One of the things that struck me most during my Ph.D. fieldwork was to hear from my participants (mostly the senior ones) how much they longed for the presence of a militia-like local community police officer (dzielnicowy) and the ‘good’ old days of policing under socialism. Although the institution of dzielnicowy has remained in place over the years, my participants noticed a change in how the role is performed. The past image of such a policeman was of an officer who was known in the neighbourhood, was frequently deployed to conduct police patrols, (and was thus highly visible to local people), talked to ordinary people and was ‘known by name’. This melancholic longing for ‘glowing days of socialist policing’ was interwoven with another perceived advantage of the old system – people’s personal sense of security. Although this sense of security was often maintained by the militia through the use of force, most participants expressed the support for its continuation by the Polish police nowadays.
The past is always distorted to some extent, and always seen as better days. In the context of the Polish socialist past, it is the ‘policing the politics’ that is most relevant when it comes to reflecting on the nature of ‘visible’ foot patrols and other social initiatives that were routinely infiltrated. The role of the police under the communist regime was to enforce obedience to the state. The socialist militia under the communist regime maintained a Soviet-style functioning and performed actions of social and political control that aimed at serving the needs of the party rather than communities. The nature of policing at the time was based on secret police and militia as well as an extended network of informants. Uildriks and Van Reenen (2003), in their very informative book Policing Post-Communist Societies, noticed that part of the undercover work of the militia was not crime prevention or maintenance of social order as such, but the prevention of the development of political dissidents. They argued that in spite of frequent and close contact between the militia and lay people, the intention of maintaining such close relationships was to prevent the risk of political opposition to the state and to the socialist party.
Next, participants’ acclamation of the use of force might suggest that citizens of post-conflict societies might become anaesthetized to the effects of violence. On the other hand, Uildriks & Van Reenen (2003) suggest that, apart from suppressing nationalist or religious mass movements, the actual level of force used by militias in the former Eastern European communist countries was probably low, as the states had other, less visible and formal, ways of enforcing obedience.
One thing is certain though. Post-communist nostalgia has been well documented and recognized as a distinctive phenomenon (see Todorova & Gille, 2010). Participants’ nostalgic views on the militia convey a broader longing for security, stability, prosperity, and quest for dignity. This particular attitude occurs only because the past is irreversible, as argued by Pine (2002) when people evoke the ‘good socialist times’ they only choose to remember the good aspects of the system (e.g. full employment, universal healthcare and education, economic security), post-communist nostalgic sentiments do not indicate that the bad aspects of the system were forgotten (e.g. corruption, food shortages, infringements of the state) (ibid.).
Nonetheless, the post-socialist nostalgia after militia is not only a distorted recreation of the past that kept my participants from the truth of the present but also indicates a refusal to see and acknowledge where the Polish police are now. And they have come a long way.