DANCING BEARS: Witold Szablowski at B-Unlimited in The Hague

Eastern Europe’s dancing bears and the truth about freedom.

Witold Szablowski is an award-winning journalist and writer who was nine when the infamous iron curtain came down in his native Poland. He tells us in his typically candid manner that he remembers the day quite clearly: he and his mother were at a sanatorium – a typical holiday retreat in communist times, and he recalls seeing his mother and friends gathered around a television in the communal lounge area. An announcement had just been made signalling the end of the Communist Party in Poland. Even at age nine, the writer remembers his shock and disbelief. The Communist Party was ‘a stone ’, he explains, ‘my family got everything from the Communists.’ He admits that his grandfather even wrote poems about some of the Communist party leaders.

‘The Communist Party was a stone.’

Szablowski’s most recent book, Dancing Bears, is a collection of true stories from people across Eastern Europe. From Georgia and the Ukraine to Kosovo and Albania, many shared their nostalgia for a way of life that is no more – life under Communist rule, or, as Witold puts it, under tyranny. Like the dancing bears of Bulgaria which were set free from their gypsy owners after the fall of Communism, the writer finds that freedom brings its own challenges. Many of the bears that had spent a life time in captivity were unable to fend for themselves in the wild. Some died, some were killed, some became aggressive and fought with one another. Szablowski’s metaphor is both subtle and a little disturbing. The stories he collects from his travels across the ex-Russian satellites suggest that people might not be so different from these bears. He goes so far as to suggest that, like the bears, whose owners frequently kept them addicted to alcohol, so the Soviet government did the same with their satellite states – keeping generous amounts of vodka flowing to countries like Poland and Bulgaria.

This award-winning journalist gives us a glimpse into the chaos caused by the sudden change in his native Poland. Overnight, he explains, one could find things in the supermarket that had not been seen in years. The sheer choice meant that many took hours to do their weekly shop. ‘Eating ham in the 80’s was like touching God’s feet’ but suddenly it was everywhere. However, for many, the end of communism meant unemployment. This phenomenon was previously unknown under Communism where, by law, all adults of working age had to have a job. People responded to these changes in different ways, Witold explains. Some became unemployed, desperate and depressed while others tried to embrace all that capitalism had to offer. Perhaps most devastating was the closure of Poland’s collective farms resulting in the loss of 3 million jobs overnight. Szablowski admits that no one really knows why these farms were closed, especially since research showed that at least half were doing quite well. He describes the decision to turn some of these farms into so-called Tolkien villages, as ‘bitter sweet’. Many who worked in these villages had never even read the Lord of the Rings trilogy and felt no connection with the characters but were aware of the great commercial success of the recently released films and, in true Western style, were determined to profit from this.

‘Putin’s shadow is getting bigger and bigger.’

Szablowski spent time in both Georgia and the Ukraine where Russia’s influence is far stronger. He tells us that he was struck by the similar reactions to Westernisation of the Orthodox church in Ukraine and the Catholic church in Poland. Both saw it as a threat to faith and traditional communal identity. ‘The clergy were so afraid’ he tells us candidly. He goes so far as to suggest that had the Pope at the time, who happened to be Polish, not given his blessing to the idea of joining the EU, he is not sure that Poland would have done so. However, when asked about the concerns regarding the rule of law in his country, Witold is unequivocal in his response – ‘the ruling party is destroying the foundations of democracy in Poland – that is absolutely true.’ Yet he points out that in spite of this, there is more support in Poland now for EU membership than there was before they joined the union. He admits that the desire for independence is very strong amongst the Poles – the country could not be found on a map of Europe for 123 years, and this, he tells us, is the card that the ruling party plays. However, he thinks it will be very difficult to convince Poles that the advantages of Schengen and other such freedoms afforded by EU membership are worth giving up. Perhaps  more worrying, is the journalist’s frequent return to the influence of Russia on Eastern Europe and his claim that it has grown in recent years. He notes that there are Eastern European countries who ‘forget very easily’ what life was like under Communism and describes Putin as ‘a hungry person’ who ‘works through chaos’  rather than direct confrontation. Perhaps nostalgia has its role to play if it encourages Eastern Europe to remember – both the good and the bad.     Souwie Buis     17th November