A Spring Constitutional

Well, there’s no denying it now: it’s springtime in Krakow. As the trees blossom and birdsong fills the air, we yawn, rub the winter sleep from our eyes and begin to stretch our legs. The sun caresses receptive skin and thoughts of long, balmy Cracovian nights return: summer in the city.

But after stretching the legs, some think also of stretching their wings; book a holiday perhaps, or maybe a longer-term change of scenery. It’s a big world, after all, and nobody’s getting any younger.

It’s decision time for many. Foreign students as well as foreign teachers see the end of the semester approaching and assess their situation. What do they want and can Poland provide it? Living in a foreign country is an uncertain, frustrating, rewarding business. The longer you stay, the more you understand and come to like it, but the harder it becomes to leave. It?s like the old dilemma: how long do you hold onto a rising balloon before you let go? Personally, the longer I stay in Poland, the more I like the place. Slowly, I?m beginning to understand how things work, and perhaps how they got to be like that in the first place. Those dark spots in my mind once frequented by ignorance and Cold War stereotypes are being replaced by shiny new blocks of knowledge and understanding.

For example, Poland, like many countries, celebrates Labour Day on May 1st. How the Communists loved to march and celebrate the People and the Party! But did you ever hear about May 3rd? Not a day of forced marches and false loyalty, but a day of genuine Polish pride. For May 3rd marks the passing of the Polish Constitution (passed on 3rd May 1791 and celebrated every year on that day). The Party wasn’t so keen on that one and banned its observance in 1951, even though it was only the second constitution in the world, after the American Constitution, making it the first in Europe. Impressive. Can’t remember being taught that at school.

Amongst its many provisions, the Constitution gave greater rights and legal protection to both townspeople and serfs, as well as limiting the power of the king by dividing power between the government (sejm), the courts and the monarchy. In so doing, Poland acted as a beacon for the progressive and democratic European movements, both then and throughout the nineteenth century. Revolutionaries and philosophers toasted the Polish Constitution across Europe; Edmund Burke, for example, described it as “the noblest benefit received by any nation at any time… Stanislaw II [the Polish king] has earned a place among the greatest kings and statesmen in history.” Not bad for a country variously regarded in more modern times as: a Russian protectorate, a buffer state, a corridor, lebensraum.

However, the free and First Polish Republic (the largest and one of the most progressive nation-states of the time) was short-lived, soon to be followed by three separate partitions (landgrabs by avaricious neighbouring states, worried about the resurgence of a strong Poland and the emergence of nascent democracy). But this seed of modernization and democracy had been planted, in Poland and throughout the whole of Europe. For over two hundred years, through foreign occupations, violent suppressions and Polish uprisings, Polish nationalists rallied around the Polish Constitution and May 3rd as symbols of hope, struggle and victory; a victory, of course, ultimately won and which helped pave the way for the re-democratisation of Eastern Europe.

Poland has a long and distinguished history. But what of the future? Its place in, and contribution to, the world, it seems, may yet surprise us all.

John Marshall also writes for, and appears on, “Ex-Pat Radio”: Sunday 10am – 12am, 102.4FM or via www.radioalfa.pl

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