Poles Embrace The Good Life, Post-Communism Two decades after striking shipyard workers in Poland helped to spark the end of communism, many Poles today — especially the young — are enjoying the fruits of capitalism. Since joining the EU in 2004, Poland has developed the most dynamic economy in Eastern Europe.
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Poles Embrace The Good Life, Post-Communism

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Poles Embrace The Good Life, Post-Communism

Poles Embrace The Good Life, Post-Communism

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As we have been hearing this week, Germany is celebrating the 20th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. Last night world leaders symbolically crossed the old route of the wall walking through the Brandenburg Gate and the heart of Berlin. German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who grew up in communist East Germany, was joined by former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, former Polish president Lech Walesa, and the current leaders of Russia, France, and the United Kingdom. There were fireworks, music, and 1,000 giant dominoes, which toppled symbolically along the route of the wall. The thousands gathered in the heavy rain, also heard via a video from the American president.

President BARACK OBAMA: Let us never forget November 9th, 1989, nor the sacrifices that made it possible. Let us sustain the friendship across the Atlantic that must never be broken, and together let us keep the light of freedom burning bright for all who live in the darkness of tyranny and believe in the hope of a brighter day. Thank you.

INKEEP: All this week on MORNING EDITION we are remembering the changes in Eastern Europe by hearing from those who lived through the changes. And today we go to Poland, where years before the wall came down in Germany the revolution against communism began with protests by the outlawed solidarity labor movement. Decades after those shipyard workers helped bring an end to communism, many Poles are busy enjoying the fruits of capitalism. Poland has the most dynamic economy in Eastern Europe, and even emerged relatively unscathed from the recent financial crisis. NPR's Eric Westervelt continues our series 20 Years On.

ERIC WESTERVELT: Crisis - what crisis? Economic malaise swept Eastern Europe this year, but you might miss that in Warsaw.

(Soundbite of music)

WESTERVELT: They're clubbing the downturn away. The city's glitterati recently packed the grand opening of yet another new dance club, this one called Generation Nine. Why nine? It just sounded good, a bartender says, as he pours liberal doses of Polish vodka to a see-and-be-seen crowd.

These days Poles are spending their way to prosperity. Strong internal consumer spending has helped insulate the country from the worst effects of the global financial crisis. Poland remains the only country in Europe with positive growth in the second quarter this year.

Many of the old dreary Soviet bloc apartment buildings are still around. But some Warsaw interiors are getting a facelift. Polish entrepreneurs Anna Kiersnowska and her brother founded a chain of specialty home and office decorating stores. You want textured, fuzzy or bright walls? Come see Anna at EkoDecor.

This wall is kind of fuzzy. What do you�

Ms. ANNA KIERSNOWSKA (EkoDecor): This is silk, liquid wallpaper we call it. And it's pure natural product.

WESTERVELT: I don't know whether to put it on my wall or wear it. Ms.

KIERSNOWSKA: I was actually thinking about making a dress of it, and they have nice colors. It's hard, so you can't form it now.

WESTERVELT: A member of Kiersnowska's staff trains a new employee in how to texture a wall with decorative plaster. EkoDecor is hiring. They're expanding across Poland into to other parts of Eastern Europe. They're even opening a production facility in one of the historic shipyards where the solidarity labor movement was born.

Ms. KIERSNOWSKA: Communism destroyed our production, actually, so now we had to catch up. And I think this is motivating, that we have the possibility to have a free market and to make our own private businesses. I think people enjoy the, actually, freedom.

WESTERVELT: Poland was accepted into the European Union in 2004, and EU support and money helped build Poland's post-communist economy. Today, the historic shipyards where solidarity began face an uncertain future. They're being privatized, downsized, put up for sale, and some could be closed for good. The EU says state subsidies for the historic Gdansk shipyard give Poland an unfair trade advantage. They want the yard sold off, but no buyer has stepped forward so far.

Old fears linger as well, especially about Russia and its energy policies. As a former head of Poland's security service said recently of Russia, yesterday tanks, today oil.

But shipyard struggles and energy policy, it's all of little concern to most young Poles, such as 26-year-old waitress Ewelina Ostas. She's part of a new generation of Poles embracing what she calls the good life and experiences her parents' generation never knew.

Ms. EWELINA OSTAS (Waitress): We can travel, we can meet new people, we can explore, we can enjoy life. After work, we're trying to have fun with our friends, to have fun.

WESTERVELT: Ostas moved to Warsaw from a small town seven years ago. She works in a hip restaurant and club today in Warsaw and enjoys her free time in ways her parents' generation could only imagine. She says her mom and dad well remember life under communism and martial law, with its deprivation, fear, dreary state-run TV and nightly curfew.

Ms. OSTA: We have cultural places. We can have our free time to spend on, when my parents told me they hadn't such things. They couldn't go out after 22 - after 10:00. So people in my age, we can live more free. We can enjoy our life, not live in fear.

WESTERVELT: It's all a far cry from the rough and tumble of shipyard labor protests, the long slog for basic freedoms started by Solidarity. Just 20 years after strikes and street protests eventually led to secret negotiations with the communists and a peaceful transfer of power, the revolution for this new generation of Poles seems like ancient history.

Mr. MICHAL BRONIATOWSKI (Businessman): They have Internet given for granted, they have iPhones given for granted. Why should they bother about what happened years ago?

WESTERVELT: Michal Broniatowski is a former reporter who was close to the Solidarity leadership. He covered the revolution and today is a media entrepreneur and businessman.

Broniatowski says he's heartened that his kids are growing up with the banality of normalcy.

Mr. BRONIATOWSKI: My daughter is constantly asking me about what was going on then, and she is very keen to listen. But of course they cannot understand the life under communism because nobody can understand it. It was so stupid. And it's the problem of their parents, who sometimes tell them funny stories about empty shops. It's a funny story for them, but they are just normal young generation, same as any other generation in the U.S. and Western Europe. And I'm very, very happy to see that. I'm very happy that my kids are living in such environment.

WESTERVELT: Poland in 2009 looks self-assured, hopeful and economically self-confident. The economic success is real, but economists say it's also fragile. They're warning of a potentially painful year ahead with a growing credit crunch and strains on the labor market.

Eric Westervelt, NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

INSKEEP: Our series continues tomorrow as an artist from the Czech Republic continues to tweak the establishment.

Unidentified Man: In terms of having such fun from the politicians during the communism, it was simply impossible. You'll end up in jail immediately.

INSKEEP: Our series on Eastern Europe, 20 Years On, continues.

(Soundbite of music)

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