re­cent Soviet past is an­cient his­tory

Winnipeg Free Press - Section H - - FYI -

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.

But what?

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

Soviet era.


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.

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