Romantic Nationalisms And Pop-Kultur: An Interview With Andrzej Waśko

This month we are greatly honored to present this interview with Professor Andrzej Waśko, the foremost authority on Romantic literature in Poland. He is the author several important books and currently serves as the advisor to Mr. Andrzej Duda, the President of Poland. Professor Waśko is here interviewed by Dr. Zbigniew Janowski, on behalf of the Postil.

Zbigniew Janowski (ZJ): Let me begin this conversation with a question about your recent article about the popular band Queen. You are a scholar of Polish Romanticism. You wrote your first major work, which received a national award, on Adam Mickiewicz (the prince of Polish Romantics) and your second on Polish conservative Romantic Zygmunt Krasinski. The role they played in Poland (along with the third major poet Juliusz Slowacki) may be compared to Byron, Shelley and Keats in England.

All of them belong to an epoch which existed two hundred years ago. The English rock group Queen was popular in the 1970s and 1980s. How come a professor of literature writes about about popular music?

Andrzej Waśko.

Andrzej Wasko (AW): These topics are not as far apart as they seem. The aesthetic revolution, called Romanticism, which broke out in Europe after the French Revolution, began earlier with the rehabilitation of popular songs and with the ballads of Goethe and Schiller; and later with Wordsworth and Coleridge, Mickiewicz and others.

A similar phenomenon occurred in the 1960s, in the genre of popular song on the “lower” level of culture. Joan Baez and other folk music performers began their careers with the same or similar folk ballads. At that time, the post-war generation, largely made up of university-educated workers’ children, was knocking on the gates of the middle class. These people needed their mythology and it was provided, at least to some extent, by popular music – Joan Baez, as already mentioned, Nobel Prize winner Bob Dylan, and many others.

Here, I see a certain analogy to the situation that took place in the 19th century. Romanticism gave a cultural identity to the bourgeois and popular masses that began to build modern nations on the ruins of class-based society. The history of pop music is the story of what happened to society in the second half of the 20th century. Besides, today there is a radio in every car. Popular songs are a topic that a literary historian can talk to a taxi driver about.

ZJ: Your last remark reminded me of Allan Bloom’s conversation with a taxi driver. This is what he wrote in The Closing of the American Mind (1987): “A few years ago I chatted with a taxi-driver in Atlanta who told me he had just gotten out of prison, where he served time for peddling dope. Happily, he had undergone ‘therapy.’ I asked him what kind. He responded, ‘All kinds—depth-psychology, transactional analysis,’ but what he liked best was ‘Gestalt.’ Some of the German ideas did not even require English words to become the language of the people. What an extraordinary thing it is that high-brow talk from what was the peak of Western intellectual life, in Germany, has become as natural as chewing gum on American streets. It indeed had its effect on this taxi-driver. He said that he had found his identity and learned to like himself. A generation earlier he would have found God and learned to despise himself as a sinner. The problem lay with his sense of self, not with original sin or devils inside him. We have here the peculiarly American way of digesting Continental despair. It is nihilism with a happy ending.”

One may draw many conclusions from Bloom. One such is that once high-brow ideas fall to a level of ordinary people, the inevitable result is nihilism. Let me invoke the lyrics of Queen:

Empty spaces.
What are we living for?
Abandoned places.
I guess we know the score.
On and on.
Does anybody know what we are looking for?
Another hero,
Another mindless crime
Behind the curtain.
(“The Show Must Go On”).

Queen’s song and Lennon’s “Imagine” – “no heaven, no hell” – can be said to repeat the basic building blocks of Existentialism, especially the ideas we find in Simone de Beauvoir and Sartre. De Beauvoir and Sartre considered the world without God to be a reason to rejoice. Camus, on the other hand, was deeply troubled by it; he understood that in such a world the only jurisdiction of philosophy is suicide. This is not different from what we find in Queen: “does anybody know what we are looking for?” Are these songs existentialist philosophy of the Parisian cafes turned nihilistic?

AW: The fact that the songs you quote and probably many others show traces of the existential philosophy of Parisian gurus, such as Sartre and Camus, seems very likely to me. Certainly, Lennon welcomes the vision of an axiological void and proclaims it as “good news,” just like Sartre.

Both the philosopher and the ex-Beatle call for a revolution, each in their own way. In practice, however, Lennon’s way turns out to be more effective, because his song is pretty, it reaches the masses and moves their emotions. But the lesson Lennon gives his followers leads to nihilism – in a world where there is nothing to die for – “nothing to kill or die for” – there is nothing to live for.

This was understood by Camus and I think also Freddie Mercury, whose lyrics, on the contrary, are not cheerful. “What are we living for?” – in a world devoid of essence, without absolute values and absolute norms. Of course, this is also existentialism for the people. But at the same time it is a lamentation over a world ruled by nihilism.

Taxi drivers I speak with in Poland are more likely to lament and never say anything about psychology, which is otherwise a very fashionable field at universities in Poland. Rather, it is the establishment that thinks like the Atlanta taxi driver Bloom writes about. This is pure and self-conscious nihilism – but it is rather rife among teachers and students at universities.

ZJ: You made a connection between the aesthetic revolution of Romanticism and the post-French revolutionary world. In 1833, Benjamin Disraeli wrote in his Diary: “My mind is a continental mind… It is a revolutionary mind.” What Disraeli is referring to is the influence Romanticism had on him. What made Romanticism such a powerful social force?

Second, for all the greatness and beauty of Romantic poetry, Romanticism turned out to become a political outlook which shuttered the old order no less than the French Revolution. Is there a connection between the slogans of the Revolution – equality in particular – and the Romantic exaltation of self-consciousness as the source of truth and a fountainhead of artistic creativity?

AW: What made Romanticism a social force was certainly the democratization of the language of literature and art, an example of which is the turn to ballads. In his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth tells us that poetry should speak the language that people actually use in their lives. The explanation lies in the saturation of art with emotions. Wordsworth and Coleridge talk about this in the Preface as well. This is the hallmark of Romantic literature – unlike the classics, the speaking subject in romantic poetry is always in a state of some emotional agitation, a mood he then communicates to his audience.

This is simple, and pop culture of the 20th century has similar features – it expresses the emotions and infects its audience. And contemporary people living in an extremely rationalized world, living in Le Corbusier’s “machines for living,” do not become machines – on the contrary, they want to react to the coldness of social institutions in which they find themselves. They want to cry or feel euphoric. They want to feel “like gods,” or lose themselves in a “great whole” – a service provided by, along with drugs, ecstatic music. In this regard, pop music of the second half of the 20th century uses some elements of Romanticism in an intensified and simplified form.

Your second question concerns individual self-realization and creation, which are inventions of literary Romanticism. Based on idealistic German philosophy, Romanticism builds the concept of the subject as creator – of poetry (from the Greek poiesis – creation), but also a creator of various geniuses. Napoleon changed the world thanks to his genius. Byron changed the world thanks to his genius, too. It’s a status of the self in society and in politics. It is a challenge for everyone, including me. Perhaps this is what Disraeli thought.

ZJ: Should we take the idea of genius to mean a way of democratization of politics as well? I do not mean democratization in the sense of universal suffrage and an electoral system; but in the sense of opening the public and political realm to people who in the past could never see themselves as social or political leaders. Being a genius became a form of political passport, if you will. It provided a new form of socio-political legitimacy. Poets became national bards, unelected national leaders.

AW: Yes, both the cults of genius artists (“prophets”) and the cults of charismatic political leaders have something to do with democratization in the sense you suggested. The genius embodies the characteristics of the community that recognizes him as its representative, as the medium of its thoughts and feelings, as the embodiment of the aspirations and goals it pursues. As Rzewuski put it: “There is a sympathetic bond between a genius and his people.”

ZJ: You mentioned Byron, an artist, who saw himself as having a social, political message. Let me quote here a stanza from Childe Harold:

Hereditary bondsmen! know ye not
Who would be free themselves must strike the blow?
By their right arms the conquest must be wrought?
Will Gaul or Muscovite redress ye? no!
True, they may lay your proud despoilers low,
But not for you will Freedom's altars flame.
Shades of the Helots! triumph o'er your foe!
Greece! change thy lords, thy state is still the same;
Thy glorious day is o'er, but not thine years of shame.

This is his message to the Greeks, calling on them to rekindle past greatness, to shake off the yoke of the Turkish oppression. This kind of message, formulated by poets, seems to be common for the Romantic period. We find it also in Juliusz Slowacki’s Agamemnon’s Tomb.

Could one say – call it a wild guess, if you want – that Romanticism created a path to a new political reality, wherein artistic geniuses (poets, writers, painters) but also all kinds of political charlatans, madmen and social reformers could call on a nation, or the world, to action? First it was done under the banner of liberation (as in Greece), or unification (as in Italy, or Germany), and later, in the 20th century, as a call to a regeneration of national spirit (as in Hitler’s Germany and Mussolini’s Italy). Now, in the 21st century, we hear an echo of national slogans: “Great China,” “Making America Great Again,” “Poland – A Great Project” (the name of an annual conference), and so many others.

Politics, before the American and French Revolutions, was a domain of one class, the upper class. But 19th century Romanticism changed it.

AW: Yes, Romanticism paved the way for charlatans as well; it gave them a certain role model. But you cannot blame the Romantics for the actions of charlatans like Hitler or Mussolini, who adopted the dress of geniuses. Otherwise, you could then also accuse Rubens or Rembrandt of paving the way for picture forgers. Morally and politically, everyone is responsible for himself.

Also, we should not toss together all political slogans designed to mobilize supporters with references to the greatness of the nation or the greatness of some future project. This is just commonplace in the politics of our times. Ordinary people want to feel that they are participating in some great collective endeavor. And PR specialists give it the form of slogans. I do not see anything wrong with that, although of course in totalitarian regimes it has a different dimension and can be terrible. But don’t overdo your concerns, remembering what the difference is between the present conditions and the regimes of the kind we lived in before 1989.

ZJ: One often links Romanticism with nationalism. There is a good reason to accept the assumption that the latter sprang from the former. When you read books about Romanticism, you come across a number of terms or expressions that their authors use to characterize Romanticism. Here is a handful: genius (that is, someone who defies rules by his untrammeled will), individual spirit, nation, mythological history of a people, authenticity, creative self-expression, self-assertion, the worship of heroes, and contempt for reason.

The genius of Romantic poets notwithstanding, reading their exaltation one gets the impression that this form of emotional exhibitionism, if you want, could happen only among people who have lost their minds, who rejected Reason, as they did. They were the first ones to believe that they can create nations, a people’s soul. As Herder once wrote, “A poet is a creator of a people; he gives them a world to contemplate; he holds its soul in his hand.”

Add messianism to this, which is a consequence of such a belief, and you have a fuller picture – we no longer deal with an individual genius who has risen above others but a nation which believes – rightly or wrongly – that it has a mission, that it has been given a special task to save others, or save even a civilization itself. Since there are no clear rational criteria for judging reality, the political realm must, it seems, become an “irrational” domain operated by individuals – leaders, if you will – who believe that they can lead the nation. As it happens, sometimes things went very wrong. In view of this, could you say a few words about the connection between Romanticism and nationalism.

AW: First, Herder’s words are the words of a literary critic, who is referring not so much to the times of his own epoch, but to the beginnings of civilization. “Philosophers are the children of civilization, but the poets are its fathers” – this is how what he says should be understood. The original language of humanity was, according to Herder, poetic language. Prose and the attitude to the world based on reasoning came later – Homer preceded the birth of philosophy in Greece.

The Romanticism of the early nineteenth century was an apology for poetry understood as the original path of cognition, earlier than philosophy and science. You can partly agree that something like creative imagination actually exists and at times helps to solve some problems that seem unsolvable at first glance.

A feature of political Romanticism, as Carl Schmitt understood it, was the transfer of certain aesthetic rules and preferences to the field of policy thinking. If there is one language and one German literature, there should also be one German state. Genius can work in different fields. Thus, a brilliant poet plays a role within his own national community, etc. Under Byron’s influence, in the first half of the 19th century, extreme (that is, pre-20th-century existentialism) individualism wen hand-in-hand with dandyism, with mal du siècle, boredom (ennui), and the search for strong impressions.

All of this goes beyond nationalism; and all of it can be an object of criticism – and has been repeatedly criticized from the point of view of reason. But the Romantics were right in that man is not (and never will be) a fully rational being. If the process of modernization, which began in the West in the 17th century, is identified (as Max Weber would have it) with the process of rationalization of social life, Romanticism is an expression of rebellion against this rationalization, a rebellion rooted in the irrational characteristics of human nature. And it did not end in the 19th century. In the 1960s, it found expression in popular culture.

ZJ: Isaiah Berlin, in a series of articles on Romanticism, offered a number of insights that can explain why the currents hidden in Romanticism became pernicious.

One could distinguish several layers which created conditions that later led to the horrors of the 20th century, beginning with the sense of humiliation that stems from another nation’s cultural superiority. Such is the case of Germany vis-à-vis France, and the disruption of the old way of life, as happened in Russia under Peter the Great and, to a lesser degree, in Frederick the Great’s Prussia.

The old class becomes displaced and psychologically unfit, and creates a new synthesis, a new vision or ideology that explains and justifies resistance to forces working against the convictions and ways of life of the old class.

Finally, when a nation is at one with other forces, such as race and religion, or class and nation, we have all the conditions that can turn into a political force represented by the State. “One form of these ideas was the new image of the artist,” writes Berlin, “raised above other men not only by his genius but by his heroic readiness to live and die for the sacred vision within him… It took a more sinister form in the worship of the leader, the creator of a new social order as a work of art, the leader who molds men as the composer molds sounds and the painter colours.”

Heine, as Berlin explains, foresaw the future: “these ideologically intoxicated barbarians would turn Europe into a desert,” writes Berlin, quoting Heine, “restrained neither by fear nor greed… like early Christians, whom neither physical torture nor physical pleasure could break.”

To be sure, the legacy of Romanticism was not as morbid among the English, French, Russians or Poles as it was among the Germans. However, in the case of the Poles, and perhaps Russians, Romanticism survived as the worship of poets as national bards, men who — because of later communist oppression – filled a political void. (Mickiewicz and Slowacki, for example, are buried alongside Polish kings at Wawel Castle in Krakow). Now that Poland is a free country, is there as much room for the adoration of poets as there was before?

Walenty Wańkowicz, “Portrait of Adam Mickiewicz,” ca. 1827-1828.

AW: Isaiah Berlin, as well as other well-known analysts of nationalism in English-speaking countries – Hans Kohn, Ernest Gelner, Eric Hobsbawm, Zygmunt Bauman – built the following historical sequence: romanticism – nationalism – Hitler.

All these thinkers had roots in Central Europe and brought their trauma to Anglo-American sociology from Central and Eastern Europe. It was a trauma of the persecution of Jews that ended in the Holocaust.

A similar interpretation was applied after World War II by the Communists in the German Democratic Republic. Because the roots of Nazism were said to be rooted in German Romanticism, in Jena, where the “Romantische Schule” was born, the Communists demolished part of the historic old town with the old buildings of the university and erected a gruesome modernist tower in its place, where they built a new communist university to break away from the traditions of Fichte and Novalis.

In reality, this was all much more complicated. In Poland, for example, there was a sharp conflict between the ideology of modern nationalism, represented by Roman Dmowski, and the Romantic tradition, which this nationalist and social Darwinist openly fought in his writings.

The Nazis, with whom, moreover, Polish nationalism had nothing in common, during the occupation fought fiercely against the memory of Polish culture, led by Chopin’s music and Mickiewicz’s poetry, whose monument in Krakow was demolished in August 1940. How do these facts reconcile with the theory of Romantic sources of nationalism and Nazism?

Nazis toppling monument of the Romantic poet, Adam Mickiewicz, in Krakow, August 17, 1940.

The claim that Romantic writers (but not only Romantic ones) contributed to the awakening of “nationalism,” or simply national consciousness among Lithuanians, Ukrainians, Serbs and Croats, seems obviously true. Pushkin, who wrote anti-Polish poems after the Russians suppressed the November Uprising in 1831, could also be called a Russian nationalist. So what?

The obsessive tracking down of nationalism leads only to the belief that communism was better in Eastern Europe, “threatened by nationalism.”
However, it is also true that Polish literature of the 19th century, including Romantic literature in the first place, was the main bridge leading to the assimilation of the Jewish intelligentsia in Poland.

The poetry of the Romantics, both great and smaller but equally popular, was something that could fascinate in Polish culture and which could be relatively easy to accept, along with language, regardless of any other differences. Therefore, educated Jews got Polonized in the nineteenth-century; and among writers and historians of Poland of the next century we have many of them.

ZJ: The post French Revolution world created two categories: Liberalism and Conservatism. In his essay on Alfred de Vigny, sometimes referred to as, “On Conservative and Liberal Poets” (1838), John Stuart Mill makes a list of characteristics of Conservative and Liberal literature. One of the functions of Liberal poets or writers is, as Mill states, “to lay open morbid anatomy of human nature,” which is “contrary to good taste always.”

In short, Liberalism created a new realm of literary possibilities, where vices can no longer be swept under the rug, treated as vices, but as ingredients of human nature, which should not shock us. In fact, we should find enjoyment in reading about characters who embody these vices.

What comes to mind as examples supporting Mill’s interpretation are writers such as, Balzac, Zola and Dostoevsky; but above all Ibsen; his A Doll’s House, where “sweet hypocrisy” is exposed for what it is. Yet Nora, who breaks social and moral norms, is by far a more sympathetic character than her husband, and as much as we may not like her decision. But it is impossible to feel sympathy toward her husband. Anna Karenina is another great example. And, let’s remember, Tolstoy came to regret writing it.

If Mill is right with respect to what constitutes the elements of Conservative and Liberal literature, is the liberal imagination an indisputable winner in this literary contest? Good literature is no longer a teacher of virtues and vices, has no unambiguous moral message; it is not supposed to give us moral warnings.

AW: The moral message, apart from moving emotions and satisfying the taste, was mandatory for a classical poet, of the type that reigned in all our literatures, before Jean-Jacques Rousseau, although he himself was not a poet and his La Nouvelle Heloise has a built-in moral core. Rousseau paved the way for “liberal poets,” because he recognized that it is not the individual who is morally responsible for evil. Rather, evil comes from a society corrupted by civilization. Byron’s heroes (and this is his influence), who commit crimes, are at the same time victims of the existing social order and the embodiment of interpersonal relations in this system.

Similarly, we can sympathize with Nora and Anna Karenina. It is Rousseau as a philosopher who is responsible for this, and since he is also one of the founders of liberalism, Mill’s opinion makes some sense. But literary currents are not simple equivalents of modern political ideologies. Dostoyevsky with his Demons is probably a conservative writer. But was Chateaubriand conservative or liberal? And Mickiewicz?

ZJ: Thanks to the works of Jacob Talmon (Romanticism and Revolt, 1967; Political Messianism: The Romantic Phase, 1960), of Sir Kenneth Clark (The Romantic Rebellion, where he discusses art), and of later writers such as, Adam Zamoyski (Holy Madness: Romantics, Patriots, and Revolutionaries, 1776-1871), we can form a general impression of how Romanticism influenced the way 19th century man thought. However, if you want to pinpoint what exactly Romanticism contributed to political thought, we are unlikely to have a clear answer.

However, Mill’s biographer, Nicholas Capaldi, suggested that the roots of Mill’s argument for freedom of speech can be traced to the Romantic concept of imagination, without which an argument such as this could hardly be made: why should I allow you to say something I disagree with, unless I believe that your soul, your self, can express a truth, something which reason alone – common to us and praised by Enlightenment thinkers – cannot.

Here is what Capaldi says:

“Mill will remind us that Coleridge is the English bearer of the continental tradition, and especially of German Romanticism… More specifically, Mill will argue that modern liberal culture, as best exemplified in England, cannot be adequately explained and defended except with the resources of Romantic continental thought… The French Revolution of 1789 had momentous symbolic significance for liberals everywhere. It became the symbol of the overthrow of feudalism and the dawn of a new day of freedom. Liberals as well as conservatives in Britain were later horrified by the excesses of the revolution, but the destruction of feudal privilege was looked upon as a necessary prerequisite for a truly free and responsible society.

“The stress on imagination, as opposed to intellect, is a familiar Romantic theme. It reflects the nineteenth-century rejection of the eighteenth-century’s narrow rationalism… The first consequence of this view of the primacy of imagination is the recognition that ultimate values are apprehended through imagination… One of the reasons Mill will be so adamant about opposing censorship and encouraging debate is that it is only in the imaginative re-creation, the rehashing, of the arguments that we come to understand truly the meaning of ultimate values and to make that meaning a vital part of who we are.”

Is there anything else in the realm of political ideas that belongs in the Romantic tool-box?

AW: Creative imagination as a tool for learning about the world is undoubtedly a hallmark of romantic trends all over Europe, but these trends were very diverse, and the ways of understanding them were different. If the German readings influenced Coleridge, as Professor Capaldi reminds us, it must be remembered that earlier German translations of Edmund Burke’s On the Revolution in France inspired the Schlegel brothers and their entire generation in Germany. Thus, the exchange between England and the Continent was mutual. Liberalism is older than the Romanticism, as is republicanism, which is important to Poles. So, there were liberal and conservative romantics, and the great Polish romantic, Juliusz Słowacki, described himself as “republican in spirit.”

Ivan Trush, “A Portrait of Juliusz Slowacki,” ca. 1880.

Hence Mill’s brilliant thought that the genesis of the idea of freedom of speech must be the Romantic idea of imagination, may be true in some cases, but historically speaking not at all. In short, the specific influence of Romanticism on the understanding of politics may consist in giving politics an eschatological dimension (messianism), in referring to pre-philosophical national traditions as an expression of the community spirit, in the observation that the poet has a special type of power – over the work he creates and over their recipients – and that authority should have such a character in general, and that the poets thus should be the charismatic leaders of the nation.

Let me add that in the 19th century the cult of poets (Mickiewicz, Słowacki, Krasiński) gained political significance in Poland; and in the 20th century, in popular culture, we are dealing with something analogous, when, for example, Bono from the band U2 speaks about politics, and all world agencies keep repeating what he utters.

Ary Scheffer, “Portrait of Zygmunt Krasiński,” 1850.

ZJ: Nihilism which we’ve mentioned was not the only social worry of the second half of the 20th century. One can argue that hedonism is as pernicious as nihilism. I would like to invoke another song by Queen, “I Want It All;”

I’m a man with a one track mind,
So much to do in one life time (people do you hear me)
Not a man for compromise and where’s and why’s and living lies
So I’m living it all, yes I’m living it all,
And I’m giving it all, and I’m giving it all,
It ain’t much I’m asking, if you want the truth,
Here’s to the future, hear the cry of youth,
I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now,
I want it all, I want it all, I want it all, and I want it now.

Each time I hear it, I think that this song is the utmost expression of hedonism, which is a product of an infantile mind. Only children want it all and want it now. It is their perception of time which makes them want to satisfy their wants and needs right away. They want immediate gratification. Adults know that you can’t have it now. But there are more serious problems that go beyond the song. First, immediate gratification of all desires would be deadly for moral discipline. Liberalism is the only political philosophy that tells us that we have a right to satisfy our wants.
Would you agree that this kind of thinking – nihilism mixed with hedonism – is what our world today is made up of.

AW: I don’t know if this song is so clearly about a hedonistic attitude. Your question about modern hedonism is much more serious. Westerners, when they believed in God, wanted the salvation of their souls – eternal life beyond this world. Then, under the influence of humanism and the Enlightenment, happiness became their goal. Happiness on earth, not in the afterlife. But that happiness did not have to be immediate; it could be the achievement of some ambitious goal or perfection (per aspera ad astra), or the pursuit of perfection itself. In the end, happiness was equated with pleasure, which was independently invented by the Marquis de Sade and 19th-century Liberals. It appealed to simple people, because pleasure is not some abstract ideal, but something concrete, sensually experimental. And why shouldn’t we experience it too, here and now?

This ethical turn, which took place in the West in the 19th century, seems to be something permanently present in people’s attitudes to life today. In the second half of the 20th century, it coincided with the triumph of technology and capitalism, which turned out to be capable of producing an inexhaustible amount of consumer goods; that is, those that both satisfy our needs and provide us pleasure. Since constant enjoyment has become easy and readily available for all, a new hedonism has indeed spread in the society of “well-being.” It is based on the pursuit of immediate satisfaction of our whims. And after satisfying them, new needs appear, which are also immediately satisfied, and so on.

Mandeville noted, as early as the 18th century, that people who are accustomed to luxury buy more things that, objectively speaking, they could live without. In this way, which may not be beneficial to themselves in the long run, they nevertheless make money for the craftsmen and merchants, who supply them with these luxuries.

So, the need for pleasure drives the economy to work. The capitalism of our time creates these artificial needs in people in a systemic way, stimulating them through advertising, and by presenting the model of a human being present in pop culture, whose success lies in the fact that he has everything, here and now.

The contemporary ideal image, spread in commercials, in television series about the lives of millionaires, in photo essays about celebrities, is therefore the image of a hedonist – an ideal, i.e., the ever-insatiable consumer. So, hedonism drives sales – that is, the entire economy – and thus promotes it.

The problem is that all civilizations of the past that fell into this trap collapsed. While we can make our toys endlessly, we are not in danger of collapsing because of the wear and tear of our accumulated goods – waste was condemned by moralistic people since antiquity, but that doesn’t help.

The process of ceaselessly satisfying an appetite that is continuously, artificially stimulated, is destructive in itself. We need stronger and stronger stimuli, bigger and bigger doses of new stimulants. And in the end, they kill us – like the drugs that have killed a legion of stars of modern pop culture.

The biggest problem of any civilization, at some point, ceases to be the struggle with nature and hostile tribes, and it becomes the need to fight our own weaknesses, which come to us as a result of our own success. We are safe, rich; we have free time – and we don’t know what to do with all of this. This is when the self-destructive process begins. Giambattista Vico already knew that.

ZJ: Let me go back to what you said about the democratization of language, and that the success of Romanticism lies in using the language people use and emotions that they feel. As always, what at the beginning sounds like a well-intentioned idea, later can have unintended consequences. We talked about John Lennon and Queen, nihilism, and hedonism. One could still argue that they translated high-brow philosophical ideas into language that the ordinary people could understand as their own. Neither Lennon nor Queen are guilty; they just “expressed,” in the form of popular music, what philosophers said decades earlier.

Now, 50-60 years later, it is not Romanticism or Existentialism which stand behind the new trends in music. It is the naked, ugly reality of the street, to which once high-brow philosophy led society. In America it is called rap. Rap spread everywhere like a tsunami. It started as a form of expression of the feelings – or more likely resentment – of the destitute, undereducated Black segment of American population. However, because of its vulgarity and outright racism it is listened, for the most part, by Blacks, and it terrifies most of the Whites. Yet the liberal media bow to it.

One of the Founding Fathers of rap, JZ, is a musical icon, interviewed on National Public Radio and television in the US. University professors organize courses about JZ. When you listen to his public pronouncements you get the feeling that rap is not music but a form of mental imprisonment of someone who never grew up. Do you have an explanation as to what happened and why? Is rap the last phase of the Romantic rebellion led by adult children, like JZ?

AW: Paradoxically, I agree with this last sentence, at least to a certain extent. Yes, I can see that music videos of this type tend to be soft pornography and praise the lives of gangsters – obviously I’m not attracted to the stupidity of it all. There are also nobler forms of this music; but I do not follow or analyze them either. Both rap and hip-hop are artistic styles with their own rules and structure. I can imagine a masterpiece in this genre, although I cannot name it. Perhaps it is because of my own ignorance, or perhaps a rap-style masterpiece has never been created and will never be.

But since rap exists as a separate style – the existence of outstanding songs of this type is also possible and probable. In Poland, where all Anglo-American musical styles are imitated, the band Kaliber 44 enjoyed a short-lived fame some time ago, whose young soloist was considered a genius; but his life was short, because he killed himself jumping, out of a window under the influence of drugs.

This is hard to approve of in any way, but the interpretation you are proposing here also seems possible. Rap is a peculiar rhythm that is based on the intonation of individual sentences and crossed with relatively regular versification. The content of the rapper’s monologue is important; the music has a secondary role; it accompanies the recitation of the text and emphasizes its meaning. These are features that are well known from the folklore of bygone eras.

Thus, the romantic theory of nature poetry, which is born spontaneously among simple people, lacking knowledge of the conventions and rules of official art, fits it. Rap with its style and place of birth (in the dangerous neighborhoods of New York) fits well with this romantic theory.

Besides (probably) rap performers cannot be suspected of illustrating Sartre’s theses. So, maybe this is not a simplified adaptation of high culture, but a real inflow from below – the music of the roots? On the other hand, it is also not ordinary folklore, because in the process of producing recordings, the simplicity of style and the primitiveness of picture-suggestions are combined with technical and technological refinement.

ZJ: Going back to your remark about the use of ordinary language by the Romantics. Is this the beginning of the process which led to the birth of what we call “popular culture” – as opposed to High Culture? Today no one uses the distinction between High and Low/popular culture. The educational system in Western countries is structured in a way that what belonged to the Treasure of Western Culture or Kultur, is no longer taught. It is at best tolerated. The last attempt at defending High Culture was probably T.S. Eliot’s Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1959). Do you see where we are today as a result and the end of cultural mutation of Romanticism?

AW: I prefer to think of Romanticism and pop-culture, and, more precisely, of the specific elements of these different, certainly broad and difficult to define phenomena, not as mutations, but as cultural modalities. In similar cultural phenomena, the actualization of similar potentials, constantly inherent in human nature, takes place. Cultural updates are historical and the potentialities of nature’s people are unchanged.

ZJ: Thank you Professor Wasko for this wonderful interview.

Andrzej Waśko is professor of Polish Literature at the Jagiellonian University, Krakow. He is the author of Romantic Sarmatism, History According to Poets, Zygmunt Krasinski, Democracy Without Roots, Outside the System, and On Literary Education. The former Vice-Minister of Education, he is curretnly the editor-in-chief of the conservative bimonthly magazine Arcana and is presently Adviser to Polish President Andrzej Duda.

The image shows, “Sielanka (An Idyll),” by Józef Chełmoński, painted in 1885.

Russia, Europe: Past and Present – A Conversation With Andrzej Nowak

This month, we are greatly honored to present this interview with Professor Andrzej Nowak, a Polish historian and a public intellectual. He is a professor at the Institute of History, Jagiellonian University, Krakow, and is the head of the Comparative Imperial Studies Section at the Polish Academy of Sciences.

Professor Nowak has lectured as a visiting professor at Columbia University, Harvard University, Rice University, the University of Virginia, University of Cambridge, and University College, London. He is also a recipient of the Order of the White Eagle – Poland’s highest order.

He is the author of over 30 books, among them a multivolume history of Poland, Między nieładem a niewolą. Krótka historia myśli politycznej (Between Disorder and Captivity. A Short History of Political Ideas), Metamorfozy Imperium Rosyjskiego: 1721-1921 (Metamorphoses of Russian Empire), and History and Geopolitics: A Contest for Eastern Europe, Russia and Eastern Europe.

He is interviewed by Dr. Zbigniew Janowski, on behalf of the Postil.

Zbigniew Janowski (ZJ): Thirty years ago, when we met, you were a scholar of Russia. You had published several books on the topic. They drew the attention of Andrzej Walicki and Richard Pipes, two well-known experts on Russian history. Now you are writing about the history of Poland. Thus far you have written four out of ten intended volumes. Could you briefly describe your intellectual trajectory? What made you leave Russian history?

Andrzej Nowak (AN): Indeed, my research interests began with an analysis of the concept of the multiplicity of civilizations by Nikolay Danilevsky, a contemporary of Dostoevsky, an ideologue of Russian Pan-Slavism. That was forty years ago.

In recent years, however, I have returned to the history of Russian imperial thought. In 2018, I published an extensive volume of studies on the manifestations of this thought in Russian culture, from the time of Peter the Great to the formation of the group of so-called Eurasianists during the First World War. I am still interested in Russian topics. Not only because it is fascinating in itself, but also because of its numerous connections with the history of Poland to the present day. For Russia, over the centuries, Poland has been the first obstacle on the way to Europe, leading to its subordination.

Marx expressed it succinctly in 1863, when he wrote that “the rebuilding of Poland meant the annihilation of (imperial) Russia, the cancellation of the Russian candidate for world rule” (“Wiederherstellung Polens ist die Vernichtung Rußlands, (die) Rußlands Absetzung von seiner Kandidatur zur Weltherrschaft”). The issue of neighboring Russia and its geopolitical significance has been my concern for a long time; and it is precisely the historical Russian-Polish relations and the comparison of two political cultures that have developed so differently in the two countries.

When it comes to the multi-volume history of Poland, for me it is an attempt to reread the specificity of Polish political culture, its rootedness in the European republican tradition (this issue has been discovered in recent years by such outstanding scholars as Quentin Skinner and Martin van Gelderen).

Queen Maria Clementina Sobieska, wife of James III, painted by Antonio David, c. 1722-3. Private collection, reprinted with permission.

But has anyone pointed out that the term “Polish citizen” – civis Polonis – appears for the first time in a document from the mid-12th century? I found out about it while writing the first volume of my synthesis. Now that I am on volume five, which covers the 17th century, I wonder about the crisis of the republican system, as well as the geopolitical conditions of its duration (wars with Russia, Protestant Sweden, and Islamic Turkey).

Such issues give me a lot of intellectual pleasure – and also because they allow me to look at the present day, for example, of the European Union, from the point of view of the longest lasting union in the history of Europe: the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1385-1795). Why did this union end up being partitioned by its imperial neighbors? How did they use the mechanisms of republican freedom (veto, applied in the Polish parliamentary system until 1791)? These are not just historical issues. In each case, like a shadow, being a neighbor to Russia brings back the problem of the empire.

ZJ: Russia is fascinating. One reason is Russian literature: Pushkin, Lermontov, Chekov, Gogol, Pasternak, Bulgakov, and, above all, Tolstoy and Dostoevsky. No nation, I dare say, can claim to have so many outstanding writers. Yet Dostoevsky stands out among them. He is not just a great writer but a great thinker; one of the most insightful critics of Modernity.

If you want to understand the cultural malaise of the West in the 20th century, you turn to Nietzsche, Ortega y Gasset and Dostoevsky. “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor” lays out all the fundamental problems of political and social organization. It is a real tour de force of political theory, which, matches only Plato’s considerations in The Republic. Chapters 7 and 8 of Notes from Underground, on the other hand, is an unsurpassed analysis of the dangers of the nascent scientific mentality, the danger of which was described in the 1950s by Jacques Ellul in his The Technological Society. Aldous Huxley, on the other hand, turned Notes into his Brave New World (1932) – which describes a soft totalitarianism, the world which we seem to be building.

On the one hand, Dostoevsky is a great prophet, who saw the future of the West, a future where the scientific mentality dominated everything and discredited the Past (tradition, religion, hierarchy, custom, history); and, on the other hand, Dostoevsky is the Russian sui generis. He is suspicious of the West, Western ideas, Western Christianity, and, let me add, who passionately dislikes the Poles for Poland’s Western orientation and Catholicism.

Czeslaw Milosz saw Dostoevsky as someone from a backward country, who realized the danger that Western ideas posed, which were flooding Russia at the beginning of the 19th century. Dostoevsky’s literary output is a short history of modern Europe. Do you agree with Milosz? And what is your attitude toward Dostoevsky?

AN: The term “backward country” of course implies that there are “progressive” countries which are the yardstick for the rest of the world. Such an attitude was adopted by Dostoevsky himself, fascinated by the ideas of Saint-Simon and Fourier, which he got to know in the circle of the young intelligentsia in St. Petersburg. The death sentence he was given for participating in this circle, and then exile, certainly came as a shock.

When, after Russia’s defeat in the Crimean War, the so-called “progressive countries” – Great Britain, France and Sardinia, saw a liberal “thaw” in domestic politics, so that Dostoevsky was no longer enthusiastic about following “progress.” He quickly saw that liberalism and the so-called the utopian socialism, which fascinated him earlier, had a common source. And it is a poisoned source – the belief that man can build a paradise on earth on his own, and that the West is close to this paradise; and countries such as Russia should intensely imitate the West, so that one day they may find themselves at least in the vestibule of this paradise.

Imitation of the West will end in the revolution of nihilism, the foretelling of which Dostoevsky already noticed in Russia. He described them in the form of two generations in Demons: the older generation – “rotten” liberals and the younger generation – radical revolutionists.

The same observations were made earlier by poets of the Polish Romantic emigration: Adam Mickiewicz and Zygmunt Krasiński. The latter, in the drama “the Undivine Comedy” of 1833, presented exactly the vision of total revolution as a rebellion against God, as Dostoevsky had done 40 years later. The difference is that for Krasiński, the criticism of the revolution and of the preceding evolution of Western civilization is an “internal” criticism – he mourns this crisis because it is his civilization. He would like to save it, like Joseph de Maistre; he would like the Polish nobility to support the collapsing dome of Saint Peter’s Basilica in Rome with their sabers.

Maria Clementina Sobieska. Private collection, reprinted with permission.

Polish Romantic thinkers imagined that Poland could play the role of the last defender of the European classical and Christian moral tradition against the forces of decay.

On the other hand, Dostoevsky, along with a large part of the Russian intellectual elite, took a different perspective: the crisis arises from the very essence of the West, from the rebellion of the West (that is, Catholicism) against the only true faith that has been preserved by the Orthodox Church. This is the perspective of the criticism of the West that continues in Russian thought right up to Solzhenitsyn and contemporary ideologues of Putin’s era. There are also great Russian writers who refer to this tradition today, especially Zachar Prilepin, a contemporary Dostoevsky.

ZJ: However, one can raise the following argument: Poland, as a country, disappeared from the map of Europe in 1795. Polish nobility turned Poland into “a country for sale,” because they invented a political system that made the Polish state (and the regal power) weak. Its downfall was predicted by King Sobieski.

The idea that the Polish nobles can “support the collapsing dome” is – pardon me – a piece of rhetoric, which inscribes itself well within the context of the post-French Revolution world, but it misses the point. How could de Maistre think that one could entrust the fate of Christianity, Catholicism to the people who could not even manage the political affairs of their own country? If one looks for defense of Catholicism or Christianity, a better place than de Maistre, in my opinion, is Chateaubriand’s The Genius of Christianity and Constant essays on religion.

Stanislaus Augustus Poniatowski in coronation robes, by Marcello Bacciarelli (1764).

AN: Sorry for the misunderstanding. The vision of the Polish nobility supporting the collapsing dome of St. Peter was written by Zygmunt Krasiński, a Polish Romantic conservative. Yes, he was inspired by de Maistre’s political philosophy, but this was a vision of Krasiński, not of a Savoyard reactionary.

De Maistre saw, for a time, in tsarist Russia the hope of saving the European tradition, until he realized how much revolutionary fuel was in Russia itself. Krasiński’s vision assumed that the Polish nobility most consistently represented the traditions of Roman republicanism, combined with Latin Christianity. As a conservative, however, he considered original sin as the cause of the contamination of all worldly endeavors and projects. That is why he saw in the attitude of defending the traditions of European Christianity a heroic but futile act. Poland’s act is to defend a struggling Christian Europe desperately to the end, just as it fought desperately for the independence of the lost (also through its own fault) Poland. But she will win this fight alone. Only Providence can win this fight. We have a duty to fight; we have no guarantee of victory.

It seems to me that this attitude is absent both in Chateaubriand and in Constant. Their “bland,” more melancholic and cultural view of Christianity presents it as a beautiful adventure of the European past, which may be saved as a kind of museum monument in the modern world. Krasiński, on the other hand, sees the issue of Catholic Europe as a fundamental existential, dramatic choice – against “this world” created by the triumph of liberalism and capitalism.

This is a completely different kind of romanticism than the ethos found in Chateaubriand. I think more realistic – at least from today’s perspective. This does not mean, however, that I believe that “Polish nobility” or Poland simply had some unique opportunities to save tradition.

Poland itself is part of the European community of fate. People who consider themselves in some sense heirs of Krasiński, but also of John Paul II and Saint Faustina (a Polish nun who initiated the world cult of God’s Mercy), must look for those Germans who feel spiritual communion with Pope Ratzinger, those Italians who understand one’s identity in the spirit of the Catholic tradition; Spaniards who still know who Miguel de Unamuno was; the French who understand the choice of Pascal and Antoine de Saint-Exupery; The English who have in their spiritual heritage Thomas More, Cardinal John Henry Newman, J.R.R. Tolkien, C.S. Lewis and Chesterton. We are all in one boat and we will drown together, or we will keep on going together. We will reach the shore as Providence decides. We have a duty to row, in spite of those who want to sink our boat now.

ZJ: But the fate of a nation, unless we understand it in Oedipian sense, is not sealed. Fate of countries lies either in having a strong culture which gives a people a specific national identity – different from others – or strong political institutions capable of sustaining that culture.

Poland is a unique example. After more than eight centuries, it disappeared from the map of Europe at the very end of 18th century. What happened was more a result of the malfunctioning of political institutions than a lack of national identity, which, let us recall, was forged in the historical process since 966 AD, when Poland became a Christian country. Poland had elected kings and a republican system of government, which led to political weakness.

If you look at the American debate (the so-called The Federalist Papers) how such a new political system should work, the Founding Fathers (Madison and Hamilton) thought of the legislative process as an attempt to reconcile the conflicting interests that take place in a society at large. Representatives of the states are supposed to represent the general attitude of the people they represent; they do not have a mandate to act or vote in a predetermined way. They are not delegates!

The Polish republican experiment was exactly the opposite. It was based on, first, the unanimity principle and, second, the “imperative mandate.” What the result of it was that the Polish Diet was prevented from being a deliberative assembly, like the English House of Commons around the same period.

As Willmoore Kendall, the translator of Rousseau’s The Government of Poland wrote, “Because of the former [liberum veto], it was improbable that any decision could be taken; because of the latter [the imperative mandate], minds were already made up, so why deliberate?”

Such a system left virtually no room for strong central government – the elected king – to govern effectively. The king was stripped of the power to govern, whereas the nobility could claim to enjoy “Golden Liberty.” But this liberty could be had only at the expense of the weak State and submission of the vast part of the population.

The American Founding Fathers, on the other hand, worked on the assumption that the people are free to participate, and the role of the government is to mitigate the conflicts. To prevent anarchy, or impotence of the government, the State – the federal government – had to have considerable power. Polish liberum veto, which made it possible for one person to veto the majority decision, was the opposite of the majority principle.

Can you very briefly explain how such a system came about? Were there any serious political thinkers – like Grotius, Hobbes, Locke – behind it? Or was it something that was spontaneously generated during the historical process?

AN: The system was modeled on a Roman one that lasted only a little longer. And it was not Grotius, Hobbes, or Locke who supported the creation of this system, but much more “serious thinkers” – Aristotle and Cicero first of all.

The founders of Polish republicanism modeled themselves on their works above all. They believed, somewhat anachronistically, that in the sixteenth or seventeenth century their republicanism could exist between Moscow – the “third Rome”- the Ottoman Empire, the Habsburg Empire and the Protestant military monarchy of the Swedes, the Commonwealth, i.e. the republic – as in Cicero or Aristotle (monarchia mixta), with the Polish nobility as equals, the Seym (the parliament) as a concilium plebis, the senate as the senate, and the king as an elected consul or princeps.

This is how Jan Zamoyski, influential co-founder of this system, imagined an extremely influential co-founder of this system. Zamoyski authored the Latin treatise on the Roman Senate, and was at the same time chancellor and hetman of the Republic of Poland at the end of the 16th century. He was the author of the concept of the free election of a king, in which every noble had an equal voting right. Thus, theoretically, it had the right to vote, active and passive(!), with several hundred thousand citizens of the Republic of Poland (in practice, the election of the king came from 10 to 40 thousand).

The right of veto was to secure the union with Lithuania. Lithuania was smaller than the Polish part of the union; it could always vote in the Sejm. Thanks to the right of veto, the Lithuanians could feel safer as a political minority. For the first time, a single veto, i.e., the vote of one deputy, broke the deliberations of the Seym only in 1652, that is, after a very long earlier period of efficient functioning of the Seym. The election instruction of the sejmik (imperative mandate), which elected a deputy to the Seym, was to guarantee the voting power of the local government.

There is no place here to analyze this system in detail, which was much more complex and effective (for at least 200 years) than the caricatures that Bodin or Montesquieu created on the basis of their ignorance and arrogance, or the ideological enemies of republican freedom, such as, Hobbes or Locke.

Let me refer you to the already available serious studies of this system, which can be found in English with Marc van Gelderen, Quentin Skinner, Anna Grześkowiak-Krwawicz, Edward Opaliński or Dorota Pietrzyk-Reeves, as well as the latest monograph by Richard Butterwick, published by Yale UP. (Light and Flame), which perfectly analyzes what you are asking about: the crisis of the Rzeczpospolita/Res Publica system in the 18th century and its repair in the legislation of the Great Seym in 1788-1792.

ZJ: I want to return to Russia, and explore a bit more the Dostoevsky question. As we said, he was Russian, Orthodox Christian, skeptical of science, which he thought was dangerous for man’s understanding of himself as a man endowed with free will, and thus responsible for his actions. As Dostoevsky observes in Notes, the belief that man’s behavior can be “tabulated and calculated” spells out the end of mankind.

Dostoyevsky understood that scientific thinking was bound to see man as a machine, whose life will be organized by the scientific state. This is the premise of Huxley’s “brave new world,” and, let me stress it, our world. We are daily bombarded by phrases such as “A new study shows…” “New research demonstrates…” Such phrases take away from us the power of making decisions about our individual lives.

Would you agree that for historical reasons, which brought Russia closer to Europe, early 19th century Russia became a focal point of Western civilization, where the problems of the modern West shone with much brighter intensity than in Western Europe. Nowhere – not in London, Paris, Berlin or even Warsaw – writers or philosophers reacted so intensely, as did Dostoevsky, at the thought of where the West was heading.

AN: But all that fascination with Russia, the “depth” of the Russian soul, which 20th century Western European writers discovered in Dostoevsky, can also be found in the great literature of Romantic Europe: in Adam Mickiewicz, Zygmunt Krasiński, but also in Shelley, Keats, and even earlier at Byron. The terrifying pattern of a “brave new world” can be found in the practical idea of the English philosopher, Jeremy Bentham.

To illustrate the relationship between the vision of horror, which Western thought was able to perfectly design, and the implementation of this vision, which was possible (for some time) only outside the West, e.g., in the authoritarian system of Russia, let me recall the history of the Panopticon. Jeremy Bentham had a brother, Samuel. Together they created a project of perfect supervision of imperfect humanity. They named it the Panopticon. They created it in Krzyczew (today on the eastern border of Belarus), which was occupied by Catherine II during the first partition of Poland.

Samuel Bentham found employment, like many world reform enthusiasts, in imperial Russia. Krzyczew and several thousand surrounding square versts taken from Lithuanian owners was given by the empress to her favorite Prince Grigory Potemkin. It was for him that the English engineer invented a new factory in the fall of 1786: a building with such a system of corridors and mirrors to be able to observe all its employees from one place. It was not about disciplining simple peasants in the area, but about supervising overseers brought in from England. To have control over every movement of those who are to act as “intelligence,” “professionals,” “elite.” This is the starting idea of the Panopticon.

Jeremy Bentham, who visited his brother in Krzyczew in 1787, was fascinated. He took up his idea and turned it into a project of an ideal prison, under the same name. He was ready to develop other applications of the same idea – apart from prisons and factories, also for hospitals and schools. See and supervise everyone without interruption. The prison inspector, playing this role, could, according to a utilitarian concept, combine business with pleasure: invite guests to his gallery, from which one could admire what the supervised do at any one time. Big Brother watches, controls and provides entertainment.

A union of perfect supervision, with the ideal of social transparency was to make life happy and safe (I recommend the movie The Circle from 2017, which shows perfectly how it works – and therefore destroyed by “right” criticism). Minimum pain, maximum pleasure. In England, the idea of the Bentham brothers was not realized – at least during their lifetime. In Russia, the younger brother did not manage to bring complete the factory: Potemkin sold Krzyczew in 1787 and set out to prepare the way for Catherine II’s triumphal journey from St. Petersburg to the Black Sea.

Samuel Bentham busied himself with the construction of Potemkin villages along the route. He returned to the idea of the Panopticon in 1806, when commissioned by Tsar Alexander I, he built such a school in St. Petersburg. A perfect prison according to the model of the Bentham brothers, including the US and Cuba, was only constructed with the use of electronic surveillance bracelets in Amsterdam, the capital of post-modern utility and pleasure (drugs plus euthanasia), in 2006.

ZJ: Dostoevsky’s suspicion of the West appears to be a distinguishing feature of the Russian mentality. But suspicion can translate itself into a political posture that one country assumes vis-à-vis other countries or civilizations. Suspicion can also produce a mentality which has a sense of its own of mission. Russia, like America, believes that it has a historical mission. Marquis de Custine, a French aristocrat who visited Russia, even prophesized that that the fate of the 20th century would be decided by Russia and America.

Let me quote here the 15th century letter by Philotheus of Pskov, which he wrote to the Grand Duke Basil III of Moscow: “The Church of Old Rome fell because of its heresy; the gates of the Second Rome, Constantinople, have been hewn down by the axes of the infidel Turks; but the Church of Moscow, the Church of the New Rome, shines brighter than the Sun in the whole Universe… Two Romes have fallen, but the Third stands fast; a fourth there cannot be.”

If you take the message of the letter to be an expression of a mind-set, there is Putin’s rule today, in that he sees nothing wrong with 74 years of Communist rule in Russia; he pours tears over the collapse of the Soviet Union as the greatest disaster of the 20th century. Russia’s aggressive posturing under Putin appears to be more than lack of civility, or even cynicism of a former KGB agent. Russia in Putin’s mind continues to be a country with a historical mission.

Arnold Toynbee, who used this letter in a chapter on Russia in his Civilization on Trial (1948), wrote: “In thus assuming the Byzantine heritage deliberately and self-consciously, the Russians were taking over, among other things, the traditional Byzantine attitude towards the West; and this has had a profound effect on Russia’s own attitude towards the West, not only before the Revolution of 1917 but after it.”

Ultimately, it would appear that today’s world expresses the ideas that go back to the sources of our civilizations: Eastern (Greek) and Western (Latin) Christianity, Eastern and Western Roman Empires, two different sets of political culture, political institutions. We find the echo of it in Dostoevsky too, in “The Legend of the Grand Inquisitor,” in his criticism of Caesaro-papism, don’t we?

AN: Russia is born with a sense of a threat to its civilizational identity; it defends itself against the specter of political and spiritual colonization. This is how the fundamental idea of Russia is formed: Moscow – the Third Rome. Ruthenia linked its identity with Byzantium, with the Orthodox center of civilization. In 988, at the time of Vladimir the Great’s choice of state religion for Kievan Rus, this Byzantine center seemed to be an unchallenged alternative to “Latin” identity. In the 15th century, this center collapsed.

Orthodox civilization was then the basis of identity of only one sovereign political center: Moscow. Triumphant “Latin” pressed on it from the West, and Islam from the South. If Moscow dies, all civilization will die. Civilizational violence threatens the Orthodox world primarily from the West, from the “Latin” side. Byzantium itself succumbed to the West’s temptation just before the fall, accepting the ecclesiastical union in Florence (Moscow rejects this temptation). However, at stake in this game is not only defense against civilizational violence. The fate of the world is at stake, since it is about defending not so much one civilization as such, but the only true religion and its place in the world. Philotheus, the monk of the Pskov monastery of Eleazar, writes about it, puts this thought into words and presents it as an ideal-mission addressed to the power of the Moscow principality.

Easter Procession in the Region of Kursk, by Ilya Repin, panted ca. 1880-1883.

Laid out for the first time in a message to Grand Duke Vasilii III (around 1514-1521) and elaborated in letters in the years following, the idea of Moscow – Rome III – became the best known and most frequently updated concept of Russia’s special mission from the 19th to the 21st century. Thanks to this, Philotheus can be considered the first intellectual in the history of Russia. He is not an official writing for the state.

He is, in a sense, a man from the margins (Pskov had only just joined Moscow in 1510), passionately experiencing public affairs, the affairs of his spiritual and political community and seeking to rescue it in the face of a new great “civilizational” challenge. He seeks this rescue in the sphere of ideas and suggests it to the authorities. He does not appear as an unconditional servant of this authority, but shows its immense responsibility to protect the great idea it reveals.

Philotheus also shows examples of the betrayal of this idea by the state power – in Rome I and in Rome II (Byzantium) – and the punishment of the inevitable fall that the government’s betrayal of the ideal entails. Philotheus teaches authority: “let him know… let him remember….” He sets the condition: “If you will arrange your empire well – you will be a son of light and an inhabitant of upper Jerusalem, and, as I wrote above, so now I say: beware and note that all Christian empires have joined in yours, that two Romes have fallen and the third is standing. There will be no fourth. Contrary to the widespread interpretation of this text, it seems that it is not an unequivocal expression of faith that Moscow will always remain Rome III, that it will certainly bear the burden of this responsibility. Moscow is also threatened with the “Sodom sin,” an internal apostasy warned against by the voice of a 16th-century “intellectual.”

The Soul of the Russian People, by Mikhail Nesterov, painted in 1916.

Philotheus only states that Moscow has no one to replace it, in its great mission to save the truth and the world. If it collapses – Rome will certainly not exist; there will be no more truth and justice in the world. That is why Moscow must not be allowed to fall! This is the pathos of the mission assigned by Philotheus to the Orthodox empire, and thus the pathos of his own, “first intelligence” of the mission.

Combined with Moscow’s heritage of Rome – empire, strength, and Jerusalem – is the heritage of the spirit. And against the world in which “lies in evil.” In practice, to the ”Latin” and Western world, which in the 16th century, after an internal split connected with the Reformation, and which entered the phase of great colonial expansion and became an obvious source of the problem of modernization and, at the same time, Moscow gives models and techniques for solving it. Russia needs to strengthen its empire to save its spiritual identity from the threat from the West, and thus maintain the ability to salvage/save/liberate the whole world. This is how the thought of Philoteus is read by some in intellectual circles and is not without influence on contemporary public opinion in Russia.

ZJ: Hostility, mutual suspicion between the Russians and the Poles is well known. The Polish see Russians as aggressors, the country that dismembered Poland in the 18th century, that erased the Dutchy of Warsaw in the 19th century. The Poles fought the Russians in the 1919-1920 war, after Poland regained statehood in 1918, after 123 years. Finally, it was Soviet Russia which imposed communist rule on Poland after WWII. This is only a handful of historical events that shape the attitude of the Poles toward Russia. Putin’s hostile attitude toward Poland today can be seen as the continuation of “the old story.”

However, looking at Polish-Russian relationships in a long historical perspective, one can see a different picture. If one takes into account the Polish conquest of most of White Russia and the Ukraine – in the 17th century Polish forces came close to Moscow, but were driven out. Russia can see itself not as aggressor but as a victim of Western aggression, of Western or Latin Christianity against the true Eastern Christianity, the Orthodox Church. If you add to it Napoleon’s Russian adventure, then the German invasion, the feeling of victimhood gets more augmented. One could say, Russia’s imperial posture was never motivated by the desire to dominate others but was a defensive posture, a posture that Russia had to assume to save herself and her Orthodox faith. Can such an argument on behalf of Russia be made?

AN: Yes, Russia has for centuries justified its expansion with the need to obtain a “security buffer” that would protect it against aggressive neighbors from the East and West. When Moscow began its expansion in the 15th century, it occupied a territory the size of the state of Utah. She “felt” threatened by her neighbors, such as the Tver principality or the republic of Novgorod – she absorbed these neighbors.

Then she “felt” threatened by subsequent neighbors. In the West, it was Lithuania, which was joined in the 14th century by many small principalities of Kievan Rus (today’s Ukraine and Belarus), emerging from the rule of the Mongolian Golden Horde. Moscow then announced the ideology of “collecting Ruthenian lands” (which had never belonged to Moscow before).

Poland did not make any conquest of the lands of Belarus or Ukraine, but entered into a dynastic union with Lithuania in 1385 – and on this basis (the marriage of the Grand Duke of Lithuania Jagiełło with the Queen of Poland, Jadwiga), a state union was established, which for four hundred years united Poland and Grand Duchy of Lithuania, including the lands of today’s Belarus and Ukraine.

During these four hundred years, Moscow had been waging a series of wars in which it had finally taken all these territories, except for a small scrap of former Russia which was occupied by Austria as a result of the partitions of Poland.

On the Kulikovo Field, by Pavel Ryzhenko, painted in 2005.

At the same time, in the East, Moscow “felt” threatened by the remnants of the Mongolian Golden Horde, the Kazan, Astrakhan and Siberian khanates – and conquered them militarily in half a century (1550-1600).

Then, of course, it was “threatened” again by successive neighbors, small khanates, in Central Asia – it took them all by the mid-19th century. It also reached China at the end of the 17th century. And she felt “threatened” by China. However, it has not managed to permanently remove this threat, that is, to conquer China.

In the South, Russia “felt,” from the 16th century, “threatened” by Turkey and Persia, so it began to conquer their possessions, including Transcaucasia – Georgia, Armenia, Azerbaijan, as well as the Crimean Khanate on the Black Sea. It has not yet conquered Turkey itself (although that was the goal of Russian policy from the end of the 18th century). But she still “feels” threatened by Turkey. After the partition of Poland, under Catherine II at the end of the 18th century, Russia became a neighbor of Prussia. Of course, she “felt” threatened by the power of Germany united by Prussia in the times of Bismarck.

If we adopt such a logic of a threat that justifies defensive conquests only. Then let us note that from the 15th century to the end of the 18th century, Russia conquered on average about 60,000 square kilometers each year, combined territories of Maryland and Massachusetts. Each year, Russia was enlarging its territory in this way for over 300 years!

Stalin, in the name of this logic, persuaded Roosevelt to agree in Tehran and Yalta to give Russia (the Soviet Union) a “security buffer” covering all of Eastern and Central Europe, including Prague, Budapest, Warsaw, and including half of Berlin and Vienna. Of course, he still could not “feel” safe. Russia’s security can only mean to bring the whole of Eurasia under its control, from the Pacific to the Atlantic.

You can accept this reasoning only if you see in it an analogy to the American “Manifest Destiny.” But it is worth asking the opinion of the inhabitants of all the countries that first Moscow, then imperial Russia, and finally the Soviet Union, conquered in the name of Russia’s “sense of security” and the right to “self-defense.”

ZJ: Let us talk about 1989, the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe, and 1991, the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Eastern European countries rushed to join the EU. Russia, on the other hand, is where it always was. For the Poles, Czechs, Slovaks, Hungarians, the citizens of the Baltic states – Lithuania, Estonia, and Latvia (former Soviet “republics”) – the motivation was not just economic but cultural above all. One could hear the language of “returning to Europe” after decades of the culturally foreign rule. What prevented Russia from getting closer to Europe after the collapse of Communism?

AN: We need to remember, Russia has formed its political and cultural identity as an Orthodox empire, in contrast, often, against Latin, that is, Catholic Europe. Under Mongol rule for two and a half centuries, it was, as it were, forcibly opened to Asia. Since the 15th century, Moscow, pursuing a policy of “collecting Ruthenian lands,” entered into intense diplomatic and trade relations with European powers: the Habsburg Empire, and the England of Elizabeth, in order to geopolitically surround its immediate neighbors.

However, Russia did not participate in the spiritual life of Europe, in the crucial period of the Renaissance. Only from the Baroque, actually from the end of the 17th century, does Russia interact with the intellectual currents animating European culture. At that time, however, Russia had already made a great march in the opposite direction to the former Asian steppe empires – from the Western end of the Great Steppe, over the Black Sea, it reached the Pacific; in the 17th century it began to border China, Korea, followed by Japan.

Such a geopolitically enlarged Russia could no longer enter Europe, “fit” in it. The intellectual challenge, often fascinatingly analyzed by Russian writers and ideologues, is not “Russia in Europe,” but “Russia and Europe.” Space – prostor – history and religion make up a deeply rooted political culture in Russia. Together they create a “mental map” on which the memory of Tchaikovsky’s ballets, Pushkin’s poems or Dostoevsky’s novels is not “evidence” of Russia’s Europeanness, but a reason for imperial pride, along with the equally grateful memory of Ivan the Terrible, Peter the Great, and Stalin.

ZJ: Let me go back one more time to 1989. One thing one notices is that the 1989 European dream in Eastern European countries is gone, and to some, the dream became a nightmare. Brexit is the prime example of that. The British sentiment can be said to be this – we did not sign up for that. We did not think our sovereignty would be limited to such an extent. This is what one hears in Budapest and Warsaw.

Recently, I asked a Polish politician – what do you think of a Polish Brexit? To my surprise, he said: “Nothing would make me happier.” Let me stress – this is not a view prevalent among Poles, most of them like where they are. But there is a considerable segment of Polish society which considers it as a serious intellectual option. The reason is the sovereignty of the Polish or Hungarian state, which EU crushes – the sovereignty that Poland was deprived of, first by partition and then the Soviet rule. It should not surprise anyone why Poles (but also others) are sensitive about a bunch of Euro-bureaucrats deciding their fate. You cannot be yourself – English, Polish, French, Italian – you must be a “European,” which means being a total abstraction.

A few months ago, I saw a headline in a major Polish newspaper: “EU must defend its citizens in Poland.” The article concerned so called minorities. According to the liberal Polish newspaper, they are EU citizens and therefore, Polish laws are violations of their rights as EU citizens. One wants to repeat after Bentham, it is nonsense on stilts, yet it is the de facto European reality. Was the post-communist dream false, or did the West change in the last 30 years?

AN: Both. The expectations of the intellectual opposition in Poland towards the West were certainly exaggerated. The image of the “free world” depicted in our imagination in contrast to the gray and openly oppressive world of the “Communist camp” was idealized.

At the same time, however, it must be remembered that the West in 1989 was still the West, politically represented by Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher, and above all – John Paul II was in Rome. Back then in Europe they referred to the so-called founding fathers of the European Union, to their Christian-democratic roots: Konrad Adenauer, Alcide de Gasperi, Robert Schuman.

Marxism, after the obvious failure of this ideology in the countries under its authority, seemed finished, at least from our perspective. In 2020, you can see how Marxist inspiration fills the longest shelves with philosophy and politics in bookstores in Paris and London. As it dominates universities in Western Europe and our part of Europe, described in a postcolonial way as “new” (“new” democracies, “new” Europe, etc.), it actually follows these trends in a way that perfectly confirms the mechanisms described by some theorists of postcolonial studies.

However, part of the “intellectual layer,” and many so-called ordinary people, in countries with a strong historical and cultural identity of their own, such as Hungary, Poland or the Czech Republic, still keep the memory of the real experience of enslavement by the Communist logocracy, from which today comes the political correctness that dominates in the West and is imposed on us. That is why this new enslavement, this time coming from the West, is met with some resistance here.

However, fears of the real neo-imperialism of Putin’s Russia do not allow countries, such as Poland or Lithuania, to suddenly cut off from the European community, even in its present, disastrous shape. We can try to change Europe, stop this fatal process from within. This is what worries the Brussels, Parisian and Berlin political and intellectual elites. They ascribe to themselves the role of teacher and therapist for a “backward,” “sick” part of Europe (here the most frequently mentioned are Hungary and Poland).

In fact, I see in this attitude also a deep fear that the attitude of the elites currently ruling in Poland and Hungary, in matters of culture, customs, understanding of the European tradition – may turn out to be attractive to many Germans, French, Italians, and Spaniards – who do not necessarily want to run after the “bright future” promised by European progress officials. Many European people are looking to defend their common sense against ideological madness. Some people recall that Europe has always been rich because of its diversity and not of top-down centralization, and not by exchanging arguments about the good life, development models, and not by imposing “just the right approach.”

ZJ: What you have said makes me think of a famous sentence from John Stuart Mill’s On Liberty (1859): “Despotism is a legitimate mode of government in dealing with barbarians, provided the end be their improvement, and the means justified by actually effecting the end. Liberty, as a principle, has no application to any state of things anterior to the time when mankind have become capable of being improved by free and equal discussion. Until then, there is nothing for them but implicit obedience to an Akbar or a Charlemagne, if they are so fortunate to find one.”

Unlike democracy, despotism or autocracy, with which we associate the Orient and Russia, is not a political system or a theory of government. Rather, it is mode of governing a people. As a specialist on Russia, can you say that Mill’s words apply well to the state of Russian society at that time? In other words, is autocracy a system of government – the only force that could guarantee social and political order?

AN: I would disagree. Aleksander Wat, a Polish futurist poet who passed through nearly 20 prisons of Stalinist Russia during World War II, once gave a very good definition of the Soviet system – the absolute concentration of absolute power on an absolutely large area. An alternative to despotism (i.e., centralism) may be federalism – the development of regional self-government in a territorially large state.

Let me remind you that until the beginning of the 16th century, the Polish-Lithuanian state was larger in terms of territory than Moscow and until the partitions (in 1772) it was the second largest state on the European continent. And it was on such a large area that a system of decentralized authority was created, based on local self-government (district councils), which functioned well from at least the 15th to the 17th century.

As is known in the United States, this system continues. In Moscow, they also showed possibilities of developing a system of representation of the society several times: at the beginning of the 17th century, in the form of the so-called “earthly councils.” The movement of local, that is, earthly self-government, became strong again at the end of the 19th century – this is the self-government in which people like Chekhov and the heroes of his plays could find their place.

The defenders of despotism as the only recipe for the problems of the great state refer to one argument above all: if we do not have a tsar and we do not listen to him – then we will lose the empire. Putin successfully appealed to this argument after the last great experience of the crisis of the empire, which also coincided with the revival of Russian self-government – in 1991.

Ultimately, the dilemma faced by the supporters of this power for Russians (and not only for them) is – either size (grandezza as Machiavelli would say), or freedom – a liberta. You want greatness, give up your (republican, self-governing) freedom. At the same time, a new tone appears in this argumentation – state despotism (meaning the lack of civil self-government) can be reconciled with liberalism – economic and the right to privacy.

In the Russian philosophical tradition of Slavicism, there is such a contrast – the state is a heavy-duty power – and society willingly gives its burden to the people of power, and itself enjoys non-political freedom. And this is probably not only the Russian tradition, but the constantly reviving temptation to organize political life without citizens. There is only the state (and its guardians) – and on the other end – individual consumers.

ZJ: Could one say the same thing about China, and the Chinese leaders’ rhetoric that we have been hearing for about 20 years – that what China fears the most is anarchy. Ergo, the Chinese Communist Party is the sole guardian of social order; and since anarchy is worse than anything, despotism or autocracy is a legitimate way of governing the population. Some 15 years ago, Boris Johnson wrote a piece for the Spectator, where he accepted this view about anarchy in China, which makes me think that Chinese rhetoric works. Today Johnson is Prime minister, and what he thinks can translate into his country’s foreign policy.

AN: China has just adopted the model I outlined at the end of the answer to the previous question. Does this mean that it is the only model that suits the Chinese? After an intense indoctrination lasting for generations, one can get this impression. The Chinese from Hong Kong have a different opinion, however.

Please allow me to express my opinion on Prime Minister Johnson’s view and on Mill’s remark earlier cited. Well, I see them as a reflection of the imperial-colonial tradition, especially strong in the English (later also American) elites. Outside of Great Britain, and maybe even outside the club, which brings together the elite from Eton and Oxbridge, there are actually no gentlemen. There are barbarians all around – at least to the East of Germany are surely the habitats of barbaria. The barbarians living there can be cannibals, if that suits them, we – gentlemen from the club – will not hinder trading with them.

The most cynical example of this attitude I found in the liberal prime minister, David Lloyd George, who in 1920, when he initiated political negotiations with Lenin, said that he did not care about the political principles of these barbarians, let them even have the Mikado – it is their business, as long as they kill other barbarians (this is what Lloyd George meant about the Armia Czerowna – the Red Army – which at that moment was storming Warsaw). And let them get together as they please – this is their freedom. And this is our liberalism that we will not impose our political standards on them. We must reach an agreement with them, if they are so strong that without them it is impossible to establish a global order. This is a specific combination of liberalism (à la Lloyd George) and imperial Realpolitik.

In America, this is the approach of many – formerly Henry Kissinger, now John Mearsheimer. For me, this is a very short-sighted doctrine of appeasement – the false hope that aggressive despotism will feed on victims only from the circle of “barbarians.” Eventually, however, comes the moment when the “barbarians” start eating the gentlemen. Such is the logic of despotic empires. It is perfectly summarized by the saying of Bezborodko, Chancellor of Catherine II – what does not grow, rots. The despotic empire must continue to expand – otherwise it risks imploding. And they know this very well not only in Russia, but also in China. It is good that this has also been remembered in London and Chicago.

ZJ: Now that the Democrat Biden has become president of the United States, we will have a different foreign policy. If you were on the team of Russia advisers to the president, what would you say should be the US policy vis-à-vis Russia?

AN: President Biden will have other advisers. I can only express some concerns based on the historical experience with the presidents of the United States, who over the past three decades came from the Democratic Party and represented a left-liberal ideology. They were, let me remind you, Bill Clinton and Barrack Obama.

The former started with dreams of a “reset” with Russia. Fortunately, Russia was so weak during this period that it could not take advantage of this policy. The disaster happened under Obama, who has the blood of hundreds of thousands of people in Syria on his hands. His complete irresponsibility led to an escalation of the civil war and to the re-installing of Putin’s Russia as a key player in the Middle East.

Obama also made a significant gesture to Putin – he resigned from the project adopted by the previous administration (Bush Jr.) to install the so-called anti-missile shield in Poland. President Obama announced his decision to withdraw from this project, which was indeed very irritating to Putin and which strengthened the sense of security for Poland and the entire region of Central and Eastern Europe, on September 17, 2009. It was exactly the 70th anniversary of the Red Army’s invasion of Poland in 1939.

Putin may have felt invited to a new expansion – and he tried it in Ukraine. At that time, however, President Obama was probably instructed by people who knew the rules of world security better than him – and there was a certain reaction to the aggression in Crimea, and then in the Donbas.

What am I afraid of? That under the slogan of the fight for a “brave new world,” led again by liberal America, the US president will not recognize that it is not good stigmatizing smaller countries that do not accept this ideology and handing them over to Russia as “pariahs of the democratic order.” It does not have to be democratic or liberal, but it is very important to this vision of “restoring order” that it be fulfilled by restoring its former zone of domination (Ukraine? Maybe Poland? Maybe most of Central and Eastern Europe?).

In short, I am afraid of combining the slogans of the ideological “crusade” (actually, anti-crusade) inside the so-called Western community, understood as a community of LGBTQ+ rights and unlimited abortion – with a practical policy of the so-called realism in relations with non-Western empires such as Russia. The costs of such a policy would be paid primarily by the countries of the inter-imperial border, such as Poland, Lithuania, or – on the border with China – Korea and Taiwan.

ZJ: Given what you said about Russia and China, it seems to me to be only proper to invoke here two Frenchmen. In the 1830, they embarked on long trips in two different directions – Alexis de Tocqueville went to America; Marquis de Custine went to Russia.

Not much was known about the two countries. Before Tocqueville published his book, there were, I believe, only three or four books about America. Tocqueville’s and his young companion Beaumont’s books were the first ones to offer an exhaustive view of both the country and, above all, American democracy.

De Custine, on the other hand, was looking for an alternative to democracy. For Custine, in the words of Robin Buss, the English translator and editor of his Letters, “democracy meant mob rule and the dictatorship of public opinion, through rabble-rousing speeches and the press.” Encouraged by his friend Balzac and the Polish Count Ignacy Gurowski, he set out for Russia.

The fruit of his visit is Russia (1839), or The Letters from Russia.
By today’s standards, Tocqueville’s book is an international bestseller, and everyone who wants to understand democracy must read it. Given its success in the 20th century, the popularity of Tocqueville’s work is not surprising. However, the 21st century is different.

The rise of China with its autocratic style of government should be of concern to everyone. Russian democracy is a democracy in name only; for all intents and purposes it is a mild form of old autocracy. The difference between it and China is that the Chinese rulers do not hide their contempt for democracy, Xi Jing Ping openly says that the system is a failure. Both leaders share two things – the respective countries’ tradition of autocratic rule (strengthened in the 20th century by the experience of Communism) and the belief that only autocratic rule is capable of preventing a country from sliding into anarchy.

Would you agree that given democracy’s current performance in America and Europe, there is every reason to read de Custine’s account.

AN: People knew quite a lot about Russia in France before de Custine. Let us recall, for example, that the French Grand Army visited Russia in 1812, and two years later France was “returned” by the Russian army (Normandy was a Russian occupation zone for two years). A lot of arguments have already been gathered, both on the side of Russophobia and Russophilia.

The first French treaty stigmatizing the Russian political system as oriental despotism was published in 1771. It was written by Abbé Chappe d’Auteroche who visited Siberia (voluntarily), and Catherine II herself replied to him with a two-volume refutation of his arguments (I write about it at length in my recent book, entitled, Metamorphoses of the Russian Empire 1721-1921). This work, published immediately in French under the title Antidote and translated into English, was not only the defense of Russia’s right to the name of a European power, but also the justification of the autocracy.

As I argue in this book, in such a huge country as Russia, another form of power would lead to disintegration. The Russian system is not despotic, but a noble, enlightened absolutism, motivated by concern for the greatness of the state and the welfare of its subjects. So much for Catherine the Great. And it is so today, until the time of Putin’s apologists.

These arguments excellently convinced the French elite (and not only them). After all, Montesquieu said the same – this is why we should refer to de Custine’s work, because it helps us understand that the nature of the Russian despotic system is not autocracy itself, but above all lies, systematic, omnipresent, gradually disturbing cognitive abilities. The lie of the subjects against the authorities, the lie of the authorities against the subjects, and the systematic lie of the power of the Empire against its foreign partners.

No partner is actually a partner; each one is treated as an enemy to be deceived and manipulated. The KGB school, from which most of Russia’s current political elite hails, has raised this ability to lie to an incomparably higher degree than was possible in the days of Nicholas I and de Custine.

The contradiction of the various “narratives” that this Russian rule presents about itself is staggering. For the right wing, Putin is to be the “eschaton” of the Christian order, the last defender of the Cross against neo-paganism and Islam. For the Left (the propaganda of the Russia Today television station is addressed to this audience) – the last tough opponent of hated America, to some extent heir to Lenin’s Russia. For Western businessmen – a model of a good business partner. And so on. Whoever reads de Custine will understand the genesis of these narratives.

ZJ: Russia is not the only country that created national myths, such as the Third Rome. Other nations have this tendency too: Rule Britannia, the City on the Hill, the Third Reich, and many, many others.

The Poles – very much like the French – are obsessed with national history. They created a myth which is not about ruling the world but saving the Western World from barbarian onslaught. It is the myth of the antemurale chirstianitatis, the Bulwark of Christianity. The origin of it is not Polish. As far as I know, it was coined in 15th century, during the papacy of Pius II. It was Skadenberg, an Albanian Nobleman, who coined the term, which meant that Albania (and Croatia) was Italy’s Christian bulwark against the Ottoman Empire. Poles adopted it; it functions in Poland, but in Poland it means more than the fight against the Muslims or infidels at the battle of Vienna on September 11 (!) 1683, where the Poles defeated the Turks.
It is understood as antemurale against the East, Orient, the oriental despotism. It includes Russia as a barbarian force as well. Given the Christian (Orthodox) nature of Russia, is this historical vision justified; and using it against Eastern Orthodoxy, are we not in danger of creating a false historical imagination?

AN: I do not know if Poles are “obsessed” with national history. I have a different impression when I look at the youth which is protesting today in the streets of Polish cities with the most vulgar words, to emphasize their hatred for the Catholic Church, Christian tradition and the historical identity of Poland.

Let me make a comment on this issue. It is difficult, for example, for Belgium to be “obsessed” with its history, since it was created as a completely artificial state entity less than 200 years ago. It is difficult for Germany to express “obsession with history,” that is pride in its tradition, for obvious reasons. Simply put, nations have different histories, of different lengths, and different intensity as to how this history is experienced by social groups of different sizes. No one matches China in this respect. When you compare Poles with Jews, the Jews will undoubtedly turn out to be a nation much more “obsessed with their history.”

And now about the “bulwark of Christianity.” Again – a complete misunderstanding. The idea of a bulwark appears in Polish history in 1241 – during the great Mongol invasion. After the conquest of Ruthenia (Kievan Rus’ or Ruthenia!!! – not Russia), the Mongols moved to Hungary and Poland. On April 9, 1241, the prince of Poland, Henry the Pious blocked the way of the Mongols near Legnica. He led about 7000 – 8000 Polish and German knights, including 36 Templars. The prince was killed, the battle was lost, but the Mongols, having suffered heavy losses (similar to the parallel battle fought in Hungary), turned back.

The mood in Latin Europe at that time was truly apocalyptic. The fear of the Mongols as invaders from a completely different, completely alien world, as if of an invasion of the Martians, paralyzed the will of defense in many, but fired the imagination of no fewer people in the Latin West. Part of the Jewish communities scattered around the cities of the Reich were very excited about the news of the mysterious approaching Mongols. The Jews waited for liberation in the year of 5000 (1240/1241), which was exactly at this time on their calendar. There were also those who expected such liberation to come from the hands of the Mongols. In fact, some even saw in Genghis Khan the Messiah, the son of David.

After the defeat in Legnica, the echoes quickly reached even out to Frankfurt am Main, where the local Jews in May opposed with unprecedented audacity the baptism of one of their fellow believers who had freely chosen Christianity. It ended on May 24 with a terrible pogrom, which brought upon the Jews the fear of the Frankfurters and rumors of favoring the wild invaders from the East by the followers of Moses. The threatened rulers, including the Hungarian king Béla IV, the Czech king Wenceslaus I, Prince Frederick of Austria, and the emperor Frederick II Hohenstaufen himself, in letters, called for defense against the Mongols.

This was the context in which in Poland, Henryk the Pious, Legnica appeared, the heroic but lost fight on the Eastern fringes of the empire and Latin Europe. And this was the beginning of not only a myth, but a practical experience, the last (thus far) military act which, in Poland, is considered as having stopped the invasion of Central Europe by the Bolshevik Red Army in the summer of 1920, in the Battle of Warsaw. Legnica 1241 was most often mentioned in the journalism of the time. Will new experiences be added to this in the 21st century? I do not know, but I do not rule it out.

ZJ: Allow me to finish this conversation with a question which has been on my mind for many years. At the beginning of the 1990s, Poles coined the word “lustracja” (from the word “lustro,” mirror) which means “mirroring.” It is a made-up term that describes the process of making former communists, State apparatchiks, secret agents and collaborators accountable for their participation in building socialism.
In the post-communist societies people who did not support socialism, who suffered, who were persecuted or prevented from social advancement felt it necessary to expose those who upheld the system, who held power at the expense of the people who refused to participate in the Great Lie.

It was a form of showing the former commies and collaborators that their participation in the system was simply a matter of human indecency.

Unlike Poland, former Czechoslovakia, Hungary, and Russia have never undergone such a process – no moral or legal punishment for the former communists and collaborators. The old communists and collaborators, KGB agents, like Putin, became the lords of the New Russia. No such thing would be imaginable in Soviet satellite countries.

In your expert opinion, first, how significant has been the lack of “lustration” for the moral health of Russia, and, second, did the Russians realize what Communism did to Russia?

AN: The importance of this issue was best described by James Billington, an outstanding scholar of Russian thought and culture, in his book Russia in Search of Itself. Let me quote a key excerpt from the summary of this book: “There are essentially four ways that a nation can move beyond the fact of massive complicity in unprecedented evil. 1. Remove the problem from public consciousness. 2. Transfer the burden of evil to others. 3 . Evade the problem of evil in society by creating a noble personal philosophy for an elite. 4. Overcome evil by accepting the redemptive power of innocent suffering.”

This book was published in 2004. In 2020, it can be said that the official policy of remembrance in Putin’s Russia is a combination of the first two attitudes. The attitude most consistent with the Christian, Orthodox tradition, listed as the fourth in this list, has been marginalized.

As early as 2004, Billington was able to accurately pinpoint the cause of this state of affairs: “What is missing for this fact to open up broader redemptive possibilities for the Russian people is accountability, or even searching self-scrutiny, on the part of the Church itself.”

I am sorry to note that the lack of full accountability in a part of the hierarchy of the Catholic Church in Poland, for the cooperative spying of a small minority of priests with the communist police system in 1945-1989, also brings poisoned fruit into my country, Poland.

ZJ: Do you see any similarities between this and participating in all kinds of PC projects today – which is all morally questionable? Many people in the West, especially in academia, sold themselves to the Devil for the same reason that communists of old did. They are willing to justify today’s injustice in the name of future benefits. I am afraid, they, like the former commies will wake up from their dream of the better world, where all are equal and happy – very disappointed.

AN: Conformism, the lack of civil courage, is the most important, established and widespread feature of academia, at least in the humanities and social sciences. The ideology of “emancipation,” which today is the main instrument of the degradation of these areas, works – in my opinion – on a slightly different principle than you presented in your question.

In fact, under the lofty slogans of redressing past wrongs (towards women, animals, sexual minorities, and countries once colonized), professors of sociology, English studies, philosophy, political science, history and similar fields (displaced by new, more politically correct combinations) are ruthlessly fighting for their particular, current interests – for survival in a ruthless struggle. Survival of the fittest – this is the reality of this essentially amoral struggle, in which the stakes are a professorship, appearing on television, or the role of a social media star – and the alternative is the loss of a job, or experience of attacks by the media and environmental campaigns.

Adapt to the ideology currently imposed by the big media and their disposers – this is the method of survival. This is how the cultural revolution unfolds, more and more like the one that swept through China under Mao Zedong. Anyone who does not want the media and groups of students manipulated by it – to put on a “hat of shame” (as was done in China) – must join in stigmatizing colleagues who are still defending themselves against such degradation.

There is no labor camp waiting for them yet, but it is becoming more and more real to hand over those who still have the courage to think “incorrectly” to therapy, into the hands of therapists who will, anyway, remove “wrong” thoughts, concepts, and memories from their defiant heads. .

Probably no one has described the attitudes of intellectuals subjected to terror and the temptation to justify their cowardice better than the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz in his book, The Captive Mind. It is a book written in 1951 about the Polish intelligentsia conquered by the Stalinist diamat (dialectical materialism). This is also a book about the situation today at American and European universities. It is worth reading again.”

ZJ: Thank you, Dr. Nowak for this enlightening conversation.

The image shows, “Introduction of Christianity in Poland,” by Jan Matejko, painted in 1889.

Echoes Of The Great War Resound Differently In Poland

The famous book, The Sleepwalkers: How Europe Went to War in 1914, by British professor Christopher Clark, investigates World War I, diagnosing it to be more of a tragedy than a crime. The Great War was started by the “sleepwalkers” of the title, who were unaware of the historical scale of the catastrophe they were perpetrating. Not only did the hecatomb of victims and the scale of the destruction prove to be cataclysmic – but, above all, there followed the collapse of the European political order, admired by many to the present day as the “beautiful 19th century.”

Six years ago, when the centenary of that war took place, Clark’s book became the “political bible” for politicians and intellectuals who, smacking their lips with appreciation, discussed its thesis at countless conferences, always concluding with the same caution against repeating the “sleepwalking” precedent.

Looking from the Western European perspective of la belle époque, which was brutally interrupted by that war, one may say that this kind of narration dictated to Europe by Clark is not only logical but also nobly moral. However, what must strike a Pole in this narrative is the radically different experience of the 20th century in Central and Eastern Europe. And it is a difference that a contemporary French, Italian or even German probably does not notice, let alone accept.

One of the most famous passages from Polish literature, kept in the memory of every Pole from school-days, is the prayer from the Pilgrim’s Litany by the greatest Polish poet, Adam Mickiewicz: “For universal war on behalf of freedom for the nations, we beseech Thee, O Lord!” This prayer is regarded as a prophesy about the outbreak of war which, after more than a hundred years of occupation, would finally bring Poles freedom and the possibility of living in their own country. In this Polish narrative, 1914 is neither a “crime” nor a “tragedy.” Quite the opposite – it is a historical declaration of freedom restored four years later. And the unexpected result of that war entailed the fall of the three occupying emperors: German, Russian, and Austrian.

This was a key moment for the Polish understanding of the world and the position of Poland in it. Having won the war, England and France paved the way for Poles to regain freedom; and thus, these two powers were inscribed as “friendly” and “allied” in the code of Polish political self-awareness, passed down from generation to generation. But that is not all. Every child in Poland knows that the victory was only possible because of the fact that the Americans entered Europe for the first time in history. When they left the continent shortly after, disgusted with the quality of European politics, it did not take long for the tragedy to strike again – the Second World War. So, this belief in the almost “magical” power of American presence in Europe became deeply rooted in the political DNA that shaped the identity of Poles.

The Polish state, reborn in 1918, could not think of itself other than in terms of some broader Central European union. Obviously, it was a memory of the old days gone by when the Lithuanian Jagiellonian dynasty ruled a vast federal power with two capitals in Krakow and Vilnius. Although there were other ethnic categories (for which the Polish national movement was leading the way in the new statehood) – the fact that Józef Piłsudski came to power (on the day of the historic Armistice of Compiègne on November 11, 1918) meant that it was not “nationalists,” but “Prometheists” that came to define the post-war mission of the Polish state. The military alliance with Ukrainians and Belarusians (who were also liberating themselves from Russian domination), meant to re-establish a union in Central and Eastern Europe, broke down under pressure from the Bolsheviks.

Thus, there was barely enough strength left to defend the endangered Polish statehood against the Bolsheviks who, in the summer of 1920, gathered just near the outskirts of Warsaw. It was also impossible to marshal enough energy to renew the idea of a union in Central Eastern Europe. Although such a union was not formed then, and this part of Europe was soon to become a battlefield of nationalism, nevertheless, immediately after the Great War, this period became an echo constantly resounding in Polish politics throughout the last century until today.

Primarily, it is an echo of a dream of political integration which could no longer be established specifically in the centre of the Eastern part of Europe. Over time the inability to maintain such a state of affairs became more and more obvious. However, the dream could be realized through a great European integration project for the whole of Europe. One should bear that in mind in order to understand the enthusiasm of Poles for their own accession to the European Union in the 21st century, but also the enthusiasm for its enlargement to include Ukraine, Belarus, Moldova and Georgia. The peculiar “transfer” of the Union to the East has built the political mission of the contemporary Polish state; and without awareness of this fact, it is impossible to understand the Polish policy of the last 25 years.

Unfortunately, there is also a distant echo ringing loudly in Poland’s memory of the fact that at a time when in 1920 all Polish plans threatened to fail, as did the very existence of the Polish state, the “allied” and “friendly” European powers, in particular England under the rule of Lloyd George, paradoxically took the side of the Bolsheviks. This was at the same time as the Spa Conference when the Polish government was forced to surrender to Soviet Russia half of its territory – that is everything that the Russian Tsars forcibly appropriated themselves in the 18th century.

Never again has it been possible in Poland to eliminate this intuitive distrust of European “friends,” a distrust further strengthened in September 1939 and which, in fact, continues to this day. In turn, however, the still resonating echo of those events also provokes a particular Polish sensitivity to harm and the rejection by Europe of Ukrainians and Belarusians, i.e. the only nations that a century ago faced the Soviet threat with armed force, alongside the Poles. Everyone who wants to understand today why over a million Ukrainian immigrants, who have been welcomed with open arms, live and work in Poland need only remember this previous anti-Soviet alliance. Also, we will learn about this alliance at the European Union Summit, where the Polish Prime Minister is (successfully) striving for a plan for extensive economic support of Belarus which is to start when its citizens manage to remove the tyranny that has prevailed there so far.

In his famous book, Professor Clark proved that the echoes of the Great War are clearly heard in contemporary politics. And this is certainly true. However, the Polish echoes resound a bit differently from those heard by the great British historian.

Jan Rokita is a Polish philosopher, opposition activist in the communist era, former MP and deputy of the Sejm (the lower house of the Polish Parliament).

This article was published in the monthly Wszystko Co Najważniejsze (Poland) as part of a historical education project of the Institute of National Remembrance.

The image shows, “Cud nad Wisłą” (“Miracle on the Vistula”), by Jerzy Kossak, painted in 1930 (Museum of the Diocese in Torun).

Why Poland Matters

The year 2020 is a memorable year in many respects. It is the centenary of the Battle of Warsaw, that decisive battle of the 1920 Polish-Soviet war during which the Polish armed forces defeated the Red Army’s advance westwards. Such was its importance that Lord Edgar Vincent D’Abernon, the then British Ambassador to Berlin and member of the Interallied Mission to Poland, called it the “Eighteenth most decisive battle in the world.” It was a crucial battle that stopped Bolshevik expansion, for what was at stake was not only Poland’s sovereignty but also Europe’s. As Pope Benedict XV wrote at the time: “Not only Poland’s national existence is in danger, but also all of Europe is threatened with the atrocities of a new war.”

The year 2020 is also the fortieth anniversary of the Solidarity movement. First formed in August 1980 by labour workers in the Lenin Shipyards in Gdańsk, Solidarity was the largest social movement in the world that, through civil resistance, advocated workers’ rights, and led to the toppling of the communist regime in Poland. It was the first civil rights movement in any Warsaw Pact country and inspired the formation of similar civil societies throughout the Eastern Bloc.

The year 2020 is also the centenary of the birth of Pope John Paul II, the pope from the “faraway land,” who proved instrumental in the collapse of the communist regime in Poland and in the entire Eastern Bloc. As Timothy Garton Ash wrote, he was “the greatest political actor in the last quarter of the twentieth century,” for “without the Polish Pope, no Solidarity revolution in Poland in 1980; without Solidarity, no dramatic change in Soviet policy towards eastern Europe under Gorbachev; without that change, no velvet revolutions in 1989.”

All these important anniversaries are an opportunity to reflect on Poland, its unique heritage of freedom and solidarity, and their meaning in this day and age.

While the economic effects of the current COVID-19 pandemic are yet to be fully assessed, it is useful to note that Poland has been one of the most economically stable countries in Europe. Since the fall of communism in 1989, Poland as a country has seen continuous economic growth in the past thirty years. As economist Marcin Piątkowski argues in his book, Europe’s Growth Champion, Poland has become one of the most successful economies in Europe, with GDP growth up by 150% per capita since 1989. Translating that into purchasing power parity terms, Poland’s GDP has grown faster than that of the average eurozone country, from US $10,300 in 1990 to more than US $23,000 in 2018 – a growth comparable to that of the Asian tigers of South Korea, Singapore or Taiwan. By 2018, the average level of income reached its highest level, so much so that Poland became the first post-communist country to join the FTSE-Russell list of developed countries.

How did this former communist country, ruled by an oppressive regime, emerge to be “Europe’s Growth Champion?” The answer lies partly in the resilience and ingenuity of the Polish people, and the values they uphold. The Poles have a natural love for freedom, tolerance and solidarity, values which have been forged through centuries of history and tradition. If 1989 was a watershed moment in Polish history, it is because it saw the renewal of those civic virtues.

Situated in the north of Europe, it has close affinities with Roman culture. Locked between the East and the West, for centuries it transmitted vital cultural ideas in both directions. Its rich history and culture have been part of the European network of ideas for centuries.

Prior to its partition in 1795 by three neighbouring empires, Prussia, Austro-Hungary and Russia, the then Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth was one of the most successful political projects of Western Europe. Originating from a personal union dating back to 1385 and formally established in 1569 in the Union of Lublin, the Commonwealth united the Polish Crown with the Duchy of Lithuania, and was one of Europe’s largest multicultural and multi-ethnic states.

At the time of fierce religious conflicts in the rest of Europe, Poland-Lithuania established a political tradition of tolerance, embodied in the Warsaw Confederation Act of 1573, which guaranteed its nobility religious freedom. As an extension of an earlier Statute of Kalisz (1264), which provided unprecedented legal rights to Jews, the Warsaw Confederation de facto protected the right to freedom of worship. In effect, the legislation was the fruit of a long-standing tradition of tolerance, best exemplified by the relatively peaceful co-existence of such diverse communities as Poles, Lithuanians, Ruthenians, Jews, Tartars, Karaites, Germans, Italians, Scots and Dutch. In many respects, it was a truly modern state, with a parliament which represented the diverse political and religious communities of the Commonwealth and which reserved the right to elect its monarch.

In the wider context of its European neighbours, elective monarchy in the Commonwealth was a unique political system that accounted for high political and civic engagement – up to 10% of the Polish-Lithuanian nobility participated in the Commonwealth’s civic life. The underlying motto of the 1569 Union of Lublin testifies best to this deep sense of social equality and freedom enjoyed by all, regardless of state, race or religion: “As free with one, so free with all; as equal to one, so equal to all.”

One of the best legacies of this political project was the 3rd May Constitution, ratified by the Polish parliament (Sejm) in 1791. Considered the oldest written constitution in Europe and second in the world, it de facto implemented a constitutional monarchy, provided a clear division of powers between the executive, legislative and judiciary branch, introduced political equality between townspeople and the nobility, and protected the rights of peasants against the abuses of serfdom. This deep respect for individual liberties and resistance to any absolute power were the values shared with the American revolutionaries by two of Poland’s greatest military engineers, Tadeusz Kościuszko and Kazimierz Pułaski, who joined in the fight for American independence.

This long-standing heritage of active civic participation and deep respect for freedom and sense of social solidarity have formed an integral part of the Polish character, and, arguably, strengthened and inspired Poles to withstand centuries of partition and the two totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century.

Today, over thirty years after the fall of communism, Poland has emerged more compassionate, confident and more experienced as a nation. It is the legacy of the Commonwealth that continues to inspire Poles and Poland’s international policy of peaceful co-existence between nations, combined with the deep respect for their heritage and culture.

Therefore, one cannot ignore the current situation in Belarus, a country which has had a long-shared history with Poland, and is a country of outstanding heritage which is to be respected in its cultural and political autonomy. Poland strongly supports the right of Belarusians to determine the fate of their nation. It is for this reason that the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, appealed at the 75th session of the United Nations Assembly in September, “to speak with one voice, and demand that fundamental human rights be respected.” And he added, “Belarusians like any other free nation, have the right to shape their political future in a sovereign way, without external interference.”

This appeal to solidarity is in fact an appeal to the international community, to uphold and defend the fundamental rights of freedom and self-determination in a true spirit of solidarity, values which sadly are still being undermined today.

Speaking on the 50th anniversary of the United Nations in 1995, Pope John Paul II discussed what he called the “moral dynamics of freedom” during the non-violent revolutions of 1989 in Central and Eastern Europe.

His words of twenty-five years ago, still resonate strongly with us today and deserve to be quoted in full. For “modern totalitarianism has been, first and foremost, an assault on the dignity of the person, an assault which has gone even to the point of denying the inalienable value of the individual’s life. The revolutions of 1989 were made possible by the commitment of brave men and women inspired by a different, and ultimately more profound and powerful, vision: the vision of man as a creature of intelligence and free will, immersed in a mystery which transcends his own being and endowed with the ability to reflect and the ability to choose – and thus capable of wisdom and virtue. A decisive factor in the success of those non-violent revolutions was the experience of social solidarity: in the face of regimes backed by the power of propaganda and terror, that solidarity was the moral core of the ‘power of the powerless,’ a beacon of hope and an enduring reminder that it is possible for man’s historical journey to follow a path which is true to the finest aspirations of the human spirit.”

Arkady Józef Rzegocki is Ambassador Extraordinary and Plenipotentiary of the Republic of Poland to the Court of St. James’s. Arkady Rzegocki is a political scientist and professor of the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. His research interest centers on Polish and English political thought, the concept of national interest (raison d’état), as well as the issue of soft power. Educated at the Jagiellonian University in Kraków, he also taught and conducted research in Dublin, Ireland, Denver, USA Oxford, Cambridge, London and Florence. He was a member of academic and civic organisations: Polish Association of Political Science, Polish Association of Political Thought, The Jagiellonian Club, The Center for Political Thought. He is the founder of Pressje journal and was its editor-in-chief from 2002 to 2011.

The image shows, “The Union of Lublin,” by Jan Matejko, painted in 1869.