WARSAW — The "poison dwarf" of the old Communist system in Poland, the well-loathed former government spokesman Jerzy Urban, is back.
In fact, he has never left, having refused to go quietly into that good night of the Communist eclipse where most of his former fellow travelers have more or less silently submerged to produce their memoirs. Urban, 58, remains an active and formidable combatant, and he has now been hauled before the courts on charges of pornography.
Since October, 1990, Urban has produced a weekly newspaper called Nie (No), a colorful, scurrilous and reliably obscene publication, fixated on genitalia (mainly female) as political metaphor and dedicated to lashing away at the new power structure of the country at every opportunity.
The central element of the power structure, of course, is the fractured remains of the Solidarity union and its most famous figures, particularly President Lech Walesa, invariably referred to by Urban as "the Great Electrician."
Right behind Walesa as favored targets are the Roman Catholic Church, the Pope, the Primate of Poland and concerted clerical efforts on behalf of anti-abortion laws--the most obvious manifestation, in Urban's view, of the church's aspiration for political power in Poland.
It was Nie's purported primer on how to have sex and avoid pregnancy--complete with the raunchiest of photographs--along with the wrath of the church that landed Urban in the dock on June 18, charged with printing pornography.
After one courtroom session, the case was continued until this month. The initial proceedings were so raucous that the judge ordered the courtroom cleared of journalists and the case went on behind closed doors.
Outside the courtroom, the feisty Urban said the issue of his newspaper in question "was not pornography, but a protest against the idiotic anti-abortion bill." The court's decision to hold the session behind closed doors, he said, "proves that any authority is equally hideous, although in my time all political trials were held in public."
Urban's strange blend of outrageousness, obscenity, acid commentary and political incisiveness has given him a unique place in Poland, as a figure widely disliked and yet somehow unavoidable--a man who knows how to get notice even from those who would prefer to regard him as beneath consideration.
And someone is paying attention. At least they're buying his broadsheet weekly, which now claims a circulation of 555,000, making it the largest general-interest--if that term can be employed--publication in the country. The largest-selling daily newspaper, Gazeta, has a circulation of 410,000, with its weekend edition running at 530,000.
No one in the government has bothered officially to complain about Urban's success; there is, after all, a free press in Poland. But Nie's circulation figures were recently noted by an aide to President Walesa as a sign of "negative forces" among the population, a sign of nihilism and discontent in the public that evidently worries the men around the president.
It seems likely, however, that part of the attraction of Nie may be less sinister. Above all, it is a novelty ("bare-knuckled," in the words of one Polish journalist), with a slashing satire and a humor that ranges from gutter-level to considerable wit, bashing away at sacred cows in a way that simply has never been seen before in Poland.
Urban has printed a photocopy of the arrest report of one of Walesa's sons, 16-year-old Przemyslaw, detailing charges for riding a bicycle drunk. In another issue, a headline invited readers to call Walesa after his election. "Want to congratulate the president? 525-159 rings by his bed. 520-562 rings in his living room." The numbers, in Walesa's house in Gdansk, were genuine at the time.
Another feature showed nude women romping in the apartment of the Speaker of the Parliament (a noted sexologist), although the accompanying text, signed by Urban, noted that the Speaker was not present at the time.
The current issue features a photographic day in the life of "Jaroslaw K.," a close look-alike of a Walesa political ally, alternately praying, having dinner with a 12-year-old girl, passing secrets to a mysterious trench-coated figure and buying a life-sized doll in a sex shop. It's a ludicrous spoof, but it's funny.
Urban's verbal skill at handling the press in Poland, during the years that stretched from the imposition of martial law in 1981 through the Communist collapse in 1989 (he resigned the day Solidarity was legalized), earned him a certain grudging respect from journalists, who recognized him as an often nasty but always wily adversary--sarcastic, ironic and frequently funny. (It was a foreign correspondent of that era who coined the "poison dwarf" nickname.) And, his politics aside, he has long been one of Poland's cleverest writers.