Letter from Poland

I recently visited Kraków, Poland, with nine of my writing colleagues, for a ‘writing retreat’ and some minor tourism.

We arrived 10 November, the day before an important national holiday, National Independence Day…

… a national day in Poland celebrated on 11 November to commemorate the anniversary of the restoration of Poland’s sovereignty as the Second Polish Republic in 1918, after 123 years of partition by the Russian Empire, the Kingdom of Prussia and the Habsburg Empire. (Wikipedia)

img_0697

One of the celebrations early on November 11, image taken from our hotel room

In pursuing the tourism, I went to the English language Massolit Bookstore. The fellow at the cashier and cafe desk is interested in the Beat Poets, as I am. He and I struck up a conversation and I promised to send him a poem by Lawrence Ferlinghetti.

After returning home, I sent him the poem, along with some personal comments and links to my writing. I received from him a most unexpected response. Here it is:
___

I am happy to read that you enjoyed your stay in Kraków. It is my favourite Polish city and I am happy to have moved here for good. You found it much settled in history and past. The city was lucky, very lucky not to be destroyed much by any war. Even the Communist  regime didn’t crush its beauty and spirit. And seriously, to me Kraków is an escapist city.

In any other Polish city I always feel some destruction. Warsaw was paved to the ground and awfully rebuilt after 1945. Lublin, which I came from is a God-forgotten place suffering from the consequences of a too rapid switch from communism to capitalism. Wrocław, which I lived in is a German town made Polish fifty years ago and still struggling to reinvent it’s identity, a continuing process. Only in Kraków do I feel at home, without all the damage that has been done to this country.

poland-map

I am writing this at age thirty-four, in the generation that grew up seeing the old being replaced by the new Poland after 1989. I was eight when it all happened. My parents would tell me “how it’s been” and why the Regime should “never repeat”. They raised me with this warning. Their parents raised them with the warnings against war. I am happy to notice twenty-year-olds not influenced with this kind of perspective.

My grandfather lost all his family during the war. He never came back to Lviv (today’s Ukraine, yesterday’s Poland). My mother tried to look for our relatives, didn’t meet anyone when she came there. I don’t feel like going there at all. Let past be the past.

This might sound cruel, but… I am sick and tired of war literature, especially the Holocaust kind of literature still being “mass produced” by yet another Jewish person coming to Auschwitz as a part of their “identity trip”. With masterpieces like Ellie Wiesel’s “Night” we don’t need any more Shoah books to understand the trauma.

I spent one year volunteering in Israel, which was a great lesson on complexity and diversity of life in all kinds of meaning. I walked a mile in someone else’s shoes and it was the most precious experience so far.

I came back to Poland and got close to Judaism again. I acted in Jewish theatre groups. I think that if there is any space in which we can work out the demons of all kinds it is art. Only in art and only on the non-personal but emotional and spiritual level of metaphorical language we can “speak with the ghosts.”

Some people now say: “If they chose Trump it means that humankind didn’t learn anything”. Well, a bit overstatement I would say, but I find an answer in Walter Benjamin’s “The Angel of History” essay. He said that all the answers have been given a long time ago and that if there is something like the Messianic times it IS the time of now, and if we can recognise ourselves and recognise our calling in the calling that has been left to us by the late generations to be accomplished, then it means we are doing right at life.

But why am I writing all this actually? Well, I believe life is a journey and I am trying to learn from all the passengers I happen to be travelling with. Sometimes I feel like explaining myself. Maybe that was one of these moments. We, Poles, have an idea of “The Polish complex,” which is an old fear of not being appreciated or never being understood by outsiders. Maybe this is also my complex that keeps me trying to tell this story again and again, come back to past, tell the identity and keep on checking if I have really told “the whole” story…

jakub-wydrzynski

— Jakub Wydrzynski

“Ukraine and its glory has not died yet, nor her freedom…”

 

This is from the first line of the national anthem of the country of Ukraine. (Transliterated from the Ukrainian; written Ukrainian uses a variant of the Cyrillic script).

These words speak to me of a country and a people who have suffered at the hands of powerful neighbors and despotic rulers.

But why am I pursuing this line of inquiry?

Through a DNA-matching service I connected with a distant relative who has intimate knowledge of the country—she has lived there all her long life. I offer here, with permission, her narrative about her country.

To begin with, the word Ukraine means Borderland. It’s been a borderland between the Forest and the Steppe for millennia, and then a borderland between the Catholic and Orthodox Europe for centuries. This probably explains a somewhat schizophrenic nature of the nation’s history and mentality. Ukrainians have seldom been sure about who they actually are—sort of European or a sort of Russian, or something else. (Click on the map for a detailed view).

The country is quite large, around 600 thousand square kilometers [note: slightly smaller than Texas]—and populous, around 46 million (plus a few million trying to make a living for their families by working abroad). Ukraine is primarily known for its fertile land (arable land is roughly half of the country’s territory, around 30 mn hectares—ca. 75 million acres), and I was taught that Ukraine accounts for a third of Earth’s most fertile soil, chernozem. Ukraine is also a major steel exporter. It is less lucky in terms of energy, as its once big oil, gas and coal resources are somewhat depleted, and the country is strongly dependent on Russia for oil and gas supplies. During the Soviet era, Ukraine was a major machine engineering centre, but a substantial part of this industry (especially defence-oriented) has been destroyed since the collapse of the Soviet Union. Still, Ukraine currently exports a lot of various heavy machines.

The territory of what is now Ukraine was the centre of two major kingdoms, first the Gothic state of Ermanaric in 4th century and, much later in 9th-13th centuries, the medieval polity of Kievan Rus’. Both had capitals on the Dnieper river, near the border of forest and steppe. It’s not clear where Ermanaric’s capital was, but Kiev (my native city), the capital of Rus, exists until today. Rus collapsed following Tatar invasion in 1240, and the semblance of order was restored only when the principality of Lithuania drove the Tatars from more or less densely populated parts of Ukraine in the middle of 14th century. Lithuanian rule was a period of stability as less numerous Lithuanians lived in relative harmony with much more populous Rusyns—descendands of Slavic tribes that comprised Rus and ancestors of modern Ukrainians and Belorussians. Later on, Orthodox Christian Lithuania started to become more and more integrated with Catholic Poland through a dynastic union.

Mongol invasion of Ukrainian lands
(ukrmap.su/en-uh7/284.html)

In 1596, the southern part of Lithuania’s Slavic lands was administratively subordinated to Poland, and the northern part remained under Lithuania. This was the beginning of Ukraine in the southern Dnieper river basin, and Belarus on its northern border. Dealing with Catholic Poland turned out to be difficult, and the next few centuries included numerous episodes of civil (or, rather, religious) war between Poles and Ukrainians. Eventually, Ukrainians had to seek protection of the Moscow principality which later became Russian empire. However, Western parts of Ukraine continued to be ruled by Poland, the Austrian Empire and then again Poland until World War II.

The country as it exists today was in fact created by Joseph Stalin. When the lands that comprised the former Russian empire were transformed into Soviet Union, he put together less loyal Ukrainian-speaking agrarian regions located along the Dnieper river and more loyal Russian-speaking regions to the East to make sure the new republic will not steer away from Russia. Then, during the Second World War, he added the Western Ukrainian regions most of which were parts of Austria-Hungary and then Poland for a long time. The guy has been dead for almost 60 years, but his dark wisdom continues to work. After more than 20 years of independence, Ukraine still remains strongly dependent on Russia, and not so much economically as mentally.

Costume of Halychyna
(folkcostume.blogspot.se)

Roughly 40% of modern Ukrainian population are “pure” Ukrainian speakers, another 40% or so are bilingual, and the remaining 20% are pure Russian speakers and minorities. The borders of old days may not be visible on the modern map, but if you look at maps showing how Ukrainians vote in elections, they immediately become so clear as if medieval kingdoms were still here. One part (often hated elsewhere in Ukraine) is the Halychyna, a Western land lying along the banks of Dniester River. Another one is Ukraine proper—a core of the country lying in the Dnieper river basin. Finally, the country’s Eastern and Southern parts, which became more or less densely inhabited only after the Crimean Tatar state was destroyed by the Russian Empire in late 18th century, are a kind of “Ukraine’s New World”, populated by the natives of all corners of the former Russian empire.

(Second communication from my relative)

Actually, the self-identification based on ethnicity is not an ancient thing—it’s a child of 18th and 19th century. Before that time, people usually self-identified based on their religion or allegiance to a certain dynasty. And Ukraine is not the only state where borders do not fully coincide with ethnic distinctions—just look at Central Asia or Africa or Iraq or even Belgium. As for the borders, I think in the future they will cease to be defined ethnically as during the last 2-3 centuries. People come and go, but natural features persist. If you look at a good map of river basins (some maps can be found here), you will notice that many ancient and/or modern borders are based on watersheds of major rivers. This could be a good basis to define borders in the present and future as trying to define them on ethnic basis will always leave one of the sides unhappy. As for Ukraine, I would say that its Eastern part lying in the basin of Don river is mostly Russian and can go to Russia without pain. Things will be more difficult in the south as almost totally Russian-speaking Crimean region is too dependent on Ukraine (and also has a Muslim Crimean Tatar minority). But in any case I don’t think Ukraine or Belarus can survive without Russia in the long run (and Russia will struggle to remain secure without a union with Ukraine and Belarus as well), so the question of borders in this case is more rhetorical.

St. Volodymyr’s Cathedral, Kiev
(mypostcard-page.blogspot.se)

In any case, the topic of future borders is very interesting. I strongly doubt that the inviolability of borders principle that became established in the international public law as recently as 40 years ago will be followed in the next 40 years as well. It will be more and more becoming a mere fig leaf to hide geographical and/or ethnic realities. Joseph Stalin made life difficult for modern Ukraine, but the results of his border-making policy in Central Asia will detonate in the next 10-20 years in a much more massive way (when the post-Soviet generation of local leaders goes, the region can become a real hell). So I think the topic of future borders and factors that will determine them is definitely worth studying.

Politicians in Ukraine belong to two types—smart thieves and outrageous thieves. Timoshenko [Yulia Tymoshenko, former prime minister] is from the second category, and I have no pity for her. I don’t like her opponents either, but these half-criminal representatives of Eastern Ukrainian elite are probably the country’s last chance to remain independent for longer. But the problem is not in Ukraine or West vs. Russia in Ukraine. The bigger problem is that the whole international financial and political system is flawed and it is waiting to collapse.

This is Ron Pavellas writing again. All the above, except the introduction, was from my relative. I sent her an article on the current political situation in Ukraine, excerpted below asking her opinion of it. I show not only my relative’s response to it, but also those of the readers of the article who responded to it.

Ukraine at a crossroads
By Damon M. Wilson, Published: April 19 (Washington Post)

… As part of a Freedom House mission of American and Ukrainian analysts to examine the state of democracy in Ukraine, I visited former prime minister Yulia Tymoshenko and former interior minister Yuri Lutsenko in Kachanivska and Lukyanivska prisons, respectively, this month. Our group was Tymoshenko’s first visit from independent observers since December; we were the second independent group to see Lutsenko since his incarceration…

Last month, as these leaders sat in prison and Ukrainian authorities announced plans to bring new charges against them, negotiators initialed the E.U.-Ukraine Association Agreement. The pact includes a deep and comprehensive free-trade agreement. Yet the European Union is unlikely to sign and ratify the agreement as long as Tymoshenko, Ukraine’s most prominent opposition leader, remains in prison or before parliamentary elections this fall, a critical test of this government’s willingness to conduct a free, fair vote.

The Ukrainian government is pursuing contradictory policies: It seeks to integrate Ukraine into Europe while emasculating its domestic opposition. In their first two years in office, Ukrainian authorities have made progress on both fronts. Ultimately, though, they must choose.

Ukraine’s choice is not between Russia and the West. That is a false choice. Indeed, (Ukraine President Viktor) Yanukovych has courageously challenged President-elect Vladimir Putin’s plan to assert control over the states of the former Soviet Union through a Eurasian Union. The question is whether Ukraine sees its future in the European mainstream or relegated to the borderlands.

Ukraine President Viktor Yanukovych
(http://news.nikcity.com)

It is not too late to take the democratic path. The government has made some progress in the past year, including enacting legislation that allows nongovernmental organizations to be active on civil-political issues without being considered political actors and to accept foreign funds in a transparent manner; advancing a more modern criminal procedure code; and increasing public access to government information. But it must do more. The government’s first step should be facilitating independent medical care for Tymoshenko and Lutsenko. Ukraine can avoid international ostracism, and perhaps even U.S. and E.U. sanctions, by respecting the independence of the judiciary and allowing all opposition figures, including those in prison, to contest parliamentary elections in October.

Ukraine teeters between Eurasian malaise and an ambivalent Europe. As long as the government in Kiev criminalizes political differences, it will find itself in control at home but increasingly isolated internationally.

U.S. and European policy should make clear that a democratic Ukraine that makes the right choices is welcome as a member of the transatlantic community.

[End of excerpted article]

Former Ukraine Prime Minister
Yulia Tymoshenko (Wikimedia)

(My relative’s comments): As for the article—I must admit that the author seems to be trying to be balanced. This happens less often than one would expect of the “free world” media covering Ukraine. Unfortunately, his sources seem to be some local Western-leaning media people, so the facts are not always correct and sometimes are irrelevant. Nobody in Freedom House would care if former premier Timoshenko won the presidency and put Yanukovich to prison, because she is believed to be pro-Western. This is pure hypocricy. If we speak about the real big villains, then why the voices about the political system of China are not heard as often as they should have been? Because trade interests dominate the desire to bring the light of democracy to all nations of the world? Maybe the guy honestly believes it’s all about democracy, but I find it difficult to come up with explanation other than that in the case of Ukraine it’s all about geopolitical interests of the US and broader Western world vs. the geopolitical interests of Russia.

Published Comments:

sanfran6003, 4/19/2012 12:38 PM GMT+0200

Damon M. Wilson, an independent observer, writes of the brutal treatment of opposition political figures. His clear condemnation of the thuggish leaders of Ukraine should be heeded.

OldUncleTom, 4/19/2012 7:38 PM GMT+0200

Heeded, perhaps, but Wilson leaves out more than he discusses.

1) Just because the jailed politicians are opposition does not mean they don’t belong in jail.
2) The issues preventing EU accession for Ukraine are a lot bigger than political corruption.

Templejr, 1:53 AM GMT+0200

Better to be in jail than poisoned. The problem here is a wonderful country that has lived under a corrupt political system and uncontrolled capitalism. A people oppressed so long can only struggle to survive. At some point they become too passive-aggressive to accomplish anything except the basics of life. Survival of the fittest. I stand by my assertion that the future of Ukraine is in the hands of the people, not in the corrupt and decadent leadership. Certainly not in the pimps that prop up the circus tent.

Templejr, 2:28 AM GMT+0200

The UEFA cup, coming up in June, has the country investing Billions of UAH into infrastructure and they have done a credible job despite the cronyism and kickbacks. Most of the events are being handled by local volunteer groups who work for free.. This is their time to shine and show pride in their country and show the rest of the world that despite the clown in charge (little more than a puppet) the country is a proud and free nation with much to offer. If only the criminal element could be disposed of.

Igrmng7771, 5:35 AM GMT+0200

Ukrainian elite is corrupt. Everyone could get in jail. Timoshenko was sued by Ukrainian laws, her behavior in the court was outrageous. In states she would have gotten much bigger jail time only for such a behavior. She, in reality, crossed many lines and put Ukraine in a very difficult situation. She is a populist with a very little knowledge of economy and law. I believe, that it is the western diplomats who select for whom they should struggle. It means that they aggravate ordinary Ukrainians who feel that Yushchenko – Timoshenko administrations robbed them. I think, that before saying something westerns should get familiar with the case and video of Timoshenko from the court room. Many oppose Yanukovich style but even less want Timoshenko back.

[End of all comments and excerpts from others]

So, I see that my inference, expressed at the beginning of this article, was correct: Ukraine is country and a people who have suffered at the hands of powerful neighbors and ruling despots.

I will end here with the full, transliterated text of the national anthem, as it was from its beginning in 1863 until it was changed in 2003:

Severyn Nalyvaiko, Leader
of Cossack Rebellion

Ukraine has not yet perished,
The glory and the freedom!
Still upon us brave brothers,
Fate shall smile!
Our enemies will vanish
Like dew in the sun;
We too shall rule
In our country.

Soul and body we will lay down
For our freedom
And show that we brothers
Are of the Cossack nation,
Hey, hey dearest brothers
Onward take to battle
Hey, hey, time to rise,
Time to gain freedom!

Nalyvaiko, Zalizniak
And Taras Triasylo
Call us from beyond the grave
To the holy battle.
Recall the famous death of
Chivalarious Cossacks
Not to lose vainly
Our youth.

Soul and body …

Oh Bohdan, Bohdan
Our great hetman
What for did you give Ukraine
To wretched muscovites?!
To return her honor,
We lay our heads
We shall call ourselves Ukraine’s
Faithful sons!

Soul and body …

Our Slavic brothers
Already took up arms
No one shall see
That we should stay behind.
Unite together all,
Brothers Slavs:
So that enemies perish,
And freedom comes!

Soul and body …


Other sources for Ukraine:

The Land of Oium
The World Factbook of the CIA
Ukraine History
Bohdan Khmelnytsky
Internet Encyclopedia of Ukraine 

 

 

The Black Sea

This is about an area of the world that remains, for those of us oriented primarily toward North America and Europe, a historically complicated and geographically confusing melange of ancient empires initially forged by warrior kings and their hordes on horseback, a parade of vast “-stans” marching eastward that are little understood and imperfectly located, wide-ranging and centuries-long religious and cultural and commercial conflicts, and names that are difficult to be immediately grasped, much less to remember.

The stimulus for writing this overview comes from my reading of a fascinating book: The Black Sea: A History, by Charles King.

From The Black Sea.

…[W]riting the history of nations is…about silencing voices. It [draws] lines around people, excising connections among human communities and reading onto the messy past the lineaments of pure identities and immutable boundaries…This book asks the reader to listen to some of [the] still voices from the past. It is about how…the Black Sea has more often been a bridge than a barrier, linking religious communities, linguistic groups, empires and, later, nations and states into a region as real as any other in Europe or Eurasia. [p.12]

Area Surrounding The Black Sea (libcom.org)

From this beginning the book shows us the flow of history in the region of the Black Sea, sweeping from south to north and back, and similarly east to west, but mostly from the east. The Empires of the Middle East, up to and including the Ottoman Turks, pushed north to control the sea and its assets: seafood, ports, shipping lanes, peoples. Many people of the North and West, especially Imperial Russia, pushed back and sought to overtake. Over time, as western European countries exerted powerful diplomatic, commercial and military power, the lake became neutralized. Throughout all centuries there were recurring waves of conquerors, and continuing influxes of migrants, usually pastoral people fleeing the east.

But all this took millennia. The lands adjacent to the sea were populated and, in varying degrees, controlled by:

One can get an idea, and some direct perception, of the movement and, importantly, the admixture of peoples over time from this visual presentation of the Middle East empires and nations.

To this day small and large ethnic and religious groupings of ancient peoples continue to exist throughout Europe and Asia in this region, even if their individual genetic heritages may have been infused with those of neighboring and invading tribes over the millennia. This is what makes the notion of country or nation so difficult in this area. Up until recently, for instance, to be “Greek” was not necessarily even to be ethnically or genetically Greek, but to belong to the Eastern Orthodox religion, no matter where one lived.

Please click on all images

The geography and physical characteristics of the Sea and its tributaries are also important, of course. Here are the major rivers supplying the fresh water, the top layer of this great sea:

And, yes, you read it right that the top layer of the Black Sea is fresh, while the bottom (and dead) layer is colder salt water from the Mediterranean Sea, flowing through the Bosporus.

Another important feature of the sea is that is two or, perhaps, three seas in one.

Image Source

As you can see from the above, there are two counter-clockwise surface currents in the left and right portions of the lake which make navigation between them sometimes difficult. The Sea of Azov is a smaller and distinct body, as well.

There are two types of sea currents in the Black Sea: the surface currents, caused by the cyclonic pattern of the winds, and the double currents in the Bosporus Strait and Kerch Strait, caused by the exchange of waters with adjacent seas. The surface currents form two closed circles. The width of the western circle, opposite the Danube Delta, reaches 100 km and decreases towards the south. The velocity of the current is about 0.5 km per hour. The width of the eastern circle varies between 50 and 100 km, and the velocity is 1 km per hour. Source

[Image source, Encyclopedia Britannica]

A salient aspect of the larger region within which the Black Sea is located, is a great prairie stretching from China through Southern Europe through which the “Golden Horde” and other eastern pastoral people gained access to the west. These prairies are called “steppes” and are celebrated in stories and music, presaging the “old west” legends of the prairie in North America.

The Black Sea: A History is rich in detail and overview, and I will follow through on a list of books, people and subjects for further study, including:

In addition, I have now gained an interest in looking also at the great salt water sea (or lake) to the east, The Caspian Sea, and a further look at the nature and history of the Steppes of Central Asia.What great dividends from the purchase of a single book!Many thanks, and my admiration of the author’s scholarship and writing skills, to Charles King.