As a student I remember arguing with my flatmate about nationalism. She was of the opinion that it's ugly and leads to divisiveness and hate, whereas I countered that although it could be, a mild patriotism is harmless and even healthy, fostering a sense of achievement, belonging and pride.. I've got to admit that I think she was right, and Poland (at least the northeastern part that I have witnessed so far) is a good example of why.
Nationalism itself is a strange thing and a relatively new phenomenon. Two hundred years ago the idea that an (each) ethnic group should have its own country, exclusive to itself, was unheard of. Back then people lived in larger (or smaller) kingdoms and empires which encompassed a multitude of nations yet had no ethnic identity of its own (though a religious one maybe). People's ethnic background was rarely an issue for determining loyalties and borders, such as they were, were very porous. People, when not bound into serfdom, moved quite freely and rulers attracted settlers from all over to populate their kingdoms. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth was particularly open to foreign colonists, with significant populations of Germans, Jews, Belarusians, Russians, Tatars and Karaites (a rather obscure Jewish-Turkic group). It's no wonder then that Ludwig Zamenhof, the creator of Esperanto, was born in Białystok: born of a Russian father and a Jewish (Yiddish-speaking) mother and studied in Warsaw. Zamenhof was dismayed by the growing mistrust and hate between the different groups that nationalism brought with it and hoped a universal language would help bridge the gaps and reduce misunderstandings. He saw the rise of nationalism as fuelling the divisions and separations between the people when he said:
"I am profoundly convinced that every nationalism offers humanity only the greatest unhappiness... It is true that the nationalism of oppressed peoples -- as a natural self-defensive reaction -- is much more excusable than the nationalism of peoples who oppress; but, if the nationalism of the strong is ignoble, the nationalism of the weak is imprudent; both give birth to and support each other..."
Following the ravages of World War II and the population movements that followed Poland became an almost exclusively Polish country (today over 96% of the country considers itself as Polish, whereas before the war it was less than 66%), but a scratch of the surface reveals the rich demographic diversity that existed. I spent a day visiting the only two remaining Muslim Tatar villages in the country close to the Belarus border. The Muslim Tatar community is quite small and declining as assimilation reduces their number, but those that are left are very proud of their roots and distinguished role in Polish history, where they have frequently fought as an elite cavalry unit alongside their Polish neighbours. (Interesting factoid of the day: the Hollywood actor Charles Bronson was parents were Polish Tatars.) Between the two villages lies the sleepy town of Krynki, now a neglected border backwater, but at one point a major market town in the flourishing region, a past that is betrayed by its cemeteries. The town is home to 4 cemeteries: 1 Jewish, 1 Orthodox, 1 Catholic and 1 Protestant. Despite the fact that no Jews live in the town anymore and that it was greatly damaged in the war, the Jewish cemetery is still the largest. Of course we all know the result the unchecked rise of nationalism had on that community.
The relatively unassuming Tatar mosque in Kruszyniany.
Although it's not possible to turn the clocks back it would be nice to regain some of that eclectic cosmopolitanism. To reduce the demands of loyalty that nationalism imposes, based solely on a shared language or ethnicity, blithely ignoring anything else, categorising people into "us" and "them", regardless of individual merit. Categorisation which, according to Genocide Watch (a respected authority on the subject I am told), is the first step on the road to genocide (there are 8 steps, so it's not too late to turn back). All this may sound rather Utopian and idealistic, calling for some new world order. Sure, nation states are our political reality, but we can, in our own words and actions, reduce the malignant influence of nationalism around us and break down those imaginary, artificial borders that keep us apart (I suppose it's one of the reasons I'm a big fan of the idea of the EU where most internal borders have all but disappeared and people are free to move and work where they please). Of course changing entrenched dogmas is difficult, but the game is worth the candle.
Even writing this blog has been difficult due to the blurring of the meaning of the word nation in English. It used to solely mean an ethnic group, a demos, a people, but nationalism has become the political reality to such an extent that the word is now synonymous with a political state, implying that to be a member of a state one has to be a member of its dominant nation and that others are a Minority, to be tolerated, condescended, borne grudgingly. On official forms you are asked for your nationality, not your citizenship; as if citizens of the non-majority nation are not complete, proper members of the state.
Hmm, I seem to be getting rather introspective of late with my musings, so in order to lighten the mood a little I will share a little of my more mundane travelling stories. I am glad to say that hitchhiking in Poland has been easier than in any other country so far and it is possible to get pretty much anywhere hitching. A peculiarity of Polish drivers is that many of them have CB radios that they use to chat to other drivers and also to warn each other of police speed cameras, which speaks volumes about the general attitude to driving here. A couple of days ago I was heading towards Warsaw from eastern Poland after going on bison safari in the Białowieża national park. It was late afternoon and I was hoping to cover the 300km that same day. It turned out that I was too optimistic and only managed to get 80km before getting stuck in the small town of Bielsk Podlasie. It had been a gorgeous day, and so instead of bothering to enquire about accommodation options I headed for the edge of town where I found a patch of secluded wasteland with some handy high grass to hide me and just spread out my mat on the ground as I was too lazy to bother pitching my tent (my least favourite chore whilst travelling is taking down my tent and packing my rucksack in the morning) and reassured by the endless blue skies. I was awoken at 2 o'clock in the morning by the bright lights of lightning arcing between the clouds that had crept up on me overhead. There was no rain or thunder, which initially intrigued me, before the small, practical part of my brain kicked in and suggested that it would be a good idea to put up my tent. Quickly. So, scrambling in the dark, with the occasional flash to help me, I rushed to clear some ground and get my tent up. My caution proved well-founded as only 20mins later the dry lightning was followed by a less-dry downpour, which allowed me to make a rather unsettling discovery: my tent isn't fully waterproof in the face of heavy rain. I suppose I ought to get myself a better tent, but I'll just hope that I don't run into any heavy rain instead.