Saturday, 25 April 2009

Homo Sovieticus - Post 18

‘Am I a typical example of a Homo Sovieticus?’ wondered Kacper. ‘Was it actually a bad thing to be a Homo Sovieticus?’ he carried on? He tried to recall, which of the Polish politicians made this term to be really popular back in Poland. He knew, it was first introduced by one of the respected Catholic philosophers, a priest – Józef Tischner. Tischner, in this way, described people, who were brainwashed by the previous system, and behaved in a very opportunistic manner during the ‘new’ era. Although, Kacper did not remember exactly, how the term got politicised, and famous in the following years, he was sure, some right wing politicians picked it, and used it to offend their political opponents.

Kacper actually was fond of the term, and often considered his own definitions of, who a Homo Sovieticus was. Today, he got reminded of it, because of his Italian friend, who works with him here in Chad – Marco, who loves teasing Kacper about his ex-Soviet origin, something that Kacper is enjoying, but would never admit to him!

As for all of us, also Kacper’s childhood experiences influenced, who he became later in his live. His 18 years, in the totalitarian, communistic system, made him to be the Homo Sovieticus! Later, he would wane himself off some characteristics attributed to the term, but Kacper is aware that no matter, how hard he tried, he would always be one, and therefore, it was just better to accept, and even like this part of himself.

He often wondered what made him to be a classic product of the communist system. Kacper already speculated about it, in some of his previous stories on life in totalitarian Poland (Post 5, followed with some remarks in Post 14). He was convinced however that, what influenced him most, was the country’s educational system.

He remembers so well that during his literature, or history lessons, students were not encouraged to have their own opinions on any topic. On the contrary, having your own opinions was considered to be arrogant, and arrogance needed to be eradicated! Students had to read books, but they also needed to read additional materials accompanying these books, ‘explaining’ them values, their novels represented, and how the students should interpret them. History lessons were very similar. One could never challenge any of the messages coming from the teacher. It was just not possible, so no one even thought about it. In the same time, the system promoted science, mathematics, physics, or subjects, which were not considered to be controversial, or thought to undermine the system. Memorising things was good, your own thinking was bad. Simple as that!

In consequence, Kacper’s schools, perhaps made him to be fairly logical, organised, and able to employ figures and numbers into action, but completely undermined his confidence.

Obviously, differences in living standards between Eastern and Western Europe made many people, including Kacper; feel to be ‘somebody worse’… ‘Oh yes, I definitely suffered from the inferiority complex’ reflected Kacper. ‘Especially, when I was young, and things just started changing in Poland.’

His first painful confrontation with the post-communist reality took place in 1990. Kacper was planning to go to the United Kingdom for a short summer course of English language. He always liked learning languages, and he did exceptionally well in English in his High School of Nowy Sacz. Kacper was certainly very lucky! Once, he won a scholarship, funded by the Mayor of the Town Council, which would pay his fees and living expenses, while in London. His family however, needed to cover travel costs.

In those days, Kacper’s family was not very wealthy at all. They were not as poor, as in 80’ies, when things were really tough for them, but a bus ticket from Poland to the UK equalled around 4 monthly salaries of his mother. Taking a plane was so expensive that was simply unthinkable.

He remembers his parents discussing, whether they could afford sending him to London. Kacper had an older brother, who already studied architecture at the Polytechnic of Krakow, and supporting him was a big financial burden for the family. He therefore did not have his hopes very high, and did not want to put more pressure on his parents. He was then so surprised to hear that, they will pay for the ticket! ‘Kacper, this is a great chance for you’ said his father. ‘We will somehow manage’ confirmed his mother, and added that the bus was not so expensive after all. They were so sweet! Kacper knew that she only told him so, not to make him feel guilty. He kissed them both and was so proud, so proud to be their son.

In the beginning of 1990’ies, it was not easy for Poles to travel outside of the borders of their country. The citizens of Poland needed visas literally everywhere in the world, and it was difficult getting them. In order to make it to the UK overland, Kacper needed a transit visa for Germany, and Benelux countries. Obviously, he needed a visa to enter the UK too!

As soon as he saw masses forming an endless queue, he knew he must have arrived to the German Consulate in Warsaw. ‘Is this a queue for visas to Germany?’ he politely asked. ‘And what do you think it is… Standing here for pleasure, you think?’ an older lady with a cigarette in her lips snapped at him. ‘Dear…’ she continued. ‘We are waiting here to register in the queuing list…’ she decided to be a bit nicer to Kacper. ‘…Once we get to the building, they will take your details, give you a number, then you will be officially registered in the queue’. She then told him that, once registered, Kacper needed to come to the embassy every day to check, which numbers would be served on that particular day. It was important to do it properly, as if one missed one’s turn, the whole process needed to be repeated, and she doubted, whether Kacper wanted it. ‘Are you telling me Madam that we are now queuing, so that we are registered in another queue?’ asked Kacper somehow disbelieving, what he had just heard. ‘Yeah, tell me about it, kid’ confirmed the woman rolling her eyes impatiently. ‘Bloody bustards! Look how they treat us!’ she concluded angrily.

Kacper had his interview 4 days later. ‘Why are you travelling to Germany?’ asked a rather unpleasant officer in good Polish. ‘I am actually not going to Germany, Sir; just want to transit the country… I have explained in the application that, I am transiting to the UK’ went on Kacper. ‘What will you do in the UK?’ came the next question. Kacper did not understand why the German guy would care what he was going to do in the UK, but answered as politely as he could that he was going to participate in the language course. ‘Who will pay for it…’ he went on, an kept on asking all these silly questions. For the first time in his life, Kacper understood that people actually did not like him, just because he was poor… It was not a nice thing to realise. At that point during the interview, something broke in Kacper, and tears started flowing out of his eyes to his cheeks… This must have puzzled the German official a bit. He did not really know how to handle the crying kid. ‘Wanna have some water?’ he asked giving him a glass. ‘Cheer up, young man’ he went on. ‘Come back in 2 hours, your visa will be in your passport by then.’

Getting Benelux and UK visas was nearly as dramatic, but Kacper cleared all procedures, and he was ready to travel!

He arrived to the coach station well in advance to make sure; he was not going to miss the bus. He waited, and waited, and while doing so, enjoyed watching other passengers gather. He really was excited! The hour of departure arrived, but the bus was nowhere to be seen… 30 minutes, 1 hour… still no bus!

Some 90 minutes later, a young man, dressed in a suit came and addressed the crowd of impatient people. ‘Ladies and gentleman, I would like your attention please!’ Everyone looked at him wondering what was happening. ‘I am afraid that the bus to London will not leave today’ he announced. ‘Our company has just gone bankrupt’ he added laconically, and smiled. Kacper does not remember what happened later. He just thought of his mother, and the money… ALL WASTED! He was not travelling to England, he would not be learning English this summer!

In the afternoon, he called his mother, from the flat of his uncle, with whom he stayed, while in Warsaw. He told her about his day, and informed her that he would be taking his train back to Nowy Sacz the following day. He tried to make sure that she could not detect in his voice, how disappointed he was.

Hours later, just before he was about to fall asleep, his uncle knocked at the door of his bedroom. ‘Kacper, you need to wake up at 6 in the morning, you are FLYING TO LONDON tomorrow’ he just told him, trying not to show how pleased he was. ‘What do you mean uncle?’ asked Kacper. ‘You heard me!’ he exclaimed, and hugged Kacper.

His plane was just about to start descending towards Heathrow. Kacper still could not believe, he was on his way to London. He felt happy, and moved in the same time, while looking at two notes of £50 that he found in the ENVELOPE…

Kacper only managed to be going to the UK, as his uncle decided, he would spend some of his savings on Kacper’s air ticket. ‘Make sure that your English is fluent, when you are back’ he demanded from Kacper, before he allowed him out of his car, in front of the airport. He also handed him an envelope. ‘Don’t tell your mother, you have it, understand…? And only open it in the plane!’ he instructed surprised Kacper.

19 years later, in Abeche, Kacper still smiles subconsciously, when he recalls his first trip to the West. He remembers London to overwhelm him in every way. The Homo Sovieticus part of Kacper’s character, made him feel very, very shy, and unimportant in this world of colours, full-shelves in shops (in those days, one could not buy lots of products in Poland), music and money; lots of money that Kacper did not have. That is except, the 2 notes of £50 from his generous uncle.

PS. Kacper was unimpressed with gossips that rebels were coming and he, and his colleagues might need to evacuate.


  1. How fascinating! Does Double Life of Kacper refer to The Double Life of Veronique by Kieslowski? That is one of my favorite films.

  2. Kieslowski might have had something to do with it ;)