The enchantment of western things: children’s material encounters in late socialist Poland

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Abstract

The allure of ‘the west’ in socialist eastern Europe and the Soviet Union has been well documented. Poland, a country noted for the longstanding westward emigration of its population, maintained a particularly close relationship with all things western, especially during the latter stages of the socialist regime. Using material collected from life history interviews with Polish migrants in the UK, this article analyses a very specific manifestation of late socialist Poland’s ‘Imaginary West’: the high status of western things in the lives of children. These western goods, usually things such as sweets, toys and clothes, offered sufficient tangibility and authenticity to make the west feel tantalisingly close, while all the time remaining distant. Using Bennett’s (2001) theory of enchantment as its starting point, this article investigates three aspects of this widespread fascination with the west that were narrated in the interviews, and the very specific material relationships that were constructed and maintained with western objects. First, it considers the affective and aesthetic properties of western things and the ways in which they enchanted the children who encountered them. Second, it analyses the appeal of Pewex shops and the dollar economy as manifestations of western consumerism on socialist soil. Finally, it discusses the problems with this western consumption and the inequalities embedded in these exciting goods. Ultimately this article uncovers why west was often considered best and how this phenomenon was materialised and integrated into children’s everyday lives.

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