Poland's 'Return to Europe' Is a Plunge into Modernity

By Snyder, Tim | The Christian Science Monitor, May 21, 1998 | Go to article overview

Poland's 'Return to Europe' Is a Plunge into Modernity


Snyder, Tim, The Christian Science Monitor


The Polish countryside is always about one epoch behind the times. Now that Poland is free, its countryside is once again out of step. Just as Polish peasants once refused communism, now they resist capitalism.

Under communism, Polish farmers were the only landowners in Eastern Europe able to keep their property. Millions of stubborn Polish smallholders, along with the unusually strong Roman Catholic Church, ensured that communism never reached very deep into Polish hearts. Their sons and daughters, the workers who formed the anticommunist Solidarity movement, articulated their resistance in terms of the religion and tradition they learned at home. Lech Walesa, Solidarity's first leader, is a proud peasant son himself.

Solidarity brought down communism in 1989, and so began the historic "return to Europe" of Poland and its neighbors. But now peasants still sell their produce to the state, as they did under the communists - 50 percent of farmers have no contact whatsoever with the marketplace. Though they own their own land, they are attached to the tiny and bizarrely shaped plots their fathers and grandfathers saved from collectivization. About a quarter of the Polish population lives off agriculture - about five times the percentage in America or Western Europe. This outdated mode of production can make for a haunting gothic beauty. Whereas the American countryside is blanketed by huge fields of a single color - "amber waves of grain" - Polish fields are a patchwork quilt of almost every color. Whereas our agricultural work is done by giant combines and tractors, Poles still work the fields with plow horses and reap the harvest by hand with sickles. The view of these slow movements across the mosaic of the fields can be spectacular, especially as dusk erases the other signs of human habitation. The last time I was in the country, near a little town called Gamek, which means "pot," I stayed in an inconspicuous 18th-century farmhouse without running water and electricity that somehow escaped the concrete and barbed wire communist-era remodeling done to most buildings. As Polish cities have quickly become showcases of modern capitalism, villages like Gamek remain what they were. Under communism they seemed like bastions of a regretted past; today they often figure as simple examples of contrariness. The countryside still preserves old traditions, forgotten dialects, and simple faith - all of which, along with the boredom, cause the young and ambitious to flee to the cities. In Gamek, there is nothing to do: If you tire of the colorful fields, you won't be long amused by the occasional passing horse and wagon. At night, the blue light of television shining from behind the closed remains of house after house bespeaks not openness to the outside world but isolation. …

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