Born in 1991. 30 Years of Ascent and Decline of Democracy in Poland

Door Olga Byrska, op Fri Mar 22 2024 08:26:00 GMT+0000

Poland’s recent political history is marked by endings and beginnings: from the birth of a young democracy in 1989, to the recent end of the reign of the illiberal populist Law and Justice party. Olga Byrska, one of its citizens, sees those changes reflected in her and her family’s history. ‘Poland and I are millennials, but we are strange millennials.’

It is 1991. The Gulf War has just begun. The Silence of the Lambs has just come out. Freddie Mercury, Miles Davis, and Serge Gainsbourg have all been recently mourned. Ukraine, Belarus, Lithuania, and Latvia have declared their independence from the USSR and, soon enough, there was no more USSR. In the same year, Poland was taking its first steps as a young democracy. With a new government elected (in a partly-democratic manner) in 1989 and a new president, Lech Wałęsa, the pace of changes in politics and the economy was picking up. The military presence of Soviet Union forces in Poland was mostly withdrawn. Poland established diplomatic relations with most Western European states. The Warsaw Stock Exchange opened for the first time in 52 years.

I was born on the 7th of October in 1991, just twenty days before the first fully democratic elections in Poland since 1930. Our lives – mine, and Poland’s – go hand in hand. My singular existence – my family background, and all the challenges and factors that shaped me – are a mirror, a prism if you will, of the structural changes my country has been undergoing over the past three decades. Our generation, the generation of those born on the verge of the start of the regime change, embodies all the societal changes and paradigm shifts of that time. We draw from the experiences of past generations, who lived through real socialism, but know no other world than one defined by liberal democracy and a capitalist economy.

We are a transient generation stuck between two irreconcilable political and economic models.

Poland and I are millennials, but we are strange millennials. We are a transient generation stuck between two irreconcilable political and economic models. On the one hand, we are still familiar with the experiences and attitudes of people living in the previous political regime, either through our parents’ memories or our own early childhood experiences. Without realizing it, we inherited certain opinions, attitudes, and habits, such as a certain disdain for adhesion to political parties. On the other hand, our lives have been defined and shaped by the changes unfolding after the 1991 regime change: we were children during the currency transition, the hyperinflation, and the mass layoffs of millions of workers in factories and workplaces deemed unnecessary in the new capitalist Poland. We were barely teenagers when the country became a member of the European Union, and we entered adulthood just as the consequences of the 2008 economic crisis hit home. Finally, my generation of Polish millennials lived through almost a decade of rule by the populist, ‘illiberal’ PiS (Law and Justice) Party. Many of us started our families despite the government’s increasingly aggressive policies towards certain groups – both inside and outside Poland – such as the LGBTQI+-community and refugees.

The history of this new post-1991 Poland – from its ascent to democracy, to its decline, and to the strange, limbo-like period we now find ourselves in in these last few months – are inextricably wound up with our bodies. The recent change of government – a liberal democratic coalition replacing an antidemocratic and illiberal party for the first time since 2015 – and the particularly tense and unpredictable geopolitical situation triggered by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine overlap with our own struggles and future perspectives.


Exhibit one: my first birthday, three generations of women. My grandmother, born in December 1947 in a village with a population just over 2000 inhabitants, situated 25 kilometres from Warsaw. She left school aged 12, worked in a screw factory, tended to her family’s fields, then met and married my grandfather, who worked for the national railroad company. Also in the picture is my mother, born in 1968 in a nearby village.

Exhibit one. My first birthday, three generations of women, 1992.

In 1973, my family moved to a new working-class neighbourhood north of Warsaw. My grandfather received a 38 square meter flat – the flat I grew up in, the one you see in the picture – in a package deal with a new job on a State Agricultural Farm. My mother went to a vocational school. The regime change in 1989 found her as a salesgirl in a shop on the other, ‘better’ side of Warsaw. The working-class neighbourhood of my childhood, Bródno, became a separate universe from the ‘better’ Warsaw: people who did not live there had no reason to visit. Meanwhile, those who lived there didn’t have much time or energy to venture out to the city centre, except to access the services and goods unavailable in Bródno’s local markets and blossoming retail stores in the area’s busy shopping streets.


The 1990s, specifically the first half of the decade, were a terra incognita for capitalism à la polonaise. If you had a network, an uncle abroad, the right materials, or just an idea, if you knew a Western language, if you were well organized or just entrepreneurial or savvy, you could create a business that started out as a cardboard stand selling some clothes and become a clothing giant within a few years. Large-scale fortunes and stratospheric careers were made in those early years of the new Poland if you happened to be in the right place at the right time. The spoils went to those in better off areas who knew when to take a risk, how ‘to work’ the new jobs, and with whom.

As a kid, I got used to walking over semi-unconscious people, high as a kite or blackout drunk, lying on the stairs between the floors of our building.

For other people, like those from less fortunate areas like Bródno, the 1990s were drastically different. Most of the factories in the area called Żerań underwent structural changes, often including massive layoffs. The unemployment rate stubbornly oscillated around 15%, a situation which encouraged the development of a shadow market for drugs and stolen car parts. Various gangs fought over territory and merchandise, often with guns and knives. The biggest problems were the drug abuse and rampant alcoholism: ‘Polish heroine’, a crude drug known in the country since the 1970s, became a much bigger problem in large housing districts such as ours after 1991. As a kid, I got used to walking over semi-unconscious people, high as a kite or blackout drunk, lying on the stairs between the floors of our building.

I spent the first decade of my life between school and the local healthcare clinic where my mother and grandmother worked, the former at the registration desk and the latter as a cleaner. I would follow the wet mop of my grandma, answering her questions: ‘Who would you like to be when you grow up?’ ‘An architect, I would usually say. Being an academic, a historian, or a writer, would have never crossed my mind; I did not know that those could be actual professions. In my eight- or ten-year-old mind, the effect of one’s work had to be material, tangible, and easy to spot, much like the little wooden stools made by my grandfather in my grandparents’ room. Vague dreams were impossible in the dark corridors of that clinic marked visibly by the footprints of patients’ boots that my grandma had not yet mopped.


My parents’ problems and choices have always been closely related to more structural issues. In 2002 or 2003, the unemployment rate in Poland was 20%, and my father disappeared for eight months, leaving the entire family with tens of thousands of zlotys in debt. These loans came from dodgy creditors; many of them were ‘express loans’ (chwilówki) with atrociously high-interest rates and a constantly inflating amount of debt. In those years, it was very easy to take out chwilówki and just as easy to take out another loan to pay off an earlier one. Moreover, the complete lack of regulation created a parallel system of physical violence and threats. The price some paid in this all-too-free market was often high. It was not exceptional to hear of people suffering similar problems who took their own lives.

The price some paid in this all-too-free market was often high.

These issues plaguing my post-1989 generation were addressed in movies such as Dług (‘The Debt’, from 1999), Cześć, Tereska (‘Hi, Teresa’, 2001) and Plac Zbawiciela (‘Saviour’s Square’, 2006) Dług, based on actual events, tells the story of two young businessmen who are offered help (‘from a friend of a friend’) to facilitate getting a loan to open their factory. The men eventually decline the offer, but the ‘friend’ demands repayment of a non-existent debt. These events ultimately lead to murder. Cześć, Tereska gives an account of a teenage girl living in a big post-Soviet housing bloc in Warsaw, who finds herself in an increasingly isolating and violent environment. Finally, Plac Zbawiciela narrates the story of a young couple who take out a mortgage for a flat in a building under construction and are confronted with dire consequences when the developer goes bankrupt. These films discuss a dark and ruthless side of young Polish capitalism and its destructive effects.

Proper public discussion regarding the lack of regulations within Polish capitalism (and the consequences that followed) has ensued only over the past fifteen years. Slowly, judicial solutions, such as personal bankruptcy – a legal tool proposed in 2009 to facilitate debt relief – have been introduced to address some of the system’s excesses. In recent years, hundreds of thousands of people have filed for debt relief , going to courts with bankruptcy cases involving prominent, well-established banks. Before the 2008 crisis, banks in Poland convinced borrowers to take a mortgage and pay off their monthly loans in Swiss francs, a setup which was particularly beneficial for financial institutions. But after the crash, the currency’s price went up twofold, and a big part of the middle-class in-the-making was left with loans significantly exceeding the initial cost of their possessions – and no institutional support. Only in the past five years, courts have started ruling in favour of these claims, exposing that banks were not fully informing their borrowers of the risks entailed by taking out such loans.


The past 30 years have also brought immensely positive changes to Poland. This is the success story that makes us proud, particularly when abroad, and this is the story that many people abroad will be familiar with. The country’s economic success is measured with various indicators, such as the GDP, which has grown 900% since 1989, boosting an impressive expansion of the market and of purchasing power parity. These indicators show Poland’s fast ascent into membership of the most significant European economies, even after the financial crash of 2008. One can add to this the country’s efficient diplomatic cooperation with the European Union, since joining in 2004 – until PiS took over in 2015.

Exhibit 2: education. My schooling and education took place during two decades of mostly staggering economic growth. Throughout primary, secondary, and high school, I experienced many paradoxes related to structural, societal changes. On the one hand, the local primary and secondary schools, located just a couple of minutes’ walk away from where I lived, were traditionally ranked as the lowest in the city’s educational rankings. They were quite high up when it came to sports, performance, and perhaps especially for dangerous incidents erupting during the breaks (I can recall a couple of fights that ended up with at least one of the persons involved in the hospital). On the other hand, thanks to many engaged and experienced teachers, I received an excellent education, which later proved to be just as worthy as those youths from the wealthier parts of Warsaw have received. Some of our teachers supported us by going far beyond teaching their subjects, and I will not exaggerate in saying that they changed my life.

The elite high school I was lucky to get into when I was fifteen, confronted me for the first time with a social reality marked by class distinctions. I just could not fit in there and, as a teenager in 2006, I could not understand why. It was only later, after dropping out of my first university degree, that I had enough time and maturity to reflect upon the stark differences between me and my classmates. Most of them came from the middle- or upper-middle class, the first generation of people who ‘made it’ in the early Polish capitalism of the 1990s. These were the lucky ones, who travelled abroad during summer and winter holidays, and rode horses and played tennis. Their parents were successful entrepreneurs or had senior positions in new corporations. Our daily life experiences were vastly different and our possibilities for growth and development could only take place from widely dissimilar starting points. We, the generation born around 1989-1991, were likely the first generation in the newly-democratic Poland to experience such a clear sense of class distinction, that is, in a domestic context, as opposed to the distinction we had always faced under socialism, when Poland was compared to the so-called ‘West’.


Our generation’s early adulthood started in parallel with the consequences of the 2008 financial crisis. That its aftermath barely seemed to affect Poland (so much so that the country was named ‘a beacon of resilience’ in Europe) can be attributed to the neoliberal policies of the then-governing centre-right PO (Civic Platform) party, which in turn allowed that the illiberal Law and Justice party was able to gain support to win the elections in 2015. Civic Platform’s inability to solve these fundamental social issues resulted in bringing the far-right Law and Justice party to power.

The Law and Justice party, however illiberal, did acknowledge and solve some problems in the new Polish capitalism that Civic Platform had been unwilling to confront.

Civic Platform’s unbridled capitalist policies created an opening for a new, illiberal party like PiS. How, for instance, can one take care of one’s mother, suffering from Alzheimer’s, while more and more of the time and effort is spent working on an infinite chain of temporary contracts that pay only 8 PLN/2 EUR per hour? Before 2015, there existed no legal framework for assuring a minimum hourly wage for temporary contracts. In 2015, so-called umowy śmieciowe (‘trash contracts’) were so omnipresent that, according to certain experts, they endangered the stability of public finances. Legislation concerning child benefits, which the Civic Platform had blocked from implementation between 2007-2015, was only effectively introduced during the first Law and Justice term, and the Polish economy withstood that shock. Meanwhile, thousands of people working in public services who had seen their salaries frozen since 2010 finally got their raises – the first in six years. The Law and Justice party, however illiberal, did indeed acknowledge and solve some problems in the new Polish capitalism that Civic Platform had been unwilling to confront.

I shared in this feeling of discontent not only because of my family and their struggles, but also because of my own. Without any support, I had tried to find a way to study full-time, while working nearly full-time to avoid living in my family’s flat; those 38 square meters shared by five adults were completely unliveable circumstances for a nineteen-year-old girl like me. I worked for a couple of months in a pharmaceutical warehouse, waking up at 4.20 AM. I also worked as a part-time assistant to the CEO of a small company, and was responsible for everything, from planning foreign trips to moving out the unused tires from the CEO’s car’s trunk. I also tried to write freelance for very little money – money which would always arrive too late. I couchsurfed from one friend’s flat, floor, or sofa to another, and I would come to class in my first year of theatre studies with a backpack, toothbrush, and a fresh pair of clothes in it, never knowing beforehand where I would stay. Had it not been for the generosity of all the people around me, I would have probably had to drop out of those studies, too. Probably that was the reason (along with my first proper heartbreak) that made me emigrate to France in 2013. At the time, I could not see my future improving in Poland. My first year spent in Paris, working two jobs while learning the language and trying to make sense of my youth, did not bring a magical solution to any of my problems. However, I was able to return to Poland to finish my BA with a newfound sense of agency.

Hate speech made its entry in daily public discourse, along with not only symbolic but also often very tangible forms of violence.

Even though I have been a social democrat for as long as I can remember, I could understand people’s frustration over their diminished economic prospects under Civic Platform’s political indifference. However, the nationalistic spin the 2015 elections took brought about far-reaching changes that nobody could have predicted. With certain long-awaited social improvements, such as the implementation of a monthly child subsidy called 500+, Polish democracy shook its core. Simultaneously, the basis of the judicial system was dismantled, and the principle of the separation of powers adopted in 1997 constitution was effectively undermined, thus creating a major conflict with the European Union. Hate speech since then made its entry in daily public discourse, along with not only symbolic but also often very tangible forms of violence. The objects of that hate are various, ranging from political opponents, artists, and scientists to queer people or refugees. An almost-total abortion ban was introduced, as were the so-called ‘LGBT-free zones’.

However, the eight years of illiberal rule enforced by the Law and Justice party also has created an atmosphere of contestation, in which Polish democracy can grow and mature until, finally, as recent fact attests, hundreds of thousands of people continue to take part in an unprecedented wave of protests, fighting for their rights.

Exhibit 3. After the protest-performance against the police violence co-organised with friend Łukasz Jaskuła, July 2018.

New friendships and alliances were created, and as the 75% voter turnout in the last elections show, the Poles re-examined their attitude vis-à-vis power, re-directing their frustrations into more organised forms of political resistance. This proves useful even after the change of government, since just a couple of weeks ago another protest – this time against the new power reticence to vote over liberalisation of the current abortion ban – took place.


In 2024, Poland will celebrate 35 years of new democracy. Even so, the geopolitical circumstances of this celebration – crossing the limit of a Dantesque middle age (although these millennials aren’t middle-aged until 45, are they?) – will make it difficult to enjoy this celebration. Perhaps it is the feeling of many endings that approach simultaneously. The first decade and a half of our adulthood has passed, and the first serious mistakes have been made. Some were fixed, others we must accept. For myself, I am contemplating my future and which path to take: return to Poland, or stay abroad, or build a life in-between? Join the fight for same-sex marriages, and push for a better education system and mental healthcare for young people? As I contemplate these things, so does Poland. As one must reconstruct one’s life at times, after moments of structural changes, so does the country. The case of the new Poland is instructive and might, in fact, become a blueprint for a re-democratization of the judicial or public media systems of other illiberal states, such as Hungary. It feels like an ending. But it also feels like a beginning.

This text was created at the request of rekto:verso and Studium Generale Gent, for whom Olga Byrska gave the lecture 'A Happy Ending for the Capitalist Family' on February 13 2024, as part of a lecture series on 'the end'.

This article was published in the context of Come Together, a project funded by the European Union.