Polish satirist has the last laugh Communist bruiser has last laugh

Missing Persons No:36 Jerzy Urban

It may be over six years since he lost his job as spokesman of Poland's last Communist government, but Jerzy Urban shows no sign of losing his legendary sense of humour.

Last Wednesday marked the fifth anniversary of the launch of the bitingly satirical Nie magazine and, as its founder and driving force, Mr Urban decided to throw a lavish ball to celebrate.

Guests, who included the man who declared martial law in Poland in 1981, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, and several current ministers, were asked to turn up in something evoking the spirit of the old Communist times. Several drove to the event in a cavalcade of vintage socialist-era cars. Others brought their ration books and rolls of toilet paper, a reminder of when even such basic commodities were in short supply.

Mr Urban, one of the key figures in the administration responsible for getting Poland into such an economic mess, beamed throughout. He had genuine cause for celebration. Much to his own initial surprise, Nie, Poland's no-holds-barred answer to Private Eye, has proved a phenomenal success, with a weekly circulation now standing at over 700,000.

For someone whose loyalty to the old Communist regime was unswerving, Mr Urban has negotiated the treacherous waters of capitalism with consummate skill. Last year, he personally saw a pre-tax profit of over pounds 1.6m. "I enjoy being rich and I enjoy being independent," says Mr Urban. "But I am essentially a political animal and I miss not being directly involved in government."

When Mr Urban was appointed government spokesman in mid-1981, Poland was in crisis. The Solidarity trade union, formed a year earlier, was pressing for democratic reforms and threatening to bring the country to its knees through strikes. Mr Urban firmly approved of the December 1981 imposition of martial law under which Solidarity was banned and many of its leaders imprisoned. Even when martial law was lifted in 1983, Mr Urban remained one of Solidarity's most acerbic critics, frequently using his weekly televised press conferences to pour scorn on the union and its leader, Lech Walesa.

Mr Urban's quick wit set him apart from nearly all of his Communist peers and certainly made his press conferences interesting. Millions of Poles tuned in to watch, but although they often laughed, many found his brutal style offensive.

With the end fast approaching, Mr Urban represented the government in the "Round Table" talks with Solidarity in 1989 that paved the way to the country's first partially-free elections for over 40 years. He stood for parliament in the June poll that followed, but, like all his colleagues, was crushed in the landslide victory for Solidarity. A little over one year later, he watched in horror as the man he loved to ridicule, Lech Walesa, won the presidency.

For Mr Urban, there did not appear to be too much left to laugh about. But with his political career effectively over, he decided to return to his original calling - journalism - and to launch a satirical new weekly which would pour scorn on the country's new leaders.

The first edition of Nie (translated as "No") rolled off the presses in October 1990. It was like nothing ever seen in Poland before. Its language was coarse and colourful; its cartoons and pictures innovative and often sexually explicit and its mockery of President Walesa was relentless.

"Ours was the only paper that conveyed the sense of disappointment many felt in the new authorities and exposed the new cases of corruption," Mr Urban says. "It also coincided with fatigue for the sort of political debate that had been raging for the previous 10 years. People wanted their politics in a more simplified form. And they wanted some humour."

There is an obvious irony in the fact that the former Communist Party mouthpiece lost no time in making full use of Poland's new found press freedoms. Nie's relentless lampooning of the politicians of the right, moreover, undoubtedly helped pave the way for the dramatic success of the reformed communist Democratic Left Alliance (SLD), which swept back to power in Poland's 1993 parliamentary elections.

The paper is also quite clearly supporting the SLD leader, Aleksander Kwasniewski, in his bid to topple Mr Walesa in next month's presidential election.

Mr Urban, 59, is probably too tainted with the brush of the old regime ever to be eligible for political office again. But as our interview comes to an end, the phone rings. It is Mr Kwasniewski.

ADRIAN BRIDGE

Suggested Topics
Start your day with The Independent, sign up for daily news emails
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooks
ebooksA special investigation by Andy McSmith
  • Get to the point
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Ashdown Group: Client Accountant Team Manager - Reading

Negotiable: Ashdown Group: The Ashdown Group has been engaged by a highly resp...

Recruitment Genius: Account Manager

Negotiable: Recruitment Genius: You will also work alongside their seasoned sa...

Recruitment Genius: Assistant Property Manager

£15000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you looking for your first step into...

Recruitment Genius: Mechanical Design Engineer

£25000 - £40000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This innovative company working...

Day In a Page

General Election 2015: The masterminds behind the scenes

The masterminds behind the election

How do you get your party leader to embrace a message and then stick to it? By employing these people
Machine Gun America: The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons

Machine Gun America

The amusement park where teenagers go to shoot a huge range of automatic weapons
The ethics of pet food: Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?

The ethics of pet food

Why are we are so selective in how we show animals our love?
How Tansy Davies turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

How a composer turned 9/11 into her opera 'Between Worlds'

Tansy Davies makes her operatic debut with a work about the attack on the Twin Towers. Despite the topic, she says it is a life-affirming piece
11 best bedside tables

11 best bedside tables

It could be the first thing you see in the morning, so make it work for you. We find night stands, tables and cabinets to wake up to
Italy vs England player ratings: Did Andros Townsend's goal see him beat Harry Kane and Wayne Rooney to top marks?

Italy vs England player ratings

Did Townsend's goal see him beat Kane and Rooney to top marks?
Danny Higginbotham: An underdog's tale of making the most of it

An underdog's tale of making the most of it

Danny Higginbotham on being let go by Manchester United, annoying Gordon Strachan, utilising his talents to the full at Stoke and plunging into the world of analysis
Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police

Steve Bunce: Inside Boxing

Audley Harrison's abusers forget the debt he's due, but Errol Christie will always remember what he owes the police
No postcode? No vote

Floating voters

How living on a houseboat meant I didn't officially 'exist'
Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin

By Reason of Insanity

Louis Theroux's affable Englishman routine begins to wear thin
Power dressing is back – but no shoulderpads!

Power dressing is back

But banish all thoughts of Eighties shoulderpads
Spanish stone-age cave paintings 'under threat' after being re-opened to the public

Spanish stone-age cave paintings in Altamira 'under threat'

Caves were re-opened to the public
'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'

Vince Cable interview

'I was the bookies’ favourite to be first to leave the Cabinet'
Election 2015: How many of the Government's coalition agreement promises have been kept?

Promises, promises

But how many coalition agreement pledges have been kept?
The Gaza fisherman who built his own reef - and was shot dead there by an Israeli gunboat

The death of a Gaza fisherman

He built his own reef, and was fatally shot there by an Israeli gunboat