Dystopia's provocateurs. Peasants, state, and informality in the Polish-German borderlands

Materka, Edyta
Anzahl Seiten
XVIII, 234 S.
$ 80.00
Rezensiert für H-Soz-Kult von
Kornelia Kończal, Historisches Seminar, Ludwig-Maximilians-Universität München

Edyta Materka’s „Dystopia’s Provocateurs” is an historical ethnography of a social practice travelling across time and space called „kombinacja“.1 This Polish word, used by the author in its original spelling, encompasses a variety of strategies with which people rework cultural, economic, and political norms for personal gain. Geographically, Materka’s focus lies on a local setting in the Polish part of Pomerania. Chronologically, she explores the various stages of kombinacja from the making of the socialist order in Poland in the second half of the 1940s to its unmaking around 1989. Studying „how ordinary people devised extraordinary ways to survive their private and societal dystopias” (p. xi), the author’s aim is to find out how the new inhabitants of Poland’s post-German territories embraced the art of kombinacja, and whether this practice could be considered a marker of a Polish-Soviet identity of the Polish-German borderlands.

The core of the study are chapters 3–6 which deal with everyday life in socialist and post-socialist Pomerania. Profiting from her status as a native ethnographer, Materka conducted sixty interviews with local inhabitants. Juxtaposing their testimonies with archival evidence, she explores how Poles, Ukrainians, Kashubians, Belarusians, Lithuanians and Germans living in Pomerania identified limited resources of goods or services, determined where to find them, and devised strategies to hide them from state surveillance and utilize them for their own needs. Depending on how, by whom and when the various forms of kombinacja were used, this practice could be either a means of resisting or accommodating the authorities; it could be a powerful tool for building social control and solidarity, but it could also ruin a state-regulated formal economy. Strikingly, although the boundary between being a good citizen and an economic saboteur was anything but stable, there was a broad consensus about the socially accepted rules of behavior in the specific context – both before and after 1989. However, whereas under socialism, kombinacja was largely an accepted strategy for survival, in the post-socialist period it became a discursive means of the „ordinary” people to attack corruption among the elites.

Furthermore, the book’s core chapters provide insight into aspects of everyday life in the post-German environment in Poland. Of particular interest are passages showing how the new inhabitants of houses previously owned by Germans dealt with their predecessors’ property during the Polish-German cohabitation in the early post-war months, and thereafter. One telling example is the German artefacts that were intentionally kept by the new owners: these were called „gotyks” and they were passed the generations as family heirlooms, functioning in many homes as talismans providing protection or as markers of cultural difference against the Sovietization of everyday life (p. 101–111).

Many passages in Materka’s book move far beyond the Polish-German borderlands to the point where her study contains much more than its subtitle suggests. For instance, the author makes an original attempt to reconstruct the pre-history of kombinacja. To this end, she recalls the history of combination, i.e. the freedom of association, at the dawn of the Industrial Revolution in Great Britain, and engages with several European novels from the 19th and 20th centuries dealing with the advent of capitalism in which the figure of kombinator appears (p. 54–81). Other passages explore the afterlives of kombinacja in the Polish diaspora in the United States, where the author lived for many years conducting participant observation (p. 18–23). The final chapter, in turn, draws from her participant observation during the „Heimat trip” of an elderly German couple visiting Silesia in 2015 (p. 194–220). Aware of the labyrinthine approach she takes in her book, Materka clarifies in the introduction: „If clear methodological and theoretical explanations are the formality of academic literature, then this book surely belongs to the realm of academic informality. Its framework is a labyrinth of instincts, feelings, and detours” (p. 14).

Indeed, „Dystopia’s Provocateurs” is an unorthodox scholarly work with regard to both content and form. Venturing beyond scholarly conventions, Materka smoothly blends ethnographic analysis with cultural criticism as she dissects the ghosts of kombinacja in post-1989 Poland (p. 173–193) and when she compares the current developments in Pomerania and Silesia (p. 201–210). Other passages read more like a literary than a scholarly text, such as the sections in which the author explains how she has been transformed by the spirit of kombinacja at various stages of her research (p. 201, 212). In terms of form, scholarly narrative merges with observations from a research diary, tenets of the authors’ family history, and a trans-Atlantic travelogue. Unfortunately, Materka’s elegant prose is not free from factual mistakes and misleading formulations. For example, Kashubians did not belong to the „repatriated Poles” (p. 1); there is no consensus among historians of whether Bierut „had died of suicide or poisoning” (p. 120) or by natural causes; the documents called „akt nadania” that were distributed among Polish peasants after 1946 were not ownership but merely possession papers (p. 143); the formulation „German and East Prussian lands” (p. 82, 86, 97) suggests that East Prussia was not part of Germany, which was not the case; the claim that there were „hundreds” (p. 187) of victims among people participating in hunger demonstrations in Poland in the early 1980s is not supported by any evidence; and to assume that after 1989 Polish citizens were „stripped” of “health care, free education, and access to land” (p. 193) overdramatises the real socio-economic consequences of the transformation. Despite these inaccuracies, „Dystopia’s Provocateurs” is a highly inspiring book not only for those interested in the history of East Central Europe, but also scholars working in the vibrant field of informality studies.2

1 The the Polish verb „kombinować“ (literally, to combine, in the sense of to wangle) remains without a proper equivalent in other languages apart from Hebrew (kombina); see also: Bartek Chaciński, Kombinieren, in: Stefanie Peter (ed.), Alphabet der polnischen Wunder. Ein Wörterbuch, Frankfurt am Main 2007, pp 132–133.
2 For a monumental achievement in this field: Alena Ledeneva with Anna Bailey / Sheelagh Barron / Costanza Curro / Elizabeth Teague (eds.), The Global Encyclopaedia of Informality. Understanding Social and Cultural Complexity, 2 vol., London 2018.