Monday, 3 May 2010

Two Polands. Two anywhere elses?

Today is Poland's National Day. In 1791, Poland's parliament adopted the country's constitution, the world's second (after the USA) and the first in Europe. So national flags are flown; it's a day off work, and a good time to reflect upon what it is to be Polish. Indeed, or to be a national of any country on earth.

What exactly are the ties that bind a nation together? Are they stronger than that which divides it?

Language is key to national identity. It's what allows Pani Ewelina from the nice new house on the edge of town to converse with Pan Heniek in the village grocery store. It was language that held Poland's national spirit alive during the partitions when the country disappeared from the map of Europe for over 120 years. The Slavic word for 'German' is niemiec (or permutations around that). It means, literally, 'dumb one' (as in 'can't speak'). But go too far east, and the defining element is no longer linguistic but religious. Poles are of the Church of Rome. Christianity, introduced in 966, brought the Latin, not Byzantine, rite; more importantly, the written language of Poland uses the Latin, not Cyrillic alphabet.

When our children were born in London, my wife and I took the conscious decision to teach them Polish as their first language - just as we'd learnt Polish at our parents' knees in England a generation earlier. Moni spoke no English until she went to nursury school at the age of three and half; Eddie spoke no English at all until we moved to Poland. Only when the children started going to Polish schools did we revert to speaking English at home, so that they wouldn't lose it. I write in English a) because it was the language in which I was trained to write, b) to explain Poland to non-Poles, and c) so that advanced Polish students of English can read about Poland in English. [On growing up Polish in England. So that you know where I'm coming from.]

Binding a nation together is its music; the songs one learns as a child that one passes on. More than just nursery rhymes (which in PC UK are being sanitised so as to better reflect the diverse nature of British society). National anthems - God Save The Queen reflects a familiar stability, like the chimes of Big Ben. But intrinsically it does not stir me like the Mazurek Dąbrowskiego. The Church has had a vital role to play here. So much of the music that has kept Poland going through the dark decades of partition, Nazi occupation and communism has been been sung in churches. Boże coś Polskę, for example. Taught by parents and grandparents, folk song has also had an important role in binding the Polish nation together.

Other elements of national identity: costume - eroded totally by globalisation; cuisine - heading that way. Much as I enjoyed the excellent pierogi in Kraków on Saturday night, I also loved the prawn vindaloo I had on Wednesday in Saska Kępa. Fusion as a trend in cuisine means that food preferences will become more tailored to personal metabolic choice than where one lives.

National identity is about pride in one's country. I take pride in Poland and its achievements. Sports is an obvious category (Poland does well in individual sports - ski jumping, cross-country skiing, swimming, walking - and team sports like volleyball and handball)* . I take pride when I see Polish surnames achieving greatness in the field of science. (Sadly, Poles invariably do so in American, British or German universities or R&D establishments.) I take pride in Poland's economic achievements - delighting in the fact that it was the only EU member state to record positive economic growth last year. Or a new inward investment, or the development of Warsaw's skyline over the past decade. It gives me great satisfaction when impartial foreigners praise Poland in the international media. And I'm immensely proud that my daughter is proud to be Polish and proud to come from Warsaw.

Now onto the controversial part of this post.

Looking at the Polish nation, there's a clear split. Between those cultured, educated Poles, working hard to create wealth for themselves, their families and society; and those Poles that use the 'k' word with mindless frequency, drink for the sake of getting drunk, dump their old fridges, TV sets and beer bottles in the nearest forest and are generally not much use in a meaningful conversation about Mickiewicz, Chopin or Piłsudski.

But then there are two Britains. Prosperous, sophisticated Middle England and inner city Britain - 'broken Britain' - sprawling council estates, mums with five kids each of a different colour, squalour and hopelessness. The gulf between a middle-class family from picturesque rural Oxfordshire, well-versed in English culture, tradition and history, and a disfunctional family of inner-city council-flat chavs, out of work for generations, congenitally violent and unintelligent, is as great as that between a Kraków intellectual who'd kept Polish traditions alive throughout communism, and the inebriated, incoherent villager for whom life is a day-to-day struggle to find the cash for the next bottle.

I confess to having far more in common with a Polish, English, American, German or Russian intellectual than I do with a boorish uneducated Pole. Does this make me a representative of nie-Polska? Am I too cosmopolitan, too pro-EU, too open to the ideas of global business, too wishy-washy in matters of theological dogma, to be a true Pole? This seems to be the dividing line that Poland's social conservatives are trying to draw up in the wake of the Smolensk tragedy and in the run-up to the presidential election. Between Polska and nie-Polska.

On this, Poland's National Day, the country needs to be looking for commonality not division. Poland's elite need to reach into to countryside, to ensure that in human development terms, rural Poland can enjoy the civilisational benefits that urban Poland has. Access to education, culture, healthcare, broadband, public transport, opportunity. I think there's more hope for the Polish village than for Britain's decaying inner cities. Internal and external migration, investment (domestic and foreign), EU funds and above all, education, can break the cycle of rural despair. 'One Poland' as a slogan will happen when the Polish countryside becomes as rich and contented as Britain's green and pleasant villages.

* Britain's sporting excellence tends to be in bizarre areas of human endeavour where few other nations dabble - underwater wheelchair hockey, rowing (440m coxless nines), welterweight badminton etc.


toyah said...

I am very sorry to have to be saying this but "A Kraków intellectual" is a notion so meaningless and empty you'd better dump it, and you do it fast, if you want to catch up with the signs of the times.

Michael Dembinski said...

Why? I know plenty of people in Kraków with bookshelves stuffed full of books about art and literature and history; people defined by what they read rather than how much they earn.

Anonymous said...

Glad you got back okay!!

student SGH said...

Niemiec = a dumb one??? Me not understand

I'm still thinking about teaching my children English from their early childhood and I'm weighing two options: either to find an English wife or to work hard on my English and not to pass any bad linguistic habits on them. Children should pick up flawless English...

I write in English, becasue it's a challenge, not mainly becasue I want to reach world-wide audience, my blog is rather targeted at Poles.

The Church indeed has been a part of our national identity. But it seems it played its part best in the times it was suppressed. Now when it enjoys numerous privileges its influence is slowly waning. I'd put it down to another Polish trait - defiance ;)

What I see around is a clash between the new Poles an the old ones, still ticking over. On the suburbs it's strikingly noticeable.

Yesterday I roamed around the estate where I grew up in Piaseczno. Since I moved out in 2005 it's been continually going downhill and if it goes on like this it will be a shanty town. Why akin blocks of flats look incomparably better in Ursynów? Because Piaseczno is a provinsial town as you once noticed without realising how provincial it is. In Piaseczno I see lots of unwashed windows, dirty net curtains, balconies turned into junk rooms, crooked pavements with sticking out slabs one can trip over in the dark, unmown weeds instead of grass (let alone the difference between grass and lawn). The squalour (or dziadostwo in Polish) is overwhelming and really dejecting.

The biggest problem is that many politicians try to make us believe a good Pole should be poor. Late president Kaczynski in his speech on 11 November 2009 proudly emphasised most Poles had not come into any wealth and signalled it was a virtue. The divide into "true Poles" and "non-Poles" as drawn by right-wing journalists is the most disturbing aspects of the recent National Mourning.

But Poland will be moving along, becasue the new generation knows that having those qualities late Kaczynski lacked or did not display (trust, open-mindedness, command of foreign languages, pursuit for wealth, willingness to compromise, flexibility, future-orientation) is an asset not a reason to be ashamed.

There's a lot to be done on Polish contryside, but will the new schools, equipped in computers, access to Internet, inflow of EU funds, new infrastructure, etc. change the rural mentality? The rural drunkard struggling to get by and find dwa złote na jabola is kind unlikely to get with the times.

DC said...

Great post. Definitely two USAs as well. I could easily draw parallels, but I don't want to distract from the topic since I'd love to hear more. Does a budding intellectual from the countryside have to move to the city to survive? Do you see an additional split between those who pursue professional education solely in search of wealth, and those who pursue what we used to call a liberal education?

Two Russias, two Chinas...?

Paulina Wawrzyńczyk said...

Tough topic! Sometimes it's better not to think about it;)

"Gazeta Wyborcza" is also worried about the Polish identity especially after Smoleńsk:,76498,7807914,Latwo_jest_kochac_solidarne_panstwo.html?utm_source=Nlt&utm_medium=Nlt&utm_campaign=5723785,76498,7807916,Jakiego_patriotyzmu_Polacy_potrzebuja.html?as=2&startsz=x,75480,7830585,Polakow_laczy_tylko_bol.html

adthelad said...

There's definitely an old Poland and a New. But there's also a Right and a Wrong Poland. The wrong Poland is made up of the cautious, more socially conservative, catholic and 'usually' anti-PRL nationals while the right Poland is made up of those who are more dynamic, capitalistic and intensely laissez-PRL. It may seem odd that many are pro PRL, and I'm not discounting those who had an 'easier' life back then but there are many who are apologists for the previous system and believe that the Poles who exists now are the same as would have existed with or without the help of good old mother Russia. Poland was, is and continues to be Polish. I would disagree and claim that the Poland we have now is not emerging from a real Poland but from a shadow of its former self. Patriotism is attacked as being nationalistic and any solidarity and the coming together of people outside any politically 'liberal' euro-soviet agenda is stamped on with great gusto.
There is the old anecdote that says when you bring two Poles together to discuss anything you end up with three opinions. The politic of the moment is to make sure there is only one.

student SGH said...

Adam, your divide line is also very apt. But from what I've been hearing since 10 April it's the Right Poland that is made up of the cautious, more socially conservative, catholic and 'usually' anti-PRL nationals and I represent the Wrong Poland.

Of course from where you stand it looks different than from TVPiS' perspective.

@Michael - BTW do you know those hundreds of books about art, history and literature are heritage of PRL when the books were dirt cheap and those who earned little could afford to buy them in bulk? At least it's how it looks in my house.

adthelad said...

studentSGH - You? Represent the Wrong side? Surely shome mishtake!!

Since the 10th what you've heard are only the dying convulsions of PiS led TVP, Pospieszalski and RP led propaganda. We all know that the Right Poland is the one that has been shoved down everybody's throat since Okrągły Stół (to the point that it has become a kneejerk reaction with many to side with the neural linguistic programming of our gloriously 'progressive' and 'modern' trailblazers). Thank goodness there are still people like you who can see through the PiS (evil baddies) smokescreen and who are not going to stop their support for the bright and glorious future that PO (brave goodies) are heralding in. More films and GW articles with those protesting the Wawel debacle and pariah status for those who express positive opinions on anything to do with Lech Kaczynski, is what I say ;)

Michael Dembinski said...

Bartek - books can still be cheaply bought from second-hand stalls and charity sales, but yes, the rows upon rows of books that line the walls of Kraków intellectuals were mainly bought during PRL.

D - just watched an excellent documentary about the Three Gorges Dam. The Chinese have drive and a stronger sense of national unity. This is what the west (and Poland) needs to strive for. And not piddle on about the Round Table.

And Adam - if you insist on comparing the EU with the Soviet Union... you will go down in my estimation.

White Horse Pilgrim said...

Student SGH - yes, come and look for an English wife. The women over here must be fed up with the fat, lazy, dull English men of whom one sees so many. Well, at least the women who aren't also fat, lazy and dull. Somehow it seems as if the "second Britain" is talking over thanks to those single mothers with five children of varying hues.

Seriously, though, before making too much of Poland's religious uniformity, do question how much of this was achieved by forcible conversions during the Habsburg era, when such bizarre objects as the Uniate Church appeared. The Roman Catholic Church has a nasty habit of trying to make other types of Christian join it, most recently in WW2 Serbia.

A comment on poor rural Poles from one who has lived in Balkan villages. The poverty comes from reliance on rural work, whether subsistence farming or labouring. In the British countryside few people work on the land, instead most go to the town to work. That's the difference - mechanisation has raised productivity. Whether, of course, work on a supermarket checkout or in a warehouse is any less drudgery than farming is another matter, but it attracts at least the statutory minimum wage.

I'd also comment on the "second Britain" - to what degree is this due to housing being so expensive that many people know that they won't ever be able to buy a home? So why not drink and be feckless, society has nothing for us? In that case the "second Poland" might stem from other causes - poverty, unemployment, dependency culture, etc?

adthelad said...

Michał, you mean I can go lower?

If you must insist that 'soviet' with a small s means a comparison with 'The Soviet Union' then what can I say double question mark!

I would however suggest that the word soviet connotes to "an elected governmental council in a 'communist' country" where for this demonstration 'communist' naturally stands for 'European Community';), and so by association, also describes all those citizens who are blissfully unaware of or intensely intent on 'A' European State where individual national sovereignties have been abolished. Because having your own country is not democratic enough ;) And no you can't have a referendum.

Discuss. :)))

p.s. sure I can see the advantages in terms of the next world war but ...

student SGH said...

Adam, not a mishtake and not a mishrepresentation, didn't you notice a tinge of irony quite characteristic to a malicious creature I am?

Michael, good spot for buying cheap books is also Allegro, some jewels can be found in second-hand stalls but I also found a few not even well-thumbed books lying next to rubbish bins in Warsaw. Penury of PRL did not teach many Poles that food and books are two things that should not land in a rubbish bin.

Where have you spotted Adam putting EU on a par with Soviet Union. Isn't he just quoting some right-wing commentators and the rhetoric?

@WHP - the 'English wife' issue still needs to thought over. Haste is a bad adviser as we say in Poland. But seriously your observation to what degree is this due to housing being so expensive that many people know that they won't ever be able to buy a home? is spot on - exorbitant flat prices contribute to the downfall of some tiers of society. If humans are to strive for something it can't be out of reach. Otherwise they feel all their efforts go in vain.

And indeed if the employment in primary sector accounts for 20% of labour force we are facing a structural problem.

student SGH said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
student SGH said...

Hmmmm And what do you think about this idea?

adthelad said...

studentSGH - yes - a very proper and mature gesture reminding us of how the little man is but a pawn in the big scheme of things. The millions of ordinary Russians that died fighting for 'freedom' should be honoured and remembered. Unlike the Museum Wypędzonych that's not really a very controversial standpoint. "Walczyli z Niemcami gnani rozkazami, ale i poczuciem krzywdy - pomścić zamordowane rodziny, spalone wioski, zniszczone miasta." - blissfully unaware of how the secret Nazi-Soviet aggression motivated Poles (who knew) in the same way. I'm a bit more concerned re rumours that the celebrations in Russia will include parades past pictures of the glorious Stalin, with the Polish army in attendance.

Anyway...a discussion for another time and place perhaps and not interjected any further into this blog. Unless of course your question was not aimed at me.

Anonymous said...

Are we all Polish patriots regardless of where we live and the language we speak with our children? Are we all Polish patriots regardless of the political party we vote for? What binds us together in national unity is the history, traditions and common goal for a better Poland. There are no two Polands. There is only one Poland. There is no divide but political differences that exist in democratic nations, where people can express their views, without fearing consequences.
There always was a great difference between the lives of those in cities and villages. While the city dwellers prospered with basic essentials like running water, electricity, radio and TV, many villages had no running water much less good roads or access to education. And that’s where the divide lies, on the socio-economic level. But if you still want to see the real undisturbed sense of community, Polish hospitality, the way it existed in the cities, go into the heartland of Polish villages. Amongst those that struggled you’ll now find many well educated, with access to internet and running their own businesses.
Michael, perhaps you can freelance a piece titled “a day in life of a Polish village”.

student SGH said...

Question was aimed at everyone, but in particular to the author of this blog, for one reason - he wrote about Soviet soldiers a few months ago.

adthelad said...

Michał, with respect to your comment on the Chinese -

I remember listening to a document on Radio 4 into the lives of the Chinese (some of whom lived in exile). One as a child had gone through the whole indoctrination which included informing on parents and told how her father had been arrested because of something she said and sentenced to death for a 'political transgression', and how at the time of hanging his last words were to wish long life to the great Mao Zedong and the Cultural Revolution.

I wonder if they're not piddling on about that because there'll be no 'round table' for them anyway? They were/ are in a system imposed from within rather than one that, aided by collaboration, was imposed from without? They were 'mustered' and 'drilled' then, and now they are voluntarily mustering and drilling themselves, for China, for their politically free and open 'community' :)