Kombinacja (Poland)

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Kombinacja 🇵🇱
Poland map.png
Location: Poland
Definition: Bending rules to access resources, scheming to earn money and acquire opportunities
Keywords: Poland CEE Europe EU Economies of favours Favour Rule-bending Opportunity Scheme Money Getting things done
Clusters: Market Functional ambivalence Gaming the system Camouflage Intermediation
Author: Edyta Materka
Affiliation: Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University, USA
Website: Profile page at HU

By Edyta Materka, Davis Center for Russian and Eurasian Studies, Harvard University, USA

Kombinacja (alt. kombinacya, kombinowanie, kombinować) is a colloquial Polish term used to describe the process of manipulating legal, political or cultural rules in order to access a resource. Food, commodities, labour, information and power can all be accessed via kombinacja. An individual, group, institution, or state can exercise kombinacja and thus be called a kombinator, but the practice is most often transferred from one generation to the next among poor, marginalised families[1]. Kusiak argues that historically, the practice has been seen in a positive light, as a survival tool in the face of oppressive regimes:
‘[Kombinacja] has been considered a skill which one should be proud of, as it allows the underprivileged to access otherwise inaccessible resources and trick the oppressor. It was the exceptional ability to kombinować that helped the majority of Poles to survive the Nazi occupation, the socialist shortages, and the shock of post-1989 inflation.’[2]

Kombinacja reflects Poles’ low levels of confidence in formal economic and political institutions. ‘Getting around the system’ is seen as a more effective survival strategy for both the family unit and nation.

The etymological roots of the word kombinacja likely originate from the Latin sociare (to combine) – the origin of the word ‘socialism’[3]. ‘Combinations’ were an early form of trade union in Europe during the Industrial Revolution. Witnessing the industrialisation of partitioned Poland at the turn of the twentieth century, the Young Poland literary movement picked up on the term to critique Poles’ initiation into the ‘cycle’ of kombinacja (labour struggle). In Promised Land (1899), Władysław Reymont wrote:

‘Think, what is this strange kombinacya [sic.] that is unfolding today in the world: the human enslaved nature’s forces, discovered masses of strength—and went into his own shackles exactly into his own forces.’ [4]

To counter this oppression, the Polish worker, ‘wandered around Łódź for entire days, submerged only in kombinacyas that sought to harm the manufacturer’[5].

‘Stalin's double-vision represents the doublethink required to understand and navigate the world through the prism of kombinacja. Photograph by Edyta Materka.’ Source: Author

In the 1920s, Soviet literature reframed the kombinator as a bourgeois capitalist. The Velikii Kombinator (‘Grand Schemer’) Ostap Bender was the antihero of Ilia Ilf and Evgenii Petrov’s seminal novel The Twelve Chairs (1928). Ostap, whose dream was to become a millionaire and move to Rio de Janeiro, ‘effortlessly squeezes information out of people, slips in and out of roles, and penetrates through situations’ [6]. He was a chameleon who played by his own rules in a collectivist landscape that attempted to assign class and economic function to each citizen. His transformations and ability to artistically manipulate language and political discourse made him an ‘economic wrecker’ of the Soviet command economy. Yet ironically, this form of kombinacja became ‘the prerequisite for understanding Soviet life,’ because the command economy itself suffered from shortages, corruption and red tape, and individuals had to find innovative strategies in order to access basic resources [7].

Kombinacja as the everyday man’s strategy for basic survival became widespread during the Second World War. Polish peasants who were forced to meet agricultural quotas for the General Government under Nazi occupation found ways to sell it on the black market. Polish doctors in Warsaw acquired Red Cross identification cards to give underground Polish hospitals immunity from Nazi surveillance. German brigadiers colluded with Polish forced labourers on German estates to steal goods from Nazi warehouses and sell them on the black market in exchange for food and money. Kombinacja became an expression of solidarity across classes, ethnicities and nations.

Holocaust literature also records this emerging ‘consciousness’ of kombinacja during the war. Primo Levi recalled in Survival in Auschwitz how Häftlings (prison inmates) used the practice to trade third-rate tobacco called Mahorca for a larger bread portion:

‘The traffic is an instance of a kind of “kombinacja” frequently practiced: the Häftling, somehow saving a ration of bread, invests it in Mahorca; he cautiously gets in touch with a civilian addict who acquires the Mahorca, paying in cash with a portion of bread greater than that initially invested’[8]

This practice was inmates' only chance of survival: ‘Whosoever does not know how to become an “Organisator”, “Kombinator”...soon becomes a “musselman”—a walking cadaver’[9]. (‘Musselman’, the German word for a Muslim, was concentration camp slang for an inmate on the brink of death from starvation.) In Art Spiegelman’s Holocaust memoir Maus, the narrator’s cousin, Haskel, uses kombinacja to obtain favours from the German guards in the Sosnowiec ghetto:

‘Always Haskel was such a guy: a kombinator.’

‘A what?’

‘A guy what [sic] makes kombinacja, a schemer… a crook.’[10]

The practice of kombinacja took on new dimensions under the socialist regime in Poland (1945-1989). It became a widespread strategy used by workers, peasants, the nomenklatura and the state to control the workplace, as well as to survive and/or benefit from economic shortages. ‘Good’ kombinacja served ‘my/our’ interests; ‘bad’ kombinacja served the ‘other’ (usually state or nomenklatura) interests; although such nuances were in the eye of the beholder and subject to political manipulation. One worker’s claim that, ‘The State robs me, I rob the State, and it all comes out even,’[11] neatly summarises the broader findings of this author’s research: that the state used kombinacja against the people, and the people in turn responded with kombinacja against the state. A number of mandatory unpaid labour obligations (corvées, Soviet subbotniks, etc.) were formalized by legislation passed by the Polish People’s Republic (PRL). Communes could impose these obligations on workers and peasants, using their unpaid labour towards state building projects or fulfilling production quotas. Rather than supplying the harvests and commodities back to the people, the state exported them for profit, resulting in material shortages.

To balance out this state kombinacja and its resultant shortages, workers without independent unions used kombinacja to ‘take out’ (wynośić) or ‘domesticate for oneself’ (przyswoić sobie) state property [12]. Workers’ inner justification for their kombinacja was rooted in the idealised socialist ‘common goods’ philosophy, i.e. that the state owned all property, and that the people owned the state [13]. Thus, the workers were only taking what was theirs anyway. ‘Zkombinowane’ resources were usually food, tools, commodities and building materials taken home from state workplaces. Peasants withheld state agricultural quotas and diverted state property (meat, labour, technology, building materials) from the collective (kołchoz) and state farms (sovkhoz) into their farms to meet subsistence levels, or sold them to workers on the black market. Both workers and peasants manipulated this ‘paradoxical role as simultaneous employee and co-owner’[14] by paying themselves ‘dividends’ from their factory or collective farms.

State officials and managers also exercised kombinacja, both to enable them to fulfill their official duties and to benefit privately. They ordered services from moonlighting repairmen who installed zkombinowane sinks into private homes; sold state-produced commodities on the black market for private gain; bought grain on the black market to meet a state quota; organised field-trips for workers to travel to other bloc countries and sell state commodities on the black markets to supplement wages; and even allowed entrepreneurial kombinators to divert capital from state-run to ‘private’ factories that sold products to locals. Some were punished: a director of a state-run meat warehouse in Warsaw who admitted to taking bribes from state-run meat stores was hanged for his ‘economic crime’ in 1956[15]. For the most part, however, the authorities sided with the ‘us’ and allowed kombinacja to be exercised ‘against’ the higher state apparatus – a strategy that increased the nomenklatura’s private profits, helped them meet their ‘formal’ state obligations, and socially reproduced their local power.

During the post-socialist transition, the nomenklatura privatised and liquidated state property for profit or entrepreneurial ventures. This led many Poles to regard entrepreneurialism as ‘bad’ kombinacja that contributed to their poverty. Post-socialist kombinacja ‘has been given a new cut-throat “entrepreneurial” twist,’ in that people, ‘think that there must be a trick to everything’[16]. Conversely, entrepreneurial Poles value kombinacja as fostering innovation in the new post-socialist economy. In 2012, Arkadius Hajduk – the founder of the ‘Huge Thing’ accelerator – told the Wall Street Journal that Poland’s start-up scene has a competitive edge: ‘“We have a word in Polish – kombinować – it’s not really translatable, but it sort of means finding a way to do something but without a lot of resources”’ [17].

Meanwhile, kombinacja as survival strategy has also flourished in the turmoil of the post-communist transition to a free market economy. Free movement of labour has opened up new avenues for the practice, with workers able to switch between countries to maximize their income. Migrant workers who engage in transnational kombinacja between Poland and Norway informed the author that kombinacja is untranslatable and invisible to Westerners, implying that the concept lacks parallels in the West. White’s study showed how a village nurse relies upon kombinować (‘the idea of combining various assets’) to feed her family: ‘Grandmother helps a bit...My husband works at the bus factory. He does overtime when it’s available. Those are the different ways we survive [Tak kombinujemy]’[18]. In Nowa Huta, the urban poor use the practice to supplement their wages: they temporarily migrate overseas, grow their own food, squat, access electricity illegally, claim benefits while working, apply for credit on behalf of family members. Their ‘good’ kombinacja absorbs any organised call on politicians to enact welfare and workplace reform.


Makovicky, N. 2018. Kombinowanie: agency, informality, and the poetics of self in Highland Poland, JRAI 24(3): 493-511, doi:10.1111/1467-9655.12857
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