A newspaper article from Polish Express - 2004by Monika WojnowskaThe verb "to squat" means to crouch in English. As most people will admit, this position is not particularly comfortable, and it is difficult to imagine an individual who would be willing to remain in this unpolitical position for a long time. No wonder, therefore, that flats known as squats have nothing to do with permanence. Yet there is a squat in Poland that not only amazes with its longevity, but has already managed to become a legend or even a subject of documentaries and MA theses. In August this year the Rozbrat ("Spilt") squat in Poznan celebrated its 10th anniversary.
The beginnings of Rozbrat go back to times immemorial when people were still willing to do something for pure ideals, even to demonstrate or occupy buildings not only because their factory has been closed down. I am not ridiculing here human tragedies, God forbid, but I get nostalgic when I think about what was once called the social initiative. In those days, and I am referring here to the breakthrough year of 1989, a group of people from a broadly-defined punk subculture decided to create a place that would be a base for environmentalists, anarchists, pacifists and other people present among them, people who were not exactly keen on the aggressive capitalism emerging in Poland at that time. Their first choice was the headquarters of the then Provincial Committee of the communist party. Occupation of the building began and it ended with the building being handed over to the Adam Mickiewicz University (currently the building houses the University's History Department); unfortunately, there was no room there for the future squatters that took part in the occupation. Subsequent occupation of another building, belonging to a communist youth organisation, did not bring desired results either. The anarchists remained homeless. A former German bunker they got from the city authorities did not meet their expectations, and it was only in 1994 that they found abandoned buildings belonging to a company that had gone bankrupt and decided to adapt them. This is when the history of the Rozbrat squat begins.
The beginnings, as it usually happens, were difficult and rather chaotic. Those who know Rozbrat Anno Domini 2004, a venue for concerts and theatre performances, a base for many social and cultural initiatives, a place with its own website and publishing house, will find it hard to imagine the daring of those who on 15 August 1994 moved into the abandoned buildings behind a Peugeot car showroom. The buildings were unfit for human habitation. The squatters set a high "admission fee" to collect money for the most urgent renovation works. The winter of 1994/1995 was a true baptism of fire for Rozbrat. The squat survived it and in the spring the squatters welcomed new inhabitants from an environmentalists' squat broken up shortly before. Thus a need arouse to "colonise" new buildings -Rozbrat was expanding. For the first two years of its existence, it was not much different from its current counterparts, in London for instance. It was mainly a place to live, though as it was inhabited by people involved in various actions, from shirt-painting to serious protests, it was already beginning to be perceived as an alternative cultural centre in Poznan. This image was enhanced by concerts the squatters began to organise already in the autumn of 1995. The first band that had the honour to perform in Rozbrat was the legendary Scottish group Oi Polloi. They were soon followed by various bands from the USA and France, Enola Gay and Masskontroll, as well as a whole host of stars of Poland's alternative scene.
Rozbrat's idyllic-anarchic existence was disturbed in February 1996. One day, at 7am, the squat was invaded by a group of masked skinheads - the squat had been a thorn in their side for a long time. The assailants destroyed everything within their sight; they also stabbed people sleeping in the squat; as a result one of the girls was taken to hospital in a critical condition. After this event some squatters could not stand the psychological pressure of living under constant threat and moved to safer places. Those who remained had to deal with not only a lack of the sense of security the squat could not guarantee, but also with a sudden and to a large extent unwelcome interest of the media. Thus the squatters decided to change Rozbrat's character a bit and turn it into an open centre of independent culture.
At the moment there are about 20 people, aged between two and forty, living in Rozbrat. Despite the fact that the squat has come a long way from its modest beginnings, living conditions in Rozbrat are still far from Mariott hotel standards. The squatters obviously do not pay the rent, but they do pay water and electricity bills. They also have gas (in gas cylinders) and heating provided by coal-burning stoves. Some inhabitants have tv sets, there is a phone, computer and, of course, a fridge. All decisions related to the residential part of the squat are made by all inhabitants together, while the decisions concerning the squat's cultural activities are made by the Rozbrat Collective that includes people involved in all kinds of activities under the aegis of Rozbrat. Not all people living in the squat or involved in its activities are anarchists, though the anarchic-leftist spirit has always pervaded and still pervades the squatters' endeavours. There are over two hundred people "involved" in the squat's life; organisations working under the aegis of Rozbrat include the Anarchic Federation, Food Not Bombs, the Anarchic Black Cross - offering legal aid to people persecuted for their anti-establishment beliefs and socio-political activity. The squat also houses an anarchic library and Oficyna Wydawnicza Bractwa "Trojka" ("Trojka" Fellowship) publishing house that issues anarchist brochures but also literature, poetry and non-fiction. The authors published so far include such names as Henry David Thoeraux, Noam Chomsky, Arthur Rimbaud or Philip K. Dick and Ursula Le Guin.
As a very dynamic centre Rozbrat is hugely popular and respected by people involved in culture. Rozbrat's 10th anniversary celebrations attracted a number of people used to interiors far more glamorous than raw walls of a former warehouse. There were exhibitions, installations and workshops in which Zbigniew Libera, Dorota Nieznalska and other well-known artists took part. On 23 August, the Day of the Letter, there were meetings with writers, including Dorota Maslowska, the author of the famous book Wojna polsko-ruska pod flaga bialo-czerwona; (Polish-Russian war under white and red flag), as well as the poets Marcin Swietlicki and Jacek Podsiadlo. Some theatre groups also accepted Rozbrat's invitation, and so on 26 August Teatr Osmego Dnia (Eighth Day Theatre), Akademia Ruchu
(Academy of Movement) and Komuna Otwock (Otwock Commune) gave their performances.
The Rozbrat squat has become such an integral part of Poznan's cultural landscape that it is hard to imagine it not being there. Yet Rozbrat's future is very uncertain. The land on which the buildings stand has an owner. Or, to be more precise, has a new owner. And, unlike the previous one, the new owner does have specific plans for the place. The squats inhabitants are already saying that they will not give Rozbrat back without a fight, and I have no doubts that there are many people who will be willing to support them in this fight. The questions is, will the spirit of an anarchic utopia be able to win against the soulless letter of the law. Let us hope it will.