THE PRIVATE POLAND - Reviews
San Francisco Chronicle, February 22, 1987. Review, p. 4
Janine Wedel: The Private Poland: An Anthropologist’s Look at Everyday life. Facts on File, 222 pages; $17.95
A Land of Contradictions
Les K. Adler, professor of history in the Hutchins School of Interdisciplinary Studies at Sonoma State University
Not only has the "Polish Crisis" faded from American attention in the face of the rapid succession of events taking place in Afghanistan, Lebanon, South Africa, Iran and Nicaragua. Also, as we learn from Janine Wedel's fascinating study of everyday life in Poland, very little of Polish reality has ever been reflected in the coverage the country received during the turbulent years of Solidarity and martial law.
Rather than the media-based image of a land characterized by a dramatic conflict between the forces of freedom and repression, Wedel's description is of the inner and essentially private workings of a complex, ingenious culture, Here the family and social network remain the basis of security; here an elaborate system of informal facilitation of goods and services (zalatwionie) parallels and often overshadows the official economy; and here the state and its rules are treated less as opponents to be destroyed than as barriers and inconveniences to be overcome.
Wedel, a social anthropologist who spent several years in Poland during the early period of martial law following the rise of Solidarity, employed her academic credentials (a Fulbright Fellowship) and personal contacts built up over preceding years of travel in Poland to gain access to the interior of Polish life. The result is a remarkable and all-too-rare view of the human dimensions of life behind the iron curtain. Despite the charged political atmosphere of the time, in Wedel’s portrayal the issues of consequence are less ideological than existential.
"'Why' is not a Polish Question," remarks one informant in a revealing commentary reflecting both the historical experience of a people inured to invasion, conquest and occupation and a fatalistic cultural style. In an informal yet convincing fashion, Wedel documents the elaborate systems of coping with humiliating authority, bureaucratic inefficiency, shortages of goods and services and lack of personal control over important decisions that make life in Poland more like that in a Third-World country than in the developed West. Wedel herself writes that the "system of private arrangements calls to mind the economy of a less-developed nation."
With an eye for both the absurdities and human significance of such activities as a line of customers forming a committee to wait for weeks or months to purchase a refrigerator, or of party officials suggesting the use of illegal sources to find certain goods, Wedel gives a vivid portrait of any society where official institutions function slowly or badly and where services are most available to those who happen to know someone who knows someone - those who can zalatwic the best.
The Solidarity movement is mentioned only peripherally in The Private Poland as "a revolution of common sense" and a protest against the multiple indignities and entrenched contradictions of daily life. Its existence is explained less in political terms than as an effort to bridge. the enOrmous gap that separates public and private realities in that country.
Just as the "shadow" economy and private allegiances dominate people's lives - many of whom are functioning party members - uncertainty about and lack of faith in the official system create a destructive climate of disbelief that breeds cynicism and often despair. The information "grapevine" is given far greater credence than official media; official news in Poland is taken matter-of-factly for just what it is - official news, obscuring a reality that must be discovered elsewhere.
Even the Catholic Church, described by Wendel as "the one institution capable of challenging the government," is heir to the split allegiances that characterize the country. While appreciative of the Church's relative political independence, most urban Poles only selectively follow its fervent teachings against birth control, abortion and divorce. The result, Wedel reports, is a further increase in the tension that exists between institutional and individual realities.
While The Private Poland says little directly about communism, and the author deliberately avoided a political focus to her research, the book inevitably adds a great deal to our understanding of the social and cultural reality of those who live under its sway in Eastern Europe. Less dramatic than it appears in the popular press, Poland emerges in this insightful and important book as a land of intense contradictions where, as one Pole remarked to the author, "People are tired of trouble and struggle. They simply want peace. Such is life."