Polish Encounters, Russian Identity
Jonathan Z. Ludwig
Edited by David L. Ransel and Bozena Shallcross. Bloomington, IN: Indiana University Press, 2005. 218 pages. ISBN 0253217717. Hardcover $50.00, paper $22.95.
This collection of essays is based on a series of papers originally presented at the conference “Polonophilia and Polonophobia of the Russians,” held on the campus of Indiana University in September 2000. The essays discuss the creation and development of Russian national identity in light of the influences of their Polish neighbor.
Poland has always presented a strong cultural and political problem for the Russians. While the other boundaries touching upon Russia are distinctly non-Russian in their culture (Finnic peoples to the north; Turkic peoples to the south; and Asiatic peoples to the east), Poland, as a fellow Slavic nation, shares a number of cultural traits, among them linguistic, with Russia. In this way, Poland has been more accessible and, as some Russians have argued and continue to argue, therefore presents more of a threat to Russia, both politically and culturally. Thus Russia has often felt the need to define itself as distinctly non-Polish.
As the editors point out in the introduction, this has not always been the case. Russia has, at times, openly welcomed Polish cultural influences into Russia (polonophilia). For Russian Westernizers, Poland was the gateway to western European culture and politics; they understood Western civilization through the eyes of their fellow Slavs. It was hoped by Alexander I, among others, that Poland could serve as a model to help liberalize Russia. Nikolai Gogol often expressed his admiration of Polish literature, and Aleksandr Pushkin and Adam Mickiewicz were acquainted with and influenced by each other.
At other times, however, Russia has reacted strongly against the Poles, fearing their influence (polonophobia). The fear was so strong at times that Russia participated in the partitioning and then elimination of Poland from the map. The Russian Orthodox Church to this day continues to fear the Polish Catholic Church, having most recently seen its power in supporting Solidarity and giving the world Pope John Paul II; it thus prevented the Pope from visiting Russia. This is a centuries-old fear, originating during the Counter-Reformation, when the Catholic Church converted much of the Orthodox borderland peoples to the Uniate Church. On the political stage, this was seen in the Soviet Union’s avoidance of invading Poland during the height of Solidarity, and it is seen today in Russia’s expressed unhappiness at Poland joining both NATO and the European Union.
Why such a large entity as Russia seems so deathly and irrationally afraid of a much smaller Poland?
Publishing collections of conference essays is always a risky affair, as there is the very real possibility that there will be no common underlying thread. Fortunately this collection does not have that problem, as each essay discusses an important link or demarcation between Polish and Russian culture and then how the Russians react to or use this to define their own national identity. What is important about this collection is that politics plays, at most, a peripheral role in the essays. While the editors’ introduction does explain the political backdrop to 500 years of shared history, the essays themselves discuss history, literature, music, religion, philosophy, and architecture.
Barbara Skinner’s contribution, “The Irreparable Church Schism: Russian Orthodox Identity and Its Historical Encounter with Catholicism,” opens the collection, discussing the earliest years of Russian distrust of Poland: the aforementioned Orthodox unease with its Catholic neighbor that set the stage for a centuries-long distrust of Poland and Polish culture by its larger neighbor. Beth Holmgren’s “Imitation of Life: A Russian Guest in the Polish Regimental Family,” one of two essays solicited for this volume after the conference, begins the discussion of nineteenth-century relations. It presents the life of Nadezhda Durova, the transvestite Russian cavalry officer who served in Poland and reported on life there in her memoirs. Megan Dixon’s essay “Repositioning Pushkin and the Poems of the Polish Uprising” discusses a series of nearly forgotten, overtly political anti-Polish poems that Pushkin wrote after the 1830 Polish uprising. While Pushkin had never been to Poland, he admired Polish culture and especially the writings of Mickiewicz. After the uprising, however, which Pushkin considered an unjustified rebellion, he turned against Poland, thus reinforcing the notion that he was Russia’s national poet and the defender of Russian culture against outside influences. Halina Goldberg’s “Appropriating Poland: Glinka, Polish Dance, and Russian National Identity” discusses the 1836 world premier of Glinka’s Ivan Susanin, the Russian hero who united his people against the invading Poles during the Time of Troubles. As expected, Polish music accompanies the appearances of the Polish gentry and is presented as negative, “foreign” and anti-Russian music. However at the same time, Polish mazurkas and polonaises were some of the most popular nineteenth-century dances among the Russian elite, accepted by them as “Slavic” music.
In his contribution “The Slavophile Thinkers and the Polish Question in 1863,” Andrzej Walicki discusses the philosophical views of the Slavophiles Nikolai Strakhov, Iurii Samarin, and Ivan Aksakov. All three understood the allure, power, and influence of Catholic Poland but, believing that its continued influence would be dangerous for the future of the Slavic lands, argued that the Slavic peoples would be best united under Russian leadership and used this to left Russia’s continued oppression of Poland. Nina Perlina’s “Dostoevsky and His Polish Fellow Prisoners from the House of the Dead” discusses the chapter “Comrades” and its portrayal of the Polish prisoners that Dostoevsky met while imprisoned in Siberia. Dostoevsky’s polonophobia increased, as did his identification with Orthodoxy and Russianness, after the 1863 rebellion; nevertheless, Perlina argues, he was able to portray appreciatively the traditional Polish characteristics of individuality and national pride. Manon de Courten’s “Vladimir Solov’ev’s Views on the Polish Question,” the second essay solicited after the conference, presents Solov’ev’s hope that Catholicism and Orthodoxy can be reconciled and reunited, albeit only under the leadership of the Orthodox Church. Solov’ev held a very negative and narrow view of Polish history, a view which was limited to the uprisings of the 1800s, and he justified the partitions of Poland and the suppression of the 1863 uprising as being in Poland’s best interest. Like the Slavophiles Strakhov, Samarin, and Aksakov mentioned previously, Solov’ev believed that the Slavic world could only be united by its “older brother” Russia.
Leonid Gorizontov’s essay “The Geopolitical Dimension of Russian-Polish Confrontation in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries” argues that the moving of Polish boundaries further to the west was done under the influence of the Russian nationalistic right-wing press who hoped to keep this “foreign influence” at bay. This paranoia ultimately led to the belief that there was a Polish-Jewish plot to overthrow the Russian empire. Robert L. Przygrodzki’s “Tsar Vasili Shuiskii, the Staszic Palace, and Nineteenth-Century Russian Politics in Warsaw” discusses the life of Russian émigrés in post-1863 Poland. Russian men who moved to Warsaw often took Polish wives and, afraid that their children would adopt Polish culture instead of Russian culture as their own, constructed their own school to educate their children in the Orthodox faith. They went so far as to embellish the facade of the building in Orthodox/Byzantine style which was immediately stripped away as soon as Poland won its independence in 1918, in much the same way that nations occupied by the Red Army in 1945 tried to de-Russify and de-Sovietize themselves after 1989.
Judith Deutsch Kornblatt’s essay “At Home with Pani Eliza: Isaac Babel and His Polish Encounters” begins the discussion of twentieth-century Russian-Polish relations. She argues against the commonly held opinion that Babel’s Polish characters play the role of anti-Semites, saying that the Poles have much in common with the Jewish people-the notion of the “wandering Jew” is paralleled by the reality of the “wandering Polish border.” Matthew D. Pauly’s “Soviet Polonophobia and the Formulation of Nationalities Policy in the Ukrainian SSR, 1927-1934” discusses the aftermath of the Soviet war with Poland in the 1920s and the assassination of several Soviet officials in Poland. Convinced that Poland, and especially the Polish gentry, were bent on destroying the nascent Soviet Union, the USSR eliminated Ukrainian officials thought to be sympathetic to the Polish political model, changing their nationalities policy in the process. No longer would they be tolerant of indigenous cultures; rather, they would begin a system of Russification in all areas. The collection closes with Irena Grudzinska-Gross’s essay “Under the Influence? Joseph Brodsky and Poland.” As it did 200 years before, Poland, with a more relaxed attitude toward censorship during the 1960s, served as a conduit for Western culture to the East. Brodsky was one of the young poets to take advantage of this, discovering Western cultural motifs and philosophies that began to influence his work and others of his generation.
Upon reaching the end of this collection, the reader has been taken through the key points of Russian-Polish cultural relations presented in historical order. While this volume does explain Russia’s acceptance and rejection of Polish culture over the centuries, it does not adequately answer why such a large entity as Russia seems so deathly and irrationally afraid of a much smaller Poland, a fear that continues to this day.
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