FOR YOUNG POLES,
recent Soviet past is ancient history
KATOWICE, Poland — Karina Zajac, 23, says she “hates” Katowice, where she studies law and philosophy at the University of Silesia. “This is the worst place in the world,” she declared.
Well, no. It might have been the worst place in the world 20 years ago when 100-year-old coal-fired factories were creating a deadly environment for Poles in the service of Moscow, but not today.
Clearly, her assessment was based on a comparison with something other than the past.
The island of Guernsey, a British possession off the Normandy coast, where she and a friend worked one summer, she replied.
Wales, a former coal-mining power like Katowice, is better, she continued, and Scotland, near Aberdeen. “I like the mood.”
“And I’m really fond of Paris,” she added. “I love Paris.”
She’s been to the U.S. “where people are so full of freedom.”
“I like Poland, but I’ve seen so many beautiful things in the world.”
From the time I arrived in Ukraine four weeks ago, I have been struck repeatedly by the lack of appreciation for how far Ukraine and Poland have come in the 20 years since the collapse of the Soviet Union and the tyranny it inflicted on both nations, and all other satellites, for that matter.
And yet people always seem to ignore their progress and compare their states of existence with conditions elsewhere.
This is particularly true of young people like Karina, who are too young to have known the hardships of the recent past, who never lined up for hours to buy bread and who were never denied the right to see a wider world for fear of unfavourable comparison.
But they also aren’t taught much about the past, perhaps because those who actually remember it want to forget it.
I recall talking to two young women in a Lviv restaurant that might have been a smoky cafeteria that served “chai,” cold sausage and bread 20 years ago, but which today is a slick “Mediterranean” pizzeria. They knew little about the recent past. But don’t your parents talk about it? “Only about events in their lives, how they met and things like that,” said Nasta Sniak, 22, a student.
Oksana Ivanenko didn’t know much more, and confessed a disinterest in politics, despite the fact an election had just concluded and the champion of western Ukraine, where Lviv is located, had been defeated, raising fears Ukraine might slip back into Russia’s embrace, something Oksana found too absurd to even contemplate.
And yet, she has an abiding interest in Italy (visited Rome) travels often to Poland and has visited Winnipeg four times — was driven from the beach in Gimli by mosquitoes, thinks Alicia’s is overrated and described from experience the lobby of the Free Press building.
Piotr Pajak, a 22-year old student, brightened when the conversation turned from the past to how Avatar failed to win the best picture Oscar. “It was a surprise,” he said. But it seemed he found the recent past more difficult to grapple with than a 3-D science fiction fantasy about aboriginal wars in the far future.
He’s read about Soviet Poland in books and his father tells him stories, but “to me it is totally unreal.”
He can’t relate to his grandparents’ recollections.
“I get the feeling that they liked the time that is gone. But they were young and so they recall what was good. They have selective memories, I think.”
It’s only when you talk to the relatively young that you find some perspective.
Martin Stanczyk, 32, who works in the Katowice mayor’s office, remembered lining up to buy rationed coffee.
You were only allowed to get one unit of coffee at a time, he explained, so he would return over and over to the end of the line until he had queued a sufficient number of times to accumulate enough coffee to meet his family’s needs.
“I’m glad I spent a little part of my life in those times. Maybe (back) then it was easier to get a job or a flat, but it’s easier now to live your life as you want to,” he said. “ I can go where I want, that’s important to me, and nobody tells me what to do or what I can’t do.”
Marzenna Sikorska has observed young people for 23 years as a professor of English at the University of Silesia.
The post-Berlin-Wall generation has been spoiled by television and travel, she says, making them desirous of what others have and indifferent to the great past accomplishments of their parents’ generation — life in free, independent democracies is a given in their world.
What is not a given is why they are not as wealthy as are the people they see on TV or abroad. “They see things are different and not as easy here,” Marzenna said.
“They see our incomes are still low and they are frustrated.”
And in truth, she said, Katowice simply isn’t that interesting a place for young people. Its working-class past was not so open to culture and entertainment and still lacks the activities and night life young people seek.
“On the other hand, you can’t blame them for wanting more.”
There are some I have spoken to that fear the epigram — Those who ignore the past are condemned to repeat it — might very well apply to the post-Berlin-Wall generation.
But I think not. Increasingly I find the reverse — the ignorance of the recent past, the dissatisfaction with the present and the “wanting more” that young people exhibit will continue to challenge the status quo in Eastern Europe.
Many have commented it will be 40 years before former Soviet bloc nations are truly free and independent and catch up to the West.
By which they mean the past must be as distant and unimaginable for entire populations as it is for today’s youngest portion.
Martin Stanczyk, from the Katowice mayor’s office, is 32 and can remember the privation and lack of freedom of the
Karina Zajac, 23, on the University of Silesia campus. Silesia, she says, is “the worst place in the world.” Too bad she can’t remember 1990.