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Modern Transit: A History of Feeling in the Polish People’s Republic

I’m sitting on my parents’ couch, working on the translation of an archival text by the Polish sociologist, Zygmunt Bauman, who is most famous, perhaps, for his work on “liquid modernity” and globalization. Though much of his writing was in English, this is one of his earlier works, entitled On Frustration and Conjurers, about the events that took place in Poland in March, 1968—the student uprisings and anti-Semitic propaganda campaign—and there is a discussion of the situation of the working class, including a sentence that contains two different terms, both of which refer to forms of payment. I look up, and call to my parents: “How should I translate this? Paying on credit? Layaway? An installment plan?”

“Well, not exactly,” my mother says, her brow furrowing. “It’s like, you were paying for something, like a car, and making payments in advance, and that meant that you were on a list to get it, and when it became available, you could get one.”

“So you had to fully pay for it first, before you got it?” I ask.

“No, sometimes you could get it earlier, if one was available. Sometimes you had to wait. Usually. Sometimes for years.”

“What if you changed your mind, or gave up, could you get your money back?”

“I think so?” she says, uncertain. “I’m not sure. In principle, yes.”

My dad starts to chuckle. “Remember, winkulowanie?” he asks my mom. His shoulders are shaking with laughter now, as he tries to explain. “You made the payments, and they were refundable, until they came up with this new word… they would send you a letter, saying that your money had been winkulowane, which meant that they were going to keep your money…” (He can barely get the words out now through his glee) “and maybe you’d get the thing you were buying… or maybe not!”

Now we are all laughing—crying with laughter, in fact, at the absolute absurdity of it, of paying for something for years and never getting it, of the invention of a word that justified what was really just outright theft by the state, of life in the PRL, Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa, the Polish People’s Republic, that special incarnation of Polishness that existed from 1947 to 1989. How to describe the particularity of this time, this place, this way of life? The blunt collision of theory and practice, and its impact on people’s lives. Contemporary cinema tends to portray it in grayscale, to focus on the tyranny of small bureaucrats in shabby offices, the horrors of government surveillance, the yearning for freedom, and this is the way that many Americans—at least, those who were alive during the Cold War—tend to see it as well.[1] The current Polish government also favors such interpretations, seeing this era as one of foreign imposition, oppression, humiliation. But if you talk to people, you discover a more complex set of feelings, a curious mingling, including resentment or anger, yes, but also nostalgia, and hilarity.[2]

The recent book by Kazimierz Kunicki and Tomasz Ławecki, Maluchem do Raju: Czym i Jak Podróżowano w PRL-u [To Paradise by Maluch: With What, and How, People Travelled in the PRL] captures this sentiment beautifully, offering a striking history of the period and the vagaries of life within it (Fig. 1). Maluch, “Little one,” is the affectionate nickname given to the Fiat 126p, itself an informal symbol of the PRL (Fig. 2). As Kunicki and Ławecki explain, the two production plants in Bielsko-Biała and Tychy produced a total of 3,318,674 of these cars in the years of 1973–2000, and though some 900,000 were exported, “i tak była to skala pozwalająca mówić o zmotoryzowaniu Kowalskiego,” “it was nonetheless a scale that allows us to speak of the motorization of Kowalski,” (aka, the average Pole).[3] It was, according to the German magazine Auto Motor und Sport, the cheapest car to purchase or use in all of Europe. The engine was in the back, and it burned 5.8 l of gas/100 km, or about 40 mpg, and could attain speeds of up to 105km/h, 65mph, if you were feeling very brave. Kunicki and Ławecki include some of the many jokes told about the beloved little car: Why does this vehicle include seatbelts? So that it can more easily be converted to a backpack. Why should maluchs never be painted red? So that no one mistakes them for a mailbox.[4]

 Czym i Jak Podróżowano w PRL-u by Kazimierz Kunicki and Tomasz Ławecki
Fig. 1. Front cover of Maluchem do Raju: Czym i Jak Podróżowano w PRL-u by Kazimierz Kunicki and Tomasz Ławecki.
Family in maluch automobile
Fig. 2. Although they officially seated four, the jovially determined could increase this capacity, though of course at great cost to the vehicle’s speed. Image courtesy of the author.

But, as the authors tell us, “czego by jednak nie mówili kpiarze i złościwcy, maluch obiecywał rodakom poczucie elegancji i swobody, a stawał się przy tym celem do osiągnięcia realnym.”[5] “Whatever the jokesters and malicious might say, the maluch promised our countrymen elegance and comfort, and became a realistically attainable goal.” To explain how it could be attained involves several pages of describing the various logistics to procure one, including the kinds of payment proceedings mentioned above (with the same rueful humor: “więc—jak to na loterii—jednemu wygrana trafiała się natychmiast, a drugiemu nigdy (po transformacji ustrojowej pozostała całkiem spora gromadka tych wciąż niezałatwionych),” “thus—like the lottery—some received the prize immediately, and others never (after the transformation of the system, there remained a rather sizable group of those whose accounts were not settled)”).[6] What, in the Bauman text I was translating, was a single word mentioned in passing, is here excavated as a forgotten feature of daily life in a different era.

Here then, we begin to see the particularities of this specific lifeworld, through the lens of its most beloved vehicle. But the maluch turns out to be only a very small part of the story in this remarkable book, which, through the ostensibly narrow focus on forms of travel and transit, turns out to be a brilliant meditation on the quiddity of the PRL, and especially on the “in-between” status of its so-called “second world” modernity. Though it is written for a popular audience rather than an academic one, it is nonetheless a powerful meditation on different approaches to describing the past.[7] Key to its charm is the way it combines historical accounts with an examination of the simultaneous rendering of the milieu and its major events in popular culture, in films and music especially, but also, mentioned already, in jokes, those fleeting, epiphanic fragments of social analysis.[8] The authors intersperse autobiographical fragments of their personal recollections throughout as well, warning readers in the Preface that these are included without attribution, which means that the speaker describes experiences of being a teenager in both the 1950s and the 1970s, thereby capturing the perspective of two very different generations.

Forms of transportation and infrastructure are, of course, one of the hallmarks of modernity, and travel and migration one of the defining aspects of the twentieth century. We all know this, but this book vividly highlights the palimpsestic nature of these evolutions, and the myriad aspects of social and political life that it attaches to in the Polish People’s Republic.[9] Part of the fascination of the book is its capacious sense of movement, and the many forms it takes, from the slow rebuilding of mass transit after the Second World War in the form of buses and trams, to state-organized workers’ retreats, the rise of travel agencies and global travel, and religious pilgrimages. Encompassing travel of various kinds both at home and abroad, including many different types of tourism, the book illuminates the lifeworld of the PRL in its various phases, and the peculiarity of Polish national character.

This history is one that I, a geriatric Polish millennial who was transplanted to the US in the mid-1980s, both know and do not know. Family stories supplied me with a certain sense of what life was like, an intimate form of knowledge gleaned from the tonalities of conversations between my parents and their friends on our visits back. Later, academic study supplied me with more concrete historical data—though this knowledge has proved in some ways more elusive, as many of those narratives have undergone a variety of revisions over the years. Although the vagaries of my life and education make my perspective admittedly somewhat unique, I suspect that this sense of twentieth century history as both deeply familiar and irrevocably strange is common to many of my generation, not to mention those who came after us. And the kind of information that we hunger for, we who came of age at a time when a postmodern suspicion of historical narrative was already well established, is not just the who, what, and where, the fact-based narratives that are the meat and potatoes of traditional history, but also a substantiation of those emotional subtexts that we have gleaned from the stories of our elders—an elaboration of the things that we feel like we know. This is what makes Maluchem do Raju so appealing: that within its ostensibly materialist approach, we find an abiding interest in the structures of feeling, and the shifts within them, that characterized Polish society of the second half of the twentieth century.[10]

The story begins with the forced migrations of Poles in the aftermath of the Second World War, travel by train and by foot. The humor here is of the grimmer variety—the joking name for such travel, turystyka musowa, attaches tourism to an invented adjective combining the sense of “mass” and “must” to describe the coerced movements of thousands. The next few chapters sketch the postwar landscape in a variety of ways—most surprisingly, perhaps, in a chapter on “szabrowanie,” scavenging, or looting. In a chapter on buses, and the various vehicles acquired from Americans or the French to convey Poles along badly damaged roads, we see the particular combination of defiance, shame, and humor that is so characteristic of the Polish psyche. Describing the government’s decision, in 1972, to swap the bus known as “ogórek” (cucumber) for the French-made Berliet, which initially seems like a luxury—Francja-elegancjaif it’s French, it’s fancy—but as the authors observe, “Berliety okazały się za delikatne, nieprzystosowane do naszych—powiedzmy elegansko—temperamentów.” “Berliets turned out to be too delicate, unsuited to our—to put it more elegantly—temperaments.”[11] Crammed beyond capacity, bumping along roads marked with potholes, the buses rapidly fell into disrepair. Mingled with the embarrassment of a refined luxury that was rapidly destroyed by bad roads and aggressive use, the chapter illuminates a subtle pride in the rough-and-ready nature of local character. It is not that we are not fit for the finer things in life—it is that they are not fit for us! But then another form of shame enters the picture. Polish engineers, the authors tell us, came up with plenty of creative solutions to the various design problems of the bus that would make it more suitable for its use in a different context, but in vain: “Cóż z tego, że zgłaszano dobre pomysły, skoro nie było pieniędzy na inwestycje niezbędne do ich realizacji. Skończyło się w sposób, który można by zakwalifikować jako klasycznie komediowy, czy humorystyczny, gdyby…nie był smutny.” “So what, if there were good ideas, given that there were no funds for the investments necessary to realize them. It ended in a way that could be categorized as classic comedy, or humor, if not… that it was so sad.”[12] This is perhaps the most melancholy note in the entire book. Ingenuity and chutzpah can only get you so far: the realities of global inequality are not so readily overcome.[13]

But soon enough the book shifts to a cheerier topic, the postwar reconstruction period, and the emergence of various forms of infrastructure. It is in this section that both the “uneven” nature of development, and the links between travel and various other aspects of life, is especially vivid. The section begins with a return to trains, now with an eye to voluntary travel, and the light humor returns in force. The first intercity trains, in the late 1940s, involved freight cars, particularly those used for livestock transport, that were converted into passenger cars. “Pachniały—dosłownie i w przenośni—czymś zagadkowym, odległym, nierealnym…”[14] “They smelled—both literally and figuratively—of something mysterious, distant, unreal…” But this discomfort is overlooked in the joys of motion: “Czy w wagonach wyczuwalny był zapach czworonogów, trudno powiedzieć. W każdym razie na solidnych drewnianych ławach można było wygodnie usiąść. A podróż w towarzystwie szkolnych kolegów minęła, jak z bicza strzelił.”[15] “Was there a discernible smell of the four-legged in those train cars, it’s hard to say. But in any case, on their solid wooden benches, one could sit comfortably. And a trip in the company of school friends passed by with lightning speed.”

The smells prove to be a particularly revealing part of the history. Discussing the emergence of trams as a primary form of public transit, the authors note that one aspect of the experience must not be omitted, namely, the odor. In the postwar period, shampoo was a rarity and deodorant was not often used. Laundry was done infrequently. And on a hot, muggy day, the effects of these hygienic habits made themselves particularly felt. One olfactory memory floats to the surface, as one of the authors recalls that the typical routine for women’s hair care involved washing with regular soap and rinsing with vinegar. “Gdy w tramwajowym ścisku miało się taką głowę tuż pod nosem, a o przemieszczeniu się nie było co marzyć, octowy aromat wciskał się nawet do zatok.”[16] “When you had, in a crowded tramcar, one such head right under your nose, and there was no hope whatsoever of moving away from it, the vinegary aroma would penetrate even to your sinuses.” The authors describe this as a shameful aspect of life on trams, but the detail is redolent in particularity, lending a powerful sense of the collective existence of a particular group of people, a mass of bodies, in a specific time and place.

That sense of collectivity also manifests beautifully in the aforementioned chapter on trains, as one of the authors remembers traveling, as a teenager, by train in 1970. He describes the period as being the calm before the storm that would erupt in December (a reference to protests over rising prices that broke out in northern Poland), when the air was thick with frustration and bitterness. When the conductor arrived, he says, it turned out that many of the passengers had not paid for tickets. The conductor pocketed 5 zł from each person, and no one had any complaints. It was a particular phase of the epoch of real socialism, he recounts, best summed up in the phrase: “Oni udaja, że płacą, my, że pracujemy.”[17] “They pretend to pay us, and we pretend to work.” This is not the kind of collectivity that the system was meant to produce, exactly, and yet…

It is through the evocation of such complexes of feelings, like this in-spite-of-itself collectivity, that the book offers insights into the lifeworld that arises from the material foundations it examines. The kinds of collective affect, or structures of feeling, that characterize a given culture at a given moment—the breath of life that makes a history vivid, that gives you a glimpse of what it was like. What is particularly fascinating in such scenes is how distant these worlds seem, though they are, after all, fairly recent, comfortably within living memory. Another example appears in the first form of vacation travel discussed in the book, the organized workers’ retreats that began in the late 1940s. Intended to provide recreation while also developing interpersonal bonds, such compulsory leisure was about as much fun as any school field trip. The workers would be loaded onto a given form of transportation (initially trucks, later, buses) bright and early on a Sunday morning and taken out to the countryside, where there would be fireside songs, grilled sausages, and mushroom gathering or blueberry picking. Of course, the authors note wryly, “rekreacyjny efekt wycieczki i dorobek zbieraczy zależał w dużej mierze od liczby zabranych w drogę (…) buteleczek,”“the recreational effect and the productivity of the pickers depended to a large degree on the number of bottles they brought.”[18] But the discussion of such retreats is also a moment to remember the introduction of the two-day weekend—when Saturdays ceased to be a working day, in the late 1970s. This final detail is probably more telling, and more difficult to imagine, than the descriptions of the trips: the real marker of a society that seems, from the perspective of the present, deeply foreign, and at a very different stage of “civilization.”

Probably the most vivid emblem of uneven development is the presence of multiple forms of transit associated with various levels of advancement, discussed by the authors in a chapter on horses and horse-drawn carts, bicycles, and rickshaws, coexisting on Warsaw streets in a lively combination of the nineteenth century and the twentieth. But beyond this obvious trope, this chapter also testifies to the way that the association between development and particular modes of locomotion proves less stable than one might think. Discussing the rickshaw, they note that it was a short-lived form of transportation, pushed out by the development of mass transit and taxis. Yet it returned, some fifty years later, as a tourist attraction, one that has spread to other cities in Poland, no doubt fueled by the EU funding that is revitalizing many Polish cities and turning them into charming destinations for travelers from all over Europe.[19]

The idea of international tourism might seem like a contemporary phenomenon, but in fact, global travel appears midway through the book, with a discussion of ocean liners, and then a chapter on the rise of the state travel agency Orbis. But air travel in the 1970s was not associated with the same kind of cosmopolitan traveler we might think of today. Dispensing quickly with the stereotype of much Polish travel as economically motivated (for the purposes of buying and selling goods), the authors discuss the image of Poles abroad as disgruntled and full of complaints (in addition to being drunkards), and acknowledge that it is not entirely unfair, though incomplete. One of the authors shares his own memory of an evening in Greece, and his initial feelings of resentment, and annoyance, watching women there dancing with their children strapped to their backs, until he recognized the joy for what it was, and appreciated it. And then he recalls how some of the traveling Polish girls joined in the dance, and argues that no, we cannot be accused of perpetual melancholy or spite. Part of what is captured in this moment, with a bitter poignancy, is that one of the privileges of travel is that it presents the opportunity to see how the other half lives, and, perhaps, to be confronted with your own provincialism. We often extoll the mind-expanding merits of time abroad, but less attention is paid to the ressentiment that occasionally accompanies it, particularly for those from “minor” parts of the world (Fig. 3).[20]

The author in the family maluch automobile
Fig. 3. The author, in the family maluch, about to set sail in Greece sometime in the early 2000s. Image by Mr. Bartoszyński, courtesy of the author.

It is not only the travelers, of course, who are different than they are now, but also the destinations. The author describes his memories of a trip to Vietnam in 1978, which was still recovering from the after-effects of war: men conducted military exercises in the park, women hauled baskets of bricks for rebuilding projects. The minibus conveying the group from Hanoi to the south carried a full barrel of gasoline on its roof, because it was not possible to predict where the next functioning gas station would be. In such situations, he writes, no one complained, or even mentioned the hardships. Instead, they reveled in the beautiful sights, the delicious foods.[21] There is something poignant in the final disclaimer that this landscape is being described in the past tense because he knows that everything is different now, a solitary view of Ha Long Bay is no longer possible—that global tourism has changed all those places in the world that people once traveled to. And the travelers, and their homelands, have changed too.

This unassuming, cheerful book is remarkable for the way it so vividly evokes a particular era, and its particular affects: a special combination of humor, sadness, nostalgia. One of the most striking aspects is how it gives lie to the notion that Poland was fundamentally cut off behind the Iron Curtain, isolated from the rest of the world. Without overlooking the hardships of the time, the authors nonetheless show us a nation of people on the move, excited to explore—their own city, country, and globe. The logistics of those forms of travel frequently attest to the economic relationships between Poland and other countries. But they also show us something wonderfully particular and specific—the quintessential Pole, being in the world.


[1] This perspective was clarified for me with a crystalline force during a conversation that I had with a random stranger at some social gathering or other. “You’re Polish?” he said. “I visited Poland in the 1980s. It was so gray, and rainy. No one smiled. Until I saw a group of kids on the street, and I showed them my Walkman. And their faces just lit up.”

[2] A phenomenon more extensively documented in relation to the GDR, as Ostalgie, discussions of which were particularly widespread in conversations surrounding the reception of the 2003 film Good Bye, Lenin!

[3] Maluchem do Raju, Kazimierz Kunicki and Tomasz Ławecki. Bellona Press: 2020, Loc. 2250. All translations my own.

[4] Maluchem, Loc 2259.

[5] Maluchem, Loc 2274.

[6] Maluchem, Loc 2299

[7] There is, of course, an extensive body of research on cultures of memory and historical politics in Poland, especially in relation to (post)socialism. See, for instance,Tarkowska, Elżbieta. “Collective Memory, Social Time and Culture: The Polish Tradition in Memory Studies,” Polish Sociological Review, No. 183 (2013), 281–96; Korycki, Kate. “Politicized Memory in Poland: anti-communism and the Holocaust,” Holocaust Studies: a Journal of Culture and History, vl 25 (2019), 351–376; Bailyn, John Frederick, Dijana Jelača, and Danijela Lugarić, Editors. The Future of (Post)Socialism: Eastern European Perspectives. SUNY Press, 2018.

[8] For an excellent collection of jokes that testify to the realities of life in the Soviet bloc, see also: You Call this Living? A Collection of East European Political Jokes. C Banc, A. Dundes. University of Georgia Press: 1990.

[9] Another example of a work that examines the connections between forms of travel and the broader sociohistorical landscape is Mia Bay’s new book, Traveling Black: a Story of Race and Resistance. Telling the story of Black travel in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Bay documents histories of segregation and resistance to it, from organized activism to individuals refusing to give up their seats. “American identity has long been defined by mobility and the freedom of the road,” Bay tells us, and though “African Americans have never fully shared in that freedom,” the story of Black mobility, and efforts to control it, similarly proves to be a powerful history of twentieth century America. Bay, Mia. Traveling Black: a Story of Race and Resistance. Harvard University Press: 2021, 3.

[10] I should probably admit that the book has an even more meaningful appeal to me. One of the authors is my great uncle, thus, some of the anecdotes in the book are my history in an especially literal sense—they are stories of my family.

[11] Maluchem, Loc 530.

[12] Maluchem, Loc 553

[13] A similar sense of resignation appears in the chapter on airplanes, specifically, in the recounting of various plane crashes, and the acknowledgment that the purchase of superior technologies from the west was not possible. The authors note that in this day and age, when airplane travel is something normal and common, we rarely think of its risks—but also note that sometimes life undermines any sense of generalities and statistical probabilities, and describe several particularly tragic accidents of the time. Though they do not mention it, it is hard not to think of the Smoleńsk catastrophe as another point in this grim history.

[14] Maluchem, Loc 572.

[15] Maluchem, ibid.

[16] Maluchem, Loc 834.

[17] Maluchem, Loc 715.

[18] Maluchem, Loc 1431

[19] So too, in Mia Bay’s book, I was captivated by the description of “jitneys”, a kind of shared cab that proliferated during the World War I era (Bay goes so far as to speak of a “jitney craze” [153]) and then largely disappeared (though with some hold-outs). Only to resurface now, I would suggest, with the carpool option on ride-sharing apps like Uber and Lyft.

[20] This is, of course, why travel is generally restricted by totalitarian governments. But what this means for people coming from less powerful parts of the globe is rarely considered in anything other than edifying terms. An interesting argument against travel from less developed places can be found in Ignacy Krasicki’s eighteenth-century novel, Mikołaja Doświadczyńskiego przypadki, The Adventures of Mr. Nicholas Wisdom. For more on the issue of travel writing by authors from the “periphery”, see the first chapter of my book, Estranging the Novel: Poland, Ireland, and Theories of World Literature.

[21] To hear a Pole rhapsodize about nuoc cham is something of a revelation, given that one more frequently hears Polish travelers complain about spice levels, and explain that they prefer blander foods—the word “bland” does not have a negative connotation in Polish.