Ukraine, imagination and hard filters

Today, I want to write about imagining places from afar – or at least, as an outsider. We’ll look at an American author with his essay of Ukrainian-themed pandemic wisdom, an angry Polish commenter taking (lots of) issue and some of the earliest history of Ukrainian national consciousness.

The main observation is that historical and geographical proxies often make our information as good as useless. This isn’t pleasing at all. We would want our decisions to be fact-based.

At the time of writing, the main thing that people think about is the COVID-19, sitting in lockdowns and such. That’s why my thoughts coincided with this CNN’s analysis (As coronavirus spread through Asia, the West had a head start to prepare. Why wasn’t it used?)[1]. Government reactions to the spread of disease in various areas of the world are, I think, a more broad example of dismissive imagination leading to error.

For weeks before the disease struck Western countries, it was already known that it rapidly advancing and hurting East Asia. But what happens in East Asia is not completely real to us, is it. As Benjamin Cowling of Hong Kong University observes: it was only about a month later, particularly when northern Italy had this surge in cases, that suddenly it was recognized that there could be a lot of transmission under the radar. Because, obviously, Italy seems to be a location more real, serious and related to us than Philippines (a country of some 100 million people) or Singapore (with GDP per capita higher than every European country save Luxembourg).

On the other hand, when the Western Europe was already attacked by the pandemic, you can be sure that Visegrad countries (Czechia, Hungary, Poland, Slovakia) paid close attention and proceeded with fairly early and severe lockdowns. The Polish government referenced Western Europe with a striking obsession[2], though some criticized the manner of his comparisons as self-serving[3]. In this case the fact that Western countries seem very real to the East-Central Europe, even aspirationally hyperreal, served the latter well and probably saved some lives. But had the epidemic come from let’s say Ukraine or Central Asia, it would be much worse. These are the unreal places to the average Polish observer today, and we’ll be seeing some of that.

The hazy American gaze

A street in Ivano-Frankivsk, 2017. Romankravchuk, CC-BY-SA, Wikimedia Commons

In his essay[4], Paul Auster presents himself as a tourist going to Ivano-Frankivsk (also previously known as Stanisławów in Polish and Stanislav in Russian) for a short excursion. He tries to learn something about the fate of his grandfather, and briefly talks to a local poet and a rabbi. Meanwhile, he describes some details of the local life as he sees it. An odd horse-drawn wagon riding alongside the awesome power plant, a pleasing blend of new and old architecture, and the young people praying in church.

Reading the piece, I didn’t expect much of historical accuracy, if the writer would venture into that territory. I didn’t think so in inquisitorial fashion. Literature is, to a large degree, a realm of fantasy and pensive introspection. It often concerns memory, and memory is a thing distinct from history. When literature claims historical setting, I do become (perhaps even unreasonably) picky, because you know, I’m now a historian with a diploma and I like my immersion.

But here we have an essay explicitly dealing with memory and imagination, and it’s not exactly an occasion where we are thinking in those strict terms. It’s not that if I would try to write a travelogue about Ontario, Gujarat, or Ireland, that I would have that much background knowledge on what I’m writing about. Whatever historical details Auster mentions, they are explicitly only a backdrop to his symbolic story at the end.

Still, there are some insights to be had if we are to be somewhat rude (for scientific purposes) and meta-analyze some silent reasoning processes of our author. He acknowledges that Ivano-Frankivsk had changed hands many times between the Polish, Austrian (of the Habsburg monarchy), Russian, Ukrainian rule: a fairly typical fate of an Eastern European town throughout the centuries. The fascination with changing names of the city is a little disproportionate. This were mostly the same people living there, until the Second World War, regardless of whether it was a Stanislau or something else on government maps. (While we’re at being pedantic, saying Polish, Russian etc. can be a treacherous simplification; the old Kingdom of Poland and the Second Republic, or the tsarist Russia and Soviet Union are somewhat related states but vastly different.)

To some of the political powers a little too much credit is given. The Habsburg where hardly “conquerors” of this land; it was handed to them by Russia, after defeating the Bar confederation and starting the partition of Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. That was just a Realpolitik balance of power thing.

When Auster speaks of Church of the Holy Resurrection, an 18th-century baroque cathedral that is considered to be the most beautiful Hapsburg structure from the years when Ivano-Frankivsk had been known as Stanislau, maybe he is thinking about the 18th century as that refined period, when surely Austrians and not Poles owned the land – and the former erected such structures as the Cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ, maybe as a testament to their imperial Habsburgian power.

The cathedral of the Resurrection of Christ in Ivano-Frankivsk. Vart ua, CC-BY-SA, Wikimedia Commons

It turns out that the present construction was funded for the Jesuits in 1752-1761 by Stanisław Potocki, a Polish magnate who was then the owner of the town. Among the architects were Jesuits Paweł Giżycki and Józef Karsznicki[5]. Given the colors and silhouette, this indeed feels eastern Commonwealth holy order; if I had to guess, I would perhaps date it a little earlier. In the late 19th century, the church was given to the Greek Catholic (which is a mostly Ukrainian branch of the Roman Catholic church).

There are biases in thinking about which “nations” (I will later return to these scare quotes) are more capable – which I point out not because it’s unfair, but because it can easily lead to being factually wrong. The widespread “geopolitical” thinking is, understandably, most influenced by the 19th and 20th centuries. But these were their own unique situations. As Auster observed, modern day Ivano-Frankivsk turned out to be an attractive place, a city that bore no resemblance to the disintegrating urban ruin I had pictured in my mind. (Incredible, right?)

The resentful Polish fantasy

This brings me to a response to the his essay from my compatriot, some Piotr Grabowski. He turns out to be much less forgiving than me:

A nice story with quite a few major gaps which are typical for an American’s perception of Eastern or as we prefer to say Central Europe.

(For the record, I am not ashamed of being called an Eastern European – to the East of the Odra river. There are many ways in which Poles are subtly related to Russians and Ukrainians, even if the Polish culture and state can only be understood in Western and Latin terms. You can be firmly in the Eastern Europe and have nothing to do with tsars, or Byzantium, or anything resembling those. The deep roots of post-medieval Poland, and also Ukraine, lie in the Roman Republic fascination.)

Grabowski continues:

Basically and not surprisingly, it’s a history. Stanislawow has always been Stanislawow, from the very moment of its location in the mid-XVIIth c. by Andrzej Potocki, a Polish magnate, member of the enormously rich and powerful family, and named after his father Stanislaw. It was a private town, designed as a business hub and considering nearness of the Ottoman Empire border and endless wasteland inhabited by savage nomads – real Wild East of the time, a stronghold as well. Typical for such fortified towns on the outskirts of the Kingdom of Poland, it housed a mixed population of mostly Poles, Jews and Armenians (…) There were no Ukrainians as a nation at that time, the very word Ukraine means literally ‘by the limit’, a land beyond which there is nothing, no civilization at all. Sort of Ancient Rome’s limes.

The civilization as such is marked by monuments, hence Barocco architecture is a clear sign which side of the limes we are at. No Hapsburg contribution to it in Stanislawow at all. (…)

While some of this is technically correct (although probably Andrzej Potocki named the town after his son, not his father), some wider judgments are questionable. It would be hard for the Habsburg to contribute to Baroque architecture, as they didn’t gain possessions in the Commonwealth land before 1772. Besides, the claim of Baroque as a “clear sign” of civilization is very dubious. Moscovites to the East of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had their own fine civilization, with all sorts of architecture and institutions. The political regime was seen from the Commonwealth as horrendous and incredibly oppressive – the culture and religion felt alien to, say, Polish Catholics – but translating this to no civilization at all is just ignorant and disrespectful.

Crude imagery for illustrative purposes. Or as nicely put by Robert Frost, “the history of east central Europe has been written largely through the eyes of the partitioning powers and their successors – above all Russia and Germany – or by historians of the individual nation states that fought for the independence that was only secured after 1918 or 1990” (The Oxford History of Poland-Lithuania, vol. 1 [2015], p. vii).

Then there are the Muslim powers. Since the foundation in 1662 until the Treaty of Karlowitz in 1699 Stanisławów indeed played a major role in wars of the Commonwealth with Crimean Tatars and Ottoman Empire. Only the former can be plausibly called “savage nomads”. (And they did enjoy advanced conveniences on their peninsula – just funded from ravaging all surrounding lands.) The overall image of modern Ukraine having been emptied and burnt by the Mongol invasion and successor states, like the Crimean Khanate, is mostly true. It’s just that Stanisławów appears at the very tail end of this phenomenon. For most of the 18th century, it developed in peace; even the bloody Cossack and peasant uprising, Koliyivshchyna (koliszczyzna in Polish), happened far to the East.

But this romantic notion of a keep on a savage border serves some need: a need of the Borderland (Kresy) narrative familiar to a Polish observer. It is a narrative romanticizing and lionizing the “Polish presence” on the East. Again, scare quotes, because the ethnic way of looking at things is historically silly for periods before the 19th century.

There were, sometimes, clashes between the nobles, Cossacks and peasants, between the religions. Sometimes ethnic xenophobia appeared as a propaganda device in those fights. But the “true” ethnic distinctions were very murky. Poles and Ruthenians (Ukrainians) had similar names, looked similar. In the middle region they knew both closely related languages, which formed there more of a continuum in common speech. (Although Polish served as the common language of elites in the region.) They shifted their religions however they pleased.

Given the rampant decentralization of the Commonwealth, we shouldn’t think of the eastern Kingdom of Poland as a “heroically” conquered and defended land. It’s more like the local people largely absorbed the Polish and Lithuanian way of life, thoroughly mixed with the immigration, had their substantial share in ruling the state, and had to fight the attempts of the Church, the royal court and magnates to curb their freedoms. It’s true that by the 18th century, the Church and magnates mostly succeeded.

Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth around the year 1600. Kingdom of Poland in yellow, Grand Duchy of Lithuania in red.

The 19th century brought new phenomena like nationalism and mass culture. With the Commonwealth humiliated and vanquished, people turned to ethnic and religious identity as what was left to them. This was still amid the severe feudal and political oppression of the Prussian and Habsburg monarchies, and tsarist Russia. That was the legacy brought by Poles and Ukrainians into the horrible 20th century.

There is a trauma that had been experienced by people expelled from the Eastern territories of the Second Polish Republic after the WW2. This trauma and resentment keeps the Kresy narrative alive. It’s an ahistorical, nationalist vision of Poles always standing boldly alone on the East against the eternal, vague savagery of Tatars, Ukrainians, Bolsheviks.

One of the central events in history in this worldview is the ethnic cleansing of Poles, perpetrated in 1943-45 by the Ukrainian nationalists and Third Reich collaborators from the Ukrainian Insurgent Army. Piotr Grabowski returns to this subject, talking about the fate of Stanislav inhabitants after the Hitler’s invasion on Soviet Union:

Non-Jewish = mostly Polish inhabitants of the city didn’t disperse to the four winds. [Jews, as Auster mentions, were partly deported and then outright murdered by Germans]. They wouldn’t dare even think about moving beyond city limits because this was where the real nightmares were hiding. After having finished their dirty duties for the Nazis, after the last Jews were sent to death camps, Ukrainian police turned into ‘freedom-fighters’, deserted en-masse and joined UPA, Ukrainian extremist partisan army who since early 1943 were engaged in full-scale ethnic cleansing. Between 100K -200K Poles, mostly those living in the country were butchered with a cruelty that could make Vlad the Impaler look like a saint.

I don’t feel qualified to speak on all the details; it’s a firmly established fact that the UPA massacres happened, were horrifyingly barbaric and took many tens of thousands of lives. People writing on the Ukrainian history should be aware that this happened; the modern Ukrainian state should find a sane way to talk about and remember this event.

What I don’t like is treating one gruesome event as determining and focusing in itself all history. As appaling as this massacre was, it was a part of a long history of Polish-Ukrainian relations. (This also includes many unjust actions of the dictatorial government of interwar Poland, and the deportations instituted by the Soviet puppet state in Poland after the war.) We shouldn’t now go back and paint the past like Ukrainians were always horrible in everything and “didn’t even exist”. Not even all of them participated in the massacres (there was no organized Ukrainian state power during the war, contrary what the Ukrainian nationalists wish to believe). Today the majority of Ukrainians are not aggressive nationalists, as shown by the elections and the course of the recent revolution.

Ruthenia, Ukraine – strange paths of self-discovery

Let us now see how Ukraine “didn’t exist” in the early modern era.

The territory we call Ukraine was known in Polish (but similarly in other local languages) as a part of Ruś, along with what is today Belarus – then in the hands of Lithuania, and Russia – then in the hands of grand dukes of Moscow (who began to call themselves “tsars of whole Rus’” at some point). The borders of the year ca. 1620 determine, very roughly, the later division between Belarus, Russia and Ukraine. The latter corresponds to the territory that lived inside the Crown of Poland. Belarus and Ukraine are also the parts that seem to be called “Ruthenia” in English.

I once compared the differences between the Commonwealthian and Moscovian Rus’ to those between South and North Korea, and I still think it’s a good way to think about this. It’s important to know that the Ruthenian element was very influential in the Republic. Lithuanian elites talked and all conducted all business in Ruthenian (before they switched to Polish), and illiterate peasants in ethnic Lithuania were the main users of their own language.

In the Crown of Poland, former Lithuanian lands (present day central Ukraine, with Kyiv) that were handed over by the king Sigismund August in 1569, preserved Lithuanian law. They also banned making “foreigners” – i.e., people from Poland proper or Lithuanians – local officials. Natalya Yakovenko in her history of Ukraine observes that Ruthenians from around Kyiv perceived as foreign also migrant nobility coming from Red Ruthenia in the West. When elective state tribunals were created in the 1580s, three were planned – for ethnic Poland, Grand Duchy of Lithuania and (Polish) Ruthenia, but the latter eventually wasn’t organized by the local sejmiki which ought to do it.

As far back as in the 16th century it was clear that Ruthenia is something culturally and politically distinct from Poland, which was itself still a little flexible concept (sometimes used only for the modern voivodeship of Wielkopolska, the so called Greater Poland). Red Ruthenia, the area around present day Lviv (Lwów) fell to the Crown after the local dynasty of rulers expired in the 14th century, but the ruskie voivodeship where it belonged was unmistakably different from the nearby Lesser Poland (Małopolska). It was periodically overrun by Tatars, the local nobility organized frequent raids among themselves, but somehow Red Ruthenia managed to amass great riches from trade and contribute a big chunk of the Republic’s treasury. (It was also where Stanisławów was founded.)

A 17th century graphic of Lwów/Lviv, the capital of Red Ruthenia and one of the grandest cities in the Commonwealth. Since the early modern era until the WW2 it was predominantly Polish-speaking, with around 1/3 of the population being Jews. Wikimedia Commons

Some people are fond of showing you a giant map of the “Lesser Poland Province” (prowincja małopolska), which encompasses like a half of Poland and then everything down to Kyiv. This is was originally a purely legal and diplomatic concept. These “provinces” weren’t terms of common speech. For example, after Ruthenians didn’t manage to organize their own tribunal, the tribunal for the Crown worked for a half of the year in the city of Piotrków, for the legal “Greater Poland” (i.e. Greater Poland, Mazovia and Prussia) and for the other half in Lublin, for the legal “Lesser Poland” (everything else). The Crown Tribunal (formed by elective deputies from all voivodeships) still applied old Lithuanian law to Ruthenian land even in the 18th century. Only in the 19th century, when Polish and Ukrainian elites fought among themselves under the Habsburg rule, the idea of “Greater Lesser Poland” (encompassing also Ruthenia) gained serious steam.

So this was the administrative situation. What about the people who actually lived there? Saying that Stanisławów, for example, was inhabited by a mixed population of mostly Poles, Jews and Armenians (…) [and around lived] peasants, mostly Ruthenians is largely silly. Okay, you could usually tell who was a Jew by their clothing, custom and religion. Armenian – maybe, although historians have trouble with deciphering some individuals, as they tended to Polonize their names and were Christians. But the distinction between Poles and Ruthenians is hard to establish in most of individual cases, even if we agree that Polish and Ruthenian nations were distinct in the abstract. It’s not that there weren’t many Polish-speaking, Catholic migrant peasants in Ruthenia, serfs to Ruthenian lords. They were likely a big part of the population. Even religion isn’t a reliable guide to knowing how a person felt about themselves in that dimension.

Nationality wasn’t something obvious; it was a choice that only some people made. A famous self-proclaimed Ruthenian was, for example, Stanisław Orzechowski, the political writer (1513-1566). Though he glorified the Crown of Poland as a state spreading his quaint libertarian ideology, and he did it hard.

In the 16th century, the main group of people who felt Ruthenian in a, let’s say, “Polonoskeptic” way was the Orthodox clergy. This was motivated largely by their competition with Catholicism. In 1576, Konstanty Wasyl Ostrogski (Kostiantyn Vasyl Ostrozky), voivode of Kyiv, founded the Ostroh Academy competing with Polish-language schools and housing Orthodox intellectual life. In 1590s, king Sigismund III and his faction had the bright idea of pushing the Union of Brest (1595), which was to incorporate Orthodoxy into the Catholic Church as a Greek Catholic rite. The Orthodox church was effectively outlawed, its properties confiscated for the Uniates. This, one can imagine, contributed to violent clashes between clerics who supported the cause of potentially ending the Great Schism among Christians and those who wanted to preserve the old ways. The next king Władysław IV (though Sigismund had reigned until 1632!) flirted with an alternative idea of supporting an Orthodox Patriarchate in Kyiv against the Patriarchate of Moscow, but the overall course of official policy was already different.

You may have noticed that we were speaking mostly about Ruthenia, with scarcely an appearance of the word “Ukraine”. The relationship between those is complex. Originally, “Ukraine” was roughly the territories transferred from Grand Duchy of Lithuania to the Crown of Poland in 1569. Later, the term was associated with the broad sphere of influence of Zaporozhian Cossacks, when they became an important force in the area.

The modern Ukraine nation sees itself primarily as the descendants of Cossacks’ political organization. There’s a feeling in the Polish-Ukrainian discussions that the term “Ruthenia” (often historically appropriate) is somehow devoid of the element of political self-determination, and some people deliberately use it that way. I think it’s more useful to think of “Ruthenia” in the early period as the established order, the nobles, the elite, and of “Ukraine” as of the tumultuous frontier. Neither of these we could call a province of ethnic Poland; both had a tradition of governing themselves.

Volodymyr Zelensky starring as a history teacher, later accidentally turned president, in the Ukrainian show “Servant of the People” (2015, Zelensky was elected actual president in 2019). There are no giveaways in fashion or pose that the gentlemen from the portraits are not Commonwealthian senators; we have to assume from context that they are, in fact, some Cossack leaders.

The Cossacks in the 16th century were a small group of armed outcasts, not uniform ethnically or religiously; early on it was somewhat dubious if they were even “seriously” Christians. There was an effort on the Commonwealth’s side to organize them to defend the eastern border. Notable Cossack leaders from the early period – they tended to be also Republic’s starosts of Cherkasy – include Ostap Dashkevych (Eustachy Daszkiewicz, died after 1535) and Dmytro Vyshnevetsky (Dymitr Wiśniowiecki, before 1535-after 1563) of the famous magnate family.

Tensions between the Cossacks and, broadly speaking, the Commonwealth’s government developed throughout the first half of the 17th century. It was a period of many Cossack rebellions against the magnates’ private militias and the Commonwealth’s standing army. Paradoxically, at the same time, Cossacks and the state successfully cooperated in external wars against Muscovy and Ottomans. The main problems were:

1. The abysmal pay – the Commonwealth paid her soldiers rarely and next to nothing. There were also numerous rebellions (“military confederations”) among the non-Zaporozhian armies throughout the century.

2. The nobles’ refusal to treat Cossacks as equals; many great land proprietors would prefer to degrade them to serfdom.

Since around 1620, when Job Boretsky began to act as the Orthodox metropolitan as Kyiv under the protection of Zaporozhian leadership, the Cossack cause started to fuse with the cause of the Orthodox Church. In 1648, all this culminated in the Khmelnytsky (Chmielnicki) uprising which led to the Zaporozhian Hetmanate breaking off the Commonwealth. According to many Ukrainian historians, this was the first Ukrainian sovereign state – regardless, it’s undeniable that it only existed in alliance with the Crimean Khanate and, after 1655, as a formally autonomous unit of Russia. (In the subsequent decades, this autonomy was gradually peeled to nothing.)

From the later perspective, the Khmelnytsky uprising was often seen in ethnic and national terms, as a rebellion of Ukrainians/Ruthenians against the rule of Poles and, what is sometimes admitted, Jews – who were seen as allied to the nobles and often slaughtered by the insurgents. In fact, while the contemporaries recognized also that aspect, to them it was the “civil war” or the “peasants’ war”. Khmelnytsky styled himself as the hetman of His Majesty’s [i.e. Royal Polish] Zaporozhian Army and for a long time insisted that he’s against the wicked lords oppressing Ruthenians, not against the Polish king. There were some peasant Khmelnytsky sympathizers on the ethnically Polish land, apparently as far to the West as Wielkopolska. Many nobles and senators weren’t keen on fighting him at all. There were the conciliatory projects of Adam Kysil (Kisiel), the voivode of Kyiv. Later there was the short-lived union of Hadiach (1658), which was to grant Ruthenia the status of an independent state of the Commonwealth alongside Poland and Lithuania.

I think there’s an enlightening comparison to be made between the Khmelnytsky uprising and the Pugachev’s rebellion uprising in Russia (1773-1775), which also involved Cossacks. Pugachev pretended to be the assassinated tsar Peter III and claimed to abolish serfdom by his autocratic will. In this, he weirdly resembled ephemeral “peasant kings” known since Middle Ages. But there was no other way to have even a completely ineffectual plebeian rebellion in the Russian monarchy.

A Cossack rada (council), illustration from the 18th century chronicle by Alexander Rigelman. The Zaporozhian political principles were direct democratic and largely shared with the whole Commonwealth. Below, a detail from the contemporary painting depicting election of the king in the Republic (in 1697). At the left, you can discern some Cossacks in Polish service, in their characteristic sirwal (“szarawary”) pants. These were originally a Turkish garment.

In the Commonwealth, such narrative would be absurd: the only valid title to power was will of the people; to demand change, you had to assert some liberties that you rightfully possessed, regardless of what someone, kings or tsars, were thinking. This was the language that Khmelnytsky used, claiming to defend the ancient freedoms of the Orthodox Church, the Ruthenian people and the Cossacks. This was also the language in which the ruling noble class was reasoning and could respond, like the unhelpful gentleman whom I have once quoted (they [rebels] could seek redress by other means inside the Republic (although nowadays it is difficult, not to say impossible) instead of promptly descending to tumults and bloody arms[6]).

The historical and political writers of the Zaporozhian Hetmanate under Russian rule, such as the hetman Pylyp Orlyk (1672-1742) were also aware of this narrative. He coauthored something of a Hetmanate’s constitution during the Swedish-Russian war, The Pacts and Constitutions of the Laws and Liberties of the Zaporozhian Army (Pacta et Constitutiones legum libertatumque Exercitus Zaporoviensis, 1710) – the wording here clearly reveals the political tradition and mentality intertwined with the Commonwealth’s. (The Republic for generations have agreed to pacta with her kings and issued constitutiones, i.e. any statutes passed by the parliament.) Orlyk also defended (in the Reasoning for Ukraine’s rights Vyvid prav Ukrainy, 1712) the Cossacks’ decision to rebel against the tsar, claiming that they [Cossacks] are supported by human and natural law, which states as one of its main rules: that a people can protest against oppression and demand restoring what was taken away by injustice and violence…[7] Such arguments can seem boilerplate today, but in the 1710s very few cultures in Europe would put that kind of language at the forefront. Orlyk’s contemporaries, such as Samiilo Velychko (before 1670 – after 1728) and Hryhorii Hrabianka (1686–1737/1738), contributed to the nascent national mythology of the independent Ukrainian state, and spoke of it as of an independent commonwealth, parallel to the Polish-Lithuanian one.

The problem of Ukrainians, since then, is the one of finding some strand of tradition solidifying their statehood. They share this trouble with other nations perceived as “new”. This often makes their historical inquiries a struggle to find every possibly relevant figure, to document every evidence of continuity. This, in turn, can lead to questionable decisions like designating Nazi collaborators as national heroes or blowing some periods of own history out of proportion.

The previous generations themselves are a powerful filter shaping the perception of history. They leave narratives that served their purposes at the time, and hold strong influence upon minds of their descendants. The early age of mass media (i.e., the 19th century) was probably the most formative here, but of course important narrative-weaving happened before and after. Many nations, from the Dutch to Armenians, and of course many Poles as well, take pleasure in reminiscing about some long gone “imperial” period. This could be somewhat beneficial in showing how ever-changing and fragile international hierarchies are, but mostly can be harmful in taking the attention away from the actual complexities of history and the present day.

Thankfully, present day Ukraine, with the recent legitimate revolution against a corrupt, autocratic government and the war against aggression, should be in the position to build their societal cohesion with some better stories, healthier memories. The protesters and soldiers, the living and the fallen, are probably the best heroes Ukraine ever had. My own country couldn’t desire better.

In Poland, we are similarly much concerned with history in political debates, but there’s an abundance of historical ammunition and ancestry to choose for many ideologies. What we share with many “new” nations, though, is how decomposed and contested these narratives are, without much of a central core. It’s hard to attribute this to the traditional decentralization of the old Republic, which was, surprisingly, relatively uniform in her political culture and narrative. They are more a product of two centuries when many Polish groups resisted and bargained independently with foreign powers. To some extent, this was also true of other nations such as Ukrainians.

To escape hard filters to at least some extent, it’s preferable to reach for original sources (of course, applying sound analysis and not taking them at face value) and seek genuine analogies in other parts of the world. This is hard, and not always feasible. Be aware that your thinking is inevitably influenced by luster of the powerful, the transient “winners” of history – the long gone and inflated glory of Habsburgs, for example (the sun never sets above the Charles V’s empire, right?) – and narratives that try to rally people to defend the Borderlands of their imagination. Remember that Ukraine and Philippines are places no less real places than Italy. Beware of the “outside perspective”, which can seem temptingly “objective”, but is easily tainted by its own interest. Ultimately, it’s always hard to be right – but it helps to always scrutinize the easy answers.

/-/ Popiel.


  1. April 17, 2020:

  2. Rząd wprowadzi nowe obostrzenia. Błaszczak: Takie, jak na Zachodzie, March 31, 2020:

  3. Morawiecki o testach. Straszy Zachodem i porównuje nas nie z tymi państwami, co trzeba, April 7, 2020:

  4. April 2, 2020:

  5. Andrzej Betlej, Paweł Giżycki SJ: architekt polski XVIII wieku, Kraków 2003, p. 153-154:

  6. Pisma polityczne za czasów panowania Jana Kazimierza Wazy 1648-1668, ed. Stefania Ochmann-Staniszewska, Wrocław 1989, p. 7.

  7. Katarzyna Losson, Idea państwa kozackiego w literaturze kancelistów (w:) 350-lecie unii hadziackiej (1658-2008), Warszawa 2008, s. 382.

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