Imagine a sushi bar within a block of a capital city’s most expensive real estate, decorated with boutiques like Gucci, Louis Vuitton and Yves Saint Laurent. A stylishly attired thirtysomething woman babbles to her boyfriend about the tabloids she’s been reading, stopping occasionally to bark instructions to the sushi chef about the cut of fish she wants. Her boyfriend, meanwhile, is feverishly thumbing his iPhone for details about their upcoming trip to Washington, DC, from time to time suggesting things they must do, without noticing that she is at the same time talking to him about the recent scandal of leaked illegal recordings of government ministers using language that most sailors would be embarrassed to hear. Every few minutes, the couple remark to each other that the next time they really must try a different cuisine—enough of the same toro and edamame dishes week after week.
This scene could have unfolded in almost any major European city. Yet this young couple was dining in Warsaw, a block away from the former headquarters of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party (Poland’s governing Communist Party for over four decades), now home to an art-house theater and a luxury-car dealership. A Polish sociologist would likely see the couple as proof of a claim that has been repeated for the better part of a decade, which is that since the collapse of the communist regimes in Central and Eastern Europe in 1989, higher education and popular culture throughout the region, but especially in Poland, have stopped producing generations of young intelligentsia. A group that for more than a century was the mainstay of Poland’s anti-imperial revolutionary traditions, socialist as well as nationalist, has been supplanted by a generic, all-Western middle class.
A recent survey found that more than 80 percent of Polish high-school seniors aspire to go abroad immediately following graduation, whether for short-term work in a service industry, on a temporary European educational exchange like Erasmus, or on merit scholarships to universities in France, the United Kingdom or the United States. As for the teens, twentysomethings and thirtysomethings who remain in Poland, so the argument goes, ideas like “democratic revolution” and “national freedom” mean nothing.
These findings struck a particularly discordant note in Warsaw this year. It was a long summer of anniversaries, and any educated young Pole who paid attention to anything besides his smartphone had the opportunity to celebrate (or mourn, as the case might be) a string of commemorative milestones. May marked a decade of membership in the European Union; June, thirty-five years since the first pilgrimage to Warsaw of Poland’s own Pope John Paul II; August, seventy years since the launch of the Warsaw Uprising, which cost hundreds of thousands of civilian lives and culminated in the city’s razing by German occupiers; and September, seventy-five years since World War II began with the Nazi invasion of Poland.
Some of these anniversary commemorations played out in several stages. The twenty-fifth anniversary of the revolutions of 1989, which led to the founding of the Third Polish Republic, began by celebrating the Round Table talks (successfully concluded in April 1989), then the semi-free parliamentary elections of June 4, and finally the appointment of the Soviet bloc’s first non-Communist prime minister (August) and government (September) since the end of World War II. The stifling summer heat didn’t hinder the appearance of ghosts from other revolutions: it was the 225th anniversary of the French Revolution (a crucial point of reference for Poland’s democratic opposition in 1989) and the tenth anniversary of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, whose heir apparent has now been in the Polish daily news for a year.
As it happens, Poland today has both apathy and anniversary. To find Poles who care about how the past speaks to the present and the future alike, one need no longer look only to the generations of onetime activists of the Solidarity trade-union movement, who remain the focus of Polish mainstream media and politics—from world-renowned dissident philosopher and newspaper editor Adam Michnik, who is 68, to the sitting president of the Polish Republic, Bronislaw Komorowski, who is 62. In recent years, there has been a veritable explosion of new Polish journals and think tanks staffed with engaged young writers, journalists and social activists, most of them under 40 and looking to make a proverbial difference in the life of their country. Some are lovers of Slavoj Zizek, others of John Stuart Mill, still others of John Paul II. Some publish actual print journals, while others produce prolific online zines.
Whatever the media, their editors and contributors see themselves as breathing new life into a public sphere that has often stagnated since 1989, caught between two inimical models of civic debate. The first is identified with the democratic activists who founded the Third Republic and have since focused their energies on defending it at all costs. At the heart of their stance is a formalistic commitment to civic freedom and political pluralism that nonetheless suffers from a hypersensitivity to perceived threats to the democratic culture built in Poland since 1989.
The other model is anchored in a cultlike populism focused on subverting the foundations of the Third Republic, thereby fueling the fears of its founding fathers. According to the charge sheet prepared by the politicians of the Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwosc, or PiS), the former dissidents who have played key roles in politics and the media started out as the bedfellows of former Polish Communist nomenklatura, only then to align themselves with foreign leaders—notably, German Chancellor Angela Merkel and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Hence the theory that Donald Tusk, Poland’s former prime minister, conspired with Putin to assassinate Lech Kaczynski, the PiS-backed president who perished along with the first lady and ninety-four of the country’s top politicians, military leaders and social activists in a plane crash over Smolensk, Russia, in April 2010. During the past four years, this theory has become the gospel of a public cult that fuses Catholic liturgy with a pagan devotion to the wreckage of the fallen plane.
Poland’s young intelligentsia, the oldest of whom were entering middle school when the revolutions of 1989 began, may not outnumber the country’s pedantic sushi-eaters, but they are doing their damnedest to navigate between their bickering elders and reach the young “middle class.” This summer, in particular, the crucial unifying theme was political revolution and civil war in Ukraine. Debate about it has fused various long-standing third rails of Polish political culture—anticommunism, Russia, Ukraine and the uneven consequences of Poland’s free-market transformation—without offering a clear picture of how Poles actually experience their historical memory, except as a waking dream.
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A few months ago, a beautiful, costly edifice was unveiled on the grounds of the former Gdansk shipyard, which is where the strikes that led to the formation of the Solidarity movement began in August 1980. Financed by European as well as Polish funds, the European Solidarity Center sports a monumental metal exterior treated to look like the aged hull of a grand ship. Its critics, however, fixated on its color, seeing the facade’s rusty hue as a sign of how the “spirit of Solidarity” had itself corroded.
This is no mere naysaying. Twenty-five years after Poland’s negotiated exit from communism, the legacy of Solidarity remains uncertain in the country. Although the trade union that the movement produced still exists, it has long renounced any identification with the free-market transformation that Poland began in 1989. Those who have seen Andrzej Wajda’s 1981 film Man of Iron will remember the shipyard’s front gate, and behind it first the bustle of the facility and then the proud sight of the workers’ sit-in strike. Today there are no workers, no bustle—indeed, no shipyard. Beyond the gate, one finds the European Solidarity Center on the left and a weed-choked field on the right. Inside the center, there is a courtyard landscaped with tastefully manicured trees and imported ground cover.
A floor higher, one side of the space sports a library and “innovation labs” of the sort so popular at American business schools. On the other side is a permanent historical exhibit about the 1970s and ’80s, full of dioramas of “life in Communist Poland.” These include a “typical” 1970s living room, an interrogation room in which striking workers were questioned by state security forces, and the large, round table at which party and opposition representatives negotiated the terms of Solidarity’s relegalization in 1989. The ceiling in one room is covered with safety helmets once belonging to the shipyard workers, clearly out of use for more than a decade. From an educator’s standpoint, the exhibit is inspiring in its focus on rendering legible to foreigners and Poles born since 1989 the details of everyday life in ethically and politically impossible situations. For many who remember those times, however, the ceiling covered with unused helmets is a rather sad scene, heavy with an air of desuetude, if not in fact kitsch.
Although the European Solidarity Center is brand-new, the design of its display is emblematic of a public discourse that, since the middle of the previous decade, has given force to a fresh wave of resentment against the fruits of 1989. (The first such wave appeared in the immediate aftermath of Poland’s free-market liberalization, when general strikes paralyzed industry and tractors blocked country roads off and on throughout the first half of the 1990s.) American political scientist David Ost has written of the “defeat of Solidarity,” and the late Polish economist Tadeusz Kowalik described the country’s political trajectory as going “from Solidarity to sellout.” Their basic contention is that the workers who formed the social base of political dissidence in Communist Poland became collateral damage in the country’s transition to political and economic liberalism (a commitment to the rights-bearing individual on the one hand and the free market on the other). As another observer, the Polish philosopher Andrzej Leder, puts it, “the losers were Solidarity’s sans-culottes—workers from heavy industry, as well as peasants, whose standard of living began to diverge dramatically from urban standards.” Whether one looks to the shipyards of Gdansk and Gdynia, the steel mills of Warsaw and Nowa Huta, the coal mines of Silesia, or the former state agricultural farms of rural Masuria, this argument is difficult to dismiss.
Together with the more pernicious elements of the transition from communism in the former Soviet Union and Soviet bloc—profiteering by the former nomenklatura; expropriation of capital to foreign investors, who then shut down homegrown enterprises to throttle potential competition—the downsizing of the Solidarity strikers’ legacy to a museum piece hardly inspires confidence among the unemployed and the destitute of today’s Poland. As of 2013, almost 8 percent of the population lives in what the Central Statistical Office of Poland calls “extreme poverty” (a monthly income of less than 551 Polish zlotys, or $166); another 17 percent are at imminent risk of falling into this state. In greatest danger are those working in agriculture, as well as the unemployed and the disabled. In comparison to the farmers of Albania, Belarus or Kazakhstan, Poles’ material situation may be vastly superior (though the same might not be said for their purchasing power), but in comparison with their counterparts throughout the European Union, these are the postcommunist damnés de la terre.
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Revelations about political corruption and the shocking decline of iconic enterprises like the Gdansk shipyard produced a political revolution in 2005 that resulted in the electoral success of two parties of the “center-right.” One, Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska, or PO), was more pro-business, while the other, PiS, was geared more toward religious, rural and postindustrial voters. The parties failed to form their promised coalition government, however, and instead reoriented the entire party system around their newfound disdain for each other while jockeying to position themselves as the most authentic successors of the Solidarity movement of 1980–81. As Polish philosopher Marcin Krol, a onetime economic liberal who regularly supplied a much younger Donald Tusk with writings by Friedrich Hayek and Karl Popper, recently lamented: “In some sense, Polish politics remains a conversation begun 30 years ago about who is the greater hero and how to get over our complexes from back then.”
PiS was founded by the twin brothers Jaroslaw and Lech Kaczynski, who were Solidarity activists in the 1980s and advisers to President Lech Walesa up to the moment of the so-called “war at the top.” Key figures in Polish politics throughout the 1990s, though never at the apex of political power, they formed PiS in 2001 following the implosion of a government of the right, vowing to monitor corruption in the new social-democratic government, which then unwittingly obliged them with a succession of scandals. Tusk, PO’s founder, also combined a Solidarity background with anticorruption bona fides; yet his watchword was neither the rule of law nor anticommunism, but rather economic liberalism. Tusk, too, created his party in 2001 out of the wreckage of the Polish right.
In advance of the 2005 Polish elections, a coalition government led by Tusk and the Kaczynskis seemed inevitable. The trio’s fortunes appeared so closely linked that Polish media designated them the “three ducks”: the Kaczynskis for the sound of their name (like kaczka, Polish for “duck”) and Tusk because of his given name, Donald. But as soon as the parties had earned the largest two shares in the Polish Parliament, the coalition talks fell apart. Two years of PiS in government gave way to seven years of Tusk, who was replaced in late September by Ewa Kopacz after he resigned from the prime ministership to become the president of the European Council.
Since 2005, the Polish electoral system has been dominated by protest voting. PiS backers protest the transformation of 1989 and its long legacy for the country’s downtrodden, while PO voters protest the perceived populism of PiS. With the emergence of the Smolensk cult in 2010, PiS embraced a new core narrative—PO as a fifth column, at once Europhile and Russophile, and posing a threat to Polish sovereignty—that has inspired a whole new scale of protest voting against PiS. Although the surviving PiS twin—former prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski—lost a snap presidential election in the summer of 2010 to the former PO parliamentarian Bronislaw Komorowski (in the 1980s, a young leader of Solidarity), his party is favored to win next year’s parliamentary elections, and Komorowski himself is up for re-election next year. Paradoxically, then, despite the range of pressing domestic and international issues facing Poland (from dramatic income inequalities through the changing relevance of NATO for the region), and despite the strident anti-Russian declarations of Tusk’s government since the November 2013 start of the Euromaidan upheaval in Ukraine, the Smolensk cult and the Polish-Russian conspiracy theory informing it are likely to continue to make headlines and motivate Poles’ choice at the ballot box, or whether to vote at all.
Even before the emergence of the Smolensk cult, PiS’s anticorruption agenda had already metamorphosed into caricatured attempts at unmasking heroes of the Solidarity movement for the supposed skeletons in their closets. Frequently, these attempts came not from the party’s political leaders, but rather from historians, journalists and public intellectuals openly identifying with the party and its abortive épuration of Polish public life. Following the elections of 2005, there appeared a 400-page book titled Michnikowszczyzna (Michnik Land), written by the PiS-affiliated commentator Rafal Ziemkiewicz—a poor excuse for an exposé that nonetheless became a bestseller. Three years later came a 750-page tome by two state-salaried historians accusing Solidarity founder and Nobel Peace Prize laureate Lech Walesa of having been a secret-police agent. Apart from the absence of evidence, the polemical tone of these publications belies the groundlessness and desperation of their arguments. But the scandal and suspicion they generated ensured huge commercial success.
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It is within this context of manufactured controversy that one must understand the roles played in Polish public life by Walesa, Michnik and other former Solidarity leaders—including the sitting president. For the better part of a decade, many of these figures have had targets painted on their backs. To say this is not to lionize them or to offer a blind defense of their political choices, but rather to underscore that what began as a serious attempt to weed out corruption in public life and render the nomenklatura accountable devolved long ago into a polarized, poisoned atmosphere. When, in September, Jaroslaw Kaczynski walked across the floor of the Parliament to wish Donald Tusk luck in his new European responsibilities, Polish media commentators could not get over their shock.
Michnik, who aside from a brief parliamentary stint following the elections of 1989 has never held political office, spent a good part of the last decade traveling abroad; yet even this has not shielded him from political hate speech. Occasionally, he has struck back: in a March 2007 op-ed in The New York Times, he spared no sympathy for the “populism” not only of PiS but also of certain politicians in Lithuania, the Czech Republic and Hungary (such as the current prime minister, Viktor Orban). As Michnik put it, “The losers of the transition away from Communism are taking revenge on its victors.” This is hardly a triumphalist declaration; at the same time, it could be interpreted as glossing over the economic and social inequalities that have plagued not only Poland, but Central and Eastern Europe more generally—a small class of profiteers and tycoons on the one hand, a quarter of society living either in or at imminent risk of “extreme poverty” on the other—since their exit from communism.
A collection of essays by Michnik, newly published in English translation under the title The Trouble With History, offers an approach to the historical memory of political transitions that is at once inclusive and comprehensive. Composed of essays published in Gazeta Wyborcza, the newspaper Michnik has edited since its founding in 1989, the book lives up to its subtitle, Morality, Revolution, and Counterrevolution. It contains three sets of meditations on the French Revolution and its aftermath, which follow two reflections on politics, ethics and morality in postwar Central and Eastern Europe.
Most relevant to the question at hand are the first two essays. One deals with West German Chancellor Willy Brandt and two seemingly contradictory public acts of his on Polish soil: in 1970, kneeling before the Warsaw Ghetto monument in expiation; in 1985, paying homage to the Communist leadership that had shuttered Solidarity and imprisoned its chiefs. In Michnik’s view, Brandt symbolizes the paradoxical “moral powerlessness of the powerful”: the statesman who won a Nobel Peace Prize for his ability to dialogue with Communist regimes, resulting in his successful Ostpolitik, proved unwilling a decade later to dialogue with those regimes’ domestic opponents.
The second essay, while inspired by the politics of PiS, amounts to a call for vigilance to preserve democratic political ethics in the face of challenges such as “anti-communism with a Bolshevik face.” Peppered with deliberately repeated key words and phrases (“freedom,” “manipulation,” “historical truth”), this essay achieves an authoritative voice by humanizing the problems of life in Communist and post-Communist Poland. “The trouble with history” lies in the ability of contemporary public figures, whether academics, journalists or politicians, to recast narratives of the recent past in the service of their own ideological agendas and sense of victimization. As Michnik points out, this is, of course, a staple of demagoguery dating back long before the origins of modern mass politics. (It was, for example, Pericles’ tactic for reintegrating Athenian society in the course of the Peloponnesian War.) For Michnik, however, the point is not to rehearse the banal, but to recover crucial links in Polish public life that can foster dialogue and “polyphony.” Writing of Solidarity, he declares that “the democratic opposition confronted the monologue of the communists’ version of history with a polyphonic voice.” To avoid backsliding to the autocratic monologue, contemporary historical narratives about Poland’s exit from communism must respect “the capacity for autonomous evaluation of the past, the confrontation of various points of view, and various interpretations of the sources.”
This is how Michnik defines freedom: in reference to individual and collective understandings of the past. Respect for “the Other” is paramount in maintaining a civil society and pluralistic polity. Denial of that respect is therefore tantamount to “a giving up of one’s own freedom and one’s own striving for the truth.” It is thus that he condemns a decade’s worth of attacks not only on himself and Walesa but, more generally, on the pride of place of Poland’s democratic transition of 1989 in the country’s historical memory.
In the United States, the legacy of the civil-rights movement remains vivid and relevant in social debates, even for many who feel no direct attachment to its history. The sort of thick context that would give most Poles a sense of the visceral, everyday relevance of the ideas of “freedom” and “solidarity” has yet to form. For the generations with no adult memories of the events that Michnik discusses—the origins of the Solidarity movement in 1980, the negotiated exit from communism in 1989—the trouble with history is that, in many cases, it simply does not speak to them.
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Taking a different approach from Michnik, a growing group of Polish historians and museum curators have been working to mobilize young Poles to develop a stake in their country’s historical memory. At present, Poles of all generations are confronted with a range of sites at which to celebrate and further educate themselves about their country’s recent past. Poland has never been light on historical museums—the Auschwitz Museum opened in 1947—but the present volume of museums being completed and opened is unprecedented.
This blitz of new museums has been more than a decade in the making. In 2000, the Polish-born Princeton historian Jan T. Gross published Sasiedzi, an account of how Catholics in the eastern Polish town of Jedwabne slaughtered hundreds of their Jewish neighbors in 1941. Gross’s book (published a year later in English as Neighbors) sparked among Poles now in their 30s and 40s a dramatic, honest public conversation about Polish anti-Semitism and wartime pogroms. For this and future generations, then, it marks a breakthrough to have at their fingertips an institution like the Museum of the History of Polish Jews, which celebrated its grand opening in October. Years in the making, the museum includes exhibits spanning not only World War II but the whole 1,000 years of Polish-Jewish history, targeting the widest possible audience and separating fact from fiction.
Another spark flashed in 2002, when the newly elected mayor of Warsaw, Lech Kaczynski, explained his vision for a museum of the Warsaw Uprising. The museum was launched two years later, on the sixtieth anniversary; British historian Norman Davies signed copies of his history of the bloody rebellion, and the crowd that greeted him filled the museum’s capacious exterior garden. The museum’s leadership decided to prepare for this year’s seventieth anniversary by producing a mainstream film assembled from the museum’s own collections. It premiered nationwide in May with a substantial promotional campaign by Gazeta Wyborcza, among other outlets. The movie is a montage of raw footage recorded during the uprising by members of the Polish resistance. The museum staff colorized the original black-and-white film, created a soundtrack based on their reading of lips, and gave the footage a narrative arc guided by a fictional voiceover from the two cameramen who were supposed to have taken the footage. Whatever one thinks of the voice track, the montage leaves a deep impression; it not only revisits the heroic battle (fought mostly by resisters in their teens and 20s), but it also depicts the attempts to maintain a semblance of everyday life amid a citywide uprising. Scenes of lovers, postal carriers and cooks are interspersed with scenes of combat, death and the capture (and, in one case, execution) of prisoners.
The museum’s 42-year-old director, Jan Oldakowski, was a close political associate of then-mayor Kaczynski, and he has overseen the project from its inception. A onetime MP, he fell out with the late president’s brother following the Smolensk plane crash. Ever since, the Warsaw Uprising Museum, once seen as a hallmark of PiS’s anticommunist politics of history, has become a maverick institution that has successfully collaborated with people across the political spectrum and commands the respect of historians and public figures alike. If anything, longstanding debates about whether the uprising had been justified, given the death toll—approximately 200,000 Poles lost their lives over sixty-three days, and another 600,000 or so were displaced or taken prisoner—have been eclipsed by the Smolensk cult. The jeering of its adherents at public events where state functionaries officiate overshadows any commemorative or educational function those ceremonies might serve.
The museum itself is free of such scenes, unintelligible to the curious young Pole. In August, at a Mediterranean restaurant in downtown Warsaw, a young male businessman and his date, a young female architect, marveled at the museum’s success in raising consciousness among Varsovians and visitors alike of the firefights conducted and the buildings razed on the very spots where they sleep, work, shop and eat today. As the young man spoke of the museum’s permanent exhibit, which he had already brought to life for himself in walks around the city on the anniversary of the uprising’s launch, the young woman listened with evident admiration and affection for her date.
This is the alternative to the divided world created by the iconoclasts of PiS on the one hand and, on the other, by the onetime dissident icons defending themselves and the political ethics of their dissidence. What is eminently clear is that contemporary history can shape—and has shaped, in concrete ways—the self-understandings of young Poles attracted to neither propaganda nor ideals, but instead to a window on everyday life in the past. Michnik put it best: “One must also keep in mind actual human lives, and concrete choices people had to make daily.” Like the Warsaw Uprising Museum, the new and forthcoming museums, including one of World War II and another of the 1940 Katyn massacres (in which 22,000 Poles perished at Soviet hands), have the potential to draw upon precisely this impulse among young Poles, whose middle-class alienation—to the extent that such a diagnosis applies—need hardly be deemed irreversible.
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Their putative alienation—and its accompanying materialism—should not be considered a zero-sum replacement of the traditional idealism of the intelligentsia. Przesniona rewolucja is a groundbreaking book published in March that is neither an academic monograph nor a popular history, but rather, as the author terms it, “an exercise in the logic of history.” Andrzej Leder makes the provocative argument that the postcommunist Polish fetishization of sushi bars, brunches and other objects of fascination of the young, Western middle class is tightly connected to the way Polish historical sense—borrowing from Jacques Lacan, Leder writes of an “imaginary”—was reconfigured in the immediate aftermath of World War II.
Between 1944, the year of the creation of Poland’s subsequent Communist government and of the Warsaw Uprising, and 1956, the year of Poland’s de-Stalinization, the country experienced first a civil war pitting the remnants of the non-Communist underground army against the Soviet-supported security forces of the new “Lublin government,” and then outright Stalinism. Such, at any rate, is the prevailing story of these years in Poland today. Leder emphasizes a different aspect of these years: their revolutionary nature. Use of the term “revolution” for the postwar reconstruction and transformation of the Polish state, society and economy dates to the then-nascent Communist establishment, which thereby attempted to place postwar Poland in a lineage originating in the “plebeian” French and Bolshevik revolutionary traditions. Rather than a captive colonial space behind an emerging iron curtain, Poland was to be a site of postwar revolution. Given these associations with the use of the term “revolution” for postwar Poland, it is hardly surprising that after 1989 the term was discarded by Poles, with historians leading the charge.
Leder’s aim in reclaiming the term is not to dignify the political goals of the postwar Communist establishment. Instead, he thinks the term is essential for describing a series of events at best relegated to the margins of Polish historical memory. As Leder argues, the postwar decade did usher in revolution in Poland, sparking developments both “positive”—unprecedented infrastructural modernization and class mobility, particularly in rural Poland—and “negative”: mass population displacements, anti-Semitic pogroms, systematic use of political repression and torture, and civil war. For some, it was a bloodcurdling nightmare; for others, a promise of bounty; and for all, a raw and unassimilated revision of the basis of Polish society.
Although Przesniona rewolucja in principle focuses on the events of 1944 to 1956, it is as much about a breakdown in the process of historical memory formation that has plagued Poland ever since: through de-Stalinization, the Solidarity period, the period of a negotiated exit from communism that culminated in 1989, and the twenty-five years of the Third Republic. The very title of the book—Przesniona rewolucja, a “waking-dream revolution”—signals its major contribution to understanding a variety of relationships in contemporary Poland: between history and social theory in scholarship, but more so between publicly accessible entry points into Poland’s historical sense and the dynamics of social evolution in Poland since World War II. Following Leder, then, today’s Polish sushi-eaters are to be neither lauded nor scorned, but rather understood simply as a logical consequence of the processes of alienation embedded in even the greatest “successes” of postwar Polish revolutionary transformation. Even 1989 failed to crack the resistance to recognizing the true origins of postwar Poland’s demographics and infrastructure, instead freezing stillborn narratives of the communist era within the new idioms of political pluralism and the free market.
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Born in 1960, just a few years into Poland’s de-Stalinization, Leder is himself a product of the waking-dream revolution he analyzes. His book is among the newest releases of a Polish publishing house called Krytyka Polityczna (Political Critique), built around an eponymous print quarterly founded in 2002 by the Polish sociologist Slawomir Sierakowski, who was 23 at the time. Krytyka Polityczna seems the exception proving the rule within Leder’s analysis: it is the center of an ever-growing milieu of widely read Polish twenty- and thirtysomethings who have spent the better part of a decade attempting to create a new Polish left unburdened by the legacy of communism and unconnected to mainstream party politics, yet deeply invested in specific issues broadly identifiable with European social democracy.
The journal’s perspective might frequently confound American or Western European readers. It combines social-rights advocacy (for women, the LGBT community, and various religious and ethno-national minority groups) with uncompromising democratic advocacy abroad (including a consistently pro-Ukrainian and anti-Russian line in the context of the current crisis in Ukraine). This is the Polish milieu most responsible in recent years for promoting the writings not only of Gayatri Spivak and Slavoj Zizek, as well as Poland’s own theorists and practitioners of socialism (most notably, Stanislaw Brzozowski in the nineteenth century and Jacek Kuron in the twentieth), but also Poland’s key émigré scholars (such as Zygmunt Bauman) and Anglophone historians (the Oxford professor Timothy Garton Ash and the Yale professors Marci Shore and Timothy Snyder). Krytyka Polityczna offers a hybrid vision of social and political life: a uniquely Polish social democracy promoting Polish historical memory while also seeking to incorporate the most thought-provoking trends in global social theory.
The publishing house’s existence shows that the hold of the waking dream over Polish society is not a choke hold. (One might venture to say that the very possibility of the publication of Leder’s book shows the limitations of his argument.) Nor is Krytyka Polityczna a singular case of class or geographical antagonism—for example, setting youth from upwardly mobile, once-rural families against the scions of families long settled in Krakow or Warsaw. Its journal can claim the extraordinary achievement of squaring dramatically different schools of thought and practice: the Western European “New Left,” American-style democracy promotion, and homegrown Polish—anti-Marxist (and frequently anti-Russian)—socialism.
This combination has yielded certain counterintuitive affinities. For Poland’s new ultranationalists and Smolensk cultists, Krytyka Polityczna symbolizes decadence and alien infiltration. And yet, in many respects, it represents the most direct continuation of the Solidarity movement of 1980–81, whose legacy remains a point of heated debate in Poland. Brzozowski’s anarcho-syndicalism shaped the philosophies of Kuron and his younger friend Adam Michnik, who spent a significant portion of their time—first in prison in the 1980s and then in Polish public life in the 1990s and 2000s—articulating their own practical ethics of social justice, while at the same time navigating the straits that separated the naïve idealism of Western Europe’s soixante-huitards from the practical agenda of democracy-promotion organizations like the National Endowment for Democracy and the Open Society Foundations. Krytyka Polityczna represents an attempt to preserve the best of the legacy of older dissident generations—with whom its relationship is occasionally fraught, though at its core defined by mutual admiration—while attempting to marry Polish national traditions with social justice absent xenophobia, clericalism or political illiberalism.
Krytyka Polityczna’s program underscores the difficulties of applying across linguistic and cultural boundaries uniform political notions of left and right. In Poland, “left” need not imply antinationalism, just as “right” need not exclude a commitment to social justice. Quite the opposite: left and right in fact compete in their welfare-driven commitments. Equally fascinating is the extent of affinity and overlap between the young activists of Krytyka Polityczna and Poland’s self-proclaimed young liberals, grouped around an online zine called Kultura Liberalna (Liberal Culture). Although this group uses the term “liberal” after the fashion of European centrists insisting on both political and economic liberalism, its zine focuses not on Milton Friedman, Friedrich Hayek or even Leszek Balcerowicz, the architect of Poland’s 1989 free-market transformation, but rather on many of the same kinds of issues that Krytyka Polityczna addresses. Indeed, one might argue that the staff members of Kultura Liberalna demonstrate an even stronger commitment to wide-ranging polyphonic debate on the nature of political, social, and economic ethics in a European and globally embedded Poland.
The brainchild of an initially tight-knit circle of friends that formed around the legal historian Jaroslaw Kuisz, 38, and the political sociologist Karolina Wigura, 34 (the two are married), the zine has expanded impressively to include a global network of contributors (including, on occasion, this writer). Kultura Liberalna offers reflections not only on civic freedoms and political pluralism in contemporary Poland, but also on the most pressing issues of the day: online privacy, cafe life, secularism and public finance. The zine publishes translations of essays by and interviews with the crème de la crème of cultural and intellectual life not only in Poland, but also from the United States, the United Kingdom, Canada, France, Germany and Ukraine, including Alain Finkielkraut, Agnieszka Holland, Bernard Kouchner, Martha Nussbaum and Charles Taylor.
Like Krytyka Polityczna, Kultura Liberalna openly identifies with the legacy of the Solidarity movement and the democratic transformation of 1989, while preserving an identity of its own. This frequently involves a delicate balancing act between praise and partnership with key icons of Poland’s anticommunist movement—Adam Michnik has been a past guest at the public debates organized by the zine, and his writings have also been a subject—and critical reflection on the democratic transformation’s legacy.
At the end of the day, that legacy imposes both a well-defined discussion agenda for the young Polish intelligentsia and a priori limits on those discussions. Wigura and Sierakowski alike are critical of many of the outcomes of 1989, including a bloated and corrupt state bureaucracy and a Catholic Church exerting undue influence on public life and lawmaking. Yet to avoid fueling the attacks launched within Poland against the pantheon of Solidarity dissidents, these groups—for reasons of personal and ideological affinity, as well as a more general embrace of the polyphony of democratic culture—end up being automatic allies of the Polish state and of mainstream media like Gazeta Wyborcza.
There is also substantial overlap in the international networks of academic institutions welcoming Poland’s intelligentsia, junior and senior. Sierakowski, now a regular contributor to The New York Times, has for years been making the rounds of top American universities, having held fellowships at Harvard, Princeton and Yale. Wigura has been a German Marshall Fund fellow, and Kuisz has been a visiting scholar at the University of Chicago. All three have long-term ties to the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen (Institute for Human Sciences) in Vienna, whose founders include many of Michnik’s late mentors and friends, such as Krzysztof Michalski and the Rev. Jozef Tischner. Courtesy of their international ties, the writers of Kultura Liberalna on occasion have their work reprinted in English translation in the mass-audience online journal Eurozine.
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Two cross-generational rallying points for Polish intellectuals have been religion (or, more generally, “values” and mores) and regional policy. In 1977, Michnik published a book with a Paris-based émigré press entitled Kosciol, lewica, dialog (in its English edition, The Church and the Left) that represented a call to arms for Poland’s non-Catholic, socialism-weaned intelligentsia to unite with the liberating potential of the Catholic Church against the autocratic Communist regime. Why? At the time—one year before the election of a Pole to the papacy—Michnik saw in the Church one of the clarion global voices for human rights and civic freedoms.
Since 1989, however, the Church in Poland—partly as a result of the crisis of leadership triggered by John Paul II’s illness and death, partly because of a thinning of the ranks of the faithful—has more often than not been a vital source of the most exclusionary and intolerant ideas that Poland has to offer. Anti-Semitism, skepticism toward the European Union, opposition to women’s and LGBT rights—all of these have found patrons in members of the Polish Episcopate. Although one could also find inspiring spiritual leaders and social critics among the country’s leading Catholics, Catholicism in Poland has suffered a constant crisis of pastoral leadership since the 1980s. On the Smolensk cult, despite its overt fusion of Catholic liturgy with slogans of political and national hatred, bishops have largely remained silent, leading one scholar to comment that the real head of the Polish Episcopate since 2010 has been Jaroslaw Kaczynski.
This is perhaps too simplistic a verdict, but it does seem that, in the rare instances in which the bishops have spoken with one voice, they have been dogged opponents of social reform. Liberalization of Poland’s stringent antiabortion legislation, guarantees for civic partnerships, protection for in vitro fertilization, even the hardening of punishments for domestic violence against women—all of these legislative initiatives have languished for years because of the pressure applied to successive governments by Catholic bishops.
In December 2013, the bishops went so far as to condemn a rising tide of “genderism” and “gender ideology,” expressing disgust at the notion that “a person can choose to define himself as he wishes.” As much as a direct attack on LGBT and women’s rights, the letter represented the bishops’ most blatant attempt to date to rid the country’s public life of movements for equality and social liberalization, which they see as a blasphemous tide coming inter alia from Brussels and Washington. Bizarrely enough, the widely perceived social excesses and decadence of the West have—in the eyes of Poland’s hierarchy—become reminiscent of Soviet-style communism for the ways in which they challenge the nationalist, corporatist vision of a society organized around an “organic” unity of family, nation and church. As the traditionalist journal Fronda put it in an online commentary on the bishops’ letter, “Genderism is like communism: And we must prepare ourselves for a long war!”
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Such blind Catholic condemnation of the “modern world” as inimical to the Church’s vision of social and political order is entirely at odds with the letter and spirit of documents adopted by the Second Vatican Council in the mid-1960s. The council’s pastoral constitution Gaudium et Spes insisted verbatim that Catholics not reject the modern world wholesale, but instead engage it in dialogue. Some of the most vibrant dissident scenes of Communist Poland emerged from this world of “open-minded” Catholicism. The leadership of the Catholic Intelligentsia Clubs based in Poland’s largest cities advised Lech Walesa from 1980 onward and helped to create Solidarity. One of the Warsaw club’s vice presidents—Tadeusz Mazowiecki, longtime editor of the Catholic monthly journal Wiez (Bond)—became Solidarity’s prime minister in August 1989.
These organizations continue to play a role in Polish public life. Despite a long-standing budget crisis, Wiez has remained vibrant while switching from a monthly to a quarterly format. The Krakow-based monthly Znak (Sign) now boasts an energetic young staff and a rising circulation. The youth groups of Warsaw’s Catholic Intelligentsia Club have begun producing their own excellent zine Kontakt (Contact). But for all its intellectual vitality, this milieu’s influence has been steadily diminishing since 1989. With the exception of narrow, albeit cross-generational circles of Poland’s intelligentsia, the open-minded Catholics’ share of religious opinion in Poland has been almost entirely eclipsed by the more nationalist, partisan and culturally conservative journals like Fronda.
It is frequently difficult to distinguish the youth constituency of the Fronda traditionalists from a recent renaissance of interwar-style anti-Semitic and xenophobic nationalism. Once the political side interest of Polish soccer hooligans, the young activists of the Ruch Narodowy (National Movement) have become the scourge of each year’s Polish Independence Day. In November 2013, the most notable event of the day in Warsaw was not the state-organized parade, but the burning of a rainbow hanging across Savior Square—an artistic installation created in 2011 to celebrate Poland’s presidency of the Council of the European Union. Despite outcries from many corners of Polish politics and society, the director of Poland’s most influential Catholic radio station—in a statement at once homophobic and Euro-skeptical—lauded the destruction of a “symbol of deviancy.”
Unlike the soccer hooligans of the 1990s, the young Nationalist Movement is no longer a bastion of the unemployed or the “damned” of Poland’s postcommunist transformation. As Marek Beylin, a long-time member of Gazeta Wyborcza’s editorial staff, underscores in the introduction to his excellent 2014 book Spokojnie, to tylko rewolucja (Calm Down, It’s Just a Revolution), among those who torched Warsaw’s rainbow last year, “many were likely students and recent college graduates frustrated that they are finding their paths blocked to [stable] employment and careers.” In other words, Poland’s new right includes not just the baby boomers of PiS or the rural outcasts of the country’s Europeanization, but simply “people living among us.” This is the other side of the coin of Leder’s “waking- dream revolution” and of the drive toward luxury consumption as a lowest common denominator for Warsaw’s young middle class. If they had better-paying and more stable jobs, the rainbow-burners might well be among the sushi-eaters.
Religious and social values thus frequently paper over the generational and substantive intellectual differences within Polish public life. Sierakowski of Krytyka Polityczna and Wigura of Kultura Liberalna may harbor fundamental disagreements with each other on a range of issues, and each certainly differs in a number of key respects from the older generations of former dissidents. Yet these disagreements take a back seat to the kinds of imperatives spelled out by Michnik: being able to have a civil conversation and not wanting to muzzle one’s opponents.
The problem is that these types of alliances frequently result in self-censorship, a choice to highlight a formalistic consensus on democracy and pluralism at the cost of attention to urgent—if comparatively mundane—concerns: a living wage, nondiscrimination, the right to co-habit and file taxes with whomever one wants. As philosopher Marcin Krol recently complained, “Progressive elites have taken on gender and sexual inequalities, having at the same time completely lost sight of the simple economic inequalities that remain scandalous. After all, why should we concern ourselves with some nineteenth-century social categories when we have newer, more interesting ones. In precisely this way, regular people with regular problems have been left to fall prey to a rotten right that promises them the moon.” As a consequence, social justice and solidarity have fallen by the wayside in the face of an apparently ceaseless state of exception in which one has friends, one has enemies, and that’s that.
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The ubiquity of the friend/enemy distinction among key public voices of all generations is tightly connected to Poland’s persistent failure to emerge from the postwar waking dream. What is yet to come is a collective reckoning with and assimilation of generations’ worth of revolutionary change in Poland. Understanding the country’s demographic and material shifts over the past seventy years is necessary for recognizing that the revolutions of 1989 did not simply turn the clock back to 1939, as if Communists had never come to power in Poland. Brian Porter-Szucs is correct to write in Poland in the Modern World that the communist era “could not be treated as if it had been a sort of freezer, so that the real Poland could now be thawed out and revived.” The cultural and historical horizons of today’s Poles are as much a product of the communist period as of the country’s post-1989 free-market transformation.
Because traditional barricades in the realms of values and mores have been difficult to surmount, geopolitics has become the most effective sphere of substantive cooperation across both generational and political lines. PiS and the government, Gazeta Wyborcza and Fronda, the Catholics and the secularists, the baby boomers and the children of the 1989 revolution—all of these can agree on a geopolitical agenda for Poland leaning toward Brussels and Berlin and away from Moscow.
This consensus is a consequence of three factors: deeply ingrained fears of Russian aggrandizement; a fusion of inferiority and superiority complexes centered on Poland’s need to play regional hegemon within a larger European community; and a principled, substantive commitment to free speech and civic self-organization. Following President Obama’s June 4 speech in Warsaw, there was no lack of enthusiastic commentary in the Polish press. What mattered most, though, was that Obama commemorated the collapse of communism in Poland by appearing to give Warsaw carte blanche to run regional policy toward the most pressing concern facing Central and Eastern Europe since late 2013: Ukraine.
Inspired in the 1980s by the French Revolution, former dissidents like Komorowski and Michnik draw on that legacy when describing the regional implications of the Euromaidan and its co-optation by civil war and separatism. At the French Embassy in Warsaw for the 225th anniversary of Bastille Day, the Polish president presented the Ukrainian crisis as an opportunity for a “return” to a level of East-West solidarity not seen on the continent since the revolutions of 1989. Komorowski’s message to the French and to other Western European political establishments was clear: “fraternity, meaning solidarity,” would be necessary to bring peace to the region. It is a message that, even before Komorowski spoke those words, has resonated in Poland across generations as well as the political spectrum. It is an echo of the role that Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski attempted to play in 2004–5 as a midwife of Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, except now on an even grander scale and as a matter of universal principle.
At the same time, the friend/enemy distinction that has constrained public debate on a whole host of domestic issues has likewise inhibited reflection on what solidarity in the minds of Polish activists of the 1980s means when transposed onto Ukraine today. (This was a problem also in 2004–5.) One of the exceptions has come from Karolina Wigura, who along with Kacper Szulecki and Lukasz Jasina, two colleagues from Kultura Liberalna, warned Poles in February against “a postcolonial approach to the place of our Eastern neighbor in the geopolitical order and ignorance about the local realities.” In other words, the Polish intelligentsia, while right to express solidarity and rally around the Euromaidan, must avoid repeating the mistakes of a decade ago and exercise caution when assuming the role of spokespersons for revolutionary Ukraine and—even more important—avoid a condescending, avuncular tone. As the three writers put it: “We cannot, however, project historical schemes onto the present. There will not be another 1989, nor another 2004.” Rather: “Let us cease treating the Ukrainians as silly schoolchildren whom we, the self-proclaimed professors of democracy, will tell lengthy stories of how we used to do things, while our own backyard is far from ideal even today.”
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It is rare to see young Polish public intellectuals attempting to break through the nation’s waking-dream state to develop a more sensitive and substantial version of the post-1989 impulse toward democracy promotion. Wigura, Szulecki and Jasina questioned neither the course of the Euromaidan revolution nor the legitimacy of Poland’s involvement in Ukrainian affairs. They were stressing the need for concerted, critical reflection about the legacy of 1989 and the factors that distinguish multinational, multilingual, post-Soviet Ukraine from the bulk of the countries that gained independence from the collapsing Soviet bloc in 1989. Such reflections could begin, for example, with the dynamics that led to Czechoslovakia’s 1993 Velvet Divorce—which worked out well enough for the Czechs, but left the Slovaks with nearly a decade of autocratic rule by Vladimir Meciar—or with the dashed hopes of Ukraine’s own Orange Revolution. As Wigura, Szulecki and Jasina conclude: “As thirty-year-olds, who lived over two thirds of our lives in a free Poland, we would like to believe that the assurances of values, which according to the older generation were the foundations of a new Poland, were not just empty lip-service.”
The ten months since the trio issued its warning have shown that Poland does not seem to have a workable strategy that would take into account on-the-ground realities in Ukraine, particularly with respect to the future of the Donbass region. Despite the deep expertise of key Polish commentators, especially at Warsaw’s Center for Eastern Studies, Polish policy toward Ukraine seems to be in a holding pattern defined by uncertainty as to Poland’s own position within European diplomacy. One of the main arguments in favor of Donald Tusk’s selection as the new president of the European Council was that he would represent Central and Eastern European interests in Europe against Russia, first and foremost in the matter of Ukraine. Yet, as Wigura has recently pointed out, a dramatic increase in the past year in the number of Ukrainian applications for refugee status in Poland has yielded only twelve positive decisions from the Polish government. As of October 26, according to the state Office for Foreigners, 1,831 Ukrainians had filed such applications this year, compared with forty-six in 2012 and an annual average of fifty-two over the preceding five years. The October 26, 2014, figure for Ukrainians represents 35 percent of all refugee requests received by Poland this year, and more than a fortyfold increase from 2013. To put it mildly, Polish diplomatic leadership will be difficult to achieve without an appreciation of how dramatically the pressures for immigration across its eastern border have changed.
Few, if any, Poles would oppose the notion of solidarity with a democratic revolution in Ukraine. Even those who worry about the legacy of Stepan Bandera and Ukrainian fascism in the country’s west lean toward the Maidan government as a statement against Putin’s Russia. Virtually all of the writers and publications mentioned in this essay have expressed immediate and full support for the Maidan protesters, followed by shock at the shots fired on the Maidan, followed in turn by months of confusion over what has since taken place in Crimea and in Donbass. Even if one sets aside regional politics and Polish raison d’état, a deep human connection links Polish public intellectuals with Ukrainian activists and writers like Serhiy Zhadan, the novelist who was publicly beaten in March, or journalist Vasyl Serhienko, one of the many unexplained victims of lethal violence whose bodies have been discovered in forests outside Ukrainian cities. For almost a year, solidarity appeals have been making the rounds online. In May, key Polish commentators across the generational divide, including Michnik and Sierakowski, spoke at a major conference of European and American intellectuals organized in Kiev by Timothy Snyder and former New Republic literary editor Leon Wieseltier.
Yet it begs reflection that the Polish support for Ukraine has come in a year of anniversary celebrations commemorating bloody resistance and repression alongside triumphant democratic revolution. Wigura is right to say that “Poles don’t have the faintest idea about what contemporary Ukrainian society is like.” Young Poles going to cineplexes to watch the Warsaw Uprising film emerge with a ready-made lens through which to interpret talk of civil war in the Donetsk region. Those hearing in June, or August, or September, about the Nobel-laureate electrician Lech Walesa’s negotiations with Communist leaders, or about the Catholic intellectual Tadeusz Mazowiecki’s ascent to the head of the Polish government, might tend to look for analogous figures in the Ukrainian case.
The young intellectuals of Kultura Liberalna have suggested that Ukraine could very well provide the trigger point for Poles to work through generations of collectively unassimilated knowledge of social and political revolution. For Poles, Ukraine must not be a postcolonial laboratory, but rather a place inhabited by real people whom Poles take the time to get to know, just as Michnik, Sierakowski and Wigura all have. In such a fraught climate—one in which “solidarity” could be nothing more than another word for a formalistic commitment to “liberty”—the words of an elder should also count among those worth heeding: “One must also keep in mind actual human lives, and concrete choices people had to make daily.”