Editor's Note: This essay, which considers the factors that have shaped Poland and its first city, particularly in the period following the Cold War, is drawn from the personal travel notes and recollections of Europe analyst Adriano Bosoni.
The symbolic weight of Poland's history is apparent from the moment you arrive at Warsaw's Frederic Chopin International Airport, named in honor of one of the greatest figures in Polish history. Poland has lent the world a number of great names, including astronomer Nicolaus Copernicus, poet Adam Mickiewicz, Nobel Laureate Lech Walesa and Pope John Paul II. But of all of these, it is Chopin who most captured the essence of what it means to be Polish and whose music continues to express the enduring Polish national character.
Through his music, Chopin symbolized the Polish concept of "zal," an untranslatable word that represents a wide range of feelings, from melancholic nostalgia and sorrow to bitter regret and internal fury. This complex concept didn't arise within a vacuum; Poland has been repeatedly invaded, occupied and partitioned. It has gone through the worst calamities a nation can suffer. Geography put Poland in one of the most dangerous places in the world, surrounded almost entirely by powerful and greedy neighbors. And yet the Poles are still here.
I was born in Argentina, so the sense of living under permanent threat is something I can understand from a rational point of view, but not from an emotional one. For me, geopolitics is something that I have read about and experienced through travel. For the Poles, it's part of their DNA. It's amazing how certain words capture the essence of a country, and how certain people embody that essence. There is a saying that goes: Many people may love Chopin's music, but only Poles can really understand it. The composer, a symbol of everything that's tragic and beautiful about Poland, became so linked to the Polish soul that the Nazis prohibited his music during their occupation.
The timing of my visit was also symbolic. 2014 is a very meaningful year for Poland because it marks the 25th anniversary of the 1989 elections, which paved the way for the fall of communism in the country. It is also the 10th anniversary of Poland's accession to the European Union, which gave the Poles the feeling that they had finally returned to Europe. Few places in Poland are as representative of these changes as Warsaw. Throughout the 20th century, the Polish capital was at the center of Europe's collective tragedy, suffering the consequences of the murderous and extremist ideologies that defined the century. It's impossible to fully assess the scale of death, destruction and cultural plunder that took place in the city.
And yet Warsaw is one of Europe's greatest survivors, rising from the ashes and once again standing at the heart of a country that seeks to regain its voice in Europe. Warsaw is a city of contrasts. The soulless Soviet architecture, which sought to crush the spirit and standardize the mind, coexists with both a carefully reconstructed "old town" and sprouting skyscrapers. The deliberate contrast seeks to achieve a difficult synthesis between the past and the future. At the heart of the city, there's the magnificent National Stadium, a prodigy of architecture that serves as a colossal reminder of the importance of EU funding in Polish infrastructure.
One of my favorite places in Old Town is St. John's Cathedral. The cathedral, originally built in the 14th century, is a clear testimony to Poland's deep Catholic roots. But I find it interesting for a different reason: This is the place where the last king of Poland, Stanislaw August Poniatowski, was crowned and, two centuries later, buried. The last Polish king is as controversial as a historical figure can be, and to this day historians debate his legacy. Some portray him as a reformer, while others prefer to highlight his failure to prevent the destruction of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth. My favorite aspect of Poniatowski's life is his stormy romance with Catherine the Great of Russia — a love affair that did not prevent Russia from participating in the succession of partitions that wiped Poland off the European map for more than a century.
Poniatowski died in exile in St. Petersburg in 1798, and after a series of negotiations, he was reburied in St. John's Cathedral in 1995. His life represents the complex geographical and emotional ties linking Poland with Russia, while the pilgrimage of his body from St. Petersburg to his final burial place in Warsaw is a metaphor for the repeated uprooting (physical and emotional) that history imposed on millions of Poles.
A City of Many Faces
Warsaw used to be a gray city, a place far removed from burgeoning capitals like Prague and Budapest that captured the imagination of tourists and investors in the 1990s. But today, Warsaw is a thriving city, one experiencing constant growth, and one where things finally seem to be happening. Contemplating the city from atop the monumental Palace of Culture (the tallest building in the country and one of the many "gifts" the Communists left in the city), Warsaw looks anything but gray. Watching cars and buses fill the busy streets, serious-looking men return home after work and beautiful women swarm through the many stores of downtown Warsaw, it's hard to imagine how much suffering this city has witnessed.
Poland's contradictions go beyond architecture. Very few Poles believe that life was better during communist rule. The Polish economy has doubled in the past two and a half decades, and the country was the only member of the European Union to keep growing during the economic crisis. But some Poles believe the development has not been distributed equitably. On my way to the airport, my taxi driver was old enough to remember the Iron Curtain. While watching him struggle with the English language, I could not help but think that during communist rule he probably had a stable job and a home. Both things have become less certain in the Poland of the 21st century.
Emigration is an additional problem. Despite Poland's remarkable economic growth, people have left the country en masse since it joined the European Union. This creates significant demographic and economic problems for a country struggling to keep its young workers at home. Some members of Poland's business elite don't necessarily consider this a problem because many of the migrants return home with more experience and training. But many are concerned about the consequences that mass migration could have on Poland's ability to maintain sustained economic growth.
And then there's the issue of Russia's resurgence. Poland takes a look at its neighborhood and sees two things. To its east, it sees a more assertive Russia. To its west, it sees a fragmenting European Union and a worryingly quiet Germany. I visited Warsaw exactly a week before U.S. President Barack Obama arrived in the city, and, it goes without saying, Obama's visit generated more expectation in Poland than the arrival of any European leader would. Once again the Poles are worried, and once again they look to the White House, rather than the EU Commission, for answers.
The past 25 years have been a remarkable period in Polish history, one of many in the incredible history of this fascinating country. Even if some Poles have a nuanced view of their economy, it's not an exaggeration to speak of a Polish "economic miracle," despite a rocky start in the early 1990s. Now, Poland is getting ready for its next challenge: becoming a regional leader. The Poles have been talking and many, including the Lithuanians and the Romanians, have been listening.
Poland can be proud of all that it has achieved in the past two and a half decades. But once again, the Poles are looking at the future with a combination of confidence and uncertainty. I cannot blame them. It's in their blood.