Some of the most powerful critiques of the Communist governments in East-Central Europe were moral. Vaclav Havel, for instance, argued that the regimes, with their propaganda and inequalities and corruption, were built on a foundation of lies. He proposed the alternative of “living in truth,” which in its rejection of collaborating with a system of lies was at its essence a moral act. It wasn’t, in other words, a question of whether the system worked, in terms of delivering the economic goods or keeping the streets safe and clean. The question was whether the system allowed people to live with integrity. Havel and other dissidents tried to do so and were thrown into jail for their efforts.
Those who collaborated with the system may once have done so out of political commitment. But by the 1970s and 1980s, collaboration was more a function of opportunism. Party membership came with certain benefits. And those who didn’t agree with the system but also didn’t speak out against it were preserving whatever privileges they enjoyed, even if it was only the privilege of not being in jail. This was the moral critique of dissidents like Havel.
When I interviewed the Polish philosopher Zbigniew Szawarski in 1990, he was not happy about the new order developing in the country. He felt that a new totalitarianism, created by the Solidarity opposition in cooperation with the Catholic Church, was replacing Communist totalitarianism. He elaborated on his discomfort 23 years later when I met with him and his daughter Dorota at a café in Warsaw. Indeed, he had seen an opportunistic tendency developing within the Solidarity opposition even before it came to power in 1989.
“There was no selection of the people on the basis of intellectual or especially moral qualities,” he told me. “Everyone was welcome. So you could see quite unpleasant people joining the movement. Probably that happens everywhere. But there were so many people attracted with opportunistic attitudes — supporting the movement because they hate the Communists but can also to get their own position in the movement sooner or later.”
Still, he had high expectations when the Berlin Wall fell, and the region began to move closer to the West. “When we destroyed the Wall, I thought we would bring in Western culture, Western manners, and the Western way of life, but I was wrong,” he continued. “What we brought was mostly goodies, economic goodies. You could buy anything you want in Poland: Jaguar, Mercedes, the most recent model of laptop. But that’s the not a way of thinking, of behaving, of choosing your leaders in a democratic society. Democratic culture didn’t follow material goodies. We still import a lot of things, but we use them in the Polish way.”
But perhaps the greatest disappointment has been in the moral sphere. The new system of lustration – screening people for their connections to the previous regime – was supposed to redress the moral failures of the past. But lustration too had its moral defects.
“The former system was based on distrust: everyone was a potential enemy of the people,” Szawarski noted. “And now everyone is a potential criminal or enemy who has to be controlled by the system, by the government. We have all these gizmos used for surveillance just like in the United States. We use that technology not for liberation but more and more to suppress people’s freedoms and rights.”
His daughter Dorota, a social anthropologist, agreed. “In terms of persecution, what we also have here is the National Heritage Institute, which is supposed to be like a peace and reconciliation institute. But it’s basically a witch-hunting institute,” she said. “Three years ago, there was a big lustration program that was supposed to eliminate from the public sphere anyone who had anything to do with the old regime. Even cleaning ladies had to sign a paper if they worked in a summer camp where the children of the political elite went. Sometimes certain documents were doctored in order to make life difficult for certain people.”
She felt that this kind of process has undermined Polish society. “Poland already has a low level of trust in society whether it’s trust between people or trust in public institutions or government,” she concluded. “But this kind of institution undermines that even further. The other thing is: instead of using this institution for something useful or positive, it’s used in a very negative way. It also gave the illusion that something was being done. They try to use this problem to cover up other problems like massive social problems, inequalities, problems accessing health care, massive emigration. Instead of trying to solve the problems of today and tomorrow, they concentrate on the past.”
Her father nodded vigorously. “You can’t drive a car looking in the rearview mirror,” he pointed out.
Do you remember where you were and what you were doing when you heard about the fall of the Berlin Wall?
Dorota: I was a kid, so I don’t remember.
Zbigniew: I think we were planning our trip to the United Kingdom. We left in 1990. I was just corresponding with our colleagues from the University at Swansea in Wales. I got a nice invitation to spend a year with them as a fellow. It was a visiting fellowship. We were very much excited about the trip. My condition was that it had to be the whole family. I refused to travel alone. There were four of us. It was quite emotional. I was not quite sure if I could get consent from my university for a one-year leave. In the end, I got unpaid leave for one year, so in October 1990 we went to Swansea for just one year.
That one year extended to nine years. My children managed to graduate in Wales. Peter is still in London working as a doctor. He graduated from Southampton in medicine. Dorota graduated Cambridge in social anthropology. So in a way the mission was accomplished. That was quite a difficult but happy time. I think we had an intense but very interesting nine years. We returned to home in October 1999.
I managed to return to the university and got back my position. In 2009 I retired from the university, but I still have a fulltime job at the National Institute of Public Health in Warsaw. I work for one or two public bodies, on health and technology assessment and some other areas. It’s quite an active life.
And you have a teaching career as well?
Dorota: I was teaching here. I was employed at the Institute for Applied Social Studies, part of University of Warsaw. But this is a very weird working place. The culture there is still like 20-25 years ago.
Zbigniew: The milieu is PiS – the Law and Justice Party. That’s the political orientation.
Dorota: I was a social anthropologist by training, but I was asked to teach everything but what I was trained in. I had to teach about stuff I had absolutely no knowledge of. The program wasn’t very useful for me or for the institute or the students. So I left, but I haven’t found anything else yet.
Do you remember where you were on June 4, 1989?
Dorota: The date of the elections? I was in school.
Zbigniew: We voted for the new government. We were full of hopes.
Dorota: Do you remember whom you voted for?
Zbigniew: Mazowiecki, of course. He was a new man. He looked very honest. He had good intentions. I was never a member of the Solidarity movement. Somehow I kept a distance. I had a lot of friends in Solidarity, and I was ready to cooperate with them. We were on very friendly terms. But I was never involved in any formal or organizational activities. With hindsight, I think I was right. It completely degenerated, as you see now.
Why do you think you never got involved before?
Zbigniew: Too many accidental people attached themselves to the movement. There was no selection of the people on the basis of intellectual or especially moral qualities. Everyone was welcome. So you could see quite unpleasant people joining the movement. Probably that happens everywhere. But there were so many people attracted with opportunistic attitudes — supporting the movement because they hate the Communists but can also to get their own position in the movement sooner or later. Maybe that’s a question of experience or age. I was very skeptical about the movement from the beginning.
But still you were optimistic at the time of the elections.
Zbigniew: It was a new opening. Anything might happen. We thought that we would have a new generation of politicians, of intellectuals: uncorrupted, well educated, dedicated to the cause.
That was an illusion?
And what was your connection to Solidarity?
Dorota: As a kid, I remember mostly posters on the street at the time. Also, music – all kinds of songs officially banned at the time – was suddenly freely available. I was aware of stuff happening, but I was not very interested or involved in my early teens.
When did you become interested? In England?
Dorota: When we were in England, I found British politics interesting. The culture of politics there was very different from what we had in Poland. We visited Poland once a year usually. You could see the degenerating political atmosphere. You could see that the president wasn’t managing things very well. Walesa was a laughing stock. Everyone made fun of him. He produced the funny quote of the day. He didn’t know how to behave – that was very visible.
The other thing that was noticeable in Poland was how inward-looking it was. I don’t know whether it was a question of politics, because I wasn’t that interested in politics. But it was definitely visible in the media, when you watched the news on TV. It was all local news, and very little on what was happening abroad, unless there was a major disaster. The media was very parochial, with no curiosity about the world. This lack of curiosity amazingly survived. When I was teaching these last three years and tried to interest students in case studies outside of Poland, they were just not interested. “We don’t need to know what’s happening outside of Poland,” they said.
At what point did your optimism wane?
Zbigniew: The critical point was opening the borders – that was the first moment. We got our passports. We could travel freely. But it led to cultural atrophy. When we destroyed the Wall, I thought we would bring in Western culture, Western manners, and the Western way of life, but I was wrong. What we brought was mostly goodies, economic goodies. You could buy anything you want in Poland: Jaguar, Mercedes, the most recent model of laptop. But that’s the not a way of thinking, of behaving, of choosing your leaders in a democratic society. Democratic culture didn’t follow material goodies. We still import a lot of things, but we use them in the Polish way.
Can you give an example?
Zbigniew: There’s a total distrust. The former system was based on distrust: everyone was a potential enemy of the people. And now everyone is a potential criminal or enemy who has to be controlled by the system, by the government. We have all these gizmos used for surveillance just like in the United States. We use that technology not for liberation but more and more to suppress people’s freedoms and rights. That’s the source of my pessimism.
Dorota: And for framing people as well.
Can you give me an example of that?
Zbigniew: We have the prokuratora system, like a prosecutor in the States, with slightly different rights and responsibilities. In the last 10 years, this institution was used and abused mostly for political aims. They tried to frame more than 10 influential politicians. The names were in today’s press. Suddenly all those people turned out to be innocent, after three to five years of investigation.
They were under investigation for?
Zbigniew: Theft. Criminal affairs.
Dorota: But in terms of persecution, what we also have here is the National Heritage Institute, which is supposed to be like a peace and reconciliation institute. But it’s basically a witch-hunting institute.
Zbigniew: They want you to prove that you collaborated or didn’t collaborate with the former secret service.
Dorota: Three years ago, there was a big lustration program that was supposed to eliminate from the public sphere anyone who had anything to do with the old regime.
Zbigniew: Under Kaczynski, they decided that all people above a certain age had to sign a declaration that they never collaborated with the Communist regime.
Dorota: Even cleaning ladies had to sign a paper if they worked in a summer camp where the children of the political elite went. Sometimes certain documents were doctored in order to make life difficult for certain people.
Adam Michnik was very much against lustration. Then he changed positions because he was afraid of blackmailing, so he urged the archives should be open.
Zbigniew: The DDR had the Gauck institute. We didn’t.
Do you think Michnik is right?
Zbigniew: I don’t like that institution for moral reasons. It’s a modern Inquisition. They can use the stored information selectively against us. I’m sure that there must be files on me. I spent all the time at the philosophy department with Leszek Kolakowski and Zygmunt Bauman. But I’m not tempted to look at my file: I don’t want to know the people who reported on me. It would be awful to discover suddenly that a good friend from your class or seminar group at university was a hidden collaborator of the secret service. There’s something dirty about that.
You can look at your file?
Zbigniew: I’m not a journalist. It’s legally defined when I can access my file. They wanted to open them for everybody, but in the end there were some restrictions imposed. But I don’t remember the details of that law.
Dorota: I think it’s undermining society. Poland already has a low level of trust in society whether it’s trust between people or trust in public institutions or government. But this kind of institution undermines that even further. The other thing is: instead of using this institution for something useful or positive, it’s used in a very negative way. It also gave the illusion that something was being done. They try to use this problem to cover up other problems like massive social problems, inequalities, problems accessing health care, massive emigration. Instead of trying to solve the problems of today and tomorrow, they concentrate on the past.
Zbigniew: They dig up other people’s sins.
Dorota: But it no longer matters.
Zbigniew: I don’t want to read books about Mazowiecki, Jaruzelski, or Reykowski. The heroes of that period played their roles.
Dorota: It’s also a waste of precious resources.
Zbigniew: You can’t drive a car looking in the rearview mirror. Most of us intellectuals are digging in the past.
Dorota: The truth and reconciliation process is not only to understand what happened but also to forgive. In Poland there’s no forgiveness.
Zbigniew: It’s a culture of hatred.
Dorota: It’s not something to be proud of.
Zbigniew: it’s a question of proportion.
Dorota: It depends on what you do with the past. If you try to prevent anything like that in the future, fine. But if you are using the past for your own political interest, which is how this is mostly used, or just as part of personal revenge? Very often it is for personal revenge or it’s a fight for political position. From time to time, they try to accuse prominent politicians of past collaboration. Everyone gets accused. Walesa was accused of being an informer. Other key politicians too.
Zbigniew: They still talk about Walesa and whether he was a secret agent.
Dorota: It doesn’t matter. It’s often people from the same movement who make the accusations, people who were of lower status then but still have political ambitions. It’s all part of political game. It has nothing to do with greater understanding.
Zbigniew: No one feels responsible for the future of this country. We don’t talk about the future 20 or 50 or 80 years from now.
Dorota: There are no long-term policies.
Zbigniew: They dig in the sewage. They spend a lot of social energy and money.
Dorota: It’s people of your generation and older who find it very interesting.
Zbigniew: That’s a good observation. I’m corresponding with a certain priest, a professor of theology. We have absolutely different political views, but we belong to the same generation and share similar memories of our youth. At the same time, that brings us together because it was a beautiful youth despite the poverty, the lack of everything, despite the oppression of the system. We were young and optimistic. The future was open to us. We went absolutely different ways. But we shared some common moral values. And we are eager to talk about this and want to cooperate. It’s unique. But it should be common this ability to understand each other. We are not able to have this common attitude – a common feeling of responsibility for the future of the country. Nobody cares about it. Nobody. Therefore, we have growing problems in health care, the justice system, the education system, the political system.
Dorota: There’s no sense of solidarity. If someone is poor, that’s their problem. If your kids don’t have access to basic health care, that’s not my business.
Zbigniew: It’s the atrophy of the concept of responsibility. It’s no longer operational in the system. This is the ideology of the free market. Everyone is responsible for himself or herself and nobody else. The liberal attitude is that the market will bring the best possible results. But it doesn’t work. Especially in health care. I don’t believe that the free market will sort out our health-care problems. You have the Obamacare plan in the United States. We don’t have anything like that. Paradoxically there is no solidarity.
Dorota: The word refers to the movement, but it has no value at the moment.
Zbigniew: People don’t define solidarity as a moral value.
I was reading a biography of Kosciuszko. I was surprised to read that during the uprising in the 18th century, they found a secret archive in the Warsaw castle that contained the names of all those who collaborated with the Russians. The entire Polish debate on lustration took place in the 18th century!
Zbigniew: It comes and goes and comes and goes. There is an obsession with cleaning your hands or cleaning your social group of traitors. If they worked for foreign regimes — Russia, Germany, doesn’t matter — they should be alienated and possibly killed.
They created a Jacobin Club here in Warsaw and hung about 50 people. Kosciuszko was very upset to hear about it. He insisted that they put the Jacobin Club on trial – an early attempt at establishing the rule of law. But I want to go back to the issue of your growing pessimism. What was it that happened after the elections that made you less optimistic?
Zbigniew: I think it’s human nature. The system has changed, but human nature hasn’t. People found themselves in a new political situation that they tried to use as much as possible for themselves. Now we have this very inhuman capitalism that you had a long time ago when nobody cared for the most vulnerable people, and inequality is growing very fast. Justice is a taboo word.
Dorota: It’s a politicized word. People don’t talk about social justice. They talk about justice only in a legal sense.
Zbigniew: They say it’s a Communist slogan, but it’s not. I was an optimist because I thought we would have a more fair and just society.
Dorota: Instead of taking the best of the two systems, we took the worst and maintained the worse.
Walesa aside, the Polish transition was presided over by some of the best public intellectuals – Bronislaw Geremek, Tadeusz Mazowiecki, Jacek Kuron.
Zbigniew: The individual is nothing. There has to be strong team to win the match. Politics is not a game of individuals but of social groups. If you don’t have a good team fighting for you, sooner or later you will lose.
You don’t think you had the best team on the field back then?
Zbigniew: Exactly. Charisma works for a year or two, but not for life. Every charismatic leader has success but then their charisma disappears.
Let me jump to the present. The description of Poland in the West is quite favorable. Tusk is presented as a sensible politician who is not corrupt. Poland has had economic growth, even during the economic crisis. If you compare it to Hungary or Bulgaria, there’s no crazy far-right wing political force. There’s PiS but not Jobbik. So, in comparison, Poland seems like a winner.
Dorota: So, why are people emigrating?
That’s a question. Why?
Zbigniew: People aren’t asking why the best people are emigrating.
I want to know why. Tell me why!
Dorota: There is no security here in Poland. For example, employers totally don’t respect employment law. And we have a fairly unfriendly employment law. We have different kinds of contracts. There are three basic types, and only one gives you any social security such as health insurance or retirement. Of the other two, one doesn’t give you anything except money, and the other one gives you health insurance and takes out some money for the national pension. But these two that don’t give you full insurance are called rubbish contracts. You have no right to holiday or maternity leave. You can lose your job overnight. With a full employment contract, depending on how long you’ve been employed, you always get two or three months notice and also, depending on how you long you work, some severance. But only a lucky few have those contracts, and usually not young people, not even people in their thirties. So, those who have full contracts, at least in my generation, are afraid to lose their jobs.
Zbigniew: They don’t take any political risks.
Dorota: And you can’t even take the risk of buying property, because you don’t have access to credit if you don’t have a proper employment contract. So you stay with your parents or you rent a place in Warsaw, which is very expensive. There’s a sense of insecurity. The threat of unemployment is one thing. It’s growing, and it takes a long time to find a job. But this feeling of insecurity and the abuses suffered by workers are driving people out. You might be working extra hours and you don’t get paid for that. If you don’t like it, there are 10 other people waiting in line.
Zbigniew: And the law isn’t on your side.
Dorota: Even if you have rights, you don’t have a way of protecting them. There are institutions that are supposed to be working for you, but they don’t work. For example, people are working very long hours, like in Korea. But again, if you ask why people are leaving, they migrate for jobs and more money, but they also emigrate for lifestyle. They want to work, but they want to have time to live, be with their family, to travel, to pursue their hobbies, all of which they don’t have time for here.
It’s interesting that you stress security since ordinarily the life of immigrants is insecure.
Dorota: But people feel more secure there! Two million people have left, and they’re not coming back. The other indicator is birth rate. Poland has one of the lowest birthrates in Poland, but Polish migrants in the UK have one of the highest among immigrants, higher than people from South Asia. That’s an indication of how you secure you feel. If you feel under threat, you don’t have children.
Zbigniew: The old system fulfilled these basic needs. We had to wait for our flat for 11 years, but we got it in the end. But here a young person graduating from university has to work 60 years to save money to buy a flat. No bank will offer credit unless they have a good job. It’s a vicious circle.
Dorota: Job security is one thing. But we also have first-rate employees and second-rate. We didn’t have that in the past.
There’s been a rise in what we call “flexible” employment.
Dorota: They have a flexible structure in Denmark, but they also have excellent social structures.
So, why would you stay here?
Dorota: I wouldn’t stay here. I’m looking for jobs elsewhere. As a social anthropologist.
But not Korea?
Dorota: It’s the same problems there. Long hours. No social security. And for immigrants, there’s a lack of social support.
What do you think about Krytyka Polityczna?
Dorota: I’m glad they are here and doing what they are doing. But they’re preaching to the converted.
Zbigniew: I know the people and sometimes collaborate with them.
Dorota: It’s always the same people who come to listen.
Zbigniew: They have no vision or program to consolidate people into a larger group.
Dorota: It’s typical of Poland. We are very good at fighting against something. We find it much more difficult to fight for something, to have a proper plan to implement, a proper agenda. It’s easy not to like something., much harder to change it.
What do you think about Palikot, which does have a positively stated program?
Zbigniew: Yes, they have an interesting program. I know Palikot, who’s a graduate of our faculty. He’s against the Church, and there’s a big group of people who have had enough of Church domination. That brings a lot of people to the Palikot party. He’s also for a liberal way of life – legalizing drugs, legalizing gay marriage, he doesn’t care about monogamy. It’s a very liberal approach that attracts young people. Young people are his electorate. But that’s not all that life consists of. You need a flat, a good health system. You need a job, you need to eat. Marijuana is not enough. Gay life is not enough. We need a good nursery and access to local clinic. He doesn’t mention that. No Left-oriented party is offering a rational system of reforming health care. That’s what Obama is doing. Will he succeed or not is another question.
Dorota: Palikot is mostly about lifestyle. In Poland we don’t vote for parties, we vote against parties. You do what you can to eliminate the party you don’t like. There’s no party that I would like to vote for. There are parties that I don’t want in control but no one I want.
People feel insecure. The unemployment rate among young people is quite high. Many people have left the country. Why hasn’t there been a party that has come forward with a platform that addresses those issues?
Dorota: The state is separate from society. It’s two separate beings. The approach of young people is “whatever: let the circus go on and we’ll manage on our own.” You don’t rely on the state to help you in any way. The state is your enemy in many ways. The state does something strange with your taxes and doesn’t convert it into anything useful.
Zbigniew: The Polish Right has the powerful backing of the Church – and you can’t ignore the role of the Catholic Church in Poland. The Right-oriented parties are very powerful. They will never take any risks to lose the support of the Church.
Some people think that Kaczynski may make a comeback. But within Platforma, there are two strong positions – one on the Right and one more associated with Tusk, more liberal.
Dorota: Even Donald Tusk can’t ignore the Church. Eighty to ninety percent of Poles are true believers. They are the potential voters of Tusk and Kaczynski.
Didn’t Tusk support gay marriage?
Dorota: Civil unions.
Zbigniew: And there’s no law on in vitro fertilization.
Dorota: But we’ve had in vitro clinics for 20 years. We have stuff that needs legislation, and it’s not happening because of Church opposition. In a way, it’s better not to have the law. Imagine if the Church wanted to completely ban in vitro. This is the Polish style. There’s a common practice, and it might even by subsidized by the state, but there’s no legal regulation. There’s no law on in vitro fertilization.
Zbigniew: Poland is probably the only country in Europe that didn’t ratify the Oviedo convention on bioethics.
Dorota: We have several sperm banks but no law regulating them.
Let me ask about another powerful institution – the European Union. Poland has been a member for a while and is the highest recipient of European funds. Do you think outside pressure from the EU can push Poland in a positive direction?
Dorota: In terms of positive impact, there are some EU-funded local development projects outside the cities. This money has meant the rejuvenation of little towns and villages.
Zbigniew: This has been big and makes a difference. We can’t ignore European law.
Dorota: Which we attempt to do.
Zbigniew: We should enforce the law in Poland and be punished if we don’t. We should pay for not regulating in vitro. It’s very good to have this Strasbourg court for human rights. Everyone has a right to appeal to the courts.
Has there been a challenge to Poland in Strasbourg?
Dorota: There was a challenge to Poland’s restrictive law on abortion. Even the existing law was not respected, and someone who qualified was refused an abortion. It applies as well to prenatal screening, which we don’t have access to. That was another case involving cruel and unusual punishment for the woman.
Zbigniew: The Polish government ignored the law and paid the fine.
Dorota: In theory you have access to treatment, but in practice you don’t.
Zbigniew: In one of the UN documents on torture, Poland was mentioned in the medical context for torturing cancer patients by denying them painkillers. Poland has lowest rate of use of opiate drugs and morphine in Europe.
Dorota: The drugs are also expensive.
Zbigniew: Morphine is not. I got the data from a palliative care specialist. Poland uses five times less morphine in palliative care than the average European country.
Dorota: There was a report that the use was restricted because of costs.
Zbigniew: The new generation of painkillers is expensive. But not morphine.
I understand that the new generation is expensive. But why is morphine used five times less?
Zbigniew: You should dedicate your suffering to Jesus Christ. That’s the formal official ideology. I took part in a special session on pharmacology. There were five priests and two or three laypeople. I was the only one who said that suffering could be morally degrading. Our priests said that we should following Christ and John Paul II and dedicate the pain and suffering of patients to God.
Dorota: The other side of the story is the total chaos in Polish hospitals. That’s the other reason for the lack of access to painkillers.
Was there a penalty imposed on Poland on this issue?
Zbigniew: There was no penalty. They talked about a penalty. But no.
Did the Polish government respond?
Zbigniew: No, not at all.
When you brought up torture, I thought you were going to talk about the Polish support for the CIA torture site.
Zbigniew: That’s not a problem now. It was a problem a year or two ago – because of the American context. But our moral responsibility for torturing people on Polish territory was practically never discussed.
There was another big controversy in 2000-1: the publication of the book Neighbors by Jan Gross. Is that controversy still going on?
Dorota: Yes, and the books are still being published. For instance, here is a book about an issue that people don’t talk about: Jews being killed by resistance fighters, by the Armia Krajowa and the Armia Ludowa during the war..
Zbigniew: We have only several hundred Jews in Poland. And we have growing anti-Semitism.
Dorota: We have growing anti-Semitism, but we also have Jewish movements growing in confidence and strength. People are beginning to be proud and open about their Jewish heritage. There are Jewish cultural festivals – not only in Krakow but also in Warsaw.
Zbigniew: You should visit the new Jewish museum in the old Jewish ghetto.
Dorota: There’s the museum. And there’s also the Twarda festival – on Twarda street in the old ghetto where you can attend synagogue, go to workshops, eat at a Tel Aviv restaurant. Okay, there is strong anti-Semitism here, but Jewish culture is visible now. People are celebrating their heritage. The journal Midrasz is still being published.
Zbigniew: That wasn’t happening in my youth. It was taboo. You could talk about it only in private.
Dorota: We’re talking about Warsaw. But a small town somewhere? No.
When you think back to 1989 and your worldview back then, has anything changed dramatically in the way that you look at the world?
Zbigniew: I can offer you one simple description of how I felt back then when things changed. I felt like I was back in Europe. Now I feel fully European. I have my passport. I can travel anywhere, money permitting. My credit cards are valid everywhere in the world.
Dorota: You still need a visa to go to the United States.
Zbigniew: Yes, but I can use my Polish bank card in New York to get cash from a money machine. Or Hong Kong. That’s a very pleasant feeling. You don’t have this feeling of being a second-rate citizen of the world. You are back in the mainstream. I really like it. Dorota was educated in the UK. Forty years ago, I could only dream that this would be possible. Now we are civilized more or less as a country.
And for you, has anything changed since 2000 or so in your worldview?
Dorota: It’s similar to what you say, but maybe a little different because over the last 10 or 13 years, I grew detached from the place of my origin. When I got back to Poland, each year I stay here I feel less that I belong here. I don’t think it’s just me. Maybe it comes from the feeling of freedom of movement. In theory, provided you have cash, you can leave at any moment. But you feel detached from politics, from society.
Zbigniew: From your local pond.
Dorota: Exactly. It makes for a lonely existence, not conducive to long-term friendships. Everything is fluid and superficial because you might move in a year. The relationships you establish are there to be useful, not for their own sake or value.
Zbigniew: On the other hand, your network is now massive.
Dorota: But it’s very shallow.
Paradoxically, if you didn’t have this option to leave at any time, you would feel more attached here.
Dorota: Maybe I’d feel more engaged in what is going on here.
In other countries, such as Bulgaria where a million people left, some people are starting to come back to build something new. Is that happening here?
Dorota: Some people return but only to leave again because they find it impossible to start something here. It ‘s very difficult to start a business here in terms of administrative requirements. It’s just not worth the trouble. It’s easier to go abroad, make a business there, and then come back to start a business here. There were some campaigns to bring people back from the UK. And some people came back, looked around, and then left again. There was nothing for them. Even when they had ideas, it was just impossible.
Zbigniew: You remember our feelings when we came back to Poland. In the UK people were always smiling and very helpful. Here, people didn’t smile back then. There was this unpleasant and aggressive attitude. There was no kindness or openness. You were ignored.
And that changed because?
Zbigniew: People travel all the time, for holidays, to visit family. We are several times in the UK every year. Many of our colleagues are travelling around the world. The world is open for us. No Iron Curtain, no Berlin Wall. Language is also important. My generation had to learn Russian. We had no choice. Now we have people who speak many different languages: English, French, German. Even Chinese is becoming more and more popular. It gives you access to the world. And the Internet is the other great leveler.
Why did you study Russian?
Dorota: I studied Russian ages ago when I did my degree at Cambridge. I thought that I was doing something so odd, social anthropology, that I needed to pick up a language that was useful commercially. I’d done one or two years of Russian in Poland, but I forgot it. I got back to the language when I was doing my BA to increase my chances on the job market. It didn’t. But it was very useful when I did my PhD at the School for Oriental and African Studies.
When you think back to 1989 and all the changes that have happened since then, how would you evaluate that on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being most dissatisfied and 10 most satisfied?
Zbigniew: We’ve got incredible freedom, and it was worth experimenting with reforming the system to get it. But we have not learned how to use that freedom properly. So, 7.
Same scale, same period of time: your own personal life?
And when you look into the near future, the next two or three years, how would you evaluate Poland’s prospects, on a scale of 1 to 10 with 1 most pessimistic and 10 most optimistic?
Zbigniew: We might collapse in the next two or three years as a result of the accumulation of many small unresolved problems. Maybe not in three but in five years, we must have a radical change. We can’t live longer than that in this state of society. It’s frustrating, this declining trust. It’s becoming a more Hobbesian society: homo lupens. Is it possible? I don’t know. Something must explode. There’s a very good possibility that we’ll be living in a oppressive society or a cruel society built on 19th-century-style capitalism.
Dorota: 3. That’s mostly because the problems we have now will not be resolved, and we will have new problems. I also fear the return of Kaczynski. If he wins, I’m out.
Zbigniew: 3 as well.
Warsaw, August 8, 2013
Zbigniew Szawarski teaches philosophy and medical ethics at Warsaw University and the Medical Academy. He once edited the journal Ethica but it was suspended for economic reasons. He was not in particularly high spirits when I met with him.
“As a social group, the intelligentsia is having the worst time since the war,” he told me, “It’s a paradox. On the one hand, we have a lot of freedom, unprecedented freedom. But you can’t use the freedom if there is no place to publish your views. You are free, but you can’t use your freedom.” He therefore can no longer afford to travel to other countries, subscribe to foreign journals, invite foreign speakers to the university.” He is not particularly happy with the state of political affairs. He believes that one form of totalitarianism has been exchanged for another: the Solidarity nomenklatura for the Communist nomenklatura. Also, the Church has a more legitimized role in Polish culture. Recently, a group of students approached him demanding a class on Roman Catholic medical ethics, one that could substitute for his neutral course on medical ethics.
Did he see any politicians coming along who might stem the tide of clericalism, nationalism, right-wingism? No, he replied. What about Fiszbach, the leader of the Social Democrats and once the most respected PUWP leader, government negotiator responsible for the Gdansk agreements in 1980. “People respect him, but he has no charisma. He needs time and time is against him.”
On the question of abortion, he noted that all churches, the Sunday before the recent Sejm discussion, conducted special prayers that the parliamentarians would discuss the issue properly. He quotes this as an example of a monoculture, built on the fusion of Church and nation [in polls, Poles consistently rate the Church and the army as the most valued institutions!]. “People in this country don’t know the meaning of pluralism. Particularly Walesa.” Few people therefore criticize Balcerowicz and his plan or Kuron and his lack of plan.
We talked about the establishment of a rule of law in Poland. He is very much for such an establishment but argues that Solidarity is not putting such into effect nor are Poles in general law abiders. I countered: is not a rule of law being put into effect, simply one that he doesn’t agree with? He held to his position that a “Western” or “European” rule of law had to be put into effect.
As for what AFSC could do in the region: help re-establish Ethica, set up schools for teaching English, set up a Quaker medical school, send Western literature, engage in scientific exchanges, send vitamins for children, provide nutritional information for families–probably in that order of importance.