Mariusz Wilk is a Polish author, journalist and former Solidarity member. His book Journals of a White Sea Wolf has been translated into several languages tells the story of his life on the Solovki Islands, an isolated archipelago in Russia’s north. He has since relocated to the village – as he calls it – of Konda Bierezna in Russian Karelia.
This interview originally appeared on the Polish Radio program TOK FM and was published online. We are grateful for TOK FM’s permission to translate and reprint the interview.
ŁUKASZ WOJTUSIK: Do you like coming back to Poland?
MARIUSZ WILK: I like coming back to some places in this country. For example to Kotlina Kłodzka, Kraków or Zakopane, but overall Poland is quite tiring. The space, the emptiness, the peace and quiet that I have in the north makes me see how loud it is here. Crowded and loud.
You often write about this in your diary. A return to Konda Bierezna is a return to your home, to a sanctuary of peace.
Here I am here a little bit out of my place. Of course here are some of my friends and readers. When I come back I often meet them. Then I give myself to others, I talk to them, and very often I live their problems.
What made you decide to write a diary? Is this because of what you wrote in your latest book, Lotem Gęsi, that time is slipping through your fingers?
Writing a diary helps me to contemplate time and this is the key to human life. It does not slip, it flows. Time is, in fact, quite a complicated matter. It has been quite a while since I left behind the concept of linear time. I believe that linear time does not make sense. It starts where no one knows and no one knows where it ends. Linear time goes nowhere. Sitting, isolated in the countryside, I was observing the cycles of nature, the cycles of the earth, the return of birds, departure of birds – it all repeats itself. And this is how I came to understand that time is round. However, this is not enough for me. I have been feeling a certain degree of fatalness to it. It also repeats itself so it also does not make much sense. Hence, at the moment, I am meditating on time as a spiral.
A little bit like the Buddhist monks….
More like Tao. It spins in circles and each year this spiral is a bit higher. It resembles a well in which every year the boarding gets bigger. One can look into this well from the top and see his/her reflection or one can see from the bottom who is looking on us from the top.
In an interview you mentioned that you have two masters: one of them is Jerzy Giedroyc (publisher of the Polish émigré journal Kultura – editor’s note). Who is the second one?
The first one is Father German. Giedroyc became my hero a bit later. Of course, I have known about him since I was a student but physically the first one in my life was Father German. It was in 1992 when I went to the Solovki Islands for the first time. I was in a poor psychological state. I got there from Abkhazia where I saw quite a bit in the war. This war was the end of my career as a foreign correspondent. After the war, by accident, I ended up in Solovki. I realized right then and there that I had a great topic to write a book. I realised that to write about Russia I needed to go deep into the Eastern Orthodoxy and the monasteries.
I realised that to get deeper into it, I had to get to know a monk. My friends told me about Father German. I approached him after a mass and asked for a conversation. He invited me to his quarters. This was something very rare. Not many people are allowed in a monk’s quarters. I do not know why I was let in, maybe it was his intuition – he seemed intrigued. We talked for almost the entire night. I told him my life story, like a confession. I told him about the Solidarity movement in Poland, about America, Berlin and Abkhazia. As a foreign correspondent I never had enough time to get deep into my own self. And he told me two important things. The first thought was: “Stop and you will see that you will get further.” At the end of the conversation he added: “Why do you wander around the world like that? You can do the same, without leaving where you are.”
These words stayed with me for so long that I thought about them for eight years when I was staying in Solovki. I read Old Russian literature in the Old Church Slavonic language. I wanted to understand their roots.
After three years of silence – also on paper – I got a message from another old man, the editor of a Paris-based journal Kultura – Jerzy Giedroyc. He offered me to become a permanent contributor to his journal. This was after my letter to Gustaw Herling-Grudziński (Polish writer and journalist – editor’s note) in which I described to him Jarcewo, 50 years after he had departed from it. Herling liked this letter to such an extent that he included it in his Dziennik Pisany Nocą which at that time was being published by Kultura. This is how I started working with them. First in the form of letters from the Solovki Islands, but in time it turned into a sort of diary. Why a diary? Writing a diary gave me the opportunity to contemplate time. Today I can write about one thing, tomorrow about another and I do not need to stick to one topic. I like to write bits and pieces and writing in the form of a diary allows me to do that. My adventure with Father German ended in 1999 when I felt I was ready to move on. I was ready to start my own path. Not to go with the crowd, not to follow some external events which take me somewhere. I was ready to take my own slow steps. Both in life and with words.
Why did you decide to get outside Russia, to Labrador in Canada?
Labrador is also the north, meaning I did not leave Russia. I still believe that I live in the north and not in Russia. Russia has been here for a few centuries but the traces of human life there date back six or seven thousand years. Meaning, Russia is just an episode. I talk about myself more as a “writer of the north” and not a “writer living in Russia”. But returning to the previous subject, here in Kraków there was once an amazing meeting during which I was presented with Le Route Bleu by Kenneth White (a Scottish poet and writer – editor’s note).
Discovering White was one of the most important intellectual adventures of my life. Once I was given this book, I read it and started to search its author to have a conversation with him. I wanted to finish my diary Tropami Rena with a conversation with White. He is the author of the concept “intellectual nomadism” and my book was about nomadism – not only physical but also spiritual. Unfortunately, I did not manage to find White and I had to finish the book without him. We later met, by accident, at a festival for travellers and wanderers. This was where the idea to follow the track in Labrador, 20 years after Le Route Bleu was born: to see what has changed and contrast Russia’s north with Canada’s north. I waited for two years, managed to save money and we set out. It was a quick trip.
In your recent book, Lotem Gęsi, you are constantly complaining that you cannot stop…
This is the first thing, for sure. We could not stop because there were three ferry trips – we could not skip them as we would have got stuck. It was also a route from one camp site to another. We travelled together, we talked a lot, and when you talk, you do not see much. It was also pure tourism. Just zooming through Labrador. I always had a negative attitude towards tourism – understood not only as travelling from one camp site to another but also a lifestyle.
You write about this in the beginning of Lotem Gęsi.
Yeah, a voyager is a tourist, while a wanderer is a wanderer.
Kapuściński was a voyager while Kenneth White a wanderer?
Yes. And let’s add one more thing. A wanderer is a person who walks as long as he becomes the road himself. Whenever he is, the wanderer is at home. For this reason he feels responsible for the place he is visiting. A voyager, on the other hand, is nowhere at home, even at his own home is only temporarily there. He never takes the responsibility for the places he is in. A tourist destroys small nations and the local people because he mistreats their lives. At a certain point they give up on doing their local crafts and start servicing a client, the tourist.
And they look at him as if he was a bag full of money?
Yes. They give up their traditional undertakings because it makes more financial sense to serve a tourist than to look after the reindeer, for example. And the reindeer which are not taken care of simply die.
So when it came to your travels in Labrador, who were you: a wanderer or a voyager?
I was a voyager and this was my failure. I also failed with the language. We saw everything that was worth seeing there and I thought I would later write a book about Labrador. In half a year. I started doing it and I suffered. It was one of the most difficult texts I have ever written. And this is because it was about nothing. How much can you write about asphalt and camp sites? Thank God my daughter was born that year, otherwise this text would have killed me. This is the only travel trip in my life which can be called pure tourism.
Somebody said to you once: “Go to Russia. This is a space for never-ending inspirations.”
Yes, Allen Mandelbaum told me that back in the United States. He was a very wise man who encouraged me to come to the US and promote Konspira (Wilk’s first book about the Solidarity underground – editor’s note). When I was leaving for the US I thought I would settle there. However, after four months I realised that it was not a country for me. When I was talking to Allen I asked him what I could do there. I went to the US with a plan to write another book, a sequel to Konspira. But I was alone, without my friends. The new book was supposed to be entitled Gdańsk – an open history (Gdańsk - historia otwarta). I presented my idea to Allen and he then told me: "Great idea, but before you write your book remember that here nobody is interested in Poland.” Then he gave me a piece of advice: “Go to Russia, if you get deep into Russia, you will be able to live off it for the rest of your life. For us, in the West, Russia will always be of interest. You can be sure that your texts will be translated, you will be getting royalties.”
And your texts are being translated. Your books are published not only in Poland. Have you succeeded? Was this a good piece of advice?
Yes, but he probably did not think that I would want to go so far north. And indeed there is great interest in what I am doing. My books sell well in Germany. The French are also quite interested in my writing, there have been three translations into English, Spanish and now there are also publications in Russian. For sure, things are going well, although I am also aware that what I am doing is a niche form of writing. I do not reach what we call the mass reader. But this is not my target, either. I am not interested in producing best-sellers, or making money. I am more interested in people who after reading my book want to come and visit me, for example. And, fortunately, there are quite many of them.
You are a citizen of the north. What about being a citizen of the world?
No. Everybody thinks they are the citizens of the world nowadays. I feel more like an earthling. This is probably the concept of the widest meaning. For quite some time I have been trying to avoid all kinds of labels which are being put on me: a Pole, a Catholic, etc. Those different identities limit us. Does the fact that I am a Catholic not allow me to meditate like a Buddhist or practice wushu? If I am a Pole, should I be against the Russians just because in the past they beat and hurt us?
In your book Lotem Gęsi, I can see a change in your writing style, can this be explained by the birth of your daughter?
This was a fundamental experience for me. Her arrival, as it is written on the book’s cover, flipped my world upside down. I am a late father. I was 55 and an already shaped man when she was born. Now, I am writing a new book, about my daughter. I am describing the world from mine and her perspective. I want to describe people who will soon die so that when she reads the book when she is an adult, she will be able to return to her childhood.
We need to remember one thing: when she is fifteen, I will be, if I make it by then, seventy. Throughout this time, I am able to lead her and describe this.
And you will be travelling together?
In three years, if I am still able to, I would like to take her to Siberia, Buryatia, The Chukchi Peninsula, Kamchatka and maybe even Tibet. I would like her to first see these endless spaces, and the steppes. I want this world to be dear to her. But when she is a teenager I will send her to a school so that she can catch up with everything that my wife and I cannot provide for her.
How long will it take before we get the book about her?
Not too long. Ever since she appeared in my life, I have accelerated a lot. It took me five years to write Lotem Gęsi and I had difficulties finishing it. And now, in the summer, I have written half of the book. I think I should finish it by the autumn. The publisher should get it by the winter.
Translated by Iwona Reichardt
Łukasz Wojtusik is a Polish journalist and radio reporter. He is the head of the Krakow office of the radio program TOK FM.
This interview originally appeared on the Polish Radio program TOK FM and published online in Polish here: http://www.tokfm.pl/Tokfm/1,102433,11499109,Czas_linearny_jest_bezsensowny__Zaczyna_sie_i_konczy.html
- Published on Thursday, 29 March 2012 11:56
- Category: Interviews
Interview with Jacek Piechota, former Polish Minister of Economy and the President of the Baltic Business Forum Association. Interviewer: Adrian Reiter.
ADRIAN REITER: Polish politicians and opinion leaders would like for our country to be perceived as a bridge in relations between the West and the East. But do we have enough potential to integrate these two European regions economically?
JACEK PIECHOTA: Poland has a vast potential, more and more often noticed and highly valued by western investors. It turns out, for example, that we have an excellent workforce that is employed by foreign concerns investing in Ukraine. It is Polish managers, directors and CEOs who are more and more often commissioned by such companies in their eastern branches instead of their compatriots. For there is less cultural and social difference between us, Ukrainians and Belarusians, and we feel perfectly at ease within western corporate systems as well.
That is the view of the West. But how does eastern business see us?
Poland has been called “a green island of Europe” for several reasons. I was not aware it could actually be such good promotion for the Polish economy abroad. When GDP in Ukraine decreased by 15 per cent year-on-year, and Poland registered economic growth, politicians and investors in Kyiv started to ponder over the reasons for such a good condition of the Polish economy. And that paved the way for transferring many solutions already proved successful in Poland to the East.
For years Poland has been developing a strategic partnership with Ukraine. However, the recent anti-democratic proceedings of Viktor Yanukovych’s cabinet have cast a shadow over our relations with Kyiv. Has Ukraine turned politically and economically towards Russia?
Above all, Yanukovych is a pragmatist. In the election campaign he sought the support of voters from the eastern part of the country, so he promoted some anti-western points. But Ukraine has been in the sphere of western European influences for years and the president cannot fail to take this into account in his calculations. Yanukovych delivered his first address in Russian just after the elections, but a year ago in Warsaw he had already given a speech in Ukrainian. Many opinions made throughout the EU are utterly simplistic, since western standards are applied to them.
What are eastern standards, then?
Eastern standards are best represented by the example of changes in the corporate taxation system which the Ukrainian authorities decided to introduce in 2010. The idea met with widespread social protest, and there were even talks about the second phase of the Orange Revolution. We were then invited to Kyiv to present Polish tax regulations. The businessmen who were protesting came with a simple mindset: Poland is “a green island of Europe” because it supports the development of small and middle-sized companies by not overburdening them with excessive taxes. They thought we would be their allies. However, our system proved to be similar to the regulations proposed by the Ukrainian government. The businessmen could not understand the reasons for abandoning the sales tax that has functioned in Ukraine so far and was accounted for in this manner: you hide sales under the table and pay as much to the national coffers, because you often negotiate with a corrupt tax inspector. It might seem that we supported the arguments of the authorities. But, as it turned out, we only did this to some degree. For when we started talking about what obligations our fiscal system impose on the treasury authorities with respect to tax interpretation, register of benefits and anti-corruption regulations, we became enemies of the bureaucratic army right away.
In relations with Ukraine we are economic realists. But we probably do not present the same approach to Russia, do we?
It is a special case indeed. We have created such a severe anti-Russian climate in Polish politics and the media that in Moscow there persists a fear of thinking about economic cooperation with Poles today. And this has not changed for years – almost every Polish politician is afraid to say anything good about Russian investments or capital, so as not to be considered a Russophile, because that label compromises him in the eyes of voters. I believe that we have never undertaken a rational evaluation of Polish-Russian economic cooperation.
We are afraid of Russian capital, however we do not fear the Chinese capital that is dynamically colonising the world today.
China lies further away and our mutual relations are not troubled by the past. That is good, because Chinese investments have stabilized our situation, diversifying the array of investors on our market. What is disturbing is the fact we do nothing to take an important place in this race for Chinese assets.
How so? It is said that Bronisław Komorowski’s visit to Beijing contributed to significant advancement of Chinese investments.
Before President Komorowski, the only other visit to Beijing at such a high level was undertaken by Aleksander Kwaśniewski many years ago. Since then, China has been intensively penetrated by heads of others states. We did nothing and wasted that time! The truth is that Polish politicians did not notice Chinese potential until a few years ago. In 2002, as the Minister of Economy, I flew in an official capacity to China. My agenda included meetings with the Deputy Prime Minister and heads of intergovernmental committees. The visit was interrupted by the Prime Minister Leszek Miller, who urgently summoned me to a cabinet meeting, explaining the necessity of my return by the social unrest in Silesia. I remember that Ksawery Burski, the Polish ambassador to Beijing at the time, told me then: “The Chinese won’t forget us for that for the next two thousand years.” If there is no cataclysm, revolution or civil war in Poland and a minister cuts short an official visit, the Chinese consider it an insult.
What strategy should we adopt in economic relations with China today?
We must prove to the Chinese authorities and business that we are a good base to conduct business operations in this part of Europe. The Hungarians proposed “The Strategy of the Black Sea for China”, in which they explained that it is best to invest in this part of the world through Budapest. The document was very well received in Beijing. During sessions of the Baltic Business Forum 2012 we seek to spark a serious discussion on how to include China in the development strategies of the Baltic Sea region, and what role Poland should play in this process. In a way, we are in a better position to become a base for Chinese investments in this region than Hungary is in the Black Sea region, which it is not even located in! Unfortunately, there is an attitude persisting among Polish elites that we should not contact the Chinese with other countries, because we will somehow get lost in the mosaic. I believe that thanks to our economic, business and personal relations we can safely introduce Chinese investors to Eastern European markets. Then we will avoid the perspective spreading from Chinese heights: Northern Europe, Central Europe and Eastern Europe are all in view, but Poland itself is not.
Jacek Piechota is the former Polish Minister of Economy and the President of the Baltic Business Forum Association.
The Baltic Business Forum 2012 is held between April 25th to 27th in Świnoujście, Poland. The invited businessmen, politicians and experts will discuss conditions and barriers in exchange of goods, services and capital between the countries of Western and Northern Europe and the East. Separate panels are dedicated to e.g. power industry, logistics, banking and finance, telecommunications, computer studies, ecology, foodstuff trade and the media. The Forum’s participants will also debate economic strategies for the Baltic region; the forum begins with a session entitled “Baltic – Poland – China”. The Baltic Business Forum 2012 is held under the honorary patronage of the Minister of Economy, Waldemar Pawlak.
An interview with Robin Barnett, the British Ambassador to Poland. The second part of this interview can be found on the Krakow Post website.
NEW EASTERN EUROPE: You have worked for the British Government for over 30 years, and first came to Poland in 1982. What are some of your personal experiences of living under martial law?
ROBIN BARNETT: First of all, I would like to be clear about one thing. I do not claim to have experienced the same deprivations and difficulties of martial law as ordinary Poles did. Being a diplomat the authorities could not arrest me and I also had access to supplies that were not available to others. However, a very good example of what it is was like in Poland under martial law happened to me when I was sent with a colleague to monitor the demonstrations in Gdańsk on the second anniversary of the signing of the Gdańsk Agreement in August 1982. We were two young guys in our early twenties who had never been to a demonstration before. We were not allowed to stay in a hotel in Gdańsk and were based in Gdynia. They had also cut all telecommunications in the Gdańsk Voivodeship so we were not able to communicate with the embassy in Warsaw. On the morning of August 31st 1982, we went to the demonstration, parked in a quiet place and went for lunch at the Hevelius Hotel. We had just got our “pieczarki z patelni” when the demonstration started, so we went out and tried to monitor the scale and the way in which it is dealt with. It started to get pretty brutal and I can confirm first-hand that whether it was alcohol, drugs or something else, the ZOMO (paramilitary police - editor) were definitely fired up. We began to realise that the security forces were trying to squeeze the protesters into one small area, and then suddenly had the horrible realisation that the epicentre of where they are trying to squeeze everybody into, was where we had parked our car. So we returned to the car with riot police and demonstrators coming one way and a line of ZOMO coming the other way. We quickly made the decision to drive towards the ZOMO until one of them climbed onto the bonnet of our car and started interrogating us. I told the leader of the ZOMO that we were lost, and although I don't really think he believed me, they eventually let us through and allowed us to drive through the square next the shipyard, which was full of tear gas by this time.
What happened next?
We drove back to in Gdynia and, as we still had not had lunch, ordered “pieczarki z patelni” from the hotel restaurant. Just as we were starting to eat our mushrooms people start running past the glass rotunda of the hotel pursued by the ZOMO. We ended up watching the events from the safety of a hotel room overlooking the railway station, from where we were able to see all the events quite clearly and acquire a great deal of important information. That day, we learnt that there is a right and wrong way of dealing with a demonstration, but more importantly it was the day when I really realised how brave people were to come out and demonstrate, and the lengths that the authorities were willing to go to crush the demonstrations. It was a real education for me, both in terms of freedom and actually how many people were willing to help and support us in both an active and passive way.
Did you have any contacts within the Solidarity movement?
It was my job to make contacts with the opposition and it was an extremely fascinating time to be a young diplomat. I personally knew Jacek Kuroń and Janusz Onyszkiewicz. I also had contact with the Church, whose role was both spiritual and political. And it is well-known that the existence of the Catholic Church and, most crucially, the election of a Polish pope was pretty decisive with what happened later.
What was the general mood amongst the Poles you met during this time?
I must make one important distinction here: many people I met were active in politics or the opposition, and they had more hope of change than ordinary Poles did. I always found the opposition much more hopeful than I was at the time. My heart wanted change, but my head told me that there was still a long way to go. Happily, I was wrong. However, many of the people I talked to believed that communism was on its last legs. By 1985 I had already participated in the beginnings of discussions on a free economic policy for Poland, and this was one of things that gave Poland an edge over countries such as Romania. With the help of the opposition and the Church it was possible to have these kinds of discussions in a way it simply wasn't under Nicolae Ceauşescu's Securitate. And Poland was really able exploit that opportunity. However, for many ordinary Poles, they just concentrated on getting on with their lives under quite difficult circumstances. I would not say they were happy times, but one of the characteristics I admire about Poles the most is even when they are resigned to the fact that things are not great, they do not lose hope. At no time did I ever feel I was in a place where life was hopeless. It was during this time that my “love affair” with Poland first began.
What are some of your memories of Kraków during this time?
During the 1983 papal visit, I was amongst the millions of people on the Błonia in Kraków, and was also present when the pope blessed the church in Nowa Huta. Diplomats had been banned from the event, so we managed to sneak in by joining an army convoy. However, it is difficult to imagine what the main square in Kraków looked like in the early 1980s: there were very few people, they didn't stop to chat, and the effect of the Nowa Huta steelworks meant that all the buildings around the square were black. I also had the feeling that Kraków was a sadder place than Warsaw at this time, which was more to do with the system than the people. This was why I was so shocked when I came back in 1998, because I had remembered an empty, black place.
How do you think young people in Poland today view the events of the 1980s?
I believe that young people are beginning to forget the events of the 1980s, and that they are already beginning to be consigned to history. I feel that this is extremely positive because while it is very important for all countries to respect their history, honour their heroes and remember the sacrifices that were made, we also need to focus on the future. Most young people have exactly the same concerns as their counterparts in London or Manchester: Am I going to get the right university place? Am I going to get a good job? Should I spend some time abroad? And this is not because they live in Poland, but because they are Europeans and want to take advantage of the opportunities to travel. This is not about what happened before or just after 1989 when people just wanted to get out of Central and Eastern Europe and go to a country where the situation was economically better. The present reality is a much more complex picture where a lot of people simply want to develop and learn new skills.
Does this have any negative aspects?
Although it is important that we have ways of remembering the past and commemorating history, we also need to remind future generations that the PRL (Polska Rzeczpospolita Ludowa, the People's Republic of Poland) was not some golden era when everyone had a job and nobody did any work. Places like the PRL museum in Nowa Huta and the Oskar Schindler factory in Podgórze continue to be excellent at doing this. The only slight fear I have for Central and Eastern Europe is that a degree of ost-nostalgie (nostalgia for aspects of life under the socialist system in former communist countries of Eastern Europe – editor's note) might come back, particularly in some countries where economic times look likely to be harder than here in Poland.
Are young Polish people generally optimistic for Poland's future?
I believe that young people are optimistic because, for so many years, Poland has demonstrated its real economic progress. Although people like me look back and see thirty years of amazing progress, young people are quite rightly questioning the government and saying, “Where's the progress? Let's get on with it! It takes longer to get to Kraków from Warsaw than it used to. This isn't good enough.” I think this balance is extremely important and I love getting into discussions with groups of young people in Poland about these issues, because they have great creative energy, great ideas and real enthusiasm. I am all for the impatience of youth but still think the older generation has something to offer because we must put all of these things into some kind of perspective.
How will the 2012 UEFA European Football Championship change Poland?
Euro 2012 is for Poland what the Olympic Games are for the UK, and it is a fantastic opportunity to show the world that things have actually moved on in Poland. The image has been all too often that Poland is a communist country, but Euro 2012 is a really excellent opportunity to market how Poland has already changed and is continuing to change. It is a great opportunity for both countries to show a bright, new image, and we are looking at ways in which we can bring these two great events together. I would also mention the Paralympic Games because one of the ways in which the UK and Poland have collaborated the most in recent years is working together to improve the conditions for disabled people in Poland. A lot of the new legislation that is coming out in Poland has been based on UK legislation and I have already met a key member of the Sejm to discuss the next steps in its implementation. And finally, for a football fanatic like me, Euro 2012 will be a fantastic occasion and I am going to really enjoy the feast of football that will take place here in June.
Finally, what do you see as your main goals as British Ambassador to Poland?
The main goal of my term is quite straightforward: to strengthen, even further, the relations between the UK and Poland within the framework of the EU and NATO. There are so many areas where the UK and Poland strongly agree, for example, the importance of the single market, the importance of the growth agenda and the importance of competitiveness. If Europe is to have a successful long-term sustainable pattern of growth, this agenda has to be completed, and the UK and Poland are absolutely as one on that. In terms of wider foreign policy issues, the UK and Poland are again very much in the same place: the importance of a strong EU Neighbourhood policy, the importance of an effective security policy with both a European and NATO dimension, and support for the transatlantic link. Another area where our common position is well-known is on the question of EU enlargement, where there is not much difference between the UK and Polish view.
My second task is to help encourage more British businesses to take advantage of the fantastic opportunities in Poland and also help it on its path towards even greater economic development in the future. I also want to build on a fantastic shared past between us. If you look at the things we did together in the Second World War, and what has followed since including well over half a million Poles now living in the UK, doing jobs in all walks of life and making a really positive contribution. We need to build on that really powerful link between us which can help to deepen our cooperation.
Finally, my third and this is a very personal objective. Last time I left Poland ten kilograms heavier than when I arrived: this must not happen again.
Robin Barnett first came to Poland in 1982 to work at the British Embassy in Warsaw and experienced Poland under communism and martial law. He returned to Poland in 1998 as Deputy Head of the British Embassy witnessing Poland's transition to democracy and their membership into NATO. Mr Barnett's latest posting sees him return to Poland as the British Ambassador.
An interview with Polish poet and writer, Wojciech Bonowicz. This interview originally appeared on the Polish Radio program TOK FM and was published online. We are greatful for TOK FM’s permission to translate and reprint the interview.
ŁUKASZ WOJTUSIK (TOK FM): Death is always difficult to accept, especially when someone close passes away: even somebody whom many of us may not have actually known in person but felt a connection with. Wisława Szymborska was such a person.
WOJCIECH BONOWICZ: Szymborska was liked by many people. I think this was due to her modesty and her way of life. It was her lack of pretence that we will miss so much. She was extremely genuine. She was also very creative up until the very end her life. As far as I know, she was still working on her next book. But she did not leave many poems behind; only three hundred and fifty. There could have been many more.
The public had to wait a few years for her last collection Tutaj (Here) which was eventually published in 2009. This book was another great success for her, and yet we have a feeling of insatiability with her poetry.
Her readers have always had to wait for her new poems. I remember what a great event the publication of Ludzie na moście (People on the bridge) was. I was still a student of Polish literature at that time and discovered Szymborska’s poetry through this book. It is interesting that, although her poems were published by a state publisher, it was the underground Solidarity movement which awarded her. Ludzie na moście includes a beautiful poem about death. It says that death always loses and that each human breath is proof of this failure. It is an amazing poem and still makes an amazing impression on readers today. Her poetry is saturated by high class intellectualism with serious philosophical questions and extremely simple language. Hence it is understandable for everybody.
You are the biographer of Józef Tischner (Polish philosopher and Catholic priest who died in 2000 – editor’s note). Szymborska never talked openly about her faith or God, but always asked extremely existential questions in her poems. Would Tischner be able to find things to discuss with Szymborska? Would they be able to find a common language?
They are already up there debating and I imagine it to be a very vivid discussion. In fact, if you think about their temperaments they had quite similar personalities. The main difference is that Tischner loved meeting people and public presentations, whereas Szymborska clearly didn’t. She was always reserved and very careful. Tischner loved philosophical poetry, and such was her poetry.
But it was Szymborska who led poetry out of the intellectual “ivory towers” and brought it to the “common people”. Not many Polish poets are as well understood by the general public as she was.
Szymborska achieved what Czesław Miłosz (Nobel-winning Polish poet, 1911-2004) could not and probably missed. She had a wide range of readers. Actually, it is not only Szymborska who is loved so much by the Polish public today, but also other poets like Zbigniew Herbert (1924-1998) and Jan Twardowski (1915-2004). This is due to their very simple style of poetry.
A good example is my daughter Małgosia who chose the poem Tutaj by Szymborska to read at a poetry reading contest. Being 11 years old she felt that she understood this poem. She may not be able to see all its layers or express its irony, but she clearly understands its message. This is where Szymborska's genius is best seen. Young people connect with her very quickly due to the tone of her poetry, which is both warm and candid, and deals with the most important human problems. Her poems offer something to everybody, not just to the select few. Even Szymborska’s translators admit that they are constantly rediscovering her poetry due to the subtle connections between lines, which can have multiple meanings, allusions and references.
Szymborska was an ambitious poet who often motivates her readers to aim higher and reach higher intellectual goals.
Szymborska had a very small circle of friends and did not really like the glamour or the media.
It was clear that being in a crowd was tiring for her. She always valued her privacy. The picture I have before my eyes is the embarrassment that was visible on her face when others were giving her praise. Even when she was signing books, she was deeply surprised that people wanted to read them. It was both touching and genuine. She was deprived of any form of pretence.
How should Szymborska be remembered? How should we honour her?
The most important way in which we should remember her is by continuing to read her poetry. I believe that her poetry will last for a long time because it is universal and not limited to any specific literary period.
Szymborska’s world is constructed in such a way that we can enter it at different times and in many different contexts. The last thing that I would hope for would be monuments or big ceremonies in her honour, even though I am sure there will be a “Year of Wisława Szymborska”. Although then, we may be able to better understand and embrace her poetry.
Translated by Iwona Reichardt
This interview originally appeared on the Polish Radio program TOK FM and published online. in Polish here: http://www.tokfm.pl/Tokfm/1,103454,11076976,_Szymborska_i_Tischner_juz_tam_sobie_dyskutuja___ROZMOWA_.html
An interview with Sławomir Popowski, Polish journalist and expert on Eastern Europe.
PAWEŁ PIENIĄŻEK: By 1991, the crisis in the Soviet Union had reached its height. What was the public mood and attitude of the Russian people towards the Soviet Union at that time?
SŁAWOMIR POPOWSKI: Perestroika and Gorbachev enjoyed their greatest popularity in 1989. On the one hand resistance from the nomenklatura was on the rise, while on the other hand Gorbachev and the paths of the democratically minded part of society began to diverge. At some point he found himself between the two groups, and while some criticised him for overly zealous reforms, others attacked him for his conservatism and for being too submissive to the communist authorities.
In 1991, it was evident that state structures were becoming completely inefficient and the country was suffering from an economic crisis. At the beginning of perestroika one could still find goods in the shops, while in 1990, there was virtually nothing. Between 1990 and 1991, it was obvious that the Soviet Union was beginning to come apart at the seams, especially within the republics. To prevent this situation and win political capital, citizens were asked in a referendum whether they wanted the Soviet Union to continue. More than 60 per cent of voters said “yes” and victory was declared. However, one thing was left unsaid: not all of the republics participated. The Baltic republics, for example, did not participate at all. Even the participation of Russia was not absolutely clear. Boris Yeltsin took advantage of this fact and agreed to hold the referendum provided another question was added to the ballot: Do you want Russia to have a president? The majority of voters said they did. The first election was held in June and Yeltsin won an overwhelming victory in the first round.
Was the coup expected?
There had been talk of a conservative coup for many years, at least since the time Nina Andreyeva’s famous essay, I Cannot Forsake My Principles, was published and since the beginning of mass demonstrations by the democratic opposition. The possibility of a coup, developing in circles close to Gorbachev, was first mentioned by Eduard Shevardnadze. After Alexander Yakovlev was removed from the party’s leadership by Gorbachev, he also hinted at such a possibility. In his last statement after leaving the party, released two or three days before the coup, Yakolev spoke directly about the possibility of a conservative coup. There is evidence that preparations for the August Coup began as early as March. At least this is what Yakovlev and Gorbachev’s advisers said at the time.
Valentin Pavlov, then serving as prime minister, delivered a speech that drew a lot of attention. Without the president’s agreement and to his surprise, Pavlov allegedly demanded special powers for the government at a sitting of the Soviet Union Supreme Council. In fact, there was an idea to declare a state of emergency, in which Yakolev would have had a part in implementing. However Yakolev later succumbed to alcoholism and was out of the picture.
The coup started on August 19th. You were a correspondent for the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita in Moscow at that time. When did you first find out something was happening?
I arrived in Moscow on August 17th. The next day I managed to send a message to Rzeczpospolita about Yakovlev’s threat before going to bed. On August 19th, at six o’clock in the morning, my colleague Bolesław Porowski from the newspaper Expres Wieczorny called me. He said, “Listen, there’s a state of emergency in Russia. See what’s going on!” Sleepily, I got into the car and went to see what was happening. I watched the tanks rolling towards Moscow and came back via Leninsky Avenue and Mira Avenue, which were full of soldiers.
The first hours of the coup were all full of anxiety and uncertainty. The political fever among the Russian people was high. They were used to demonstrations so they came up to the tanks and soldiers, some shook fists at them, while others cried and said, “No, you will not shoot, darlings.” Around 11 am, the famous scene in which Yeltsin climbed on a tank and announced that Russia and the White House would not submit to the coup d’etat took place.
The night of August 20th was the most dramatic as it was still not clear what was happening. Rumours spread of a possible storming of the White House as well as reports that units loyal to the coup members were on their way. Across Kutuzovsky Prospekt, girls standing in two lines blocked the passage, saying the tanks would only pass over their dead bodies. It was more of a show of emotion and demonstration than real resistance. Yet there was a moment when a group of people defending the White House tried to stop the tanks. Shots were fired and three people died. They were the only fatalities of the coup.
On August 21st, the third day of the coup, it was already clear that there would be no storming and the troops would be withdrawn from the city. Information was spread that Yeltsin’s people had flown to see Gorbachev and that the coup was actually over. Gorbachev came back to Moscow that same evening and the arrest of the coup members followed. However, that was just the midway point.
Was there a danger that the August Coup could have succeeded?
We must realize that the coup was staged in the name of the unity and security of the Soviet Union, as well as the restoration of order. In fact, the real aim was to prevent the signing of a new treaty which was to take place on August 20th. Obviously, a long list of populist actions, for example pay rises and better shop supplies, was prepared to win over the society, but all those measures were ineffective. Had the coup members been more determined, they might not have lost after just two days and their chances would have been better. But then they risked a civil war, especially in the republics, which would have probably ended with another period of terror.
Why was Yanayev elected the coup leader? He was not a notable figure.
He led the coup in order to make it seem legal. He was the vice-president, so the public was informed that the president was ill and Yanayev was taking over the president’s duties. The investigation later conducted by Russian prosecutors showed that he was not entirely convinced and that he was not the mastermind of the coup. It was Vladimir Kryuchkov who masterminded the coup, and according to Yakovlev, Kryuchkov had been preparing the coup since March 1991, actively misinforming Gorbachev about the situation in the country. Oleg Shenin was another powerful man in the Politburo, and according to Yakovlev, he was the first to be proposed to lead the emergency committee. Oleg Baklanov, the vice-president of the Defence Council of the USSR, was another top official. They were the major figures in the emergency committee.
You said the coup was the first part. What was the second?
During the coup, Yeltsin made some decisions at the time that no one paid much attention to, but turned out to be far-reaching and of great consequence. Claiming that the situation required certain actions, he issued decrees. For example, the Russian authorities took control of the KGB so that no matter how the coup would unfold, power would be taken away from Gorbachev. After his return from Foros, it was in fact Yeltsin who wielded the power.
Soon afterwards, a new wave of revolution rose up in Moscow. Demonstrations led by the democratic opposition were held in the streets. One of the most memorable was in front of the KGB headquarters in Lubyanka where demonstrators dismantled a monument of Felix Dzerzhinsky. The crowd also wanted to seize the communist party headquarters near Lubyanka in order to take party documents or at least prevent their destruction.
The crowd also wanted to dismantle the Lenin monument. However, people around Yeltsin were afraid that the situation would quickly get out of hand and ordered the leaders of the democratic opposition to create calm among the crowds.
Three days after the coup, a big victory concert and another rally were scheduled to take place near the White House. There was an event there every day, but I remember that one in particular. It was then that I realized what had happened. Something had changed in Russia and there was no going back.
Did the coup accelerate the collapse of the USSR?
The USSR had already been in decline before the August Coup, but initiating the Novo-Ogaryovo process became a chance to reverse the negative trend. The coup invalidated everything that had been before and hastened the collapse of the system. Gorbachev was left without power. It is not just that he had no control of state structures, he also had no one to fall back on. He became irrelevant, and although he still tried to be active, all the ideas he came up with fell on deaf ears.
At the end of August or the beginning of September, a huge victory demonstration took place. The demonstrators carried a large three-coloured Russian flag towards the White House, along with portraits of the three victims of the August coup. The White House was open to journalists and I was a frequent guest there. At one point, I suddenly found myself on the long balcony over the main entrance from which Yeltsin was delivering a speech.
Gorbachev’s return to Moscow is often compared to Napoleon’s 100 days after his flight from Elbe. Yet there is a difference. The emperor was able to fight another battle, while Gorbachev did not have such a chance. He was completely abandoned by the West. I remember an international human rights conference at the beginning of September. US Secretary of State, James Baker, and other foreign ministers were there, and it was funny to see how Baker interrupted his conversation with Gorbachev because Yeltsin was more important. He was out of the picture and he knew it.
On December 25th 1991, after the independence referendum in Ukraine and Yeltsin’s signing of the Belavezha Accords, Gorbachev delivered a TV address in which he announced he was stepping down. Soon afterwards, I took a walk into Red Square to witness the lowering of the red flag and the raising of the new Russian one. I was extremely surprised to see almost no one there. There was neither the feeling of tragedy nor triumph; there wasn't even curiosity.
At the beginning of 1992, Ryszard Kapuściński stayed in my flat. We met our friend Irina Schatunovska, a staunch democrat and deputy editor-in-chief of the journal Latinskaia Amierika. She came to us saying, “Look what’s going on here! I can’t even go to see my family in Latvia now. I have to apply for a visa!”
I told her, “Irina, it's an independent country,” to which she replied, “I don’t want that. How is that possible? My family lives there and I have to apply for a visa?”
It was only then that the Russians began to realize what was really happening. When we saw how the events later unfolded, with the red and brown oppositions against Yeltsin, we could then see it was, in fact, a continuation of the whole process.
Sławomir Popowski is a lecturer at the Melchior Wańkowicz College of Journalism and a board member of the Central and Eastern European Media Centre Foundation. Since July 2008, he has been a member of Studio Opinii. Between 1985 and 1990 he was the Moscow correspondent of the Polish Press Agency and later a correspondent in Moscow for the daily Rzeczpospolita. He is an editor of the Polish bi-monthly Nowa Europa Wschodnia.
Translated by Bogdan Potok