Poland and the West: In or Out?

The answer to the question put forward in the title of this essay is elusive. Whether Poland is considered to be “in” or “out” of the West is a matter of perception, and perceptions are changing. Poland of today is an interesting case for the analysis of westernization. Apart from being the second biggest country in the region, it has a history of the most radical attempt to change the communist system (Solidarity 1980/81). It was first to start the radical transition to market economy, and it is often regarded as one of the most successful transforming countries. Market reforms are being continued, democracy functions well, the media are free, human rights are observed. When one travels through the country, one sees roads full of western cars, gas stations with the names of well-known corporations as well as many of the proverbial McDonalds. In Warsaw, a new office tower or a super-market is opened almost every month. Visa and MasterCard are accepted everywhere, and even in a small provincial town a tourist or a businessman does not feel at a loss, as he or she would have done twenty or even ten years ago.

So in a sense Poland today is part of the West. But is it really? Imagine for a while that something goes wrong: a decline in the rate of growth, inflation going up, foreign investment going down, corruption scandals, involving important politicians getting the attention of the foreign media, social tensions producing political unrest, and nationalistically oriented populist politicians becoming more vocal. If at the same time the European Union develops more problems, and the U.S. shifts to more isolationism, one can easily expect moods to change and voices in the West to express doubt upon the degree of westernization of Poland.

If one looks historically – and this is the perspective I want to apply – the problem is that Poland has both been and not been part of the West. Poland to some degree is part of the West in a cultural sense. Religion, ideas, legal institutions and scholarly traditions came predominantly from the West throughout the millennium. The economic systems however, and the social structures, for the most part of Polish history, have differed from the Western pattern, and Polish lands and society were under significant influence of traditions which were not western. Precisely this ambiguity of the Polish case, as well as a number of other countries of the region, led to the introduction of the concept of Central-Eastern Europe.[1] On top of that, whatever the degree of the real western influence, “the West” hardly ever agreed to treat Poland as a full member of its community.

Such perception by the West is closely reflected by the feelings of Poles themselves. While sweeping generalizations may be dangerous, it still might be said that, while Poles usually have felt themselves part of the West, they had, at the same time, a problem of not being fully accepted, as well as being treated as somehow inferior. Those feelings explain so many emotions related to every case of a Pole’s success and recognition in the West. Few people read the poetry of Czeslaw Milosz or Wislawa Szymborska, but the whole country was full of joy when they received the Nobel Prize in literature.

That perceptions change is evident if one looks at more recent history. During the cold war all the Soviet satellite countries were lumped together into one category of Eastern Europe. Then, the concept of Central Europe was (re) invented by Eastern Europeans themselves. The presumption was that some societies within Eastern Europe were more western, or less eastern than others. While these differences were half-forgotten at the early stages of the transformation when everybody shed communism, they reappeared at the end of the present decade, when it became obvious that the transformation record differs sharply across the region.

Since the recent perception of Poland’s relations to the West is closely related to the most recent experiences of post-communist transformation, it seems proper to start by reviewing it, and then to turn to the inspection of a broader sweep of Polish history.

Transformation: Western perceptions and Polish feelings

Shifting Poland closer to the idealized West is the result of the perception of the process of decomposition of communism and the later transition. Poland used to have a relatively good press and attracted considerable Western interest several times during the last two decades. Sixteen months of Solidarity in 1980/81 made journalists and social scientists travel to Poland extensively. This resulted in an enormous amount of press coverage as well as several interesting books. There are probably more books about Solidarity in English than in Polish.[2] Apart from the obvious reasons for this interest – the sheer drama of events, as well as their likely political consequences, such as a Soviet intervention – there were deeper reasons. Solidarity attracted sympathy from various corners. For the anticommunist, mainly American Right it was important because it challenged the “evil empire.” Other reasons for sympathy can be labeled the “revival of civil society.”[3] The spontaneous movement of Solidarity, as well as preceding movements of democratic opposition in Poland and elsewhere, seemed to suggest not only a possible way out of the Soviet type regime, but a ray of hope for Western societies themselves as well. According to some, Western societies needed this hope, as their own democratic institutions were in a kind of atrophy because of their formalization and lack of spontaneous underpinnings. Poland of Solidarity 1980/81 was also interesting for non-Marxist socialists, for whom it suggested some sort of a viable possibility of workers participation, on various levels, in running the workplace and the country.

The second time Poland attracted attention and sympathy was during the Round Table talks of 1989 and during the subsequent gradual stepping down of communists from power. These events made observers engage into comparisons of Poland and other eastern European countries with Latin America, southern Europe and even South Africa, and into praises of the “negotiated transition.”[4] Those sympathies were often mixed with doubts about a possibility of parallel transition to market and to democracy. The pessimists argued that if market reforms were pursued too energetically, democracy might fail – either because it would be rolled back by the government, determined to stick to the macroeconomic stabilization, or because political tension would pave the road for populist leaders. If, on the other hand, the leadership decided to maintain democracy, that would allow an anti-market coalition to block economic change.[5] However, the pessimism waned quickly after 1992/93, when the rate of growth started to rise, and when after winning elections in 1993 the reformed communist successor party generally upheld the course of democratic and market reforms. On the one hand, these events showed that democracy worked in Poland. On the other, they also showed that the radical shock therapy, designed by Leszek Balcerowicz was very much in line with the Washington consensus and produced results. Thus Poland started to be regarded as a success case, and – as at one point it showed the highest growth rate in Europe – it was even called the “European tiger.” This positive image of Poland seems to hold until this day, although the West has apparently more reservations about Poland joining the European Union than it used to have.

This is not to say, obviously, that Poland has always had good press everywhere. From time to time it irritated foreign observers, who noticed a growing importance of populist and conservative Right, anti-Semitic incidents, a backward agriculture, the Church presence in politics, or the troubles caused by Polish criminal elements in western countries. Pope John Paul II, so important for Poles as to be almost beyond critique, is by no means perceived as an uncontroversial figure in the West. The fame of the most symbolical Polish figure, Lech Walesa, who lost appeal for Poles themselves during his presidential term because of his maverick political style, has faded in the West as well. Still, it seems that good press has tended to prevail over the bad, this being due as much to the results of the Polish transformation, as to the Western needs to have at least some success stories to be contrasted with a rather dim picture of most of the former Soviet Union and of the Balkans. Poland and Hungary serve this purpose well.

Poles’ own perceptions of the transformation process have been more mixed and complex.[6] The economic transformation in Poland has been justified mainly in neo-liberal terms. It is characteristic that the neo-liberal ideology has been accepted without too many problems by the most important opinion making circles in Poland.[7] I should add that I am using the word “ideology” in a strictly descriptive sense, having in mind a set of views singled out because of their persuasive functions more than because of their actual content or truth/falseness. Neo-liberalism was accepted despite the fact that probably only very few people really understand all the intricacies of modern neoclassical economics that form its underpinnings. Some western observers thought at the outset the aggressively pro-market approach had been imposed from the outside by international financial institutions as well as by foreign experts. This was not correct, however. Liberal views (both those of political as well as of economic kind) were already being accepted in Poland at the beginning of the 1970s. That was partially a result of more global developments, in particular rising doubts as to the role of the state in the economy, the crisis of the welfare state in highly developed countries, as well as the crisis of the developmental models in the Third World. Poland was relatively open, academics traveled and the new ideas became familiar to those who were interested in them. Even more ambitious students had access to these through samizdat publications. Additionally, the events of 1968 (Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia as well as the local rise of national communism) compromised whatever remained of the popularity of Marxism. Two circles of liberals, one in Kraków, another in Gdansk argued since the beginning of the eighties in samizdat publications that in conditions of a weakening authoritarianism, gradually introducing market economy was a better road out of communism than political opposition and human rights movements.[8] Also a number of professional economists became disillusioned with the meager results of partial market reforms and became increasingly radical in advocating more thorough changes. Leszek Balcerowicz, the principal architect of the Polish “shock therapy,” is a leading representative of this group.[9]

Thus, the intellectual climate was well prepared for the radical changes of 1990. However, at least until the Round Table talks of 1989 there had been another competing paradigm for reform, which may be labeled “social democrat” or the “Third Way,” represented by a number of experts from Solidarity.[10] They argued for a mixed economy, combined with workers’ participation as well as for substantial measures of welfare protection.[11] In fact, the results of the Round Table negotiations stipulated this type of course of action, rather than the reforms actually made. However, with Balcerowicz taking responsibility for economic reform package in the Mazowiecki government, the social-democratic ideas were abandoned and replaced with a much more radical, pro-market approach. Later, in the media discourse and in academic publications, this type of “Third Way” approach was marginalized, as its adherents had not succeeded in organizing think-tanks, research institutions, or journals in which they could propagate their views.[12] A version of neo-liberal ideology thus remained firmly in place, most visible in the media, although it was criticized on the one hand by the “Third Way” positions, on the other by populist-nationalist positions.[13] Needless to say, this victory to a large degree remained in the realm of rhetoric, since actual decisions stemmed not so much from ideological consideration, as from the logic of a political situation. Poland, despite its vibrant private sector, remains a country with a high share of state in the economy.

Yet the acceptance of the neo-liberal approach does not equal an enthusiastic support of all the outcomes of the transformation. The social costs of transformation, particularly unemployment and poverty, have been drawing increasing attention.[14] It has been noticed that unemployment has not been reduced by economic growth. Poverty for the economists is important because it affects the level of social spending. For the sociologists, unemployment and poverty are symptoms as well as causes of social exclusion – a situation in which an individual or a group cannot participate in a number of important spheres of social life. There is the fear that the crystallization of an underclass may at some point destabilize the political system. There is also the belief that it is already the cause of rising criminality and various sorts of social pathology.

Poverty and social exclusion are but examples of problems present in the current public debate in Poland. A number of other issues might also be added. A brief list would include the weakness of the system of representation, the low standard of the political class, corruption (political as well as within the administration), poor performance of the administrative apparatus (the police and the judiciary in particular), high levels of criminality, and so on. While such a list may be compiled for most of the highly developed countries, the feelings of those writing on this subject in Poland are that those phenomena here are of a deeper nature. There is the belief that whatever modernization may have happened in Poland, it is still of a very shallow nature. It affects consumption patterns much more than structures of production and social organization and, in a profound way, the country is still far from its aspirations: far from the West. Since that is a result of the past, recent and more distant, it is proper to turn to the historical determinants now.

History: ideas and social structures

As I have said before, Polish lands were, for the past thousand years, under the influence of the West.[15] While they were outside of the borders of the Roman Empire, it is from Rome that the early medieval Polish princes took Christianity, along with such an important mode of communication as the Latin script. In the twelfth century, subsequent waves of colonizers brought the three field rotation into the Polish principalities, also construction technologies, and legal institutions, of which the most important were the rules for founding and governing towns and villages. Most of the towns in the Polish lands were German at the beginning, its inhabitants only gradually ‘polonizing’. In 1364 the first Polish University was founded in Kraków. In the 15th and 16th century, Italian influences became important, with Polish young noblemen travelling to get an education in Padova or Bologna. Italian artists were coming to Kraków, as king Zygmunt I’s wife, Bona Sforza played an important role here. Later, in the 17th and particularly 18th century, French cultural influences gained dominance and French become a second (if not first) language for a number of Polish aristocrats.

The turn of the 19th century brought the fascination with Napoleon. He himself left an institutional imprint on Polish history, introducing the constitution and Code Civil to what remained of the Polish State after partitions. The Napoleonic Code has remained the basis of civil law until the present. At the same time, classicism became the dominant style in architecture, which remains visible in large parts of Warsaw. During the whole 19th century Poland was partitioned between Austria, Prussia and Russia. The two former powers brought a number of Western legal institutions and traditions to the respective parts of Poland. While the Prussians tried to Germanize the Polish population, they – to a large degree – did so by encouraging education in the German language. At the same time the harsh political system taught respect for the Rechtstaat. The much more liberal conditions of the Austrian Empire, particularly after 1867, allowed for the development of Polish higher learning (Lwów, Kraków), as well as for the rise of modern political parties. The second half of the nineteenth century also brought industrialization (particularly in the part under Russian occupation), and with it, the learning of western technologies and organization patterns. Despite economic backwardness, the pace of modernization accelerated considerably, particularly in the second half of the century. Intellectual reactions varied, from praise and hope to fear for the loss of tradition and identity.[16]

Most paradoxical, in terms of Western influence, was the communist period. It would be absurd, of course, to claim that westernization was on the communist agenda, quite the contrary. However, parallel to imposing the non-democratic system in harsh and repressive way, it shifted the state territory several hundred kilometers to the West, thus shedding the least westernized part of the country. It also brought about, in its early stages, important social changes: industrialization, urbanization, the rise of education standards, and the abolition of former class barriers, in certain respects making Poland a bit more like the model of industrial society. It is also important to note that the Stalinist period of almost complete isolation was relatively short, and that before as well as afterwards Polish society maintained close contacts with the West, if only because of the large Polish communities in the US, in Britain, and in a number of other countries. Since the 1960s and particularly since the 1970s Poland, in comparison with other countries of the Soviet block, was probably the easiest to travel from. Large numbers of people moved in and out of the country for family or economic reasons. Academics were also relatively free to travel. During the 1970s an import-intensive economic strategy of Edward Gierek resulted in increased contact on managerial level.

All that has been said above, however, may be countered by stating that the veneer of westernization was relatively thin throughout the period, and that there were other influences and forces, shaping society in a different way. For a long time foreign observers have noticed that the Polish lands differ enormously from the West. In the Polish historiography this is well documented by Antoni Maczak books on the Western 16th and 17th travelers.[17] Recently, Larry Wolff reconstructed the enlightenment ideas about the world as governed by binary opposition between “civilization” and “barbarity.”[18] Polish lands, although not considered completely eastern and barbarous, in the eyes of the western travelers and thinkers seemed far removed from the civilization. Tales of these travelers are full of complaints about extreme lack of comfort and unflattering images of villages, towns, and even the capital city of Warsaw. They noticed lack of “manners,” lack of “arts” and lack of “civility.” Polish nobility, apart from a small circle of high aristocracy, seemed to them rude, primitive and dressed in a strange, eastern way. On the heads of the Polish gentlemen they noticed not only exotic haircuts, but also so common cases of plica that they label it “plica polonica.” Observations made one hundred fifty years later, when the Polish state was being reborn, were often no more sympathetic, as J.M. Keynes comment from 1918 stating that the only industry of the Polish nation was Jew-baiting.[19] Not much changed during the next 20 years. The future German literary critic Reich-Ranicky, forcefully expelled from Germany to Poland in 1939 because of his Jewish-Polish origins, noticed with astonishment the poverty and primitive living conditions of peasants (true, in the East) as well as of urban workers, so much different of what he knew from Germany.[20]

There were good reasons for these western observations and complaints. The urban sector that had been established between the 12th and the 16th century was never strong, and later it was weakened even more by wars and by the politics of the Polish aristocracy. The agrarian system that developed since the 16th century on much of the Polish lands signified a pattern of evolution very much different from the West. Due to social and political conditions favorable for strengthening the serfdom, as well as due to the demand for grain in the West, Polish nobility established and developed a system of manorial farming, based on corvée labor. That reduced the possibilities of independent peasant farming, and – by reducing the domestic market – undercut the position of the burghers. It also allowed for the increase of strength of the great landowning aristocracy, the “magnates.” Thus, not only the economic system, but also the social structure drifted in a direction opposite from that of the capitalist West. The class most important for the rise of capitalism, the urban bourgeoisie, had hardly any possibility to develop.[21] During the 19th century, while industrialization and capitalism occurred, they had a spotty pattern, with islands of modernity in a sea of peasantry. Jewish character of the part of the new bourgeoisie fuelled later anti-Semitism. During the inter-war period, the weakness of capitalism prompted the Polish government – for security reasons as much as because of the attempts to reduce high unemployment during the Great Depression – to engage in a massive project of statist industrialization, together with planning.

The political system that Poland acquired in the course of the 16th – 18th century was also far from any contemporary model.[22] Elected king, a “republic of nobles,” the (in) famous liberum veto – all this produced an extremely weak state that proved unable to withstand the pressure of neighboring powers and finally collapsed at the end of the 18th century. In a parallel way, it led to an enormous strengthening of the political powers of magnates, who succeeded in creation of de facto semi-independent mini-states. The distinctiveness of Poland was reinforced in the 17th century by the strongly xenophobic and anti-western ideology of nobility. After the break of partitions (1795-1918), and after it regained independence in 1918, Poland tried to develop democratic forms of government, which turned out to be highly dysfunctional. The 1926 coup of Marshall Pilsudski brought about a change to authoritarianism, later reinforced by the Constitution of 1935. So we may say that neither the economic system, nor the social structures, nor the political systems developed from the 16th century until the end of communism, according to Western (idealized) pattern.

The extension of the Polish state towards the East, which began with the personal union with Lithuania at the end of the 14th century, contributed much to the specific pattern of development, as huge grants of lands in the sparsely populated new territories facilitated the rise of the magnates. It also meant inclusion within the large Commonwealth groups of the population, which culturally were far removed from any sort of western influence. While the upper classes of the nobility gradually Polonized, the peasantry retained its ethnicity, and – by and large – had not converted fully to Catholicism, either remaining faithful to the Orthodox religion, or joining the United church. The ethnically mixed social structure that emerged there from the 17th to early 20th century combined local peasantry, Polish manors, towns inhabited by large Jewish population and a stratum of Polish burghers. In the 19th century most of these territories fell under Russian rule, reducing much of the earlier polonization and westernization. In the Ukrainian part, the gap between the local peasantry and the Polish nobility increased substantially when the latter enriched itself due to the good market for grain in the second half of the nineteenth century.[23] Kresy (literally, the frontier lands, as these territories used to be called) later, although reduced in size in comparison with the times of the Commonwealth, came back to the Polish state after the Polish-Soviet war of 1920 and remained part of the country until the Second World War. The newborn Polish State had programs for their polonization. It supported education in Polish, encouraged Polish elements in the state administration and introduced programs for settling former soldiers as farmers. Those programs were all too often carried out with the heavy hand of an authoritarian state. Needless to say, ethnic conflict – particularly in the territories of the Western Ukraine – was acute.

The Kresy were important for the formation of Polish identity, as numerous writings of Czeslaw Milosz or Tadeusz Konwicki show.[24] They were lost by the Polish state with the Yalta and Potsdam agreements. Western governments, in any case, never supported Polish presence there particularly strongly, as Lord Curzon drawing of the proposed eastern Polish border in 1918, as well as the Western stance during the Second World War witness. Despite the loss, the cultural legacy of the Kresy has been important for post-war Poland in a number of ways. A large part of the Polish population left these territories and came to Poland as it had been established within the new frontiers, bringing with them their own traditions and attitudes.[25] Memory of the land of childhood and youth remained important for many of the members of Polish intelligentsia, who had their roots in the East. Many of them could repeat after Milosz: “I was born in the very heart of Lithuania and I would have even more of a right than my great patron Adam Mickiewicz to say ‘Lithuania, my Fatherland.’” [26] Nostalgia for the lost Wilno is seen in the Andrzej Wajda’s film The Chronicle of Love, based on Konwicki’s novel. Two Polish postwar universities, Torun and Wroclaw, have explicitly called the traditions of the universities in Wilno and Lwów theirs.

During the 19th century the impact of Russia extended to the west much beyond the ethnically mixed Kresy. Russia also ruled over the Polish Kingdom (1815-1918), established by the Congress of Vienna, a central part of Poland if only because here was its capital, Warsaw. For over a century, so crucial for Western Europe in terms of creating modern political ideas and institutions, western influence in this important part of the Polish lands was radically reduced.

The balance sheet of western and eastern influences is enormously difficult to draw, as we do not have clear and precise units in which we to measure various factors. Noticing such historical legacies Krzysztof Zanussi – a renowned director of films analyzing the mentality of the Polish intelligentsia, and a person who stresses his own Western, Italian roots – says that “there is a desire among us to accept many Byzantine patterns of behavior. Patterns that come from another tradition, another history, tradition familiar neither with Canossa nor with the Renaissance. I am afraid that we may notice suddenly and with surprise that we are much more to the East than we have thought we were.” [27]

To what extent and in what measure these various historical legacies contribute to the present patterns of behavior of the Polish society, and in particular to the successes and failures of current transformation and modernization, is also difficult to say with precision. However, it can be plausibly argued – as I have done elsewhere – that much of the Polish success can be attributed to the spatial, historical and cultural proximity to the West.[28] Capitalism, after all, was a Western European invention.[29] It is deeply embedded in European culture, and it is not surprising that the closer the cultural arrangements, the easier the transformation to capitalism.[30] It can also be argued that much – although not all – of the obstacles to transformation have certain historical reasons. To my knowledge, there was not much systematic research on the regional patterns of the Polish transformation in the Putnamian way, trying to make explicit links between the levels of “social capital” or related concepts to some measures of success. However, even a cursory look at, for example, the map of unemployment shows high percentages on one hand in the east of the country, on the other in those western parts, where the population came from more backward, less entrepreneurial prewar eastern (Kresy) territories.

Integration as modernization

Whatever the historical ramifications, what is now on the political agenda of Poland is formal integration into the European Union. The exact date is still not set. Western European public – as well as governments – having apparently mixed feelings about the process of enlargement. Whatever the hidden sentiments, however, the Western European leaders restate their resolve to speak for the future Polish membership in the Union.

In some sort of way, the integration is already taking place. Polish foreign trade has reoriented during the last ten years from the East to the West, borders are open for travel (though not for the movement of the labor force, at least in a legal sense) and many western companies invest in Poland. Formal integration matters a lot, however. It would lead to the further lowering of trade barriers, hopefully to structural funds and to aid for agriculture, in the future it would also lead to labor mobility across European borders. Symbolical significance is of importance as well. Full membership in the European Union would confirm that Poles and Poland belong to the West.

That Western attitudes are mixed, to say the least, is not surprising. At least at the beginning, Poland would bring costs rather than benefits in terms of money flow. There are also fears (probably exaggerated) of importing Polish agricultural and textile products, as well as of the possibilities of an influx of cheap Polish workforce into the labor markets already burdened by high unemployment. The Union also has a number of internal problems, starting with the strategic question of “deepening” vs. “enlargement,” to the poor performance of the Euro, to corruption scandals in the European Commission. On top of that, there is anti-enlargement pressure from a number of right-wing parties. As Marcin Król aptly observed, the main reason for Europe to bring Poland in is a promise Europe had made, from which it is so difficult to back down.[31] An observer sympathetic to Poland, the French journalist Jean Quatermer, recently remarked that “the European Union loves Poland no more” and that “during the past years Poland showed itself to the world as a backward country, dominated by a reactionary clergy and, in politics, tossing itself between its former communist masters and the most conservative right.”[32]

Polish attitudes are not unanimous either. On the surface of the political life, the leadership of most of the political parties agrees that joining the European Union is important and high on the agenda. Out of several candidates in the recent presidential election, only one – Jan Lopuszanski – made opposing membership to the Union a key element of his platform. He received less than one percent of the votes however. More deeply, there are doubts and divisions. These divisions are not between those who accept and those who reject “the West,” but rather about how the West is being interpreted. There are no feelings that the Polish culture is somehow specific and distinct, and that there is any kind of special mission. [33] Neither does there seem to be any doubt that Poland belongs to Europe, but reading of “the essence” of Europe might be different. For the religious right, it is first and foremost two millennia of Christian religion and the universal Church. That explains a seeming paradox, related to the Polish Pope. Polish devotion to John Paul II, bordering on a cult, is often perceived in the West as a sign of parochialism and obscurantism. For the Polish religious right, however, the Catholic Church epitomizes the most visible sign of two millennia of continuity of European culture. For the liberals, Europe primarily symbolizes individual freedom and democracy. For the social democrats, social rights and social cohesion are important, although they seem to understand the problems produced by the European Welfare State. Many of them would agree with Tony Blair’s and Gerhard Schroeder’s dictum “market economy yes, market society no,” whatever that means. All over the spectrum, there seems to be concern – sometimes stronger, sometimes weaker – that globalization and integration into Western Europe may produce some sort of problem if not for the national identity, at least for the local flavor. This perhaps explains the popularity of the recent movie productions of the national classics Pan Tadeusz [Master Tadeusz] and Ogniem i Mieczem [With the fire and the sword], despite the Hollywoodian character of the latter.

The ideological differences are mixed with the perceptions of prospective practical effects of unification and how they might affect interests of particular social groups. On the one hand, there are the sentiments of the rightist, nationalist and religious parties and movements.[34] They fear unification, which is perceived as a threat to national identity, as well as to religion. They regard Western Europe as secular, thus dangerous for Catholic Poland. It has to be noted, however, that while the fears of unification are widespread among the less educated lay Catholics, the official hierarchy, who generally oppose liberalism and who at the beginning were distrustful of the European Union, seem to be more and more supportive of the prospects of joining the Union. The unification has caused widespread worries among Polish farmers, who already oppose imports of subsidized Western food and are demanding protective tariffs. The leaders of the most important peasant party, however, are now rather sympathetic to the integration, pointing out the possibilities of aid funds.

The attitudes of the Polish neo-liberals are quite different. They obviously do not oppose unification, but – at the same time – the are very critical of Western Europe for completely different reasons than the nationalistic and traditional parties. For them, the problem of Western Europe is its over-regulation and over-socialization, as well as over-bureaucratization of Brussels. This is not surprising, since the ideal model of the neo-liberals is not European, but Anglo-Saxon sort of capitalism, with little subsidies, little state intervention, minimal welfare state and de-regulated labor markets. They argue that most of Western Europe’s painful problems – unemployment first and foremost – stem from too much regulation of the labor market and too much state spending on welfare. They like to compare Europe with the U.S. with its much freer labor market – and fewer problems of joblessness. Indeed, one can argue that in many respects Poland seems to follow this model in its actual developments, especially within the sector of small business, where there are no unions, pay is often low and working hours long.

Neo-liberals seem to support unification for practical reasons. Since Poland is on this side of the Atlantic and cannot join the NAFTA, membership of the European Union is the second-best option. Integration is regarded as the only sensible alternative to isolation and marginalization of Poland. Neo-liberals seem to be worried about relative weakness of the pro-modernization forces in Poland, mostly because of the historical legacy of communism – and, paradoxically, of Solidarity, with its pro-labor and pro-trade union attitudes. As history had not produced a viable, strong entrepreneurial middle class, which could strive for market reforms, a precondition for further change and modernization – pressure from the outside is welcome. Thus, conditions and standards set by the Union – whatever its weakness – both in the course of preparations for the unification and after it is achieved – are expected to serve as a substitute for an internal modernizing drive.


The debate on historical regions of Europe is fascinating, as it relates to questions crucial for the social sciences today. Is the recent history of post-communist countries influenced mainly by their communist past, or rather by a more distant history? If more distant history, what is it that matters: culture and religion? Economies? Social structures? political regimes? More generally: is transformation path-dependent, as many historians and some sociologists tend to think, or is it mostly dependent upon skills and ideas of reformers – perhaps modified by “political economy” forces – as some economists seem to suggest? Or perhaps there are no regularities at all, just accidents, contingencies and coincidences, presence or absence of luck? At the same time, this debate is intellectually troubling for at least three reasons. First, the theories that could classify societies according to certain types are loose and imprecise, and it is very difficult to make them operational and testable in an empirical sense.[35] Second, classifying is to a large degree a matter of political preferences of the authors, particularly those who are from the region. The mythologized East and West are given negative and positive connotations respectively. What more often than not seems to be on the agenda is showing that one’s own country is somehow not as eastern as it might look at first glance. Third, there is a tendency, hard to resist, to reclassify societies each time the present situation changes, which makes the whole argument of explaining the present by the past circular. However – precisely because of its emotional components as well as because of its methodological status, locating it between the empirical social sciences and the literary reflection – the debate about inner European frontiers is one of those that never ends.

Taking into consideration what has been said above, it is obviously difficult, if sensible at all, to decide how to draw the East-West (or Central Eastern-Eastern) frontier in the case of Poland. The transformation record places Poland close to the West. Also, if it is Christianity from Rome that matters, than the whole of Poland in its present frontiers should be included into Central Eastern Europe. If, however, it is the “Byzantine” factor that matters, then a substantial part of Poland – what was a Russian partition before 1914 – should be shifted to the East. Moreover, the status of an important part of present-day western Poland would also be dubious, since these regions are inhabited to a large degree by people from the East. Thus, historically, the only valid claim to be included into Central Eastern Europe would be that of the former Austrian Partition, and the former Prussian Partition. If one looks at the social structure, westernization of the whole of Poland is shallow. The middle class (however one counts its members) is weak. The share of people with university education is low. The knowledge of the English language, one of the keys to the global world is limited (compared to Scandinavia, or Austria). At the same time, the rural sector of society is still very large – 30 per cent of population lives in rural areas, almost 20 per cent are employed in agriculture, mostly in small, traditional farms. From that point of view, despite the changes of the last fifty years – and the last ten years – Poland is still not a full-blown industrial, not to say post-industrial society. In the future, the forces of globalization, in the economic as well as in the cultural sense, will tend to westernize the Polish society further. However, the specific “eastern” legacies will also matter in shaping Polish capitalism, at least in the foreseeable years.

© Transit 2001
The present article is a revised version of a paper presented at the workshop
„Recomposing Eastern Europe? Inner Frontiers: Real and Imagined,”
New Europe College, Bucharest, October 27-29, 2000.


1. Central-Eastern Europe is only one of the possible names given for this differently defined region, alongside East Central, or even simply Central Europe. See for example Oskar Halecki, The Limits and Divisions of European History. London, New York, Sheed & Ward, 1950; Jeno Szucs: “The Three Historical Regions of Europe,” Acta Historica Academiae Scientiarium Hungaricae vol. 29, 1983, no.2-3, p. 131-184; Jerzy Kloczowski, East Central Europe in the Historiography of the Countries of the Region, Lublin: Institute of East Central Europe, 1995; Sven Tägil (ed.), Regions in Central Europe: The Legacy of History, London: Hurst and Company, 1999; George Shöpflin and Nancy Wood (eds.), In Search of Central Europe, Totowa: Barnes & Noble Books, 1989. This is just a sample of the ever-growing essayist and scholarly literature on the subject.

2. Neal Ascherson, The Polish August: the Self-limiting Revolution, New York Viking Press 1982; Timothy Garton Ash, The Polish Revolution: Solidarity, New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1984; Michael D. Kennedy, Professionals, Power, and Solidarity in Poland: a Critical Sociology of Soviet-type Society, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1996; Roman Laba, The roots of Solidarity: a Political Sociology of Poland’s Working-Class Democratization, Princeton University Press: Princeton, N.J., 1991; David Ost, Solidarity and the Politics of Anti-Politics: Opposition and Reform in Poland since 1968, Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1990; Jadwiga Staniszkis, Poland’s Self-limiting Revolution, Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1984; Alain Touraine et al., in collaboration with Grazyna Gesicka, Solidarity: the Analysis of a Social Movement: Poland, 1980-1981, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1983. Few of these books are even available in Polish.

3. Cf. Adam B. Seligman, The Idea of Civil Society, New York: The Free Press 1992.

4. For a scholarly synthesis, see Juan L. Linz and Alfred Stepan, Problems of Democratic Transition and Consolidation: Southern Europe, South America, and Post-Communist Europe, Baltimore and London: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996.

5. Cf. Béla Greskovits, The Political Economy of Protest and Patience: East European and Latin American Transformation Compared, Budapest: Central European University Press, 1998; Adam Przeworski, Democracy and the Market: Political and Economic Reforms in Eastern Europe and Latin America, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991.

6. Refraining from an analysis of the general public’s attitudes towards the transformation, I confine myself to a comment on the articulated opinions of intellectuals, as presented in the media or in scholarly publications.

7. Giving documentation would require citing hundreds of press articles and op-eds. The neo-liberal approach is defended by the leading Polish daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, as well as by the important weeklies Polityka and Wprost.

8. See an account by Jerzy Szacki, Liberalism after Communism, Budapest-London-New York: Central European University Press, 1995.

9. See his 800 dni: szok kontrolowany [800 days: a controlled shock], Warsaw: Oficyna Wydawnicza BGW, 1992.

10. The label “social democrat” might be slightly confusing, as the communist successor party self-styled itself as social democrat after 1990, while the groups I have in mind, though committed to the values of Western European social democracy, have strongly opposed communists as well as their successors.

11. Cf. Tadeusz Kowalik, „Jaka cywilizacje Polacy tworza?” [What kind of a civilization do the Poles make], in: Andrzej Morstin (ed.). Indywidualizm a kolektywizm [Individualism and collectivism], Warsaw: IFiS PAN, 1999.

12. Economists and other social researchers closer to the neo-liberal positions established a number of private think-tanks, of which the most important are the Center of Social and Economic Analysis (widely known as CASE), the Institute for the Research on Market Economy, the Adam Smith Center, and the Institute for Public Affairs. All these institutions are engaged in various policy implementation oriented projects, in which general ideas are put in the form of very concrete proposals.

13. For the critique “from the left” see Kowalik, op. cit., as well as Maciej Deniszczuk, Józef Halbersztadt, Miroslawa Puchalska (eds.), Polska przed nowymi problemami [Poland facing new problems], Warsaw: Stowarzyszenie Studiów i Inicjatyw Spolecznych, 2000. For a good example of the critique “from the right,” see Kazimerz Poznanski, Wielki przekret. Kleska polskich reform [Great scam: the defeat of the Polish reforms]. The book is high up on the bestseller lists. The author, who is a professor at the University of Washington in Seattle, wrote a pamphlet in Polish for the Polish audience. He argued that privatization equaled dishonest, cheap sell-out of Polish national wealth to foreigners at ten per cent of its real value, turning the control of the Polish economy over to outside forces. While the tone is close to the rightist positions, Poznanski is closer to the post-communist SLD, and the main target of his criticism is the Union of Freedom Party, headed for a time by the neo-liberal Leszek Balcerowicz.

14. See for example Stanislawa Golinowska [ed.], Polska bieda. Kryteria. Oceny. Przeciwdzialanie [Polish poverty: criteria, assessments, countermeasures], Warsaw: IPiSS 1996 and a revised edition 1997; Elzbieta Tarkowska (ed.), Zrozumiec biednego: o dawnej i obecnej biedzie w Polsce [To understand the poor: about the old and the new poverty in Poland], Warsaw: Typografika, 2000.

15. Being well aware of the dangers of reading back in time the concept of “Poland,” and in particular of the “Polish nation”, I am using the term “Polish lands” as a shorthand, in a descriptive sense, to refer to lands which were or are under the rule of what might be considered a Polish state.

16. See Jerzy Jedlicki, A Suburb of Europe: Nineteenth-century Polish Approaches to Western Civilization, Budapest: Central European University Press, 1999.

17. Antoni Maczak, Travel in Early Modern Europe, Cambridge: Blackwell, 1995 .

18. Larry Wolff, Inventing Eastern Europe: the Map of Civilization in the Mind of the Enlightenment, Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1994.

19. Quoted after Norman Davies, God’s Playground: A History of Poland, vol. ii, Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981, p. 393.

20. Marcel Reich-Ranicki, Mein Leben, Stuttgart: Deutsche Verlags-Anstalt GmBH 1999.

21. See Witold Kula, An Economic Theory of Feudal System, London: NLB, 1976; Jacek Kochanowicz, “The Polish Economy and the Evolution of Dependency” in: Daniel Chirot (ed.), The Origins of Backwardness in Eastern Europe: Economics and Politics from the Middle Ages until the Early Twentieth Century, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1989.

22. Perry Anderson, Lineages to the Absolutist State, London: Verso, 1979.

23. Daniel Bauvois, La bataille de la terre en Ukraine: 1863-1914: les Polonais et les conflits socio-ethniques, Villeneuve-d’Ascq: Presses universitaires de Lille, 1993.

24. See particularly Czeslaw Milosz, Native Realm: a Search for Self-definition, Garden City, N.Y.: Doubleday, 1968.

25. Krystyna Kersten, Repatriacja ludnosci polskiej po II wojnie swiatowej [Repatriation of the Polish population after the Second World War], Wrocalaw: Ossolineum, 1974.

26. Czeslaw Milosz, “Do przyjaciól Litwinów” [To the Lithuanian Friends – a talk presented during a conference organized by Goethe Institute in Vilnus, October 2000], Gazeta Wyborcza, October 10, 2000. “Lithuania, my Fatherland…” is an opening phrase of Adam Mickiewicz’s Pan Tadeusz. The poem is probably the most important single text in building the Polish national consciousness. Children learn parts of it by heart and a recent movie production by Andrzej Wajda was a great box office success in Poland.

27. Krzysztof Zanussi, “Polskie jest rózne,” [The Polish is different] Gazeta Wyborcza, October 3, 2000.

28. Jacek Kochanowicz, „Trajectories of Post-Communist Transformation: Global Influence and Local Legacies,” W. Baer, J. L. Love (eds.), Liberalisation and its Consequences: A Comparative Perspective on Latin America and Easter Europe, Cheltenham, UK: Edward Elgar, 2000.

29. See the line of argument of E. L. Jones, The European Miracle: Environments, Economies and Geopolitics in the History of Europe and Asia, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1981.

30. That does not mean that no other tradition than European is conductive to capitalism.

31. Marcin Król, „Margines Europy” [A margin of Europe], Res Publica Nowa, April 2000, p. 10.

32. Jean Quatermer, „Unia juz nie kocha Polski” [The Union does not love Poland anymore], Polityka, September 16, 2000, p. 34.

33. That, to a degree, was the case of Polish nineteenth century messianic Romanticism, with its claim that Poland was a “Christ of the peoples,” whose suffering under foreign rule and during insurrections was a price to be paid for the future universal freedom of all nations. Since the defeat of the 1863 insurrection, Romanticism was counterbalanced by a pragmatic current of the liberal-minded „organic work,” striving at improving the society materially and morally under the conditions that existed. (Cf. Maciej Janowski, Polska mysl liberalna do 1918 roku [Polish liberal thought before 1918], Kraków: Znak, 1998). The tensions between those two currents in the Polish tradition no doubt define even the present-day intellectual and political culture, but it would be hard to argue that the romantic streak wins.

34. Apart from ZChN (National-Christian Union), there is the important case of Radio Maryja, a Catholic broadcasting service established by Father Tadeusz Rydzyk. Radio Maryja is nationalist and close to anti-Semitism. Mixing religious service, comments, and talks with the listeners, it gained enormous popularity among a substantial number of poorly educated devout Catholics, apparently lost in a quickly changing world. Radio Maryja succeeded in offering them a sense of community and togetherness, well captured by the idea of Rodzina Radia Maryja [The Family of Radio Maryja] that it promotes. Relations of this broadcasting service with official church hierarchy do not seem to be at ease.

35. There are attempts at statistical measurement of the role of cultural legacies. Cf. M. Steven Fish, “The Determinants of Economic Reform in the Post-Communist World”, East European Politics and Societies, vol. 12, Winter 1998, no 1, p. 31-70. In his regression tests the author assigns countries the score values of 0, 1 or 2 according to the type of religion (respectively non-Christian, Orthodox, and Catholic or Protestant). While the overall argument of his paper is convincing, the assignment of these scores remains arbitrary and based on intuition.


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    Akos Rona-Tas is professor at the Sociology Department of the University of California, San Diego and a research associate at Met@risk, INRA, Paris. He is the author of the books Plastic Money: Constructing Markets for Credit Cards in Eight Postcommunist Countries (with Alya Guseva, 2014) and Surprise of the Small Transformation: Demise of Communism and …
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  • Lew Rubinstein

    Lew Rubinstein lebt als Poet und Essayist in Moskau. Nach dem Studium der Philologie war er als Bibliothekar tätig. Seit Ende der 1960er-Jahre verfasst er poetische Arbeiten, seit 1974 serielle Textzyklen als so genannte Kartotheken. Zusammen mit Andrej Monastyrskij, Dimitrij A. Prigov und Vladimir Sorokin gilt er als wichtigster Vertreter des Moskauer Konzeptualismus. Print

  • Jacques Rupnik

    Geschichte und Politikwissenschaft, Paris
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  • Claudia Šabic

    Claudia Šabi? ist Politikwissenschaftlerin und Ethnologin. Seit 1998 ist sie Wissenschaftliche Mitarbeiterin an der Goethe-Universität, Frankfurt am Main. Print

  • Ranabir Samaddar

    Distinguished Chair in Migration and Forced Migration Studies, Calcutta Research Group
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  • Paul Sanders

    Paul Sanders is a historian and management scholar. He is a full-time professor at Reims Management School in Reims, France. He has published across the disciplines of history, international relations and leadership.   Print

  • Karl Schlögel

    Karl Schlögel war Professor für Osteuropäische Geschichte zuerst an der Universität Konstanz, dann an der Europa-Universität Viadrina in Frankfurt/Oder. Nach seiner Emeritierung arbeitet er an einer Archäologie des Kommunismus und einer Geschichte des Wolgaraumes. Zurzeit ist er City of Vienna/IFK Fellow am IFK in Wien.     Print

  • Thomas Schmid

    Thomas Schmid is the publisher of the WELT Group, Berlin. He worked for various newspapers, among them as editor of the Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung and the Frankfurter Allgemeine Sonntagszeitung. From 2006 to 2010 he was Editor-in-Chief of Die Welt.   Print

  • Margit Schratzenstaller

    Margit Schratzenstaller is senior researcher at the Austrian Institute of Economic Research (WIFO) and is currently coordinating (together with Karl Aiginger and Stefan Ederer) ‘WWW for Europe’, a 4-year research project within the 7th Framework Program funded by the European Commission.   Print

  • Dieter Segert

    Dieter Segert ist Professor für Transformationsprozesse in Mittel-, Südost- und Osteuropa am Institut für Politikwissenschaft der Universität Wien. Seit September 2007 ist er Mitglied des Vorstandes des IDM Wien, seit Juni 2008 Mitglied der Leibniz-Sozietät der Wissenschaften zu Berlin.   Print

  • Victoriya Sereda

    Sociologie, Ivan-Franko-Universität, Lviv
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  • Michel Serres

    Michel Serres ist Philosoph und Mitglied der Académie Française.   Print

  • Anton Shekhovtsov

    PhD in Political Science
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  • Marci Shore

    Associate Professor of History, Yale University

    Visiting Fellow
    (July 2020 – June 2021)
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  • Sławomir Sierakowski

    Director, Institute for Advanced Study, Warsaw; Founder, "Krytyka Polityczna" movement
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  • Sara Silverstein

    Ph.D. Candidate in Modern European and International History, Yale University
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  • Ondřej Slačálek

    Assistant Professor of Political Science, Charles University, Prague
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  • Aleksander Smolar

    Political Science, Paris
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  • Timothy Snyder

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Richard C. Levin Professor of History, Yale University
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  • George Soros

    George Soros is a pioneer of the hedge-fund industry, investor and philanthropist, he is the author of many books, including Financial Turmoil in Europe and the United States: Essays (2012), The Soros Lectures: At the Central European University (2010), The Crash of 2008 and What it Means: The New Paradigm for Finance Markets (2009).   …
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  • Robert Spaemann

    Robert Spaemann ist Professor em. für Philosophie an der Universität München.   Print

  • Pawel Spiewak

    Associate Professor of Sociology, Department of Sociology and Philosophy, Warsaw University
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  • Wilfried Stadler

    Wilfried Stadler ist Unternehmensberater, Wirtschaftspublizist und Honorarprofessor an der Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien. Bis 2009 war er Vorstandsvorsitzender einer österreichischen Spezialbank für Unternehmensfinanzierung.   Print

  • Rudolf Stamm

    Rudolf Stamm war von 1975 bis 1988 Korrespondent der Neuen Zürcher Zeitung für Osteuropa und Österreich, anschließend bis 1999 für Italien, dann bis zu seiner Pensionierung 2002 für die USA mit Sitz in Washington D.C. Er starb 2010 in der Schweiz. 1985 erscheinen seine NZZ-Reportagen aus Osteuropa in dem Band Alltag und Tradition in Osteuropa. …
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  • Paul Starr

    Paul Starr ist Professor für Soziologie an der Princeton University und Mitherausgeber von The American Prospect. Er ist Pulitzer-Preisträger.   Print

  • Martina Steer

    ÖAW APART Fellow (History)
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  • Kristina Stoeckl

    Research Director
    APART Fellow, Austrian Academy of Sciences; Department of Political Sciences, University of Vienna
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  • Roman Szporluk

    Roman Szporluk is Professor em. of Ukrainian History at Harvard and Professor em. of History at the University of Michigan. He is a foreign member of the National Academy of Sciences in Kiev, Ukraine. His research focuses on modern Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish history, and on Marxism and nationalism in Eastern Europe.   Print

  • Charles Taylor

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Professor em. of Philosophy, McGill University, Montréal
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  • Maria Teteriuk

    PhD candidate in Mass Communications and senior lecturer in Media Studies, National University of 'Kyiv-Mohyla Academy', Ukraine
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  • Philipp Ther

    Junior Professor of Polish and Ukrainian Studies, Europa-Universität Frankfurt / Oder
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  • Maria Todorova

    Professor of History, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
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  • Balázs Trencsényi

    Balázs Trencsényi, Ph.D., is Associate Professor at the Department of History, CEU. His research focuses on the comparative history of political thought in East Central Europe and the history of historiography. He is co-director of Pasts, Inc., Center for Historical Studies at CEU and Associate Editor of the periodical East Central Europe (Brill). He was …
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  • Stefan Troebst

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  • Marius Turda

    Lecturer in the Education Abroad Program, Eötvös Lorand University, Faculty of Humanities, Budapest
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  • Andreas Umland

    Andreas Umland ist Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Institut für Euro-Atlantische Kooperation Kiew sowie Herausgeber der Buchreihe Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society, ibidem-Verlag Stuttgart. Print

  • Victoria Vasilenko

    Assistant Professor of Contemporary History and International Relations, Belgorod National Research University
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  • David G. Victor

    David G. Victor is a Professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, where he directs the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation.   Print

  • Harald Welzer

    Harald Welzer ist Forschungsprofessor für Sozialpsychologie an der Universität Witten/Herdecke und Direktor des Center for Interdisciplinary Memory Research am Kulturwissenschaftlichen Instituts Essen.   Print

  • Karolina Wigura

    Adjunct of the History of Ideas, University of Warsaw; Co-Editor of Kultura Liberalna
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  • Volodymyr Yermolenko

    Volodymyr Yermolenko is a Ukrainian philosopher and essayist. He has a degree in Political Science from the EHESS, Paris, and teaches at Kyiv Mohyla Academy in Kyiv. He is the author of the book Narrator and Philosopher: Walter Benjamin and his time (2011, in Ukrainian). Print

  • Oksana Zabuzhko

    Free-lance writer, Kiev
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  • Tatiana Zhurzhenko

    IWM Research Director, Russia in Global Dialogue and Ukraine in European Dialogue
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