Show Less
Open access

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.

Show Summary Details
Open access

7. Gasoline

←264 | 265→


Automobiles and, as a result, the fuel that they ran on were probably the leading commodities traded on the black market in the Soviet Bloc countries. The mass prevalence of the automobile as a private means of transportation did not arrive there until decades later than in the capitalist world; this delayed gratification only reinforced the symbolic status of car ownership. Unlike in the West, where the automotive industry had long been considered the motor of the economy, and where a brand‑new car was available for less than the average annual wage, in the countries behind the Iron Curtain it was a truly onerous endeavor to buy a vehicle and the coveted goal considerably more expensive, often involving a multiple of the Western price. Prospective buyers had to commit themselves to long‑time money‑saving, often taking a second job and making numerous sacrifices. In the Eastern bloc shortage economy, the automobile was not a commodity that was universally accessible. “To buy a car in Eastern Europe,” wrote the British journalist Roger Boyes, “you need the patience of a Franciscan monk, a pocket full of dollars or the sixth sense of a horse trader. Sometimes – all three.”882

In the Soviet Bloc countries, the government aspired to a tight grip on the carefully managed automotive market. The commodity was allocated on the basic of a complex system of formal and informal rationing aided by priority lists, car coupons and individual allocations based on a person’s merit, rank, status or connections. To be able to buy a car was a privilege, a reward, a gratuity, and at times a form of bribery. Those whom the authorities considered useful, or those high in the pecking order, could expect to lay their hands on a four‑wheeler of their own relatively swiftly. The vast majority of all others, just as eager to get behind the wheel, not only had to make pre‑payments greatly in advance but also wait patiently, not infrequently for a number of years. Unsurprisingly, from the Elbe to Vladivostok, social strategies focused on ways of by‑passing the line for cars or whittling down the wait. One common practice was to buy coupons allocated to other people – at a hefty mark‑up – bought off dealers who had harassed the lucky recipients of the said coupons to trade them in. Another method was to intercept allocations for privileged groups such as the handicapped and ←265 | 266→farmers.883 Those who were in a hurry, who could afford it, and who cared about quality could bring a car from abroad, or buy it from the state for hard currency or for zloty on the free market.884 What all these methods had in common was that none was cheap; often, as a result, the “financial effort put into buying a car was so strenuous that it subsequently forced the driver to save on the running costs of the vehicle.”885

Thus, the dream car often remained idle rather than hitting the road. Many owners used their car only sporadically, content purely with the ownership of the vehicle; the proverbial “Sunday driver”, with his less than assured driving skills, was a common sight on the poorly marked and signposted roads of communist Poland and other Soviet Bloc countries. For a significant number of the owners such rationed use was understandably not an optimal solution. Paradoxically, ←266 | 267→while the communist shortage economy, on the one hand, made owning a car difficult, on the other hand it provided easy access to illegal gas, for which the state held the monopoly. The nationalized economy was wasteful and well known for its absurd rules and regulations. The illusory inspections and large numbers of eager participants, both as vendors and buyers, often led to a situation where fraud was practically inevitable. Due to its economic and physical characteristics, gasoline was the commodity par excellence for illicit trade: no gasoline substitute was available nor could it be produced by homegrown methods, as was the case with other black‑market products that had been siphoned off from state supplies. Gasoline was relatively easy to obtain while frauds were difficult to detect.

A peculiar characteristic of the black market and gasoline was that both parties to the transaction could notch up a tangible profit. The fuel could usually be acquired relatively easily from official sources, since the gasoline “surpluses” artificially created by the employees of the state monopoly to enable themselves to commit fraud were quite considerable, demand was limited due to insignificant private car ownership. Under the circumstances, the black market price of gas was half the official price. As the fluctuations in the price of gas in Poland during the 1980s demonstrated, however, such favorable pricing could and did change rapidly according to the circumstances. The private demand for fuel, prompted by the rapidly growing number of vehicles and citizens developing a liking for the freedom of movement they provided, expanded so much that when gas supply collapsed, drivers were willing to pay multiples of the official price without batting an eyelid. The alternative was unpalatable to the prevailing pragmatic approach: pay more for gas – or travel on the overcrowded public transportation.

There is no doubt that a black market for fuel existed in all the Soviet Bloc countries. Its size and type depended on the accessibility of gas, the number of people who owned cars, and the official price of gas, as well as social determinants: prosperity, level of acceptance for black market practices, etc. Unquestionably Poland was similar to the Soviet Union where in the mid‑1970s one third of private vehicles ran on state gas. Where the distances were greater and people earned less, between 60 and 70% (but as much as 86.5% in Omsk in 1971) of gas found its way to private gas tanks from illicit sources. In places where the citizens did not have great distances to drive and society was more prosperous, such as the Baltic Republics, this rate hovered between 18 and 38%.886 However, when in the mid-1980s state deliveries of fuel were not able to keep up with a growing ←267 | 268→automobile sector, the number of people taking advantage of the illegal supply grew radically. Of all the Soviet Bloc countries the problems with fuel were the most drastic in Poland in the 1980s. Polish strategies for bypassing the state monopoly were therefore the most developed and sophisticated.

7.1Driving on Bootleg: From the 1950s to the 1970s

Immediately after the Second World War, the only private vehicles in Poland were survivors from pre‑war times or those released from army surpluses. Nevertheless, automobiles were so few and far between that the Statistical Year Book from 1949, in the section entitled Transportation and Communication did not list private cars at all. In 1951, the Polish government factory launched the Warszawa trademark autos but the numbers rolling off the production line made barely a dent in the existing demand. In 1955, there were only 20 500 vehicles in private hands – a drop in the ocean in a country, the population of which in the last census (1950) exceeded 25 million. With such insignificant numbers, the gas flowing from official to private gas tanks – which indubitably must have been going on – remained overshadowed by the large volume of other black market offences and remained unrecorded. This changed in 1956 when the political thaw left its mark also in the automobile sector. This was due to evolving models of consumption, with car ownership becoming socially acceptable rather than a remaining a suspect sign of “conspicuous consumption”; moreover, the development of private enterprise was combined with increasing prosperity. In Radom, to take but one example, between early 1957 and May 1958, the number of private vehicles doubled.887 The demand for cars triggered a black market in permits authorizing the purchase of a car.888

Demand for cheap gas grew as a consequence, and gas thefts soon followed, albeit on a small scale in comparison to other crimes within the state transportation system. In 1956, gas thefts were estimated to have reached a value of 70 million zloty whereas there were 200 million worth of thefts of ferried goods, 170 million worth of tools and illegal transportation of people also took place.889 However, it was gas theft that proved to be an increasingly prominent phenomenon – so widespread, in fact, that it became a running joke with the nation ←268 | 269→resigned to the ‘new normal’: “Do you drive on the right or on the left in Poland?” “Neither. You drive on bootleg”. Satirical magazines were not averse to ridiculing the situation.890

“Do you drive on the right or on the left in Poland?” “Neither. You drive on bootleg”, Zbigniew Kiulin, “Szpilki”, no. 7, 15 February 1959.

←269 | 270→

Without a doubt, large numbers of vehicles were driven on bootleg gas. In May 1965, Police Headquarters, the Oil Products Market, and the National Councils’ presidia estimated that in 1964, private vehicles used approximately 284 400 tons of fuel in spite of the fact that gas stations had sold only 124 400 tons to drivers. The remaining 160 000 tons came from state gas tanks.891 It was not very difficult to obtain gas illegally – the allowances in state transportation were inflated and state inspectors were not interested in putting a lot of effort in monitoring transport. Drivers, dispatchers, and security co‑existed on transport bases in mutually beneficial, symbiotic relationships.

Corruption was so widespread that in workplaces where the fuel management rules were strictly observed, workers occasionally mutinied and drivers quit, looking for bosses prepared to turn a blind eye.892 The substitute solutions offered to drivers proved unattractive. State enterprises provided a bonus of an amount of up to 85% of the value of the theoretically saved fuel. This was more than the driver could get by selling gas illegally (na lewo) or by striking an agreement with employees of the Centrala Produktów Naftowych (CPN), the state enterprise that comprised all petrol stations in Poland. The following confession made in the 1980s by a driver illustrates very well the motivation of many others also in the earlier years: “Why are we engaging in wheeler-dealing? If I manage to save gas systematically, for each liter they will pay me 85% of the value but there are strings attached. In three months they will cut my allowance. Meanwhile the vehicle is getting older. It uses more gas. So I use more than my allowance. And for that they deduct 100% of the price from my wages. I can’t afford to be subsidizing the state business.”893

Thus, the drivers commonly recorded in their logs heavier loads than they had transported in reality, so as to justify higher fuel consumption. For example in 1962, in the Katowice voivodship, according to drivers’ logs, a shipment authorized by the Ministry of Construction comprised 26 million tons of goods whereas in reality there was not more than 3.8 million tons – a staggeringly bold discrepancy. The drivers tweaked the engines and logged much longer routes than the ones actually covered. This led to a situation similar to that in the mid‑1970s in the Voivodship Car Transportation Enterprise in Bydgoszcz where the trucks would have had to have driven with an average speed of 200 km/h in order to cover the distance recorded in the drivers’ logbooks.894 It was ←270 | 271→impossible to check how many kilometers the drivers really had covered – of the 20 000 vehicles inspected in 1964, 7 028 had no odometers or their odometers were broken. In one of the firms in Gorzów, 72 out of 74 vehicles had tweaked odometers.895 The specialists counted thirty methods of “adjusting” an odometer – from basic to quite sophisticated.896 Tachographs registering all the actions of vehicles and drivers became more popular only at the turn of the 1970s and the 1980s, impeding the lucrative trade. But even the most elaborate equipment was never an obstacle to the determined drivers.

Every year thousands of tons of the “saved” fuel ended up in private gas tanks. The operation took place mostly in the garages – of which there were more than ten thousand in transport bases, on construction sites, in factories, mines, and on State Agriculture Farms (PGR). The practice was not very convenient for the state‑employed drivers who had to look for clients and transfer fuel to their tanks. Drivers preferred to buy fuel at CPN gas stations, of which there were 1 300 in Poland in the 1970s, and supplement their income in this, much easier way. This method, used from the 1950s until the 1980s, was not exactly a black market operation, since the object of the trade was not the fuel but the documents confirming its purchase. Nevertheless, it merits a mention.

The drivers kept a running tally of the fuel saved. They would pull up at the gas station where they had struck up a “special” relationship with the manager and get from him “receipts for a larger amount of gas than they had actually purchased. For example the driver would buy 20 liters of gas and the manager would give him a receipt for 120. The fictitious number of liters appeared only in the top copy of the receipt given to the driver. The manager of the gas station kept the copy […], on which there was the actual amount of gas sold in the transaction.”897 Sometimes, the manager would write a receipt without selling any gas, which conjured up for him an instantaneous surplus. He would get rid of it by selling fuel to regular customers, for the official price but without providing any receipts. The gas station employee would typically be rewarded with a third of the value of the gas saved by the driver, who in turn had to share his profit with his partners at the workplace.898

This practice was relatively safe. The accounts at the CPN station balanced and corresponded to the amount of gas remaining, and the state enterprise managers ←271 | 272→rarely questioned the receipts submitted by the drivers for reimbursement, and not just because they also participated in the profits of the operation. More important was the fear that a disgruntled employee could walk out; factory managers could not afford to miss their production targets – and this was likely with reduced worker numbers. Even if the internal inspection did find irregularities, which was rarely the case, the usual sanctions were no more than a warning or a reprimand.899 The scale of the frauds transpired only when the police investigated the receipts. From mid‑1958 to mid‑1959, a manager of a CPN station in Katowice issued 1 330 fictitious receipts for 570 000 zloty (for 120 000 liters of gas in total); between 1962 and 1963, another gas station manager, in Praszka, sold 1 700 receipts to the total value of 944 000 zloty to 387 drivers from 91 companies. Gas station attendants from Gdynia and Lębork clocked up deals to the tune of 700 000 zloty. It transpired that the ratio of profit division was almost identical with the ratio of prosecuted gas station workers to state company drivers – the investigation conducted between 1963 and 1965 included 349 CPN workers and 861 “nationalized enterprise drivers”900 – was this no more than a coincidence?

Whereas in the 1950s and the 1960s the CPN employees and drivers involved in the deals had known one another, if only because they had been based in the same locality, and the relationship had been built on trust, the next decade brought a radical change. The practice, until then local in character, began to function “on a mass and national scale with partners who did not know each other.”901 In large part, this was a consequence of the automobile revolution of the Gierek era coinciding with the international oil crisis and a local recession. In the 1970s, Poland finally crossed over the great divide between the “motorcycle civilization”902 and the age of the automobile, when four wheels of one own finally “stopped being at odds with the acceptable socialist lifestyle.”903 Regardless of the government’s intentions, in the first half of the decade the number of privately owned automobiles grew on average by 100 000, and in the second half – by ←272 | 273→almost 300 000 per annum (with the increases in 1977 of 1 505, in 1998 of 1 791 000, and in 1979 of 2 069 400).904

The awakened appetites were brutally dampened by the international oil crisis, which arrived in Poland with some delay. In January 1974, gas and diesel prices went up significantly, 75% and 22% respectively. The reaction of the market was as immediate as it was typical. Whereas in 1973 deliveries for private customers had increased by 20%, in 1974 they shrank by 6%. The trend remained constant – while between 1970 and 1973 the pace of fuel deliveries to the market was related to the expanding number of automobiles, between 1974 and 1976, the growth in supply was half the rate of that of private vehicles. Initially, this was attributed to more rational gas usage and a larger number of more economic, low engine capacity cars. As time went on, it was the “leaks” from the nationalized sector that came to be blamed for the situation.905

As mentioned before, in the 1970s, the “leaks” became a national phenomenon, occurring regularly in places where before they had been sporadic. Characteristically, the incidence of these “gas leaks” replicated the rate of decreasing purchases at gas stations. In the Krakow voivodship, several months after the price hike, although the number of cars had increased by a few thousand during the period, the sales of 78‑octane gas, fell by a quarter, and diesel sales fell by two thirds. Only the sales of 94‑octane gas – on which very few cars in nationalized sector were running – remained stable.906

The fall in diesel sales was due to the fact that farmers and those who used it for heating had found alternative sources of supply. For example, in preparation for the winter of 1973, the residents of Zakopane purchased 34 000 liters of diesel during October alone. A year later they bought only 3 000. Private farmers were significant consumers of diesel. Between 1971 and 1979, the number of private tractors rose eight times, from 30 000 to 250 000. During the same period, diesel sales tripled from 94 000 to 255 000 tons. “In the vicinity of large entities such as the Farmers’ Cooperative Association (Spółdzielnia Kółek Rolniczych, SKR) and the National Machinery Center (Państwowy Ośrodek Maszynowy, POM), no‑one buys diesel at CPN gas stations. The transaction takes place directly between the heavy vehicle driver and the buyer.”907 However, estimated “leaks” of 350 000 liters of diesel annually seem understated.908

←273 | 274→

The strategies used by gas station managers also changed. On the one hand, they continued cooperation with the drivers, based on double account keeping as outlined earlier. However, the practice became increasingly risky and perhaps insufficiently profitable. With the growing demand for fuel, a much more financially rewarding option now was to cooperate with gas warehouse wholesalers from warehouses and treatment plants owned by CPN instead of with retailers from gas stations. “Leaks” from such sources had occurred earlier but only in the 1970s did they reach a significant scale. The best-known was the case of the Oil Products Management Enterprise (Zakład Gospodarki Produktami Naftowymi) in Mościska near Warsaw, where – manipulating the permitted wastage limits – from July 1977 to May 1979 the employees were able to “save” for illicit dealing approximately 1.6 million liters of gas, which was then cashed in in 16 CPN gas stations in Warsaw and its vicinity.909 As often happens, the discovery of one fraud had the knock-on effect of an avalanche of inspections, which resulted in 32 investigations, the identification of 600 suspects and 180 arrests. It turned out that a large‑scale, illegal flow of fuel was occurring throughout the entire country, with the greatest number of cases uncovered in the Białystok voivodship, in the vicinity of Ciechanów, and in the Warsaw, Krakow, and Tarnów voivodships, replicating – interestingly, and perhaps not incidentally – the “moonshine geography” outlined earlier.910 And, just as it turned out to be for the illicit alcohol trade, the following decade was critical also for the black market in fuel. State-owned transportation bases and CPN stations became the equivalent of melinas and, seeking compensation for the increasingly risky endeavor, charged increasingly high commission.

7.2“The As-good-as Private Pump”: The 1980s

In the late 1970s Polish refineries processed approximately 17 million tons of oil annually. Most of it, some 13 million tons, was imported from the Soviet Union, and 3.5 million tons came from the so-called “second payment area”, while only 400 000 tons were from Polish resources. As a result of the economic crisis, first deliveries from the capitalist countries shrank tenfold, then local production fell by 200% (hopes for “big-time oil” in Karlin failed to materialize), and imports from ←274 | 275→the Soviet Union diminished. While in 1979 Poland had at its disposal 17.1 million tons of oil, in 1980 it had only 15.8, in 1981 – 13.8, and in 1982 –13.3 million. Although every year several hundred thousand new automobiles appeared on Polish roads, the amount of gas sold on the official market remained unchanged. “The car sector grew”, a Warsaw gas station employee explained in mid-1983, “folks got used to driving cars, and then… no more gas! So they try to cheat whenever they can.”911 In the fall of 1981, the topic of the fuel trade and consumption swamped the anti‑speculation official reports and until 1989 occupied a prominent position next to meat and alcohol. New strategies were added to the old tried and tested ones, particularly after the introduction of the fuel rationing system.

Poles experienced serious problems with fuel supplies in mid-1981, and in the following year the situation got even worse. Until then, driving a car remained the only luxury that did not require ration coupons, a luxury that was systematically curtailed due to some the gas stations earmarked exclusively for privileged customers. This was compounded by the ban on selling gas pumped directly into canisters and on selling more than 10 to maximum 20 liters at a time, by selling gas on odd or even dates only and according to the last digits of the driver’s license plate. Overcoming these obstacles had important practical implications: those who had a tankful of gas were able, for example, to “drive to the countryside and buy from a farmer more meat than the modest amount possible with food coupons, which also required a lot of time wasted standing in long lines. It is better to sit in a car waiting for gas than to stand in line for meat.”912

Those with fat enough wallets did not have to wait in line at all. In March 1981, the authorities ended the practice of reimbursing state drivers based on gas receipts from CPN gas stations, which obliterated the two‑decade old, successful cooperation. Now, the basis for reimbursement became the mileage, or rather the kilometer count. State drivers, however, were able to sell the surplus to private clients, who now came in person and paid three or as many as five times the regular price. Some drivers of state‑owned vehicles radically accelerated the whole process. Allowed to buy gas at designated stations, as soon as they had filled up their own tanks, they transferred the contents to a private customer’s gas tank. Some of the cab drivers that enjoyed similar privileges gave up cab driving altogether and focused on re‑selling gas, as this was now a much better business.913 “When it comes to gas, 1981 was the best year,” a driver of a company ←275 | 276→Fiat125 reminisced in 1983. “We didn’t even have to do any driving. People paid through the nose for a 20‑liter canister.”914 Selling gas to foreigners was particularly profitable. On the main routes one could get as much as 30 Deutschmarks for a 20‑liter canister.915

Kasztel club in Warsaw, the storehouse. The haul during the raid in November 1981 included 1 500 litres of petrol. Photo: Polish Press Agency (PAP).

The stolen or “spirited away” gas competed with the CPN product. In November 1981 it was officially reported that “fuel is re-sold, at steep prices, from barrels or canisters brought directly in horse-drawn wagons and cars parked not far from the gas station.”916

←276 | 277→

Gas stations had a special place in the topography of the fuel gray zone. Since their employees naturally had a privileged position in the pecking order of the unofficial gas trade, gas stations became the hub of all black market gas operations. The vast majority of automobile drivers went there first when they wanted to acquire extra, or indeed any, amount of gas. In mid‑1983, CPN director Marian Bartoszewicz admitted, “Clients are so insistent that almost all our employees give in to the temptation of making an illicit profit.”917 The state inspectors were aware of the situation and subjected all gas stations to rigorous supervision. For example, among the twenty‑one anti-speculation operations conducted in 1983 on a “mass and nationwide scale”, four were code-named “Gas”. Another fifteen operations – designated more generally “Market” – nevertheless, also involved tank inspections. On just a single day, March 29, 1983, frauds were uncovered in 78% of the 368 gas stations inspected. As the result, in the first six months of 1983, of the 5 800 employees of 1 300 CPN stations, 1 002 were fired and 3 335 disciplined. In the following year, 3 271 gas station managers were penalized, 1 161 fired, and 550 cases of criminal proceedings were launched. Between January and September 1985, every gas station underwent five inspections on average; as a result, 229 managers had their contracts terminated and 1 723 were sanctioned.918 The profits were considerable,919 however, and even the increased invigilation inspired the perpetrators to employ more sophisticated strategies rather than abandon the illegal gas trade altogether.

Initially the strategies did not have to be very sophisticated. The regulations restricting gas sales by customer profile, in force until early 1982, were easy to bypass, since to catch a gas station employee red‑handed would have required an inspector to stay put by the pump for long periods at a time – clearly not a viable solution. In March 1982, new rules were introduced, stipulating that the manager had to stamp a car insurance document and log each transaction for every individual sale. These rules did little to improve the situation: in mid-1982, they were abused in every second gas station inspected.920

Customers got creative in devising new methods of filling up their gas tanks, especially after the mid‑1983 exacerbation of the fuel crisis; the Main Energy ←277 | 278→Inspectorate (Główny Inspektorat Gospodarki Energetycznej, GIGE), usually quite generous in allotting additional gas allowances, switched to a more frugal policy. One ingenious method was to treat car insurance documents with wax so that the CPN stamps could be easily removed. Another was to insure defunct vehicles that had long been off the road. It was estimated that thirty percent of insurance documents were forged or extorted.921 Generally, however, car owners tried to strike a hush‑hush ongoing deal with the managers of gas stations, with backhanders for selling additional amount of gas. This mutually profitable arrangement was difficult for the authorities to uncover.922

Unsurprisingly, the situation at the pump seemed to fly in the face of the basic rules of an economy in crisis. Officially, in the first half of 1983, gas stations in Poland sold 145 500 tons of fuel monthly; during the same period, the National Insurance Company (Powszechny Zakład Ubezpieczeń, PZU) issued authorization for 161 500 tons. The actual monthly consumption was estimated to be higher still.923 The discrepancy was obfuscated by large‑scale frauds in CPN depot stations, by state drivers redistributing their fuel “saved” illegally, and by the leaks from the so-called garage stations. In the 1980s, I witnessed tanker truck drivers sharing fuel on the roadside while transporting it from a depot in Emilianów near Radzymin. They were just the retailers. The true wholesalers were the employees of CPN depots, who by bypassing the waste directives and mixing various kinds of fuel were able to put aside hundreds of tons. Frauds were uncovered in depots and transfer stations in Koluszki, Toruń, Nowa Sól, Działdowo, Międzyrzecz, and Płock. In Płock alone, 32 employees – out of 37! – were brought to court for stealing at least 600 tons of fuel and several dozen tons of diesel.924 Their usual modus operandi was to take the fuel they had managed to “save” to CPN stations, where they split the profit equally with CPN management and staff. At other times, the gas station managers paid a backhander to an employee of the District Office of Weights and Measures for the service rendered: while authorizing the pump accuracy, he “would wind back the meter by however many thousand liters the customer required. The manager was then able to sell illegal gas without having to worry that a sudden inspection would find more fuel at the pumps than stated in the invoices.”925

←278 | 279→

In April 1984, after new gas rationing rules had been introduced, it became indispensable for stations to have surplus gas. Now, the customer had to leave his rationing coupon at the gas station; in theory, these could be compared with the readings on the pump meters, thereby helping to eliminate illicit “leaks”. The method was not a success. The coupons of the state owned companies (“units of nationalized economy”) became the weak link. Left unused, they legitimized an unofficial gas surplus, which was later sold off by station managers. This practice continued until the abolition of gas rationing.926

Although the authorities were far from surprised by the emergence of a black market involving forged and extorted gas coupons, which indeed they had anticipated, the reality surpassed their expectations. The social players turned out to be much more creative with scams involving gas coupons than they had been with meat and alcohol coupons. Gas station managers, just like meat and alcohol stores employees, entered into their accounts the same coupons – again and again – generating a substantial unlawful profit. Soon after the introduction of gas coupons, forged authorization cards for state companies (mentioned earlier) started popping up everywhere in Poland. Most of the counterfeit documents were poorly executed but some were of high quality. In 1984, an entrepreneurial Polish woman residing in West Berlin ordered ten thousand fake gas authorization cards, which looked like the originals.927 Polish‑made imitations were often executed so skillfully that they could be only identified under ultraviolet lamps. From 1985, Polish gas stations began to use such lamps routinely.928 Whereas formerly break‑ins to city or district offices resulted in meat and alcohol coupons going missing, now it was gas coupons that became the main object of the thieves’ interest. By September 1984, some 7 300 cards authorizing gas purchases worth 152 million zloty had vanished from PZU offices.929

PZU employees, in expectation of chaos similar to that which had accompanied the distribution of ration coupons for other products, reached for a tried and tested method: “dead souls” (or rather “phantom engines”). With help from colleagues in the communications department, they assigned gas coupons to vehicles that were no longer in use, no longer registered in other voivodships or simply non‑existent. When in 1986, Police Headquarters in Wrocław introduced ←279 | 280→computers to compare lists of registered cars and gas cards, it transpired that ten thousand cards had been issued for non‑existent vehicles.930 The police expert in economic crime had no doubts that this practice was prevalent in all Polish voivodships.

Poles continued to discover new ways of puncturing the state rationing system. Cars running on diesel fuel became popular since it was available on the free market. A car owner who had managed to misrepresent his diesel‑powered vehicle, fraudulently, as a gas‑guzzler and register it as such, was able to drive at almost no cost at all, after selling his allotted gas on the black market, especially if he bought his diesel there as well. Such cases were, however, far and few throughout the country (in late 1984, no more than 700 were reported). Taxi drivers – of whom there were 80 000 in the mid‑1980s – were another abundant source of gas coupons. Despite the fact that in Warsaw alone as many as 9 000 cabs operated – very many more than in any other European capital at the time – it was not an easy task to hail one. The apparent mystery was simple to explain: a taxi driver received a daily allowance of ten liters of gas, against a private driver’s allocation of no more than 30–45 liters a month. No wonder that carrying passengers ceased to be a profitable activity for Warsaw cabbies, who could make a good enough living just by selling the gas to gas station managers, or else sell them gas coupons, which they then used to sell gas at a higher price.931 As calculated by the Deputy Chief of the Central Commission for Combating Speculation, Colonel Władysław Trzaska, a cab driver who actually did work could still make a very satisfactory profit of up to 50 000 zloty just by selling gas.932 Cabbies did not put their business operations on hold even when leaving the country for spells abroad as migrant workers – a common Polish pursuit during the decade. Their families continued to receive gas coupons and put them to the same use as ever. For example in Wrocław in 1985, 1 500 taxi drivers out of 4 000 went abroad, often for several months at a time.933 All attempts by the authorities to strip them of their taxi licenses or withdraw their gas allowances proved futile.934

Although the authorities were to some extent able to curb the “leaks” from CPN stations, the gas containers in some 16 700 garage stations were more difficult to keep under control. This mattered; particularly if we keep in mind that approximately 70 % of all fuel in Poland (89% of diesel and 33% of gas) was distributed ←280 | 281→via those garage stations. They were located on factory premises and serviced the plant’s own vehicles. It was easier to strike deals in an environment where a gas surplus was easy to both generate and conceal. An “understanding” among the employees did not have to be the result of deliberate and sophisticated operations. As was to be expected, fuel shortfalls or surpluses often materialized by accident – since the equipment was dramatically outdated and the style of management usually chaotic and sloppy. I met a man who in the early 1980s quit his job in the Opoczno Farmers’ Cooperative Association (Spółdzielnia Kółek Rolniczych, SKR) because he did not want to be having to keep going through the process of explaining to his bosses the reasons for the surpluses of many thousand liters of gas.935 But for anybody keen to lay his hands on some black-market gas, this was a dream-come-true environment. According to the director of the National Trade Inspectorate (PIH) Piotr Ostaszewski, in more than 90% of garage stations “nothing works, one can steal without any consequences, the pumps are not working, because it’s not possible to fix them, the accounting is not updated, and so on.”936

Despite the fact that this statement was made in late 1984, the garage stations came under scrutiny only in 1986. The Inspection Office of the Council of Ministers examined 495 stations. In 79% of these it found stocktaking irregularities and in 48% – discrepancies between the amount of incoming and outgoing fuel. If one were to take at face value the curious world reflected in the documentation, those with their hands on the wheel would have had to either be driving like racing drivers or else moving along at a snail’s pace. Moreover, some appeared capable of performing supernatural feats such as filling up their tanks with more gas then their capacity permitted or – in some extreme cases – driving on no fuel whatsoever, with one driver apparently setting the record of “driving on empty” at 2 462 km.937 Between January and September 1986, 1 722 legal proceedings against garage stations employees were initiated. At the Council of Ministers, an inter-ministerial department was set up, with the mandate to target garage station fraud. The team, led by the deputy secretary of state in the Ministry of Chemical and Light Industry Stanisław Kłos, considered mass‑scale inspections and tinting the fuel to facilitate the identification of its origin; the implementation of IT systems in 12 000 gas stations was another option on the table. In the end, however, cutting gas station gas allocations proved the only viable solution.938

←281 | 282→

Any radical changes were simply impossible to implement. The garage stations were a crucial element of the economy in the Polish peripheries, tightly connected with local social networks. There was no interest in changing the status quo. Someone ironically pointed out that the stations epitomized the worker–peasant alliance. Without the transfers of thousands of tons of fuel from the leaky state and coop distribution centers to the tanks of tractors and combine harvesters (conservatively estimated as some 100 000 tons of diesel annually)939 that took place in the stations, the food supply would have been even worse than it already was. As things stood, not only did the average peasant obtain fuel at half price (in 1984, one liter cost 30 zloty at a gas station and 15 zloty on the black market)940 but also had it delivered to his own backyard.941 The fuel sector of the black market had every reason to be one of the most enduring.

The official debates on how best to deal with the thorny issue of fuel went on for just as long as the attempts to cut through the Gordian Knot of meat supply. With gas, there was even less room to maneuver, one good reason being that all fuel had to be imported. The proposals to sell it at an economically viable “commercial price”, as it was referred to, that would allow gas to be bought outside of the rationing system were abandoned by 1983 and triggered social, political (“gas for the rich”) and economic protests, which resulted in private entrepreneurs raising prices, with even hitherto‑uncorrupted gas station managers “enticed to speculate”.942 At a meeting in November 1986 of the Central Anti‑Speculation Commission (Centralna Komisja do Walki ze Spekulacją, CKWS), the representative of the Chief Energy Inspectorate (GIGE), Jerzy Banasiuk, pointed out that, once “commercial” gas was introduced, Poland would have no fewer than three different fuel prices: the official price requiring coupons, the commercial price – a euphemism for high‑priced, and the black market price, somewhere between the two.943

Yet a solution had to be found since the black market had become ubiquitous, revealing a consensus that high prices were acceptable; moreover, the rigid system of quarterly rationing forced drivers who were planning longer trips to hoard gas. “Comrades,” Colonel Władysław Trzaska warned members of the CKWS in October 1985, “Our homes are sitting on a bomb. Literally so. Our attics, basements, and storage rooms are full of gas. Especially now that people are buying gas for the fourth quarter […] and they don’t have anywhere to store it. ←282 | 283→I have seen them storing it in milk cans, demijohns, plastic containers, and even ordinary jugs.”944

The authorities dared only to take a first tentative step in that direction in mid-1988. On July 1, in sixty‑four designated stations, gas was sold without coupons at high commercial prices; 260 and 300 zloty per liter. “This makes no difference for the average Pole,” commented Jerzy Baczyński, “who will now be able to buy fuel officially for the price that, until now, he has been paying on the black market.”945 This would have been the case, if the “coupon-free” gas had been easily available. The commercial gas stations were few and far between – on average, 1.3 per voivodship and two in Warsaw – and customers had already begun to form lines for the “coupon‑free” gas by June 29.946 At sixty‑four in total, the paltry number of commercial gas stations was no competition for regular gas stations, where, in any case, the unofficial price of gas surpassed the commercial price and reached as much as 350 zloty per liter. “Faced with the choice between hours‑long standing in line to buy gas for 300 zloty a liter or sticking to the tried and tested “devil you know “– a deal with a gas station manager and paying 350 or 400 zloty, many drivers pick the second option.”947

It was not until January 1, 1989 that ration coupons for fuel were abolished, albeit only for Polish nationals. There were no shortages of gas through the winter, as people drove less. However, in the spring, problems returned, when drivers hit the roads in their masses. State pumps could not keep up with the demand. The shortages were painful and yet again, rationing began to look like an attractive option; gas station employees refreshed their strategies from the recent past.948 Until the early 1990s, the authorities persevered in their efforts to calm down the market in gas. However, even once the pumps had become fully privatized, shady dealings in gas did not disappear completely, but merely – as they had always done – evolved.

←283 | 284→

882 R. Boyes, The Hard Road to Market. Gorbachev, the Underworld, and the Rebirth of Capitalism, London 1990, p. 128. See: L. H. Siegelbaum, Car for Comrades. The Life of the Soviet Automobile, Ithaca–London 2008; The Socialist Car: Automobility in the Eastern Bloc, ed. L. H. Siegelbaum, Ithaca–London 2011.

883 D. O’Hearn, The Consumer Second Economy. Size and Effects, “Soviet Studies” 32, 1980, no. 2, pp. 218–234; Z. Kapitány, J. Kornai, J. Szabó, Reproduction of shortage on the Hungarian car market, “Soviet Studies” 36, 1984, no. 2, pp. 236–256. The socialist car… (especially Valentina Fava on Czechoslovakia, pp. 17–29, Mariusz Jastrząb on communist Poland, pp. 30–46, and György Péteri on Hungary, pp, 47–68). In the 1970s, in the Polish People’s Republic car coupon made possible the quick purchase of a car at the wholesale price. The difference with the retail price formed therefore a handsome bonus. See: Rynek motoryzacyjny, ed. Z. Krasiński, Warszawa 1980, p. 85. On the Polish system of allocation (and especially breaking its rules) see: J. Nawrot, Talonowy biznes, PiŻ, 1982, no. 10; J. Nawrot, Pamiętnik młodego asystenta, ibid., no. 12.

884 D. O’Hearn, The Consumer Second Economy…, p. 220; Z. Kapitány, J. Kornai, J. Szabó, Reproduction of Shortage…, p. 239; S. Wolle, Die heile Welt der Diktatur. Alltag und Herrschaft in der DDR 1971–1989, Berlin 1998, pp. 312–315. In Poland such institutions as PHZ, Pol‑Mot, Pewex, and Motoimpex sold commodities for hard currencies. Since the 1960s, marketplaces (such as giełda, the popular public auction) sprung up in larger towns and cities. On these markets, car went for some 30 to 50 percent above wholesale prices; Rynek motoryzacyjny…, pp. 86–87. Since the mid‑1960s, the number of cars brought privately from abroad grew systematically: 1 110 cars in 1962, 2 314 in 1965, 5 587 in 1968, 6 198 in 1969. After raising customs duties in March 1970, only 558 vehicles were privately imported in the following year. In March 1972, with the tariffs lowered, their numbers quickly went up again, reaching 3 532 vehicles in 1973 and 4 011 in 1974. In 1979, as many as 12 050 automobiles were brought from abroad. At the turn of the 1960s and the 1970s, the most popular western brand was Volkswagen, followed by Fiat, Ford, Opel, BMW, Mercedes, NSU, Simca, Volvo, Peugeot, Austin, Citroen, and Morris; AAN, GUC, 23/397, Kompendium statystyczne administracji celnej 1946–1974, fol. 121–126; Rynek motoryzacyjny…, p. 45.

885 J. Urban, Z głowy na szosę, “Polityka”, no. 46/November 18, 1976.

886 D. O’Hearn, The Consumer Second Economy…, p. 221; M.V. Alexeev, The Underground Market for Gasoline in the USSR, “Comparative Economic Studies” 30, 1988, no. 2, p. 53.

887 AAN, KC PZPR, XI/281, fol. 26.

888 AAN, KC PZPR, 237/XXXII–7, fol. 30; ibid., 237/XXXII–27, fol. 186.

889 Szara strefa Października. „Notatka” o nielegalnych dochodach w Polsce 1956–1957 (The October 1956 grey zone. A “note” on illegal income in Poland 1956–1957), ed. J. Kochanowski, PH, 95, 2004, z. 1, p. 87.

890 See Z. Kiulin’s joke, on similar lines, in the satirical magazine “Szpilki”, no.7, 1959/ February 7. Nota bene, by 1959 the number of private autos increased threefold in comparison to 1956 – from 24 700 to 78 600!

891 AAN, KC PZPR, 237/V–615, fol. 104.

892 A. Teneta, Na jałowym biegu, “Polityka”, no. 3/January 18, 1976.

893 A.J. Socha, Kurs na lewo, “Tygodnik Kulturalny”, no. 19/May 11, 1986.

894 D. Frey, Ciemna liczba, “Tygodnik Demokratyczny” May 15, 1977.

895 AAN, KC PZPR, 237/V–615, fol. 104–105.

896 A. Teneta, Na jałowym biegu, “Polityka”, no. 3/January 18, 1976.

897 Report on economic crime in 1959, Warsaw 1960 (Supreme Audit Office, NIK, Department of Economic Fraud, copy in author’s possesion), p. 58.

898 Ibid.; Z. Branach, Przecieka nie tylko benzyna, “Życie Literackie” 1982, no. 40.

899 S.M. Jankowski, “Swoje chłopy” przy beczce z benzyną, “Życie Literackie” March 9, 1980.

900 AAN, KC PZPR, 237/V–615, fol. 103.

901 S.M. Jankowski, “Swoje chłopy” przy beczce z benzyną, “Życie Literackie” March 9, 1980.

902 While in the West cars were much more numerous than motorcycles, there were 6.82 motorcycles to every car in Poland in 1961. In 1972 this ratio was still high – 2.84 motorcycles per car – but falling systematically; Z. Krasiński, H. Mruk, P. Rzepczyński, Handel i usługi na tle rozwoju motoryzacji indywidualnej, Warszawa 1977, p. 18.

903 AAN, KC PZPR, XIA/465, fol. 174.

904 Rynek motoryzacyjny…, p. 45.

905 AAN, KC PZPR, XIA/476, fol. 26–28.

906 A. Teneta, Na jałowym biegu, “Polityka”, no. 3/January 18, 1976.

907 Z. Branach, Przecieka nie tylko benzyna, “Życie Literackie” 1982, no. 40.

908 Ibid.

909 I. Czaplarska, Benzynowy gang, czyli okazja czyni złodzieja, TL, no. 303/December 22, 1983.

910 S.M. Jankowski, “Swoje chłopy” przy beczce z benzyną, “Życie Literackie” March 9, 1980. Towards the end of the 1970s, the annual fuel market reached 1.5 mln tons, of which some 200 000 was traded on the black market; AAN, URM, 32/84, fol. 27–28.

911 M. Kwiatkowski, Kto rano. wstaje…, “Polityka”, no. 29/July 16, 1983.

912 A. K. Wróblewski, Ostatni luksus, “Polityka”, no. 47/November 21, 1981.

913 S. Drozdowski, Tajne kanały czarnego rynku, “Słowo Powszechne”, September 8, 1981; AAN, KC PZPR, WA, LI/116, fol. 112; AAN, URM, 32/119, fol. 21.

914 Jak za zboże, “Polityka”, no. 29/July 16, 1983.

915 S. Drozdowski, Tajne kanały czarnego rynku, “Słowo Powszechne”, September 8, 1981. 916 AAN, URM, 32/5, fol. 14.

917 AAN, URM, 32/42, fol. 8.

918 AAN, URM, 32/120, fol. 3; ibid., 32/84, fol. 90–91.

919 In 1983, the additional annual income of gas station managers derived from illicit gas sales was (probably under‑) estimated at 2.5 billion zloty in total, thus some 430 000 zloty per individual – approximately 350% of his official earnings; Z. Szułczyński, Przecieki, “Express Wieczorny”, December 9–11, 1983.

920 Jak paruje benzyna, TL, no. 177/July 26, 1982.

921 M. Kwiatkowski, Kto rano. wstaje…, “Polityka”, no. 29/July 16, 1983.

922 Smutek szejka, “Polityka”, no. 13/March 31, 1984.

923 Z. Szułczyński, Przecieki, “Express Wieczorny” December 9–11, 1983.

924 Ibid.; M. Henzler, Skąd wycieka, “Polityka”, no. 29/July 16, 1983.

925 M. Henzler, Skąd wycieka, “Polityka”, no. 29/July 16, 1983.

926 “Drivers leave unused coupons”, Słupsk voivode, Borys Drobko, admitted in January 1985, “with gas stations managers who use them to cover fuel shortages caused by illegal sales”; AAN, URM, 32/116, fol. 156.

927 AAN, URM, 32/66, fol. 37; ibid., 32/122, fol. 136–137.

928 AAN, URM, 32/84, fol. 14.

929 AAN, URM, 32/66, fol. 101.

930 AAN, URM, 32/105, fol. 35.

931 AAN, URM, 32/116, fol. 70; ibid., 32/95, fol. 25.

932 AAN, URM, 32/84, fol. 38.

933 AAN, URM, 32/95, fol. 3; ibid., 32/123, fol. 102–103.

934 AAN, URM, 32/95, fol. 50.

935 From testimony by Przemysław Nowak, Opoczno, March 26, 2010; in author’s possession; AAN, URM, 32/99, fol. 14.

936 AAN, URM, 32/66, fol. 27.

937 AAN, URM, 32/99, fol. 14–15, 77–79.

938 Ibid., fol. 66–69, 222–225, 230–234.

939 AAN, URM, 32/42, fol. 7.

940 AAN, URM, 32/66, fol. 26.

941 A.J. Socha, Kurs na lewo, “Tygodnik Kulturalny”, no. 19/May 11, 1986.

942 AAN, URM, 32/42, fol. 38; ibid., 32/66, fol. 42.

943 AAN, URM, 32/99, fol. 51.

944 AAN, URM, 32/84, fol. 38–39.

945 J. Baczyński, Przelewanie z pustego, “Polityka”, no. 28/July 9, 1988.

946 W. Markiewicz, Ludzie są wyposzczeni, ibid.

947 J. Baczyński, Przelewanie z pustego, ibid.

948 P. Tarnowski, Kartki były lepsze, “Polityka”, no. 18/ May 6, 1989.