Poland: Your Ché Guevara T-shirt can land you in jail

Poland's revised criminal code includes a ban on communist symbols, such as the red star or hammer and sickle, though one artist says "they are no longer meaningful."

This photo shows lighters, notepads, postcards and a red t-shirt decorated with the popular image of Ernesto 'Che' Guevara.
Images of Lenin and Stalin are allowed for collectors but are forbidden by Polish law from being displayed in public.

A local, slice-of-life story from a Monitor correspondent.

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

To some, it may seem like a natural reaction for a country that suffered so much under the Soviet Union. There are exemptions for artists, educators, and collectors. But the ban doesn’t sit well with the younger generation of Poles, many of whom see communism not as a threat but as a source of satirical fun and creativity.

“In high schools it’s cool to wear Ché Guevara or the hammer and sickle. Some fashion brands even promote these symbols as part of their clothes,” says Justyna Kopczynska, a sociologist from Warsaw University. “Right-wing politicians are so radically against [these symbols] that they don’t see the difference between being ideologically conscious of being a communist, and just being young.”

A number of trendy communist-themed bars have appeared around Poland, poking fun at life under the old regime. One restaurant in Warsaw fills its menu with dishes such as “trout from the fish shop with the three-hour queue” and “Bulgarian peach pie: bartered for irons and Soviet cameras during the ‘International Tourist Exchange.’ ” You can even order communist-era “coffee” made of corn and chicory.

“It’s interesting because it’s gone; it belongs to the past,” says Grazyna Saniuk, an artist who creates T-shirts using designs from communist-era matchboxes. “Certain images of that epoch look funny and exotic to 20- or 30-year-olds, but they are no longer meaningful. They cannot reappear as serious symbols, or as a threat.”

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