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Stuck in the Middle: Polish Intellectuals Sound the Alarm on Russia

Mr. Ambien

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It's obvious Poles are paranoid here, but I think it's a good read in understanding that paranoia.


Poland has long seen itself as stuck between the East and West, resulting in plenty of historical suffering. Russian aggression in Ukraine has many in the country fearing the worst. Leading Polish writers worry that the West isn't doing enough.

Jacek Dehnel's apartment smells like mandarin oranges and gas heating. Two dozen walking sticks protrude from one corner of the room, the accessories of a young man with the airs of a wise old dandy. Books are stacked everywhere, right up to the ceiling, and they line the walls of the poet's three-room apartment, located in the heart of Warsaw, on the banks of the Vistula River.

The apartment offers a view of a tall, spiked high-rise -- the Palace of Culture and Science, a landmark of the Polish capital and a symbol of erstwhile Soviet imperialism. The people of Warsaw have given the building many colorful nicknames, including "Stalin's syringe."

Today, it is surrounded by prestigious buildings designed by Western architects. The spike and the skyscrapers around it, ghostly guests looming in the twilight between East and West, are vaguely reminiscent of one of Dehnel's poems: "Specters rise outside in the shadows, darkness comes to visit at my windows."

In front of the syringe stands a statue of the national Polish poet Adam Mickiewicz. On the street in front of Mickiewicz, brand names from the West shine in the night -- as if the iconic poet has a prickle of fear running down his neck while hope flashes before his eyes.

Warsaw reflects Poland's history like no other place. It is the city where Soviet architecture stands next to Western skyscrapers. Where psychology is taught in the building that once housed the SS. Where rubble from Nazi Propaganda Minister Joseph Goebbels' birth house was displayed for a few days in front of the Zacheta National Gallery of Art. Warsaw is where heavily made-up women and hipsters cross paths between McDonald's and milk bars. It is a city where pensioners on the street give away cardboard pictures of Pope John Paul II and the wind whirls brothel business cards across the cobblestones.

Warsaw is the capital of a country located in the heart of Europe, yet on the periphery, with a culture characterized by "western easternness or eastern westernness," as Polish intellectual Maria Janion once wrote -- a country that disappeared from the map for 123 years, was cut into pieces by its neighbors, and for decades was covered by the sheet of a ghost called communism. This journey leads us to important writers in Poland -- a country caught between East and West -- to talk about one thing: fear.

Sparking Anxiety

This fear is tangible everywhere. It stares out from the front pages of newspapers and magazines, crawls across TV screens and slips into barroom conversations. It nestles in people's minds. It is the fear of Vladimir Putin's Russia. It is the fear thatEurope is not reacting forcefully enough to the crisis in Ukraine, the fear that Putin will advance not only to the Donets River, but soon also to the banks of the Vistula. And it is the fear of Putin himself, who just a few days ago made reference to the "centuries old common history" that connects Poles and Russians, words that sparked anxiety among the Polish media, because they match the rhetoric of the cold embrace that the Russian president has reserved for Ukraine.

This fear is expressed in an open letter, "From Danzig to Donetsk," an appeal to Europe signed by 20 Polish intellectuals and published on Sept. 1 in the Gazeta Wyborcza, The Economist, Le Monde, La Libre Belgique, Die Welt and in the Ukrainian media. It says: "Anyone who will not say 'no pasarán' to Putin today (...) consents to the destruction of international order." Furthermore: "Whoever follows today the policy of 'business as usual' with respect to the Russian/Ukrainian conflict is turning a blind eye (...) on attacks by Putin's imperialist forces on successive countries. Yesterday it was Danzig, today it is Donetsk: We cannot allow a situation where Europe will be living again for many decades with an open and bleeding wound."

The poet Dehnel is one of the letter's signatories. At age 34, he is already one of the best known authors in Poland. His poems are anachronisms, verses that could be a hundred years old and Dehnel's heroes are stacked all around him: Mickiewicz here, Dostoevsky there, and there is a plaque in front of these great authors' works that reads "Goethe was never here."

"The Germans," says Dehnel, "have to understand that our fear of Putin is no accident." Rather, this fear is the result of extensive observations of the country's neighbors to the East and the West. "Poland currently has very good relations with Germany. With our letter, we intend for it to remain that way."

Dehnel feels that Germany's position on the crisis in Ukraine is too weak, and he is not alone in this assessment. Journalist Anne Applebaum, the wife of former Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski, accused German Chancellor Angela Merkel of failing in her diplomatic efforts to resolve the crisis, and Polish journalists contended that Germany's judgment was clouded by its murky past: the bloodbath of World War II, mass murder in the Soviet Union and the battle of Stalingrad.

'The Next One Will Strike Berlin'

Dehnel crosses his arms and legs. He sums up his message to the Germans as follows: "If Putin drops a nuclear bomb on Warsaw, the next one will strike Berlin."

His reference to the most powerful weapon of all demonstrates the enormity, and familiarity, of the fear. It is fed by tales told by parents and grandparents. It is a fear that has grown out of experience. It is the fear that history will repeat itself.

Seventy-five years after the beginning of World War II, recent events have rekindled a memory that slumbers deep in the collective consciousness of the Polish nation: the secret protocol appended to the Hitler-Stalin Pact, in which the Germans and the Soviets agreed to the Fourth Partition of Poland as they divided Eastern European regions into spheres of influence -- an idea that Putin recently defended. On September 1, 1939, the Wehrmacht marched into Poland, followed by the Red Army on September 17, while the rest of Europe did nothing. This historic betrayal of Poland by the Europeans is mentioned in every interview during this trip.

The train from Warsaw to Krakow is called Kosciuszko, named after a Polish national hero who won a battle against the Russians over 200 years ago. Drunken men are traveling on board the train, dancing and telling jokes to the laughter of fellow passengers and to that of the conductors. At the bus station in Krakow, nearly 300 kilometers (185 miles) south of Warsaw, waiting passengers can see their own breath in the frigid air. Finally, the bus arrives -- an older model from Germany. The vehicle winds its way past historic Wawel Royal Castle, whose cathedral serves as the last resting place for many notable Poles, including Tadeusz Kosciuszko, Mickiewicz and all the Polish kings. The bus drives on, out of Krakow and through the Lesser Poland Voivodeship, parts of which, until 1918, belonged to the Kingdom of Galicia and Lodomeria, a crownland of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, where one shtetl bordered the next. The bus stops in Gorlice. The Slovakian border is roughly half an hour to the south, and Ukraine is about a two-hour drive to the east.

Andrzej Stasiuk, 54, picks us up in an SUV. Stasiuk doesn't just drive, he races to his cabin. Stasiuk, who also signed the open letter, is one of Poland's best known authors internationally. Stasiuk also runs the Czarne publishing house, which publishes works translated into Polish by international authors such as German-Romanian writer Herta Müller and Ukrainian writer Yurii Andrukhovych. In Germany, the Suhrkamp publishing house publishes Stasiuk's books. They tell of his travels, of the past and of the beauty and melancholy of the East. Stasiuk sounds just like his books: sometimes like a boy who has just discovered the meaning of irony, sometimes like an old man who gazes wistfully into the distance.

Deliver Us From Evil

Dry mud crumbles from the dashboard of the SUV -- perhaps Polish mud, perhaps Russian, Mongolian or Chinese mud -- in any case, mud from the East, united in Stasiuk's vehicle, which races through Lesser Poland, whizzing past remnants of the People's Republic of Poland, past former collective farms that today belong to a millionaire. The roadsides are dotted with religious symbols: Jesus Christ, messiah carved in stone, deliver us from evil.

Plum trees, coniferous forests, pine trees. Where the trees now grow around rectangular patches of grass, houses stood until the late 1940s. "Until 1947, the Lemken lived here, a Ukrainian minority," he says, his voice low and gravelly. "The Poles forcibly resettled them."

The Poles and the Ukrainians have a troubled common history. The Ukrainian Insurgent Army massacred thousands of Poles during World War II and Polish prejudices persist today. "Many Poles only see Ukrainians as laborers and cleaning ladies," says Stasiuk, "so it's important that I help. My publishing house publishes most of those Ukrainian authors who are translated into Polish." In front of Stasiuk's steering wheel, a metal horse has been glued to the dashboard, a present from Ukrainian friends, a talisman that shows what direction to take.

Stasiuk stops in front of a cabin at the edge of the forest. This is where he writes his books. He describes the cabin as "raw and simple," and so it is. In front of the cabin he has raised the flags of Kyrgyzstan, Tajikistan and Ukraine -- souvenirs from his travels -- but he has taken down the Russian flag.

"After the Soviet Union, everyone said the old business of East against West was over. What a bunch of nonsense, damn it!"

In August, the Gazeta Wyborcza ran a front-page story titled "The Germans Won't Defend Us" -- the old fear giving rise to new headlines. "The Germans wouldn't do so even if Putin attacks," says Stasiuk. "In Germany all you have to do is yell 'Russia' and everyone starts gushing about the place."

Stasiuk's travels have taken him far to the east, often through Russia. Last summer, he took his most recent trip to the country that must be visited, he says, to understand what makes the people tick, most of whom support Putin. "Putin is more clever than the West," says Stasiuk, "just as Russia has always been more clever. I genuinely fear that there will be a war. Before the UN Security Council convenes and expresses its concern, Putin will already be in Silesia."

The road from Gorlice to Silesia goes through Krakow before continuing westwards. It passes by the coal-fired power plant at Tarnow, the ideal backdrop for a film about the gloom of the East. It goes past Auschwitz; it goes through cities where the plaster flakes from building fronts -- facades like the faces of old people who have seen everything. Welcome to Upper Silesia, in southwest Poland, less than an hour's drive from the Czech border.

Tattoos and Fine Clothes

"I don't want to see any Russian tanks," says Szczepan Twardoch. Twardoch, 34, is Silesian and the enfant terrible of Polish literature. He lives in the village of Pilchowice, near the city of Gliwice.

One of the main streets of Gliwice is called Ulica Zwyciestwa, Victory Street, a gap between sooty gray buildings. A beautiful woman smiles from a façade, her teeth whiter than anything else in Gliwice - but it's just an advertisement for the fashion retail chain C&A. Only a few steps away, someone has sprayed "SS" and a hooligan slogan on the walls: "We destroy those to whom Silesia means nothing."

Twardoch drives down Victory Street. He also has an SUV, but his vehicle smells brand new. Twardoch drives through Upper Silesia with the gray turning to green as we pass by cornfields, brick buildings and small shrines to the Virgin Mary -- through Twardoch's homeland, which has been the homeland of his ancestors for 300 years. During World War II, the area saw battles between the Wehrmacht and the Soviet Red Army.

Twardoch looks like an earl who subscribes to lifestyle magazines. He has tattoos and wears fine clothes. His Silesian origins have softened his Polish. "I know that I'm not German," he says. "And I know that I'm not a Pole."

It's a lonely identity, as Twardoch once described it in an essay, but he can still speak for the Poles, he says, and he was among the signatories of the open letter. Twardoch composed his novel "Morphine" in the Polish language, a book that caused uproar in Poland because it tells the tale of a Polish resistance fighter in the autumn of 1939 looking for drugs and sex as he wanders through war-torn Warsaw. "Morphine" became a bestseller and Twardoch used the royalties to build a house in Pilchowice. He walks inside.

"My Polish friends are genuinely afraid that their wonderful life could be destroyed by a big war." As he talks, Twardoch types away on his white iPhone, which is lying in his white kitchen. "They are afraid that they will have to fight, be thrown into jail, and that the women will no longer be dressed so well."

What Comes Afterward?

Twardoch sees the fear in his friends' faces. He sees parallels in the books that describe the situation 100 years ago. "Before World War I, many people thought that there would never again be war in Europe. We know what happened after that."

The fear of war is old, but it's important, as all of the authors agree. There is no end to history, as they say again and again. The crisis in Ukraine is just the beginning, they insist, and this statement flashes repeatedly like the red light of an alarm signal. But if this is merely the beginning, what comes afterward?

"This war will drag on, sometimes hot, sometimes cold," he says. "Either Putin will be forced to his knees, or he will get what he wants: the old borders of the Empire." Twardoch gazes for a long time at the terrace, where his children's toys are lying about.

The next stage of the journey takes us out of the villages with so many names -- Polish, German, Silesian -- to northwestern Poland, from the countryside to the cities. Some 180 kilometers from Twardoch's house comes Wroclaw, on the Oder, a river which becomes the Polish-German border further to the north. On the outskirts of Wroclaw, young Poles push baby carriages through parks next to apartment blocks. In the old city -- lovingly restored with EU funds -- German pensioners explore their roots. Wroclaw was once home to German poet Hoffmann von Fallersleben. It is also a city that Adolf Hitler declared a fortress in 1944, ordering that it must be defended at all costs.

A woman lies on a bed of skulls with milk shooting from her breasts and a baby lying on her stomach. "An unorthodox Madonna, wouldn't you say?", says Olga Tokarczuk, 52, one of Poland's most popular authors. The unorthodox Madonna is a painting hanging in Tokarczuk's kitchen, in her house in Wroclaw, built in 1912 and inhabited over the past 100 years by Germans, Jews and Poles.

Tokarczuk has also signed the open letter. Her texts are often parables set in the border region where Poland, Germany and the Czech Republic meet. Wherever there are borders, there are stories -- and they produce myths. "Unfortunately the crisis in Ukraine is reviving a myth in Poland," says Tokarczuk, "a myth that says that we should serve as a wall for the West, to protect it from the wild East."

Knowledge and Action

This myth is as old as Poland. It pervades the works of Adam Mickiewicz, whose statue stands in Warsaw, with Stalin's syringe sending a prickle of fear running down his neck. In Mickiewicz's poetic drama "Forefathers' Eve," for instance, written nearly 200 years ago at a time when the Poles had no state, Poland is portrayed as the Christ of Europe, which died for the sins of its neighbors. The Russian Czar is Satan and the Germans are the devil's acolytes. This is the myth of Poland as the last uncorrupted bastion of freedom in Europe before the East begins. This myth legitimizes the fear.

Tokarczuk's study contains an altar. On it is a Korean Buddha with drooping shoulders, the corners of its mouth turned down. The Hindu goddess Durga stands upright next to it, representing knowledge and action.

"The European sanctions against Putin are beginning to have an impact, yes," she says. "But does this mean that Europe has voiced an unequivocal 'no' to Putin's actions? That is not my impression."

If Europe does not say no, who will? "I think that Donald Tusk will have an influence on the crisis," she replies. Until last September, Tusk was the Polish prime minister, but this week he became the president of the powerful EU Council -- and he has accused Putin of overstepping his power. "In their fear, the Poles are counting on Tusk -- and on Europe."

Tokarczuk presses her palms together and her fingers are pointing upwards, as if she were praying.

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