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25 years of freedom, that is a journey from a periphery to a periphery

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A quarter-century after recovering freedom the Poles have to confront again the notion of their civilisation belonging to the periphery.

When the celebrations of the 25th anniversary of freedom started, I wrote in Gazeta Wyborcza[1] about the Polish cultural leap after 1989, and a member of the public reacted bitterly to my text. He asked: if “everybody” believes that Poland made it, that we achieved a collective cultural advance, why is it so bad? The reader cited a survey from March 2014 (conducted by the well-known polling institute Millward Brown), according to which only 17% of Poles “did not consider” emigration.

He went on: Why is health care such a shambles, and why education (including, or perhaps especially, university education) is so poor? Why do we have such a high unemployment rate, despite the fact that several millions of our compatriots have already left Poland in order to search for a job and professional fulfilment abroad? Why do so many people find it so hard to make ends meet? Why is our economy so lacking in innovation? Why we are still a peripheral country?

He also asked why book readership in our country was declining, why quality press was unable to stay on the market – in Poland we have no counterparts of The New Yorker or The New York Review of Books. The problem is not wealth: the problem is culture. “In the foreseeable future Poland will have motorways and express roads in abundance. What strikes every driver coming from Germany to Poland is a completely different driving culture. My worry is that in the foreseeable future this difference will be the same.”

This anecdote illustrates a fundamental discussion now going on in Poland today. You can find its echo in debates concerning various spheres of life - the economy, education, public administration, labour market. A quarter-century after recovering freedom the Poles have to confront again the notion of their civilisation belonging to the periphery. The history of the Polish struggle with the awareness that we are not the navel of the world, is very long. In the eighteenth century aristocratic ideologues wrote that Poland was antemurale christianitatis, the rampart of Christianity, the easternmost bastion of Western civilization, the historical mission of which was to protect the rich and well-fed Europe against the barbarian hordes flooding in from the south and the east. In this ideology the Polish sabres were the main bulwark separating the lazy and helpless Western bourgeois from Oriental despotisms, in its Orthodox or Muslim versions.

But it was not accidental that the “rampart of Christianity” concept gained momentum in Poland only when the nobility of The Republic was already in decline and later, at the time of the Partitions, when the Poles lost their own state. The message was clear: our Polish moral merits not only entitled us to Western help in the fight against the invaders (to whom we had finally succumbed after centuries of heroic struggle). In the play Kordian by Słowacki the Pope greets the main protagonist with the words “welcome to a descendant of the Sobieskis” – that is those Poles who saved Christianity at Vienna in 1683. The Pope, of course, did not help Poland, leaving Kordian – a classic Polish romantic hero - a prey to depression and gloomy reflections on the nature of the world. The West, of course, did not read Polish lamentations, because they were mostly written in Polish, so it was not even aware of their existence.

The costs of the titanic effort in defending the Western civilisation incurred by the Republic and its citizens also explained Polish cultural backwardness. The roads in Poland had always been bad, the inns dirty, poverty widespread, and the peasants – constituting as much as 90% of contemporary society – lived in conditions decrying even the contemporary notions of a decent standard of life. At the same time the gentry and nobility lived in luxury.

There is no space here to cite the numerous reports of Western travellers who believed that Poland did belong to a different civilisation than the West (they experienced another cultural shock when entering the territory of Russia).[2] I will confine myself to one description, by an Englishman named William Jacob, who in 1825 was commissioned by the British government to cross the length and breadth of the then Kingdom of Poland, Galicia and the Baltic provinces of Russia. Jacob was asked to examine how much grain and at what prices could be provided by the lands of the “former Poland”. After returning to England he published a comprehensive report, where he also described - in the fashion of contemporary travelogues - the inhabitants of the Polish lands.[3] He noted the reluctance of the nobility to take up any occupations outside the military service and the dominant position of the Jews in trade and the Germans in crafts. (Germans, he observed, felt uncomfortable in Poland and longed to return home after they have made enough money.) The author devoted much attention to Polish peasants.

They are no longer slaves, or adscripti glebae. [...] Though no longer slaves, the condition of the peasants is but little practically improved by the change that has been made in their condition. When a transfer is made, either by testament or conveyance, the persons of the peasantry are not indeed expressly conveyed, but they services are, and in many instances are the most valuable part of the property. [...] These people live in Wooden Huts, covered with thatch or shingles, consisting of one room with a stove, around which the inhabitants and their cattle crowd together, and where the most disgusting kinds of filthiness are to be seen. Their common Food is cabbage, potatoes sometimes, but not generally, pease, black bread, and soup, or rather gruel, without the addition of butter or meat. Their chief Drink is water, or the cheap whiskey of the country, which is the only luxury of the peasants; ad is drunk, whenever they can obtain it, in enormous quantities. [...] In their houses they have little that merits the name of furniture; and their clothing is coarse, ragged and filthy, even to disgust. Very little attention has been paid to their Education, and they are generally ignorant, superstitious, and fanatical. [...] This Representation of the condition and character of the Peasantry, though general, cannot be considered so universal as to admit of no exceptions; some rare instances of perseverance in economy, industry, and temperance, are to be found.[4]

Economic historians confirm this grim picture. Estimating the Polish GDP per capita over the centuries is of course a very bold exercise: the data are haphazard, the price structure in past centuries is different than today. The information that in 1820 the GDP per capita in the Polish lands was $686 per year, more than in China ($600) but less than in England or the U.S. (respectively 1200 and 1250 dollars) tells us little, although it is cited by economists in dead earnest5. The figures given by various authors are divergent, but generally it is assumed that never in history Polish GDP per capita has exceeded 60% of the average GDP in the West. It came close to this ratio several times: for the first time probably in the sixteenth century, at the time of the Jagiellonian “golden age”; the second time was around 1648, before the rise of the Cossacks and the invasion of the Swedes, who ruined the First Republic; the third time was in 1914, before World War I, during which the frontlines swept across the Polish lands three times (and which in Poland ended in 1921, three years later than in the West); the next time was in 1939, when the restored Poland recovered from the Great Depression and began to implement a large-scale programme of industrialisation; and the last time was around 1978, at the end of Gierek’s “economic miracle” financed by loans from the West.[5]

As I write these words, Poland is again nearing this magic mark.

The relatively lower level of Polish wealth shows only one - although perhaps the most visible to the naked eye – dimension of Polish cultural “junior status”. Of more importance are such factors as the direction of import and export of technology, the patterns of the organisational structure of the state, the military and industry, capital, literary and intellectual fashions. And the direction of this exchange has always been the same - from the West to the East. Prominent historian Jerzy Jedlicki wrote:

It is hard not to see that inventiveness of the kind discussed here was born only in some areas, and that the patterns spread in various directions, and the extent of these impacts marked the expansion of the current boundaries of civilised Europeans. I mean here multiple types of patterns, such as articles of faith, rites and religious practices, secular and ecclesiastical hierarchy, government structures, sets of laws, the secrets of calligraphy, artistic conventions, canons of philosophy, ideas of a just social order, as well as new crops, rules of trade, specie, handicrafts, principles of engineering and religious architecture, and many, many more discoveries producing an almost constant evolution of forms of life and ideas about the world, about its physical and moral order[6].

Since baptism of Poland in 966 we were - writes Jedlicki - a border country, a recipient country. In the monumental work of Immanuel Wallerstein about the history of the world system it is Poland - and Eastern Europe, but most of all the huge Republic of the nobility – that plays the role of the first “periphery” of the West, drawn into its orbit at the very beginning of the development of the system, that is in the fifteenth century, before the era of great explorers and colonization[7].

There is nothing surprising in this situation: a large part of the continent shares this fate. The question is to what extent the Poles were willing to accept it.

For centuries it was easy to think that history always threw obstacles on the Polish path. We would be wealthy and prosperous were it not for the Tatars, Swedes, Muscovites, Germans; were it not for the Cossack uprising, the Great Northern War, the Partitions, the failed uprisings and the ensuing repression; were it not for the war and occupation, and, finally, communism. The list of Polish woes is long and invoking it was handy. In a well-known short story by Sławomir Mrożek entitled Moniza Clavier the main protagonist, a Pole suffering for the nation and humanity, shows his wounds to the indifferent Western world:

I stepped into the midst of an amused company. `O, here!,’ I shouted, widely opening my mouth and pointing my finger on the molars. `O, here, they knocked them out, sir, for freedom they knocked them out!’ Confusion ensued. They went quiet, looked at me, unable to understand what I meant[8].

Only a quarter of a century after the 1989 watershed it is becoming clear how important role was played by this historical justification of our peripheral status (once the word “backwardness” would be used at this point but because of its emotional load it came out of fashion) in the Polish collective unconscious.

This change took place gradually. In the early 1990s the memory of communism, its dreariness, misery and isolation from the world it imposed on the Poles, was too vivid to seriously reflect on the structural sources of the Polish “junior status”. In the early 1990s everything seemed clear: the words „we are going to Europe” were omnipresent. It ended, as we know, in success. In 1999 Poland joined NATO and in 2004 it joined the European Union. In parallel with these political developments, there was an unprecedented wave of cultural imports: of values, ideas, norms, patterns, corporate culture and organisation of non-governmental institutions. In the period before the accession the Polish parliament was incorporating European law in a wholesale fashion; some people quite seriously asked the question if European directives really must be translated into Polish prior to their passing. After joining the European Union the import only gathered momentum, but changed its character. It is not enforced by politicians, and if it is, then only to a small extent. Over two million Poles emigrated to look for work in the West - which is one of the largest waves of migration in Polish history, comparable only with the wave of migration in the late nineteenth century, the first era of globalisation. Just like then, immigrants have not lost contact with their home country: they brought back from the West new notions about what to wear, what to eat, how to live, how the state and government administration should be organised. I was recently at a New Year’s Eve party in a village near Wroclaw. I met there a Polish woman living in Paris, the host’s sister, who in France is the head nurse in a hospital. She brought with her French wines that she likes, different ideas about food and a lot of experiences from the world of Western institutions, which a person born ten years earlier would not have a chance to encounter.

The gigantic cultural import only brought out the paradox of a breakthrough which occurred in the “Polish civilisation” in 1989. On the one hand, of course, we are getting closer to the West, adopting its norms and customs. Poland still is a much poorer country, but no longer separated from France and Germany by such a deep chasm as in the days of Polish People’s Republic. Polish wages are two-three times lower than Western ones, which means that the gap is roughly the same size as in 1914 or 1939.

The paradox of the breakthrough lies in the fact that bringing the Poles closer to the West, at the same time it reminded them of their peripheral status. The Polish cultural backwardness can no longer be explained away by history. The main debate now raging among Polish commentators concerns the new path of Polish modernisation Polish - how to make Poland became a country competing in the world through innovation rather than cheap labour; how to make the money generously given to us by the Union produce sustained growth rather than be spent on one-off pleasures - such as stadiums and swimming pools (also needed for that matter). We ask why Poland spends just 0.7% of its GDP on research and development - which makes us one of the least innovative countries in Europe. This problem, as many observers seem to notice, is more profound. It is not just a result of a political decision about how to share the money in the government budget. In Poland not only the government spends little on research - even less is spent by private companies, which prefer to buy technology and equipment from the West. Polish economists discuss a “trap of an average income country” – a country with an educated workforce and improving infrastructure, and where Western companies are increasingly willing to locate their factories, but also a country which does not have its own global brands, its own research centres of world class quality and which seems doomed to the role of an eternal subcontractor of Western corporations.

Jan Szomburg, president of the Institute for Market Economy, in the 1970s and 1980s one of the leading figures in the community of the Gdańsk liberals (from which many important politicians originated, including Janusz Lewandowski, today European Commissioner for Financial Programming and Budget), asks:

We are looking for answers to the question: what is the glass ceiling of our development and how to break through? As a whole society we are working a lot (few nations in the world work longer hours), and generally we are working well - we are good subcontractors. In the structures of global corporations Polish factories are recognised as the best in terms of efficiency and quality of work. The level of our savings - as a source of investment financing - is not high, but there is not much to save on - we have low wages because this is the area we base our competitiveness on. As for the rational level of foreign debt, we have already achieved, and perhaps even exceeded it. Although we have a lot of foreign investments, they do not produce high wages and do not fully allow for the development of our skills and talents (we practice our manufacturing competence - even if it is an engineering and highly specialised competence)[9].

This is the whole paradox: after 1989 Poland has come a long way and has been successful, but it was a road from one periphery - the Communist world was a peripheral world, importing technology and other solutions from the West – to another, within the global capitalist economy. At the same time it also deprived the Poles of the mental comfort provided by a sense of historical injustice. Now we are solely responsible for our destiny - for our poverty and backwardness.

[1] “Polaku, jesteś moim bohaterem,” Gazeta Wyborcza, April 5-6, 2014.

[2] Many such impressions can be found, for example, in a two-thousand-pages long collection edited by Wacław Zawadzki and called Polska stanislawowska w oczach cudzoziemców, v. 1-2, Warszawa 1963.

[3] W. Jacob, Report on the Trade in Foreign Corn: And on the Agriculture of the North of Europe, London 1826. descriptions of Polish backwardness and misery were a constant element of travel reports at least since the seventeenth century: see J. Kochanowicz, “Polska w epoce nowoczesnego wzrostu gospodarczego,” [in:] Modernizacja Polski. Struktury, agencje, reżimy instytucjonalne, edited by W. Morawski, Warszawa 2010.

[4] W. Jacob, Report…, op.cit., 63–67.

[5] A. Maddison, Contours of the World Economy, 1-2030 AD: Essays in Macroeconomic History, Oxford 2007, p. 382.

[6] J. Jedlicki, „Nasz kraj na poboczu Europy”, Przegląd Polityczny no 91/92 (2008).

[7] See I. Wallerstein, The Modern World-System II. Mercantilism and the consolidation of the European World-Economy, 1600-1750, New York-London 1980.

[8] S. Mrożek, „Moniza Clavier,” [in:] Wybór opowiadań, Kraków 1987, p. 150.

[9] J. Szomburg, „Polska jak Pendolino,” Rzeczpospolita, March 21, 2014.




Dr. Adam Leszczynski - historian, journalist, reporter. Assistant Professor at the Institute of Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, journalist of Gazeta Wyborcza. Author of several books, including a documentary Naznaczeni: Afryka i AIDS (2003) and a collection of African reports Zbawcy mórz oraz inne afrykańskie historie (2013). He has recently published the book Skok w nowoczesność. Polityka wzrostu w krajach peryferyjnych 1943-1980 (2013), devoted to the problems of modernisation in poor countries - including Poland - in the mid-twentieth century. Thanks to a grant from the Polish Ministry of Science an English edition of Skok w nowoczesność will be published by Peter Lang Publishing in 2015.

Article written as a part of the Freedom Express project - an international social and educational campaign launched on the 25th anniversary of the “year of changes” – the year 1989. The project is organised by European Network Remembrance and Solidarity with the support of ministries of culture from Central European countries and in cooperation with many institutions dealing with the history of the 20th century.

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