Affairs, Franciszek Szlachcic. The operation was intended to remind Poles that the Ministry of Finance would reward the reporting of clandestine distilleries to the authorities. The average reward was 3 000 zloty but it could go as high as 15 000 zloty.796

Somewhat paradoxically, illicit alcohol production was a much bigger, and certainly more visible, problem in the first – prosperous – half of the decade than in the second, when the crisis came knocking at the door. This was mostly due to high prices of alcohol so, when in the second half of the decade, they became relatively lower, the wave of illicit alcohol production receded and stabilized at ←237 | 238→the level of the mid-1960s. For example in 1977, when vodka was at its cheapest, the number of detected distilleries in comparison with the previous year fell by 1 300 (from 2 878 to 1 568).

All the more shocking was the size of the moonshine boom triggered by the 1981 crisis, declining production, rationing and partial prohibition during Martial Law. Whereas in 1981, 1 435 cases of illegal distilling had been recorded (most of them in the last quarter of the year, after the introduction of rationing), in the following year there were ten times as many – 14 067. Despite the increased detection rate (and accelerated sentencing) due to the strict requirements imposed by Martial Law, only a small number of illicit distilleries were uncovered. According to the probably very conservative estimates of the time, there were approximately 150 000 distilleries in Poland during the period of rationing.797

The easing of alcohol rationing in July 1982 (free market sales at higher prices were authorized) and its withdrawal in March 1983 only temporarily diminished the demand for moonshine. After a temporary decrease in 1983 (9 696 detected distilleries), drinking habits accompanied by prevalent alcoholism as well as continuous price hikes of legal alcohol and its limited availability, especially as a result of the Act of October 26, 1982 on education in sobriety and counteracting alcoholism, caused the statistics to spike (14 817 distilleries exposed in 1984 and 15 262 in 1985).

There is no doubt that the lifting of Martial Law in July 1983 and revocation of the harsh regulations that allowed summary sentencing once more fanned enthusiasm for illegal distilling. The great majority of illicit distillery production from the early 1980s was for distillers’ own needs, which resulted in relatively mild sentences. For example, from January to November 1984, in the Krakow voivodship 357 cases of illegal distilling were discovered and as many legal proceedings were brought but in only four cases were the accused held on remand.798

The sheer scale of illegal distilling worried not only the police and the Finance Ministry but also the state employees responsible for introducing and later ending the alcohol rationing system. Illegal alcohol production turned out to be one of the most important reasons to postpone the abolition of the rationing of sugar which some decision makers were concerned would be mostly used for moonshine production – a conclusion based on the fact that the ratio between the price of one kg of sugar and 0.5 l of “official” alcohol was 1:12 (and had gone ←238 | 239→down to 1:7 a decade earlier).799 Against such pessimism, there were also voices of reason: “For those who were making moonshine 15 or 10 years ago and still do so today,” the deputy chair of the National Price Commission (PKC), Antoni Gryniewicz, argued in January 1985, “there is no such thing as the ‘correct’ relation between the price of vodka and the price of sugar. I think we are demonizing the moonshine problem in Poland, even on such scale as it is occurring currently. Let me quote Police Headquarter estimates of how much moonshine is produced in Poland today. These estimates are based on research, on reports from inspectors, on the convictions. These estimates are that it is approximately 40 million liters […]. How many more moonshiners could we have, well – how many? Double the number? I don’t think so, but let’s assume pessimistically that there might be 50% more. What would it mean? Another 20 000 tons of sugar…”800 A number of that order was irrelevant to the stability of Polish economy.

Indeed, abolishing the rationing of sugar (on November 1, 1985) did not bring about any bimber revolution, unless we consider as significant the fact that the number of distilleries detected halved (to 7 134) in 1986. This was mostly due to the gradually stabilizing economy and the fact that the profitability of moonshine production was decreasing due to the rise in the price of sugar following the abolition of rationing and above all – the harsher sanctions. The Act of May 10, 1985 (mentioned earlier, see chapter 3.5.3) played a deterrent role, since it created a situation where even indirect contact with illegal distilling could end in a prison sentence.

While the repressive measures certainly shrank the amount of illicit distilling (4 789 distilleries in 1987 and 3 418 in 1988), they frequently bordered on the absurd. It was easy to arrive at a decision which, while consistent with the rule of law, simultaneously made a mockery of the whole idea of war on illegal distillation. In late 1985, the story of a pensioner from Katowice riveted the public. A man with no previous criminal record, he was arrested for helping a neighbor suffering from back pain to move a jar of moonshine mash from the floor to the table, for which he was charged as an accomplice. When during the investigation he artlessly admitted that in the previous several months he had given his ←239 | 240→neighbor two kilos of sugar while being fully aware of its purpose, the pensioner was additionally charged with illegal alcohol production, and sentenced to eight months in prison (without suspension) and a 50 000 zloty fine.801

It is ironic that after 1989, illicit distilling did indeed become, as Andrzej Krzysztof Wróblewski predicted it would, “exotic” – but not due to the activities of the government or increased social awareness but thanks to cheap alcohol smuggled in from abroad. One could say that the moonshine industry was beaten at its own game.

6.1.2“He Has a Drinking Habit but Not a Lot of Money”:802 Determinants, Technology, Geography

Shortage of alcohol was a leading factor in the development of the black market trade only during the first few years after the war (between 1945 and 1947) and the first half of the 1980s, mainly when alcohol rationing was in force (between 1981 and 1983). The decisive factor was the high price of the monopoly alcohol; kept high since its sales accounted for a significant percentage of state revenue, rarely falling below 10% and usually hovering between 11 and 15.5% (with the record year in 1985).803 The authorities showed great determination in fighting the moonshiners who, in turn, were very good in devising strategies to outsmart the state. Only after 1989 would this vicious circle be broken.

Research on illegal distillation in Poland indicates that the phenomenon disappears when average monthly pay is sufficient to buy between 60 and 70 bottles of vodka. In communist Poland this rate was no more than approximately 30 bottles! In 1970, the average monthly salary could buy 30 bottles, in 1974 it barely increased, to just 31, and in 1978 it nudged up to a mere 33 but after the price hike in December 1981, an average Pole’s monthly pay was the equivalent of no more than 22 bottles. In communist Poland, vodka was twice as expensive as it had been in pre‑war Poland and was one of the most expensive in Europe.804 The illegal distilling industry grew with each hike in the price of alcohol (in 1953, 1957, 1961, 1963, 1969, 1974, 1978, 1980, and annually throughout the 1980s). ←240 | 241→The rate of growth depended on the level of prices and income, the general state of the economy, the level of social satisfaction, and the strictness of legal sanctions. Without a doubt, such correlation was systematic, and until the final days of communist Poland, the government applied the principle of keeping the “price of moonshine at a safe distance from the price of monopoly alcohol”.805

Moonshine distilling was an excellent business from an economic point of view. During most of the post-war period it was common in rural areas where the distillers had the basic resources such as potatoes, grain, and flour to hand, often on their own farm. Labor was cheap, particularly in the case of a family business. Even when sugar became the basic feedstock for moonshine, the increases in its cost were neutralized by, among others, higher productivity. As a result, the cost of production of moonshine was a fraction of that of the production of the monopoly vodka, in spite of the advantages of the economies of scale that the state had. Other factors such as the financial circumstances of the customers or general insecurity also shaped the retail price of bimber. “We always aim for the middle ground,” a professional moonshine distiller from Sobolewo near Ryki explained, talking to a journalist in 1957. “The higher the price of vodka, the higher the level of this middle ground gets. It works like this: it takes one kilo of sugar, give or take a few grams, to make one liter of moonshine. Which means that one liter costs me 15 zloty. How much does one liter of [monopoly] vodka cost? Seventy zloty. So, my figures work like this: I have to earn quite a lot, because otherwise why bother to go into this business, why bother to take such risk… But I can’t ask for too much, or else I’d lose the customers. So I have to charge much more than 15 zloty but much less than 70.”806 And, so, in 1957, the moonshine price fluctuated between 40 and 50 zloty a liter.

The cost calculation applied also to production for personal use. We need to understand that “personal use” meant something quite different in Warsaw or Krakow and in the rural areas – where one liter of alcohol per person at wedding or baptism parties was the norm. Since such celebrations were usually very well attended, the savings to the host from buying moonshine were considerable.

There was a fine line between the professionals and amateurs in illicit alcohol production; in the 1980s, the latter remained as sole winners. The post‑war period however, belonged to the professionals, who distilled alcohol often on a very large scale, with – one suspects – the tacit approval of local authorities. For ←241 | 242→instance, in Ciechomin near Łuków, the administrator of the Cooperative Jedność, which was well established during the German occupation, after the war ended, transformed it into a large distilling enterprise, which not only produced but also sold moonshine.807 There is little doubt that this initiative was closely connected with the construction of the Soviet airport nearby, which must have provided steady custom.

Wholesale production proper depended on well‑organized and secure sales, guaranteed by big cities. In the post‑war period, often very large illicit distilleries were frequently discovered in the suburbs. For example, on July 17, 1945 at Powiśle Street in Krakow, the inspectors from Central Office for Combating Speculation and War Usury (Główny Urząd do Zwalczania Spekulacji i Lichwy Wojennej) found a “complete set of equipment for distilling moonshine […], a warehouse with semi‑finished and finished product, as well as tax bands and labels of foreign and Polish brands of vodka. The tax band templates lay beside the tax bands […]. The moonshine factory was located in a two‑bedroom apartment. Tax bands and documents related to the distillery occupied one of the rooms […]. The other contained bottled vodka […]. In the third room, which was used by the female workers of the distillery, empty bottles were found. In the kitchen there was a massive oven with filter tubes. In the basement …], another oven with filter tubes running to the janitor’s lodge […]. In the janitor’s lodge we found a boiler with starter mash of approximately 500 liters, a distilling oven with a manometer, and electric ventilators.”808 The owner of the distillery was nowhere to be found.

This impressive setup is a good example of a phenomenon typical of the post‑war period. Large, well-equipped distilleries produced alcohol of relatively decent quality that could pass for not only Polish but also foreign liquor.809 Moreover, it was rare for the elusive entrepreneur, who usually remained in the shadow of the cottage industry, to be apprehended. It was striking that distilleries surprisingly often kept re‑appearing in apartments or homesteads where the owners or tenants were clearly unable to afford the expensive professional distilling equipment.810 We can safely assume that they were sub‑contractors using equipment owned by the investor. In Legionowo near Warsaw there were entire ←242 | 243→“firms” producing distilling equipment, which helped maintain the high quality of production and the quick launch of a new distillery, should the existing one be seized by the authorities.

Militia raid an illegal brewery in the vicinity of Warsaw, November 1946; photo from the archives of the Polish Press Agency (PAP).

For example, the distillery (it would be an understatement to call it a moonshine plant) uncovered in October 1946 in Legionowo specialized in the purification of moonshine distilled at home by farmers from nearby villages (some of whom delivered weekly between 150 and 200 liters). In an hour, the plant was able to distill 10 liters of 95‑proof spirit. The middlemen bought the entire processed amount at between 300 and 360 zloty, and transported it two or three times a week, sometimes in vehicles that belonged to the Ministry of Health, to Warsaw where they sold it for between 400 and 420 zloty.811

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Thanks to the private networks of stores and restaurants distribution did not pose any problems. The owners of restaurants and stores, especially fruit and vegetable stores where “carrots are sold at the front, bimber at the back”812 on the one hand, naturally, sought maximum profits and were willing to take a risk, but on the other, sold bimber simply because there was demand for it, since legal alcohol was in short supply. The owner of a café at Wolska Street in Warsaw when arrested on July 21, 1945 and told she was not allowed to sell moonshine, asked rhetorically, “What else is there to sell?”813 In mid-October 1945, the Polish Spirit Monopoly (Polski Monopol Spirytusowy, PMS) complained to the Ministry of Treasury that a large number of private stores “of all kinds” were selling moonshine and imitation monopoly alcohol.814 By the middle of the next year “almost all cafes or similar gastronomic enterprises, and also many grocery stores sold illegal alcoholic drinks, packaged and available for on‑site consumption. The illegal sale of alcoholic drinks in marketplaces from stands and booths or directly on the street [was] a common occurrence.”815

This was an open and universally accepted practice and those who sold illicit alcohol were often protected. The incident in Warsaw on November 3, 1945, extreme as it was, nevertheless reflected well the prevailing sentiments toward trading bootleg alcohol. On that day, the Central Inspectorate of Treasury Protection (Główny Inspektorat Ochrony Skarbowej, GIOS) together with the police (MO) and Security Office (UB) conducted inspections of all restaurants in Warsaw. “I gave the Investigation Office (Urząd Śledczy) orders to shut down,” wrote a GIOS official, “one of the illegally operating restaurants at 15 Litewska Street, which sold bimber and left its fate to the decision of citizen Prime Minister. After the search, the restaurant owner incited a Polish Army unit, stationed at 14 Litewska Street, to attack the police. This resulted in a shootout and assault on several policemen, who were then disarmed by the completely drunk above mentioned unit.”816

However, the increased repressive measures on the one hand and the improved supply of legal alcohol on the other forced moonshine distillers to change their strategies. Production ceased to be run openly. By the end of 1946, the ←244 | 245→illicit distilleries were moved from suburbs to the “most remote villages, and into forests and swamps, which due to poor security and difficult driving conditions are hard for the Police and Treasury Protection (Ochrona Skarbowa) to reach. The clandestine distilling is moving from outbuildings into fields and abandoned bunkers and is changing its operating hours to night‑time.”817 By the late 1940s, remote distillery locations had become the norm.818 In the cities, a decisive blow for alcohol distribution networks came with the wiping out of the majority of private stores and restaurants by the “battle for trade” and putting the existing ones under even stricter supervision. As a consequence, until the early 1980s, the alcohol black market concentrated in the cities in melinas, where mostly monopoly vodka was sold.

Of course none of this means that alcohol was no longer distilled in the cities. However, it was done amateurishly and chiefly for personal use. Throughout the 1950s, 1960s and 1970s, bimber distilleries were usually mentioned in the press in the context of rural areas or small towns. Newspaper stories, all very much alike, mainly focused on anti‑moonshine police operations and the problems that the police functionaries faced. “The larger‑scale production flees from the usual locations to places where a policeman will not go either by chance or on suspicion, because he is reluctant to venture into some backwoods. One needs a customized horse‑drawn cart to get through, to carry boilers and the starter mash there; firewood can be cut in the forest nearby and, a few days’ worth of corked and bottled moonshine is brought back.”819

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The official campaign launched in 1957 to fight alcoholism by raising the price of alcohol and closing a proportion of retail alcohol shops resulted in no time at all in a boost to illegal alcohol brewing. Szymon Kobyliński, We have completely eradicated alcoholism in our district, “Szpilki”, no. 4, 7 December 1958 (courtesy of the author’s family).

In some regions such production was well in excess of the needs of “family” consumption. Unfortunately, we do not know much about the distribution channels of this surplus. Probably only a small portion was delivered to the cities, where since the early 1950s, different demand and consumption models had developed. The greater part of the product was distributed locally, and local residents had easy access to the source of moonshine, also on a wholesale basis. ←246 | 247→“Before,” a resident of Garwolin confided to a journalist in 1970, “you could ask anybody and they would show you [where to find it]. Now people are on guard. If they don’t know you they won’t sell it to you. But if you go with a local guy, you can buy as much as you want.”820 It is also hard to determine how commonplace the middlemen were who specialized solely in alcohol distribution. It seems however, that the modus operandi of a peasant woman in a village near Sieradz was the rule rather than the exception: “Zenobia picked up the cans herself and carried them on a motorbike or in her son-in-law’s Škoda. She took any amount, paid a thousand per liter and sold it for 400 more […]. At Zenobia’s, [alcohol] was available day and night, unlike at the store in [the local village of] Fajum. There was enough moonshine for any occasion or none. For baptisms, weddings, pig slaughter, for a rainy day, and a funeral. People came to Zenobia’s from near and far and never returned home with empty cans.”821

When moonshine producers or distributors were caught by the authorities, it was usually as a result of denunciation rather than any sophisticated police operations. “Almost all the cases that landed in court,” a journalist evaluated the situation in 1975, “are the result of a denunciation by neighbors. The distiller or the illegal dealer needs to remain on good terms with their neighbors. As soon as they fall out, the police get a tip off.”822 That a culprit would be found guilty was not, however, a foregone conclusion. The rural code of ethics which allowed the denouncing of neighbors did not allow one to testify against them in court.823

Another commonly practiced strategy involved, as already mentioned, the sole breadwinners in the family or the elderly volunteering to take the blame. “Usually it is grandmas and grandpas who plead guilty,” a policeman from Sobolewo near Ryki explained in 1970. “That’s a real plague. The old granny who is pushing eighty stands in front of the judge and starts sobbing. What can the judge do? It usually ends with a suspended sentence.”824

Policemen operating in rural areas did not have an easy job, repeatedly finding themselves between a rock and a hard place when dealing at the same time with the demands of their superiors and of the local public. It is clear that chiefs of local police stations had to compromise, which often involved striking a fine balance. One of their strategies was to bust illegal distilleries, taking the credit ←247 | 248→due but neglect to gather the evidence, which made it impossible to initiate the legal procedures and move the matter along any further.825 It is difficult, however, to say how common such a phenomenon was.

The burden of keeping an eye on bimber was not evenly spread among the local police forces. For a long time, illicit distillation was concentrated in parts of Poland “where there is poverty, poor soil, and scattered farms – in Poland B”.826 These were also the areas with the lowest social standards and the lowest acceptance of the authorities as well as the longest tradition of making moonshine (going back to the time of the German occupation). Among the regions where the distillers prevailed were therefore the lands of the former Russian and Austrian partition, including the vicinity of Warsaw, as well as the regions of Białystok, Kielce, Łódź, Lublin, Krakow (where, near the city of Nowy Sącz, the famous plum vodka was distilled), and Rzeszów. The illegal distilling of alcohol was rarely found in the area of the former Prussian partition.

Illegal brewery, late 1970s. Photo: Andrzej Baturo, FORUM Polish Photography Agency.

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Just because in a particular area there did not happen to be many distilleries, this by no means meant that there was no demand for moonshine. By late 1945, there were cases of transporting bimber from Warsaw and vicinity all the way to Katowice and Bielsko.827 Returnees from the Eastern Borderlands and migrants from central Poland quickly transplanted their distilling traditions to these Recovered Territories but for a long time were unable to match the expansion levels of the Krakow or Kielce region (not to mention Białystok where between 1955 and 1958, almost a quarter of all distilleries in Poland were uncovered). In 1958, of the total number of 2 451 bimber investigations, 536 were conducted in the Białystok voivodship, 524 in the Warsaw voivodship, 411 in the Lublin voivodship, and 211 in the Łódź voivodship. At the same time there was only one investigation in the Gdańsk voivodship, five in Koszalin, four in Olsztyn, two in Szczecin, and three in the Zielona Góra voivodships.828

As mentioned before, at the turn of the 1940s and 1950s, moonshine production predominated in rural Poland, where 78% to 82% of all the cases prosecuted were uncovered.829 Reports on distilleries or moonshine sales in the cities were sporadic.830 After a small distillery had been raided in the Praga district of Warsaw, a journalist from Kurier Polski commented, “Warsaw bimber lovers have lost one of the very few sources for purchasing moonshine [in the capital].”831 A decade later, he would have probably not been able to put it like this. The social, economic and cultural changes taking place in the 1950s and the 1960s affected also clandestine distilling. Industrialization and urbanization together with mass migrations blurred both the lines between the regions and between rural and urban areas. This had a knock‑on effect on patterns of consumption including that of bimber.

Already during the moonshine boom in the early part of the Gierek era, progressive “urbanization” of the bootleg distilling had been in evidence. Now, city residents more and more often got involved in bimber production; initially these were mostly workers, and occasionally clerks supplementing their wages.832 Technological changes, in particular the now widespread use of sugar as ←249 | 250→the main ingredient, led to a moonshine comeback in the cities. Starter prepared from potatoes or flour required large amounts of ingredients; the “production cycle was long and complex, the pulp fermenting in barrels stank horribly and could give away the location of the distillery.”833 In contrast, sugar-based technology allowed one to prepare small, “domestic‑use” quantities of the starter (as in the Grunwald recipe: 1 kg of sugar, 4 l of water, 100 g of yeast), and the production process was easy and did not require sophisticated equipment. A small stove, cold running water and a modified kettle were all that was necessary.

A real breakthrough came in the fall of 1981, together with the introduction of alcohol rationing and Martial Law. There were important geographical and social changes. Bimber production spread quickly in areas where earlier it had been almost non-existent, such as the Opole region, where the rise in distilling was statistically the greatest, as it was from a low base. It again became a city‑based phenomenon. Beginning in 1982, the majority of those sentenced for illegal distilling were city dwellers.834 The moonshine‑producer identikit was changing rapidly. Whereas in the early months of rationing, it had been mostly workers835 who had been involved in distilling moonshine in the cities, Martial Law turned it into an activity of the intelligentsia. The “distilling fad” among the intelligentsia was only partly due shortage of liquor. Socio‑cultural factors played an important, if not more important role. Intelligentsia had much spare time, with few opportunities to fill it up, and a liking for socializing. Moreover, to brew bimber was a form of political, “oppositionist” statement. “Distilling is fashionable mostly among members of the intelligentsia. A teacher and an engineer swap recipes, taste samples together, and hone the equipment. At family or friends’ gatherings, it’s not the herring […], the apple pie or home‑made liqueurs that the hosts are praised for. It’s the bimber!”836 While garages or boiler rooms had been the typical sites for illicit distilling, now it was not uncommon to carry out the production in the workplace, even if this happened to be a university, or especially a science lab.837

This fad did not last long. Homemade distilling by the intelligentsia did not disappear altogether but after alcohol rationing ended in spring 1983, it ceased ←250 | 251→to play any cultural, not to mention iconic, role. Especially now that an extensive network of booze stores made it possible to buy liquor any time of the day and night to one’s heart’s content.

6.2“Buy a Bottle, Mister!” Illegal Trading in Legal Alcohol

The state monopolist was between the devil and the deep blue sea: the budget demanded maximization of alcohol revenue but the scourge of alcoholism, which led to quantifiable losses, pointed to curtailing the sales. With that aim in mind, and in view of the minimal effectiveness of the anti‑alcohol campaigns, the authorities resorted to increasingly strict measures. Until the mid‑1950s, the inter‑war legislation remained in force, slightly modified and adjusted for the requirements of the new reality by acts such as the Act of 1950 on securing socialist discipline at work (Ustawa o zabezpieczeniu socjalistycznej dyscypliny pracy). The second part of the decade brought two anti‑alcohol Acts838 that limited alcohol sales and/ or consumption opportunities in the workplace, in working men’s hostels, and in community centers. Municipal councils were given the authority to limit the numbers of outlets, their opening hours and the volume of supply. Councils were also authorized to introduce local prohibition, for example on paydays or state holidays such as May 1 or July 22. From 1966, only those over 18 were officially allowed to buy alcohol and cigarettes. The 1970s brought on the one hand a significant increase in alcohol consumption, on the other – more restrictions and a decreased number of outlets (by the Council of Ministers’ resolutions from May 5, 1972 and August 10, 1978). The legal crowning of the fight with alcoholism was the Act of October 26, 1982 on upbringing in sobriety and the prevention of alcoholism (Journal of Laws, no. 35, item 230).839 The most unpalatable change for consumers was undoubtedly the ban on selling alcohol, both in stores and in restaurants, between 6 am and 1 pm.

When confronted with changing social behavior related to alcohol, such as increased consumption and drinking in the workplace, all the new bans and ←251 | 252→regulations led to further development of the bootleg trade. The commercial relationship between the state monopoly and consumers was invaded by an additional agent – a go‑between, who charged commission for the risk taken. “Each legal outlet that has been closed down,” the Ministry of Justice warned in 1957, “is immediately replaced by illegal mobile vending points at marketplaces and bazaars, as well as in private apartments.”840 The illicit dealing in legally manufactured spirits took different forms – from selling alcohol in public places that customers were usually very familiar with, such as squares, and marketplaces, or in the melinas where the underworld could buy liquor to go; some of these places also offered on‑site consumption as well as sex or profiteering. Initially limited, the range of services available in due course often expanded with new business propositions.841

In the early post-war years, unlicensed private stores, restaurants, and eateries commonly sold monopoly alcohol. “The battle for trade” drove also this practice onto the streets and in to marketplaces but most of all into private apartments. Booze dives selling “state” alcohol, which included wine and beer, were mostly an urban phenomenon; while until the 1980s most of those convicted of illegal distilling lived in rural areas, those who were apprehended in those melinas lived in the cities.842 In the cities there were different consumption patterns, with more financial resources available to numerous potential customers, and easy access and smaller risk.

The workers were definitely the best customers. Booze dives, initially called potajemka or bunker, popped up around “excavators, cranes, bulldozers […], where there is a sign: structure ‘X’ or ‘Y’ under construction […]. They thrive when surrounded by makeshift, bunkhouse workers’ hostels, among the sounds of rubber boots thumping on the sticky clay.”843 But they also did quite well in the vicinity of already established factory plants. For example in the mid‑1960s in Warsaw, most of the approximately 400 melinas identified by police were located ←252 | 253→in industrial districts – Wola, Żoliborz, Praga North, and Praga South.844 When dealing with regular customers, the booze dive owner was willing to wait for payment until the next payday or accept in lieu products and materials stolen from the workplace. Alcohol bought in these illegal places was often bought with money acquired by selling “public property”.845

Sometimes melinas operated inside workplaces, and were usually run by doorkeepers, janitors or the technical staff, who adapted their methods of trading to the local circumstances and needs. Bimber manufacturers, who played an important role in unofficial everyday life, were appreciated and often protected by the employees of the plants. When one of the janitors at the Warsaw Gardening Cooperative was caught selling liquor and the manager decided to fire him, all the employees including the blue and white collar workers, and even the managers protested vehemently against this decision. There is no doubt they were all customers of the janitor.846

Poor suburbs and city districts populated by workers who liked their drink were often melina hubs. In the greater Warsaw area in the 1960s, there were to be found in Czerniaków, Powiśle, Targówek, Wawrzyszew, Rembertów and in the neighborhoods of marketplaces.847 “The police are aware of these sensitive areas,” a Warsaw newspaper wrote in 1959, “where as many as 12 melinas, in which “grandmas”, “aunties”, and “uncles” conduct prohibited trading, can operate within 100 meters of one another.”848 Representatives of social groups other than the working class, including the intelligentsia, were also at times driven to using the services of a melina in situations such as alcohol running out during a party or an unexpected guest turning up. Anonymous polls quoted by Jerzy W. Wójcik in the mid-1980s, conducted among 422 people with higher education concluded that almost 55% had had contact with melinas.849 This did not mean that illicit dives were easily accessible even if their addresses were an open secret – to minimize risk, they tended to stick to their trusted regular clientele and their doors were closed to strangers and random callers.

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Naturally, law enforcement agencies took an interest in all illicit liquor vending dens. The police were usually able to identify their location, often not so much with the help of their clients, which did also happen, but from disgruntled neighbors, not pleased with nightlong drinking sessions and late‑night visits. Nevertheless, it was more difficult to shut down a melina or to arrest its owner than to close down an illicit distillery. The price of alcohol in these dens was often much higher than in stores but the customers did not feel cheated; on the contrary, they defended booze den keepers if they got into trouble. On the one hand, group solidarity and the code of ethics that prescribed the solving of conflicts without involving the authorities were important. On the other hand, pragmatic considerations played the most crucial role: although the client had to pay more, only a melina guaranteed access to alcohol twenty four hours a day, seven days a week and credit purchase for cash or barter. For many, the closing down of a melina would have been synonymous, at least temporarily, with losing unlimited access to alcohol.850 A closure operation provided the police with a logistical problem: possession of even a large amount of monopoly alcohol, unlike possession of bimber, was not a criminal act. The policemen had to gather clear evidence in order to prove that illegal trade had taken place, and catch the perpetrators red‑handed – a tall order, as well as find documentary evidence of the sales – again, unlikely, with cash sales being the norm.851

Understandably, illicit liquor vendors developed defensive strategies similar to those practiced by currency dealers. In their own apartments, they kept only a small amount of alcohol – often in opened bottles, to imply personal consumption. Wholesale amounts were stored elsewhere, in a basement or in a neighbors’ apartment. Those who operated outside of melinas stored alcohol in their cars. This was, however, a risky practice especially in the 1980s, when a car could be confiscated as a “tool of crime”, together with its contents. It was safer to trade in alcohol at home, since there was no legal provision for evicting melina owners.852

As a result, only a small percentage of these operators could be effectively brought to court,853 and the sentences were usually mild – a fine of a couple of ←254 | 255→hundred zloty and a sentence of a few months in jail, mostly suspended. The average fine in the late 1960s was 500 zloty, a negligible amount that could be easily made on a single good day or a Saturday night.854 The reasons for such leniency were both economic and social. Since the dealers were selling, albeit on a margin, monopoly alcohol, produced by state‑owned factories, the Treasury incurred no financial losses. As early as February 1946, the Ministry of Public Administration instructed the voivods that vigorous combating of illegal sales of monopoly vodka was “harmful for the state Treasury” because it limited the trade in monopoly articles, which were “heavily taxed.” “Temporary” leniency was advocated.855

No similar recommendations for the later period can be found but there can be no doubt that melina owners enjoyed mild treatment by the authorities. A Polityka journalist pointed this out in the mid-1980s, asking why “those who distil are punished severely while melina owners are treated leniently. No serious sentences are reported in the press, there are no immediate custodial sentences […]. Smart people know that moonshine is rarely available in these dens, where monopoly and Pewex vodka rule.” He drew the correct conclusion that, with the favorable dollar exchange rate, it was worth the dealers’ while not only to resell monopoly spirits bought in ordinary stores but also brands bought exclusively for dollars and other hard currency in the also state-run Pewex stores, allowing not only a higher profit margin for the melina owners but also boosting earnings in the tills of state monopoly and Pewex stores: clearly, a win‑win situation, at least from aneconomic point of view.856 Yet again, the social dimension of the problem encouraged leniency by the judges. Until the 1980s, the vast majority of melina owners were women, often older, burdened with child‑rearing costs and rarely able to count on even the slightest support from their partners.857 Selling illegal alcohol was often a means of survival.

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It is not surprising that closed down melinas tended to reappear quickly or be replaced by new ones. In 1966 in Warsaw, 119 such places were taken out but soon thereafter, another 250 new ones sprung up. Of those 119, thirty‑five were shut down a second time, nine – a third time, and three – a fourth time.858 Opening a new venture of this kind did not require great effort; it was enough to buy a few bottles of vodka or cheap wine in a liquor store and resell them with a mark‑up (albeit the known dealers were charged at a premium at the stores as part of an informal deal struck with the store sellers). This entire system, which had been built over many decades, finally collapsed in 1981.

6.3Excursus: The 1980s

In early 1981, the situation on the official alcohol market still did not appear too bad – in comparison with the previous year, the supply had shrunk by only 4.1% and the disappearance of alcohol from store shelves was due to massive hoarding and market chaos rather than a genuine shortage. The latter arrived in the second quarter of 1981, when alcohol deliveries shrank by a quarter. In the next three months they dropped to no more than 71.8% of the 1980 level.859 Simultaneously, alcohol established itself firmly as a commonly accepted substitute currency and object of hoarding as well as being a store of value. The rationing of alcohol, gradually introduced from June 1981, was adopted in all Poland in October 1981. Since the rationing was implemented at the discretion of local authorities, the rules were not immediately identical in all regions, the available product range varied, and at best a consumer could count on one liter of spirits per month. After standardizing the regulations in January 1982, the ration went down to not more than half a liter.860 These developments created a congenial environment for the now exceedingly lucrative illicit alcohol trade.

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Illegal brewery in Czarna Białostocka, eastern Poland. Photo: Mariusz Olkowski, FORUM Polish Photography Agency.

Melina owners disappeared from the media and police reports to be replaced by “alcohol profiteers”. This was not just a semantic change but above all quantitative. Police Headquarters, which was monitoring the illegal alcohol market, emphasized that the introduction of rationing had radically decreased the number of small alcohol dealers, who now faced a challenge in purchasing alcohol in the first place and secondly in having to justify the possession of large amounts of alcohol.861 Before the introduction of rationing “one could possibly explain that the large quantity of alcohol was the result of long hours spent in lines”, with sob stories about the whole family taking numerous turns in line, until it all added up.862 From October 1981, this defense was no longer admissible. New trading strategies had to be devised, and new channels of supply and distribution charted. Wholesalers, who had capital, contacts, and operational capacity, were more likely to succeed than small‑time dealers. They soon worked out a whole range of ways of acquiring liquor – from creatively taking advantage of state producers, through stealing and ration coupons scams to purchases in Pewex stores. Their risk was higher but their potential profits could be, and often were, considerable. ←257 | 258→For example in late 1981, a team of seven speculators from Poznań sold 20 000 bottles of vodka, making some 4.5 million zloty in the process.863 In the following years, this impressive amount proved to be far from a record!

The simplest method was getting alcohol at source, from a state distillery. As was the case with the meat plants mentioned earlier, under pressure from the unions and often with the acquiescence of local authorities, Polmos (Polish Spirits Monopoly) factories pursued their own distribution policy. They bartered products with other factories, and sold directly to institutions and private individuals.864 In 1981 alone, at least 270 000 bottles of spirits and 380 000 bottles of vodka “dematerialized” en route to clients.865 The practice continued when Martial Law was introduced. By then, however, the government had a number of new, different regulations at its disposal. In early February 1982, both employees’ spirits allowances and sales outside the official retail network were robustly curtailed. As a result, in 1982, the alcohol industry became one of the few branches of food industry where the employees could not expect allowances.866

It was possible to limit the quasi‑legal alcohol trade with legislation but not to eliminate other channels for the flow of alcohol out of the distilleries. Despite the fact that by 1982, Polmos had conducted a staff review, replacing some of its security employees and giving everybody a 20 percent pay rise – intended as a disincentive to theft, throughout the decade fraud in distilleries was as common as it was in meat plants. Polmos employees tended to generate a strategic production surplus, by such means as applying the upper limits of permitted losses and the so‑called production atrophy. Stealing alcohol at bottling stations or in transportation was also common.867

During alcohol transportation, breakage allowances were commonly used to the utmost. In May 1984, General Edwin Rozłubirski shrewdly pointed out that there were ten times fewer breakages during the transportation of vinegar or methylated spirits than in alcohol shipments. Crucially, the retail outlets masked ←258 | 259→theft as breakage in order to avoid investigation. In 1983, in railroad transport there were alcohol “breakages” to the value of 729 million zloty.

Theoretically, instances of theft were considerably less frequent (in 1983, 50 million zlotys’ worth of alcohol “disappeared” in railroad transportation; for comparison – 20 million zlotys’ worth of cars and bicycles, and 26 million zlotys’ worth of sugar vanished from transportation during the same period).868

Kasztel club in Warsaw, the storehouse. The haul during a raid in November 1981 included 2 500 bottles of vodka. Photo: Polish Press Agency (PAP).

The methods of stealing were often quite sophisticated. For example in 1983 in Lublin, a group of drivers delivering alcohol to Pewex stores “invented a method of opening and closing [bottles] without damaging the aluminum caps, which allowed them to remove alcohol from the bottles, replace it with water and then deliver them to the recipient with the said content.” The culprits were never identified.869 The stolen alcohol was sold to small-scale melina owners and savvy wholesalers among whom were liquor store employees and managers of restaurants – either state‑owned or private; these clients had the best opportunities for ←259 | 260→further distribution. To take one example, in 1982 the owner of a restaurant franchise in Księży Dwór near Działdowo turned into cash more than 43 000 bottles of vodka, with a massive profit of 9 million zloty. The agents of two Poznań bars, Dobosz and Osiedle, made four million zloty by selling 20 000 bottles through other outlets. Reports about the sales of bottles of alcohol in their thousands were the order of the day.870

State monopoly stores had strategies of their own, albeit not always foolproof, that allowed them to generate profit from legally obtained supply. The retailers had little faith in the viability of complete control of the rationing system, especially since the complicated rules for the barter of rationed goods such as coffee or chocolate for alcohol rendered any supervision impossible.871 In early 1982, in one of the stores in the Warsaw district of Mokotów, 6 934 bottles of vodka were sold without ration coupons; another outlet, in Kutno, sold outside of the rationing system approximately 16 000 bottles between July 1981 and July 1982 (at a profit of 3 million zloty).872

There were numerous attempts to obfuscate the unlawful operations by using counterfeit coupons or re‑using alcohol coupons that had already been used. Time and time again, bogus coupons were discovered in the stores in such large quantities that it was impossible to put this down to accidental mistakes or the inattentiveness of staff members. Just in one Grocers’ Cooperative store in Szczecin, as many as 3 320 fake coupons were found, in another store, Farmers Self‑Help – 615, and in the state spirit monopoly store in Inowrocław – 1 091. Several months later, thousands of counterfeit alcohol coupon stubs surfaced in stores in Upper and Lower Silesia.873 Forged alcohol coupons were widespread in all Poland.874

Equally profitable and certainly less risky was a creative interpretation of the edict that authorized state administration officials to grant special alcohol allowances on account of birth and wedding celebrations as well as funerals. A common strategy was to submit in the registry office “documents referring to a planned marriage for no other reason but to acquire a permit to purchase a large amount of alcohol for the wedding reception. As soon as the document has been obtained, the couple would change their mind and the wedding was off.”875 The ←260 | 261→certificates were also forged on a mass scale or used on multiple occasions by different people.876 In that way, with shrewd forward planning, one could acquire significant amounts of liquor and make a tidy profit. In February 1982, it was reported from Siedlce that three representatives of, as the dispatch strenuously emphasized, “private initiative” – the owner of a concrete making business, of a private cab, and of a repair work shop – were suspected of “buying alcohol with forged certificates and selling it at black market prices. The authorities seized a typewriter, stamps, and a set of print fonts used to forge the certificates authorizing the purchase of alcohol for a wedding reception. It was established that the culprits had bought more than 1 500 bottles and made 750 000 zloty.”877

The black market price of alcohol was so high and the dollar price in the hard‑currency‑only Pewex stores so low that it was worthwhile buying vodka, especially the cheaper brands, in Pewex and selling it on through unofficial channels with a satisfactory profit margin. By late 1981, large amounts of Pewex alcohol had entered the free market. Pewex vodka or cognac was commonly traded in monopoly stores, restaurants, and dining cars,878 as well as being routinely available in melinas. Not only was alcohol available in Pewex stores without any ration coupons but it could also be bought as soon as the store opened: early in the morning rather than from 1 pm, as was the case with other stores. No wonder that Pewex remained the supply destination of choice for alcohol dealers even after the abolition of rationing.

The abolition of alcohol rationing in the spring of 1983 only minimally diminished the volume of the illegal liquor trade. Rationing coupons and certificate fraud became a thing of the past. With high prices and poor supply, all the above mentioned strategies for generating surplus remained in use. The abolition of alcohol rationing coincided with the introduction of sales restrictions, combining to create a perfect base for rebuilding the traditional system of underground alcohol dives. The majority of those waiting in line in front of a state monopoly liquor store before it opened at 1 pm every weekday were female owners of the melinas.

Unsurprisingly, until the second half of the 1980s, alcohol was the uncontested winner in the black market statistics. Even in 1987, as much as 60 percent of illegal trade involved spirits. The potential profits were sufficiently rewarding that even the stepping up of repression at the turn of 1984 and 1985, in particular the ←261 | 262→Act of May 10, 1985, the introduction of higher fines and the potentially longer custodial sentences did nothing to curb the thriving black market in alcohol.

“Indeed, there are still fines of five thousand each,” the Supreme Court Judge Ryszard Bodecki said in April 1985. “As I was just saying to the Minister, yesterday we had the case of a retired vodka dealer. It is mainly pensioners who trade in vodka. No one is researching this phenomenon. One can say that 90% of them are pensioners, so let’s just fine them 5 000 for the hell of it…The Minister insists on a 50 000 zloty fine. The man’s pension is 7 900 zloty, he is old and sick but he’s been trading bootleg for a long time. So, to be blunt, we did up the ante and applied the 50 000 zloty fine. Throughout the proceedings he kept crying and we could not communicate with him at all. But here is the interesting thing. After the sentencing, we told him – after all, he is an elderly man – that there was a possibilty of paying in installments. His face brightened and he said ‘God bless you, Judge’. I said nothing but what I’m trying to say here is that, clearly, the 50 000 did not pose a problem for him.”879

Judge Bodecki unwittingly touched upon the changes taking place in the social profile of the illicit alcohol trade, partly due to the eventful start to the 1980s. In 1986, the law enforcement agencies reported 2 927 cases of alcohol speculation, of which 75% were in the cities. Among the 2 267 convicted offenders, 1 226 (49.6%) were women, 1 088 (47.9%) – pensioners and retirees, 373 (16.4%) unemployed, 352 persons with previous convictions, 1 318 (58.1%) were above the age of 49, and 698 (30.7%) in the 30–49 age group.880 These statistics show that the stereotypical image of the illicit alcohol trader as a pensioner was no longer accurate. Quite a number of these operators were capable of turning over vast quantities of alcohol. The record was perhaps set by a female janitor from Przemyśl who between January 1984 and June 1986 bought and sold with spectacular profit (9 million zloty!) at least 58 400 bottles of vodka and wine.

Just like the money changers, the melina owners were creative and flexible; having adjusted well to the state retail strategies, they did not shy away from attempts to monopolize the local market. When in the mid‑1980s, a night alcohol store opened in one of the big cities, the authorities received numerous letters of complaint. After some investigation, the police established that they were written by local bootleg dealers who wanted to squash the competition. When a night store opened in Warsaw, the nearby melina began to sell alcohol with the same ←262 | 263→20% surcharge.881 Whereas, however, the state store was closed between 6 am and 1 pm, the illicit dens operated at all hours and were able to dictate the prices.

On July 19, 1990 (Journal of Laws, no. 73, item 431), the regulations of the Act of October 26, 1982 were abolished with the effect of restricting alcohol sales and putting paid to the majority of melinas. It was only the small‑fry retailers, however, who were eliminated from the black market. The sharks continued to do well and, together with gas, liquor became one of the pillars of the grey zone retail commerce in the era of transformation. Interestingly, in today’s capitalist Poland bimber has not yet become history – despite the distillation of moonshine by private individuals remaining illegal, it continues to be widely produced today. Some distil their own bimber, because they cannot afford store alcohol. Others, as they did in the early 1980s, enjoy the activity as a hobby. Moonshine has come to be an attraction on even the most sophisticated tables.

←263 | 264→

773 See the substantial bibliography in the almost 700‑page work by K. Kosiński, Historia pijaństwa w czasach PRL. Polityka – obyczaje – szara strefa – patologie, Warszawa 2008. About the alcohol black market: ibid., pp. 525–578; B. Sygit, Nielegalny wyrób spirytusu, Warszawa 1987; B. Sygit, Potajemne gorzelnictwo (przed, w okresie reglamentacji i obecnie). Studium z dziedziny kryminologii i polityki kryminalnej, Bydgoszcz 1996; S. Galarski, Kryminologiczne i prawne aspekty nielegalnego gorzelnictwa, Warszawa 1976.

774 B. Sygit, Nielegalny…, pp. 12–14.

775 Ibid., p. 22.

776 S. Buryła, Wojna i alkohol. Zaproszenie do tematu, in: Wojna. Doświadczenie i zapis. Nowe źródła, problemy, metody badawcze, ed. S. Buryła, P. Rodak, Kraków 2006, pp. 205–230. See: K. Janicki, Pijana wojna. Alkohol podczas II wojny światowej, Warszawa 2012.

777 K. Brandys, Wódka, bimber i Frank, “Przekrój” 1945, no. 28, as cited in: J. Jaworska, Cywilizacja “Przekroju”. Misja obyczajowa w magazynie ilustrowanym, Warszawa 2008, pp. 155–156.

778 A. Markiewicz, Przemyt napojów alkoholowych w porcie morskim, WC, 1974, no. 12, pp. 24–26; W. Brzeziński, Przemyt na barkach, ibid., 1974, no. 15; Wpadki, ibid., 1990, no. 51.

779 “Anyone who distils alcohol beverages from grain, potatoes, sugar beets, sugar, molasses, and other resources without a permit shall be subject to a penalty of up to five years’ imprisonment and a fine of between 10 000 and 500 000 zloty”, Journal of Laws, 1944, no. 15 item 85.

780 AAN, URM, 5/613, fol. 2–3.

781 AAN, MS, 558, fol. 147.

782 AAN, URM, 5/229, GIOS report for August 25 – September 24, 1946, fol. 57.

783 M. Dąbrowska, Dzienniki powojenne, vol. 1: 1945–1949, ed. T. Drewnowski, Warszawa 1997, p. 122.

784 B. Sygit, Nielegalny…, pp. 35–36.

785 AAN, MS, 558, k. 150.

786 Spadek sprzedaży alkoholu, “Sztandar Młodych”, no. 118, 1958/May19,; J. Horodecka, Bimber wyżej, ŻW, no. 233, 1958/September 28/29.

787 D. Słoń, Bimbrownie i walka z nimi Milicji Obywatelskiej, “Słowo Powszechne”, no 113/May 13, 1958; R. Młodar, Bimber, PiŻ, nos. 26, 27 /1957.

788 J. Horodecka, Bimber wyżej, ŻW, no. 233/September 28/29, 1958.

789 Uwaga – bimber. MO proponuje zaostrzyć sankcje, TL, no. 199/August 18, 1958.

790 Prosimy o chwilę uwagi, “Słowo Powszechne”, no. 216/September 16, 1958.

791 TL, no. 97/1959.

792 Journal of Laws 1959, no. 27, item 169.

793 “Express Wieczorny”, no. 148/June 22, 1959.

794 A.K. Wróblewski, Bimber, “Polityka”, no. 23/June 8, 1963.

795 K. Kosiński, Historia pijaństwa…, p. 532.

796 Nagrody za ujawnienie nielegalnych gorzelni, TL, no. 260/September 17, 1971; “Kurier Polski”, no. 225/September 26, 1971.

797 K. Kauba, Za wcześnie na toast, “Tygodnik Kulturalny” March 3, 1985.

798 Z. Krzysztofiak, Pędzą wszyscy, “Polityka”, no. 2/January 12, 1985.

799 Demand for sugar was, indeed, enormous. In 1982, at its highest, the black market price of 1 kg of sugar was several times higher than the official one (it reached 200 zloty); unrationed artificial honey, glucose and jam were also bought in high quantities; AAN, URM, 32/114, Third National Anti‑Speculation Meeting (Krajowa Narada Antyspekulacyjna), January 27, 1983, fol. 53; ibid., 32/115, Fourth National Anti‑Speculation Meeting, January 26, 1984, fol. 42.

800 AAN, URM, 32/69, CKWS session on rationing questions, January10, 1985, fol. 42–43.801 J. Dziadul, Pożytki z bimbrownika, “Polityka”, no. 50/December 14, 1985.

802 R. Młodar, Bimber, PiŻ, 1957, no. 26/27.

803 K. Kosiński, Historia pijaństwa…, pp. 44–48.

804 P. Kapuściński, Ile wódki wypić musimy i ani setki więcej, “Tygodnik Solidarność”, no. 27 /October 2, 1981; AAN, IPP, 65, Alcohol related crimes in the alcohol rationing system, fol. 11, 16–17; M. Bednarski, Drugi obieg gospodarczy. Przesłanki, mechanizmy i skutki w Polsce lat osiemdziesiątych, Warszawa 1992, p. 91; B. Sygit, Nielegalny…, p. 17.

805 A.K. Wróblewski, Bimber, “Polityka”, no. 23/June 8, 1963; K. Kosiński, Historia pijaństwa…, p. 390.

806 R. Młodar, Bimber, PiŻ, nos. 26, 27/1957.

807 Spółdzielnia czy bimbrownia, “Sztandar Ludu”, no. 281/November 7, 1945.

808 AAN, URM, 5/31, fol. 16.

809 For example at the turn of 1945 and 1946, products of well-known brands (Belgian “Hulstkamp” among others) appeared in Warsaw. The authorities considered them as “produced from moonshine by secret bottling plants” AAN, MAP, 14, fol. 7.

810 AAN, KS, 2965.

811 AAN, KS, 1509. To a large degree the operations were made possible by the corruption of the local authorities. According to one of the employees of the distillery, the police station in Legionowo knew about the distillation. The owner of the illegal still, citizen Pios told me that policemen came to his house and he had to give them a bribe of 7 000 zloty.” ibid.

812 R. Burzyński, O knajpach i samobójcach, “Przekrój” 1945, no. 26, as cited in: J. Jaworska, Cywilizacja “Przekroju”…, p. 154.

813 AAN, KS, 2965.

814 AAN, MAP, 14, fol. 1.

815 AAN, GIOS, fol. 14.

816 AAN, URM, 5/229, fol. 3.

817 Ibid., fol. 86.

818 AAN, KC PZPR, 237/VII–2679, fol. 92.

819 A.K. Wróblewski, Bimber, “Polityka”, no. 23/June 8, 1963; see: Z. Szopiński, Lekarstwo na ischias, “Tygodnik Kulturalny”, no. 39 /September 27, 1970.

820 Z. Szopiński, Lekarstwo na ischias….

821 R. Kubiak, Wielki zacier, “Tygodnik Kulturalny”, no. 11/March 15, 1987.

822 J. Majkut, Konkurenci przemysłu spirytusowego, “Słowo Powszechne” April 1, 1975.

823 R. Młodar, Bimber, PiŻ, 1957, no. 26/27.

824 Z. Jagielski, Dosyć zmowy milczenia, TL, 1970, no. 332; see: Z. Szopiński, Lekarstwo na ischias…; J. Konieczna, Śladami bimbrownictwa, TL, February 5, 1974.

825 TL, no. 213/August1, 1958.

826 A.K. Wróblewski, Bimber, “Polityka”, no. 23/June 8, 1963.

827 AAN, KS, 2953.

828 D. Słoń, Geografia bimbru, “Słowo Powszechne”, no. 112/May 12, 1958; see: B. Sygit, Nielegalny…, pp. 26–27.

829 B. Sygit, Nielegalny…, p. 29.

830 AAN, KC PZPR, 237/XXXI–243, fol. 164.

831 “Kurier Polski”, October 11, 1965.

832 J. Olszewski, Bimber, TL, no. 270/September 27, 1971; E. Bryl, Babcia robi interesy, “Tygodnik Kulturalny”, no. 45/November 6, 1977.

833 J. Olszewski, Bimber, TL, no. 270/September 27, 1971.

834 AAN, URM, 32/182, k. 7; AAN, IPP, 65, fol. 28, 30–31.

835 “Since they introduced the rationing coupons,” Praga resident chips in, “I haven’t once bought monopoly alcohol. For five bills [I buy] a sack of sugar from Wedel; problem solved! I’ve asked my next door neighbor and he says there is no stench of bimber”; D. and A. Wroniszewscy, O lesie, dlaczego tak kochamy ciebie, PiŻ, 1984, no. 51.

836 Z. Krzysztofiak, Pędzą wszyscy, “Polityka”, no. 2/January 12, 1985.

837 B. Sygit, Nielegalny…, pp. 32–33.

838 They were titled identically: Act on Preventing Alcoholism, April 24, 1956, Dz. U. no. 12, item 32 and December 10, 1959, Dz.U. no. 69, item 434; see more: K. Kosiński, Historia pijaństwa…, pp. 268–275.

839 Public and the Catholic Church initiatives are also worth mentioning. Before Christmas 1980, Polish Primate Stefan Wyszyński issued an order to Warsaw Archdiocese priests to “refuse funeral services to those conducting illegal sales of alcohol, and to pass by in their Christmas visits those involved in alcohol trading”; “Słowo Powszechne” December 23, 1980.

840 AAN, MS, 558, fol. 154.

841 J.W. Wójcik, Meliny i ich klienci, “Gazeta Prawnicza” 1985, no. 4.

842 Each campaign directed against illegal distilling, also in provincial Poland, inevitably led to increasing the number of booze dens. In the third quarter of 1958, the authorities detected 149 bootleg dens in Warsaw voivodship; a year later, having embarked on an anti‑moonshine operation 205; Bimbrowni – mniej, melin pijackich – więcej, “Głos Pracy”, no. 284/November 27, 1959.

843 E. Klonowicz, “Sasanki” przeszkadzają budować, “Słowo Powszechne”, no. 38/February 15, 1965.

844 B. Szykuła, Meliny i ich klienci, “Głos Pracy”, no. 139/June 12, 1967.

845 M. Regent, Z zagadnień spekulacji (Uwagi na tle orzecznictwa sądów okręgu kieleckiego), “Nowe Prawo” 1956, no. 10, pp. 118–119; AAN, URM, 32/112, First National Anti‑Speculation Meeting, September 15, 1981, fol. 30.

846 J.W. Wójcik, Meliny i ich klienci, “Gazeta Prawnicza” 1985, no. 4.

847 “Waciowa” wreszcie wpadła, ale inni nadal rozpijają, “Kurier Polski”, no. 71/March 25, 1963.

848 “Express Wieczorny”, no. 83/March 3, 1959.

849 J.W. Wójcik, Meliny i ich klienci, “Gazeta Prawnicza” 1985, no. 4.

850 W. Krasucka, Spekulacja (wybrane zagadnienia), “Studia Kryminologiczne, Kryminalistyczne i Penitencjarne” 10, 1979, p. 163; “Express Wieczorny”, no. 83/March 3, 1959.

851 M. Regent, Z zagadnień spekulacji…, pp. 118–119.

852 See: A. Cubała, Melina na czterech kółkach, PiŻ, 1986, no. 5 (Suwałki); J.W. Wójcik, Meliny i ich klienci, “Gazeta Prawnicza” 1985, no. 4.

853 For example in 1962 in Warsaw, police knew about the existence of approximately 300 alcohol dives but were able to “bring the investigation to a point of pressing charges (by the prosecutor) only in 91 cases”; “Waciowa” wreszcie wpadła, ale inni nadal rozpijają, “Kurier Polski”, no. 71/March 25, 1963.

854 “Express Wieczorny”, no. 83/March 3, 1959.

855 AAN, MZO, 338, The Ministry of Public Administration to the voivods and mayors of Warsaw and Łódź, February 26, 1946, fol. 1. However, two months later, in the localities where state stores had been opened, the authorities ordered that there be published in the press a special warning regarding the prosecution and punishment of all those who sold alcoholic beverages without a license; ibid., fol. 4.

856 J. Dziadul, Pożytki z bimbrownika, “Polityka”, no. 50/December 14, 1985.

857 K. Kosiński, Historia pijaństwa…, pp. 558–561; APW, 30/XVIII–7, vol. 1, Report on the implementation the Voivodship Committee of PUWP resolution on providing safety and order in the city, December 1963, fol. 90. For examples from Warsaw in the 1960s, see: B. Szykuła, Meliny i ich klienci, “Głos Pracy”, no. 139/ June 12, 1967.

858 B. Szykuła, Meliny i ich klienci, “Głos Pracy”, no. 139/June 12, 1967.

859 P. Kapuściński, Ile wódki wypić musimy i ani setki więcej, “Tygodnik Solidarność”, no. 27/October 2, 1981.

860 AAN, IPP, 65, fol. 5–7.

861 Ibid., fol. 27.

862 Spekulacja wódką i spirytusem, TL, no. 2/January 4, 982.

863 Ibid.

864 AAN, URM, 32/45, fol. 90; see: ibid., 32/190, fol. 13.

865 Spekulacja w ”Polmosie”, TL, no. 215/September 10, 1982. During the first four months of rationing, one of the Warsaw alcohol plants sold 50 000 bottles of spirit and vodka outside the rationing system. The buyers, usually restaurant franchise owners, were selling the alcohol often outside the premises, and always at a much higher price. In Łódź in late 1981, another single plant bought and sold 2 250 bottles of alcohol; AAN, URM, 32/113, fol. 29; ibid., 32/15, fol. 22.

866 AAN, URM, 32/45, fol. 91–92.

867 AAN, URM, 32/57, fol. 95.

868 AAN, URM, 32/57, fol. 10–12, 70.

869 AAN, URM, 32/104, fol. 67.

870 AAN, URM, 32/114, fol. 104; AAN, KC PZPR, WA, LI/118, fol. 155–156.

871 AAN, URM, 32/114, fol. 53.

872 AAN, URM, 1.4/21, fol. 43; ibid., 32/119, fol. 187.

873 AAN, URM, 1.4./21, fol. 36–37; ibid., 32/180, fol. 3, 18.

874 AAN, IPP, 65, fol. 27; AAN, URM, 32/13, fol. 22.

875 AAN, URM, 32/119, fol. 25.

876 AAN, URM, 32/113, fol. 275.

877 AAN, URM, 32/119, fol. 73.

878 J.W. Wójcik, Meliny i ich klienci, “Gazeta Prawnicza” 1985, no. 4.

879 AAN, URM, 32/74, fol. 25.

880 AAN, URM, 32/104, fol. 97.

881 AAN, URM, 32/104, fol. 47–48.