Book Talk

Meet the Author

Professor Bohdan Cywiński

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Ladies and Gentlemen!

It seems the author should not talk about his own book, because writing it was enough, so why not to let others speak now.

But if I have to talk about the book, perhaps I should start from telling you about one strange thing. How I have come to this idea?

It results from two types of experience, or two types of reflections.

One is of a very general nature.

Ladies and Gentlemen!

When we hear someone say the word “culture,”

we often feel it’s something nice. Culture sounds fine. Culture is something higher, something nice, something lofty.

However, when we hear the word “politics,”

a red light flashes in our heads.

We understand that politics is necessary, and that we cannot do without it. Sometimes we support a political line and strongly oppose another,

but we generally dislike politics “en masse.”

We don’t trust it, we are suspicious about it.

We think it is unfair in one way or another.

And thus the two notions - culture and politics - evoke contrasting feelings.

But there is a strange phenomenon that culture eagerly takes up political themes, because politics adds some spice to the cultural message.

Thus, culture fears politics, but does not escape from it.

On the other hand, politics wants to dominate culture.

It wants to use culture.

So, both areas of social life – culture and politics –have always and in all countries been tied with one another.

They are particularly closely tied together, whenever a nation, a society, or an ethnos does not have its political institutions, because it has not been allowed to create them or it once had them but lost them.

In such times, culture has a special mission – to replace the political expression.

This phenomenon should be studied, simply for intellectual reasons.

This can teach us a lot about both politics and culture.

At one time, I took up that issue, writing the booklet “An Independent Tale” in which I discussed Polish literature in the times of the Poland’s Partitions.

My main interest and, to some extent, also my scientific background is the history of the 19th century. As a historian, I specialize in this area.

So, I wanted to write about that era, about all those stories, beginning from “The Song of Legions” to Żeromski, all about what the Poles wrote throughout 123 years.

So I did, it was published, OK, but then I went further on, towards the nations of Eastern Europe that lived, still live, and will live between Poland and Russia.

Of course, I dealt with the 18th and the 19th centuries, because, firstly, this is what I know best.

Secondly, in that very period

the Russian Empire was being shaped politically and culturally, not militarily, because, in military terms, it had already been formed.

It was being shaped in that way that it was striving for erasing the national identity of smaller, or larger, but politically weaker nations.

It came to dominate those nations somehow by the way.

On the way, there were three stumbling blocks on the Russian Empire’s path to the great, true Europe. The three stumbling blocks were Poland, Sweden and Turkey. The struggle with them or attempts to eliminate the three stumbling blocks was fully politically successful in the case of Poland, and partially in the case of Sweden and Turkey,

On its way in the struggle with those states, silently, without much ado, and almost automatically, the following countries should be destroyed:

On the way to Poland: the Ukrainians, the Belarusians, and the Lithuanians should be destroyed.

On the way to Sweden, the Finns, the Estonians, and the Latvians should be destroyed.

On the way to Turkey, the nations of Transcaucasia, the Georgians, and the Azeri should be destroyed, and, seemingly not on the way to Europe, but nevertheless at a very important point of conflict between Russia and Turkey,

the Armenians, the Crimean Tatars, and the Moldovans.

Finally, there was also the twelfth nation scattered over the entire area, very numerous and very specific, with its distinctly different culture – the Jewish nation.

All those nations were to be Russified as far as possible.

There is a different way to Russify a Belarusian who is the closest to a Russian in terms of language and religion, and a different way to Russify a Georgian who is also Orthodox,

but completely different in terms of language and culture, and on top of that has a 3000- year-old culture, so a Russian or a European seems to him a little barbarian.

Today Europeans have such a high status, but a long time ago, “they were still sitting in the trees,” whilst Georgia already had its own culture.

The matter is different in the case of Latvians or Finns, who do not have an old elite culture. Instead, they have their old folk culture, and in addition, there is such a strong language barrier that they don’t have to fear Russification very much.

So, I was fascinated with the 12 nations.

Another reason for writing this book was my fascination with the histories of those nations, and the fact that, during the last 20 years, I happened to work in Eastern European universities.

First of all, and for a longest time, in Belarus, and then around four years commuting to Lithuania.

For a shorter period in Ukraine, and Latvia, but for some time, I’ve been everywhere, among all those nations, except for Crimea and the present Finland, but I am familiar with still Russian Karelia, i.e. eastern Finland.

These are nations and cultures that, even a hundred years after the fall of tsarist Russia, have so many distinct, specific features unknown to Europeans, who treat them – I wouldn’t say that without due respect – but they are simply unknown to them.

They seem uninteresting to the West, and, unfortunately, also largely uninteresting to us – the Poles.

Here must be something about it, but frankly speaking, if you dare say that you find what happens east of Poland is not interesting, then, please tell it someone else, not me.

I had the opportunity to live in Western Europe for 10 years, and I know a bit about it, perhaps not much, but I do, and those two worlds are completely incomparable.

It is good that my book has grown from those two perspectives. It took me 20 years to travel around eastern countries and then two years and a half to write the book. This is why it is so obese, just like me.

Well, I couldn’t help that, I needed some space to write about it all. Of course, you think, now I am going to tell you the history of each of the 12 nations, and hope we will finish by noon.

But, if we take another course of this ceremony, I am only going to add that, besides the historical and political importance of that theme, there is also another thing that matters.

Not to use too grand of words, I will be a little philosophical, asking what happens with culture that must fulfil the political mission.

If there is too much politics, the work of culture loses its specific features.

If a nation experiences a great political tension, it reads a literary work differently.

I bet that, if Napoleon had defeated Russia in 1812, no one would have cared for a story that takes place in Lithuania, which was a story of the attack at a manor house, picking mushrooms, and eating cold beetroot soup.

And yet, we stand in awe, we read it and we are enchanted by the story.

Really, not for purely aesthetic reasons.

It is a political situation that made “Mr Tadeusz” such a highly regarded piece of literature.

Thus, we should think why we read fiction in such a way.

Especially today, when they tell you no one reads anything anymore, which is highly exaggerated.

I am about to finish now – on the 200th anniversary of Mickiewicz’s birth, I had the opportunity to participate in a number of ceremonies throughout Europe. I was also in Vitebsk, and it was a striking experience. It was the only place where Mickiewicz was read and commented by very young people, Belarusian students, as a still topical literature.

This is how they read ”The Forefathers’ Night”

This can serve as an example of what culture means in politics and politics in culture.

Thank you for your attention.

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