An elderly man throws faeces at a plaque commemorating the nearly one hundred victims of the air crash that recently killed the incumbent president. Another threatens a group of demonstrators with a (mercifully inactive, as it turns out) grenade. These same demonstrators, calling themselves “Defenders of the Cross”, hurl abuse at priests who have arrived to carry out an agreement between the president and the local archbishop, and vow to die rather than see it implemented. If culture wars are your thing, then Krakowskie Przedmieście, home to both Warsaw University and the Presidential Palace, is the place to be.
On the surface, the battle is over the appropriate form to commemorate the deceased president, Lech Kaczyński. He died in Russia, on the way to commemorate thousands of Polish Army officers murdered in Soviet captivity after Stalin’s invasion of Poland in September 1939 (in coordination with Hitler’s Germany). In life, he was an unpopular, bungling figure, widely (often unfairly) ridiculed and criticised even by political allies. But his death sparked off widespread grieving, with thousands turning out to lay flowers and, in accordance with the Polish tradition to honour the dead, candle-lit lanterns outside the Presidential Palace. The mourning was soon marred by protests when the Roman Catholic Church announced he would be buried at Wawel Cathedral in the historical capital of Krakow, where only kings and the very greatest national heroes had come to rest before him. But it was in those heady days of seemingly all-encompassing grief that a group of Boy Scouts, steeped in patriotism and the Faith, had planted a simple cross outside the Presidential Palace, to be replaced in time by a more “appropriate” commemoration of the deceased.
When President Bronisław Komorowski of the governing Civic Platform (PO) Party, who defeated his dead predecessor’s identical twin, Jarosław Kaczyński of the Law and Justice (PiS) party, in a surprisingly close election, announced the plan to move the cross to a nearby church, he made no mention of what would take its place. Within hours, the Defenders of the Cross had sprung out of nowhere to occupy a few square metres of the pavement around the cross and, with it, the centre of attention of the entire nation. Or, in any case, of its chattering classes.
Some of these chattering classes converged in turn on another spot across the street, Przekąski, Zakąski, an all-night vodka bar favoured by Warsaw’s beautiful people. Following precedent well-established in many countries around the world, these people came to use online social networks, such as Facebook, to organise counter-demonstrations. At one point, apparently on the initiative of a 22-year-old cook from the Warsaw Academy of Fine Arts (as he describes himself), they formed an alternative cross of cans of “Lech”, a beer brand that happens to share the name with the deceased President Kaczyński. It is now fashionable among the people who consider themselves polite society to order a “small cold Lech”, a pun on his diminutive height and, well, the fact he is stone-cold dead. On the “wrong side of the tracks” (or, literally rather than figuratively, on the other side of the street from Przekąski, Zakąski), talk is of Lech Kaczyński’s “martyrdom” and “self-sacrifice” – words used in a rather loose sense, since they usually apply to those who willingly lay down their lives, not victims of air-traffic accidents.
There is little common ground between these camps. The Defenders of the Cross say they are open to compromise: the cross can be moved as soon as President Komorowski undertakes to replace it with a monument to his “slain” predecessor. But conspiracy theories, blaming Prime Minister Donald Tusk in connivance with Russia’s Vladimir Putin for the air crash, abound among them, making such assurances sound a little hollow. More plausible are their complaints about the conduct of the investigation into the causes of the crash: the government has left it entirely in Russian hands, claiming this was an obligation under international treaties. The claim now looks incorrect. That does not, however, justify their wrecking of the agreement between the president and the archbishop of Warsaw, plus the Boy Scouts, to move the cross to a nearby church in a ceremonial procession: the priests who tried to carry it out were physically repelled amid cries of “Judases”.
The protest has an ugly political side. It emerged spontaneously with no sign of PiS inspiration. But Jarosław Kaczyński has done nothing to distance himself from it, declaring that, if President Komorowski moved the cross, “he would show clearly which side he is on”. After a well-run, moderate presidential campaign, in which he cut Komorowski’s lead in the polls from well over 20 percentage points to a mere five in a couple of months, this was a return to Kaczyński at his insinuating worst. More was to follow: Komorowski’s presidency is based on a “misunderstanding”, as many Catholics voted for him without realising that he would pursue a “radically Zapaterist” agenda, so termed after Spain’s prime minister, whose legalisation of gay marriage and other social reforms have made him a poster child for “progressives” across Europe. Odd charges to bring against a Catholic father of five and a self-described (until recently, at least) conservative whose social radicalism does not extend beyond advocating government funding for in-vitro fertility treatment – opposed by the Vatican as it kills foetuses, but hardly an anti-family measure.
Even more ironic, perhaps, is that a tiny group of Defenders of the Cross should question the legitimacy of a government that has recently made grades for religious instruction, taught by taxpayer-funded clergy, count towards academic achievement in schools. But perhaps these people know where the wind is blowing: maybe the future of Poland is, indeed, to be found among the young, educated crowd at Przekąski, Zakąski and down the road, in the offices of Krytyka Polityczna, a leftist periodical influential on the Krakowskie Przedmieście campus. If that is so, however, the Defenders of the Cross may find their actions rather counterproductive.
Photo: Protesters and police gathered in front of the cross at the Presidential Palace on 3 August / photo by Clint Fowler