Artur Harris, Brian Riley Declamation Prize: “Looking West”
Artur Harris (2016) is the winner of the 2017 Brian Riley Declamation Prize, which you can read about it more detail here. Below is the full transcript of his speech:
“Poland is a country to the east of the West and to the west of the East”. These words of Sławomir Mrożek accurately describe the reluctance of Poles to identify with either category. Part of the reason for this is that the categories themselves have for much of history had little bearing on reality, as inventions of French enlightenment intellectuals who never ventured too far East. As Norman Davies rightly says, the economic misery of nineteenth century Austria-Hungary and Russia was not that different from the abject poverty of Ireland or Norway. Neither was the textile industry of Łódź (now in central Poland) that different to that of Lancashire. Yet the divide that split the continent into two after the Second World War was just as real as it was artificial and it continues to exert influence on the shape and perception of Europe today.
As a person who is (for the most part) Polish, I feel that the attitude of Poles towards the West has changed in the past few years. For possibly the first time in over 60 years criticism of the West has become widespread among Poles. According to new laws, the justice minister can demote and dismiss judges at his whim and public prosecutors can use illegally acquired evidence in court. The subsequent European inquiry into the state of the rule of law in Poland has been seen by many as Brussels’s meddling in the country’s internal affairs. Similarly, the rise of islamophobia in Poland (shamefully endorsed by major government figures) has led to a backlash against refugee relocation quotas. The increasing isolation of the Visegrad group in the European Union today demonstrates the pervasiveness of the old divide. In what way did we look across it in the past and how do we do so now?
Poland has faced west for most of the last hundred years- or rather, the Poles did. Poles have been looking West ever since the country had been forced to face East as part of the post-war world order. The West was a mythical land where shops were stocked with more than one product, toilet paper was an everyday commodity rather than a luxury and oranges were available not only on Labour Day and Christmas. There was, and to some extent still is, some bitterness over the order established at Yalta. But admiration and envy overwhelmingly outweighed the sense of injustice. The presence of a curtain only magnified the anticipation of the pageantry that will be revealed once it is drawn.
This curiosity was sometimes reciprocated in various ways, but never in quite the same way. Many Poles, such as Czesław Miłosz or Leszek Kołakowski, who fled West as political asylum seekers were shocked by the pro-Soviet stance of many intellectuals. The year of 1968 which saw the invasion of Czechoslovakia and anti-Semitic purges in Poland was in the West the year of student protests which, especially in America and France, often assumed a radically left-wing character. Nonetheless, the fascination with the East was a phenomenon present chiefly among the intellectual and cultural avant-garde. The stereotype of impoverished, downtrodden Ruritania (though here not that far from reality) still held sway while the grey East longed for the colourful West.
Thus, when the wall fell in 1989 and Poland was plunged into a free market economy by the liberals that found themselves at her helm, the dream of bananas, oranges and readily available toilet paper became a reality. The invisible hand of the market, released from its cuffs, helped build a more prosperous Poland. Livings were made by picking raspberries in Scotland, fortunes were made by importing socks from Germany and the middle class was made as ever by a combination of ambition, talent and luck. The West moved from the domain of imagination to that of aspiration.
Then it moved to the domain of the everyday. We no longer look west with longing, though still often with aspiration. But for the most part we look west at something that is our own. Since the fence has been knocked down, the grass on the other side no longer seems greener. This is, I believe, especially true of my own generation which does not remember the days of border controls and empty shelves in shops.
I think that the certainty that the benefits of capitalism, democracy and Europe are here to stay lies at the root of both Poland’s current constitutional crisis as well as the rise of Eurosceptic movements across the continent. We have become so accustomed to the thought that Europe is ours that we forgot that it is also ours to lose. This is, of course, also true of Britain. It is most saddening, though sadly unsurprising, that the young generation of Poles supports the unconstitutional changes to the judicial system of the current government and its self-excluding foreign policy. After all, most of us have never been hit by a police baton and our passports have never been stamped.
Accustomed to our relative comfort we neglect to look to the east for our eyes to meet the westward gaze of Ukraine which is quite literally being torn to pieces for trying to achieve that which we have come to take for granted. Ukraine’s heroic struggle for peace, independence and rule of law should serve as a reminder that none of the above is granted for ever. As Kamila Gasiuk-Pihowicz, a politician of the Polish opposition, aptly put it: two trains depart from the stations of Central and Eastern Europe- the European Express and the Trans-Siberian Railway. With the prospect of a multispeed Europe becoming more likely with every day, the countries of the Visegrad group must finally decide which ride to take, even if it involves paying for the ticket and travelling with passengers with a darker skin tone. Solidarity is scarce in today’s European Union and it is precisely for this reason that the nations of the former East must make a special effort to show it. For although this matter is seldom put straightforwardly by European politicians, it is quite clear that the nations to travel at the lower speed in a multispeed Europe are the ones that have travelled slower in the past.