Prizes and Politics: Poland, the EU and Ukrainian Culture

Uilleam Blacker

Despite the fact that the communist era is long gone, literature in Eastern Europe does still, on occasion, show a propensity for getting entangled in politics. This is especially true of literature about the past. Oksana Zabuzhko’s most recent novel, Museum of Abandoned Secrets, which was first published in 2010 and deals with some of the most traumatic and controversial pages of Ukrainian history, is a prime example. The book caused a sensation upon publication in Ukraine, and has recently been awarded one of Poland’s most prestigious literary prizes. The novel has also, however, attracted controversy in Poland for its treatment of Polish-Ukrainian historical conflicts, and has been accused of being ‘anti-Polish’.

Museum of Abandoned Secrets was the long awaited follow up to Zabuzhko’s 1996 debut novel Field Work in Ukrainian Sex, which revolutionized Ukrainian literature with its exploration of the links between gender relations, national identity and postcolonial complexes, and turned its author into one of the most prominent figures in Ukrainian cultural life. While Museum continues some of Zabuzhko’s main themes, at over 800 pages long and incorporating long sections of historical fiction, the novel represents quite a contrast to the poetry and short prose works she is best known for.

Zabuzhko has taken her venture into historical fiction seriously. She trawled archives around Ukraine during the period when, under President Viktor Yushchenko, restrictions on sensitive material were loosened. The book features a long afterword that details her sources, among whom is Volodymyr Viatrovych, the then head of the archives of the Security Service of Ukraine, who now head of the Centre for Research into the Liberation Movement, which promotes a positive image of the activities of Ukrainian nationalist organisations, particularly the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (OUN and UPA). A number of other institutions dedicated to the memory of the OUN-UPA and individuals connected with these organisations are also mentioned. The positive spin on the nationalist movement gleaned from such sources comes through clearly in Zabuzhko’s novel, which presents the Ukrainian insurgents as heroic freedom fighters, combined with an unequivocally negative portrait of their enemies – the interwar Polish regime, which practiced harsh discrimination against Ukrainians in the 1930s, and especially the NKVD.

It was only when Zabuzhko’s novel was translated into Polish, and then awarded the prestigious Angelus award for Central European literature in 2013, that her memory politics began to be questioned. The jury praised Zabuzhko’s complex treatment of and fresh perspective on Ukraine’s difficult past, and the book was widely welcomed in Polish liberal media: Polityka pronounced Zabuzhko one of the most important writers in the world, while both Gazeta Wyborcza and Newsweek called the novel worthy of the Nobel Prize. Polityka’s review found a forceful feminist statement on the patriarchal structures of war and totalitarianism; Wyborcza was impressed by the novel’s expression of the complex, lasting effects of historical trauma, while Newsweek valued Zabuzhko’s expression of ‘suffering, the indifference of history, and love against the odds’.

There was another side to the Polish reaction, however: some commentators were shocked by the award of the prize to a book that they saw as rehabilitating a political movement that has the blackest of reputations in Poland. The context for this could not have been more sensitive: this year is the 70th anniversary of the massacres of up to 100,000 Polish civilians by Ukrainian nationalists and civilians in the lands that are today western Ukraine. These massacres, as a result of which 10-20 thousand Ukrainians were killed in retribution (figures on both sides are hotly disputed), have been a hot political topic in Poland this year.

One of Zabuzhko’s most vociferous critics was the historian Grzegorz Motyka, an expert on the Polish-Ukrainian conflict who has been involved in sharp polemics with Volodymyr Viatrovych. In an essay on Museum in a new book that deals with the legacy of Ukrainian nationalism, Motyka meticulously undermines Zabuzhko’s presentation of numerous details of the history of the Ukrainian insurgent movement, including the representation of the participation of Jews in the UPA: one of the main strands of the novel’s complex plot – that of the Jewish nurse who sacrifices herself for the Ukrainian cause – is based, according to Motyka, on a nationalist fabrication. Motyka also objects to references to the 1943 massacres of Poles that seem to justify them as retribution for the oppressive policies of the interwar Polish state.

Zabuzhko has enjoyed a respectable readership in Poland for some years. She speaks Polish, and appears in the Polish media. She has written on Polish literature and its relevance for Ukraine, presenting writers like Czesław Miłosz as models to be emulated. Before the publication of Museum it would be difficult to suspect Zabuzhko of anything other than the most cordial attitude towards Ukraine’s western neighbour. Why, then, should she suddenly write an ‘anti-Polish’ book, and then tour Poland promoting it, happily picking up a major award on the way?

It is unlikely that Zabuzhko perceives her work as anti-Polish, and even less likely that she intended it to be so. The novel’s main focus is the historical suffering of Ukrainians and their struggle to break free from various oppressive regimes. In the 20th century, the principle source of oppression was the Soviet Union, though the inter-war Polish state is widely perceived as another. Ukrainians appear in her work primarily as victims. When they resist oppression, they are heroes, and these heroes cannot, if the narrative is to be effective, be compromised by moral ambiguity. Nor should the oppressors – primarily Soviets (usually Russians), but also Poles – be afforded complexity that might question the vociferousness of the response of those who resist them. Any ‘anti-Polishness’ is a by-product of the author’s attempts to give an unequivocal voice to Ukrainian suffering and valorize Ukrainian resistance, rather than an anti-Polish agenda as such.

Grzegorz Motyka’s review picks up expertly on the historical inaccuracies in Zabuzhko’s account, but his reading is more suited to analysis of a work of historiography. Historical fiction is often rife with mistakes and exaggerations, no matter what period of history is being depicted: invention is part of the process, otherwise it wouldn’t be fiction. Motyka, for example, misses the fact that many of the passages that he finds objectionable are presented using free indirect style, i.e., a third person narrative that relays the character’s thoughts directly to the reader. The fact that the protagonist, an UPA fighter, holds virulently critical attitudes towards Polish rule is, thus, probably one of the more accurate historical details in the novel. Whether this attitude is shared by the author, of course, is a separate question, though it is true that, given the fact that this character is presented as heroic, intelligent, not to mention dashingly handsome, we might well suspect where the author’s sympathies lie.

The presentation of Poles is in fact only a minor element of the historical parts of the novel, which themselves are only one dimension of the whole (much of the novel is set in the present day). Many of Zabuzhko’s readers will not be interested in the intricacies of the historical facts, but will be more concerned with the convoluted plot, especially the love stories, as well as the more universal aspects of the novel, such as the remarkable way in which Zabuzhko traces the intertwining of personal, family and historical memory and the effects this has on the individual.

At the same time, it would be disingenuous to separate Zabuzhko’s novel completely from questions of historical accuracy. Indeed, the novel’s afterword specifically distances it from ordinary fiction, stating that the usual legal disclaimer – that any similarity to real people and events is coincidental – ‘does not suit’ the book, which is about ‘real’ events. In an interview with the Polish weekly Tygodnik Powszechny, Zabuzhko presented herself as redressing the misunderstood history of the UPA. In the light of this self-presentation, scrutiny of the author’s methods and sources may not be entirely out of place. Why, for example, focus on the story of a Jewish nurse to represent the nationalist underground struggle, when the historical sources indicate that such cases were few, not to mention that the movement was widely anti-Semitic?

Given the fact that Zabuzhko’s presentation of the nationalist insurgency seems to skate over the movement’s darker aspects, including its implication in violence against Poles, it seems surprising that the award of the Angelus prize has been so widely welcomed by Polish media, particularly at the liberal end of the spectrum, where nationalistic memory politics at home is normally the target of criticism. There is, however, an explanation for this.

The Angelus is awarded by the city of Wrocław, and the Mayor of Wrocław, Rafał Dutkiewicz, is a staunch supporter of Poland’s liberal political camp. The narrative of the city that has been cultivated under his governance is one of openness, tolerance and Europeanness, based to a large extent on the city’s diverse cultural heritage. The Mayor’s politics came into clear focus during the controversy over the disruption of a lecture by the Polish left-wing philosopher Zygmunt Bauman by a group of radical nationalist earlier in 2013. Dutkiewicz was scathing about the protesters and what they stand for, and defended the decision to welcome Bauman. This incident serves as a microcosm of recent debates in Poland around nationalism generally, and around the resurgence in far-right activism in particular: are the radicals just over-enthusiastic young men who nevertheless defend Polish values, or are they a dangerous sign of rising fascistic tendencies? Politicians like Dutkiewicz and the liberal media support the latter view.

An important element of the liberal trend in Polish political and cultural discourse has been a conciliatory attitude towards the peoples of Poland’s former eastern borderlands. This is based in the ideas developed most famously by the post-war intellectual circle of the émigré journal Kultura. Intellectuals like Jerzy Giedroyc believed in establishing dialogue with Ukrainians, Belarusians and Lithuanians in order to heal historical wounds. This discourse has filtered into Poland’s foreign policy towards its eastern neighbours, and Polish elites have often seen it as their mission not only to reconcile with their neighbours, but also to guide them in the direction of Europe, and away from the dominance of Russia. Hence former Polish President Aleksander Kwaśniewski’s pivotal role in the Orange Revolution in 2004-5 and his ongoing participation in Ukraine’s negotiations over association with the EU.

If we consider this vector in the attitudes of the Polish liberal elites – in politics, culture and media – towards Ukraine, then one possible motivation behind awarding the Angelus to Zabuzhko becomes clear. The award promotes understanding of the ‘Ukrainian point of view’, which might conflict with established Polish nationalist narratives. It also contributes to a soft power strategy aimed at redefining Ukrainian culture as properly European, which helps steer Ukraine as a state towards the EU. Is it purely a coincidence that Poland gave its ‘Central European’ award to a Ukrainian author just ahead of the Vilnius summit, where Ukraine will negotiate closer ties with the EU? When Zabuzhko collected her award, she exclaimed ‘I feel that Ukraine has returned to Europe today!’ This rhetorical statement has a very concrete political subtext.

The paradox here is that Zabuzhko’s work does not, in its historical politics, fit with the attitudes that guide the Polish liberal elites. An analogous novel that celebrated the Polish Home Army (AK) in the same way may well have been criticized by the same sections of the media that praise Zabuzhko (by the same token, of course, those who criticize Zabuzhko’s presentation of the UPA in Poland may welcome the same kind of text about the AK). Yet beyond Motyka’s essay and a few outraged articles in more marginal media, there has in fact been little discussion of the intricacies of Zabuzhko’s memory politics.

Could this be because Zabuzhko’s novel is so long and dense that commentators have lazily taken it on face value as ‘the Ukrainian point of view’, and ignored the detail? Or could it be that the actual content of the novel is secondary to the perceived political/cultural usefulness of the gesture of awarding the prize to a Ukrainian author? If this is the case, then it signals not openness to alternative points of view on difficult historical topics, but rather a patronizing and utilitarian attitude, according to which the gesture of accepting the other is more important than the substantive engagement with that other.

Perhaps this interpretation is overly cynical. Perhaps the jury and the media simply did not perceive a problem in Zabuzhko’s take on Ukrainian nationalist myths; perhaps they do not consider this the dominant element of the novel – which could be justified, given that it is a long and multilayered work of which the historical strand is only one of many. Either way, if the message sent by this award is that it is important to listen to others’ views of the past – which it surely is – then it is only proper, out of respect to the other, that this point of view should be engaged with genuinely and for what it is, and not because it might fulfil a larger political purpose. It is hard to fault the intentions of well-meaning liberals in Poland who want to facilitate a European future for Ukraine; but the price of this should not involve fudging discussions of a complex past.

The author is Max Hayward Postdoctoral Fellow at St Antony’s College, Oxford



Distinguished University Professor, University of Alberta

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