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.