The 15 to 20 years that preceded the collapse of the Soviet Union in the late 1980s was really difficult for Poland.
The hard times started in the early 1970s, when the new regime of Edward Gierek was unable to stop an economic spiral, even with massive loans from abroad. Some of those loans, by the way, have still to be repaid.
At the end of the 1970s, inflation surged, prices increasing faster and faster. Poles were so desperate that many went on strike.
The rebellion exploded in 1980 into the founding of Solidarity, which was the beginning of the end of the Soviet system in Poland. However, during the 1980s, nobody knew it was the last stage of communism. All Poles knew was that life was really harsh.
The biggest problem was the mainstay of life: food. Entering a shop, you would see empty shelves ? with the exception of vinegar bottles.
For some reason there was never a shortage of vinegar, but that was the only thing that wasn?t in short supply.
The biggest absurdity was the lack of sugar. Poland was one of the biggest sugar beet producers in the world, yet you couldn?t find it in stores. It was being shipped elsewhere in the Soviet Union.
The same with meat and cooking oil. In fact, the majority of products manufactured in Poland were sent to the abyss of the Soviet Union.
Rationing, which first appeared in Poland just after World War II, became a national disgrace in the 1970s.
The first rationing, in 1947 and 1948, involved only meat and cooking oil.
From 1951 to 1953, meat, soap and washing-machine detergent were rationed. Poland wasn?t the only country in the Soviet Union suffering from rationing in the 1940s and 1950s, however, so it didn?t seem as bad.
The real disaster began in 1976. It started with sugar ? two kilograms per person per month. In 1981 rationing expanded to meat and meat products. Then it was butter, flour, rice and cereal.
Next it was alcohol, cigarettes, coffee, chocolate and gasoline.
Altogether, rationing lasted 8.5 years.
Meat rationing didn?t end until August of 1989.
One of those who remembers the period well was Stanisław, now 54.
?The biggest problem about gasoline was when you wanted to travel? a considerable distance, he said. ?Whenever we went more than 100 kilometers, we had to plan in advance and put a gas can with an additional 20 liters in the back seat. This was extremely dangerous. Frankly, it was like having a bomb in the car. For some reason gasoline in the rest of the U.S.S.R. was extremely cheap and never rationed, in contrast with Poland.?
Polish officials tried to paper over the problems with gimmicks.
For example, they created Vegetarian Monday, a day when you could not buy meat anywhere. Cynical Poles viewed it as adding insult to injury.
A similar gimmick was applied to alcohol. You couldn?t buy it before 1 p.m. each day. If officials had taken the step to keep more people sober, it might have had some merit. But it was taken because of plain old shortages of alcohol.
The supply crunches led to long lines for some products. It wasn?t unusual to see lines day after day for a week, even for mundane items like toilet paper.
Lines were so prevalent that they began serving purposes other than what they were intended for — shopping.
You could exchange information in a line. It could be the setting of a mini-public forum about a subject. Even the secret police, the dreaded Urzad Bezpieczenstwa or UB, used the lines.
The chatter in them gave the UB a good feel for the public mood.
Often, a line formed before anyone knew what was going to be sold in a shop. It was enough that people heard that something was going to be sold there. People did not care what it was. They knew that if they didn?t need it, they could sell it on the black market.
You actually had to sign up before you could get into certain lines, Stanislaw recalls. An official Queue Committee checked those who showed up against the queue list. If you hadn?t signed up, you were out. The names of people who signed up but failed to show were crossed out.
?From time to time I had to stay overnight to make sure nobody formed another line? of people who weren?t on the list, Stanislaw said.
?Once I was waiting in a line to buy a TV set, but they brought refrigerators instead,? he said. He didn?t think twice about what to do. He was ?extremely happy? to buy a refrigerator, he said.
The system created professional queue standers. Sometimes they were retirees. Family, friends or acquaintances hired them to stand in the lines.
There were also entrepreneurial standers. They would stand in line for a time, then sell their place to anyone who came along.
The one way to avoid lines and get what you wanted was to have dollars or another Western currency.
The government forbade Poles from selling Western currency, but there were shops where you could pay with it — or with special coupons equivalent to dollars.
A chain of shops called ?Pewer? was founded in the early 1970s as duty-free outlets for Polish goods. The reality turned out to be much different.
The shops became places where Poles could buy such Western products as jeans, beer and Marlboro cigarettes.
Although the shops underscored the superiority of capitalism, officials did not shut them down because they were a significant source of foreign currency.
Although the law forbade people from selling Western currencies, the brisk demand for them spawned the ?cinkciarz,? or currency criminal. They sold dollars on the street. The authorities looked the other way because the cinkciarz filled a gap in the economic system. In fact, the secret police actually controlled the crooks.
Some enterprising Poles improved their economic situation by making trips from country to country in the former Soviet Union, selling products as they went.
But it was dangerous ? because it was prohibited.
Lidia, who is now 51, said many people made trading trips in the mid-1980s. She said the first stop was often Lviv, in western Ukraine.
?We were carrying stuff bought In Poland — clothes, jeans, wigs, cosmetics and umbrellas,? she said. ?If we were lucky, then we bought Russian electronic equipment, blankets and gold, and went to Hungary to sell them. Hungary was a much more cultural country ? we could sell stuff without worrying about the police.?
In Hungary, her group bought ?mostly sweets, fruits (oranges, sometimes bananas), juice in plastic bottles — big attractions for our kids — and what was most precious: U.S. dollars.?
She said sometimes the group would return by way of Ukraine again.
?Once, when we were crossing the border, a Soviet customs officer took our oranges from Hungary, saying it was illegal to possess them. We begged her not to, saying they were for our children.
She wasn?t moved. She took a knife, saying she must cut the rot out of the oranges ? and then we could take them.?
When she had finished, Lidia said, she had taken half the bulk of the oranges.
There were hundreds of thousands of stories like Stanislaw?s and Lidia?s in the 1980s. It?s hard for many Poles today to believe that was what life was like only 20 years ago.