TOPICS > Nation

Poland’s Transformation

October 8, 1997 at 12:00 AM EDT


PHIL PONCE: And tonight that correspondent is Dean Murphy of the Los Angeles Times. For the past three years he’s served as Bureau Chief in Warsaw, Poland. Welcome, Dean.

One reads that the former Soviet bloc nations that Poland is doing the best as far as transforming to a free market. Are the Polish people, themselves, doing better economically as far as what they buy?

DEAN MURPHY, Los Angeles Times: In many respects. I mean, the drama of 1989 is passed but there are still many, many changes that you can see every day. When we first got there I used to call my wife a nomad because she used to have to go for days, entire days doing her shopping from store to store collecting everything. Now there’s big supermarkets just like we have here. And you can drive up in your car and fill it up and drive away. But even in the supermarket the changes are different. The first time we went to the supermarket we loaded up our car with everything just like we would have done back home. And we got to the checkout line, and everybody in the line was staring at us and we couldn’t figure out why, and it was because all of them had only one, two or three items at most in their baskets. They still didn’t have a shopping culture that we have, or they didn’t have the money or the car to haul it all away. That’s changed. Just last week I went to the store and all those people were driving up to the front of the store, opening up the hatchback, and filling it with all their groceries.

PHIL PONCE: One of the things you just said–there are more things to buy, but increasingly is there more money to buy things with for the average person.

DEAN MURPHY: There is actually. I mean, in relative terms to the United States it seems like a paltry sum, but in terms of what polls are used to having it’s a lot more money. Even the state-owned workers are making about three times what they used to make in 1990. And they’re borrowing money. There’s a big consumer credit boom occurring and so much so that the Polish National Bank is a little worried about it but people are borrowing money to go on vacation, to buy microwaves, to buy new cars. Poland is the fastest growing car market in Europe last year. There’s new cars everywhere. And it’s kind of funny, the car’s a good example, actually. I did a story about how many people are learning to drive and how poorly they drive. At one point the Polish parliament tried to ban smoking while you drive because they thought the average driver was so poor at his skills that they shouldn’t have any distractions. And then doing that story I went to the auto club in Warsaw, which is kind of like AAA here, and I was interviewing one of the managers there. And she was telling me all these horrible stories about these students who come to take classes and how poorly they drive. I said to her, well, that must be rather frightening for you driving to work every day knowing firsthand how many bad drivers there are. And she said, well, not really. I’m such a bad driver I take the trolley every day.

PHIL PONCE: Do you see any generational differences as far as who’s doing well in Poland and who isn’t?

DEAN MURPHY: Absolutely. Older people, by and large, are not benefitting, and older in Poland and other Eastern European countries means anyone really beyond their late 30’s. There’s sort of a mentality that if you were brought up during your nurturing years under Communism that you have a harder time adjusting to the change in mind set that is needed to thrive in capitalism. So a lot of older people have been written off by companies that don’t want to hire them, or they put them in jobs where they don’t make much money; whereas, the younger people, there’s a huge sort of Generation X out there that are driving fast cars and going to the discos at not and getting satellite TV and home computers and are doing quite well and have learned that from the West. They don’t have the memories of the old times.

PHIL PONCE: Do you sense any backlash on the part of the older generation, people in their late 30’s and older, as you put it, towards the younger people and towards this new wealth?

DEAN MURPHY: It’s sort of a mixed bag. Some of them are very resentful because they feel that they were passed by; that maybe the best years of their lives were somehow lost because of circumstances; that they happened to have been born at the wrong time. But those who have their own children are very grateful that their kids aren’t going to have to live the way they did.

One time I was interviewing the Solidarity Union chief at the Gdansk shipyard, which used to be the Lenin shipyard. That’s where the whole Solidarity thing started. And the head of the union was bemoaning the fact that his young son didn’t care at all about the hardships that his dad had gone through. He was one of the guys that, you know, scaled the wall with Lech Walesa, and his son only cared about what was going to be on TV, whether he could get satellite or cable TV, whether he could have this kind of new gadget. And the father was sort of saying, oh, my gosh, can you believe this, my own son doesn’t care about what I went through, but he was saying it in a proud way also, that his own son in the span of one generation was able to shed all the baggage that his own dad had lived with.

PHIL PONCE: Speaking of Lech Walesa, what do people in Poland think of Lech Walesa?

DEAN MURPHY: That was the biggest surprise of mine going to Poland was to find out that people don’t like Lech Walesa.

PHIL PONCE: Why not? Worldwide acclaim. In the West he’s thought of the person who almost singlehandedly beat Communism.

DEAN MURPHY: Right. And he did in many ways. The problem with Lech Walesa was that–is the problem of Solidarity. The Solidarity trade union in 1990 splintered incredibly and he was the head of one section of that. And he alienated a lot of other people in Solidarity. And he also has a very sort of cantankerous personality. He’s one of these guys that’s in your face. And as a president he was not a very good president because of that. He doesn’t know how to be a compromiser.

Adam Miknick, who was one of these prominent Solidarity era advisers to Walesa and others–he’s now the editor of one of the most influential Polish newspapers–he wrote recently that the dissidents from the Solidarity era worshiped democracy; they struggled to get it, but once they got it, they found it very uncomfortable to live in because they didn’t know how to compromise. And Walesa is very symbolic of that inability to sort of ban–he thinks he has the right idea, and he goes with it–and if he steps on people’s toes, so he does, and people don’t like that.

PHIL PONCE: And yet Solidarity made a comeback in the recent election. Why did people want Solidarity back?

DEAN MURPHY: Poland has this very deeply-rooted division between those who helped topple Communism and those who tolerated it, and the Solidarity block has always been there even when the former Communists were in power. Those Solidarity people were always there but they were so splintered they weren’t able to do anything with their power. And basically what happened was the Solidarity under its new leader–not Lech Walesa–its new leader–who was never at the shipyard–he was not one of the guys in the trenches back in the 80’s–he brought all these little groups together. And they’re actually getting the same support they always have but they’re together, and so they–they won because they’re one group instead of twenty groups.

PHIL PONCE: So even though Solidarity is back does not mean Lech Walesa is back.

DEAN MURPHY: He’s a power broker but he’s not back in power.

PHIL PONCE: Is their notion of democracy the same as the notion of democracy in the United States, freedom of the press, and that sort of thing?

DEAN MURPHY: That’s developing also. Like everything it’s in transition and it’s come a huge way when you consider that no one had any tradition of democracy. Even the people fighting for it didn’t really know what they were fighting for, except from books. And so that’s come a lot but has a long way to go. In journalism, for example, they still don’t quite understand the idea of a free press. They think they do but they still think it needs to be controlled somewhat. They have press laws that were passed since the changes. They were passed by democratic governments that require authorization for stories before you can print the results of an interview.

PHIL PONCE: Have you heard about an incident with the–Carl Bernstein book–talk about that.

DEAN MURPHY: That also. When the Pope was coming in the summer, the Carl Bernstein book was just being translated into Polish, and they were rushing–the Polish publishers were rushing to get it on the shelf so they could capitalize on the Pope’s visit. What they did without anyone knowing was they cut out most of the unfavorable portions of the book, the portions that reflected unfavorably on the Pope.

PHIL PONCE: And no one thought anything of that.

DEAN MURPHY: They didn’t. I talked to the publisher and she thought it was perfectly acceptable that they do something like that because the Pope shouldn’t be criticized.

PHIL PONCE: You lived their with your wife and two children. What was that like?

DEAN MURPHY: It was great. It’s a great place for a family. We actually started our family just before we went–had one son before we left and had the other while we were there. And it was one of the most pleasant experiences in Poland was to find out how child-friendly it is and how fun it was for our kids to be there. My sons are now visiting their grandmother and my wife tells me how they talked about Poland and how they want to go back to Poland, and they learned Polish. They talked to each other in Polish. They identify with it. It was a very friendly place for them, and I hope they have fond memories of it as life goes on.

PHIL PONCE: Is there any incident in Poland that you’ll take away with you as sort of being reflective of your life in Poland?

DEAN MURPHY: Well, actually it involves my older son. Shortly after we got there–I spent a lot of my time in the early years in Bosnia during the war, and I was off in Bosnia writing about the war, and my son got his finger caught in the door of our house, and it severed the top of his finger, and he had to go have emergency surgery. And it was a very traumatic experience, particularly since we had only recently got there. My wife was alone. We didn’t really know Polish. We didn’t know the system. And we–I rushed back from Bosnia. My wife took the child to the hospital, but it sort of is a metaphor for the things in Poland because the doctors were outstanding. These doctors are making only a few hundred dollars a month. The doctor came to the house, helped my wife, ushered him through the whole process at the hospital. The care at the hospital as far as the doctor’s attention was superb. We brought the child back to the states later, and the doctors here were marveling at how good the skin graft was.

On the other hand, the facilities were shocking. It was literally out of a Dickens novel. There were six kids cramped in one little room. We have one little boy who was looking after our son only because he liked him. A soup trolley came down the center of the aisle giving them their meals. We had to give diapers to them because they didn’t have any diapers to change them. We had to give money to the nurse so she would pay attention to him. It was just visually and facilities-wise, it was shocking but as people they were wonderful, and our son got great care.

PHIL PONCE: Dean Murphy, I thank you for being with us.