Tag Archives: Ukraine

Euro 2012 – a tale of two nations

Just a couple of weeks to go and the world’s attention is turning to the Euro 2012 Championships. Much of the press coverage from the UK has been negative, first focussing on the poor preparations of England’s training ground and recently on racism in both Polish and Ukrainian football. The BBC’s Panorama programme recently covered this in a lot more detail, trailing racism in both countries in the press with former England footballer Sol Campbell warning fans not to go to either Poland or Ukraine or risk ‘coming home in coffins’.

I’m a normal bloke who’s proud to have lived in one of the most cosmopolitan countries in the world for most of his life, who’s been to enough games at Wembley and travelled half way around the world for the world cup in South Africa. I’ve also been to more than a few Polish football games in my time to boot. I can only tell you my impressions on the people of Poland and how they will welcome visitors and try to avoid sounding either like an apologist or a scaremonger.

Poland is an overwhelmingly white country. With most polls putting white Catholics at around 97% of the population there can be plenty of days when you don’t see anyone of any alternate nationality. I’ve seen racism too. As I documented in my blog ‘Welcome to Warsaw’ on previous occasions, I’ve seen a man make monkey noises at the substitution of a black player in a Legia Warszawa game. I’ve seen the white power symbol and SS twin lighting flashes scrawled on walls and worn on T-shirts. I’ve spoken with a half Nigerian girl who told me she’d been abused twice the 18 years she’d lived in Poland. This is a country in which overt nationalism and a racism we would find shocking can be found relatively easily – and it’s abhorrent. But the picture is more complex than the recent headlines and reports have credited.

Poland is a land of contrasts: Growing cosmopolitan cities surrounded by a countryside which can sometimes look and feel as if the last 100 years have passed it by unremarked. Young or old, religious or non-religious, educated or uneducated, those who have benefited from Poland’s quite stunning economic growth since it won its own freedom or those who haven’t – there are many polarised ends of the spectrum in Poland. For young uneducated Poles from the countryside and on the margins of Poland’s success since it won its freedom in 1989, the heady togetherness found in a mix of martial arts, tribal league team support, aggressive nationalism and fear of the outsider (driven by Poland’s unfortunate position as the cricket ball between Germany and Russia) can be powerfully seductive.

After the Allies carved Poland into an ethnically homogenous country at the end of the Second World War it lost forever the multiculturalism which had previously made it quite exceptional in Europe (with a population of some 3 million Jewish people, 10% of the population and many other ethnic mixes besides). Subsequent stoking of anti-Semitic feeling by successive Communist Governments led to the last few Jewish people
leaving for life abroad. A thousand years of relatively comparatively undisturbed Jewish life wiped out.

In the turbulence of Poland’s transformation in the early 90s the racist skinhead culture grew powerful as rampant inflation took hold and for many it looked like Poland would turn into an economic basket case like other former Communist occupied countries. That it didn’t is partly down to the work ethic and discipline of Poland’s people who worked desperately hard for a better life.

People like my friend Marcin. A guy who as a child was forced to stand in line to queue for bread before school. Who suffered deprivations most of us from the West can read about but not comprehend. A man who has built his own company up from the ground and is now enjoying the success of this hard work. For many professional Poles like Marcin the future is bright and the (occasional) racism found in Poland is both repellent and embarrassing. And yet, Marcin sits in the same football stands as those same men who wear white power beanies and polo shirts. From the same background, but with a different outlook on life.

Poland shouldn’t be afraid of the world’s attention. We should be glad the world is holding a mirror up to this wonderful country. Now let’s show the world its true reflection.

I say to someone from an ethnic minority wanting to join the 10 million plus visitors to Poland each year this summer, please come and visit us. This is a wonderful country and Polish hospitality is without equal. The national team’s supporters are not the same supporters of league games you’ll see on TV and in the press with all their virulent tribalism. They’re families, they’re hard working people who take pride in their country and want to show the world how much it has changes and how much potential it has. The Polish Government has taken the policing and security of this event extremely seriously – they know how important it is to Poland’s reputation. You should take the same care you’d take visiting
any unknown city as a tourist, but not more.

Which reminds me of my trip to South Africa for the World Cup. The UK media spent a lot of time talking about the rampant crime, terrifying HIV rates and extreme poverty in the run up to the football- saying some England fans were ‘virtually certain to die.’ But not one England fan was arrested or killed in that month. But proving the media wrong about South Africa doesn’t prove them wrong about Poland –  that’s up to everyone Polish person when kick off begins.

Poland has to show the world the success it has forged after so many years of oppression in its recent history. Poland has to give those within it who fear the world outside the chance to believe things should be different. That is what UEFA means when it talks about the power of football to change lives.

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Non-Polish soldiers Poles are proud of

One of the legends the Pole would hold dear in their heart is that of husaria. You know – the winged, well armed, invincible Polish cavalry everybody knows. (You do know, right? Well, you do now.)

British hussar, next of kin?

But why well-armed? But why winged? But why invincible? But why Polish?

The hussar’s scale armour wasn’t the best solution, not to mention other flaws.

The wings were probably for parades only and not used on the battlefield. Don’t believe that the sound of the vibrating feathers was to frighten enemy horses. (Pointless, it would be. Infantrymen and artillerymen are not horsemen, while any hostile cavalrymen could just put plugs in their horses’ ears, right?)

Husaria was not invincible. It’s quite ironic that many YouTubes glorifying the supposedly greatest horsepower mounted by man use Krzesmir Dębski’s tune (often started at 1:30) named Husaria ginie – “Hussars Dying”. Dying? Someone managed to kill them? Yup.

Thank you Mr Dębski, we know some great composers are Polish. Husaria of the Polish legend, however, isn’t Polish: The cavalry became a heavy formation, when a Hungarian prince of Transylvania made it such. “Our” CO in the battle of Kircholm (1605) was Ruthenian; his forces were more Lithuanian than Polish. The same Ruthenian led “us” at Chocim (1621). The commander at Kłuszyn (1610) was as Polish as his Ukrainian birth-place or his Ukrainian burial-place. And so on.

Whenever an English name for husaria is required, the terms “Polish Hussars” or “Winged Hussars” are used, both not accurate. When you take a look at a Kossak, don’t believe your eyes:

More winged, more Polish

Take some Brandt for more reality:

Less winged, more real

And the statistics are not too favourable for the Polish worshipper of husaria: had he a time machine, he’ll probably end up non-Polish. Even more probably, he would not be a nobleman. But a peasant, a townsman, a merchant, a jester. What’s wrong with jesters? Well, the company of brothers keeps dreaming of the days of the old winged glory.

Henryk Sienkiewicz, a genius, no doubt, who led the Polish mind into such twisted and lazy patriotism had to work out something for the little folk, too. Not every reader can imagine himself tall enough to jump to the hussar’s saddle. You know: “Aren’t you little short for a stormtrooper?” And so we were given Michal Wolodyjowski.

He was short. He had that French problem. He was not too good with ladies, he would fall in love quickly, platonically, not too physically. When he finally got married, he didn’t leave offspring. Though he tried hard. It’s no laughing matter, in the times of wars, it’s was an important man’s duty to produce more defenders of the state. Some offenders, too. (See PS.)

In the books, Wolodyjowski is called the First Sabre of the Republic, a most skilled duellist. Not the last one, sure. But generally, he was a raider, quick for forays, quick for retreats. He knew how to hide behind his horse when the enemy started shooting. Accidentally shot, that’d be a stupid cause of death for a fine swordsman, right? (So what it’s not chivalrous? I’d love the skill! But ask the greater Polish mind if it is ready to take pride in the ability of getting under the horse to avoid a stray bullet.)

And how did Wolodyjowski die? What were his lifetime’s dodges and tricks good for? Well. How Polish. He decided to blow himself up with the castle he didn’t manage to defend. A romantic death — so that someone else’s grandsons may revel in the biography’s unhappy ending.

By the way, Wolodyjowski didn’t pluck up all of his courage to follow the lit fuse. But there was a Scotsman beside him, fortunately, who did the boom job.)

PS: Did Poland have any other good formation? Of course! Try to learn more about these guys, mercenaries, murderers, pillagers, rapists, outlaws, adventurers, some quite usual breed of their times. And damn, they were efficient!

Stay tuned for more.


Here, I’m nice. There, I’m mature.

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Defeats that make Polish people angry

 

So. Your neighbour buys a car. The fastest production car on Earth. “Life begins at 250!” – he says, smirking, trying to get on your wick. He succeeds. You challenge him to a race. Right away! “I’ll beat you barefoot and single-handed!” – you yell – “Ready, steady, go!” – and off you go, indeed, and you run, your teeth gnashed maniacally.

 

The neighbour needs a few seconds to rethink what you’ve just said, then he accepts the challenge but can’t find the key, so needs to rethink whether the car opens with a key, or with a thumb pad, or a voice recognition system, or is there Scottie to beam him inside, and yes, I guess, it’s that hi-tech, so he spends more time looking for some Star Trek uniform, then, being not too slim, he takes even more time to position himself in it, then in the car, which might start chasing you – oh wouldn’t she swirl to 60 mph in 2.5 secs, but you – you slyfox, you – took wicked turns through the bushes and then abrupt jump down some rocky road, so the neighbour’s got to watch out, slow down not to scratch his baby. Then, the way starts looking civilised, almost German – and the man overtakes you – 5 minutes after you set off. You lost your breath, you lost your boots, you lost your teeth – but not your pride. — You won! — For 5 minutes you were faster than the fastest car on Earth! If that’s not a victory, what is?

 

 

In short: your victories are all about how you define your objectives. Is it the final scene that rules the landscape? Well, my guest here suggested some of the Polish victories were: Tannenberg. Moscow. Vienna. Monte Cassino. Saratoga. The Miracle at the Vistula.

And I brag to differ:

 

= Tanneberg (1410) — If the aim’s to pick a fight with Western Europe, that’s some, duh, victory. But if the aim’s to take the enemy’s capital and impose upon him your terms of the peace treaty – then Poland sustained a major defeat.

 

= Moscow (1610) — If the aim’s not to launch a bunch of adventurers into the Kremlin but to start a royal line of Polish monarchs steadfast on the tsar’s throne – then Poland was defeated.

 

= Vienna (1683) — If the aim’s to clear the path towards the forming of Austrian Empire to destroy Poland in return – call that a victory.

 

= Monte Cassino (1944) — If the aim’s to send the soldiers of Poland [betrayed in 1939 and re-betrayed in 1945] to their Mount Doom in Mordor of Italybe my guest, call it a victory.

 

Right?

 

And then, Poles don’t appreciate they scored some real victories. Great Polish victories. Greater Polish victories. Greatest Polish victories. They’ll be dazed and confused. “You mean, eh, we actually did win all of that?”

To end something in a victory – is not too Polish. It’s Polish to win a battle and lose a war. To suffer for suffering’s sake. To have false history classes instead of true middle classes. To sell cheap myths why we don’t buy expensive cars. Come, stranger, cry rivers with us.

 

So, in the other half of this episode I’ll tell you why — instead of crying — you can laugh at the myth of the winged horsepower of Poland. A bonus, some truths about Poland’s top sabre. (I mean, you need to know Wolodyjowski if you want to survive in Poland! Watch out for the shortest guy in the movie:

 

And stay tuned for more.)

 

PS The Battle of Warsaw (1920) was a victory – but that’s why it’s called a miracle. (And it must be added that soon after the battle Poland re-betrayed Ukraine. As if the reaction to the first betrayal should not teach us anything.) And Saratoga (1777) was a battle co-starring one Pole’s fancy to procure engineering work in America.

 

 

 

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