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The View from Poland

As the war in neighboring Ukraine continues into its second year, emotions are running high in Polish political life. Given major domestic political and social developments, including a general election in the fall, as well as broader geopolitical realignments, 2023 is shaping up to be a watershed year.

Since Russia’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine in February 2022, Poland, the European Union’s largest front-line state, has come in from the cold. Criticism of the populist right-wing government’s anti-democratic behavior, including its politicization of the judiciary and public media, has largely fallen by the wayside, owing to Poland’s centrality to the logistics of channeling Western weapons and other military support to Ukraine. But while the ruling Law and Justice party has capitalized on this role to insulate itself from EU pressure, its efforts to tighten its grip on power may force a domestic reckoning.

Irena Grudzińska Gross: Much is happening in Poland these days. For starters, the government is launching a commission to investigate “Russian influence” ahead of this fall’s general election, in what many see as a direct effort to disqualify opposition leader Donald Tusk. In response, all the democratic opposition parties, as well as hundreds of thousands of Poles, came out to protest the “Tusk Law” on June 4. Can we expect these groups to unite before the election?

Adam Michnik: Yes, everyone who took part felt that it was the biggest demonstration they had joined since the beginning of 1989 – that is, since the end of communism in Poland. The ruling, Law and Justice (PiS) party wants to create a body modeled after the House Un-American Activities Committee and the 1950-54 McCarthy hearings in the United States – only its version is even more primitive and barbaric. Indeed, it is reminiscent of the fascists’ or Bolsheviks’ methods in the 1930s.

But while the demonstration was a show of support for the alliance of democratic parties, a common electoral list is unlikely to be agreed upon. The idea is that regardless of who garners the most support – be it Tusk’s Civic Platform, Szymon Hołownia’s coalition with the Polish People’s Party (PSL), or the so-called Left – all will vote to form a government with the others. In this sense, it was a demonstration of unity in diversity.

IGG: Will the government commission really uncover “Russian influence,” or is it just a ruse to control the election?

AM: It is pure McCarthyism. When Stalin declared war on international Trotskyism, a Trotskyist could be anyone. No evidence or legal proceedings were needed. The same principle applies to this commission. There are no specific criteria for these arbitrarily selected nine people to use when determining whether someone has been influenced by Russia. It is Stalinist absurdity. The point is to muddy public opinion, and to terrorize and annihilate the political opposition.

We have seen the same tactic in Vladimir Putin’s Russia, where the (now-jailed) opposition leader Alexei Navalny was barred from running for president, owing to a previous conviction on trumped-up charges. We have seen it in Recep Tayyip Erdoğan’s Turkey, where the popular mayor of Istanbul was banned from politics late last year. And we have seen it in Belarus, where those who challenge Aleksandr Lukashenko end up in jail.

It is an obvious strategy for authoritarian leaders to pursue. Now, under the cover of the fight against Putin, PiS’s leader, Jarosław Kaczyński, is attempting to install Putin-style political mechanisms in Poland.

The Problem with Russophobia

IGG: I suppose that you, too, could be accused of “Russian influence,” given your past statements cautioning against outright Russophobia. What did you think about Russia’s United Nations Security Council meeting on “Russophobia” in March? Was the historian Timothy Snyder correct in condemning the meeting as a cynical attempt by the Kremlin to depict itself as a victim, rather than as the aggressor?

AM: I agree with Snyder. But I would add that although Soviet communists accused anyone who disagreed with them of “fascism,” that did not mean there were no fascists. Likewise, just because the Kremlin sees Russophobia everywhere doesn’t mean it isn’t a problem. We must avoid assuming that every Russian is a thug, coward, thief, scoundrel, or bully.

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To be sure, an emotionally driven perspective is understandable, given that Russian forces are murdering innocent Ukrainians every day. I can see why Ukrainians would want to destroy monuments to Chekhov or Bulgakov, just as I can understand why the Soviet Jewish writer Ilya Ehrenburg argued, in 1943, that every German must be killed.

But as Stalin observed (cynically, but also with some perspicacity), Hitlers will come and go, yet the German people will remain. It is dangerous to condemn every Russian, simply because they are Russian. That is what I oppose, and I don’t think that Snyder is arguing against my position. Rather, he is accurately describing one of Putin’s propaganda methods.

IGG: You have returned to this topic often. Why is it so important?

AM: It is important now because Polish Russophobia is resurgent, and it is dredging up many other traditional resentments. Poles are dwelling once again on past partitions, crackdowns after anti-Russian uprisings, and the massacre of Polish officers in Katyń. They are revisiting everything from Joseph Conrad and Jan Kucharzewski’s critiques of Russia to the plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczyński – Jarosław’s twin brother – in 2010. According to one conspiracy theory, the plane crash was no accident, and it was a prelude to Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Such arguments are absurd, but they have been given new life by Russian forces’ barbarism in Ukraine.

While Poland’s attitude toward Ukraine has long been characterized by a sense of superiority, its anti-Russian sentiment reflects a more complicated mix of contempt and fear. Even as Poles look down on Russian culture, we also understand that Russia could trample us.

IGG: So, you’re saying that there is a continuity between past and present Russian actions?

AM: Yes, some continuity does exist, and there are currently Russian scholars looking through Russian history to understand what Putin wants, and how he managed to triumph over democratic forces.

IGG: But those forces were always a minority in Russia, weren’t they?

AM: Under dictatorship, those who will speak out for freedom are always a minority. After Hitler, Germany’s democracy movement was even smaller than the one in Russia after the Cold War. Some say Russia’s current political culture has deep roots dating to the medieval era of Tatar rule. Yet Mongolia today has a democratic state. Having ancestors who lived under Tatars does not condemn one to slavish thinking. The forces of democracy may be a minority, but they are a very important one.

IGG: But has that minority ever really prevailed?

AM: Recall that freedom came to Poland in the 1980s from Russia. Without glasnost and perestroika in the Soviet Union, there would have been no roundtable talks between the government and the opposition, and no systemic transformation in 1989.

So, I would not write off Russia once and for all, as if it is destined always to be an enslaved country. As early as the 1840s, the great Russian poet Mikhail Lermontov was bidding “farewell [to] unwashed Russia, country of slaves and masters.” There has always been the potential for Russians to embrace freedom, especially when they are able to put that cause into words – as with Herzen, Pushkin, or Tolstoy. I would not slam the door on Tolstoy’s Russia because of what Putin’s Russia has done, just as I would not reduce Germany to Hitler, or Italy to Mussolini.

Russia is not unique in this regard. All countries contain the seeds of conflict between freedom and authoritarianism. Look at democratic France. If you go back to the French Revolution, you find a country that was wracked first by feudal terror, and then even more so by Jacobin terror. After that came Napoleon, who established an early version of the modern totalitarian state. The entire nineteenth century consisted of endless repression, revolts, revolutions, and counterrevolutions. Even today, one can find reconstructions of totalitarian thinking in French opposition figures like the far-right Marine Le Pen and the far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon.

Church and State

IGG: Catholicism remains an important political force in Poland – more so than in many other European countries. What is your opinion of the Vatican’s attitude toward the war in Ukraine, particularly Pope Francis’s argument, in May 2022, that “NATO barking at the gates of Russia probably contributed to this conflict”?

AM: I object wholly to the Vatican’s position. I am afraid we are witnessing the biases of a pope who hails from Latin America and has imbibed that region’s anti-Americanism. The reference to barking NATO mongrels is, after all, an old anti-American cliché. Francis wants to be a peacemaker and a bridge builder, which means that he cannot take a stand that identifies him with one side. But Pius XII took the same approach in dealing with Hitler, and very few still bother to defend him today.

IGG: What position has the Polish church taken?

AM: It is unequivocally pro-Ukrainian, and I applaud it for that. But it is easy to be pro-Ukrainian in Poland today. The Church’s position on other issues has been more problematic. For example, when Lukashenko ferried refugees from the Middle East to the Polish-Belarusian border, the Church tried to do the Christian thing by calling for humanitarian corridors. At the same time, it did not speak up to condemn Kaczyński’s statements associating refugees with parasites; nor has it ever condemned anti-LGBT hate speech, for that matter.

IGG: Not only that, but isn’t the Church’s own mobilization against “gender ideology” a kind of hate speech?

AM: It is a sensitive issue. While my LGBT colleagues perceive it as hate speech, I still regard the topic as falling within the confines of legitimate discourse, where equally well-meaning people can disagree.

The bigger issue is that the Church is undergoing perhaps its biggest crisis since the Reformation – and not only in Poland.

IGG: But to me it seems that the Church still has a strong grip on power in Poland. Since 1989, it has amassed even more wealth and exercised its influence in legal matters, education, and other domains. Religion is taught in every Polish school, after all.

AM: Yes, but religious study is not obligatory. I know of schools where only 10-20% of students go to religion classes.

The Church wants power, but it is on the defensive. It is in power in the sense that it is allied with the ruling party. But any hope that it had of deeply influencing those in power ended in 2007, when the secular authorities forced the dismissal of Stanisław Wielgus as the Archbishop of Warsaw. The Church will continue to weaken, and its more astute members already see this clearly.

IGG: Is that because the faithful are leaving?

AM: Yes, and the decline has been dramatic. Seminaries are closing, and there are no longer mass vocations for clergy, owing to the recent history of both financial and moral scandals. The revelations about pedophilia have been a horror story. They have roiled the United States, Germany, Austria, Ireland, and Chile, and now they are coming to Poland.

IGG: Yet you defend Pope John Paul II’s legacy quite insistently.

AM: John Paul II and the Church are two different things. It would be absurd to reduce his legacy to his supposedly weak reaction to moral scandals. He was an outstanding man, and, like all of us, he had better and worse moments. I know how much I personally owe him, how much Poland owes him, and how much the world owes him. I will defend him wholeheartedly. That doesn’t oblige me also to defend figures such as Marek Jędraszewski, the Archbishop of Kraków, or Tadeusz Rydzyk, the director of the right-wing Radio Maryja station.

IGG: But doesn’t a recent documentary implicate John Paul II himself in efforts to protect suspected pedophile priests during his time as the Archbishop of Kraków?

AM: I do not know much about this subject; but from what I have seen, the evidence is not very convincing. Where some see priests being reassigned to different parishes as part of a cover-up, I see an effort to open the Catholic Church to the political opposition. Kraków was not comparable to what was happening in Warsaw. Of course, I did not like everything John Paul II said or did – especially when it came to pronouncements on sex. But I am not a Catholic. Ultimately, I focus on what was most important to me: that he was on the side of freedom and courage.

IGG: Let’s return to the broader crisis of the Church.

AM: It is already here, and it will get worse, because there is very little self-reflection among the bishops about it. I foresee the institution collapsing into intellectual impotence. Recent decisions that effectively silence independent-minded priests are a harbinger of what is yet to come. Respected voices like Adam Boniecki and Wojciech Lemański now must consult with their superiors before they can speak in public.

These are scandalous developments. During the interwar years and then under the German occupation, the Polish church was a bastion of patriotism. And, until 1956, it was the only institution not fully dominated by Communists. Churches still taught the Gospel, not the writings of Stalin or Polish Communist leader Bolesław Bierut. But after 1989, the Church lost its way in the world of the “free market of ideas.”

IGG: It seems to have understood capitalism, at least, judging by how much it has enriched itself.

AM: It understands only feudal capitalism. The most important thing now is whether the Church can find a way to respond to new challenges. Most of the bishops are approaching 80. People at that age rarely change their minds or adopt new worldviews, unless they are faced with some great catastrophe like a war or a pandemic. I see them clinging to PiS because it controls the purse strings of the state. But they will pay a high price for having supported the government’s draconian anti-abortion law. Such doctrinal rigidity is unsustainable in today’s world.

Past and Present

IGG: I recently read that Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orbán, meeting with his economic advisers, considered the possibility that a Russian defeat in Ukraine might shift the center of political gravity in Europe to Poland. What do you think about these kinds of predictions?

AM: There is no basis for such far-reaching conclusions. Orbán is another victim of historical mythmaking. He wants to reclaim what Hungary lost in the Treaty of Trianon, at the conclusion of World War I. If Ukraine were to be dismantled, he would have his sights on the city of Uzhhorod. That is why he maneuvered toward neutrality at the beginning of the war. It was a disgusting display of his shamelessness. Orbán’s megalomania will lead Hungary over a cliff, yet he has the support of a nation traumatized by Trianon.

I was afraid that something similar could happen in Poland; that some might have designs on Lviv and other areas lost after World War II. So far, it has not happened, perhaps because the same logic dictates that Szczecin, Opole, and Wrocław be returned to Germany.

IGG: I was most struck by Orbán’s suggestion that European borders have become movable, as if the map of Europe could be redrawn once again.

AM: You will find that view primarily in Hungary – and perhaps in Serbia, Kosovo, and Catalonia. Frankly, I do not see it.

IGG: So, what would count as a victory over Russia?

AM: That outcome would have to include pushing Russian forces out of Donbas, toppling Putin, and engaging in serious talks about Crimea. Of course, Russia’s seizure of Crimea in 2014 was a violation of international law. But if Putin had not invaded Ukraine a year ago, the world would have come to terms with that particular revision to the map, because there were no strong anti-Russian tendencies in Crimea – quite the opposite, in fact.

But now, returning Crimea to Ukraine has become a possibility once again.

As for Putin, he absolutely must be overthrown. Otherwise, he is liable to do just about anything – like Hitler hiding in his bunker.

IGG: What do you include under “anything”?

AM: I don’t know. But I do know that we cannot submit to his extortion and aggression. History shows where such appeasement can lead. By attacking Ukraine, Putin crossed all the red lines. As with Hitler, negotiating with him is no longer possible.