I am a descendent of Polish serfs. This is the opening sentence of an essay on Naipaul I've recently submitted to one of those Romanian journals of mine (I hope they publish it soon). What I evoke there is my bookless childhood, and the way how I came (parallel to Naipaul's A Writer's People) to have any idea of literature whatsoever. Yet another consequence of my being a descendent of Polish serfs is the fact that for many years I had great difficulty in throwing anything whatsoever that might still prove useful. A supermarket bag, for example.
This is also the reason why I could make the unusual discovery that I actually made on my balcony. I possess there a triple bookstand with a triple glass door bought in Ikea some twenty years ago. This is where I keep my papers that might still prove useful. And which I eternally try to get rid of.
It is with considerable surprise that I found there a vintage collection of issues of "Gazeta Wyborcza", some of them as old as 2001 and 2003. To celebrate the fact that I religiously kept them for the last 20 years, I decided to read them.
They make indeed quite an enlightening reading, almost like a time machine taking me back to the beginning of everything, to the time before Poland even entered the European Union (2004). It really makes me think, it gives me a perspective. How we could put ourselves in the state we are (jak można było doprowadzić się do takiego stanu).
"Gazeta Wyborcza" was at its best those twenty years ago. I would say it was making quite an unusual newspaper, without an exact equivalent in Europe. It was a cultured journal, full of history, literature, and politics, and ideas. Paying more attention to religion than any newspaper in Europe would. Trying to capture, explain and cultivate values. Publishing memories of people who went to the theatre to see Konrad Swinarski's Dziady 10, and 20, and 30 times over and over again. Reflecting on what our European becoming might be. Organizing those memorable actions that aimed at educating the Poles linguistically ("Polish your English") and improving significant healthcare circumstances ("Rodzić po ludzku").
As I look back on it, I see clearly how it cultivated the Pole of today. There is a well-known, yet curious paradox in recent Polish history: the existence of two brothers, one of them the editor of the main opposition newspaper that "Gazeta Wyborcza" is, and the other one the author of the propagandistic tool that public television has become. It is thus easy to defend that together, they actually made the Pole of today. But of course, this is a matter of recent years, my vintage issues of "Gazeta Wyborcza" are much, much older.
Reading my "Wyborcza" time machine, I realise the shortcomings of this enterprise that was glorious in many ways. Its geographic horizons, for example. The widened worldview signified that it was essentially busy with regional reality, with some sort of Mitteleuropa or Middle-Eastern Europe (our own mythical Europa Środkowo-Wschodnia) with blurred frontiers, stretching to the Balkans and to Russia. The news from Western Europe was significantly scarcer, and they give me the feeling of distance. The news from other parts of the world was dictated by major conflicts, major events that simply couldn't be ignored; but they never occupied an entire page, contrary to the domestic and Mitteleuropean in-depth essays, that sometimes stretched over two pages, up to two and a half. But very little or nothing was coming from that distant world in terms of first-hand ideas, except, very occasionally, a translated article by Edward Said. The peculiar geography of "Gazeta Wyborcza" can be detected relatively easily. But it is only a metaphor for the peculiar geography of ideas, that also had its own blurred and relatively narrow frontiers. Yes, with all the richness of content and ideas, it all turned around just a couple of rather conservative points of view not far from home.
This is how "Gazeta Wyborcza" managed to occupy the place that it occupied in Polish culture: a must of the intelligentsia. But the status came at a price: "Gazeta Wyborcza" never challenged the worldview of Polish intelligentsia; it preserved and protected its self-satisfaction. And it was a class surviving and perpetuating, under the communist regime, on sheer cultivation of the national culture, for only universal content having Greco-Roman antiquity. Perhaps because all the effort of bringing the diversity of the world closer to Polish readers (yes, it had been done) was put under the auspices of communist internationalism. This fact gave the intelligentsia an excuse not to digest it.
When History turned the page, "Gazeta Wyborcza" still made it easy for the Polish intelligentsia to avoid the discomfort of confrontation with the world. Just like the other Kurski's public television offered to the popular audience the world to live in, with their favorite disco-polo stars and without the discomfort of questioning or ambivalence. And this is how, reading the intelligent "Gazeta Wyborcza" or just passively staring at the TV, the Poles remained in that Middle-Eastern Europe of their own, and the true Europe is a transatlantic that slowly departs (has already departed) from their wharf. Being given a free ticket, they didn't even claim their place onboard.
I'm nostalgic of that "Gazeta Wyborcza" twenty years ago, of our fleeting European spring, of being young at the time of those great expectations. Now I'm mature, and far away from that unlucky Middle-Eastern European wharf. At least mentally. And just once, I must agree with Kaczyński: they have never been truly European. There has always been a cultural difference. A gap that is just a bit too large to jump across. And it never occurred to anyone to build a bridge. Oh no, those people of "Gazeta Wyborcza" truly wanted to build a bridge, plenty of bridges. It's just that their engineering proved to be somehow flawed. Too fragile, falling short of reaching the opposite shore.
The first PiS government took office in 2006, only two years after the access of Poland to the European Union.