The debates on the application of post-colonial theory in Poland, which have been discussed in the previous chapter, can be seen as a key context for more speciﬁc discussions on the colonial past of Poland. One of them is the debate on the so-called Kresy, which can be seen both as a name of a speciﬁc region and, more broadly, as a name of a speciﬁc Polish ideology of Eastness. The Kresy region was the eastern part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, a state which ceased to exist in 1795. Historically, Kresy encompassed a huge territory and had ﬂuid and often changing borders. The control of the state over a large part of Kresy was often illusory and the density of inhabitants very low. From the Polish point of view, Kresy, or “the limits” (the Eastern borders), were an area of conquest. The majority of the region’s inhabitants were not ethnically Polish and Catholicism was a minority denomination, often restricted to a narrow elite. When the region was controlled by the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth or the First Rzeczpospolita, it was under a constant threat of attacks by its “wild” eastern and south-eastern neighbors, foremostly Lithuanians (until the Polish-Lithuanian union), Mongols or Tatars, and later also Turks. Of course, it was and, in some abstract sense, still remains a key area of the contest between Poland and Russian or earlierMuscovy. At the same time, Kresy was the region where the immense fortunes of the wealthiest Polish-Lithuanian aristocratic families were born. Thus, it was a place where sources of aﬄuence for the Polish elite and for the state were located. Because of the wealth and the privileged status of its elite, it was also an important area of Polish cultural production. It gave birth to several key ﬁgures and motifs in Polish culture. The creativity of its cultural elites was traditionally seen as emerging from Kresy’s character as a site of confrontation between Polish culture and other cultures, which were simultaneously present both within and outside of this multiethnic region. In short, the region gained a mythical status as a part of Poland, from where most of its bravest heroes came. They were supposedly not only defending Poland against barbarians from the east, but also protecting entire Europe from eastern invasions ranging from Mongolian hordes to the Bolshevik Red Army. Kresy region was therefore a key element in the idea of Poland as being Antemurale Christianis or the Bulwark of Christianity (Tazbir, 1983). Its image has been reinforced
during the partition period, when a major part of the former Kresy territory became a part of the Russian Empire, while its southern sector was incorporated into the Austrian Empire. The role of the region was still important from the Polish point of view, given the fact that, until 1917, Polish landowners controlled a major part of its fertile lands, despite policies of the Russian Empire, aimed at reducing Polish ownership in the region. Concerted actions of the Russian state to take over the land in the region from the hands of Polish gentry took place predominantly after the failed Polish uprisings from 1830 and 1863. At the same time, the region played an important role as a symbol of national identity in the literary works, created in the second part of the nineteenth century with the intention of reinforcing the Polish patriotic spirit. A key author in this respect was the writer Henryk Sienkiewicz, best known for his Trilogy depicting seventeenth century stories taking place in Kresy at the height of the power of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Major part of the former Kresy became a part of the Soviet Union after the Riga Treaty of 1921. Its remaining smaller segment, which became a part of the inter-war Second Rzeczpospolita, has been divided among its seven eastern voivodships, or administrative regions. The myth of Kresy continued to develop also in reference to the territories, which fell under Soviet control and from which a wave of refugees arrived to Poland after the Bolshevik Revolution. Technically, Kresy ceased to exist as a region under Polish control after the Second World War, when its entire territory was incorporated into the Soviet Union, and most of its Polish inhabitants were expelled while all their property became nationalized. The area of former Kresy has been administratively divided between what were at that time Belarusian, Lithuanian and Ukrainian Soviet Socialist Republics. Maybe even more importantly, Kresy also ceased their symbolic existence. Any reference to them was practically forbidden in communist Poland. Banned by censorship, the world “Kresy” disappeared from public discourse, remaining only in literary works from previous periods. Tazbir argues that in the Stalinist period, the main sources of knowledge about the Polish myths of Kresy (the Bulwark of Christianity, etc.) were the novels of nineteenth century writers like Józef Ignacy Kraszewski or Henryk Sienkiewicz who could not be banned by communist censorship because of their prominence in the canons of national culture (Tazbir, 2004: 190). One could note that, in a similar way, many traditional motifs in Russian culture retained their status even under communist rule because of the prominence of such writers as Dostoyevsky or Tolstoy, who could not be entirely removed from the pantheon of Russian culture even in the darkest days of the Stalinist period. Natalia Jakovenko noted that, in the communist period, not only the use of the notion of Kresy was forbidden, but also any research in that area of the former Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was prohibited for Polish scholars. If they attempted to deal with the region, they usually tried to mask their research and publications under the label “East European studies” (Jakowenko, 2010: 403). Thus, during the communist period, the memory of Kresy and of the Polish
presence in the region was relegated to a strictly private sphere, while
institutionally it was sustained by the Polish diaspora in the West. Most of the diaspora’s commemoration work in respect to Kresy, was conducted in a clearly pathetic and non-reﬂexive mode. Kresy was a symbol of the lost Polish glory, of ancient pride and of the greatness of the Polish state and culture. On the one hand, no one could have had any realistic hope of regaining even a fraction of that territory for Poland during the communist period. On the other hand, the majority of the Polish diaspora could not imagine a revived free Poland without its former eastern regions, and, in particular, without the cities of Lviv and Vilnius-key intellectual centers not only for Kresy but also for entire Poland. In such context, the ideas of Jerzy Giedroyc´, the leader of the Paris-based Kultura center of the Polish diaspora, could be considered a revolutionary (Korek, 2000). In the 1970s, Giedroyc´, together with his close collaborator Juliusz Mieroszewski, advanced the idea of supporting the national independence movements of Belarus, Lithuania and Ukraine, and deﬁned their sovereignty as an imperative for the geopolitical security of future independent Poland. The Giedroyc´-Mieroszewski project, often referred to as the ULB-program (from the acronym Ukraine-Lithuania-Belarus), was initially met with wide resistance and often called an act of treachery by most conservative members of the Polish diaspora. With time, however, the ULB idea, which had an important element of weakening Russian supremacy over the region by means of depriving Moscow of its control over the three countries, was gaining popularity among not only the Polish diaspora, but also among independent intellectuals in Poland. Eventually, it became a part of the mainstream foreign policy program of the entire anti-communist opposition. Currently, it is widely accepted both by the liberal as well as by the moderate sector of the conservative camp, and serves as one of the backbones of Poland’s foreign policy doctrine. The relatively wide consensus for support of the independence of Belarus, Lithuania and Ukraine, which emerged on the anti-communist side of the Polish political scene and was soon shared by former communists, did not mean that the Kresy idea was completely forgotten. The fall of communism brought a renaissance of interest in Kresy, in particular, within the anti-communist sector of the intellectual ﬁeld. Already in the last year of the communist rule in Poland, associations of the “lovers of Kresy” were allowed to register as administrative entities and immediately several such institutions emerged. Many Poles started to visit the region. Some of them were equipped with new and reprinted old guidebooks of Kresy. This wave of interest in Kresy seemed quite natural, given the communist ban not only on travel, but also on the presence of the region in public discourses during the entire communist era. However, although, almost no one among these involved in the Kresy revival made any claims regarding the region’s status, and the discussions about possible restitution of properties outside Poland’s contemporary borders were rather marginal due to the formal obligation of the Polish state to pay compensation for properties lost in the east, soon the Kresy discourse was met with criticism and skepticism on both sides of the border, that is, both by the liberal, in particular, left-liberal milieus in
Poland, and by the countries that currently share parts of historical Kresy. As these critical voices have suggested, recognition of the sovereignty of the Baltic States, Belarus and Ukraine by Poland is incompatible with the use of the notion of Kresy. The latter use, which is an intrinsically Polish way of imagining the area, may imply Polish ambitions to regain control over that territory. In other words, as liberals on both sides of the border suggested, the change of political borders should be reﬂected in a change of Polish geopolitical, but, also, more general cultural vocabulary, and the notion of Kresy must be abandoned, or relegated to exclusively historical discourses, given the fact that its use may always imply a supposed Polishness of the region. The conservatives resisted these calls and considered them a case of excessive left-liberal political correctness. From a conservative point of view, the use of the notion of Kresy should not imply any political claims to the region. At the same time, in a conservative perspective, the memory of the Polish history of Kresy is a patriotic duty, given the region’s crucial role in the construction of Polish national identity. Moreover, the rejection of the notion of Kresy could be seen as a falsiﬁcation of the region’s history, and as a marginalization of the role of Polish elements in the images of its past. The conservative literary scholar Bolesław Hadaczek argued against replacing the notion of Kresy by that of a borderland and rhetorically asked “Cui bono?—In whose interest?”— suggesting that opponents of the contemporary uses of the notion may be serving foreign interests (Hadaczek, 2011: 403). The debate of Kresy could be seen as a part of a wider debate regarding the
status of the First Rzeczpospolita, which, in fact, produced the notion and the political region called Kresy. The key question here is whether the PolishLithuanian Commonwealth should be considered to be an Empire. In case we recognize the “imperial” status of the Commonwealth, its peripheries and, in particular, its regions where Polish culture and Catholicism were shared by a minority of inhabitants, could be seen as colonies. Consequently, the Kresy concept and related discourses could be seen as classic colonial discourses and should be criticized as elements of tools for illegitimate Polish domination over the region. The opposite view, widely shared among Polish conservatives, is that the First Rzeczpospolita was a voluntary union between Poland and Lithuania, and, at the same time, a multicultural state, whose heritage could be seen as being common for all contemporary states existing on the region’s territory. Assuming such a point of view implies, of course, that the notion of Kresy may not be seen as an element of colonial vocabulary, since it refers to the multicultural heritage of the region. Here, we are dealing with an interesting debate on the nature of Polish and Russian forms of imperialism. As far as Polish literature is concerned, Polish colonialism is considered as either “peaceful” or “normal”. In contrast, Russian colonialism is viewed in Poland either as particularly cruel (due to the “barbarian” nature of the Russian and later Soviet Empire) or at least “normal”, that is, similar to Western forms of imperialism. One could note that in Russia itself, Russian expansionism/colonialism is also often considered as uniquely peaceful, based on the process of voluntary
accessions of smaller states, and as being similar to the expansion of the European Union. One of the most visible defenders of the First Rzeczpospolita against accusations of imperialism is Andrzej Nowak, who, after a careful discussion, generally refutes the thesis of the imperial nature of the PolishLithuanian Commonwealth (Nowak, 2004, 2005). In a similar vein, Aleksander Fiut (Fiut, 2003) argues that the First Rzeczpospolita could hardly be called an empire, and proposes to call the process of its expansion a “velvet colonization”. When discussing the expansion of the First Rzeczpospolita, its conservative defenders often emphasize that Poland never killed millions of people as did Western countries in their colonies, or the Soviet Union. At the same time, its aggressive or violent aspects, seen by left-liberals among the intellectuals from zone two countries, are denied or seen as relatively minor, given the context of the historical period. Thus, Jan Kieniewicz argued that:
Rzeczpospolita was not conducting any extermination in the Kresy, the system of serfdom was until a certain moment much more human than slavery. Whereas, the borderland was creating a real perspective of inclusion in the project, one completely incomparable to that ‘proposed’ at the same time to the inhabitants of Novgorod by the tsar Ivan.