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Poland's Communist Nostalgia at Odds with Official Ban


People wave Red flags in front of Vladimir Lenin's monument in Kiev, Ukraine, during a rally to celebrate its reconstruction (Nov 2009 file photo)

Poles can now be fined or even imprisoned if they are caught with a red star, a hammer and sickle or even a Che Guevara t-shirt.

Poland has recently passed a law banning symbols of communism. It is one of the most extreme bans in Europe, and it is a law that does not sit well with the younger generation of Poles.

Evocative symbols of Europe's troubled past, such as the swastika, have long been illegal in a number of countries across the continent. But now, Poland has gone one step further. Poland has revised its criminal code to include a ban on symbols of communism. And, Poles can now be fined or even imprisoned if they are caught with a red star, a hammer and sickle or even a Che Guevara t-shirt.

To some, it is a natural reaction for a country that suffered so much from communism under the Soviet Union. But these days, many younger Poles are more likely to see communism as a source of satirical fun and creativity.

On one of Warsaw's popular party streets, young people crowd into a bar where everything - from the derelict retro furniture to propaganda posters - is designed to remind you of the 1970s. The bar is called Pewex, the name of a chain of hard-currency stores from the communist era where Poles could buy Western products - if they had the dollars.

The owner, 30-year-old Roman Gruchalski, explains that the bar plays on his own nostalgia for the past. His is the last generation to really remember communism and not all of the memories are bad. He says, for children in that era, Pewex stores were like unattainable dreams and it was fun to collect Western things like empty beer cans and matchboxes. And, he says, he just likes the style of design.

Sociologist Justyna Kopczynska from Warsaw University explains that young people in Poland realize that the communist government was repressive. However, she says the way they are reviving it now is more about freedom and personal style.

"The young people are rebellious a bit. They think about their future and their freedom, and they want to show that they are free," said Kopczynska. "So wearing a t-shirt with Che Guevara doesn't mean that I am communist, but it means that I am trendy. The generation gap in our country is so huge that it's hard to make a compromise."

The ban was proposed by President Kaczynski's far-right Law and Justice party. However, the governing Civic Platform party supports it, as well. Politicians from both sides have said that, because more people died under communism than under fascism, the law is justified.

Twenty-four-year-old Lukasz Pawlowski says he agrees with the ban, if only because it protects the feelings of older Poles.

"I can understand that people who actually lived at that time, in the communist era, who were hurt by this system - it might upset them to see young people who might have basically no knowledge about this system and didn't live in that, wearing the symbols they don't understand. Wearing them probably just for fun," he said.

The ban includes a number of exemptions for artists, educators and collectors of communist relics. And, so far no one has published an official list of exactly which symbols are outlawed. Critics have complained that the law is too hazy to actually be applied.

One woman speculates that this is why there has been little public outrage, even among the younger generation.

She says that the ban may be absurd, but Polish people got used to many absurd laws during communist times. She says the Polish attitude is that there may be a law, but there is always a loophole. She says, no matter what the government does, we will survive.