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.


Suggested Topics
exclusivePunk icon Viv Albertine on Sid Vicious, complacent white men, and why free love led to rape
Colombia's James Rodriguez celebrates one of his goals during the FIFA World Cup 2014 round of 16 match between Colombia and Uruguay at the Estadio do Maracana in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil
sportColombian World Cup star completes £63m move to Spain
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebookA unique anthology of reporting and analysis of a crucial period of history
Antoine Griezmann has started two of France’s four games so far
Life and Style
techYahoo Japan launches service to delete your files and email your relatives when you die
Life and Style
Child's play: letting young people roam outdoors directly contradicts the current climate
lifeHow much independence should children have?
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book
booksFind out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Arts and Entertainment
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>
filmRobert Downey Jr named Hollywood's highest paid actor for second year running
Life and Style
Dale Bolinger arranged to meet the girl via a fetish website
Sign here, please: Magna Carta Island
propertyYours for a cool £4m
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

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

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Sustainability Manager

Competitive: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: Scheme Manager (BREEAM)...

Graduate Sustainability Professional

Flexible, depending on experience: The Green Recruitment Company: Job Title: T...

Business Project Manager

£350 - £400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Project Manager job vaca...

Business Analyst (Agile, SDLC, software)

£45000 - £50000 Per Annum + excellent benefits: Clearwater People Solutions Lt...

Day In a Page

Some are reformed drug addicts. Some are single mums. All are on benefits. But now these so-called 'scroungers’ are fighting back

The 'scroungers’ fight back

The welfare claimants battling to alter stereotypes
Amazing video shows Nasa 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action

Fireballs in space

Amazing video shows Nasa's 'flame extinguishment experiment' in action
A Bible for billionaires

A Bible for billionaires

Find out why America's richest men are reading John Brookes
Paranoid parenting is on the rise - and our children are suffering because of it

Paranoid parenting is on the rise

And our children are suffering because of it
For sale: Island where the Magna Carta was sealed

Magna Carta Island goes on sale

Yours for a cool £4m
Phone hacking scandal special report: The slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

The hacker's tale: the slide into crime at the 'News of the World'

Glenn Mulcaire was jailed for six months for intercepting phone messages. James Hanning tells his story in a new book. This is an extract
We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

We flinch, but there are degrees of paedophilia

Child abusers are not all the same, yet the idea of treating them differently in relation to the severity of their crimes has somehow become controversial
The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

The truth about conspiracy theories is that some require considering

For instance, did Isis kill the Israeli teenagers to trigger a war, asks Patrick Cockburn
Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Alistair Carmichael: 'The UK as a whole is greater than the sum of its parts'

Meet the man who doesn't want to go down in history as the country's last Scottish Secretary
Legoland Windsor's master model-makers reveal the tricks of their trade (including how to stop the kids wrecking your Eiffel Tower)

Meet the people who play with Lego for a living

They are the master builders: Lego's crack team of model-makers, who have just glued down the last of 650,000 bricks as they recreate Paris in Windsor. Susie Mesure goes behind the scenes
The 20 best days out for the summer holidays: From Spitfires to summer ferry sailings

20 best days out for the summer holidays

From summer ferry sailings in Tyne and Wear and adventure days at Bear Grylls Survival Academy to Spitfires at the Imperial War Museum Duxford and bog-snorkelling at the World Alternative Games...
Open-air theatres: If all the world is a stage, then everyone gets in on the act

All the wood’s a stage

Open-air productions are the cue for better box-office receipts, new audiences, more interesting artistic challenges – and a picnic
Rand Paul is a Republican with an eye on the world

Rupert Cornwell: A Republican with an eye on the world

Rand Paul is laying out his presidential stall by taking on his party's disastrous record on foreign policy
Self-preservation society: Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish

Self-preservation society

Pickles are moving from the side of your plate to become the star dish
Generation gap opens a career sinkhole

Britons live ever longer, but still society persists in glorifying youth

We are living longer but considered 'past it' younger, the reshuffle suggests. There may be trouble ahead, says DJ Taylor