Europe has long been condemning the communist regime, but none of the countries has gone as far as Poland, where a law was signed allowing people to be fined or imprisoned for keeping and buying communist symbols.
Twenty years after the fall of communism in Eastern Europe, the Polish government are about to completely erase memories of the Cold War past and make everything from the hammer and sickle and red flag to trendy Che Guevara t-shirts and posters illegal.
On Friday, President Lech Kaczynski approved an amendment to the criminal code which outlaws production, possession, spread and sale of items or recordings containing symbols of communism. Anyone who disobeys the law – for instance, waves a red flag singing The Internationale in the centre of Warsaw – can be fined or even sent to jail for up to two years.
However, communist attributes can still be used for artistic, research and educational purposes. Collectors will not be punished either.
The law was put forward by the opposition Law and Justice Party and was passed by the Polish parliament in early November.
“Communism was a genocidal system that led to the murder of tens of millions of people,” Jaroslaw Kaczynski – the president’s twin brother and the head of the party – said back then. “No symbol of communism has a right to exist in Poland, because these are symbols of a genocidal system that should be compared to German Nazism.”
The law also bans the display of the Nazi symbols, which is quite common for many European countries including Germany. It is the outlawing of the communist symbols that makes the Polish initiative unusual.
While left-wing MPs and some others argued that the law is ill-defined, the majority of the population is likely to see the Soviet Union as one the worst evils of the last century.
“It's just a silly thing,” Tadeusz Iwinski, a parliamentarian from the left-wing Polish Social Democratic party who opposes the change, as quoted by Spiegel Online. “What does it mean, ‘symbol’? Does that mean when government officials go to China and take pictures under the banner of the Communist Party they are breaking the law?”
Meanwhile, right wing politicians are also pushing for legislation to rename streets and buildings bearing the names of communists.
Earlier this month, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski suggested the Palace of Culture and Science – a skyscraper in Warsaw that was donated to the Poles by Joseph Stalin – should be demolished. He said that should become “The Polish equivalent of the fall of the Berlin Wall”. Not to make the move look purely ideological, the minister said that the building was expensive to maintain and was wasteful of energy. Indeed, the palace, built in 1955, is truly enormous: more than 230 meters tall.
Even now, when the USSR no longer exists, many of Russia’s neighboring countries in Eastern Europe still have concerns. According to a report published earlier this month by the Pew Research Center, the highest percentage of those seeing Russia’s influence as negative is, among the Poles – 59 %.
The research said the majority of Poles are satisfied with how democracy is working in their country and nearly half of them are sure that the economic situation is better than compared with communist times.
Poland did not pioneer the idea of banning communist symbols.
The anti-communist mood is especially strong in the Baltic States, which tend to see the Soviet era as “an occupation”, claiming that the USSR illegally annexed Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in 1940. Moscow insists the three republics were liberated from Nazi Germany and then voluntarily joined the Soviet Union.
So far, the toughest law in the post-USSR space was passed by the Lithuanian parliament. Last year the country’s lawmakers approved legislation to ban the display of Nazi and Soviet symbols, such as the swastika and the hammer and sickle.
In July 2009, the OSCE Parliamentary Assembly carried a controversial resolution – put forward by Lithuania and Slovenia – that equates the Nazi regime with Soviet Stalinism.
Ukraine’s pro-Western leadership seems to still be at the crossroads deciding who exactly to condemn or support. In 2008, President Viktor Yushchenko announced his plans to introduce legislation banning communist symbols. The intention, however, didn’t go far. The Communist Party has a lot of supporters in the country and outlawing their symbols would lead to clashes at the very least.
On November 27, a monument to Lenin was opened in Kiev after being restored.
At the same time, the country has been witnessing a surge in nationalism lately and those who used to be seen as enemies in the USSR are now glorified and considered heroes in Ukraine.
On Monday, the trial of John Demjanjuk – also known as “Ivan the Terrible” – began in Munich. The 89-year-old is accused of being an accessory to the murder of thousands of Jews at a Nazi death camp during the Second World War. However, in his home country Ukraine, he is seen as victim by some people, who say the case was fabricated.
Meanwhile, Moldova might join the Iron Curtain countries in banning communist attributes. On November 20, such an initiative was voiced by parliamentarian and member of Democratic Party Oleg Serebryan. According to Regnum agency, the MP added that the Communist Party should not be banned, but its influence within society should be lowered.