The Lingering of the Past

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A conversation with Marci Shore, professor of intellectual history and author of Taste of Ashes. Interviewer: Piotr Czarniecki

 

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An Igbo from Łódź

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A conversation with John Godson, Poland's first black member of parliament.

FILIP MAZURCZAK: Are the Poles a tolerant nation?

JOHN GODSON: I believe that the Poles are very tolerant. Situations of racism are marginal. In Poland we have what is called low intercultural competences, which is not the same thing as racism. Racism is when people who are informed and have contact with other cultures believe that their culture and their race is superior. But what we have in Poland results more from a lack of knowledge and the fact that post-Second World War Poland is a very homogeneous society. Communism made it difficult for Poles to travel abroad. But since Poland is in the European Union and the Schengen Zone, this is changing. We see that very slowly the intercultural competences of Poles are increasing.

 

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Filling in the Gaps of Democracy

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ADAM REICHARDT: The European Endowment for Democracy has emerged as an initiative credited to the Polish foreign minister Radosław Sikorski. How would you describe the origins and aims of this organisation?

JERZY POMIANOWSKI: The initiative as we see it now and as it has developed during the last two years was brought to the attention of the European Union and its members states by Minister Sikorski just after the collapse of the democratic process in Belarus on December 19th 2010. But it is important to admit that this was just the right moment to bring back an idea that had been floated several times in the past. Politicians, scholars and experts at think tanks had been calling on Europe to create a mechanism that is similar to the National Endowment for Democracy (in the United States) for quite some time. This mechanism needed to be somewhat independent and flexible, but at the same represent the general European approach to democracy support as a moral concept.

Among the original supporters even before 2010, I would mention Markus Meckel from Germany, who on several occasions brought up such an idea. Some of this energy is probably what stimulated the European Union to create the European Instrument for Democracy and Human Rights (EIDHR) – which is still a relatively new instrument, adopted formally in 2006. The creation of the EIDHR shows that the European approach to the ideas of democracy support, especially during the last ten years, has been developing and becoming more and more present in European debate. Having said that, we can now better understand how the political impetus of Minister Sikorski reached a certain audience that was already rather receptive to the idea. Plus, it was a key moment in time to do so: the collapse of the democratic process in Belarus and just two weeks before the revolution in Tunisia.

 

What was the reaction to the call for creating a European Endowment for Democracy?

Obviously, the political energy and political context gave a lot of support to the idea. It became part of one of the priorities of the Polish Presidency of the EU in 2011. This gave us an additionally strong position to pursue this idea, using formal instruments of the EU which are in the hands of every rotating presidency.

But let’s not forget that at the same time there was a significant degree of criticism vis-à-vis EU funding for democracy support as over-bureaucratic, slow and not able to address the complexity of the needs of people in a rapidly changing political environment. This criticism was also present during this initial process of setting up the Endowment. In the beginning we did not have initial overwhelming support. On the contrary, there was a lot of reluctance and debate. Many asked “do we need this?” or “is there any specific reason to create one more institution that duplicates already existing institutions?” All of these arguments were on the table. We addressed them and at the same time we had to modify our concept in order to address the criticism, much of which was justifiable.

 

How will people differentiate between the EED and other EU instruments? Technically, how does it work?

Once we achieved political support for the project, we had to figure out what form this new institution would take. One suggestion was the form of an international organisation, such as the OECD or OSCE. The second proposition was that it be established as a private foundation which would make it less dependent on governments and political pressure. This second option ended up being chosen and the Endowment became an independent NGO. At the same time the governing structure is very much like an international organisation. All member states represented by their appointed representatives.

 

So they can change over time?

In fact, they already have been changing, which means that this governing structure is very much based on the particular foreign policy concepts and influence of the member states. Some might see this as a weakness to the governing structure, but on the other hand it can also be seen as a strength. With representatives of the foreign ministry, we can imagine that the discussions within the Endowment could provide a political validation to its actions. Nevertheless, the discussion on issues within the governing body provides a flavour of political consensus. These ideas and debates which may start within the Endowment’s governing council can then be transferred to more formal political bodies such as the EU foreign affairs council, where the very same actors (ministers of foreign affairs) are debating key EU policies vis-à-vis the very same partners.

Basically, the Endowment could become a mechanism to “pre-cook” positions or motions, but limited to specific areas of support for beneficiaries and priorities of the Endowment.

 

It sounds as if the Endowment is a politically governed organisation, not particularly independent from EU politics...

In order to make this governance less political, we have additional elements on the governing board. This includes Euro-parliamentarians who represent themselves by name, as well as three representatives from EU-based NGOs who are elected to join. Yes, it is true that the majority of the governing board is made up of the member states, but we do have a strong group from the EU parliament, a group of representatives of NGOs, as well as EU institutional representatives from the EU commission and the EU external action service. This is a huge a 42-person body, which will debate and decide on the priorities of the Endowment.

The funding decisions, however, are made in the executive committee, which is made up of only seven people. Here each element is represented: NGO, parliament, and member states. These seven people are the core decision-makers that issue decisions on specific grants. The big coordination takes place in the governing board which decides on priorities; the smaller executive committee decides on specific grants and finally the executive director and the secretariat, based in Brussels, decide on the procedures and applications and basically carry out the day-to-day work of the Endowment.

 

What are the first priorities of the Endowment?

Geographically, we are clear. This is the European Neighbourhood. The 15 states, or rather societies, as they do not deal directly with the governments, that live around the EU – six from the Eastern Partnership and nine from the Middle East and North Africa. The thematic priorities are basically where we see a specific niche or need for the Endowment. It’s important to remember that the Endowment is not going to replace any existing instruments, so the whole concept of the Endowment is to identify and to fill the gaps where other formal funders cannot reach. So we assign ourselves the role of “gap-filler” or “bridging funders”.

Of course, the Endowment is political. So we focus ourselves on the groups and projects that are very connected to political activism. For example, groups, leaders or media that are politically active in the struggle for power, in the struggle to decide and declare strategies for their nations. Of course the focus must be on building a pluralistic democracy in their societies. And we are definitely interested in supporting everyone who will pursue this aim non-violently.

Having this role of gap filler means that we can be flexible and even a little risky with our funding choices. For example, if there is a group that an EU financial instrument cannot provide funding for, such as an unregistered group, the Endowment will find a way to provide such support. Most major funders have a general approach of project-based financing; while we can provide core funding or institutional funding to help build capacity. If there is an organisation which is too weak to produce a specific project, we will provide funding for them to strengthen their capacity to allow them to exist, to consolidate and then be ready to start bidding for big project money from project-based funders such as the EU.

 

Do you fear that by providing core institutional funding you could create dependencies?

It is true that institutional funding was abolished some time ago from the international donor system and not without reason. Organisations and think tanks can become dependent on this type of funding, especially if they are unable or unwilling to raise funds for their core functions on their own. Having this in mind, funding from the Endowment is for capacity building and only temporary: one year or two years. Either an organisation can build its capacity and fly on its own, or it becomes dependent. If the latter is the case, then we have taken too much risk in this process. The word “risk” is very important. Again, in the initial political declaration of the Endowment, it was clearly stated that this will be a less risk-averse organisation. If there is a weak organisation with good promise, we can take the risk that other EU institutions cannot, and provide them the necessary seed money. But we have to bear in mind, taking risks means sometimes we may fail.

 

How do you plan to react to political reactions from governments which might not appreciate the Endowment’s support of independent organisations in their countries?

I have a very clear statement that I am already using and communicating, and hopefully through this interview will reach even further: if there is a government that has a problem with the democracy support that the Endowment is providing, that means that the Endowment is very needed. If there is a government that has no problem with us, that means we are welcome.

 

One country that specifically sticks out, which as you mentioned was the impetus for the Endowment, is Belarus. Do you have any specific plans on how to deal with Belarus, considering how difficult it is for NGOs to receive foreign-based funding?

Belarus will definitely remain a central focus of EED actions. I have been in close contact with many different Belarusian activists and organisations fighting for the protection of human rights for a long time. For obvious reasons, I am not keen to provide more details here. In general we will help them become better organised and consolidated, providing the necessary assistance to those non-registered groups.

 

Your appointment as executive director has been a positive signal of Poland’s leadership in the Endowment. How has your personal background led you to this point in your career?

Just like 10 million other Poles, I was a young activist in 1980 and 1981 fighting against Communism. At that time, I was a university student in Warsaw. We formed the first independent student association chapter at Warsaw University and I was a founding member of the board. Within this association, I was tasked with setting up publishing activities. And for a short period of time I ran an independent publishing house. But then Marshall Law in 1981 stopped the whole process and we became illegal; Solidarity became illegal and there were many arrests. We tried to continue our publishing activity for a few years, but then resources dried up. We received some help from Sweden and Denmark, but it wasn’t enough to maintain our activities. So we decided to pool together our resources with other publishers and jointly began distributing their publications.

During martial law this was all underground. In 1980-1981, it was semi-underground as we “unofficially” used Warsaw University’s facilities. We were able to circumvent rules such as stamping each publication with the impression “For Internal Use Only”, but of course we distributed these underground publications widely. In 1984 and 1985 I became involved in building what I call “small pockets of freedom”. If we could have an activity that wasn’t necessarily political, organised around our interests and ideas and governed by ourselves – we were able to maintain it relatively free. In essence, we were building enclaves of civil society. We understood then, that if we weren’t going to get full freedom, we might as well create our own space, our own islands of freedom.

As my studies and academic interests were in oriental cultures and civilisation, I created an academic research association which organised meetings and travel abroad on topics of Aikido, Indian philosophy and music. This was “our” space – we were doing it by ourselves and no one was able to control or even access us. In fact, I did try to officially register our organisation, but it was denied by the Ministry of the Interior, explaining that we had no social value. I have this official letter even today as a reminder of what we were doing back then.

 

How did you find yourself in the Polish civil service after the fall of Communism?

At the beginning of the transformation process I joined the Ministry of Education and later the Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Basically, it was a call to young people, for them to come to the civil service and take ownership of the transformation processes. So I responded to the call and joined the Ministry of Education to help build local parent associations and independent, association-based schools. This worked very well. In a single year we stimulated the creation of more than 100 schools to be established, which became a very important mechanism in the Polish education system, stimulating competition with the public school system – in essence forcing them to reform and compete.

I was then transferred to the Ministry of Foreign Affairs, basically because of my Asian interests. The whole process of creating a new Polish foreign policy was extremely exciting. We became members of NATO and later of the EU. Our focus was to re-establish Poland’s position in the world. I have also worked for the OECD advising governments of countries after military conflict or natural disaster, such as Haiti after the earthquake. We focused on providing the government extra support in key public service delivery. Thus, making democracy work and making people believe in democracy – but from the government's point of view. And that is how the Endowment is different. It will support the belief in democracy from the people’s point of view. What can we do to make democracy work? In the OECD I was advising governments to help show their people that democracy works. It was an interesting experience within an international organisation. This experience has come with me to the Endowment, especially since the governing structure is so similar to that of an international organisation.

 

How will you measure the Endowment's success?

The first success will be a lot of good applications from partners and institutions that are not necessarily present in other grant making mechanisms. This will mean that there is a demand for the Endowment. Second, if after some time some of our beneficiaries would then successfully apply for long-term financing of big projects from other financing instruments of the EU or from bilateral donors such as Sweden, Denmark or Germany, then we can say: “These were our babies and they are now able to fly on their own.” This would also be a good measure of success for the Endowment. We are modest enough to say that we will not measure our impact by seeing if democracy in Belarus will be implemented within two years of the creation of the Endowment, because we are not that naive to believe that one organisation with a 25 million euro budget can change the course of history in only two or three years.

We need to be active and constantly consider what we can do better, and how democracy support can be performed more efficiently. Definitely, we believe that some of our evaluations and ideas would then feed and contribute to EU policy. As the executive director of the Endowment, I am tasked with presenting an annual report to the European Parliament and also to the EU foreign affairs council. We have a formal way to communicate our lessons-learnt, our ideas and recommendations for the EU. And that is definitely the key mechanism on how the Endowment can bring about real change.

 

Jerzy Pomianowski is the Executive Director of the European Endowment for Democracy. He was previously the Undersecretary of State at the Polish Ministry of Foreign Affairs between 2011 and 2013. During the period 2008-2011, he worked at the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) as the Director of the Partnership for Democratic Governance.

Adam Reichardt is the editor-in-chief of New Eastern Europe.

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Everything is a Hypothesis

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Sławomir Mrożek was a Polish playwright and writer, who had spent much of the last half-century in exile.  Mrożek died on August 15th 2013 in his home in Nice (France) at the age of 83. On September 17th 2013, Mrożek’s remains will be entombed in the new national pantheon in Kraków (Poland).

On this occasion we are publishing an interview with Małgorzata I. Niemczyńska; a Polish journalist and author of Mrożek’s forthcoming biography. 

 

ŁUKASZ WOJTUSIK: Who would you say Sławomir Mrożek was? A writer? A playwright?

MAŁGORZATA I. NIEMCZYŃSKA: I cannot put Mrożek into pieces. His picture is made up of contradictions – despair and wit; bitterness and laughter; depression and euphoria. One could probably see it best when looking at his Diaries and drawings. For me, the backbone of Mrożek’s creations are his plays.

 

It is quite well-known that as an author Mrożek had some distance to his work.  A Polish cartoonist, Andrzej Mleczko, even once said that Mrożek, not rightly so, never considered himself a great cartoonist. And yet, paradoxically, Poles fell in love with his drawings; their simple lines, witty dialogues. We also have a saying in Polish “as if from Mrożek” (jak z Mrożka), which means something surreal and absurd. How would you explain all this? Do you think that a non-Pole can understand Mrożek’s sense of humour that we, as Poles, love so much?

In my view, Mrożek’s sense of humour is very similar to the British sense of humour. Just think about Monty Python. It is a type of absurd humour which probably not everyone gets. I am not sure if it is related to a nationality. What comes to my mind here is a story when Mrożek played in a film directed by his friend, Janusz Majewski. When the film crew was busy setting up the scene, Mrożek was bored and together with his friend dug a hole in the ground. He entered it and had his picture taken. Everybody laughed at this picture until somebody came up to Majewski and asked what was so funny. The director did not really know how to respond. The man just nodded and said, “There must be something wrong with you all.”  

There must be something wrong with me too; as this picture also makes me laugh. Just like many other of Mrożek’s works, especially the series of his drawings with a little boy who saw his dad reading a newspaper, came up to him and asked some questions about different things, like: “Dad where do kids come from?” The dad then answers sadly: “Sorry son, I wish I remembered…”

When I think about Mrożek’s plays, probably the funniest is the one titled The Death of the Lieutenant. Interestingly, its publication created quite a scandal. Some accused Mrożek of disrespecting national values. As you see, not everyone finds Mrożek funny. And thankfully so; as he indeed has so much more to offer.

 

In that case what was the source of Mrożek’s success? Was Tango the turning point in his literary career?

At the time of the publication of Tango he had already been known in Poland and recognised as an author of short stories. His debut The Police had also been a true success. However, worldwide Mrożek became famous mainly thanks to Tango. This play was really incredible! It was played in all of Europe’s leading theatres. Here another story comes to mind: Erwin Axer, a Polish stage director who had worked with German theatres, had suggested Mrożek’s Tango to the Schiller Theatre in Berlin. The Schiller Theatre’s director rejected the idea, telling Axer that Mrożek still had much to learn before his plays could be staged at the Schiller. Soon after, the director of that theatre regretted this decision; Mrożek became famous very fast and everybody was fighting for the rights to his subsequent plays.

Tango turned out to be very universal. It was interpreted as a piece about nostalgia for the past order in the world of moral collapse. In the main protagonist, Edek, we can easily see a metaphor of the communist authorities whose power was their simple brutality, not intellectual superiority. Tango also ridiculed the educated elite who, at that time, were limiting themselves to a deeply hidden contempt, remaining obedient to uneducated simpletons. In this piece, one can say that Mrożek even foresaw the events that took place in Paris in May 1968. This was one of the signs of his genius.

 

In Poland his Diaries, published in the years 2010-2013, generated a great deal of interest. This work was, on the one hand as Mrożek himself ironically said just notes published for money, but, on the other hand, it also included notes from which we learn of his personal fight with reality and himself. It is from the Diaries that we learned about his suicidal thoughts.

True. In the Diaries he wrote: “I have nobody to talk to, I have nobody to sleep with. I don’t even have myself in such a state which would allow me to tolerate myself.” He then took a gun from his wardrobe (as he had a period in his life when had been fascinated with weaponry) and from a different wardrobe he took an atlas of the world. Holding these two items, he came to the decision that he was not yet ready to kill himself, but also agreed that there was no place in the world where he could hide.

This was in the 1980s. However, his life was full of many, similar episodes. Mrożek was deeply affected by the passing of his first wife, Maria Obremba, who died just 18 days after she had been diagnosed with cancer in the late 1960s. Since then Mrożek thought a lot about death, like any intelligent man does. However, his reflections of human mortality were more like cool calculations. Ever since I learnt about Mrożek’s own passing, I can’t stop but think about one quote from his Diaries. In it Mrożek wrote: “Hypotheses. Everything is a hypothesis. One thing that we know for sure is that one day we will die. And yet this is something we do not believe in.”

 

In his last work, Baltazar (which is the name he also used wrote this work under), Mrożek truly fights with himself. Baltazar is a book which he wrote as part of his aphasia treatment. This book is, more than anything else, a record of his fight, or would you call it a meaty autobiography?

This is a story which gives us goose bumps. A great writer for whom, for decades, language had been the only homeland, suddenly, in 2002, lost it as a result of a stroke. Its side effect was aphasia, which affects the part of the brain that controls language. Consequently, Mrożek had to relearn everything; how to speak, write and read. Like an innocent child.

Baltazar is a fascinating tale as it constitutes Mrożek’s attempt to get back everything that had been part of his identity. However, I must admit that I was quite surprised when the publisher of the book, Anna Zaremba-Michalska, told me that she had been against publishing a preface to the book where Mrożek explains that its writing had been part of his therapy. In her view this book is good enough to defend itself as a biography. As I said, for me this opinion was a bit surprising, mainly because there are some factual mistakes in the book and, what’s somewhat worrisome, these facts started to take on a life of their own. Some dates that Mrożek mistakenly put in the book were republished in places chronicling his life and work. Even one of the more respected Polish weeklies published his obituary which was simply a summary of Baltazar; with no verification. For me this book defends itself only when we state that it was written as part of author’s therapy.

 

A few words about Mrożek’s travels: Italy, France, the United States, Germany and finally Mexico. These are places where after having left Poland Mrożek lived, often for many years.  Was it because he could not find his place on the earth?

Each of these decisions to relocate was based on a different reason. A move to Italy was apparently the decision of Mrożek’s first wife who reportedly said that she preferred to clean floors abroad than be a writer’s wife in communist Poland. In Italy, Mrożek lived in the provincial city of Chiavari. From there, he decided to move to Paris to start swimming in a bigger pond. He wrote much about this move in his letters. When living in Paris Mrożek would make frequent trips to the US or Germany where he was invited as an acclaimed playwright or because he simply worked there – lectured at the university, directed films, etc. However, when we read his Diaries carefully enough, we notice that Mrożek’s places of residence usually coincided with the places where his mistresses lived. This is true especially for one; the famous “Y”, a woman with whom, in the late 1970s and early 80s, he was obsessed. 

Mrożek moved to Mexico after he had married a Mexican woman and being tired with Europe. He said that when approaching the age of 60, he became interested in what he could still do. But not in a literary sense. Time and again he jumped into a completely foreign world and had to manage there. In Mexico, however, he wasn’t a big literary writer. Over there he was a gringo haciendado – a foreign owner of a piece of Mexican land. He returned to Poland when the political situation in Mexico had changed dramatically and life there had become dangerous. In Poland, at that time, communism had just ended. His last destination was Nice (France). He moved there – as he would often say – for retirement purposes. Mrożek’s doctor recommended the local climate as ideal for his patient’s ailing health. The truth is, however, that Mrożek was probably also a little disappointed with the new Polish reality.

All in all, at the heart of all Mrożek’s travels is probably some sort of relishing of the world, which he experienced still as a young man. Later he just could not live a different life.

 

Mrożek left Kraków twice and yet in his last will he stated that he wanted his ashes to be buried nowhere else but here. And they will be brought here tomorrow (September 17th 2013). Why was that? Was he all of a sudden sentimental about his youth, the interesting life he led here in Kraków when he lived in a writers’ flat at the Literary House on Krupnicza Street?

The fact that Mrożek will be buried in Kraków did not surprise me at all. In the 1990s when he still lived in Mexico and wasn’t thinking about coming back to Poland, he agreed to an interview with a Polish theatre director and critic, Józef Opalski. The title of this interview, which was published by a magazine titled Teatr (Theatre), explains it all: “Kraków is a Universum”. It is even hard to believe how many times in this conversation the clichéd word “magic” was used to describe Kraków. Mrożek was using it when talking about his love and admiration for the city, even though he was of course fully aware of its parochial and pompous nature. But, at the end of the day, with all its flaws and weaknesses Kraków was his hometown. He was born in nearby Borzęcin, he grew up here, and his literary debut was also here. That’s why he was to come back here.

Regarding the years when he lived in the famous Literary House on Krupnicza Street (the house was also a place of residence for such well-known writers and poets as the Nobel Peace Prize winner Wisława Szymborska, Konstanty Ildefons Gałczyński or for a while Tadeusz Różewicz) there are some contradictory stories. Some say that Mrożek would never leave his room; he would lock himself up and only work. Others point to numerous social events that he would organise, together with the actor Leszek Herdegen, with small cabaret scenes being performed; which everybody found extremely funny.

 

But compared with other Polish writers, like Wisława Szymborska, Mrożek’s readers’ perception of Mrożek was less affectionate. Do you fear now after his passing Mrożek will disappear from people’s minds and memory? I would even say that although his plays are still being staged in many countries, for example the Emigrants are to be staged this month in Sophia (Bulgaria), in Poland he has already been somewhat forgotten.

Comparing these two literary figures does not seem justified to me. Szymborska was criticised by many for some of her “youth mistakes”, especially the poem which she wrote after the passing of Joseph Stalin. And this criticism stayed for a very long time even despite her later great successes. Towards Mrożek, Poles have a much greater tolerance, even though Mrożek too in his early journalist career wrote some strange things such as: “We trust the great Stalin. Why shouldn’t we be certain of our future?” Of course he later decisively cut himself off from these kinds of views, but so did Szymborska. And yet, she’s been criticised and Mrożek really hasn’t. Maybe the difference lies in the Nobel Prize?

For me it remains a mystery why Mrożek is less staged these days. Maybe because he became known for his unwillingness to change anything in the text? This label was attached to him after the first night of his Miłośc na Krymie (Love in Crimea), which had detailed stage directions and even attached additional points as how to stage it. For this reason even acclaimed director Jerzy Jarocki gave up on it. Having said that, I also want to stress that in Mrożek’s last play Karnawał, czyli pierwsza żona Adama (Carnival, meaning the first wife of Adam) there was only one sentence: “Costumes, masks, scenography at the director’s discretion”. Presumably this gives the director some freedom, right?

Back to your second question, for sure I would not call Mrożek a forgotten author. Even in the last few years when Mrożek came back to Poland, people were queuing up in long lines for his autograph. And that was at the time when he already had great difficulties speaking.

 

You are finishing your book about Mrożek. I heard you wanted it to be published before his passing. Why?

I wanted to avoid the allegations that I lacked courage to publish it before the main hero passed away. Without a doubt Mrożek was a great author but he was also a petty man. In my book, I would like to show these two faces. Since the day he passed, a quote keeps coming to me mind – this time from his humoresque, which was once published by Tygodnik Powszechny.  In it, Mrożek wrote: “After many years of good health, the attorney passed away. This happened at the time when I finished writing his biography. In this work I proved that attorney K is immortal.” It seems that with Mrożek everything has to be as we like to say in Poland “as if from Mrożek”.

Translated by Iwona Reichardt

 

Małgorzata I. Niemczyńska is a Polish journalist working with Gazeta Wyborcza. She’s the author of the upcoming biography: Mrożek. Striptiz neurotyka (Mrożek. A Striptease of a Neurotic) which is to be published this autumn by Agora.

Łukasz Wojtusik is a Polish journalist and radio reporter. He is the head of the Kraków office of the radio program TOK FM. 

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Prisoner in the Urals

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An interview Pyotr Verzilov, a Russian-Canadian artist and activist, the unofficial spokesperson of the band Pussy Riot. Verzilov is married to Pussy Riot member Nadezhda Tolokonnikova. Interviewer: Ola Cichowlas

 

Read more: Prisoner in the Urals

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