An Interview with Wlodzimierz Zawadzki: Poland: Is There Life After Communism?
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One afternoon in November, 1995, Paul Kobrak, editor of the Journal, and Pauline Gianoplus, a candidate in Sociology, met with Zawadn his office in Randall Labs. They discussed his work as a physicist and writer, his thoughts on life in Poland before and after the collapse of communism, and the growing influence of American mass culture in Eastern Europe.
J: What inspired you, a theoretical physicist, to write a novel?
Zawadzki: I began to write Grand Inquisitor in 1985. With this book I try to “settle accounts” with communism. Communism was like somebody hitting you in the face, and you can’t hit him back. When I went home and wrote something against the communists, I simply felt better — it was a way to resist. In addition, I hoped that publishing the novel, underground, would be a real event in the Cold War between opposition and regime. It didnt work out that way because communism collapsed in the meantime.
J: Could you please describe the plot for our readers?
Zawadzki: Sabina, a young East German historian is writing her dissertation on Marxism and comes across a lost manuscript from the end of Marx’s life. In this document Marx expresses some doubts about the future communist state. He imagines a society where so many things are monopolized, where workers sell their labor only to the state. If the authorities control everything, he wonders, wouldn’t they be tempted to impose a censorship, something Marx was concerned with in 19th-century Europe. Then there is a Polish character, Andrzej, a mathematician and an anti-communist, who is very much like me. Via him I could “sell” some of my life experiences. After a conference in West Berlin, Andrzej visits Sabina in the East, and there is a love story between them. She shows him Marx’s manuscript and he is the first one to realize that this could be “ideological dynamite” against communism. He proposes to smuggle the manuscript to the West. But Sabina is reluctant; her father has been a communist since before World War II, fighting all his life for the system, and she could never betray him.
Gianoplus: Sabina’s family story as well has elements of autobiography for you, does it not?
Zawadzki: Yes. Both of my parents and many family friends were pre-war communists, so I was able to portray these characters fairly well. Thus, Sabina does not agree with Andrzej’s ploy. Instead, she goes to her father, who tells his superiors of the document. Then Sabina’s father undergoes the humility of a house search, despite his long loyalty to communism. Broken, he suffers a heart attack. The intrigue goes higher and higher, becoming an affair of state, as Russian and German apparatchiks struggle over a missing copy of Marx’s manuscript. Clearly, there is no happy ending.
Gianoplus: Much of the story takes place in Germany. Wouldn’t it have been easier to describe action taking place in Poland?
Zawadzki: Well, I wanted to be accurate, and Marx wrote in German. To get to know East Berlin, I would get myself invited to conferences in West Berlin, then on returning, I would stay for a day or two in the eastern sector, walking around and taking notes, researching my novel without anybody knowing — using my physics to write my literature.
J: Can you compare science under communism and after?
Zawadzki: For many scholars — historians, philosophers, economists — it is like night and day: night before and day now, simply because you may publish anything and say anything without censorship. But in the natural sciences it is different. Under communism, no one could understand what we we’re saying, and we published everything in Western journals anyway. Our science was partly propaganda; when we attended conferences in the West we served as evidence that the Polish regime was civilized. Some communists even imagined that if our science was good enough, it might overcome the low productivity of their system. So we did not really suffer under censorship or travel restrictions. In terms of money, it was actually better for us then than it is now. Before, it took two months of paperwork to get approval to go to a conference, but I would get the ticket. Now, I can go tomorrow, but nobody gives me a ticket. Still, I would never go back to those bad old times.
Gianoplus: I know of many sociologists in Poland who hold three different jobs to make ends meet. They are teaching, consulting on public opinion research....
Zawadzki: My way of getting a decent standard of living in Poland is to work abroad from time to time. But my main reason to travel has been to gain access to yet-unpublished physical data.
J: What motivated you to become a physicist?
Zawadzki: In high school I did well in the hard sciences and physics looked like a glamorous career. It promised a young Pole the autonomy of thinking and foreign travel. I got my masters degree in experimental physics, but realized that Poland did not have the experimental infrastructure for me to be competitive internationally. So I began to drift towards theory. The communist system produced many good theoretical physicists — also mathematicians, pianists and chess players — fields that require little material investment. Looking back, I still believe physics was a good choice for me.
J: When you came to M.I.T. in 1965 at the age of 26, what were your first impressions of the U.S.?
Zawadzki: When I got to Cambridge I began to question some of the things the communists were telling us. One thing they said seemed logical — “In capitalism, a man to a man is like a wolf” — in a system with so much competition, people would be hostile to each other. But I quickly realized that people were more hostile to each other in Poland than in the United States. Here people can compete, and that is healthier than walking around frustrated.
Also I was surprised at how things worked so well in the U.S. At M.I.T. they used to show movies on the weekend. The first time I went, there was a 50-yard line of people waiting to buy tickets. There were many long lines in Poland, but I would never go to the end. I would try to cheat, cut in front. But I saw the American kids go to the end and wait. Ten minutes before the movie was to start, they sold the whole line just like that, without fanfare, without assigning seats. Fantastic, I thought. I never forgot that lesson.
J: Thirty years later, what are your first impressions of Ann Arbor?
Zawadzki: Ann Arbor is a bit like Disneyland. I feel like Gulliver in the Land of Kids. It’s a paradise on earth, it’s everything I love: huge book stores, good coffee, people learning; but its not quite real.
J: What would make Ann Arbor real?
Zawadzki: Well, seeing middle-aged people, old people, poor people. Seeing babies, thats what makes a place real. Ann Arbor is more a machine for learning and teaching. But there is a flip- side to this coin: everybody is always doing his work. People don’t have time for each other. Often they pass and don’t even look at each other.
Gianoplus: When I was in Poland last year, I also got the sense that people there no longer have time to talk.
Zawadzki: This must be the incoming capitalism. But let me tell you my first impressions of Poland when I would return from abroad during communist times, something I mention in one of my poems. From the moment I got to the border I would feel like a suspect. The system was so inefficient, as if everybody was scheming against everybody else. I say in my poem: after a few days, I am getting used to it, I can’t see it anymore. Am I joining the conspiracy?
J: Is there a problem in Poland today with people not following the rules, not waiting for their place in line so to speak?
Zawadzki: We are not used to having a constitution, or a rule of law. For so long, we simply did not have them.
J: Didn’t you have to obey the communist rule of law before 1989?
Zawadzki: Officially yes, but as I said, everyone was always scheming around the law. The communists were not respected. In Poland, we have this tradition of resistance, 200 years of it. All our romantic poetry is written against one oppressor or another, and everybody is raised on that poetry. Then, all of a sudden, we are independent and this poetry is not valid anymore — 1989 was a real revolution which nobody is prepared to face.
J: How might this Polish poetry of resistance be used in a constitutional democracy?
Zawadzki: As we enter a normal situation, I only hope that this poetry can be reduced to its normal size — in other words, to poetry. Before it was a way to survive, to resist, a way to feel in everyday life. It was wisdom and philosophy and literature at the same time.
J: After so much resistance, how do Poles look back on the last 50 years under communism?
Zawadzki: This is a very important problem. Should we simply say that this was completely lost time, like many people on the so-called Right would tell you. However, that we can so quickly join Western Europe means these 50 years were good for something. Poland is now relatively well-educated, which it wasn’t before the Second World War. Personally, I learned a lot of physics, I wrote my book and I wrote my poems, I had friends and we had good times together. For me it’s not lost time, and I think this is true for a lot of people.
J: What was the Polish attitude towards the Russians during Soviet domination?
Zawadzki: The Russians were in Poland for 45 years. There weren’t any Russian soldiers in the streets, but they were there and everybody knew it. The Polish way to deal with this, a very strange but effective way I think, was not to notice the Russians. We were facing the West, with our backs to the East, pretending there was a big hole behind us. To us, the first countries to the east were Afghanistan and Japan. Afghanistan because it fought the Soviets, and Japan because they were making beautiful cars. In one of my poems I call Afghanistan, “our neighbor in misfortune.”
Gianoplus: And now that their rule is over, how are other people, as you say, “settling accounts” with the communists?
Zawadzki: Many Poles tend to deal with communism on an emotional level. They say, “I will never vote for a post-communist,” although apparently many did in the last presidential election. There was a revolution, but it happened too quickly, without blood, and the new reality is nothing like what we expected. We have problems with our past and we have problems with our freedom.
Gianoplus: How do you feel about this freedom when you walk down Marszalkowska Street in central Warsaw and you see Domino’s Pizza, McDonalds and Burger King there?
Zawadzki: Yes, the American mass culture is attacking us on all fronts. Blue jeans, baseball hats, fast food, pop music, American movies and sitcoms are everywhere, even in France although the French tend to be a bit snooty. Part of American culture’s influence is due to the big money behind it, but there is more to it. This mass culture is primarily directed at young people. The Polish youth buy it and so does everyone else. Everyone was young once so the wider appeal is understandable.
I have, however, two problems with American mass culture, maybe three. First, it bothers me to be treated as a child when I am not a child any more. Second, this type of culture channels people into certain behaviors, making them more uniform. Third, I would like to have a choice. Ninety percent of the movies shown in Warsaw these days are American, so I do not have much choice. And when I look at the kids in Ann Arbor I wonder — don’t they have a choice, or don’t they want to choose? Erich Fromm long ago called this, “Escape from Freedom.”
I should add that I wear blue jeans, I dig jazz and rock and roll, and I have even been saved from starvation at McDonalds — in Montpelier, in Warsaw, even in Ann Arbor.
J: And Soviet domination protected you from this invasion?
Zawadzki: Certainly. Now for good or bad we are joining the global culture. And that means more Americanization.
J: So how would you wish your fellow Poles to confront this global culture?
Zawadzki: I would wish my fellow Poles to become an enlightened European nation and state. But we should not try to be like everybody else. In particular, we should not try to become Americans.
Gianoplus: But what makes Poles Polish?
Zawadzki: Tradition of course, history and culture, like any other nation. We should preserve that, especially our language, without so easily accepting all kinds of Americanisms. I enjoy speaking English, but when I speak Polish it should be Polish.
J: What do you mean when you say “enlightened European nation”?
Zawadzki: I mean not too strongly dominated by the church. I also mean not wild capitalism — taking care of, or at least giving opportunities to, poor people — not, as the French say, a societé à deux vitesses, with one speed for the smart and rich, another for the rest. Enlightened also means well-educated, caring about culture and science.
Gianoplus: What about European?
Zawadzki: The Polish tradition is to look to Western Europe. For Catholics it is to look to Rome, but we also look to France. When I think of what Poland is capable of, I think France should be our horizon. It is a country comparable to ours, in terms of territory and population, but more fortunate in their history. We need less vodka and more wine, if you see what I mean.
J: Now that communism is over, how would you have your fellow Poles understand their situation historically?
Zawadzki: I am personally very proud of the historical victory we accomplished, bringing down communism. It is a dramatic change, not only for us but also for Europe and the rest of the world. This however is not the feeling that prevails in the country today.
Many people thought everything was going to be cream and peaches after communism. But it is not. Personally, I value the freedom. But for many people, especially for people with children, it has been very hard financially. Communism was certainly diasastrous for our souls, yet for our bodies, some say, it was better. Before 1989 people didn’t feel poor, there was nothing to buy in the stores. Now, the stores are full and the temptation is there. Many are unemployed, and that’s another situation we didn’t know before. Still, the country is advancing, even if the final shape is not clear yet.
J: In the 1980s you were an active supporter of Solidarity and your literature has also played an important social role. What kind of role do you see for yourself in Poland’s future?
Zawadzki: Personally, I felt the duty to stay in Poland more strongly during communism than I do now. The enemy was there, we resisted it, and some had the courage to fight it. We used to be oppressed and brave, now we are just poor. Like the milkman says in Fiddler on the Roof, there’s no shame in being poor, but there’s no honor either. Now Poland has to get better organized and more productive and this is not particularly exciting.
If I see any role for myself in this effort, it is to share my knowledge about the world, about the U.S., so we may follow your successes and avoid your pitfalls. Poland has all the elements to be a “good” country: natural resources, a vital population, even its geographic location between East and West could be used to advantage. All we lack are good leaders. I do hope they appear one of these days.
Wlodzimierz Zawadzki is a physicist, writer and public intellectual in his native Poland. In Fall 1995, he was the International Institute’s Distinguished Visiting Professor in the Sciences and Engineering, teaching a graduate course on his field of expertise, the theory of semi-conductors.
Zawadzki was born in Poland in 1939 and lived in Soviet Russia during the Nazi occupation. After the war, his family returned to Poland, but both physics and curiosity motivated travel away from Eastern Europe. He taught at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology in the mid-1960s, and in the 1970s at the École Normale Supérieure in Paris. Currently he is Professor at the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw, and is author of over 150 published scientific articles.
In 1980 Zawadzki was a signatory to a letter from prominent Polish intellectuals supporting the rights of striking workers in the Gdansk shipyards. As the Solidarity movement shook Polish society and challenged Communist rule, Zawadzki began to spend his evenings writing poetry and then a novel, Wielki Inkwizytor (Grand Inquisitor) , published in Poland in 1993. He has also published two volumes of poetry, Wanka-Wstanka , and Szekspir Socjalu . Currently he is an analyst for the leading Polish weekly, Polityka .