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Anne Applebaum talks with Aleksandra Lipczak about being a ‘Polish mother’, and her fascination ...
2020-09-15 14:00:00

Pessimism Is Irresponsible
An Interview with Anne Applebaum

Pessimism Is Irresponsible
Read in 16 minutes

Aleksandra Lipczak: Your latest book is called Matka Polka [a phrase that refers to the archetype of the ‘Polish mother’ – ed. note]. Is this a provocation?

Anne Applebaum: My husband thought of the title, he found it funny. It reflects his particular sense of humour, but I also thought it was a good one. It allows us to redefine what ‘Matka Polka’ means. There is the stereotype of a busy woman who spends all her time with her children and leads a very traditional life. But why does this have to be Matka Polka; why can’t I be one, too? I’m Polish and I’m a mother, so can I also aspire to this name.

After reading and watching some of your previous interviews, I had the impression that you don’t like talking about your private life. But it’s right there in Matka Polka: an autobiographical extended interview.

Partly I was talked into it by my friend, Paweł Potoroczyn, whom I have known for many years and whose taste and interests are very similar to mine. I knew that we would be talking about things that were interesting for both of us. At this point in my life, I have also started to feel that I need to explain things about myself and how I got here to people who don’t know my history. But mostly it was due to the idea that it would be fun to do it with Paweł.

The story behind your coming to Poland is quite epic, I would say. You first came here as a smuggler.

I’m not sure if it was the first visit. I did a few trips to Poland as a tourist before I moved here as a foreign correspondent [for The Economist and The Spectator – ed. note]. It’s true that on one of them I came with money for Solidarity.

A few thousand dollars. It was a fortune in Poland at the time.

It was collected in the UK by the philosopher Roger Scruton and Timothy Garton Ash, a well-known journalist. My life in Poland didn’t seem epic back then, but now, 30 years later, I do start to feel like I lived through some very important transformations and that some of my personal experiences might be interesting for others. In the meantime, new generations have grown up. They don’t remember the times that we’re talking about.

We’re used to thinking about the 1980s in Poland and the time that came after the ‘carnival of Solidarity’ as a grey and hopeless decade. You describe your first meeting in Poland in a completety different way.

I loved Poland when I first got here. It was full of fascinating people and intense political life. There were interesting political arguments and the underground Solidarity was thriving. I can see how, for someone who was a child in the 80s or who lived in the provinces, it was a very difficult moment because of all the shortages, but Warsaw was simply a very interesting place to be.

In Matka Polka you say that you chose Poland because you simply liked it more than the Russia you were studying and researching.

In the West, the cliché was that Siberia starts at Checkpoint Charlie. The differences were huge, though. Warsaw and Moscow had a completely different atmosphere at that time.

Was studying Russian history and language in the 1980s an eccentric decision or rather something cool?

It wasn’t eccentric, for sure – many people interested in politics studied Russian. Others were attracted to Russian literature or painting. I have a friend who studied with me in Leningrad and who now teaches history of art at Stanford. So there were many reasons why young Americans were deciding to study Russian. Paradoxically, it was probably more popular in the 1980s than it was 10 years later. In the 1990s, it really went out of fashion. The Cold War was over and people were not interested anymore. Actually, I’m now told by academics that there is a kind of revival of interest in Russia again. Probably it has to do with Putin and the role he plays in the world. Many people want to understand it.

Your interviewers are often stunned by the fact that a young girl from a well-to-do family in Washington DC chose Poland as a place to live.

People are interested in all kinds of stuff, from Chinese paintings to butterflies or microsurgery. Why can’t I be interested in Poland? The world is full of interesting topics and this one appealed to me. I could have stayed in Washington and written about American politics, which actually I do now anyway. But here in Poland, Russia and Ukraine I had a chance to be first, to write about things that no-one else was writing about. One of the oddities is that some of the things that I became interested in 30 years ago and which seemed to be rather niche subjects, over time turned out to be really important topics. Like Ukraine, which in 2014 became a central piece of the geopolitical puzzle and where it still remains, in some ways. The time I spent learning Ukrainian history in the 1990s, when I wrote my first book [Between East and West – ed. note], wasn’t wasted.

When you came here in the late 1980s, did you have the feeling that a significant meeting with history was approaching?

There was something like that in the air, definitely. One of the first stories I covered when I moved here as a correspondent was Mrs Thatcher’s visit. She came here in the autumn of 1988, wearing a black fur coat and hat. Her visit was a clear sign that something was shifting in the relations between East and West. It did feel like something new was coming.

As a journalist back then, you lived and experienced so much that I don’t even know where to start. Is there any particular memory from that time that you like to go back to?

There are many scenes like that. In Matka Polka, I explain what it was like to drive from Warsaw to Berlin when the wall was falling. Actually, I went there with Radek [Radosław Sikorski, the husband of Anne Applebaum – ed. note], whom I barely knew at the time. I also have a very strong memory of the day when Tadeusz Mazowiecki became the prime minister of Poland; I remember all the hysteria and excitement around that. Or the day that we got the results of the 4th June elections. The conviction that the communist propaganda was too strong to be defeated was widely spread. The majority of people thought the vote would be quite close. I remember the shock when it turned out that it wasn’t. “Gosh, what are we going to do now?” was a very real and omnipresent feeling. The success of the opposition was overwhelming, but I soon realized that even on that day, probably the most important vote in Poland of the 20th century, almost 40% of voters stayed at home. Now I wonder what happened further to those people who simply didn’t care.

One of the scenes from the book that impressed me the most was your first visit to the Lychakiv Cemetery in Lviv.

I was on a train from Leningrad to Vienna and I had a six-hour stop in Lviv. I can’t remember what the chain of events was exactly, but someone told me that the cemetery was worth visiting. I wasn’t prepared for what I saw there; I was completely blown away. I had no idea there was this city where Polish, Ukrainian, Austrian and Russian influences were all mixed up. Now the cemetery – spectacularly located by the way – is more cleaned up, but at the time it was very overgrown, which intensified the feeling of confusion. I thought: This is a piece of history that I don’t know about. It was one of the things that drew my interests to Poland.

You became a kind of translator, explaining Eastern Europe to the West. Is this at all possible?

You have to see things from the right perspective. How well do you understand Azerbaijan or Georgian history? For many people, even in the UK, Poland is a far-away countryand there are many far-away countries whose history isn’t that well-known. I wouldn’t say the degree to which Poland is misunderstood is bigger than the misunderstanding of, let’s say, Portugal. Do people in the UK know much about Germany? No; there are many stereotypes, too. The deeper question is how much does anyone really know about anywhere else. Probably the people that understand Poland the best are the Germans. They actually know Polish history, at least some of it. In the UK, it’s not part of the mainstream history curriculum. The students hear about Poland for the first time in the context of 1939, then it appears again when they talk about Lech Wałęsa and 1989.

So yes, I spend a lot of time talking about Poland in the world, explaining what life under communism really was, being involved in conversations between Poles and Jews, which unfortunately became more difficult recently. I feel very little hostility to Poland across the world; rather a lack of information. But again, how much Belgian – or even French – history does an average Pole know?

In Matka Polka you say that Poland became too normal. That’s why many foreign correspondents who lived here in the 1980s and 1990s left the country.

Poland is not on a geopolitical fault-line anymore. Which is good – you don’t want your country to be on one. Today, Belarus lies on a geopolitical fault-line, for example. What happens here doesn’t have the same kind of significance as it used to in the 1980s. Poland is not on the front pages in the same way that Portugal or Switzerland aren’t, either. Unfortunately, it started to change again due to the PiS [Prawo i Sprawiedliwość or ‘Law and Justice’, Poland’s ruling party – ed. note] government. The revival of interest in Poland came mostly as a result of their assault on the courts. Because of the possible implications of this for the EU, Poland did start to attract journalists and political strategists again. If the attack continues and if the court system becomes completely unreliable, it might result in Poland coming out of the EU – and that would be an event of huge geopolitical meaning.

You are one of the most insightful observers of European and American politics. Are you surprised by the tumultuous times in which we’re living?

The year that was surprising to me – and when a lot of things became clear to me – was 2014. It was the moment of the Russian invasion of Ukraine and also the moment when I became aware of how online media manipulation works. Partly because one of the smear campaigns was directed at me and my husband, so I could closely watch how fake news functions. In 2014, I was still surprised, but in 2016 I no longer was. When PiS won the elections in 2015, I thought: I’m not going to say anything immediately, though I know what is coming. I knew they were going to do what Orban did in Hungary. Some of the people that I shared my observations with didn’t believe me. But I was right.

What were the signs?

I was listening to what the PiS politicians were saying. I did not know Jarosław Kaczyński [co-founder and leader of PiS – ed. note] that well, but my husband was a minister in his government, after all. I knew what these people were like and what they were capable of. Foreseeing their intentions wasn’t that hard, as they were openly talking about it. There was this attitude, though (also in the media), that it was their turn to win, that we should let them have a chance, that we are sick of these other people, that both sides are equally bad. I knew they were going to assault the constitution and attack the media. I couldn’t predict the order in which they would do it, but I knew that once they had power they would make sure they would never lose it again. I imagined they would have no problem with breaking the rules and undermining the institutions. Some of them are doing it because they are interested in power and money. Others are convinced that they are the only true patriots and that they deserve to rule. I knew then that it was going to be an ugly, small-minded and authoritarian government.

On the one hand, there’s the political system, but on the other, society and its demons.

They aren’t demons that were woken up; they were recreated. 20 years ago, I would have never agreed that Polish society was deeply antisemitic. A new, updated version of antisemitism was reinvented for the sake of the current times.

In Matka Polka, you talk about your meeting with members of Solidarity in Bydgoszcz in 1989. Asked why they don’t support Michnik or Wałęsa, they answered: “You know, they’re Jews.”

They didn’t even realize they had a Jew in front of them, which seemed quite funny to me at the time. But that was the whole extent of antisemitism I experienced back then. Then there were 20 years of Polish-Jewish reconciliation and the best Jewish museum in this part of the world was built in Warsaw. Government after government had good relations with Israel, and antisemitism was not as prevalent in public life. And then it was revived and probably the Russians had something to do with it. But this was also useful for the Polish right. That’s why they came up with a new version of a conspiracy theory according to which it is not the Polish Jews but the foreign ones who will come to Poland and steal its property – or something like that.

Does this say more about Polish society as such, or is it rather a refelction of the mechanisms of propaganda that are in use all over the world today?

It is not that different from what happens in Hungary or the US. The problem in Poland is that there are few counter-forces that could impede the destruction of the state and the giving of voice to the most extreme and hysterical views in the society. There were also conspiracy theories coming form the Gilets jaunes movement in France, a similar thing is happening with the AfD in Germany. You can find such tendencies everywhere, but unfortunately in Poland they have taken control over the state. I don’t think that PiS is that unique, though – I can’t see any bigger difference between them and the National Front in France, for example. I wrote more about it in my last book, which – to put it simply – is a book about the new Right.

About why you don’t talk to some of your friends anymore?

About why some of my friends became crazy.

Is there a short answer?

There are multiple answers for different kinds of people, but mainly it has to do with disappointment. There are people who feel disappointed either with their societies or their own role in them. Often it has to do with power: there are people who want more of it than they currently have. I happen to know some of them. In the book, I try to find the answer to the question of why some intellectuals, journalists and political strategists are attracted to today’s extremisms. It is not so much about the collaborators, though. It’s a book about radicalism.

You also work on the topic of fake news.

I’m one of the leaders of a research team that started to work at the London School of Economics and is now moving to the Johns Hopkins University in Baltimore. I was more involved in its work two or three years ago; now it is actually run by Peter Pomerantsev. We do reports, studies, and some behind-the-scenes advising to the British government.

Do you already have some guidelines on how deal with lies online?

I guess everybody knows by now that the answer is not fact-checking.

What is the answer then?

It has to do with finding ways to have better conversations with the public and engage people with better information online. It is about leading people to trust good quality information, making it their source of knowledge about the world. The main challenge is to think in what form you can give information to people so that they trust it.

There are ways of bringing people together, even in very polarized societies. You have to find topics that are of mutual interest. If you can get people to agree that there is a common problem they all care about and they all want to find a solution to, then the chances are greater that they will get involved with good quality information.

Such a problem could be public healthcare, for example?

Many experiments like this deal with very concrete, local problems, like fixing puddles on a road. Though in Ukraine, where we carried out a large project, we were mainly interested in questions related to the past and identity. It is in the past where you can often find things that link people who appear to be deeply divided.

Coming back to your life in Poland, in Matka Polka you explain that, although you were raised in an agnostic Jewish family, for a while you considered converting to Catholicism.

It had nothing to do with Poland. I simply have a lot of close friends who are deeply-believing Catholics. I admired it and had the impression that this was something very useful to them. But this phase was very brief. I immediately ran into things that I didn’t accept, so I didn’t get very far.

Yet you sent your sons to a Catholic school.

I wanted them to know the tradition. It is an important part of Polish culture and it seemed important that they understand it. I think they would both agree that it was useful.

Have you ever experienced a culture clash in Poland?

If so, it was only about the details. My mother-in-law blamed her bad mood and everything on atmospheric pressure, which used to amaze me. But after this much time in the country, it is harder and harder for me to talk about these things; to look at my life from outside. The only house that I have is in Poland. I don’t feel any cultural tensions anymore.

In Matka Polka you talk a lot about the complexes, fears and identity deficits that led to the rise of authoritarianism in Poland. Does the economy not play a role?

Of course it does. But we have all adopted this Marxist idea that the economy explains everything. In a way, it is also an idea related to the American financial market: if you get the economy right, everything else will be OK. Actually, the economy explains very little of what has happened in Poland, the US or the UK in the last few years. Between 1989 and 2009, Poland had the most successful decades in 300 years in terms of economic growth, catching up with Europe, investments in infrastructure. That is not to say that everything was great or that I agree with how everything was done. Educational reform, for example, was criminally neglected and to some extent the investment in culture, too. However, if you look at all the social classes and their life compared to that of their parents and grandparents, everybody is richer now. To understand the political change, you have to offer a different explanation.

Growing divides?

Certainly you can talk about inequalities. Everybody’s richer but more unequal than in the past, or people are more aware of the inequality because they talk about it in the media and so on. But again, Poland is less unequal than many other countries in Europe and inequality has also been shrinking in the last decade. It is also true that Poles are less wealthy than their neighbours. Many of them don’t compare themselves to their parents but to Germans, and there’s a lot of ill-will about the fact that you can earn three times more there than you can earn here, and that the standard of living is much higher.

But this is not the 1930s, this is not even the 1990s, which were a moment of great turmoil. If you blame economics for the rise in support of authoritarianism, you have to explain to me why that has happened now. What is it about this moment that has made people lose faith in democracy and support an authoritarian party?

Isn’t it the other side of the Polish success story that you talk so much about in Matka Polka? Many people feel excluded, which leads to frustration.

There are people who feel they should have got more. Things changed and improved, and they didn’t get what they wanted. Jacek Kurski [the current head of the Polish state broadcaster TVP, and a former PiS Member of Parliament – ed. note] wanted to be the prime minister, he thought he deserved it and he was really angry and frustrated.

A lot of the people who are leading PiS and who are its propagandists are extremely wealthy, educated, middle-class people. Explain to me how Rafał Ziemkiewicz [a far-right public figure in Poland – ed. note] is a victim of the economic transition. It doesn’t make any sense.

In spite of all, you declare yourself as an optimist. Pessimism is irresponsible, you say.

This is what I have decided: seeing a future in gloomy colours is irresponsible. I say so for the sake of my children and people who are younger than me. We have to believe that a better future is possible and seek for ways to revive our democracies. And, most of all, we have to improve our public conversation because that is where the fundamental problem is.

Matka Polka left me with one nagging question. Do you think you would have the same ‘crush’ on Poland if you came here now?

If I was 25 again and met other 25-year-olds on my way – for example, my sons’ friends – I probably might feel the same thing. There’s still a lot of creativity and energy in people. Among the young people, you get the same feeling that I remember from the 1980s – that they are operating in a kind of underground, against an oppressive state, and in a way they really are. So maybe I would find these people if I came to Poland now and I would like them a lot.

As an adult, do I find the current political system attractive? No, I don’t. But at least it gives us something to do.

Parts of this interview have been edited and condensed for clarity and brevity.

Anne Applebaum. Photo from private archive
Anne Applebaum. Photo from private archive

Anne Applebaum:

A graduate of Yale University, where she studied Russian History and Russian and French Literature. In the late 1980s, she moved to Warsaw, where she worked as a correspondent for the The Economist and The Spectator. She is a staff writer for The Atlantic and a lecturer at the Johns Hopkins University. She was a member of the editorial board of The Washington Post and the deputy director of The Spectator. She is the author of the books Red Famine: Stalin’s War on Ukraine, Iron Curtain: The Crushing of Eastern Europe, 1944-1956 and Gulag: A History, for which she won the Pulitzer Prize in 2004.

Matka Polka is an extended autobiographical interview with Anne Applebaum in Polish, led by Paweł Potoroczyn.