From Riots to Unequal Riches in Poland - OZY | A Modern Media Company
Polish troops check a man's papers while another enters a shop, during anti-government street demonstrations by supporters of the Polish trade union Solidarity, Gdansk, Poland, 31st August 1981.
SourceBride Lane Library/Getty


Democracy has been good for Poland, but — like Pope John Paul II said — it doesn’t come easy.

By Sean Williams

Ryszard Podkowa was tucked up in bed when his father rioted against communist rule in Poland. He had stayed with his mother, Barbara, and younger sister while Josef, a skilled electrician, had taken to the streets alongside thousands in their vast Krakow suburb.

Ryszard was 11 years old and it was 1981. Discontent at Poland’s government had risen to a boiling point, and workers began throwing down tools in protest. The country’s leaders in Warsaw imposed martial law. Tanks sat beside factories. Soldiers strode across picket lines. By the time martial law was lifted two years later, thousands of activists were in jail and dozens had been killed.

“Poland was not a happy place to live.”

“Poland was not a happy place to live,” Ryszard says. For a short while after that, Josef was billeted at the steel mill where he made his pay. For his son, it was a reminder that life under communism, despite benefits, came at a price. But perhaps surprisingly, while the Polish people were dissatisfied enough to rebel against their communist rulers, and now enjoy a lively democracy and a relatively fast-growing and stable economy, there can still be reasons to miss some aspects of old communist rule.

This is the third in a series of articles marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of the Berlin Wall. They tell the story of the wall and the division of Europe through the eyes of individuals who lived under its shadow.

Today Ryszard lives in Warsaw, Poland’s capital, where he moved from the Krakow suburb of Nowa Huta — the “New Steelworks” — where his parents moved soon after the Second World War. A quarter century after communism’s fall, Ryszard lives a very different life: working to develop apps about the city and spending time cycling, traveling and attending live music concerts.


Back then, Josef and Barbara Podkowa — which means “horseshoe” in Polish — were given a 430-square-foot, two-bedroom condo in Nowa Huta upon marriage, moving from another part of Krakow. Barbara, a teacher, got a job schooling first- to third-graders. Josef got a role at the Vladimir Lenin Steelworks, a vast, fort-like ode to Stakhanovite industry in the heart of Nowa Huta’s sprawling, Stalinist alleys.

olish communist security troops use tear gas during clashes with anti-martial law demonstrators in the Old Town in Warsaw

Polish communist security troops use tear gas during clashes with anti-martial-law demonstrators in the Warsaw Old Town.

Source Teodor Walczak/Corbis

Nowa Huta is Krakow’s easternmost district and one of its most densely populated. Rapier-like pines poke above Corbusian blocks once named for communist heroes. It was built quickly to cater to Poland’s place in the Soviet economy. Not everything worked.

“My hometown was gray,” Ryszard recalls. “The vast majority of buildings were apartment blocks, only plastered, because the estate where we lived was built without the necessary infrastructure.” Initially there were no sidewalks either, but soon, thanks to the mill, Nowa Huta flourished. In its center stood the giant striding figure of Lenin. Religion was officially frowned upon in the Catholic country. Nowa Hutans gathered in makeshift chapels for Sunday Mass. 

He still envied children in the West — their wealth and books. 

School, well, it was OK. Kids were taught the virtues of socialism and education was rounded. But Ryszard still envied children in the West — their wealth and books. “Opinion on the Soviet Union was divided,” he says. “People benefiting from the party did not criticize. Most people, though, did not agree.”

Ryszard — Richard in English — played soccer on the streets. TV entertainment was “minuscule,” he says, consisting of two state channels. Some of the Polish and Soviet shows were fun, especially the trashy soaps. His favorite, though — when it aired — was The Muppet Show. The biggest TV moment by far was when Karol Józef Wojtyła, also the son of a teacher from a town just 30 miles away, became Pope John Paul II in 1978.


The most fun he and Teresa had was when they headed out of town to see their grandpa, who lived in the village of Grodziec, 400 kilometers away. Grodziec was swaddled in greenery. It was the opposite of Nowa Huta. One by one, boys would emulate the great footballers of their day — Boniek, Smolarek, Lato and Tomaszewski. In 1982, as martial law raged, Poland’s footballers secured third place at the World Cup. Even the rioters stopped to cheer their heroes.

Polish Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski meets with Solidarity movement leader Lech Walesa.

Polish Minister Wojciech Jaruzelski (left) meets with Solidarity movement leader Lech Wałęsa on March 19, 1981.

Source Witold Rozmyslowicz/Corbis

Poland was falling into ruin.

Ryszard may have been indoors when the riots broke out, but television and his parents were education enough. Communism in Poland would survive but only for a handful of years. During that time the economy tanked. Houses and nightlife drifted away from the means of ordinary Poles. People still had fun, at house parties or church. But Poland was falling into ruin.

By 1988 the bad times had become too much. Strikes broke out again across the country. Lech Walesa, who had been locked up during those first riots, was now the leader of Solidarity, Poland’s main opposition. In August, Warsaw’s flailing government invited him to the capital for talks. They didn’t work. By September — two months before the Berlin Wall fell — non-Communists were approved to rule Poland. The following year, Walesa won Poland’s first democratic election.

Ryszard is pleased Poland felled communism. But the new country is far from perfect. “We are free,” he says. “But as John Paul II said, ‘Freedom is difficult.’ ” Elites still govern Poland, and jobs, ubiquitous under communism, are now scant. “The previous system taught a lack of responsibility for people’s own lives. But today, as worldwide, there are growing differences between the rich and the poor, who barely earn a living and can’t even dream of their own home.” The elderly, too, have been maligned in the new Poland, says Ryszard, and health care is worse now than before.

Ryszard is glad that Poland is free to choose its own destiny. And the economy is picking up. “The young generation can educate themselves, travel and more,” he says. But many things have remained the same. In Poland, as across the Eastern Bloc, the political left and right aren’t always so different.

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