Second term at Collegium Civitas is in full swing. My academic excitement has reached its peak this year, as among many interesting modules I teach, Criminology and Criminal Justice is the one that makes my heart melt every time I sit to prepare for classes.
This year apart from discussing how crime is socially constructed, contextualised and dependant on broader socio-economic and political circumstances I dedicate separate lecture to introduce the transnational dimensions of crime. And here is the Polish contribution to this matter.
Yuma was a specific criminal activity among Polish youth on the western border that emerged soon after the collapse of the socialist regime in 1989. It mainly involved going to Germany, however other European countries in the West were also popular destinations, to steal petty goods. These were goods as petty as perfume, designer clothes, or Gillette men’s razors – goods that were perceived as luxurious at the time thus smuggled and sold afterwards in Poland. The more ‘advanced’ form of yuma was car theft. It is estimated that in the mid-1990s, approximately 30% of young males in the region were involved in yuma. Although yuma has long been passe as a crime choice, linguistically is very much alive and kicking as ‘zajumac’ – meaning to steal.
Yuma should not however be discussed as an ordinary theft or handling stolen goods as this illegal activity paved the way for modern understandings of transnational crimes in Poland. Yuma came in a transnational package of post-1989 wonders of ‘new’ crimes such as benefit fraud, or embezzlement of different sorts. ‘New’ in a sense that this type of crime was neither officially recorded nor reported by the authorities. In fact, yuma was far from being a new activity as smuggling under the socialist regime was part of functioning of many Poles. Karol Nawrocki writes that most short term trips abroad at the time had financial motives. He further explains:
Despite its short, merely 50-year-long history, communist Poland generated a number of mechanisms which, on the one hand, encouraged communist elites to freely gain wealth in the West, but on the other, prompted the underprivileged part of society to engage in criminal activities. Vast disproportions in the quality of life between Eastern and Western Europe, limited access to virtually all goods paid for with foreign currency and to the so-called luxury goods, and, finally, the unstable exchange rate of the PLN and the unpredictability of currency reforms introduced by the authorities, became the bedrock of organized, state-driven crime. At the same time, these factors determined the fact that smuggle, as one of the two methods enabling Poles to live dignified lives in the communist state, enjoyed a certain cult throughout the 1944–1989 period, the other method being joining the communist party and becoming a member of the apparatus.
In Merton’s Strain Theory we learn that people in order to achieve their goals would turn to either legitimate or illegitimate coping strategies. The year 1989 opened a horizon of expectations, among them also materialistic ones that were fuelled by the desire to catch up with the ‘western standards of living’. Kurczewski (2007) has attempted to explain this circumstance and argued that the nature and pace of the post-1989 transformations did not encourage ‘chasing the West’ through legal channels. Therefore, yuma, considered as a transnational crime of deeper origins, should be seen and discussed as a post-1989 illegitimate channel amongst the Polish youth to ‘chase the West’.
Lastly, criminologists who are cinephiles and interested in this topic would really benefit from watching the movie Yuma – a Polish-Czech production, directed in 2012 by Piotr Mularuk, that interestingly depicts this criminal practice.
Kurczewski, J. (2007) Prawem i lewem. Kultura prawna społeczeństwa polskiego po komunizmie (Either Rightly or Like a Crook: Legal Culture of Polish Society after Communism). Sociological Studies, 2(185), 33-60.
Nawrocki, K. (2016) Autogangs. Car Smuggle to Communist Poland in the 1980s. Studia historiae oeconomicae. Vol. 34. Poznań: UAM.