Leaving Communism Behind

An SCU professor and Fulbright Scholar researches forgiveness and justice in post-communist Poland. Her studies make her reconsider what it means to fall on hard times.

SCU Political Science Professor Jane L. Curry recently returned from a year in Poland as the first Fulbright Distinguished Chair in East European Studies, teaching students from Poland and the rest of what had been the Soviet Bloc. Her classes included Political Parties, the Cold War, and Issues in Transitions from the Warsaw Pact to NATO and the EU. She also taught in a special program for political activists and young officials.

Curry, who has won four Fulbright grants and has held two Fulbright professorships, has been traveling to Poland since she was a college sophomore on one of the first student exchanges behind the Iron Curtain. She now focuses her research on the impact of the communist past and how it is handled in post-communist politics—specifically, forgiveness versus justice.

What follows are edited excerpts from her diary of the year.

September 2003: I am shipping off to Poland again, leaving my American life behind. My possessions are stashed and stuffed in boxes and three suitcases… and all the carry-on bags I can latch to my body. Why I am doing this?

  • I want to do more than just write about how countries work. I want to do something to make a difference.
  • From here, I can’t figure out why the past poisons Polish politics. What is there about forgiveness that makes it so hard for nations (and people)?
  • I can’t teach and write about live people honestly unless I have talked to them about how they see things, lived their lives, and seen the real documents.

Democracy is topic one

Day 1: What a mixed bag! I’ve got Polish students adding this two-year program to their load and I’ve got students from all the countries that are having trouble making it from communism to capitalism—Belarus, the Ukraine, Uzbekistan, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Chechnya, and so on…Some speak English and halting Polish, others only Polish. The “foreigners” have made a commitment to learn. Nobody’s an expert on democracy and elections. The Poles are overwhelmingly disappointed with how their democracy works.

For that matter, when I asked what democracy was, free elections did not come up. They’re still at the “democracy as prosperity stage.” That they did not get.
January 2004 : I’m cheered. As I shivered my way through the snow, Akora stopped me to show me a book and thank me “for giving her a history.” I looked dumbfounded and dumb. She had to remind me the old Soviet Union “didn’t have a Cold War.” That put things in perspective.

…OK, I think I am making a difference. Nigora came in for her oral exam today. She whispered to me as though the walls had ears—just like the old days when we assumed conversations were bugged…Elections and political parties (in the plural) are new to her. Her country, Uzbekistan, has American troops and one of the most repressive of the dictators in the former Soviet Union. Now, she said, learning about elections and parties has given her hope. She’s desperate for more to read on democracy and how it happens. Oh, I wish I could get all those extra books I have in my office. (Her promise is that she would borrow them, read them, and return them before I ever knew they were gone… and people shred books in the States! This is worth it just for this lesson.)

Actually, she’s quite amazing. She left two children behind—a 7- and 10-year-old. When I asked why, she said, “I want to make change in my country… in a healthy way, so it lasts; not like Don Quixote. I’m here for my children’s future.”

The good old days?

May 2004: …Funny, my students don’t trust the communists, but they think the “old times” were good and are disappointed in capitalism and democracy. The Solidarity trade union museum begins with a model of an empty grocery store with an abacus cash register and a special machine to show people if the eggs they were lucky to find were old or not. The press ran a nostalgia series complete with ration coupons from the 1980s—three pounds of meat (with bones) each month, a half a pound of sugar and flour, a bar of chocolate—and complaints about service. We laugh at the absurdities, forgetting how frustrating it was (even for an American) to hunt for food, not be able to find shoes for children’s growing feet, and to stand in line for everything. People remember guaranteed jobs, free education and health care, and free time. There was little real pressure to work hard. Now people who can get jobs work two or three to survive. Equally important, inequalities were hidden. Everyone was poor or looked poor.

The centers of Poland’s big cities glisten with high rises, fancy stores, and restaurants—cuisine from around the world. There are hotels, clubs, and stores, as well as residential neighborhoods for the rich.

Yet, I found myself standing in a ritzy hotel newsstand waving a magazine at the reporter from Travel and Leisure. I wanted her to remember the cost: 60 percent can’t afford decent food, housing, education, and medical care to say nothing of luxuries. There is a 40 percent unemployment rate among youth. The most desperate beg with their children for money for food or medical treatment. Hospitals close for months when they run out of money. The press reports almost every week that there are no chemotherapy drugs for children.

My how things change! Ten or 15 years ago, I would have been glad that somebody from outside found Warsaw or Krakow “world class.” At that time, my visitors were warned that things weren’t luxurious but the people were great. That’s still true.

June 2004: …Today, one of the students from Azerbaijan videoed the simulation we were doing. Chaos: all the students bargaining, watching, and conferring. Turns out that he wanted to show the people at his university in Baku what happens when you don’t just lecture but you make students act on things, how engaged they are. Thank heavens Santa Clara turned me on to “student learning.”

Tragedy personified

…This should be termed “you think you’ve had tough times”: I finally talked to my student from Chechnya. No wonder he did not have time to learn English. He’s a political refugee living on nothing here. And, he’s taking care of his mom and sister. Here’s where the story hurts: His mom, he said, “gave them his father’s body to bury.” Turns out that when his father was killed, his mother went into the fighting zone, found the body before it had been totally eaten by dogs, and carried it back to his sister and him. They buried him with their hands.

And, yet, through all the hardship and tragedy in his life, he is the first to befriend another student or ask me how I am.

Freedom to read

I remember in the old communist days when we passed books around like gold, wrapped in brown paper so no one would see the titles if they were “censorable.” The bookstores are full of translations of Western books, reprints of once censored books, and new books. Every side has something to say.

The new library of the university is glorious, built by money the communists collected to rebuild the university after the war and, then, used to build their own party headquarters. When the communists lost, their building got sold to become the stock market. Learning and books were so important that all that money went to build a new library for the university. There is a lot of room on the shelves. The library’s collection was destroyed in World War II. In the communist era, anything but propaganda books was hard to get. What the censors did not block, the lack of money to buy books abroad made them forbidden fruit.

The Institute of Dissidents

…The people I work with are a special breed. Most of them were part of a dissident group in the old communist days that published an illegal journal, The Camp, about the rest of the Soviet Bloc. (How easy it is to forget that scholarship can be illegal.) They did research on the sly or smuggled in articles. Information was often harder to get from other communist countries than from the West. But they wrote and printed on their homemade printing presses and some sat in jail for it. Now, they run a major institute, conduct research, publish amazing books, and teach. For them, this is the fulfillment of all their hopes.

These are amazing people. The director was jailed in martial law but, when I had the hot idea that it would be good to invite the general who imposed martial law and ran the Polish military for 40 years to talk to my students about East European-Soviet relations, he merely said, “Great learning experience. He jailed me, so I never imagined I would write a letter of invitation for him, but let’s do it. It would be hypocritical for me to come and introduce him. You should do the introduction and formalities instead.”

This seemingly simple project engaged the whole institute for more than a day with the state security guys and their rather bored German Shepard doing a sweep of the building. But General Jaruzielski stayed and answered my students’ questions for four hours.

Forgiveness and justice

Aug. 1, 2004: …I’ve got three more weeks and I know I have learned too much to think there’s a simple formula for dealing with the past and going on. Actually, I’m now sure it’s about being able to remember and go on. All year, I’ve collected data and talked to people about the impact of the communist past in Poland: the old communist leaders and the new politicians; people accused of spying for the communist regime and those who were spied on; people at the Stasi [the East German Secret Police] Archives who are working their way through miles of files to give people access to what was said about them and to sort out how the whole system worked; people in the Czech Republic who are dealing with the past. I’ve talked to the Slovaks about why they have done so little. And, I’ve talked to the Romanian officials who are trying to make sense of what to do about their draconian police’s archives. I’ve walked with my Romanian friend from where her brother was slaughtered to where he is honored. Everywhere I’ve heard people’s stories of living with the past.

Ironically, it is not the horror of what happened that makes dealing with the past hard. It is silence—when no one recognizes your suffering and there is the sneaking suspicion it might happen again. Most of the bad of communist rule came from refusals of passports, university, jobs, or policies that produced mostly empty shelves. All this happened in a bureaucratic morass. The horrific tortures and murders of South Africa or El Salvador did not happen here. And, yet, East European politics today is tortured by the past.

This year, the City stopped for three days and honored the once young fighters of the Warsaw Uprising 60 years after that rout. The scars of the Germans’ retaliation—300,000 dead and the city’s buildings destroyed—are no longer so visible. Communist censors no longer white it out.

Seeking answers

People also need to know “Why?” or, at least, “What happened?” A former Czech dissident pointed out, “The longer you served in jail, the less you care about punishing your jailers.” They went against the system, suffered, and expected to be punished. And, they made a difference. They talk about what they missed when they were jailed and their children grew. But, the leaders also can talk to and sometimes befriend old communist leaders—they may not agree but they hear their sides.
The people who call for punishing the communists are mostly those who did not risk being in opposition. Demanding “justice” and “punishment” is a way to legitimize themselves.

Finally, people need to know the past is past. That’s hard after communism. So much of the work of the police was about getting people to betray each other, to tell who said what to a friend or even a family member. For those who have seen their files, the burning question remains: “Can I trust my judgment?” Confronting informants has not worked. The creation of democracy and capitalism is not an end to the past: the old communists are successful capitalists and politicians. The underlying question remains: “What can I trust?”

Now, the questions I have are: what can I bring back to and build upon at Santa Clara? And of course, when will I get back to Poland?

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