Leading with an inappropriate pop-culture reference, it sometimes seems to me as though Poland finds itself between opposing forces encroaching from two directions, kind of like the singer of that 1970s hit “Stuck in the Middle With You”:
Clowns to the left of me,
Jokers to the right, here I am,
Stuck in the middle with you.
On second thought, maybe not. But anyway, Polish takes on its esteemed neighbors, especially the giant to the east, are well represented in the forthcoming issue of a young quarterly, New Eastern Europe, edited in Kraków and published by the College of Eastern Europe in Wrocław.
One of the more insightful articles in the new issue is by a Polish East Europe analyst, Jadwiga Rogoża. The outburst of protest over recent elections in Russia can only be understood as a phenomenon of Russia’s rising middle class, she argues. But unlike in the “mature” democracies, Russia’s middle class is not (yet) dominant in the social structure. Various estimates put the middle class at between 10 and 25 percent of the Russian population, or perhaps 30 percent if we include in the middle class all of “Russia One,” in the categories of the prominent scholar Natalia Zubarevich. This is the Russia of entrepreneurs and individualists, mostly urban, who more and more see the Putinist state as an oppressor, Rogoża writes.
About a quarter of Russians fall into Zubarevich’s “Russia Two,” described by Rogoża as “the Russia of medium-size, industrial towns mostly populated by employees of large stateowned enterprises and public offices” – wholly dependent on the state and terrified of losing their jobs. The third Russia is the largest, some 40 percent of the population in small towns and rural areas “where people live on the verge of poverty and often cope by cultivating their allotments. They don’t get much from the state and don’t really trust it, hence their passivity and almost complete lack of interest in politics.”
It’s Russias Two and Three that Zakhar Prilepin is describing in his essay in the issue:
“Russians are not unhappy people but neither could you say that they have a lot of fun. Russians do not want to live in Russia. They want to move to Moscow.”
And those not lucky enough to make it to the big city, they “just get wasted on bathtub gin or if they can afford it, they turn to weed. Suicide by hanging or drowning is an easy exit. Giving birth to children is rarely a blessing, as they are placed in orphanages even though the parents are still alive. We are so glued to television because it is hard to believe that Russia is still on the surface of the earth.”
Prilepin’s is undoubtedly the most emotional piece in the issue. A non-Polish view of Russia comes from Cornelius Ochmann, a German political analyst, who outlines the intricate story of German-Russian ties since Willy Brandt initiated Ostpolitik in the 1970s, through Gerhard Schroeder’s somewhat surprising embrace of Russia and the cooling in relations in the wake of the Georgian war.
Through it all, economic interests have been paramount, Ochmann argues. But while Germany and Russia do a huge amount of business, German-Polish trade is higher still.
A handful of book and film reviews complete the issue, all worth reading. I was most taken by the reviews of works unavailable in English, such as the memoirs of Danuta Wałęsa – a woman who rarely emerged from the shadow cast by her husband Lech – and a dystopian novel by Ukrainian writer Taras Antypovych. Another quirkily interesting article describes the history of radio censorship in Soviet Belarus, which for Belarusian historian Alexander Guzhalovsky established a pattern that persists in the current administration’s control of the Internet and television.
Turning back to Russia, one of the strongest pieces is a journalistic essay by Katarzyna Kwiatkowska. She decided to look into Russian protest leader and corruption fighter Alexei Navalny’s nationalist links by talking to some of the ultra-nationalists he sometimes hangs out with. Aleksandr Belov, ex-leader of the Movement Against Illegal Immigration, says he came up with the idea of making Navalny’s “party of crooks and thieves” tag the theme of the nationalist Russian March Navalny took part in last fall. Another prominent face in the anti-immigration movement, Pyotr Miloserdov, is less impressed by Navalny, saying, “He has a merchant’s mentality; he writes and says things that can profit him. Corruption is a catchy theme on which he can make a name for himself.”
Photo of the Polish-Russian frontier by Markowice10/skyscraper.city.com