There is a classic Soviet-era Polish joke that goes something like this. For a state visit to Poland, Brezhnev wished to commission a work of art commemorating the 50th anniversary of the Russian Revolution. He ordered the Poles to make a documentary about Lenin’s brief exile in Poland. Very little was known about this period, but the Poles dutifully promised the Communists a masterpiece all the same. The day of the premiere finally came. On arrival to Warsaw, Brezhnev and his entourage proceeded directly to the theatre in the colossal Palace of Culture and Science. The Communists offered the Poles advance praise for this great gift to the Russian people then settled into their plush, red cinema seats. Lights dimmed, and the first scene came into focus – a man and a woman…together in bed…making love.
Brezhnev was stunned.
“Whoa, who is that man?” he stammered.
“Why, that’s Trotsky.”
“And who,” Brezhnev inquired, “is that woman?”
“That is Lenin’s wife, Comrade Brezhnev.”
“But where is Lenin?”
In June, my father and I made our first visit to Poland, a fact-finding mission of sorts to learn more about our Polish heritage. I am pleased to report that through incredible archival access we traced the Marszalik line back to 1786 in the small Tatra highlander village of Kasinka Mala south of Krakow. Discovering my gorale ancestors though was not my only intellectual fascination with this former Warsaw Pact country.
With time spent in Russia and Armenia for comparison, I was eager to observe firsthand the remnants of Soviet legacy amid one of the most successful post-Communist transitions in Eastern Europe. The joke above largely captures the sentiment of most Poles, a nation once under the tutelage of the Kremlin that through persistent resistance spawned the Solidarity movement onward to freedom and prosperity.
My first impressions of Poland already solidified on the taxi ride from the airport to the hotel. Driving on a wide boulevard lined with tall, green trees and identical, grey apartments quickly reminded me of the outer residential areas in Moscow. The cabbie soon pointed out our first landmark: a memorial to Soviet soldiers lost in the battle to liberate Warsaw from Nazi Germany in World War II. Yet I would come to find that even in the spots of Communist landscape capitalist development ruled supreme. There was no starker sign than the billboard of a swimsuit model advertising affordable Italian beachwear, which appeared on every other block across Warsaw and Krakow.
Warsaw proved to be a very modern Western city with most sectors including Old Town rebuilt after the destruction of World War II and developed further to attract business and tourism following the fall of the Soviet Union. But a controversial symbol of former Soviet presence still dominates the skyline. Gifted to the Polish people by Stalin in 1952, the colossal Palace of Culture and Science, an homage to social realist architecture, still stands today in the center of Warsaw. Though it now at least serves as a platform for other causes (Stalin likely rolled in his grave when the palace was illuminated blue and yellow in solidarity with the Euromaidan protestors in Ukraine).
To my surprise and delight, my Russian came in handy on two incidents once my father and I reached Krakow, widely known as the cultural capital of Poland with structures like Wawel Castle still standing from the golden ages of the Polish Empire. In one instance, while waiting for a tram into the city, a man in his thirties rushed up to me near the platform speaking rapid Polish. I instinctively responded in Russian, explaining I could only proceed in English or Russian. Surprised by my response, he asked in broken Russian about the destination of the tram, then how long I had lived in Krakow. I answered that I didn’t know since this was my first time in Krakow. Once I revealed that I was an American, his face became particularly animated. He shook my hand with fervor and warmly welcomed me to Poland before having to rush off to catch his approaching tram.
I am always moved by such hospitable moments in foreign lands. Similar situations occurred during the earliest days of my study abroad to Ufa, Russia in 2012. On my first visit to the bank, I bonded with a young man wearing a t-shirt of my alma mater, Ohio State. Later on while waiting at a bus stop, an elderly man hugged me after discovering that I was the first American he had ever met. Remembering such positive intercultural experiences also makes me sad and frustrated with the current state of relations between America and Russia in 2016.
My second opportunity to speak Russian proved to be of much more utility. In our tiny, blue stick-shift vehicle, my father and I ventured into the Tatra Mountains to find the village of our ancestors: Kasinka Mala. On arrival, we endeavored to find a local priest to access the parish archives. It was a truer test of my linguistic abilities to explain to the Russian-speaking groundskeeper why two Americans were not in fact trying to break into the locked church but instead hoping to meet the pastor for some research assistance. As mentioned above, we were unexpectedly successful in our efforts.
I am often asked, especially when abroad, why I decided to study Russian and Russia in the first place. It is true like many Russian learners before me that I read Dostoevsky in my youth and became enamored with the concept of the Russian soul. I also became interested in the geopolitics of the post-Soviet era during a number of international affairs classes. But probably the strongest motivator is my Americanized family heritage growing up, a combination of pierogi at Thanksgiving and polka music after church on Sundays that connected me to the Slavic world. It is difficult and complicated to imagine Slavic solidarity when talks of NATO reassurance and hybrid warfare presently dominate the discussion between Poland and Russia. But at least from this American’s perspective, I am thankful that my early relationship with Polonia led me to the study of Russia and Eurasia.
Peter J. Marzalik
Photo Credit: Peter J. Marzalik (Warsaw, Poland / May 2016)