Perspectives on Poland: A Slow Summer

The slow news season in Poland is slow in a way that other slow news seasons can only envy. At the annual slow-news awards, popularly known as the Slowies, Poland walks away with gold every time — or it would if it could be bothered to turn up. Nothing happens in Poland in August — nothing at all. If you are incredibly lucky, Madonna might suddenly appear and annoy some Catholics, but that’s rare. The truth is that Poland begins to turn off the lights and close the shutters sometime in early June and nobody is home until September. Exactly why this happens has been the subject of long and intractable debate. In a process akin to the annual migration of majestic herds of wildebeest across the African savannah, the Polish population is drawn to the Baltic coast in long straggling lines of badly-driven Fiats. In the winter the same glazed look of longing comes into their eyes and they all make for Zakopane in the mountains. It’s as if they all, collectively, have to check that these things are still there once a year.

This year, though, there are early stirrings in the leaf mould of last season’s newspapers where the journalists hibernate through the long hard summer. This is to be a capitalized Historic Year. September 2009 is the 70th anniversary of the start of World War II. On September 1st this year Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Angela Merkel are due to join Poland’s Donald Tusk at the site of the first battle of the German invasion of Poland, and of World War II, in Gdańsk.

Among the small but perfectly formed English-language blogging community in Poland there have been mutterings of expectation. “For decades, Germany has consistently atoned for its bringing about the war and for its inhumanly brutal conduct… there’s never been a word of apology from either Soviet or Russian leaders,” wrote Michael Dembinski, a British-Polish blogger of some renown. The problem is this: when Germany invaded Poland in 1939 it had already taken the precaution of concluding a secret pact with Soviet Russia inviting the Red Army to the party. The Soviets duly turned up 16 days later wearing their best invasion clobber and snaffled much of eastern Poland. Known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, this agreement has been less of a thorn and more of a whacking great barbed harpoon in the side of Polish-Russian relations ever since. While Germany has gone to great lengths to confess and dissect its role in starting World War II, Russia barely seems to remember it was there.

By the time you read this it will all be over and we will know if Putin broke down in tears and sobbed for forgiveness. The smart money says he is more likely to break out a tutu and perform Swan Lake than do any such thing. Last month I remarked on the astonishing progress that has been made in Polish-German relations since the war, this month I confess to being equally astonished at the complete lack of progress in Polish-Russian relations. A couple of weeks ago Poland’s Anna Rogowska beat Russia’s Yelena Isinbayeva to pole-vaulting gold at the IAAF World Championships in Athletics in Berlin. Poles often get a mite excited when Polish athletes do well, but a victory over the Russian was too much to bear. Overheard on the tram the next day a couple of jokes caught my attention: “Quick, run home and see if the gas is still connected!” and “What’s that noise? Russian tanks?” A joke is just a joke, but nobody makes remarks like that about German tanks anymore, unless they are Jeremy Clarkson of course.

Jamie Stokes also writes for Polandian.com

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