Nations and Stereotypes

Unbearably Eastern Poland

Poland is an East that is trying to escape from the East. This eternal standing in the corridor between East and West engendered a kind of schizophrenia in the Polish people.

We know perfectly well that our culturescape is much closer to the Eastern European one, yet even then we want to feel Western. Moreover, from Feliks Koneczny to Samuel Huntington, investigators of all civilisational divides in the world assure us of our westernness. Roman-Catholic and Latin-alphabetic, with state and administrative solutions borrowed from Germany, France, Italy, and Rome, Poland has always been assigned to one of the versions of Western civilisation.
Marvellous. The decision to choose the Western geopolitical option that Poland made a thousand years ago was the right one, yet that thousand years was too short a time to move from the East to that West. For Poland has always been (and to a great degree still is) a particular civilisational continuum connected to the east rather than to the west of the continent, and the civilisational and cultural gap between Poland and Germany still remains among the most pronounced in the world, with the scale of the gap similar to that between Israel and Arabic countries, the US and Mexico, and Scandinavia and Russia (although the culturescape along this last line is watered down to the maximum).
The question, however, is what “East” means. What is “Eastern”? Lack of instincts developed in a modern, industrial society and of their reflection in the public space? The famous and overused claim about preferring “the emotional” to “reason”? The desperate failure to embrace the Polish space bordering with the ordered Germany is explained with many arguments: the breakdown of social ties in the course of war, exoduses, and the distortions of communism, the sense of impermanence in a place where “the German” could return at any time – yet Poles are hardly ever likely to admit that the key in fact is one simplest fact: the inability to use the devices developed by their civilisationally more sophisticated neighbours. For one can obviously believe that all cultures are equal, and the mud-splattered wooden village of the East is in no way inferior to the cobbled redbrick village of the West, yet the world is likelier to cobble the muddy streets rather than to splatter mud on the cobbles. So what does the “Eastern character” actually entail? Barbarity? Lack of refinement? Lack of distance to yourself? Immaturity? For what is usually mentioned when we count the “Eastern” traits that the East is at times proud of and which it believes to be in short supply or absent from the West? The famous “Eastern hospitality”? A characteristic cited when there is absolutely nothing to brag about? The lamentable argument about “the beauty of Slavic women”? About “the Eastern lack of duplicity”, which frequently simply means a boorish directness, impoliteness, and brusqueness?
Worse, one might gain the impression that Poland has “Easternised” even its Western attributes. That the Western religion that became widespread in Poland carries little of the Western distance to itself and the nature of dialogue: the Catholic Church in Poland demonstrates traits traditionally assigned to the East: it is authoritarian (not to say despotic), treats its “flock” as sheep, and doesn’t take a “Western” attitude to them, that is, it does not treat them as a community with whom solutions are consulted, but a mass, which has all the solutions dictated. The majority of the Polish clergy uphold the myths and conspiracy theories of Bigotsville: just turn on Radio Maryja or listen to the throngs of parish priests throughout the country. Rather than the Protestant preacher who, once the church service is over, goes to clean up the cemetery with the congregation, who are his peers, or even the Italian Catholic priest standing in front of the church after mass and shaking hands with the congregation, thanking them for coming to the service, Polish Catholicism prefers reverence to the benevolent father, unquestionable authority, closer to the position of an Orthodox priest used to being obeyed and not to a dialogue between equal partners.
Modelled after all on Western solutions since the beginning of Polish statehood after embracing Christianity, Polish institutions (which makes them traditional Polish institutions, for we no longer remember our pre-Christian tradition, as it has been wiped out from our memory) are also little satrapies, where representatives of the people serve their communities only in theory: a Scandinavian public servant acting for the public good would be considered an ethereal aesthete and sucker in the world of Polish pen-pushers. Similarly, the police serve and protect mostly in theory, in reality disregarding the “Western” principles that should be embedded in the code of police conduct: power is regularly abused, the principle of presumption of innocence hardly ever applied, and yet conduct that poses no threat to the public order yet theoretically contradicts the letter of the law is picked on. Going further, only in theory do those running the state respect the Western principle of checks and balances, and only theoretically does the opposition fight for “freedom”, using its banner to claim “law” to introduce a greater repression and intolerance.
The twaddle that Poland is the East of the West and the West of the East no longer just smells of the banal, but reeks of it. For it is difficult to escape the impression that we are an ordinary, vulgar East, although in a Western packaging.
Yes, we are luckier than the “proper” East, Europe’s “ideal” East, i.e. Russia: our economy is not ruled by oligarchic semi-mafia structures, at least to a certain level. Democracy works in Poland; politicians, civil servants, and the police are what they are, but to a certain degree at least they are controlled. Nobody closes down newspapers, websites, or TV broadcasters. You can say and write whatever you want. The rights of citizens are not just a façade, as is the case in the East. In Poland, there is a public debate, much of which is hate-filled, stigmatising, open-mouthed, and obtuse, but which also sometimes brings order to the Polish space.
And then there’s the plodding march westwards, this millennium of ours drawing the symbolic capital from that very part of Europe that makes us reserve the right to feel better than the part of Europe’s east whose westward march is even more toilsome. Yes, it is so, as the whole East is marching westwards. At first glance, this march remains unseen: Ukraine is falling into two parts before our eyes, Belarus is frozen in its post-Soviet kolkhozes, and Russia is becoming cemented in what the Commonwealth of Poland–Lithuania became cemented in: a false economic power based on raw materials and in the absolutely unjustified self-satisfaction not buttressed by structural stability. Yet all these “ideal easts” in actual fact also go West. For, excuse me, but what is Eastern in the East besides these “barbarian” attributes of the East that I have just called up in the context of Poland? What is the East of Europe proud of? What is Moscow proud of? Is it not of its cities built on the model of Western ones? Is it not from its writers who could not write as they do if not for the Western influence? Is it not from the “golden” time of the tsars, when its snobbery meant that anything French was a magnet for the whole elite? Was, by any chance, the USSR – of which, let us not deceive ourselves, the East of Europe is also proud – not a desperate attempt to change the rules of the game and “excel over” the West taking a shortcut by setting a new civilisational hurdle and attempting to make the West try to catch up with the East, and not the other way round? The East is pining for the West, even if it declares its hatred for it, yet in this relationship the love-hate motif is more than obvious. For centuries, the East has copied Western civic, civilisational, and administrative solutions, yet it has done so quite unsuccessfully. Thus, for example, what was intended as “Western” rule of law turned into an oppressive bureaucracy verging on the absurd in Russia, a country where “Western” democracy is a façade covering up a system of government strongly reminiscent of feudalism, as it is based on brutal execution of short-term interests of the new Russian absolutist princes-oligarchs, paying homage to the tsar-president.
It is not the West that goes for Russo-overhauls, but the East that goes for Euro-overhauls. It is to the West that Russians fly with capital en masse, and not the other way round. When Gérard Depardieu, one of the wealthy of the West, decided to settle in Russia, the whole world came to the conclusion that either his cynicism had reached dizzying heights or the actor had gone mad. No, Russia does not want to be the East, it doesn’t feel good in its easternness, and doesn’t like it. Yet at the same time it is fully aware of its distinctiveness and knows that this is the price of being a separate centre of civilisation. It cannot lie belly-up in wait for another centre to finish it off: it is too proud to give up and yield in an obvious manner; to admit “Yes, we’re hopeless, nothing works here and we lose even to our public space, come on, teach us how to be the West. Especially as something similar happened twenty years ago, and to this time remains a gigantic trauma for Russia. In a word, Russia, i.e. the Europe’s “ideal” east, has shown that it cannot do what we do, that is openly reject its easternness, even if it doesn’t know much what that easternness is. With that easternness, it is moving in a circle: on the one hand, to be able to understand itself in any possible way it fashions such wonders as Aleksandr Dugin with his horrifying Eurasian empire utopia, anti-individual and tyrannising, and on the other quasi-ironically maintains (for what else it could do) its own “Eastern” image: it emphasises its vodka-soaked culture, and in pop culture promotes plastered muzhiks on a wooden wagon, wallowing in roadside mud in ancient Ladas. Obviously, Americans do the same with their hillbillies, yet they realise that this is on the margin of Americanness. What is left to contemporary Russia? Russia may praise the lifestyle of the middle class, yet – as soon as it has emerged – the middle class calls for scrapping of visas to the West, because it feels bad in its dragged-out reality. It may sing the praises of this very reality, yet as far as a particular type of unbearable lightness remains a characteristic feature of everyday life in the West, it is rather the other way round in the East. The everyday is downright unpleasant, and no one really has any strength left to pretend it is otherwise.
No, I’m not saying that it is wrong that Russia is looking at itself with distance and consciously toying with its stereotypical point of view. Quite the reverse: it is very good. I only remark that this, in a sense, is a desperate manoeuvre, as it is hard to say what else Russia can extract from its easternness. And, generally, that easternness is like drinking vodka: well, yes, the East drinks it, and even emphasises that drinking vodka is so Eastern and so cool, yet we prefer to drink it chilled, so as not to taste it, as it is simply awful. Yet the East itself won’t admit it, and Poles – the “traitors of the East” – simply dismiss the fact. And they despise the easternness, trying to escape it, with the skill of failing to perceive it in themselves that is worthy of admiration, although, as the saying goes, it is like failing to notice the elephant in the centre of the room. At best, Poles may see the elephant, yet they pretend that they have no clue how it got here. Only sometimes would a gleam of “the Slavic spirit” emerge to them, for example in the song Hej, Słowianie by a certain Donatan, whose lyrical subjects bask in Slavs being so great that Western gentlemen come here to seek “ideal wives”. Yet everyone soon feels shame, and the whole racket quickly dies down. And we shift our need to seek the Slavic nature in the warmer, nicer, and more attractive regions: the South, the Balkans. And we jig to Bregović and Bałkanica. For what else could we do.

Translated from the Polish by Piotr Krasnowolski