Always the peasants’ fault

„This is why I write history from the viewpoint of human rights”, says Daniel Beauvois in his book on Polish nobility in Right-Bank Ukraine. While Russian officials attempt to disown the stiff-necked Polish nobles, both parties agree on exploiting the labor and denying rights to those working the land. Beavois describes how the struggle for the land between Polish landowners and Russian state apparatus, “despite its national and political importance, was a tiny war in the midst of an ocean of human misery”. The peasants in question, perhaps not yet seeing themselves as Ukrainian but decidedly distinct from the Polish landowners and Russian administrators, defied the constraints imposed on them until their world was swept away by war and revolution.

This book could not have been written by a Polish historian. Beauvois’ writing is at odds with the collective Polish image of the lost Eastern borderland as an Arcadian space of harmony, presided over by the benevolent Polish nobleman whose homestead was the stronghold of Polish nationhood and of higher culture on the threshold of Asiatic Russian empire. Peasants do not feature in this idyllic picture at all.

The omission of the Ukrainian peasant from the mental landscape of Polish past is not terribly surprising in a nationally divided history. But the Polish peasant does not fare any better. Peasants are almost completely absent from the narrative of Polish struggle for freedom and independence which dominates the popular and official version of Polish history. The 1794 Kościuszko insurrection is the one notable exception, but that episode is only included in the narrative in its toned-down version, its social radicalism defanged and erased. The Polish peasant is only notable in the uprising of 1830 and 1863 by his absence. They were not his fights. Crucially, the broad masses of ethnically Polish peasants play no role in the miracle of 1918 when Poland comes back from the dead.

When they do appear, it is as a subject of reproach: they lacked national consciousness, they did not support those fighting for their freedom from foreign oppression, their stolidity and conservatism was an obstacle for real progress for Poland. Peasants are a constant disappointment to the exasperated Polish inteligent, beaurocrat, and politician. Time and again, they betray Polish nationhood. They fail the Polish national idea. This disappointment is rooted in the assumption that they indeed owed something to the national idea, the charge of betrayal – that this is where their loyalty was supposed to be. And yet, why would they owe anything to the national idea? The bearers of that idea were the pauperized heirs of the very landowners whose livelihoods were based on the peasants’ forced labor. The national idea held no attraction to them. It only demanded their loyalty.

The frustration with peasants lingers in historiography to this day, in curious ways. They are never what historians want them to be. I recently sat through a panel discussion of two prominent Ukrainian historians and a guest from Poland (all men, including the moderator, but that’s a different subject) about memory of the traumas of the twentieth century and all those charges rang through their arguments again, exasperatingly. I found a pet peeve. Not that I lack those.

What remains, I suppose, is to follow Daniel Beauvois’ lead and try to write history from the viewpoint of human rights. The tired cliché of giving the voiceless their voice back springs to mind. But the peasant masses never lost theirs and were never shy about using it. They made their opinions known, time and again. Eastern Europe has a long history of peasant rebellions; the most recent one in Poland was the Great Agrarian Strike of 1937: millions participated. Peasants are not an inscrutable force locked in a magical mindset of semi-pagan superstition. They have their voice.


A Sailor’s Life

Joseph Conrad was a miserable man. His whole life, he was plagued by ill health and sickly constitution. A shadow of depression hung over him, the illness flaring up occasionally. One of the depressive episodes, when he was jobless, alone, and broke in Marseilles at twenty, pushed him to put a gun to his chest and pull the trigger. He missed the heart entirely. The whole thing left him with a hole in his chest and a sharp letter from his uncle and guardian. The uncle berated him for his stupidity, but sent some money his way anyway.

He spent decades at sea, and mostly under sails, at the time when they were being pushed out by steam. An experienced sailor, he took positions he was overqualified for, and only captained his own ship once. He had hard time finding work on the high seas, and, in a tight spot, accepted an assignment on a steamship going up the Congo in 1890. He broke off the three-year-contract after five months and returned to London, sick, weary, and depressed again.

Writing her wonderful portrait of the ailing sailor turned literary giant, Maya Jasanoff follows in his footsteps on the high seas, and then up the Congo River, where Conrad found the “heart of darkness”. She boards a French cargo ship (it was the French merchant navy where Conrad started his maritime career), crosses the Indian Ocean, stops over in Singapore, Conrad’s “city in the East”, then sails around the Horn of Africa through pirate-infested waters and then through the Suez Canal. Her journey through Africa itself begins onboard of a plane though, and then a shabby taxi in Kinshasa. Only then she boards a barge and sails up the same dark river that Conrad journeyed on over a century earlier.

Jasanoff does not find the darkness that he did in what was for him an alien world. It is this portrayal of Africa as fundamentally alien Africans as mute and object-like that earned Conrad the ferocious criticism in the age of postcolonialism. She doesn’t defend him but notes that what he saw was seen with a white man’s eyes. His contemporaries assumed that he meant that it is Africa itself that pollutes the white humanity, that poisons civilization and drags it down to its own level. The savages were not the victims, but the perpetrator of the white men’s brutality, they thought. Conrad disagreed vehemently. Yes, the pile of black limbs, not differentiated in his eyes, is dehumanized and nameless, but he is quite clear on who the true savages are. They don’t carry spears in their hands or trinkets around their necks. They wear white suits and pith helmets. The savagery of the colonial scramble is of their making and not induced by inhuman surroundings: they themselves made the surroundings inhuman.

Colonial exploitation is in this book a facet of increasing global interconnectedness. If the ongoing explosion of information technologies defines our connections with the rest of the globe, in Conrad’s time it was the steam engine. The world grew smaller so suddenly, and stuffier, and more crowded, and the white spaces on the map disappeared and sprung up names. All in his lifetime. The Americans meddled, and their rise to the status of a global superpower was facilitated by these changes: suddenly it was so much easier. An age of a new kind of exploitation started, a different sort of dominion not defined by direct colonial power but resting on the same principles of material and financial exploitation. The American way, as it were.

This is a book for our modernity, looking for its roots in Conrad’s own modernity. What of the man himself though? From Russian-ruled Ukraine to literary salons on both sides of the Atlantic: this seems to be an extraordinary transformation. But the word itself suggests a linear, final, and ultimately an unsatisfying explanation of the multiplicity of guises that Conrad took on throughout his life.

Are his guises really so far apart? Is the “Russian arictocrat” really so far away from the rugged captain of the Otago, or from the grumpy novelist settled in the English countryside? Is English prose really this far from florid Polish romanticism? Identity is what people think of us, and the context of these interactions always changes, always evolves, as did Conrad and the personal world he carved out for himself.

All these guises of the man were not that far from one another: the gap that we think must be there is delusive. There is no gap that needs to be bridged in order to create a . He is all these things at once, and they are not incongruous. He is made possible by the globalizing world. In that sense, he is a thoroughly modern man.

The Child Soldiers of Poland

I spent most of a Wednesday afternoon a couple months ago reading the Polish fighters’ accounts of November 1918, when a handful of schoolboys and former Austrian officers fought off the Ukrainian attempt at controlling the city of Lwów. Their valour in Novermber 1918, then in the struggle against the Ukrainian Republic’s forces in 1919, and the subsequent Bolshevik threat in 1920 earned Lwów a very special place in Polish patriotic mythology. It was the intrepid fortress in the East, selfless and heroic, the rampart of Christianity and Polishness, withstanding the onslaught of the barbarian Ukrainians and the godless Bolsheviks. It sacrificed what it held most dear: the blood of its children stained the cobblestones.

The “defence of Lwów” was the starting point of Polish patriotic fascination with child soldiers. When Ukrainian units took over strategic points in the city, spontaneous Polish defence gathered: former Austrian officers, respectable middle-aged burghers, schoolboys. Sixteen-year-old fighters were a common sight on the barricades of the city.

Younger boys also volunteered. The most famous of those was Jurek Bitchan, a working-class fourteen-year-old. He fell fighting on the Lychakiv Cemetery, where his grave is now marked by a striking stylized cross. August Sobociński, himself seventeen, strictly forbade his younger brother, a fifteen-year-old, from following him when he snuck out of his boarding school to join the fighters.[1] Feliks R., another schoolboy, watched a close friend die: together they had snuck out of their school too. Roman Kwiatkowski writes of a fallen volunteer whose body he saw in the Jesuit Gardens (now Franko Park): “young, twelve-year-old boy, skinny, in shabby clothes, with a smile on his face and a bullet in his heart, and just next to this fiery patriotic heart a wild rose bloomed again, so late in the year. Warmed by the blood of the young heart, its flowered over the head of the child hero”. [2]

The struggle was so important that it justified inversion in the proper order of the world: women also volunteered, just as children did. In the last days of November, Gazeta Lwowska carried the obituary of the twenty-one-year-old Felicja Sulimirska and announced public services mourning her young life in the Latin Cathedral. Sulimirska fell by a Ukrainian bullet while carrying messages for the Polish defenders.

The lives of women and children, schoolboys and young ladies from respectable households were the ultimate sacrifice for the ultimate cause: Poland’s freedom. The cause so noble, so sacred that anything was justified in its service. In turn, the sacrifice itself, so tragic and enormous, elevated and hallowed the struggle. And in the end, it was all rewarded: Poland was at last resurrected. And so, even as the city’s importance in the new republic waned, its legend grew, together with the cult of its underage defendants. The Lwów Eaglets Cemetary, nicknamed so after them, provided the ‘Unnamed Soldier’ for the national monument in Warsaw. A provincial city, its glory days long over, could now puff up its self-importance with the legend of its children’s sacrifice.

The commemoration of the Warsaw uprising of August 1944 continues the theme. Even though children were explicitly forbidden to participate in hostilities against the occupying Nazi forces, teenage boys, especially scouts, were an important element of the Polish Home Army units. Children, sometimes as young as eight, served in auxiliary capacity as lookouts or couriers. After the war, these youngsters were given their own monument. The Warsaw monument of the Little Insurgent is the most famous and, some would say, the most morbid manifestation of this current in Polish patriotic mythology. The sculpture of a little boy, perhaps seven or eight years old, bears a German helmet and clutches a machine gun in his tiny hands.

The children of Lwów paved the way for the apotheosis of Warsaw’s children, and their stories played a role in a national coping mechanism. The patriotism of these children and of those who immortalized them is the patriotism of the nineteenth century when Poland, enslaved by the three neighboring powers, suffered as the “Christ of Nations”, a figure born of brooding Romantic ideals and fervent Catholic faith. Poland’s messianic role was, for Poland’s elites, a way of making sense of the century of political repression, failed rebellions, blood loss, and degradation. The twentieth century democratized the loss and the ideology: the masses suffered to an unprecedented degree, and the need for a way out of the trauma was so much greater. The most unspeakable loss, that of one’s children, was translated into a cult of child soldiers, willingly dying on the altar of the Fatherland. Perhaps a sacrifice is easier to bear than a child’s senseless death.


Maybe this explains the patriotism of the ultimate sacrifice, where living to fight another day is cowardice and dying for the Fatherland – the expectation; even children did it, so there is no excuse for anyone. Perhaps the glorification of Poland’s child soldiers is a crucial part of the national coping mechanism, more than a century old, but still alive in so many ways. It would explain so much. But would the trauma or the sacrifice be disrespected if we tried to define the national community in terms different than collective suffering? For so many people in contemporary Poland the answer is yes, and their conviction is ferocious.


[1] TsDIAUL Fond 837, op. 1, spr. 71, ark. 44 – 45, August Sobociński, undated, 1930s [probably 1935 or later].

[2] TsDIAUL Fond 837, op. 1, spr. 71, ark. 59 – 65, “Ze wspomnień”, Feliks R. Bursa, December 1918 and January 1919. [but submitted in mid-1930s].


W Warszawie od poniedziałku. Archiwum Akt Nowych, w odróżnieniu od obu urokliwych, acz przestarzałych, archiwów lwowskich, które przez dziesięciolecia funkcjonują już w budynkach byłych klasztorów, mieści się w budynku z lat pięćdziesiątych, zajmowanych wcześniej przez Bibliotekę Narodową. PRL-owski modernizm jak się patrzy.

Znalazłam dziś w tekach Tymczasowego Komitetu Rządzącego we Lwowie zeznania nijakiego Dr. Karola Zagajewskiego, o okresie rządów ukraińskich w mieście w listopadzie 1918. Dr Zagajewski opowiada, jak to “młody, przystojny żołnierz ukraiński […] utrzymywał porządek w hali targowej na pl. Halickim. Publiczność nieustannie terroryzował browningiem. Straszenie bab widocznie mu sprawiało wielką satysfakcję”.

Prawie stulecie potem Adam Zagajewski napisze o dziadku wiersz.

Mój dziadek prowadził lektorat z niemieckiego

na lwowskim uniwersytecie — o ósmej rano.

Wielu studentów spóźniało się.

Dziadek Karol, zwolennik dyscypliny,

przykręcił do futryny drzwi zasuwkę

i minutę po ósmej sala była hermetycznie zamknięta

A oni spali, spali długo, szczęśliwie,

nie wiedząc że to miasto przestanie istnieć

razem z zasuwką, że wszystko się skończy,

że będą wywózki i egzekucje, i płacz,

i że ta zasuwka stanie się kiedyś

idyllicznym wspomnieniem,

broszką z Herculanum,




Independence Day, 99th anniversary of Poland rising from the smoke and ruin of the Great War. Tens of thousands people marched in Warsaw this Saturday to celebrate it, patriots, they called themselves. They bore banners and chanted slogans: “Poland for Poles”, “Europe Will Be White Or Deserted”, “Pure Blood and Sober Mind”. During the mass that inaugurated the march, a woman unfurled a banner quoting the Polish pope John Paul II: “Racism is Sin”. She was assaulted and dragged out of the church. The priest, mid-sermon, did not flinch.