Justyna Sobolewska signing her new book about Kornel Filipowicz, Miron, Ilia, Kornel, published by Iskry this year. It is a warm September day, at the Warsaw Book Fair in front of the Palace of Culture. It would be great if it was translated into English. Perhaps we could invite Sobolewska to come to Edinburgh to tell us about Filipowicz and what people tend to read in Poland.
I highly recommend Wojtek Smarzowski’s new and controversial film Wesele (Wedding), strong and poetic at the same time, opened in October in Polish cinemas. We saw it in Kino Atlantic in Warsaw. It is a double story, one happening now in a small village; the daughter of a pig farmer and entrepreneur is getting married. A second story, seen through the eyes of the grandfather, takes as back to the World War II and just before, when he was in love with a young jewish girl from the same village. It is inspired by a gruesome, but how important, recollection of Jedwabne tragedy. It is Smarzowski’s story about Polish demons past and present, xenophobia, parochialism, fear of the other, questionable influence of the church and nationalism. Not to be missed and hope it will come to the UK.
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.
19 July 2021
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.”
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)
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.