Poland's Eastern Cultural Boundary and the Difficulties in Crossing It | part 2

Tomasz Zarycki


In Part 1 of this essay, I posited the hypothesis that there were significant problems with cultural interaction between Poland and its eastern neighbors, especially Russia. I also maintained that eastern motifs remain important elements albeit not well recognized as such in mainstream identity narratives of Polish culture. My critical analysis focused on narratives that I defined as liberal, in which I drew attention to a number of intriguing paradoxes. One of these, I believe, is the tension between a declared openness to contact with other cultures together with an open attitude to the question of national identity versus an attitude of fearfulness towards the countries that neighbor Poland to the east, combined with a frequent lack of knowledge about the culture of those countries or any appreciation of the existence of elements of that culture in contemporary Polish culture. I also drew on my hypothesis[1] posited previously concerning the strong and deep-rooted orientalism, typical of both the conservative and liberal varieties of the contemporary Polish identity.

It seems to me that an important aspect of this status quo is the absence in Poland of any strong economic elite and liberal intellectual elite linked to it, which together would be able to project into the broader social imagination images of Russia and the East as places with potential bringing to the Polish imaginarium dynamic visions of the East, with a replication of the landed gentry and bourgeois elites that were obliged to leave the scene after 1917. Their presence has left some traces in the Polish literary tradition, such as references to the Russian business interests of the merchant Wokulski in The Doll by Bolesław Prus, or the description of the economic boom in Łódź made possible by the Russian market in The Promised Land by Władysław Reymont. These snippets of social memory that penetrated the physical and symbolic barriers that existed between 1917 and 1989 on the Polish-Soviet border[2] signal to this day the previously mentioned void a result of the spectacular shift of our country and its culture westwards. This may be related to the emergence of a mysterious lack of confidence in the Polish identity, stemming from an awareness of the once-strong eastern element in Polish culture. This absence can be sometimes described directly as a “void but is mostly apparent in the form of various slight intangible longings and a nostalgia for the East. In turn, it can be associated with a host of intriguing discussions and psychoanalytical theories sometimes put forward by Polish intellectuals in order to explain the forms of a “void perceived as typically Polish. They can be diagnosed as symptoms of insufficient self-confidence, moral weakness a lack of mutual trust, a feeling of inferiority or even the unreality of the existence of Poland. For instance, Maria Janion in her Uncanny Slavdom[3] put forward the hypothesis of a trauma resulting from the destruction of the primeval, pagan basis of our culture in effect, the lack of the original Slavonic component that was destroyed with German expansion and the conversion of the country to Christianity. According to this theory, Poland has obviously survived but has from its very beginning existed as an “inferior subject, feeling its civilizational inferiority towards the West. For Jan Sowa,[4] it is the death of King Sigismund II Augustus in 1573, the last of the Jagiellonian dynasty, that marked the moment when Poland began to turn into a “phantom of itself, acquiring a feeling of inferiority, which is still ineradicable, as well as its own unreality in comparison with the apparently fully real West. Andrzej Leder[5] identifies a much later moment for the weakening of the status of Poland and the self-confidence of the Polish elites; for him it was their transformation during World War II and in the early post-war years that was crucial. In any event, an equally significant turning point the Bolshevik revolution today usually gets overlooked in such deliberations.

One could of course argue that many important works of Russian culture have always been present in the Polish cultural space: Dostoyevsky and Tolstoy, and the novels of Mikhail Bulgakov, as well as other works by contemporary Russian authors well-known among the intelligentsia. These function, however, to a large extent as out-of-context objects of fascination with the culture of the East, perceived as exotic and even spiritualist, thus performing like typical elements of orientalism. Among the Polish elites today, there are almost no well-known or widely recognizable authors, such as once were Józef Czapski or Gustaw Herling-Grudziński. The fascination with Russia or fascination with the very close, European, east recurs in different generations, but tends to be individual, or narrowly based within a given social circle, exploration or private transgression. The most prominent manifestation of such fascination are journeys to ex-USSR countries by Polish tourists. [6] As Agata Bachórz[7] and Anna Horolets[8] demonstrated in their excellent books, there are many who in their own way are ‘enchanted with Russia or its neighboring countries, but such individuals usually hail from small, mainly intelligentsia circles, and tend not to shout from the rooftops about their eastern fascinations and tales of cultural contacts with the inhabitants of countries to the east of Poland, well aware as they are of the niche character of their interests that do not fit in with the prevailing models of Polish perception of the east. Polish art and literature are full of such individual “trips eastwards but, characteristically, they are often subject to a sui generis “border control. A telling example is the prose of Mariusz Wilk and how it has been received by Polish intellectuals. I found particularly intriguing a criticism of it formulated by Marian Janion, who in turn cited Czesław Miłosz as an authority.[9] Janion accused Wilk of committing “too many syntactical and lexical russicisms adding that “this, as we know, is dangerous. Miłosz maintains that the Poles are quick to succumb to the rhythm of Russian and so should be all the more wary of it.[10] Janion then remarks that Gustaw Herling-Grudziński was in this respect much more forgiving than Miłosz; on the other hand, much more critical than either Janion or Miłosz was Krzysztof Koehler, who criticised Wilk for his “dangerous fascination with great Russia, which Janion considers a conservative echo of the fear of russophilia.[11] As we can see, where to set the boundary between Polishness and Russianness may be a matter for discussion, but delineated and controlled such a boundary must be. Here, liberals turn out to be as active as border guards as conservatives are, although the latter usually trace the borderline in different places. Another eloquent example of this rule is the prose of Ryszard Kapuściński, whom Maxim Waldstein criticized for his very harsh positioning of the boundary between Polishness and orientalized Russianness.[12] But even enlightened conservatives, such as the aforementioned friend of non-communist Russia, Marian Zdziechowski, held that it was necessary to preserve a clear distinction. He once warned against the “Russian impact on the Polish soul,[13] although he was referring to the period directly preceding World War I, when the industrial and cultural flowering of Russia had greatly fascinated many Poles. It was a time when the orientalization of Russia both in the West and in Polish society was greatly diminished.

Today, however, the east in most of its manifestations is perceived as a threat or, at the very least, as something inferior. This applies both to Russia, quite distant from Poland, and also to eastern Poland. As Maria Janion demonstrated in her book Uncanny Slavdom, easternness often becomes an internalized worry or fear of the internal component of Polish identity as its repressed self-orientalized ingredient. According to Janion, a perfect literary illustration of such fears is the Wojna polsko-ruska pod flagą biało-czerwoną (translated into English as White and Red in the UK and Snow White and Russian Red in the US; literally the title means Polish-Russian War under White-Red Flag) by Dorota Masłowska. The book shows the internal escapism from ones own Eastness taken for granted as inferior; this can be perceived both as fallout from internalized orientalism and as a lack of models for contacts with the East. This contempt for ones own Eastness, that tends to be externalized as the symbolic figure of the “Russki (in Polish referred to using the derogatory term “Rusek), clearly stems from that familiar problem of Polish culture, the master serf (in Polish: pan cham) tension. This master versus serf confrontation appears to have been naturalized and inviolable in Polish culture, as it has become part of codified Polish society, with the word “serf, in Polish: “cham, a common colloquial Polish insult for someone uncouth, a ruffian. However, as I have argued in my recent book,[14] this opposition, besides common use in individual interactions, may be also seen from a theoretical point of view as having important role in the modern, post-1918 Polish definition of citizenship. Namely, it may be seen as an idealization of an educated and well-mannered intelligentsia member with a gentry family background as a perfect citizen, while declining this status to all those seen as not sophisticated enough and perceived as having peasant roots.[15] The imaginary “Russki, both as internal, unconscious identity of most Poles, as well as a representative of the nation east of Poland, is also such a “cham. Consequently, the countries to the east of Poland all appear as more or less deserving of this epithet, whereas those more peasant-like and backward and their nationals as not eligible for full citizenship of the Poland imagined as part of a broader Western European civic community. This strongly naturalized association of the both real and imaginary peasant or rural population with the symbolic “cham-ness and orientalized “Eastness seems to point to the problems with the integration of peasant, or plebeian culture in the canon of national and also popular culture.

It seems legitimate to refer to a sense of fear of popular culture, expressed today in the anxiety about appearing “uncool. This anxiety seems especially problematic for those socially upwardly mobile from positions in the lower rungs of the social pecking order and those feeling insecure as members of the intelligentsia, who feel the need to signal their distancing of themselves from all things considered inferior within the master versus serf (pan cham) code thus all things plebeian and of the east. It appears that these fears were less pronounced before the establishment of the present, symbolic, social status quo in Poland, dominated as it is by the intelligentsia model. Certainly, such fears were not noticeable in pre-revolutionary landed gentry circles, before they were displaced from their elite position by the intelligentsia of the Second Republic.

The fact remains that there is an interesting problem linked to the presence of folk and eastern motifs current in the Polish cultural scene. I have in mind here the continuing clashes over a strand of pop music called disco polo, a genre of pop music that developed in the 1990s, based on simple tunes derived from somewhat vulgarized Polish folk songs played at rural weddings and feasts. Disco polo has been looked down on as an inferior ‘cham genre, and continues to be deprecated not only as such but also because it is ignored by intelligentsia composers, artists, and audiences. What is intriguing, however, is that disco polo artists have been inspired by the popular music of Polands neighboring countries, with a large variety of musical influence that I am not qualified to comment on in detail, but I have come across some more or less successful takes on familiar Russian mainstream pop songs. And, even more strikingly, on websites that play these disco polo numbers, I have spotted a number of comments praising these tracks as “truly Polish expressions of the essence of the Polish culture or soul.[16] These spontaneous comments by fans unaware of the origin of the tunes made me reflect that this was another case of the “missing eastern element in the Polish identity. I was led to similar conclusions after performances in the Congress Hall in Warsaw by legendary Russian pop groups: on the one hand, Lyube[17] a group that can be considered “conservative in terms of its political involvement, and on the other hand the politically “liberal group DDT, critical of the Russian government. On each occasion, the concert was a sell-out and followed by never-ending ovations. It is hard to analyze in detail the social breakdown in the auditorium, but I think at least half were Poles, as distinct from Russians living in Poland and fans from other post-USSR republic, who could also be spotted in the audience. These concerts made it clear that there were fan circles in Poland that were up to speed with classical Russian bands, and probably also au fait with other developments in Russian music and art.[18] This is intriguing, particularly as apart from infrequent mentions, Russian popular culture is practically absent in the Polish mass media or indeed throughout the entire mainstream spectrum. And it is noticeable that, while the Polish pop singer Maryla Rodowicz can be heard occasionally on prime Russian TV channels, her Russian equivalent, Alla Pugacheva, disappeared without trace from Polish TV as early as 1991. The aforementioned “void or “missing elements were also in evidence during the Lyube and DDT concerts, which, like any similar event of this type, were an example of Polish-Russian cultural contact. At neither concert was there any introduction or welcoming of the fans by the Polish organizers, nor were there any comments by any established Polish artists or intellectuals referring to the tradition of Polish-Russian cultural contact. The Russian artists themselves also appeared lost in the predicament in which they found themselves and were not prepared to risk any interaction with the Warsaw audience. The non-existence of response the absence of commentary and the silence of critics during such a significant event spoke volumes. One can of course argue that there is no shortage of other cultural events during which there is a Polish-Russian dialogue and there are in fact institutions set up for this very purpose. And we could mention other concerts, for instance the Alexandrov Ensemble, which seems quite popular in Poland, which has, however, a clear state and military identity and belongs in a specific political pigeonhole. Thanks to having been removed to this safe, symbolic distance, the Ensemble seems to be free from the silent confusion surrounding the Russian pop groups touring Poland, whose music often evokes a disturbing sense of closeness or kinship. This makes popular music an area that merits attention, especially as Russian pop offers themes that Polish audiences seek. Mass audiences see these folk themes served up by professional musicians as both homely and contemporary. In this way, the crucial opposition of master versus serf which has had such a strong grip on the Polish psyche and which has polarized pop music into “standard and “primitive, i.e., eastern has been overcome. There is of course no shortage of attempts to lessen the tension, to make disco polo more acceptable for the general audience or, as has been done on public TV recently, to merge it with the musical mainstream with a clear political intention. Yet all these attempts can be seen as tactical moves that do not make it possible to transcend the opposition defined strategically in the Polish cultural arena between the higher, urban/master and that perceived as the lower, plebeian/‘cham and of the east.

To get back to my comments on Polish-German cultural interaction, made in Part 1 of this essay, let us note that as part of the idiosyncratic blurring of cultures in Upper Silesia, there has appeared a polonized variety of German Volksmusik, that is to say folk-based pop music, as a means of introducing folk motifs into general cultural circulation. These borrowings from the German cultural sphere are perceived as attractive in the region also because of their potential for breaking down the crucial tension present in Polish culture, mentioned earlier. I must stress again that I see no simple recipe for overcoming this tension, which is founded in the contemporary Polish social hierarchy, in which “cultural capital remains the chief tool of domination.

This specifically Polish system of social relations may be related to how the country compensates for its dependence on the West and its lack of strong economic and national elites.[19] The intelligentsia that has dominated these elites is capable of imposing its own rules of distinction as the macro-principles of social hierarchy, thus making difficult a systemic eradication of the master versus serf opposition and the related orientalism. This configuration of the elites can be compared to the systems prevailing in the West and in Russia, where the intelligentsia as an independent social layer hardly exists, or is a group that is clearly subservient to the political and economic elites. Thus, the intelligentsia there is unable to universalize the cultural hierarchies described earlier, which remain mainly the principles of distinction within its own stratum. In Poland, however, attempts to overcome these hierarchies, attempted occasionally by the intelligentsia itself, usually turn out to be essentially no more than tactics for the political mobilization of the lower-class electorate, often bona fide but inevitably leading to attempts by selected factions of the intelligentsia to strengthen their position in the elitist power struggle, jostling for positions of leadership.

I am inclined to conclude that the ability to integrate folk music and culture with the mainstream is one of the factors that Poles find subconsciously attractive in Russia and in particular in Russian culture, but also in the cultures of Belarus and Ukraine, in which the master vs. serf tension is much weaker. Let us remember, however, that this tension is also strongly linked with the orientalization to which we are being subjected, both the orientalization of the entire region by the West and, secondly, self-orientalization, as an attempt to tackle the former.

At the same time, the political imperative to demarcate the boundary between Polishness and Russianness, and also with Belarusness and Ukraineness, is being enhanced by the strength of Western orientalism, which has stigmatized the East as barbarian, thus something we must try to save ourselves from. The tense geopolitical situation is a factor intensifying these tensions today, but let us concentrate on the more permanent phenomena described above. One of these is the liberal tendency (mentioned in Part 1) to delineate clearly the span of a given political culture, as well as the liberal fear of domination or encroachment on the jurisdiction of neighboring countries. It may also be that, in the Polish context, what provides a particular boost to the liberal inclination to a clear-cut setting out of cultural boundaries is the hegemonic role of the intelligentsia and its canons.[20]

A member of the intelligentsia who, in Poland, by definition represents the civic ideal is obliged to use correct Polish, that is to say, free of the contamination by foreign words. Thus, he should keep away from russicisms, or any Russian cultural influence, which might expose his weakness for things Eastern European. As Dorota Masłowska has shown, the Polish flight from Russia, apart from the possible implications for Polands actual relationship with our neighbors, also generates considerable tensions within the national identity. This makes more difficult any assimilation into this identity of either folk culture or any cultural elements that originated or found their inspiration east of Polands present border. The fear of our own Eastness perhaps also curtails our spontaneity, creative courage and that certain panache, often associated with the Russia that we imagine. The flight from Eastness magnifies the tendency towards imitation, powerfully present in Polish culture, which has long been noted by numerous critical observers. And it also, perhaps, arouses a more generalized Polish apprehensiveness in our many social roles potentially cutting us of from potentially beneficial sources of cultural inspiration?

Translated from the Polish by Anda MacBride

[1] Tomasz Zarycki, Ideologies of Eastness in Central and Eastern Europe, Routledge, London 2014 or id., Polskie dyskursy o Wschodzie wewnętrznym i zewnętrznym próba analizy krytycznej (Polish discourse on the internal and external “East: An attempt at critical analysis), [in:] Tomasz Zarycki (ed.), Polska Wschodnia i Orientalizm, Wydawnictwo Naukowe Scholar, Warsaw 2013, pp. 18606.

[2] Let us note that even though Poland was part of the Soviet Block between 1944 and 1989, travel to the Soviet Union during that period was not easy for Poles and access to most regions of the USSR restricted. Before 1939 that border was even more difficult to cross for Polish or Soviet citizens.

[3] Maria Janion, Uncanny Slavdom, Wydawnictwo Literackie, Krakow 2006.

[4] Jan Sowa, The kings phantom body..., op. cit.

[5] Andrzej Leder, The Dream Revolution: Exercises in Historical Logic, Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, Warsaw 2014.

[6]  Tomasz Zarycki, Socjologia polskich podróży do krajów byłego ZSRR. Dwa przykłady (The sociology of Polish trips to the countries of the former USSR: Two examples), “Kultura i Społeczeństwo, LX (1), pp. 11932.

[7]  Agata Bachórz, Rosja w tekście i doświadczeniu. Analiza współczesnych polskich relacji z podróży (Russia in writing and experience: An analysis of contemporary Polish journey accounts), NOMOS, Krakow 2013.

[8]  Anna Horolets, Conformity, rebellion, nostalgia. Niche Polish tourism to the former USSR, Universitas, Krakow 2013.

[9]   Maria Janion, Uncanny..., op. cit.

[10]  Ibid, p. 238.

[11]  Ibid, p. 241.

[12]  Maxim K. Waldstein, Observing Imperium: A Postcolonial Reading of Ryszard Kapuscinskis Account of Soviet and Post-Soviet Russia, in: “Social Identities, 8 (3), 2002, pp. 48199.

[13]  Marian Zdziechowski, Wpływy rosyjskie na duszę polską (Russian influence on the Polish soul), Krakowska Spółka Wydawnicza, Krakow 1920.

[14]  Rafał Smoczyński, Tomasz Zarycki, Totem inteligencki: Arystokracja, szlachta i ziemiaństwo w polskiej przestrzeni społecznej (A totem of the intelligentsia: Aristocracy, nobility and landed gentry in the Polish social space), Wydawnictwo Naukowe Scholar, Warsaw 2017.

[15] Zarycki, Tomasz, Rafał Smoczyński, and Tomasz Warczok, The Roots of the Polish Culture-Centered Politics: Towards a Non-Purely-Cultural Model of Cultural Domination in Central and Eastern Europe, “East European Politics and Societies, 2017, on-line-first DOI: 10.1177/0888325417692036.

[16]   One of the best known such cultural transfers into Poland is the popularity there of the Russian singer Yuri Shatunov, with his hit Bielye rozy (White Roses). His enthusiastic reception at the all-Poland Festival of Dance Music in Ostróda in 2014 is thus symbolic.

[17]   The name is also sometimes spelt “Ljube or “Lube. The band formed in 1989 and it is today perceived as part of the new narrative of the Russian identity, projected by the Kremlin. Lyube combine traditional folk themes with Christian Orthodox motives, while acknowledging many Soviet symbols. Significantly, the band performs at key state events. Let us remember, however, that in its early days, Lyube existed far away from the echelons of power, and its stylistics could at the time be interpreted as pastiche or postmodern game-playing with the symbolism of the-then recently demised USSR.

[18]  With no aspirations to a comprehensive list, one can also mention that Russian punk and rock bands such as Kino, Aquarium, Nautilus Pompillus, Grazhdanskaya Obrona or Leningrad have Polish fans, as does Russian cinema, with its annual film festival “Sputnik over Poland.

[19]  Tomasz Zarycki, Tomasz Warczok, Hegemonia inteligencka: Kapitał kulturowy we współczesnym polskim polu władzy perspektywa długiego trwania (The hegemony of the intelligentsia: Cultural capital in contemporary Polish echelons of power its prospects in the “long run) Kultura i Społeczeństwo, 4/2014, pp. 2749.

[20]  Smoczyński, Rafał and Zarycki, Tomasz (2017), Totem inteligencki... op. cit.