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Focus on Poland II

Ryszard Kapuściński

A quarter of a century has now elapsed since the inception of a new Poland – the Poland of Solidarity. In 1989 it achieved final victory with the overthrow of communism. But voters have now opted to give power to a political camp that questions the direction of the changes pursued so far. Do you think Poland is taking proper advantage of the freedom it won? What do you think was the most important thing to have happened in the past 16 years?

Ryszard Kapuściński: The key point is that Poland can at last take part in the changes that are taking place in the world generally. This is a result of the end of the Cold War and the general opening to the world it entailed. Up until 1989 the world was cleanly split and thus not open. And it is important to remember that the Iron Curtain operated in both directions. A person from the West who turned up on the territory of the Soviet bloc was kept under close observation. But a person from the East who succeeded in crossing the border to the West and staying there, even briefly, was also kept under close surveillance and felt uneasy. The alienation was not only political and military, but also cultural. The discrimination was palpable.

That is the first area in which extraordinary progress has been made – the disappearance of borders. Today’s young people usually fail to understand that until not long ago it was unimaginable to be able to travel freely around the world. Today young people go wherever they want, and a passport is an object of everyday use, something that is taken for granted. And the fact of getting to know other people and their traditions has led to enormous cultural and psychological changes. This is the outcome not just of changes in the world but also of what happened in Poland – the revolution initiated by Solidarity. Yet young people often fail to see the link – which it is why it is the task of historians and the media to constantly remind us.

The end of the Cold War brought a second worldwide tendency: the democratisation of social life. It is true that there are still some places where only lip service is paid to this, but in general it is very strong and unquestioned. And Poland underwent it as well. After all, only recently such institutions as free elections or uncensored media seemed quite unrealistic, a dream at most. Now they have become something quite ordinary again, a natural element of a genuinely social life. The problem is that we have begun to take what happened after 1989 for granted and hence to appreciate it less. And yet there is nothing obvious about freedom – because that change was in fact a great revolution. And freedom is not something you are given once and for all.

A third important trend in which Poland has also begun to take part in recent years is the electronic revolution, opening up a wide sphere of virtual exchange between societies and individuals. The incredible worldwide expansion of communication has enormous consequences at all levels, including those of mentality and economics. So it too has a strong influence on Poland.

And yet when I observe Polish public life, I am still struck by the fact that it focuses on the domestic dimension. Discussions are limited to our own back yard. Rarely do they go beyond domestic problems, and they rarely draw upon arguments and solutions used in similar debates abroad. And yet such an approach is regarded internationally as a dangerous anachronism. Because the world is now open to all. That is why I regard all xenophobic tendencies as the worst phenomenon in our intellectual culture at present. And the most dangerous one, especially as isolationism and a narrowness of perspective are dangerous both on the political and civilisational planes. For the more the country becomes preoccupied with itself, the further it will get from the rest of the world. And the rate of change at the moment is proceeding at such terrific speed that if we don’t jump on board the train today we’re not going to catch it tomorrow. Take unemployment, for example. It’s not just a matter of people being unable to find work. The point is that their skills may become worthless, having been rendered redundant by new technologies, etc.

However Poland has also been affected by negative phenomena that are characteristic of the globalised world. Growing inequalities, for example. Of course we are witnessing a dynamic economic development, but – as in other countries – it has the side effect of stratifying society. So far no one in the world has found a way out of this dilemma. All of the proposed solutions have failed. It turns out that human thought finds itself at a moment of crisis, even disaster. There is no credible suggestion for cutting the connection between the undoubted advances in development and increasing inequality. I think that is the main problem at the moment, both in the world and in Poland.

So it turns out that the processes occurring in Poland at the moment correspond to processes which are happening all over the world. We are part of a general trend affecting our planet. For some reason or other we usually don’t seem to be aware of it: we are so focused on internal matters that we do not notice that they are part of universal tendencies. Corruption is a problem not only for Poland – it is flourishing all over the world. In Poland, as in the world at large, two opposing currents are in conflict with each other: integration versus disintegration. Thus the revolution in technology, communications and democratisation – as an expression of societies opening themselves to one another and becoming integrated – are clashing with provincialism, nationalism, and sometimes xenophobia.

But is it not an exaggeration to compare the misery of the Third World with poverty in Poland – of course that poverty is sometimes bitter, but surely not all that tragic? You once wrote about the demoralising effect of poverty, giving Mexico as an example. But can that refer to Poland as well?

It can. This is a universal thesis. The fact of its existence and the considerable stratification in this country is a powerful factor in demoralising and disintegrating our society. This was shown by the last elections, which proved the increasing divisions in the country. But at the same time they showed that the differences between the two rival camps are in fact minimal, being more rhetorical than programmatic.

This devaluation of language has, of course, been brought about by the media. Everyone uses the same language and propagates the same programmes, which later turn out to be meaningless anyway. This has a disorienting effect on society, which in turn creates a breeding ground for all sorts of fundamentalisms. The fundamentalists point out the clear lines of division, acting as a fixed point for those who cannot find their way in life. They provide clear signposts, giving simple explanations for a complex reality. The average man finds it increasingly difficult to interpret a world that is getting more and more complicated. That is why tendencies towards democratisation are accompanied by enhanced tendencies towards fundamentalism.

We are living in a world that is increasingly hard to define. What is more, this problem is going to get worse as the number of elements influencing reality keeps growing. The traditional concepts that took shape during the Enlightenment and the French Revolution often no longer fit the present reality. We keep encountering new phenomena, but we use the old designations to describe them because we don’t have any new ones. The result is a great terminological muddle. That is why it is an urgent intellectual task to find ways of naming these new phenomena. So far, efforts in this direction have not produced results.

Do these forms of demagoguery – let’s call them right and left – differ in any way from one another?

Usually not. The divisions generally have an exclusively personal character. If one bunch of cronies calls itself the right, they function as the right. If they call themselves the left, they are seen as the left. Still, it’s hard to find any substantial link.

But do you think that the soil for fundamentalism and xenophobia is more fertile in Poland than in France or Austria?

It’s getting better. There is now a clearly discernible generation gap on this issue. Lots of young Poles have come into contact with the wider world. One might even say we have become a scattered nation, and that promotes openness.

But Poles generally do have a certain tendency towards xenophobia and reserve towards others. First of all, we are a peasant society, and in the Polish countryside the habit of quarrelling with others over land boundaries proved stronger than communal traditions. Second, in the most formative period of our national consciousness, that is in the nineteenth century, we did not have our own state. This had a terribly crippling effect on our mentality, in that people in this country do not instinctively identify with the state, the government, the authorities, which are all regarded as something alien. And if someone [with authority] did appear in Poland, it was usually an invader, who had come to plunder, seize, confiscate. Finally, in the West the bearer of openness to the world was the middle class. In this country it did not manage to emerge, and if it appeared in embryonic form, it was represented by non-Poles, who perished or emigrated during the Second World War. The situation remained the same under communism. It is a powerful factor in society, and the nationalists exploit it. We have to reckon with this.

Only yesterday I got a letter from a lady in Gdańsk who is the chairwoman of the Polish Union of Muslim Tartars. She wrote of the tragic discrimination that these people are suffering at the moment. They are afraid to leave their homes, and the number of children who go to Muslim schools has fallen by two-thirds, because their parents are afraid to let them attend. This is happening in Poland, in our country.

How then do you explain the splendid way in which the Poles conducted themselves in the Solidarity period? Was that an exception?

No. Our society is full of contradictions. Everyone has good and bad in them. The same goes for a society. It depends on what the circumstances draw out of us, whether they encourage positive or negative features. Indeed the same applies to political parties: a party like the Polish Peasant Party develops in different directions depending on the prevailing political context.

Back in August 1980 and the months that followed the context was favourable. On the one hand people had had enough of the economic and political set-up. I returned to Poland after covering the Khomeini revolution and arrived just in time for the strikes. The strikes on the coast summed up the general mood. Everything in the state had been used up, especially the whole party apparatus, which was just a load of junk, sheer nothingness. And people simply acted reflexively, showing their displeasure by protesting. And when the authorities showed themselves incapable of reacting, they took the next step, and so it went on.

The coast was such a wonderful place, and not just because the precedent set in 1970 was remembered and opposition groups were operating. Another factor was that there were large enterprises there, large concentrations of the working class, and that it was a region that, by the standards of communist Poland, was relatively open to the world. It must be remembered that the events of August broke out at a time when Poland had an enormous merchant fleet and shipbuilding industry – and the ports were a point of contact with the world. Other forms of communication were after all limited – no one at that time ever dreamed of e-mail, mobile phones, etc. Quite a different culture of communication prevailed. But because sailors sailed all over the world, and ships flying other flags entered Polish ports, the coast saw the emergence of a large group of people who were relatively well paid and also familiar with the outside world. They saw the stark contrast with the West. When they returned to Szczecin, Kołobrzeg or Gdańsk, they talked about that contrast and the fact that Poland was lagging behind the rest of the world. The combination of these factors meant that the strike movement was triggered on the coast and eventually spread to the whole country. I remember that groups of delegates from all over the country were arriving at the shipyard every day. We concentrated on Gdańsk, but really it was a nationwide movement.

Did you believe at the time it would succeed?

There was talk of the possibility of armed intervention, but one really sensed the impotence of the authorities. It was clear that the situation was different from that of December 1970, and that Gierek(1) was no Gomulka(2).

The revolution of 1980 was not only non-violent; there was nothing boorish or aggressive about it. Indeed, as you said yourself, it was also a revolution directed against boorishness … Today, twenty-five years later, we not only have the triumph of boorishness in everyday life, but in public life as well. This boorishness is overflowing everywhere, in culture and politics. And it reigns on a different, much larger scale. It is true that Poland is different from what it was in the eighties, thank goodness, and there is no threat to our sovereignty, but perhaps such a moral revolution would make sense today? Is that possible?

Yes, in the sense that there is something negative in Polish culture that makes us too focused on politics and too little inclined to pay attention to the social graces. This pushing and shoving is still going on. The first thing you feel when arriving in Poland from the old, Western part of Europe is the difference in interpersonal relations. And that says something bad about us. In our society there is an enormous lumpen element – not in the economic sense, but as regards behaviour, mistrust, surliness, low cunning. A negative attitude to the other guy – instant unfriendliness.

When you’re in Naples and looking for a certain street, people immediately give directions, explain, offer to take you there. But in Poland the person addressed will often either not reply to such a question at all or do so in a brusque and surly manner. My sister has lived for years in Canada, and she keeps telling me that people there smile at one another. But when she came to Poland after a lapse of years people looked at her as though she were mad because she was going around smiling at people. That is a negative trait of ours in comparison with the West.

And I still haven’t said anything about the cultures of Africa, Latin America and Asia – here we are really behind when it comes to disinterested displays of friendliness or benevolence. This is such a negative feature, and yet it does not meet with social disapproval. No one even pays any attention to it. But it should be frowned upon socially. Incidentally, there are enormous differences in our society in this respect. I was reading recently the memoirs of [the famous Polish writer] Iwaszkiewicz(3)’s wife, and she recalled how she and a female friend, or perhaps her cousin, were passing through a small Polish town on a frosty night in 1945 and asked for someone to take them in. At one house they were thrown out and had the dogs set on them while at another house in that very same street people opened the door and invited them in. There are huge differences in social intercourse in our country: any person approaching another really doesn’t know what to expect. They may encounter friendly interest or have their heads bitten off. In Poland we understand culture to mean books, theatre, cinema. But culture in the sense of a mode of conduct is on a distressingly low level.

Can anything be done about this situation?

It’s a question of education, schools, the habits people bring back with them from abroad. But this has always been the weak side of our social and cultural reality. And it doesn’t look as though things are going to get any better ...

An important element of contemporary Polish society is its religious faith. Loudly proclaimed, but devoid of any elements of radicalism. At the same time in today’s world we have religious fundamentalism on the one hand and indifference to religion combined with commercialism on the other... How do you see the outlook for religious faith in Poland?

Secularism is a Western European phenomenon, and a unique one at that. Just look at [the place of religion in] such an indisputably Western country as the United States. Religious faith is universal in India, Latin America and Africa. Generally speaking, man is a religious being by nature. So the world tendency is one of great religious faith (which largely overlaps with the feeling people have nowadays of having lost their way). But this must not be identified with the church or the clerical hierarchy, as these are quite different things. A person may be very religious and not take part in the life of any church. People need faith, some sort of inner support, a feeling of belonging. That is a very powerful factor – all over the world. At the same time there is a tendency in Poland to identify Europe with the world. We forget that Europe is only 15 per cent of the world, that the world is much, much bigger and much more varied.

But in Poland it’s rather hard to say how deep this religious faith goes, isn’t it?

There is a tendency to confuse profound religious faith with profound self-knowledge on the subject of one’s religious faith. And religious faith in Poland is deep, being steeped in the Polish cultural tradition connected with it. In Poland a person can come to work every day and toil away until one day he suddenly decides to quit his job and set off on a pilgrimage to Częstochowa(4).

I would be completely opposed to treating this phenomenon with patronising indulgence, as something to be looked down upon. There was a time when I took an interest in the subject, in fact. When I began to talk to people I found out that their father, grandfather, or even their whole family always made the pilgrimage to Częstochowa, and had been doing so for generations. And for them there is nothing strange about it – they just quit their jobs and go off on a pilgrimage. If we take the country as a whole, there are a lot of cases like that.

There is one more thing that needs to be pointed out. When I travel round the world I see that, although the world is very religious, fundamentalism continues to be a marginal phenomenon. Of course the fundamentalists are active and determined, of course one keeps hearing about them and a lot of fuss is made about them, but everywhere they are a marginal phenomenon, having nothing to do with the essence of the religion in question nor with the essence of the societies they inhabit. The mass of the people under normal conditions are by nature peaceful. The average person is a peace-loving individual: he wants to get by, send his children to school, find a home, get a job. The requirements of the average person, the average citizen of the world, are not all that high. They are in fact so modest that there shouldn’t be any problem about satisfying them. The trouble is that the world is run so badly that even these modest needs cannot be met.

But hasn’t this always been the case? Have inequalities not always been inherent in human civilisation? Perhaps they are only more conspicuous nowadays?

Of course there have always been inequalities. But the social mechanisms functioning today exacerbate them. In the old days it took ages for a dynasty to emerge as it gradually amassed its domains and estates – three to four hundred years at least. Now you can earn enough to make yourself a multimillionaire in a couple of years. The accelerated growth of civilisation operates in all directions and on all planes, and although it has its bright side, the accelerated opportunities for enrichment are driving these inequalities.

But don’t you think that one of the unfortunate effects of a world engaged in constant enrichment – although this concerns more our own world, Poland – is that culture has been pushed into the background? That there is no culture, only entertainment. The Zamoyski family were very wealthy people and they built Zamość(5). Today one could say with only some exaggeration that there are people equally wealthy, but they don’t build churches or libraries, they just build themselves villas in various parts of the globe ...

There’s a lot of egoism. But in this case it is because the wealthy class in Poland is still very recent. And a newly emerging capitalist class will always be egoistic. The emergent bourgeoisie in France or the United States was also like that. That is one obvious reason.

But there is another reason that is Poland’s fault. The fact is that in this country the machinery of the state and the budget are directed against culture, against enriching society with non-material values.

There are many, very many people (I know some myself) who would be glad to donate to and support culture if they only had the opportunity to do so in a straightforward manner without having to read their way through dozens of complicated rules and regulations. But there is no such possibility in this country. As a result enormous amounts of money that could be spent on culture are wasted. All because there is no law, as there was and is in the United States, enabling various Rockefellers to set up foundations, maintain symphony orchestras, or found museums and galleries. After all music in the States is funded by individual billionaires. Here there is no such possibility.

These two parallel factors – the egoism of a newly emergent class rapidly enriching itself and the absence of state mechanisms facilitating the donation of funds by those who would be willing to do so – have produced the result we see before us: there is no money for culture.

Why is that? After all we govern ourselves. We cast our ballots at election time. We are the ones who elect the politicians. How is it that the smarter people lose out against the dumber ones?

Hang on. This is also a global phenomenon. It is not just in Poland that such people get elected. If you go to Italy or the States and start talking to people about the governments there you certainly won’t hear the most positive opinions on the subject. The fact is that there is a kind of negative selection on a global scale. This is also the fault of the younger generations. Nowhere do difficult tasks attract able young people. Able young people look elsewhere for their career prospects. Politics everywhere gets a low rating, and political careers are suspect. That is why politics usually attracts people of lower calibre, because politics as a field of endeavour is held in low esteem and surrounded by a degree of suspicion everywhere in the world, and this in turn causes the world of politics to be corrupted in various ways.

In Poland we had a few individuals whom people looked up to and who wanted to go in for politics. They succumbed ...

Because we managed to seize a brief moment in which a political career did carry prestige, and people felt the need for a statesman. But that moment has passed. The age of such men as de Gaulle, Churchill or Roosevelt has passed. There are no great political personalities, big names, outstanding individuals – they don’t exist anywhere in the world. Forty years ago I was in Africa and I met great men, big names, regardless of how history may have judged them in retrospect. Patrice Lumumba, Gamal Abdel Nasser, Kwame Nkrumah … these people were giants. Today I’m not able to name five African presidents, because not one of them has caught my attention – in spite of the fact that this is my special field of interest and I go on visits there.

So today we elect officials, not leaders. A bureaucratisation of the world has taken place whereby the person who appears in the role of president or prime minister is just another official, albeit the most important one – but not always the most effective one. It simply means that in the bureaucratic game the dice have fallen in such a way that this particular person has got the post and not another. But he is just the same as dozens of others.

This is an enormous cultural change. And we’re not going to get another Piłsudski(6) either. There has been a general change in cultural patterns. The bureaucratic machine has expanded to such an extent that no individual can fight his way through it. And so it will produce its own representatives, not permitting the emergence of anyone with an individual bent in case he should achieve mastery over it. This is a broader phenomenon, a postmodernist transformation arising out of the mass nature of everything, out of globalisation.

In that case how do you view the European Union, which is precisely such a Moloch that standardises everything?

I wouldn’t go as far as that. It does standardise a bit, but it does permit a lot and fosters and strengthens many localities. In the near future Europe will widen and deepen simultaneously, but it will also gradually become blurred. First we’ll admit Turkey, then Ukraine, and then everything will be completely different. These are major challenges for the continent – after all, even today it is not at all like what it was at the beginning. I remember the Union when it was still a compact organism. And now there will continue to be two Europes – and we have to hope that they will be able to talk to each other, that a level will be created at which such a dialogue can take place. But it is certain that all this will be accompanied by a certain blurring, although we’ll all get something out of it in the end.

Poland is introducing to this new Europe an unexpected and interesting characteristic: in this country, when we talk about vetting people’s backgrounds [for any secret contacts they may have had in the communist past], about [secret] agents, about archives, we are basically putting history above everything else or, to put it more accurately, the revision of history. This is a terribly important organisational principle in today’s Poland. Is that a good thing? How is it going to end?

This is the wrong way to go. The world is far more inclined to look ahead. And although history everywhere is an important element of identity, no one is in favour of an eternal preoccupation with the past. This can only weaken and hold back the momentum of social development.

It is not only the pursuit of those courses of action or the hunt for sources that is obviously wrong, but also the vision of the world they reveal. Leave aside the fact that we don’t know how things ever got into the files of the secret police, or for what reason, and how much of it was gossip, how much was malice and how much was lies. Leave aside the fact that even as a historical source these files are fairly dubious. What concerns me is that to reconstruct the past on the basis of secret police files is to create an unreal world, detached from the feelings, emotions and work of thousands of people, making no allowance for normal life or the spiritual independence of people in general. This is a vision tailored not even to that of the secret police, but to what the secret police wanted to record of it.

The point is that such activity distracts people’s thoughts from what we have to do to ensure that things never get the way they are in these files. To ensure a strong and free Poland. And not just free in a political sense, but spiritually as well. Fortunately most young people have no idea what all this is about, never having given much thought to it and – in my opinion – not wanting to either.

So you’re optimistic about Poland’s future?

Of course – enormously optimistic.


  • Edward Gierek was first secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party from 1970 to 1980. He developed friendly relations with France and Germany and was able to secure loans for Poland, leading to a significant improvement in the standard of living. After the 1973 oil crisis, however, price increases became necessary, leading to public disorder and protests, a new round of attempted reforms and eventually to a challenge to the legitimacy of the state in the form of the Solidarity movement.
  • Władysław Gomułka, a “national communist” who had been stripped of party membership and imprisoned in the early 1950s, took over the leadership of Poland after the Poznań revolt of 1956. He successfully faced down a Russian challenge to the reforms he was implementing and was initially popular for his promise of a “Polish road to socialism”. He was forced to step down after a further wave of protests in 1970.
  • Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz (1894-1980) co-founded the Skamander group of experimental poets with Julian Tuwim and Antoni Słonimski.
  • Częstochowa, in southern Poland, is the home of the Black Madonna icon and a traditional site of pilgrimage.
  • Zamość, in southeastern Poland, was founded by Jan Zamoyski in 1580 and designed by the Paduan architect Bernardo Morando. It is a perfectly preserved example of a late sixteenth century Renaissance town and is a Unesco world heritage site.
  • Józef Klemens Piłsudski (1867-1935) was a Polish revolutionary, soldier and statesman. He was the creator of the independent state that emerged after the First World War and remained the dominating figure in Polish politics until his death.

Ryszard Kapuściński (1932-2007) was one of the most respected foreign correspondents of the 20th century. Western readers knew him through such extraordinary books as The Emperor, which described the decline of Haile Selassie's Ethiopia. Shah of Shahs, on the fall the last Shah of Iran, and Imperium, about the last days of the Soviet Union.