Sunday, 26 December 2010

Hell on Earth

Prompted by the missile incident that occured on 23 November 2010 and the recent rigged presidential election in Belarus, I began reading about authoritarian and totalitarian regimes. The one which gripped my attention most was North Korea – the most isolated country in the world and the last Stalinist regime on the whole planet. While reading through some articles, I ran across mentioning in passing a Polish documentary depicting the regime - Defilada, by Andrzej Fidyk.

The short (65 minutes) documentary was shot in 1989, when North Korea was celebrating 40 years of its existence. The festivities coincided with Olympic games in Seoul in 1988 and were meant to outshine the sporting event. The director was allowed in North Korea and shot a striking film. He deliberately shot it and left to the audience. Not a single word of comment has been added, a sinister picture of life in the country is being shaped in a viewer’s head. Shots of lavish parades are interspersed throughout scenes from daily life and utterances of North Koreans who speak about their lives dedicated to Kim Il-Sung, hereinafter “the Great Leader”.

The most shocking phenomenon that permeates everything in North Korea is the cult of personality. Ubiquitous Great Leader’s presence is felt at every corner. What the North Koreans speak about The Great leader is nothing but gruesome twaddle, similar to the one known from Stalinist Poland, but much worse.

The North Korean’s mindset is a result of years of brainwashing which has its onset short of after the moment of birth. From the age of around 3, children at nursery school study childhood, early life and accomplishments of the Great Leader. Belief that Kim Il-Sung is a half-god is instilled in children from the earliest stage of their life, when they take in everything they are told. The regime’s excellence at social engineering is truly dreadful. Further on, the indoctrination continues to turn out fairly deranged citizens who venerate the Great Leader.

The right word to use in the context of cult of personality in the country is reverence. The Great Leader is revered. North Koreans would be even ready to go on pilgrimage to a toilet bowl on which he sat (this is not said in the film). The description of the Great Leader, spread by omnipresent propaganda apparatus, reminds of Chuck Norris jokes, which spurred peals of laughter in Poland and across the world some five years ago. The most disarming one was that of the Great Leader who came to an institute of technology and solved problems too difficult even for most outstanding scientists.

According to official propaganda, North Korea is a land of milk and honey. No wonder the authorities want to spare its citizens suffering caused by seeing the outer world and do not allow them out of the country. The land where things go on much worse is the neighbouring South Korea, a fascist country enslaved by imperialist occupiers from the United States.

Just after the armistice was signed in 1953, the demilitarised zone between two countries was created. The border between two Korean countries is said to be the best protected border in the world. The existence of Korean Wall (not as notorious as Berlin Wall) remains a subject of disputes, but it surely has its place in North Korean propaganda. Before the wall was erected, some despaired South Koreans battered by American occupiers fled their country to seek asylum in the land of milk and honey. Now the concrete wall is the obstacle and helpless South Koreans have to stay imprisoned by cruel capitalist regime.

It cannot sink in to me that North Korean really believe in the whole shit there are told about their Great Leader and the country they live in. In socialist Poland virtually everyone, including comrades from the PZPR knew that whole “superiority of socialism over capitalism” is just an ideological rubbish. No other totalitarian country has managed to shape mindsets of its citizens as expertly as regime of North Korea has done.

Post-stalinist Poland, run by Mr Gomulka, Mr Gierek and Mr Jaruzelski, in comparison to North Korea appears as an oasis of freedom (therefore I argue it should not be called totalitarian, but authoritarian country). And socialist Poland was a part of the Soviet bloc, its bad fate after WW2 was a result of political decisions of movers and shakers (the main player in the game of dividing Europe was Stalin, Churchill and Roosevelt succumbed to his demands). Poland could not leave it for political and military reasons without running the risk of being brought to a heel by fellow bloc members; while North Korea’s torment results now, after the Soviet Union fell apart and China rejected Maoism, from the decisions of its own leaders (or to put it bluntly some obsessed mobsters).

I wonder if fear is an indispensable element of life of North Korea. For us, no doubt, it is, but we must not forget North Koreans were brought up in the system based on fear and their perception of reality is so distorted that they may not realise what they feel is fear (a vague concept I am trying to convey, I know it is hard to me to put it in words). I will not hazard a guess they have learnt to get on with fear. Fugitives from North Korea have to undergo a long-lasting process of rehabilitation to function in a normal society properly.

This brutally proves the cruelty of North Korean regime. How inhuman the Great Leader’s son must be to spent millions of US dollars on uranium enrichment programme, while millions of North Koreans are starving?

The only explanation of how people keep on living in North Korea is that they get by because they have never experienced freedom and have never seen how a normal country functions. They take all absurdities and degeneration as natural. Maybe some of them even experience some kind of happiness drawn from family life. Surely the unawareness of living standards in civilised world eases their pain.

The question how to handle North Korea is a pain in the world’s neck. World leaders cannot shrug off its existence, as long as it threatens to use its alleged nuclear weapons. The cruel tormentors who run the country could, in the most simple view, be wiped off this world with the benefit to everyone. Even in case of (Heaven forbid) nuclear war, resorting to use of bombs to annihilate leaders of North Korea (probably in vain, as they would stay safe in bunker hideouts) would mean killing thousands (or millions) of innocent people. A few times it occurred to me that wiping North Korea off the map would put 23 million of citizens of the country out of their misery. I know it is cruel, but faced with a choice of living in North Korea as a native, I think I would consider putting myself out of misery.

Bringing down (somehow) the totalitarian regime would not translate into freeing the country. The problem would remain and apart from economic costs of aid for North Korea, the goal to teach North Koreans, dehumanised by years under the Great Leader’s and his son’s rule, how to function in a normal society could be unattainable. Those people do not await liberation, but we can hold out hopes for economic crisis that would topple the government. All communist regimes fell down because of economic difficulties and North Korea has to follow the same path, although it will be much more complicated.

Saturday, 18 December 2010


This year, the time has come. In the past years, before Christmas I promised myself to share some of my wealth with the ones in need. I know, it is a but hypocritical, it is done only around Christmas, because everyone else does it and later people forget for the rest of the year. In the past years my low income was a lame excuse to confine to a few zlotys, this year I decided it was high time to endow some foundations and charities. I began to earn some “real” money, next year my earnings will be really decent, so apart from paying taxes which are aimed at redistributing wealth, I should help my fellow men off my own bat.

In the past days, when I had some free time (scarce commodity) I have pondered upon this issue. The topic triggers a lot of questions, concerning legitimacy, percentage of income that should be shared with others, discretion, moral duty and many more.

Virtually everyone agrees the disadvantaged should be given aid. Opinions how to do it wisely vary. In socialists’ view, the state should be solely responsible for redistributing wealth. The richer should under constraint pay not only higher taxes, but should also give to the state apparatus a higher percent of their income. Liberals, in turn, claim it should be the civil society that takes over function of helping the poor. People, as they say, can set up foundations and charity organisations and endowing them should be a moral duty.

Both approaches have substantial downsides. The statist one assumes the state is omnipotent and will allocate the collected resources effectively. This is impossible – the whole bureaucratic apparatus costs too much and will never be effective – once we had such system in which the state oversaw everything and it failed. The liberal one carries a naïve assumption people will be ready to share their wealth with the worse-off, which is overtly false. Most people are greedy and even if they do it, they will give out only a tiny percent of their earnings. Here there is a fix for it. In many Anglo-Saxon societies donating large sum to charities is a benchmark of one’s social status. There is some bit of pressure from society. But if it was not about boasting about the endowment on a party, would they be ready to give their money away that eagerly? I realise it is better that giving no money at all; no matter if the well-off outbid one another who donates more, the disadvantaged benefit from this. My take on the issue is similar to my view of CSR – most companies do it to maintain a good image, not because they care about those parentless children. Mechanics of the endowment is identical – people do it because they care about their prestige, benevolence is just a side effect.

And I have also realised that even if I was most open-handed I could afford, my contributions would still be hypocritical. I could not sympathise with beneficiaries of my help, just because I have never experienced homelessness, famine, shortage of money, severe illness or any other kind of misery. No big tragedy has affected me yet, my family have, thank God, never been destitute. But on the other hand, as I have also never experienced luxuries, I feel I am in between. Much above me are those whose opulence would dazzle me, much below are those whose poverty is beyond my comprehension. Probably the bigger the gap is, the harder it is to take in a fellow man’s woe.

In addition, giving money is taking the path of least resistance. I may have fewer banknotes in my wallet, by bank account may be credited and the strain is over. Good deed is done, conscience is clear. It is not that simple, as long as I still avert experiencing misery.

Also a man’s wealth determines his problems. For people who struggle to make ends meet, the problem might be if they will not run out of cash to buy bread for children. For those a bit better off, who surely can afford to stock up on bread and smoked hams, the problem might be paying for a child’s school trip abroad. The richer you are, the further from scraping along your problems are. A reason to complain for my colleagues might be that they can afford only a suit for 1,000 PLN rather than five times more expensive one. Or, as this year, that the Christmas bonus was not an equivalent of new compact car’s value, as it was in the years of prosperity (2006 or 2007).

Yesterday I had a Christmas party in my office. It was thrown in an empty unfinished sizeable room in our office building in the very centre of Warsaw. Looking outside the windows could you see Palace of Culture, hotels, busy streets full of well-off people running pre-Christmas errands in haste. Food and drink was in abundance, everyone was pleased to get together… I wonder if I was the only one who thought about families who cannot make ends meet during the party. Once again the Band Aid’s song reverberated in my head…

It's Christmas time
There's no need to be afraid
At Christmas time, we let in light and we banish shade
And in our world of plenty we can spread a smile of joy
Throw your arms around the world at Christmas time

But say a prayer
Pray for the other ones
At Christmas time it's hard, but when you're having fun
There's a world outside your window
And it's a world of dread and fear
Where the only water flowing is the bitter sting of tears
And the Christmas bells that ring there
Are the clanging chimes of doom
Well tonight thank God it's them instead of you

And there won't be snow in Africa this Christmas time
The greatest gift they'll get this year is life
Where nothing ever grows
No rain nor rivers flow
Do they know it's Christmas time at all
Here's to you raise a glass for everyone
Spare a thought this Yuletide for the deprived
If the table was turned would you survive
Here's to them underneath that burning sun
You ain't gotta feel guilt, just selfless
Give a little help to the helpless
Do they know it's Christmas time at all
Feed the world, feed the world, feed the world
Feed the world, feed the world
Let them know it's Christmas time again

Does anyone hear “the clanging chimes of doom”?
Is anyone thankful “tonight thank God it's them instead of you”?

But Polish bankers are not as spoilt as their counterparts from the City or Wall Street. Here the banking system is totally different (in Poland investment banking is just fledging and will never develop for good after Mr Crisis spelled the death of it) – there is no such depravity, earnings and bonuses are not sky-high and expectations are different. More about one depiction of London’s bankers circle in the New Year’s Day post!

Saturday, 11 December 2010

Another happy return

Those yearning for a longer weekly piece, please get on to Polandian, where I’ve enumerated some things that get on my nerves. Now I’m awaiting some mud slung at me by unfailing commentators. The post on Polandian is not actually very optimistic and as all my postings was written on the spur of the moment, left for the posterity after a brainwave had come over me.

What can cheer one up in a period when daylight is so scarce? Mikołajki - a Polish custom of giving token gifts to your near and dear is still alive. For five years of studying of SGH, where there are no fixed student groups I’ve forgotten how it feels, but this year I got caught up in the exchange of gifts in my office. My boss drew a person on my behalf and handed me a slip of paper containing the name. At the beginning I thought it was a considerable nuisance, as deciding what to buy to a twenty years older woman seemed a hard nut to crack. But then I used my brains, found my colleague’s profile on Goldenline and discovered we both are fond of U2 music. After a short research in the Internet I ordered a book “The Name of Love” about the band’s lyrics. Another colleague watched her reaction on Monday, when the gifts were handed (I was absent) and said she had been pretty delighted. I picked up my present on Thursday. I think the hand-painted bauble will be a nice decoration, but surely also proves someone had no idea what to buy (I was tipped off that one guy from sales (rather reticent) does it in his spare time). Next Friday we have a Christmas party – something I haven’t enjoyed since 2005. SGH is not really conducive to socialising…

The centre of Warsaw is lit by Christmas decorations. To the right – ul. Emilii Plater, modernised this summer is designed be the high street of Poland’s capital to bewitch Warsaw’s inhabitants and tourists. There are always some people who stick around there every day and who don’t take notice of its brilliance. I took a few snaps in the dark, without a tripod, on the display of my camera they seemed sharp, but after transferring them to my computer the photos turned out to be a bit blurred. Maybe next week I’ll take the camera again to get it right.

A widely publicised event held yesterday was a Złota 44 construction reopening ceremony. Orco (property developer), after a court handed down a ruling favourable to the developer and thus brought the dispute over the building to the close, is going to resume construction works in January. Façade of the building should be finished by Euro 2012 and the building will be finished by the end of 2012. Time will tell if the splendid edifice will overlook Warsaw, but yesterday’s ceremony was nothing but a misfire. I don’t understand what the whole hype about the whole 15-minutes long event was about. They played some music, lit the building with flashy spotlights and thus thanked Warsaw for patience. Some people stopped by to watch the so-called show, but majority remained indifferent.

A step in good direction is the new timetable of suburban trains. Substantial improvements in transport links from my suburb to Warsaw will come into effect tomorrow and I’m glad to learn about it, as from 1 February 2011 I plan to commute by train. From tomorrow on, there will be five trains between 7:00 and 8:15 (including three double-deckers) and eight between 6:30 and 9:00 (four double-deckers). I only wonder whether the services will be reliable. During last two weeks cards were stacked against them. In the long run I plan to commute by car and leave it on P&R Okęcie (currently under construction), next to W-wa Okęcie bus & tram terminus and then take a tram to the centre. The only problem is how to get there before the dual-carriageway bypass of Warsaw is built… I’ve heard local roads between Dawidy and Raszyn are jammed in the morning. And if more trains run in the morning, will it mean more people will drop their cars and go to town by train? Will the carriages be packed?

Now a small request to Mr Santa Claus. I bought some stocks in late November? Please bring me a substantial rally and keep all skeletons in the cupboards locked up until the end of the year.

Saturday, 4 December 2010

Was it really about trust?

A follow-up to the story from late August. Not a breakthrough hitherto, although things have moved on a bit. I still haven’t got back a single zloty out of one thousand I had lent my ex-classmate over six months ago.

I tried to get in touch with Karol a few times, he wrote back to some text messages, but never picked up a phone. Once, in mid-October he claimed he had made a transfer to me a month earlier. When I told him I hadn’t received any money he couldn’t believe it, but also couldn’t submit any receipt of bank transfer executed. Funnily enough, not only didn’t he have any confirmation slip, but also he didn’t know to which bank account he had transferred the money. The next day he dropped me another text in which he asserted he had just transferred money and asked for a reply when I got the money. Needless to say I once again I didn’t see a single zloty.

On 19 November Karol’s mother called me. To my surprise it turned out he had told his family about much more transfers sent to me. She also added he wouldn’t return any money to me because he was “undergoing a therapy” and pledged to take over his debts. We also arranged a meeting next day, in the evening. I met up with her in her house in Piaseczno. Once well-furnished and well-maintained flat has lost its finery. Karol’s mother was quite jittery (they still have some other problems in the family) and explained she was desperately trying to borrow some money to straighten things out. I think I managed to talk her out of turning to a loan shark (who the f*ck invented the name of the company which surely doesn’t cater for provident people?) and suggested she should apply for a regular cash loan in a bank. She also asked me not to call Adam (Karol’s brother) because his nerves were frayed after months of sorting out his brother’s problems and having two full-time jobs for a few months to earn more money.

The sentence about the therapy was the most puzzling. The first supposition that occurred to me was that he had got addicted to gambling and lost all his money as a compulsive casino-visitor. Then I began putting the pieces of jigsaw puzzle together, all goings-on from the day I had lent him the money and the possible sequence of events began to unfold it was even more frightful than gambling.

Schizophrenia is a quite possible explanation. Did he lie he was a chairman of a student organisation or did he think he was? Did he have a job or did he think he had a job? Did he think he had had ordered those transfers and was he really baffled because he couldn’t find any documents to prove it? Was his strange behaviour at home, before he moved out, about which his brother told me, a sign of developing mental illness? Probably I’ll never find out the truth about what has happened, but if it’s really schizophrenia, it’s a tragic story. Karol and his family might have met a tragic fate. He was an up-and-coming lawyer, now, regardless of what he’s being cured from, he’s not going to finish his studies. His family, once well-off are now almost destitute. Will they manage to give him a helping hand after they lost all their ample savings getting him out of troubles? A fellow blogger’s wife, who is a psychiatrist, told me care from family and friends is essential to return to a rather normal life after symptoms of schizophrenia recede. Or will he be left to his own devices on account of his misdeeds?

For two weeks they Karol’s mother didn’t call me. If she fails to do it for a while, I’ll get in touch with her in January. Her assurances to pay me off sounded credible, so I’ll give them at least a bit more peaceful period before Christmas. I told her the repayment wasn’t urgent for me and I could wait for some time, but in the long run I wished to get the money back. I hope we’ll agree on a repayment schedule and I mull over what then. Given their situation and mine, I think it would be wise to write down a part of the debt, but only when they repay more than a half of it in time.

Another question is if I’ll every lend any money (except small change everyone can afford to lose) to anyone. I think lending some money (no more than a few hundred PLN) to friends I keep in with regularly doesn’t have to be ruled out. The other thing is securing the loan by signing a loan agreement, which enables me to claim my money in a court. But if I had signed a valid loan agreement with Karol on that hapless day, would I be better off now? I could sue him, I would have to lose time for wrangling with Polish judiciary system and quite probably the court would hand down a ruling favourable for me, but what would the ruling mean in a situation when my debtor is out of cash and, moreover, insane? Maybe his family would go to a great extent to repay the debt? Who would cover the litigation costs? Finally, I’d have to listen the whole sanctimony…

Hmm… I know by dint of age I’m wet behind ears and maybe I don’t handle the matter properly… So what do you make of it?