Twilight of Democracy

We recently read Anne Applebaum’s Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 (2012). A couple of our members have read her most recent book, Twilight of Democracy, and offer their thoughts on it below.

 

The starting point is Hogmanay 1999. Most will recall where they were and what were their thoughts as they stepped into the 21st century. A party held by Anne Applebaum and her husband, Radek Sikorski, brought together family, friends and colleagues from Poland, the UK and USA with shared liberal democratic values. But their cohesion has since been splintered by the forces of authoritarianism challenging democratic norms and destabilising civil society. The book is a personal commentary on the changes as witnessed and experienced by Anne Applebaum since the turn of the Millennium.

The drivers of change include the demagogues and the levers they use to build their illiberal, anticompetitive and anti-meritocratic power bases on the foundations of resentment, revenge and envy fuelled by the “Medium Lie” from which conspiracy theories are spawned to win the loyalty of the disaffected. Anne Applebaum illustrates her observations in detailing the policies and practices of the Law and Justice Party in Poland led by Jaroslaw Kaczyński and the search for conspiracy to explain the 2010 Smolensk air crash conspiracy by the former, Minister of National Defence, Antoni Macierewicz, alongside similar trends in Hungary over recent years.

Antoni Macierewicz visited the Wojtek Memorial in Princes Street Gardens in Edinburgh in January 2016 in his ministerial role together with Philip Hammond, the then UK Foreign Secretary and Witold Waszczykowski, Poland’s Foreign Minister at the time. It feels like a long time ago.

From left to right: Antoni Macierewicz, Philip Hammond, Krystyna Szumelukowa and Witold Waszczykowski

Nostalgia has been adopted in support of the new authoritarianism. Anne Applebaum draws on The Future of Nostalgia by Svetlana Boym, who compares reflective nostalgia and restorative nostalgia. The latter is not satisfied with contemplating or learning from the past but is intent on rebuilding a selected version of the past to promote discontent, the language of conflict and the invocation of scapegoats; for example, Brexit.

In her chapter ‘Cascades of Freedom’ she quotes Olga Tokarczuk on the impact of the speed of modern media to spread narrative, irrespective of truth; “instead of hearing the harmony of the world, we have heard a cacophony of sounds, an unbearable static in which we try in despair to pick up some quieter melody, even the weakest link”. And, in her chapter ‘Prairie Fire’, Steve Bannon in the United States in 2010 adapting Bob Dylan for his own ends; “it does not take a weatherman to see which way the wind blows, and the winds blow off the high plains of this country, through the prairie and lighting a fire that will burn all the way to Washington in November”.

From the infamous Dreyfus case in France in 1894, through the 20th century and now in the 21st century, the use of the “lie” or “fake news” is compounded by the fabrication of culture wars to cultivate the advance of extreme right and extreme left thoughts and action. Anne Applebaum bravely sounds the alarm bells and calls out those who distort freedoms in whatever guise. It is no surprise that in typical Anne Applebaum style that her notes for her book are detailed and comprehensive.

Krystyna Szumelukowa
19 July 2021

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Anne Applebaum’s recent Twilight of Democracy differs from her extensive historical studies of the Soviet Gulags, the Ukrainian Famine and the imposition of Soviet power in post-war eastern Europe – it is contemporary and more personal. This study of how populist movements have entered mainstream politics in America, the UK and Europe (with particular focus on Poland and Hungary) explores how the ideological ‘Big Lies’ of Fascism and Communism have been replaced by the ‘medium lies’ of nationalism and xenophobia. Using her own personal experiences as well as extensive research, Applebaum explores how manipulation of the media, appropriation and distortion of history, attacks on independent judiciary and on basic democratic rights continue to theaten the fragile nature of democracy in what is termed the ‘free’ world. It’s a crisply written and cogently argued analysis that is thought-provoking and disturbing – all the more so because it’s horribly familiar.

The book begins with a party at the Applebaum home in Poland 20 years ago, with a gathering of eminent guests and the promise of imminent European integration and the establishment of a democratic society; it ends with a party in the same location in 2019, with mainly different guests and the realities of cronyism and corruption, media manipulation, xenophobia and authoritarianism. Applebaum explores how we got where we did – and it’s a journey of disappointments both personal and political. The book’s UK subtitle – The Failure of Politics and the Parting of Friends – sums up the story succinctly. Along the way she deals with Trump, Brexit (a particularly damning analysis of her former journalistic colleague Boris Johnson), the rise and rule of the Law and Justice party in Poland , the rise of Orbán and other European populist politicians. It’s a wide-ranging and perceptive study, particularly of nationalism (distinguishing between ‘reflective’ and ‘restorative’ nostalgia) and the manipulation of the media (including the use of social media). The political and social analysis is all the more telling for Applebaum’s personal knowledge of many of the protagonists and her direct involvement in many of the issues  – though it’s hardly a spoiler to say that her friendships and relationships change significantly over the 20 years that she covers in the book. So what changed and why? And who changed? Why do Applebaum’s former friends and acquaintances, apparently committed to democratic principles, behave as they do?

The book is a provocative and bracing read. Though it was published before ‘Stop the Steal’ and the Capitol Hill riot, the continued incursions into basic freedoms in Poland and Hungary, continued evasions of Johnson and his government (cronyism, the NI protocol and Brexit issues, treatment of migrants, funding of public services), none of these events are unexpected in the overall trajectory of the book. Applebaum offers a few strands of hope for the future though it remains to be seen whether these strands make enough rope to get us out of this particular hole. What’s definite is that submission, acceptance, apathy only makes it deeper. This short, punchy and incisive analysis shows that democratic freedoms are fragile and cannot be taken for granted. As such, this readable book is timely, urgent and necessary.

Tom Bacciarelli
July 2021

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A Soul and a Body on the Beach, Anna Świrszczyńska

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_oygxbPM5Hc Beautifully read, with a real understanding of the philosophical meaning of this poem. Here is my translation.

A soul on the beach

is studying philosophy.

The soul asks the body:

– Who tied us together?

The body says:

– I need to tan my knees.

 

The soul asks the body:

– Is it true,

that we don’t exist?

The body says: – I am tanning my knees.

 

The soul asks the body:

– Is it in you or in me

that dying begins?

The body laughs.

It has tanned its knees.

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Polish Soldiers in Fife

One of our members, Jenny Robertson, came across this Polish mosaic in St Andrews.

She writes, “I noticed in during my wandering through the town when I was tour guiding. I looked up the internet. Two sites, one being the chaplaincy of St. Andrews University, say it was done by three Polish soldiers in 1941. And that’s all I could discover. It’s a beautiful tribute and badly needs restoration.”

We also discovered a picture of the mosaic on Flickr, which includes this commentary.

“… during the Second World War, when St Andrews and the surrounding area played hosts to the Polish Army in exile. In 1940, Polish units, evacuated from France, took over the coastal defences in parts of eastern Scotland. Poles became closely associated with the town and, at the end of the war, many settled and remained in the St Andrews area. A mosaic panel in the wall of the Town Hall expresses the gratitude of Polish soldiers for the hospitality received from the people of St Andrews. A bust of General Wladyslaw Sikorski, the Prime Minister of the Government-in-Exile and Commander-in-Chief of the Polish forces, whose headquarters were in the nearby city of Perth, stands in a St Andrews park.”

Earlier this month The Guardian’s Great British Art Tour series featured another image of a Polish soldier in Fife, made more recently.

Jane Freel, collections curator, ONFife Museums and Galleries, introduced the painting ‘Memories of a Polish Paratrooper’, which evokes the life and memories of an imagined soldier. It was created in 2006 by Marie Louise Wrightson, a graduate of Duncan of Jordanstone College of Art & Design, for Fife Contemporary’s Past Present project.

(c) Marie Louise Wrightson; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundation

 

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Lalka covers

Lalka (The Doll) by Bolesław Prus has appeared in many editions since its first appearance in 1890. Below is a gallery of cover designs found on the web, reflecting changing interpretations of the book and changing fashions over the years.

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Everyone should read ‘The Doll’!

Krzysztof Varga wrote in Gazeta Wyborcza 5.10.2020
 
“I have read The Doll by Bolesław Prus for the fourth time, and I am not writing this to brag, but to share my feelings of shame, as this novel should be read, not less than every three years. As far as most current and hot news, we are celebrating 130 years of the first book edition of The Doll. It is an anniversary which can’t be ignored; we should celebrate it the same way as the anniversaries of the national uprisings, and perhaps with even more fanfare, as this super-novel was one of the last flights of the Polish mind, bewildering glimmer of sobriety in a drunken national dance which is happening here since centuries.” (The whole article – in Polish – can be accessed here.)
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Olga Tokarczuk reading ‘The Doll’

Tomasz Miłkowski (Trybuna 03.01.2020) refers to Olga Tokarczuk’s sketch The Pearl and The Doll (Wydawnictwo Literackie 2011), and quotes Tokarczuk: “Time treats literature differently then people. Time had no effect on The Doll. Literature can operate in its magical duality, but only if it is a masterpice. It tells us, on one hand, in great detail about the historic and defined time at the end of the XIX century, and the stories the living people. It tells us <how it was>, or rather <how it could have been>. The novel tells us about an inner experience, but not about the recorded facts.  On the other hand it tells us <how it is> referring to the basic psychological laws, which age slower then the external world. Actually, everything what is essential in The Doll could be happening now>.” 

Miłkowski writes: ‘She is makes a surprising comparison between Wokulski’s situation and that of the hero of Hymn of the Pearl by Czesław Miłosz, a free reworking of an apocryphal  story of Thomas. The main comparing event of the Hymn is the awakening of the Prince, who inspired by the letter from his parents, returns to his earlier goal (of finding of the Pearl). The choice of this comparison, between the path of Wokulski and that of the Hymn, Tokarczuk explains by the presence of “the metaphors of dreaming and waking up, path and goal, descending and lifting up – the same signs which moved me so much in Lalka.”

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=LP85iBra8yY

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Teaching Eliza Orzeszkowa botany

When we discussed Eliza Orzeszkowa’s On the Niemen, Basia mentioned that her great-grandparents were friends of the author. We are grateful to her for sharing the photographs below.

These show Klemens and Kazimiera Kruszewski, her great-grandparents; a photograph sent to them by Orzeszkowa; Jadwiga Ostromęcka, Kazimiera’s sister, with Irena Kruszewska (Basia’s grandmother). Jadwiga’s memoirs contain an account of her relationship with Orzeszkowa and other important people. 

An entry on Klemens Kruszewski from a Polish regional encyclopedia gives some further background.

Kruszewski, Klemens (1858-1945)


Forestry engineer, graduate of the Puławski Institute.


He worked in the Bialowieza Forest at the turn of the 19th and 20th centuries. He was the deputy governor of the Forest at the time of Aleksander D. Kołokolcew. In 1897 he was given the task of completing the redevelopment of the Forest, led earlier by Edward E. Wallenburger.

Kruszewski lived in Białowieża with his wife, Kazimiera of Ostrołęckich. His wife’s sister, Jadwiga, a teacher, was friends with the writer Eliza Orzeszkowa. The Kruszewskis got to know the writer through Jadwiga and several times, from 1898, invited her to their home in Białowieża. Unfortunately, their home does not exist anymore (it was located in today’s Palace Park).


The Kruszewscy’s friendship was extremely valuable in developing the writer’s botanical knowledge. Klemens Kruszewski introduced the writer to the world of nature of the Białowieża Forest. She herself wrote in a letter dated August 2, 1898: “… I do not remember other such valuable, comparable occasions in my life as the two botanical trips with Mr. Kruszewski. They were long and demonstrative lessons that I could use thanks to my previous botanical amateurism … “.


Klemens Kruszewski also showed other writers around the Forest – Wacław Sieroszewski, who visited Białowieża in July 1898 and Maria Konopnicka in August 1899. He was also involved in preparatory work for the visits of Tsar Nicholas II to Bialowieza in 1897 and 1900.

Kruszewski Klemens (1858-1945)
Inżynier leśnictwa, absolwent Instytutu Puławskiego.
W Puszczy Białowieskiej pracował na przełomie XIX i XX wieku. Pełnił funkcję zastępcy zarządzającego Puszczą Białowieską, którym wówczas był Aleksander D. Kołokolcew. W 1897 roku otrzymał zadanie dokończenia prac urządzeniowych w Puszczy, prowadzonych wcześniej przez Edwarda E. Wallenburgera. Niestety K. W. Kruszewski również nie doprowadził ich do końca, choć był wybitnym fachowcem w sprawach leśnych. Puszcza Białowieska w pierwszych latach XX wieku uważana była formalnie za nie urządzoną.

  K. W. Kruszewski mieszkał w Białowieży wraz z żoną, Kazimierą z Ostrołęckich. Siostra żony, Jadwiga, która była nauczycielką, przyjaźniła się z pisarką Elizą Orzeszkową. Kruszewscy właśnie poprzez Jadwigę poznali pisarkę i kilkakrotnie, poczynając od 1898 roku, zapraszali ją do swojego domu w Białowieży. Dom ich, niestety, już nie istnieje, znajdował się na terenie dzisiejszego Parku Pałacowego.

  Znajomość Orzeszkowej z Kruszewskimi była niezwykle cenna dla rozwoju wiedzy botanicznej pisarki. W świat przyrody Puszczy Białowieskiej pisarkę wprowadzał Klemen Kruszewski. Ona sama pisała w liście z 2 sierpnia 1898 roku: „…Mało pamiętam w życiu chwil tak zajmujących, jak dwie odbyte z p. Kruszewskim wycieczki botaniczne. Były to długie i poglądowe lekcje, z których korzystać mogłam dzięki uprzedniemu amatorstwu botanicznemu…”.  

Klemens Kruszewski oprowadzał po Puszczy także innych pisarzy – Wacława Sieroszewskiego, który odwiedził Białowieżę w lipcu 1898 roku i Marię Konopnicką, goszczącą u nich w sierpniu 1899 roku. Zaangażowany był także w prace przygotowawcze do przyjęcia w Białowieży cara Mikołaja II w 1897 i 1900 roku. (oprac. Piotr Bajko)

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Polska Półka – Polish Bookshelf Project

Two videos from Polska Półka – Polish Bookshelf, which is a book gift campaign, enriching stocks of British public libraries with Polish literature written in English to commemorate 100 years since Polish regained independence and 250 years of Polish–British diplomatic relations.

The aim of Polska Półka – Polish Bookshelf is to spread knowledge about Poland in the United Kingdom by organising events around books, authors and topics of current interest in public libraries throughout the country.

The Polska Półka – Polish Bookshelf project is an initiative of the Embassy of the Republic of Poland in London, the Polish Cultural Institute and the Polish Book Institute in cooperation with the Polish Educational Centre Literka, the European Welfare Association and the Polish Educational Society.

See #Polska Półka and #Polish Bookshelf on Facebook and Twitter.

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Zbigniew Herbert in Scotland, 1963

Herbert Collected Holy Iona

When last year we read Zbigniew Herbert’s Collected Poems 1956–1998 I came across a single reference to Scotland, in the poem ‘The Prayer of the Traveler Mr. Cogito’ or, to give it its Polish title, ‘Modlitwa Pana Cogito – podróżnika’. Here is the relevant section in the Polish original, followed by Alissa Valles’s translation from Collected Poems.

a także Miss Helen z mglistej wysepki Mull na Hebrydach za to że przyjęła mnie po grecku i prosiła żeby w nocy zostawić w oknie wychodzącym na Holy Iona zapaloną lampę aby światła ziemi pozdrawiały się

and Miss Helen of the foggy island of Mull in the Hebrides for offering Greek hospitality and asking me to leave a lamp lit at night in the window facing Holy Iona so that the lights of earth would greet each other

The poem is taken from Herbert’s 1983 collection Raport z oblężonego Miasta / Report from a Besieged City. I was curious to know more about the time he spent in Scotland, which was in fact twenty years before this collection appeared, in autumn 1963. According to Andrzej Franaszek’s 2018 biography of Herbert, using public transport Herbert travelled north from London, stopping in Leeds, York and Durham before arriving in Scotland, where he visited Edinburgh, Aberdeen, Inverness, Oban, Mull and Glasgow, before returning via Carlisle to London.

Franaszek quotes from a postcard Herbert sent from Edinburgh on 18 October:

Wdrapałem się na górę koło Edynburga i oczywiście spadłem trochę (niegroźnie). Tak trzeba. Ziemio ty moja szkocka ukochana! Jutro jadę, ale dobrze nie wiem dokąd. Dziś w nocy narada sztabu z mapą. Jestem bardzo szczęśliwy, żeście mnie wypchnęli w świat. (…) Przede mną góry i skały, kozice i georginie. Naprzód! Hej!!!

I scrambled my way onto a mountain near Edinburgh and I fell down a little (not dangerously). Maybe a good thing. My beloved Scottish earth! I am leaving tomorrow, even though I’m not sure where I’m going. Tonight there will be a conference of the High Command over the map. I’m very glad that you pushed me out into the world. (…) Ahead of me mountains and cliffs, mountain goats and dahlias. Onwards! Hey!!!

In another postcard, sent from Inverness, he described his mixed feelings about the country: he was ‘exhausted but happy, head over heels in love with Scotland; its beauty exhilarates the tourist. But life without sex… one has to go back.’

He returned via the west coast and, finding himself in Oban, decided to cross to the nearby Isle of Mull and from cross there to Iona or, as he consistently called it, using the English adjective, Holy Iona. ‘Holy Iona, czyli kartka z podróży’ (‘Holy Iona, or a page of travel’) was written in 1966 for the West German radio station WDR, and published posthumously in the collection Mistrz z Delft (2008). Of his perspective of islands, he wrote:

Wyspy nie należą do krajobrazu mego dzieciństwa. Urodziłem się w środkowej Europie, w połowie drogi między Morzem Bałtyckim a Czarnym. Pejzaż mojej młodości to podlwowskie okolice: jary i łagodne pagórki porośnięte sosną, na której najpiękniej kwitnie pierwszy sypki śnieg. Morze było tam czymś niewyobrażalnym, a wyspy miały posmak baśni.

Islands were not part of the landscape of my childhood. I was born in Central Europe, halfway between the Baltic and the Black Sea. The landscape of my youth was the area near Lwów, crevices and gentles hills covered in pine on which the first dry snow bloomed beautifully. The sea was something unimaginable there, and islands had a scent of fairytales.

The crossing to Iona had something otherwordly about it. It was 29 October, his birthday, and the ferry was no longer sailing. The landlady of his B&B at Fionnphort phoned a local fisherman, who agreed to take Herbert on the short crossing. In his radio talk he described their meeting-place:

Zimny, wilgotny, siwy ranek. Stoję w pobliżu jetty, która jest po prostu betonową ścieżką wchodzącą w morze. Ocean jest wzburzony, wysokie fale rozbijają się na skałach urwistego brzegu. Nagle z mgły wyłania się mała łódka rybacka płynąca w moim kierunku. Było to jak podanie ręki marzeniu.

A cold, damp, gray morning. I am standing near a jetty, which is just a concrete path going into the sea… which was stormy, high waves crashing against a rocky coast. A small open boat appeared from out of the mist; it was like extending your hand to a dream.

Once on Iona, Herbert explored the recently rebuilt abbey complex. He was particularly struck by his encounter with a sculpture, Descent of the Spirit’, by the Lithuanian-born Jewish sculptor Jacques (Jacob) Lipschitz (1891–1973), who fled France for the USA in 1940.

williammarnochionaabbey2008
Photo: William Marnoch, Iona Abbey, 2008

Its inscription, in French, reads:

Jacob Lipchitz juif fidéle à la fonde ses ancêtres a fait cette vierge pour la bonne entente des hommes sur la terre afin que l’esprit régne

Jacob Lipschitz a Jew faithful to the heritage of his ancestors made this virgin for the accord of men on earth so the spirit might reign

Herbert, who had witnessed the destruction of Polish Jewry during the Second World War, appreciated the paradox of recovering signs of community in this, to him, remote place. He expressed gratitude to ‘the Jewish artist who had heard so many words of hatred and responded by reaching for the words of reconciliation’.

Herbert returned to Mull, and the Fionnphort B&B, that same day. The evening brought him the image of light which he later incorporated into the ‘Prayer’:

Po kolacji gospodyni prosiła mnie, abym postawił małą lampkę w oknie wychodzącym na Holy Iona. Taki jest zwyczaj. Nocą światła obu wysp rozmawiają ze sobą. (…) Nie wiadomo, co przyniesie przyszłość i jak długo trwać będzie rozdarcie świata. Ale dopóki w jedną bodaj noc roku światła tej ziemi będą się pozdrawiały, niecała chyba nadzieja jest pogrzebana.

After supper the landlady asked me to put a small lamp in the window overlooking Holy Iona. That is the custom. At night the lights of both islands talk to each other. (…) It is not known what the future will bring and how long it might be until the world is torn apart, but as long as one night of the year, the lights of this land will offer greetings, hope is not buried.’

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My thanks to Robin Connelly, Grażyna Fremi, Michał Kuźmiński, Basia Macmillan and Robert Macmillan for their help in sourcing and translating material on Herbert’s trip. As well as the books mentioned above, online there is, in Polish, a useful article from 2007 by Piotr Toczynski about Herbert and Iona, and a recording of Herberttalking about Scotland (scroll down to the heading ‘Szkocja’).

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Starting to rescue the books at Edinburgh’s ‘Polski Dom’

The Polish Ex-Combatants’ Club at 11 Drummond Place in Edinburgh is to be renovated; works have started and the building will reopen as a revitalised cultural centre in 2020. The building was first purchased by Polish soldiers in 1948 and after 70 years the collections of books, pictures, documents, photographs, etc provide a snapshot over that time. The first sorting has commenced and discoveries being made of publications which excite interest. During 2019 the selected material will be assessed, catalogued and conserved before being returned to the new centre or dispersed to relevant libraries. Jenny and Stuart Robertson, Tom Bacciarelli and I made a start on November 26 but we have three rooms of books to sort through so it will take some time, especially when a special find starts a conversation and we then have to remember to return to our task! 

Krystyna Szumelukowa 

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