Public space and collective consciousness comprise in large part of imagination. Men and women politicians lure us with prospects. Culture creates patterns by which we communicate, and capitalism makes implausible promises. All together is jumbling and swirling.
Immersed in all of this we often cannot see that we are sleeping. Bombing of the neighbouring country’s capital can – at least for a moment – make us aware of that. We need to seize these moments not because they are purposeful – there is no greater purpose that is worth today’s suffering of Ukrainian people – but because they can help us see a little more of the reality and shake some of the gullibility off in the future. Some of it, because there is no doubt we would drift to sleep once more. Once more we will allow for a lunatic to rule us. It is inevitable with the capacity of factors affecting us taken into consideration.
May it be a lunatic a bit closer to reality though.
Geopolitical dream of Putin
Russian authorities are becoming civilised. They do not have a choice, they need to seek closer cooperation with the West. They won’t go as far as to some extremes. Putin may be bad, but he is reasonable, he – coincidentally – knows the boundaries. It is just some threating, he is about to pull back. The economic exchange between the West and Russia – despite the oligarchic system – is bound to bring these worlds together.
There is no perfectly logical explanation for the origin of the confidence in alleged veracity of this opinion. For many years, such trust could not after all rely on experience or observation. In recent years, Russia has become a country all the more than before autocratic, despotically managed, and tyrannising against people who oppose the power. In 2006, a journalist critical of Putin’s administration and Russia’s war in Chechnya Anna Poltkovskaya was assassinated, along with Alexander Litvinenko having been poisoned on the same basis. In 2008, Russia attacked Georgia. In 2014, Russia illegally annexed Crimea and – unofficially, but let us be serious here – entered Eastern Ukraine. In 2015, a human right activist and oppositionist Boris Nemtsov was murdered. In 2018, an attempt was made to poison Sergei Skripal (Russian secret service agent who defected to the British) and his daughter. In 2020, fraudulent presidential elections were held in Belarus which, supported by Moscow, resulted in Alexander Lukashenka’s, a leader who executes violent repression, torture, and political assassinations on his own people, retaining his power. In the same year, there was an attempt to poison Alexei Navalny, Russian opposition leader, who was imprisoned in a penal colony on trumped-up charges in 2021.
These are only the most “spectacular” examples proving that it would have been better if we had become disillusioned by Putin a long time ago.
And yet the Western elites have been divided in terms of his politics. Some of the men and women politicians have openly cooperated with him, supported him, and enjoyed his support. Some have recovered from that dream as of today, others have been – probably as a result of long history of debts and obligations – highly resistant.
And yet the Western states have considered Russia a country for business just like any other.
And yet Germany has dealt with Russia in terms of energy matters over the heads of the Baltic States, Poland, Ukraine.
And yet in the meantime, the 2014 Olympic Games were held in Sochi (watched) and the 2018 Football World Cup in Russia (watched as well). Nobody refused to participate.
There were some who warned us. But the West has as a whole slept through the recent years just like Chamberlain “buying peace” with “appeasement”.
Today there is no other possible assessment of Vladimir Putin than that which says that not only is he an autocrat, despot, and a person responsible for political murders, but he is also a war criminal. The place where he belongs is in the dock at the International Criminal Court in the Hague, not at the world leaders summits. Will that be the case? Will we nod off – if not here in Poland, then in most parts of the world?
It is hard to exclude it.
Dream of European Peace
This is one of the most harmful, because most deceitful sentiments in the public debate. It can be often heard that the longest period of peace in the history of Europe has started after the Second World War. The dream has been extremely false. Russian invasion of Ukraine can finally put an end to it.
A part of this lie has consisted in overlooking. Even the war in Yugoslavia, during which more than 100,000 people died, and in which ONZ and NATO, hence many of other European nations forces were present, has not been considered a “war in Europe”. Even more so, the war in Georgia, somewhere at the edge of Europe, has not been recognised as worth mentioning. The annexation of Crimea and the eastern districts of Ukraine has not altered the story.
The second reason for which it has been a dream has consisted in overlooking that lack of military operations in Europe in no way means that over the last 80 years since the Second World War European countries have not been to war. The Falklands war. Two wars in Iraq. Two wars in Afghanistan. The war in Libya. The war in Syria. A series of anti-colonial liberation wars in Africa. The civil war in Ivory Coast. The Moroccan-Algerian conflict. The Chadian-Sudanese conflict. These are only a few of the wars which various – allegedly peacefully living – states of Europe have taken part in. Also Poland, what we know all too well, sadly contributed to some of these conflicts. If one included the wars in which the pivotal role was performed by the United States, we would clearly see that since the Second World War the West is not at peace after all, but in fact in a state of permanent war.
It is just that this is a war “played away”. Some of these wars are so-called vicarious conflicts. Many of these have been duels of the superpowers, except now waged far beyond their borders. It is convenient for European societies, but should not be convenient for European consciences. The West does not live in peace. The West has just exported – with support of Soviet Union, and later Russia, Turkey, Iran, Saudi Arabia, China… – everything that is wrong about war to other parts of the world. Still, in these wars people die. Still, in these wars suffer the most vulnerable. It is these wars where more groups of refugees knocking our doors are coming from.
All this is not any, even the tiniest justification for Russia attacking independent Ukraine. Anyone who seeks justification for Russian brutal assault in American wars – is being delirious. Having realised the proximity of this war, it is worth waking up from a more prolonged dream of European peace.
Dream of people’s simple assessments
The more politics become a game of identities – reclusive, unable to make crossovers or dialogue – the easier it is to tag the opponents with the “pure evil” label. We can see it not only here in Poland, but also on the international stage. Events such as the Russian attack on Ukraine state “checking” to these labels.
It appears that Orban’s supporters are being forced to turn their blind eyes even more, or to finally notice his pro-Putin orientation.
It is therefore hard not to support Boris Johnson who, as one of the few Western leaders, has made it explicitly and rightly clear since the beginning: Russia has committed an act of barbarity, we should respond and support Ukraine. To support him, we need not forget after all that this is the same Johnson who has a history of lies, ridiculous decisions, and shares responsibility for Brexit.
It is also hard not support Recep Erdogan. Indeed, on the occasion of the invasion of Ukraine he is playing out his dealings with Russia and Putin from the Syrian front and the couple of other areas of the political conflict. He is an autocrat stifling freedom of speech and the opposition, engaged in heinous politics against the Kurds. At the same time, these are the Turkish troops that with particular actions actually enhance the Ukrainian defence by blocking the Russian fleet in the Black Sea. It is not only about sending weapons or money – it is a real commitment of Turkish soldiers made in full awareness that no reasonable person would battle the Turkish army – powerful, large, well-equipped.
For the Polish left in turn, it might be difficult to watch prominent activist and leftist thinkers around the world such as Naomi Klein, Noam Chomsky, Janis Warufakis, Jeremy Corbyn, or Marianna Mazzucato talking nonsense.
The reaction of Vatican and the Pope Francis is also disappointing – over-diplomatic, cautious, and lenient.
There are obviously people who act exactly the way one might have expected. Janusz Korwin-Mikke and Grzegorz Braun still remain pro-Kremlin dorks, the same way they babble nonsense on other matters. There are some who keep their wits about themselves and human dignity in this matter, likewise in other. People, however, do not look at things as a package. Sometimes sensible views on the effects of American imperialism do not really have any bearing on fair assessment of its Russian counterpart. Interesting economic ideas do not always coincide with a rational assessment of the Putin’s criminal politics. The capability for noticing the banditry of Russian actions does not have to be preceded by a successful political career with no black marks.
Today we get to build alliances with people that have been hardly likely to take to, and criticise those who we have time after time got along with. May we remember that lesson as well.
Dream of human nature metamorphosis
It is a dream similar to Fukuyama’s delusions about the end of history – rightly reconsidered by him a long time ago. Similarly popular and deluding author in recent years has been Yuval Noah Harari. The author of widely read bestsellers in which, on several hundred pages, he attempts to describe the mysteries of the world – partly based on bypassing entire areas and historical threads – he claimed that humanity is on a course to eliminate wars. He also rehearsed – the above-mentioned – myth about 70 years of peace. Many of foregoing and contemporary ongoing wars did not change his mind, just as much as the fact that – according to the data from Uppsala Conflict Data Program – in 2020 five percent more people died as a result of the hostilities than the year before. The records of the same organisation show that the number of conflicts has been gradually increasing since 2010.
Interestingly enough, it is the Russian invasion of Ukraine that managed to change Harari’s beliefs. In the pages of “The Economist” he called it a gateway to change the direction of human history.
It would be more accurately dubbed as a clock for those who have not noticed the trends which began not a few days, but several years ago. Maybe this time the alarm went off more audibly because it was closer. It is also worth snapping out of this dream, since it does not seem the hostilities in many world regions are going to be de-escalated, while the increase in the number of wars over resources – related to the climate disaster – can rather intensify these trends than soften them. We should think what to do about it instead of dreaming over-optimistic, because detached from reality, visions for the future.
Dream of Polish national vices
One more thing can be clearly seen today. The reluctance of the Polish society to help war refugees does not follow from primal racism, xenophobia, or indifference. This is a simple diagnosis which – as any sloppily written argument – will work in relation to a small number of Polish women and men. It does not explain, however, the attitude of the majority of our community. Why do Polish women and men have en masse been against accepting refugees from Syria, North African countries, Yemen, Afghanistan, and now they collectively endorse accepting refugees from Ukraine?
There are a few answers, but none of them is comprehensive enough to fall into the category of “national vices”.
The first one concerns the proximity of events that were the signal for flight. It is happening just behind our border. The second one concerns so-called cultural and linguistic proximity between Ukrainians and Poles.
The third cause, however, seems to be the most important – related all in all to the others. The closer the events that cause exile happen, their dramatic nature can be more explicitly seen. What is more, even for well-organised Russian propaganda – which can be seen in Polish social media – it is hard to generate negative feelings against Ukrainians heroically holding out, their families, and fleeing civilians. The war in Syria or Yemen is not anything less horrible than that in Ukraine. It is less palpable though.
Furthermore, what is also critical, it is impossible in case of Ukrainian refugees to unleash a barrage of pseudo-arguments on where and when they should or where and when they have no right to apply for international protection. It is perfectly obvious they are doing it in Poland.
Finally – this time the machine putting off arriving to Poland refugees was not launched. The authorities are urging to help and trying to facilitate it side by side with the opposition, local governments, and community organisations. One cannot make political profit in Poland out of dissent against accepting refugees. What a great fit is that for us means that the reflexive sympathy – which was present and apparent in the research when the migration crisis first began in 2015! – would be extremely difficult to dispatch, even if someone tried to do so.
It is not nationalism, not xenophobia, not prejudice that has had the pivotal role in triggering the fear against accepting refugees in Poland after 2015. If those were key factors, far stronger – and not fringe – would be the passive attitude towards Ukrainians in the name of longstanding injuries and complex history of relations between our nations. This is not the case – similar attitude is shared by few extremist groups. The vast majority of political and social forces and Polish citizens alike open their arms to the refugees. The extent of social mobilisation is enormous.
These were therefore not the “national vices” that have been critical to the attitude of Polish community after 2015, but – formerly characterised on our pages – the methodical campaign of fear management which various political circles took part in, with Law and Justice (PiS) party at the head, part of the media, and a whole spectrum of social media accounts. These accounts belonged partly to the Russian Internet trolls who are trying today to spread the pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian agenda, and without the government’s and traditional media support remain powerless on a wider scale.
It also shows that in 2015 there was probably an alternative to the later trajectory of the public mood. Regrettably, it did not enjoy the support of any powers or advocates who could have helped implement it. The determining factor was the fear of the upcoming parliamentary elections, opportunism, and lack of courage for the complex legal, historical, and geopolitical matters to be explained with intelligible language. One must realise this desistance so as not to repeat these mistakes in the future.
We slept through that time then. It is worth trying to make use of the present to ignite more openness to men and women refugees from all directions, not only from Ukraine, while even today some people’s intentions to do exactly the opposite can be seen: to depict the refugees from Ukraine as “the real ones”, “the ones that really need help” (and there you go: Poland is open to them!), as opposed to “the usurpers” and “illegal economic migrants” from the Middle East and North Africa whom we should always defend ourselves from. That would be essentially an offence to the first and the latter honour. Helping refugees is not about public auction of their misery.
In all these matters the awakening might be as much sudden as short-lived. We like to (I do) sleep. It is easier to live when the reality does not hurt that much. May there will be something left from the awakening, benefitting, even partially, first and foremost Ukraine, secondly Poland, finally – all over Europe.
Ignacy Dudkiewicz – philosopher, bioethicist, publicist. Editor-in-chief of the magazine Kontakt, published in Poland (www.magazynkontakt.pl).
Translated from Polish to English by Sebastian Ruta.