Pages from the personal archives of a Russianist: installment seven

Diary entry, June 1984 – Poznan Fair

Steady drizzle. My shoes are drying in a corner of my cell at the Hotel Mercury. Luigi promised a bordello and instead a prison was what I got. A dusty carpet on the floor. A miserable view of a busy, noisy traffic intersection below my window. Girls – none, save the one semiprofessional with whom I struck up a conversation this afternoon out of deathly boredom. When have I slept so much? Hard to remember. If I had a slight weakness for drink, I would be dead drunk here all the time.

My appetite has been voracious. The sight of the niggardly portions at all restaurants alone makes me vulpine. There is that hidden fear that if I do not stuff myself to satiety, I may go hungry next meal. The luxury category guest is not spared that gnawing worry here.

The city is ugly. All right, I concede that the Old Market square is a pretty sight, but the thought that it is all a make believe reconstruction of a past destroyed utterly during the war spoils my enjoyment.

The goods in the stores are ugly. The people look mostly ugly. Men are boorish, women are unadorned, plain. The pushing and shoving of the crowds is hideous. I can think of no greater mundane misery than to be stuck here in Poznan for any length of time above one day. Of course, there are always exceptional miseries which are outside the competition.

Warsaw, June 17, 1984 – Election Day

Posters in many shop windows with electoral lists. Newspapers full of news of electoral preparations. Yesterday in Kielce I was unable to buy wine in the Kielce Pewex because all liquor sales have been suspended in anticipation of election day. Last night at the Victoria the night club was closed and the restaurant could offer no liquor for the same reason.

And what of the people? Despair, complete despair. They had hopes that government would make available foodstuffs or consumer goods to brighten the mood, but nothing was delivered. In Kielce Lydia Danilovna’s friend Pani Danusja and her husband, who are well to do, spent six and a half hours in line at a meat store to get their meat quota against coupons. From 4.30 in the morning, the line formed. The couple took turns. But as pani Chrystina said in disgust: ‘it is macabre.’ Christina has returned two days ago from the F.R.G. where she spent a month with relatives near Braunschweig hoping to pick up something in inheritance from an aunt who recently passed away. She got only four suitcases full of old rubbish; the house and property went to nearer kin. Pani Christina is chastened, a bit like a beaten dog. The poor are not much loved. And even she came back with the proper appreciation of the way things stand: ‘There (in Germany) people live and grow; here we vegetate. How are we supposed to raise healthy children in these conditions?’ Deep feeling of disgust, that things are not getting better, perhaps are getting worse.

But Lydia Danilovna looks well. She has some optimism….She reads me her latest poem……In general I should pick up something, anything for her each time at that bookstore [in Warsaw]. The woman desperately needs some distraction, entertainment. The whole country is bored out of its mind.  The slightest entertainment is enjoyed for all it is worth. No wonder one becomes a voracious reader…

The feeling of doom and gloom is heightened by the weather, which has been as miserable as in Brussels. Overcast, rainy day after rainy day.

The only striking thing about Poznan is the monument to the uprisings. Two immense monolith crosses, about 30 meters high, bound together by a large symbolic iron chain, like the crown of thorns. On the first pillar is marked only 1956, the revolution that brought Gomulka to power. On the second is a column of dates from 1960 to 1980. The monument has pride of place on a major intersection at the start of the park that runs parallel to the railway line. Nearby is a massive official monument to Mickiewicz. There are beacons to illumine the monument at night. Before it lies a bed of fresh cut flowers. The traces of Solidarity which even this regime does not dare to stamp out.

The American tourists are arriving in force. At Hotel Victoria in Warsaw, a large group has a bus outside the hotel with the sign “Happy Louie – Poland tours.”  All seem to be Polish speaking. At the cashier’s desk a couple in their late 50s, early 60s change $100 bills into zloty. (don’t they know about the black market?).  At the Forum during lunch Friday two tables away are three Polish-American teenage girls with the Polish boyfriend of one. Kids straight out of suburbia. …They don’t look like university exchanges. ..

The Happy Louie group at the Forum are all wearing bright yellow pins (3 inch diameter) with the legend in English and Polish “Have a nice day”. Grotesque! Who in hell has a nice day in Poland?

On the way out to the airport Wojciech tells me he may be too busy today to go to the polls. ‘It’s not a very important election, just for the local administration. Just a test.’  He enjoys his irony.

The Poznan Fair itself was unexpectedly boring, low-key. ..

We have only one semi-interesting business meeting with rep of UNITRA/DIORA factory who need modern style foil-type keyboard switches for front panels of stereo component systems, of which they make 40k sets a year.

On the Polish side, the only interesting exhibition is by Coopexim, with traditional Christmas tree decorations, wicker baskets and furniture, rocking horses, children’s carnival costumes and leather saddles.

The Poles’ problem is that they understand exactly what they have and what they don’t have.  And that embitters them, so that whereas Russians can have less, they are content. Poles have more and they are wretched. Their frame of reference is the West and their past freedom. They have traveled, they have relatives in the West. They are not brain-washed like the Russians. They know how to interpret life in the West when they are there. True, Soviets do not travel under normal conditions: they are shepherded by chaperones who police them and frustrate ‘erroneous’ conclusions about what is seen. ….

It is consciousness of his state which makes the Poles so miserable. Russians are blissful in their ignorance and not wanting to know.

Even in Kielce the foreigners are felt. When I checked into the Hotel Centralny Lysa Gora, opposite the train station, I came without a reservation, trudging with my two suitcases. The receptionist looked at me, as upon a camel, I thought. The first white man in decades. But no..[I was wrong]

The only place in Poland where you can feel some sense of human dignity is in concert halls…and the churches, which are open to all without queuing. No wonder the churches are full. They alone work as in the good old days. Theater, diversion in a country that is bored out of its mind.

©Gilbert Doctorow, 2020

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