Stepping Out of Shadow Cast By The Empire

Paweł Rojek*

On 26 February 2022, two days after the launch of the Russia’s aggression against Ukraine, the website of the RIA-Novosti, the Russian government news agency published an article written by Petr Akopov titled ”Russia’s Offensive and the New World”. Its author proclaimed triumphantly that Russia’s just-accomplished ”return to its historical space” also signified its return ”to its position in the world”, i.e. ”the start of a new era” and even the arrival of a „new world”. The text appeared on the news agency’s website at 8.00 a.m. punctually. It was probably scheduled to be published automatically in advance on the day when, as naively expected, Russia would have already occupied the whole of Ukraine.  A few minutes later, the article was deleted on the website. Even by the Russian propaganda standards, the Akopov’s ecstatic vision detached too grossly from the frontline reality. As it turned out, this was only the beginning of a tough war that has continued to date. However, a few moments of presence on the RIA Novosti website was enough for this unfortunate article to be noticed by foreign media. Soon, Akopov’s text was being cited around the world as a spectacular example of Russian propaganda painful collision with the Ukrainian reality.

The publication and deletion of the article allows to understand what is actually going on in Russia and Ukraine at the moment. In this paper, I would like to consider what could be the implications for the Polish identity. For it seems that we are witnessing the situation where the Russian imperialism era, which has lasted for several hundred years, is definitely coming to an end. The Russian empire has stigmatised deeply the Polish history. The end of Russia that we have known should therefore also lead to a redefinition of the Polish identity.

First and foremost I will do my best to reconstruct, on the grounds of the Akopov’s article, what the Russian military operation was supposed to be, and then I will make an effort to show what it actually turned out to be – thanks to the heroic determination of the Ukrainians. It seems that whatever the final outcome of the on-going military confrontation will be, we are dealing with the ultimate failure of the Russian imperial project. For, as a result of this war, Russia has lost all the symbolic resources it seemed to have at its disposal until recently, which were necessary to build any sustainable integration projects. This means, rather paradoxically, that the war in Ukraine is the ultimate end rather than the Russian imperialism revival. An option that, in the short-term, Russia will lose the remnants of its political, economic, military and, above all, symbolic power for many generations should therefore be seriously considered. It looks as if Russia has come full circle and is returning to its position that existed prior to mid-17th century. In the second part of the paper I will dwell upon the question of what consequences such an event may have not only for Polish politics and economy, but above all for the Polish culture. To a large extent, the Polish identity to date has been defined by its attitude towards Russia. I will try to prove my point by referring to the discussion between Jarosław Marek Rymkiewicz and Maria Janion, which is crucial for contemporary Polish culture. It seems to me that the fall of the Russian empire may enable us to free ourselves from the dilemma between the preservation of Romantic identity postulated by Rymkiewicz and its fundamental deconstruction proposed by Janion. The exit from the shadow cast by the empire, I believe, opens up great opportunities for redefinition of the Polish identity. The final collapse of the imagined Russian empire may finally allow us to strike out for spiritual independence.

Fall of Empire

In his famous article, Peter Akopov laid the ideological foundations for the Russian assault on Ukraine in an exceptionally clear and lucid manner. As I believe, his vision is quite representative of the Kremlin’s official ideology. Similar threads can be found in numerous Putin’s or Lavrov’s statements, and have constantly been present in the Russian propaganda. The merit of the article is that these threads are linked into a certain coherent whole that allows us to reconstruct the reasoning of the Russian elites.

First and foremost, Akopov admits that the strike on Ukraine was not merely pre-emptive. The Russian propaganda often points out that the war was actually provoked by the Western countries that wanted to take advantage of Ukraine and use it as a threat to Russia. An attack on Ukraine would therefore in fact be an act of self-defence of Russia. As is well known, such a rather weasel word is sometimes accepted with understanding even outside Russia. Akopov does not deny this pragmatic dimension of the war operation. Indeed, as he puts it, Ukraine has recently become „the outpost of the Western pressure on us’ and had to be neutralised. However, he emphasizes clearly that the Russian operation in Ukraine is about something far more important than simply the neutralisation of a potential military threat.

According to Akopov, the major driver of Russian behaviour were not strategic calculations, but a burning desire to overcome the humiliating ”complex of a divided nation”. As a result of the assault on Ukraine, he says, ”Russia is rebuilding its unity” and „the 1991 tragedy and the unnatural dislocations caused by that tragedy are being overcome’. Russia’s objective, therefore, is to reunite a nation that was artificially divided between three states after the USSR collapse. This is not just to protect Russian citizens living abroad, but rather to recognise that both Belarusians and Ukrainians are in fact, along with Russians, belong to a single great nation. As Akopov puts it, ”Russia is rebuilding its historical completeness by gathering together the Russian world (русский мир), the Russian people (русский народ), in all its completeness for the Velikorussians, Byelorussians and Malorussians (великороссов, белорусов и малороссов). The historical terms “Velikorussians”, “Byelorussians” and “Malorussians” here obviously imply the contemporary Russians, Byelorussians and Ukrainians. The basis of the war with Ukraine, as well as the integration with Belorussia, is thus the conviction that the peoples in all these countries actually belong to a single nation, which should live in a single state.

Such definition of the Russian policy goals is a kind of breakthrough in the Russian history, since Russia was for centuries an empire rather than a nation-state. An empire is based on a certain universal vision in which different nations can find roles for themselves. As I pointed out in my book titled  ”The Curse of Empire”, Russia has in the past defined itself, for instance, as a state defending Orthodox Church, uniting Slavic peoples or implementing the utopian vision of Marxism-Leninism. In each of its incarnations, the Russian empire had, at least officially, a distinctly supranational character. This enabled the conquered peoples to somehow justify their subordination. The former Tsar-led empire collapsed precisely because it adopted a more nationalist course. Now, however, the official foundation for the aggression is not any universalist ideology, but simply a desire to unite an allegedly divided nation. This fundamental ideological shift is usually overlooked by commentators who believe that the war in Ukraine is a step towards the restoration of the Soviet Union. Although Akopov mentions the ”1991 tragedy”, obviously referring to the Putin’s famous statement made in 2005 calling the collapse of the USSR ‘the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of 20th century’, overcoming this tragedy, according to him, boils down not to the reintegration of the many peoples living in the former Soviet republics, but only in the reunification of the divided Russian nation. In the past, the Soviet Union, as its anthem proclaimed, was supposed to embrace the entire ”human race”. Today, Russia’s stated objective is only to embrace the ”Russian world”.

Thus it seems that a fundamental shift from imperialism to nationalism is taking place now in Russia. The former vision of a supranational community is more or less consciously being replaced by an image of national unity. Nationalism, however, excludes imperialism. The foundation of the empire’s power is inclusiveness, allowing for the inclusion of many more nationalities. The ideology of the „Russian world” is too exclusive to base any broader inclusive project on it. However, nationalism can sometimes be no less aggressive than imperialism. In history, the transition from an imperial to a national system has often been linked precisely to the violence escalation. The transformation of the Ottoman Empire into a national Turkey involved the Armenian genocide. I believe, we are dealing with a similar process in Russia today. The Russians themselves, moreover, may not be clear about what they are actually doing. Many of them may think that they are actually rebuilding a lost empire. The war footage shows the Russian soldiers on tanks displaying Soviet flags pulled from some warehouses. The logic, however, is inexorable. Fighting in the name of the ”Russian world’ precludes, in the long-time perspective, the emergence of any truly imperial, i.e. supranational community.

The Akopov’s article was hastily deleted from the RIA Novosti website. As it turned out, even such a project of a ‘Russian world’, truncated compared to the old imperial traditions, suffered an embarrassing defeat in Ukraine. As it turned out, the idea not only failed to generate the expected interest, but aroused violent resistance from those to whom it was addressed. The Russian-speaking citizens of eastern Ukraine, who are, in addition, often believers in the Ukrainian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, and thus seemingly ideal inhabitants of the Russian world, instead of welcoming their liberators with bread and salt, started shooting at them with javelins, anti-tank missile systems. It turned out that they did not want at all to belong to the new national community built by the Russians. The widespread resistance of the Ukrainian people against Russian aggression completely discredits the Kremlin’s ideology. It is as if the Germans annexing the Sudetenland in 1938 met with heroic resistance from the German-speaking citizens of Czechoslovakia who lived there. Thus, it appears that the ideological project of the Russian world has simply failed. The ideological failure is far more important than the Russian army’s abysmal equipment or inept command. Without some effective ideas, Russian actions simply become an escalation of senseless violence. It seems, therefore, that we are in fact witnessing not only the final end of the Russian imperial project, but also the failure of the much more modest nationalist project replacing it.

Redefinition of Polish identity

Over the last two hundred years the Polish identity has been shaped in the shadow cast by the Russian empire. The Russia’s impact on Polish culture has been twofold, positive and negative. The positive one turned out to be quite small at the end of the day, although it should not be underestimated. After all, in every generation there were projects to bring Polish identity closer to Russian identity. Shortly after the Partitions, a part of the Polish elite felt that after the collapse of Polish statehood, the Polish identity should simply become one variant of the dominant Russian identity. Later on, some Poles found themselves in the vision of a Slavic community promoted by the Russian empire. Finally, after the communist revolution, there was no shortage of those willing to cooperate with the new Soviet empire.

For most Poles, however, such attempts to assimilate Russian identity had the signs of a national treason. Even if political subordination was sometimes accepted, the cultural differences between Poles and Russians were at least emphasised with insistence. Polish Romanticism in particular was opposed to the Russian tyranny. It was precisely this negative reference to Russia that had an enormous impact on the Polish identity. In this manner, the negative image of Russia unexpectedly became a part of our positive vision of Poland.

This leads to a paradox. The Polish identity, which was formed during the partitions, bears the stigma of environment in which it was created. For this reason, the long-awaited regaining of independence and the removal of external threats may lead to its crisis. In particular, if its constitutive component is a reference to the Russian threat, its possible permanent disappearance poses a mortal threat to the conventional Polish identity. This leads to a peculiar dilemma: conventional Polish identity can only be recognised if the reality of the Russian threat is acknowledged at the same time, while mental liberation from Russia requires a radical redefinition of the Polish identity. In both cases, it turns out that the fate of Polish culture depends on the fate of the Russian empire.

This is by no means some fanciful intellectual construction. As I will now attempt to prove, this dilemma can be found in the writings of two recently deceased eminent experts on the Polish Romanticism, Jarosław Marek Rymkiewicz and Maria Janion. These experts in many ways embody two visions of the Polish identity that are usually opposed to each other. Moreover, they both engaged in public life, becoming symbols of two opposing political camps in recent years. An analysis of their views may therefore help to understand the cultural circumstances in which we are. Perhaps it will also allow to formulate some kind of alternative solution.

Jarosław Marek Rymkiewicz, in a 1994 interview with Adam Poprawa, stated unequivocally: “Our modern Polish identity has always been constituted negatively: we have been such Poles and not other Poles, because we faced the monster that called itself an empire. […] Our Polish identity is a reaction to the aggression of this empire. It was shaped in a negative manner: without the empire, the Polish identity would have had to be and would certainly have been something completely different, it would have had to be reorganised somehow, transformed. But just somehow, that is, in a way unthinkable for me”. Such an account of the Polish identity would of course lead to fatal hardship in the event of the unexpected disappearance of the Russian threat. The conventional Polish identity would then prove to be an unnecessary, anachronic prop. Rymkiewicz was well aware of that. He went on: “If we say that the empire has already disintegrated, that this monster is no longer there and never will be, that there is a hole or an ocean beyond our eastern border, well, then indeed Part III of the poetic drama Dziady (Forefathers’ Eve), national epic poem Pan Tadeusz, the poem To a Polish Mother, as well as Zygmunt Krasiński’s The Undivine Comedy, and Mochnacki’s “The Insurrection of the Polish Nation in the Years 1830 and 1831” are works from which we might be able to extract something else, but in fact works that are probably redundant for us.” Rymkiewicz, however, was not worried about such a prospect. Since in his opinion, Russia will always be a threat to Poland. In an interview for the Życie Warszawy daily in 1995, he said in straightforward manner: “we all (except the notorious idiots) know this well: Russia will be an empire or there will be no empire at all. Since it is hard to visualise non-existent Russia (where would the Russians go then?), it must be recognised that Russia will soon become a great, powerful empire again”. Thus the romantic model of the Polish identity turns out to be still relevant, because the Polish nation position has changed little since the times of partitions. Just as before, we are threatened by the “eastern ways of existence”, and so just as before we need the great works of Romanticism protecting us from them. Paradoxically, therefore, the guarantor of the permanence of the Polish Romantic canon turns out to be the vitality of Russian imperialism.

Maria Janion also recognised the negative nature of the Polish identity, but regarded it as a dangerous trap. For a long time Poland when its modern identity was formed, suffered from the severe colonial oppression. The oppression disappeared after 1989, but our culture still bears its traces. What is needed, therefore, is a process of liberating Polish identity from the traces of long-term foreign domination. Otherwise, the Polish identity will play an increasingly negative role in the psyche of consecutive generations.

What is the postcolonial stigma of the Polish identity? As Sławomir Mrożek once put it nicely, the Poles are west of the east and east of the west. On the one hand, we define our attitude towards the Russians as negative, while on the other, we ourselves are negatively defined by the Europeans. As Janion states in Amazing Slavdom, ‘We are a post-colonial country, which at the same time – as sometimes happens – feels superiority towards its coloniser, Russia. At this point we felt and continue to feel Europe struggling against Asian barbarism. […] But, being a post-colonial country, we are not, after all, true Europeans, because […] the Russian-Slavic bastardisation has exerted influence on us. […]. This is what makes our life unbearable – in the vicious circle of domination, imposition, slavery, exaltation and humiliation, the constant struggle for recognition of some mythical excellence and superiority, the constant display of pride and the desire to exaltate to others.” The Polish identity, if it is to survive in the modern world, must break out of this cursed dialectic of superiority and inferiority. This, however, requires the formulation of a ”different Polish imaginarium” that could ”overcome the remnants of national megalomania inherited from messianism”, carry out a ”deconstruction of the Polish romantic-war myth”, whose ”fundamental ingredient” is ”Polish, i.e. European, superiority over Russia”.

Janion suggests that the transformation of the Polish identity can be attained by rediscovering our Slavic heritage. The Poles have rarely referred to it to date, as it differentiates dangerously us from the desired European identity and brings us closer to the undesirable Russian identity. However, as Janion points out, it is precisely the detachment from Slavic roots that has pushed us into the vicious circle of subordination and domination. So we can break out of it by recognising, accepting and

This, however, requires questioning the cultural boundary between Poland and Russia, constitutive under the former model. As Janion points out, “The assignment to the Slavs may provoke accusations of ”Slavophilism’ or ‘Panslavism”, understood as subordination to the Russian imperialism, which has always was hiding itself behind the slogan of ”Slavic unity”. […] The Poland-Russia problem is revealed here in all its stinging glory. However, I address this problem less spasmodically and with lower demarcation than it is customary in our country”. As Janion suggests, it is worthwhile taking such an identity risk. For the price of giving up our sense of superiority towards the East, we can gain an exemption from our sense of inferiority towards the West. For the feeling of superiority towards Russian culture was necessary in times of slavery, currently it is much more useful to uproot the complexes towards old European nations.

Already in the early 1990s, Maria Janion proclaimed the end of the Romantic paradigm in the Polish culture. The great Romantic narratives that had helped us survive the times of partitions, occupation and communism were no longer needed once Poland regained its independence. The romanticism was to become just a collection of symbols, useful for living out one’s own private existence. Her demand to restore the Slavic heritage was supposed to help deconstruct the old paradigm. Because Janion’s programme was only negative, not positive. She only sought to undermine the dominant Western and Catholic model of the Polish identity, not to replace it with some Eastern, Slavic or pagan model. The incredible Slavdom was only meant to discredit Poland’s own romantic messianism. It was in no way intended as a project to build some new collective identity.

Coming out of the shadow

Is there any other way out of this disastrous entanglement linking the Polish identity to the Russian threat? Are we really destined to choose between maintaining the Polish identity at the price of faith in the empire and giving up traditional identity if the threat disappears? In my opinion, both Rymkiewicz and Janion make a certain common assumption that enables them to derive their cumbersome conclusions. This assumption is the belief that the conventional Polish identity was only a response to the partitions. Both seem to think that the fundamental problem of the Polish literature was only the regaining of independence and that all the visions that were developed at that time were subordinated to this single objective. If this is the case, then indeed the regaining of independence and the disappearance of the external threat leads naturally to the questioning of the Polish identity. For the Polish identity turns out to be only a compensation for the missing subjectivity.

It seems to me, however, that it is possible to look at our Romantic heritage from a different perspective. Certainly Romanticism reflected the conditions in which it arose, but it also seems to have reached out beyond them. As I tried to prove in my book titled ”Liturgy of History. John Paul II and Polish Messianism”, the Polish Romantic Messianism was not only a response to the loss of the State, but also, and perhaps above all, a thrilling vision of building a new cultural, social and political model. The regaining of independence should therefore not so much be the end, but rather the first stage of its implementation. Even if this vision was developed in response to Poland’s historical misfortunes, it definitely went beyond the restitution of lost values. The regaining of independence by Poland was only a side-effect of building the Kingdom of God on earth.

A similar debate is underway with regard to the topicality of the legacy of the Solidarity trade unions. The Solidarity trade unions were set up at a specific place and point in time, and was a response to a specific social, political, economic and geopolitical situation. The Solidarity ideas can therefore easily be seen as the product of certain highly abnormal circumstances. However, it is also possible to see in them a spectacular vision of a radical transformation of reality, inspired, moreover, by the Polish Romanticism, which went beyond the conditions of real socialism, the dictatorship of the proletariat or the Cold War. Under such  circumstances the Solidarity trade union programme still retains its significance also for the contemporary times.

It seems that the Polish Romantic identity understood in such a positive, and not only negative dimension can exist – contrary to Rymkiewicz – without the need for a permanent existential threat. Thus, it does not have to be – contrary to Janion – so deeply deconstructed in order to find its place in the contemporary world. The redefinition of the Polish identity may simply consist in revealing those threads tradition that remain its topicality also in the times of independence. Thus, the collapse of the Russian empire provides a unique opportunity to update the Polish identity. For it opens up a new cultural, economic and political space, which can finally be freely developed.

*Paweł Rojek – a philosopher and sociologist, a lecturer at the Jagiellonian University, author of books on Russia, the Solidarity trade unions and the Polish messianism.

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