I had a fine conversation with a Polish émigré in town today. She spoke vividly of fleeing Poland as a dissident college student in 1988, the year before the Berlin Wall fell. A compatriot gave up every name he could think of, without being tortured, after getting caught by the State authorities.
“What kind of person does that?” she wistfully asked. She quickly added, “But I understand better now, and have forgiven him, though I had to flee to Spain.” We didn’t get into the details of how she ended up in this comfortable, Central Valley of California college town studying ecology as a 50-something returning student.
We did touch on the question of freedom however. “I felt more free in Poland under Communism than I do here,” she said surprisingly. There was sadness in her voice, as well as the trace of the vitality in her youth of standing against the totalitarian state. There was also the telltale sign of the cultural depressiveness that infects everyone in America now to some degree.
She spoke of a good friend of hers who was also arrested, a young woman more active politically than she was in the last years of Communism’s rule in Poland. “The Russians put tanks in the streets to scare people,” she said, “but there was no violence. They couldn’t stop us, although the state apparatus was still sweeping up people like my friend.”
“She was released, but died right afterward in a mysterious car accident. She hit a tree, though she hadn’t been drinking.”
You feel she was murdered? I asked. “Yes, I do,” she said flatly.
I replied that in America they don’t kill your body, they do something much more effective—they kill your spirit. That’s why we have so much conformity here, and so much fear. People keep each other in line better than the State did under the Soviet system. Very few question and speak outside the acceptable narratives, and the few that do are ignored.
Her words, and more, her body language and tone, showed that she understood. “I feel less free here than I did in Poland before the Wall fell,” she repeated.
We briefly retraced the history. The heady days of Lech Walesa, the trade-union organizer and co-founder of Solidarity, which became the vanguard of the collapse of the entire Soviet system. And Pope John Paul II, from Poland, giving succor to the Polish people and the entire Eastern bloc to stand against the Soviet domination until they literally broke down the Berlin Wall.
I asked about Poland now, noting how often it’s cited as the greatest capitalistic success story after the collapse of the Soviet Union. “My country has followed America politically and economically completely,” she said. “It’s changed Poland, and not for the better on balance.”
I told her of how my column began in this ostensibly progressive college town, and ran for three years in the local rag, the Chico Enterprise-Record. Despite strong readership across educational, income and class divisions, the column was suddenly censored and cut. “And this is America,” I said, “where we supposedly have no censorship.”
No fan of Russia, my newfound friend spoke of how the triumphalism of America after the USSR’s collapse, and the encroachment of NATO helped give rise to Putin. Having spent time in Russia in 1990, and witnessed the depth of Russian pride and memory of Nazi invasion, I agreed.
“Though few in the United States foresaw the collapse of the Soviet Union,” I added, “I knew that not only was the demise of the Soviet Union imminent, but so was the collapse of the United States, though in a moral and social way rather than an economic and political one.”
Surprisingly, we shared a lot of laughs. After all, one has to laugh at human history, or all one would do is cry.
We didn’t ask any questions about the present, perhaps because it’s just too painful. My Polish friend is an American immigrant/citizen of the non-brown-skinned kind that Donald Trump scapegoats as he rides a complicit media wave.
I voiced my feeling that George Bush Senior provided the straw that broke the American spirit, and that America imploded as surely as the Soviet Union exploded. We shared the perception that George Bush Junior provided the bale that’s breaking the human spirit with the permanent “global war on terror.”
The obvious question hung in the air: Has the fat lady sung on our age, or is this the darkest hour before the dawn? Perhaps that’s up to us, the few that still give a damn. After all, history isn’t written in stone, even when it looks like it’s all been reduced to rubble.