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Through the Back Door

The Black Market in Poland 1944–1989


Jerzy Kochanowski

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

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Małgorzata Mazurek, Columbia University

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

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

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