Tag Archives: Books

Book Review: Behind the Curtain – Travels in Eastern European Football

It was Christmas Eve and all through the house, nothing was stirring – because everyone had eaten too much barszcz, carp and cake during Wigilia dinner. When the time came to look under the Christmas tree for presents, little Decoy’s eyes lit up, as he saw what Santa Claus had brought. Mikołaj knew that Decoy liked reading books and also liked football, so it was a pleasant surprise to see books about football wrapped up neatly.

One of the books received was ‘Behind the Curtain: Travels in Eastern European Football’ by Jonathan Wilson. Wilson is a football journalist who writes for Sports Illustrated and the UK-based newspapers The Independent and The Guardian. He specialises in writing about football tactics and also football based in ‘Eastern’ Europe – i.e. those countries lying behind the Iron Curtain before 1989/90. His articles analysing tactical nuances on the Guardian website prove particularly popular with readers there.

His love affair with Eastern Europe began as a child with summer holidays to Slovenia, and he especially enjoys assessing the former Yugoslav countries in the Balkan regions, and how football has experienced peaks and troughs over the years. However, in this particular book he also considers other countries and regions and he aims to look not only at football, but how it plays a part in the social fabric of life, as most countries look to rebuild and develop after the fall of Communism. Thus, there are chapters called ‘Playing the System’ (covering Ukraine), ‘More Bricks than Kicks’ (Hungary), ‘Ever Decreasing Circles’ (the former Yugoslavia), ‘Chaos Theory’ (Bulgaria) and ‘Fallen Idols’ (Russia).

The chapter in which Polish football is covered is titled ‘The Ugly Daughter’. In it, Wilson tries to analyse the role in which football has played in Poland’s short- and medium-term past. His opening anecdote sums up the perception of football in Poland. He describes being in a car journey driving to Warsaw and the car he is travelling in hits a huge pot-hole and he is lucky that no serious damage is done. When meeting Jerzy Engel – the former national team coach – a few days later, he is informed that the main thing that Polish people believe is bad in Poland are the roads, but the national football team comes a close second.

Following on from this introduction, Wilson then delves into the glorious golden days of Polish football and looks at the success of the Polish national side in the 1970’s and 80’s, with characters such as Jan ‘The Clown’ Tomaszewski, Grzegorz Lato, Kazimierz Górski and Jacek Gmoch all featuring. The question then arises, how Poland could be so successful in the period from 1972 (achieving a gold medal at the Olympics football tournament in Munich) to 1982, which included third place finishes in the 1974 and 1982 World Cup finals. However, the simple answer appears to be that the period was a one-off, by having a group of exceptional players and a coaching setup that allowed them to blossom. When those players retired, Polish football reverted to the ‘norm’ of low expectations and low achievement.

Towards the end of the chapter on Polish football, Wilson then moves to cover club football in Poland. One point that should be noted here is that the book was published in 2006 (and thus probably compiled and written in 2005). This means that his perspective then was different to what it might be now. He talks about how Poland generally doesn’t take football seriously, and doesn’t have much of the governmental budget assigned to it, and that availability of pitches and other resources is lower than most other European countries. Thus, this is where his phrase of football being the ‘ugly daughter’ originates. He quotes Marcin Stefański, the league director of PZPN in 2005 as saying “In Poland, football is like a very ugly daughter. The parents say “Ok, we have it, so we have to have it”, but they don’t really want it”.

Behind the Curtain does provide an interesting insight into football and culture in Poland (and other countries in the region). However, what I found most interesting was how it showed how much could change in the 5 or 6 years that the book was written – and yet it also showed how little changes in the larger scheme of things. To highlight the first point of there being many changes, Wilson refers to the ‘Big 4’ in Polish football (at the time) as being Wisła Kraków, Legia Warszawa, Groclin Dyskobolia Grodzisk and Amica Wronki. In 2008, Dyskobolia merged with Polonia Warszawa and in 2006, Amica merged with Lech Poznań in both cases seemingly to boost fan numbers and thus finance. So now they do not even play in the top 2 or 3 levels of Polish football. However, in the bigger picture of Polish football, it seems little changes. The national team flatters to deceive, the clubs produce a spark of shining brilliance once in a while (such as Lech Poznań in Europe this year), but the league is at a low level. The hope is for Euro 2012 to push improvements, but with 18 months to go, it is difficult to see where they are happening, apart from remonty in 3 or 4 stadia.

Overall, in my opinion, Jonathan Wilson wrote an interesting book. The topics described could possibility be expanded so that each country could have a book of its own assessing football in the various locations, but as an introductory book, it covers football in ‘Eastern’ Europe very well. And by highlighting various aspects of Polish football, Wilson has summed up the best and worst of it, even if it may have been unknown to him at the time.

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Lech Wałęsa: a hero / a lesser hero / a traitor. Choose your title.

[edited June 20th, 3pm]

This is a follow up from Ian’s post just below. Read his post first, and then come back to mine.

Done? Ok. The book in qustion was not published yet. However it has already become the subject of a heated debate. Fragments were published in one of the dailies. Television presenters parade around their studios carrying massive files containing this book photocopied before publication. News channels and front pages are not talking about anything else for at least three days.

The book came as a special gift for the 25th anniversary of Wałęsa’s Nobel Peace Prize and Wałęsa’s nameday – which he is celebrating this Saturday.

Those, who criticise he book, say it is based only on Secret Service paperwork, and not cross-examined with other possible sources (like party files, interviews with communist figures, former oppositionists, diaries, etc…. and impossible sources like the vast archives in Moscow, to which there is no access). They also say that where proves cannot be found, authors make guesses and assumptions that prove their theory.

The book authors are educated historians, however some people claim their clear political agenda allows to call them politicians. They are employees of the IPN, the Institute of National Remembrance. It is an institution that was created to educate about the history of Poland, investigate unknown facts, and prosecute perpetrators of crimes against the Polish nation. Many of its employees have a clear opinion about the recent Polish history, that is corresponding with the ideas of the Kaczynski brothers (see below).

Notice that when talking about Secret Service inkjob, I am deliberately  not using the word “documents”, as in my vocabulary this word only applies to paperwork produced legitimately.

How did the Secret Service work?

Lets try to have a look at how were they getting their their paperwork. They had their own people lets call them secret servicemen. The secret servicemen were trying, among other things, to infiltrate the opposition and do all sorts of things to disturb them. And give information about what is going on to those who were holding political power. What were the ways of disturbing? First that come your mind are probably arrests, beating, threatening, detention – yes that of course was there. But also trying to make some oppositions distrust others (giving for instance false evidence of some of them conspiring with secret services), to make them quarrel, to strengthen personal dislikes among them, to make the opposition look bad in the eyes of the general public (once for instance fake recordings of Lech Wałęsa discussing how to fraud Solidarity money was broadcast in tv). Using various methods they tried to gain their agents (“tajny współpracownik”) among the oppositionists. Agents were (mostly, but not always) those who were aware that they were talking to the Secret Services. Sometimes they were worked on, someties they wanted to co-operate, sometimes they were forced to. They could be threatened, given money in exchange for information or “favour”. Agents had code names, and could also be given tasks – in order for instance to orchestrate some situation, or gain information from someone else. Apart from agents, there were also “sources of information” (who were also given codenames). People labeled in  such way in the papers may or may not have known that they have supplied Secret Services with information. They could be thinking they were talking to a friend or a co-worker. Or someone might have installed a bug in their flat. Etc.
Apart from that Secret Services are known for creating fake “agents” and “sources of information” in their paperwork, to use these papers later somehow. Information for such fake papers could come from person A, while attributed to person B. It could come from recorded telephone calls, from anecdotal knowledge, from serviceman’s imagination etc. etc. Why? For producing good and interesting results, Secret Servicemen were, for instance given more money, or promoted. Alternatively such papers could be shown to one oppositionist to make them think someone else was a traitor. Et caetera.. Secret Services were very creative. For instance special actions could be organized, like kidnapping of agents-oppositionists, just to make them more credible in the eyes of their opposition colleagues.

Apart from that some people could have been registered as candidates for agent (“tajny współpracownik”), there could be their signed pledge for cooperation in files, while they did not take any action whatsoever.

People’s attitudes towards Secret Services were different. Some were afraid and talked “with caution” trying not to spill the beans, some wanted to play their game with them and trick them… Only when in late 1970s an instruction was issued by Komitet Obrony Robotników (Workers’ Defence Commitee – an intelligentsia opposition organization) people became aware they shouldn’t talk with Secret Services at all, and shouldn’t sign anything.

Credibility of Secret Service files is questionable, and it is difficult to say what is fake and what is based on facts. Many files were destroyed or hidden in various moments in time: some most likely during the times of transition in 1989-1990.

Basic claims in the book

The book reportedly claims that Lech Wałęsa was giving information to the Secret Services in the early 1970s, as “tajny współpracownik” – agent. He was not a known figure back then, he was an ordinary person, taking part in opposition demonstration in Gdańsk and engaging in the movement. The Secret serviceman whose report is in the file, writes that he has paid “Bolek” 13000 złotys. However there are no receipts. Nothing signed by Wałęsa, nothing hand-written at all.

And then, when Wałęsa became president he requested to view his file. When the files were reopened during the presidency of Aleksander Kwaśniewski, it turned out several hundred pages were missing.

However the index is still there, it is therefore known what is missing. And these are typed reports of this agent “Bolek” – of being whom Wałęsa is being accused. Among the missing papers there are no signed or handwritten papers or receipts. Therefore the material missing would only be handy for cross-examination with other sources.
It is not certain when the pages were taken away and who did it. Pages were not checked when the file was being delivered to Wałęsa, and Wałęsa reportedly did not check them either.

What does Wałęsa say?

Wałęsa says that if had done what thay say he did, he would have said long time ago. He denies any involvement with Secret Services. He claims he never gave them any information, never gave in his colleagues. He claims he was not important enough then for the Secret Services wanting him for an agent. He is very angry, and thretens to sue the authors of the book. He says he did view his file during his presidency, however he did no remove anything from there. He wanted to check whether the files contain any materials from his and his wives sexual lives.

What do others say?

Other oppositionsts are divided. Some of them, who believe in the vision 2, believe these accusatins are true. Other’s don’t, and are talking about how the reality of the time is difficult to explain.

What is the political context?

What the book does is to try and put Wałęsa in a certain context, of an alternative interpretation of Polish history and current Polish affairs.

The history most people know looks like this: Solidarność fought our freedom. And thanks to the Round Table Compromise between Solidarność and communist government Poland was able to enter the path to independence and democracy. It also opened the possibility for democratic change in other countries from the Eastern Bloc. And this was one of the greatest moments in Polish history.

The alternative version of history (let’s call it version 2) has it that Wałęsa and Solidarność were orchestrated by the Secret Services, the Round Table Talks were the moment when Polish nation was betrayed. That the elite of Solidarność betrayed the ideals of the workers, and, conspiring with the communists, sold Poland. Sold the companies and factories, the market, the people as work-force. To the foreign capital, to foreign banks… Arranging the new reality in such a way, that post-communists (incl. Secret Servicemen), intelligentsia and elites are well-off, while workers are poor and disrespeted. Elites did not care for them.
Ian in his previous post rightly points that Kaczynski brothers and their party, who also have a deep personal dislike for Wałęsa, strongly believe in the second version (although Lech Kaczynski took part in the Round Table Talks himself).
There is also a claim, that Wałęsa’s policies, which are interpreted as againt lustration, during his presidency, were because of his problems with his own past.

The book is a supporting the version 2, reportedly being such an interpretation of certain facts from Lech Wałęsa’s past (and assumptions of Wałęsas 1970s agentship) to make the version 2 work well together.Some of those who prefer this version believe that Wałęsa is controlled by ex-Secret Servicemen until this day.

What is the general context?

What I would like people to remember from this story is not the fate of Wałęsa, who EVEN IF was broken by the Secret Services was also a victim. A victim of Police state, a victim of Secret Services who imposed themselves on people’s lives, who destroyed people, whowere paid by the state to disorganise, to plant distrust…

Wałęsa is still a great figure in Polish history, he was chosen by workers as their representative. In the 1980s had the strength and courage to stand up. He was a real leader, he had the skills, he had the talk, he had the charisma.


So was Wałęsa or was he not an agent? Did he or did he not remove his papers from the file? That depends on what you want to believe. It can’t be proven that he is guilty. It can’t be proven he is not guilty. Do you prefer to assume innocence or guilt?

See a Polish news report with Lech Wałęsa (youtube).
Have a look at other news from Poland.

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