The Man in the High Kolkhoz


If you have Netflix (no chill necessary), there is a Polish series available, in fact the first Polish Netflix production ever, called “1983”. Yes, there is an element of play off Orwell’s dystopia and it is also an alternative history. The action takes place in 2003, in Poland where the communism did not fall inĀ 1989. The country still lives in the shade of 1983 of the title, when, during the martial law (the history up to that point is as we know it) a faction of “Solidarity” commits three mass casualty terrorist attacks in Warsaw, Krakow and Gdansk. This tragedy, a sort of a Polish 9/11, except committed by one’s own, galvanises and unites all the forces in the society – the Party, the opposition, the Church, the army – into a sort of a national compact that over the subsequent decades produces a Poland that strongly reminds one of today’s China: a corporate state where the communist party remains firmly in power but it’s more nationalistic and authoritarian than Marxist-Leninist. The Polish path is explained well enough; why the communism continues elsewhere, including in the Soviet Union, is not readily apparent. If the show’s creators presuppose that without “Solidarity” there would have been no Gorbachev and the eventual dissolution of the Evil Empire, they are being quite patriotic but arguably overly optimistic. While the continuing unrest in Poland no doubt contributed to the malaise of the European communism, there were plenty of other, structural and perhaps therefor more important, reasons why the system collapsed from Berlin to Vladivostok. What struck me, though, right from the start of the first episode, was the fact that even the capitalist Poland of 2003 (I visited a year earlier) was not as wealthy and well organised as the fictional communist vision of Poland in the series. “1983” was released this time last year, and if its Poland is like China, it is like China of 2018 too, not China of 2003. But perhaps this is too much of hair splitting for what is a work of popular entertainment.

The alternative history genre has been quite popular over the years. The most prominent scenario in the West is the world where the Nazi Germany won the war. Arguably, this terrifies and titillates everyone, no matter where they stand politically. By contrast, I feel that an alternative reality where the communism is all-triumphant (sort of like “1984”) provides less frisson and therefore entertainment value, if only because a sizable minority would not be too unhappy about such a historical outcome. Hitler is the ultimate evil incarnate and his victory the ultimate nightmarish scenario for us in the English-speaking democracies. We also know that Stalin was bad, but an average person doesn’t really know much about it; besides, they were allies in WW2, and besides, the Western left can’t uncategorically condemn the Soviet communism because to do so would be to condemn Marxism and socialism in general and therefore to condemn themselves.

So the Nazis it is, from Philip K Dick’s “The Man in the High Castle”, through Len Deighton’s “SS-GB”, to Robert Harris’s “Fatherland”, to name just some of the more famous examples. All three have received a TV treatment too, with “Fatherland” being by far the most disappointing in the form of a low-budget telemovie with the late Rutger Hauer playing the protagonist Berlin cop. By contrast, Amazon’s (very loose) adaptation of Dick’s strange classic is a visual and narrative treat. And there is no stopping those Germans – only a few years ago, C J Sansom, otherwise known for his series of Tudor era murder mysteries, has produced “Dominion”, where Great Britain surrenders after Dunkirk. No doubt someone else right now is following in the footsteps of Dick, Deighton, Harris and Sansom – as well as Asimov, Leiber, Spindar, Turtledowe, Brin, Herbert, Roth and many others.

The Reich Victorious resonates with us also, I think, because it doesn’t sound far-fetched. There have been numerous instances and turning points where the Second World War could have unfolded differently. While on one level the struggle between the Axis and the British Empire, Soviet Union and the United States seems preordained to end in the victory for the Allies (the land area, population, industrial might and all that), too many “what-ifs” still haunt our dreams. What if the Germans did not make the repeated mistake of pulling back when they were on the verge of achieving victories? (Dunkirk, the anti-RAF stage of the Battle of Britain, the U-boat Battle of Atlantic) What if Mussolini didn’t stuff up his invasion of the Balkans, dragging Hitler down south to pacify that largely irrelevant corner of Europe and thus delaying the invasion of the Soviet Union by two crucial months of good spring and summer weather? What if Hitler struck decisively at Moscow as opposed to constantly shifting his forces between three different army groups? Even as late as the second half of 1942, what if Wehrmacht did not allow itself to get sucked into the pointless meat grinder of Stalingrad, a largely symbolic location, instead concentrating the full thrust on the oil fields of the Caucasus? What if?

Far-fetchedness, then: this is also why ultimately “1983” doesn’t quite work for me, albeit I suspect this is a purely Polish thing that an average Western Netflix viewer won’t pick up on. The series was created by Joshua Long and Maciej Musial, who also stars as the main character. Long is not a Pole and Musial is only 24 – he was even younger when making “1983”, but what it means is he was born in a post-communist Poland; he was not alive and doesn’t have the first hand knowledge and memory of the communist Poland in the 1980s and before. And this matters in this crucial respect: the whole hook of the series is the alt-historical fact of how Poland was radically changed as a result of the terrorist attacks of 1983, which shook all the social and political forces in the country into a compromise and consensus. But the problem is this: if you were an average Pole in the martial law Poland, there would have been absolutely no way you would have believed the official version from the government that the terrorist acts were committed by “Solidarity”, even some more extreme faction thereof. Quite the contrary: you would have been convinced that the outrage was a typical “false flag” operation, or a “provocation” as it would have been known in Poland, orchestrated by the government – or at least some faction therein – and blamed on the opposition to discredit the movement and give an extra excuse for a crack-down. “Solidarity”, prior to its suppression in the martial law, was a mass movement of some 10 million paid members (out of the population of around 35 million) and supported in various degrees by probably 90 per cent of the population. It was a non-violent movement, committed to peaceful and passive resistance. There were some sections arguing for a stronger stance against the communist apparatus, but they were a relatively tiny and non-influential minority. But even they only advocated actions against the regime itself and its agents – the Party, the security forces, the police – never against or posing risk to civilians and innocent by-standers, the overwhelming majority of whom likewise opposed the government and supported “Solidarity”. Bringing down whole buildings full of “normal” people would simply not have been contemplated by anyone in the (by 1983) underground opposition; it would have served absolutely no good purpose in the anti-communist struggle and would have had the opposite effect of turning off the population. All this is a very long-winded way of saying that the scenario painted by the creators of “1983” is not just far-fetched, it’s simply impossible to believe by anyone who has lived through those difficult years. Mass terrorist attacks blamed on “Solidarity” would have more likely led to an open revolt against the communist rulers; they would have never been “bought” by the general population and the opposition and they would not have led to some sort of a grand national reconciliation over the graves of the innocent victims.

But for all that “1983” finally got me somewhere around episode 5 or 6. In the end, this is a work of fiction, and if it’s enjoyable enough you should simply enjoy it. The series is not a masterpiece by any stretch of imagination; the script and acting are quite pedestrian compared to other recent Polish productions (such as “Raven” (Kruk) mini-series the Australian viewers can stream for free from SBS On Demand). Western viewers, unfamiliar with all the intricacies of Polish history and culture might feel slightly lost and confused, as the creators jam-pack the eight episodes full of plots and sub-plots, and they will definitely not get all the creative nuances (such as the Polish Army returning to the post-WW1 uniforms of the Marshall Pilsudski era), but as a light entertainment, particularly for those with some interest in history and politics, it will be a tasty enough fare. And remember, whatever you do (and this goes for all the “foreign” productions in general), don’t watch the dubbed version – let the actors speak for themselves in their native tongue. The alternative is more disturbing than the alternative history.