Maria Winowska and the Search for a Modern (but Illiberal) Central and Eastern Europe


The years of the pandemic have witnessed a veritable renaissance of big-picture thinking about the trajectories of Central and Eastern Europe – in particular, about what modernization and modernity have meant for the region. Surprisingly, however, few of these historical accounts break free of classic heuristic assumptions: that liberal modernity was the inevitable endpoint of the region’s modernization (what Holmes and Krastev have decried as mimicry of the West) and that the national community, with the nation-state as its telos, is the most organic unit of analysis through which to approach the region.

This talk pushes back on both of those assumptions, proposing Central and Eastern Europe as a heuristic construct at the intersection of alternative modernities: diasporic, transnational, and solidaristic. Modernity-as-solidarity is intuitively familiar from Poland of the 1980s and Ukraine of the 2010s, but it can also help us thinking historically about the past two centuries if we reconceptualize the abstract notion of “solidarity” in terms of friendships and family relationships. As in the study of religion, the pre-modern has often proven a repertoire and source of key markers of Central and East European modernity. In the aggregate, civic or spiritual friendships that transcend the boundaries of the region have helped to drive the region’s modernization – and also help to explain why that modernization process is so far from the liberal "model.”

The talk will overview key concepts before zeroing in on one biographical case study: the Polish-Ukrainian-French philosopher and Catholic hagiographer Maria Winowska. Counselor to successive popes, éminence grise behind the international influence of Polish Catholic bishops during the communist era, Winowska offers a provocative model for understanding Central and Eastern Europe’s path to illiberal modernity – at once diasporic, transnational, and imbued with the pre-modern.

Piotr Kosicki is Professor for History at the University of Maryland and was Ukraine in European Dialogue Non-Resident Fellow at the IWM.

Katherine Younger, Historian of modern Eastern Europe and Director of the Ukraine in European Dialogue Program at the IWM, will provide the commentary and moderate the evening.


Fellows Colloquia are internal events for the IWM Visiting Fellows and Guests.