It is July 2009, and I am writing this from Warsaw, Poland. This is my third visit to this country but my first time back since the fall of communism and the first elections in June of 1989. The last time I visited in January of 1986 we were minded by a "guide" from the state-run "Intourist" who made sure she knew where we were. Shopping consisted of one state-run hard currency store, and there were no supermarkets. Everything was gray. It wasn't gray because it was winter; the country had no color and not much motivation to add color in a country where individual ingenuity was not recognized. Hundreds of thousands of Soviet troops were stationed in Poland with the last troops pulling out in 1993.
Poland is a very different country now. It has joined NATO and is a member of the European Union. The old Soviet statues have been replaced with long-time Polish heroes. With the exception of a few really ugly buildings, the only remnant of the Stalin Soviet world is the large "wedding cake" building. The Soviets built this type of building in the capitals of all their satellite countries. Beyond that remnant, what the Soviets left behind is a complete distain of their leadership and a dislike of Russia.
The Polish people I have spoken with have great worries about Russia. They do not fear being invaded, but they worry about alliances that are being made around them.
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They believe that as a small country they could easily be a pawn in international diplomacy and business alliances. There is also worry that President Obama could make deals with the Russians that will leave them less able to defend themselves economically.
I heard comments like, "The Russians are still trying to get themselves in the front seat of the car" and "We think Obama will sell out Poland to Russia." There's also is a concern that the United States does not understand that Russia wants to dominate the world. There is also fear that oil and gas pipelines from Russia to Germany will bypass Poland. In fact, the bottom line is that they just don't trust the Russians. The Polish people are frantic concerning the missile shield, or lack thereof, in terms of American promises.
Propaganda by the Soviets before 1989 has made them wary of anything Russian. It may not be fair, but the high school history books glossed over the fact that almost 22,000 members of the Polish military were murdered by the Soviets in 1940, and it was made to look like the Germans did it. This has obviously been a wound that has smoldered over two generations. In the Soviet propaganda world, Americans were considered worse than the Germans and were also responsible for Poland's potato blight because Americans supposedly wanted the Polish people to starve. It is a lesson in occupation and how long hatred can fester with a population that doesn't welcome you.
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Poland has changed in other ways, too. The government has made real efforts to recognize the Holocaust and preserve what is left of Jewish life before World War II. There is clearly anti-Semitism, although no one will admit it publicly. I saw and photographed a painting for sale in a small market with a very ethnic looking Jew counting gold coins with a horrible smile on his face. Individuals with ethnic hatreds are hard to change.
I did notice dramatic change in the 20-somethings. Most of the young people I spoke with were not in grade school at the time of the first democratic vote. They did not see solidarity marching in the streets, and the schools they went to were open and free. They could watch what they wanted to on television, and they went to high school and college with free access to the Internet. They had a different view than people who were educated under the Soviets, and they view Poland in a very different light.
I sat with a group of young people and asked them what would be their wishes for Poland. They said that they would like smarter politicians, someone to vote for, a country not taken over by foreign investors and more opportunities for work and advancement. I could have been talking to any young American. I knew at that moment that Poland had really changed; it was a country with the same difficulties and problems that we have seen in our democracy. Democracy is difficult, as the Polish people have learned, but a far cry from the days of Soviet domination.