Kresy jako miejsce pamięci – historia długiego trwania

Nations - History and Memory

The Kresy as a Memorial: the Long History of Persistence

Publication: 14 October 2021

NO. 8 2012



The interest in the Kresy has gone beyond their actual territory. The Kresy are omnipresent, as their former inhabitants have been dispersed, but also due to the status of the Kresy as one of the main categories of defining Polish culture. Poland is full of unquestioning apologists of the Kresy, as well as critics of the nostalgic, sentimental approach. However, it would be difficult to identify a social group, political party or organisation which has refused to acknowledge them on purpose.

Is it likely that the myth of the Kresy Wschodnie (Eastern Borderlands) in Polish will cease to exist? The early 1990s appeal of the French historian Daniel Beauvois, which marked out one aspect of the dispute about Polish memory after 1989, continues to recur, and remains an open issue. Today, one thing is certain: namely, the Kresy are a Polish memorial which is vibrant and brims with individual emotion, as well as carrying a mythical meaning. The longing for a lost homeland inspires a diversity of recollections, making the Kresy part of the cultural memory of successive generations of Polish people. Furthermore, continuous efforts have been made to find an alternative historical description of the Kresy. The efforts to historify the discourse on the region do not necessarily mean that it will vanish from the mosaic of Polish memorials. It seems that we have yet to witness a long dispute concerning the definitional potential of the Kresy in the context of Polish national identities.

The loss

The history of the Kresy as a Polish realm of memory is like a process of creation of a national imagined community. The story of the area’s identity is being supplemented with facts, events, and characters so that they complement a feeling of community and a sense of the continuity of tradition. The Kresy have acquired the qualities of a realm of memory since the 1960s. Some of the historical and emotion-al potential that is essential for creating kresowość (borderlandness) as a new value could be traced as early as the 17th century; it was most certainly there around the early 19th century. Among political elites, it would be based on a sense of injustice and humiliation caused by the loss of independence in 1795. That particular condition worsened due to the provisions of the peace treaty between France and Russia (1807), and were sealed by decisions made at the Congress of Vienna (1815). A hope emerged for regaining in-dependence when the Duchy of Warsaw was created under the aegis of Napoleon (1807–1815); however, a sense of injustice developed, again, as the east-ern lands of the former Republic of Poland (which later became the geographical Kresy) were incorporated into the Russian Empire. As they were separated from Poland by a border post, they came to be called the Stolen Lands.

The first person to name and define the region in Polish – with the word kresy (which is the plural form of kres, i.e. borderland) – was Wincenty Pol. Earlier, according to the first ever Dictionary of the Polish Language, written by Samuel Bogumił Linde (1815), only the singular form of the common noun kres, krys, existed, meaning “border” and “marked end”. Born into a Warmia family, where Polish, German, and French were spoken (owing to his mother’s origin), Pol was raised in a patriotic Polish atmosphere. He is one of the most renowned Polish authors of the Romantic period. In the knight’s rhapsody Mohort, published in the mid-19th century, the writer described the life story of a “borderland knight” fighting against the enemies of Poland. The more than 100-year-old Szymon Mohort personified Polishness, the essence of which was “love and duty towards God and the Homeland”. Pol set his poem in the landscape of the area between the Dniester and the Dnieper rivers with its military fortifications built to ward off Tatar invasions into the land of the Republic of Poland. He did not, however, picture the Kresy as some sort of a mythical area. On the contrary, he saw it as specific territorial units located on the edge of the Republic.

Having said that, it is Wincenty Pol who is universally (sometimes even in literary studies, too) seen as the father of the founding myth of the Kresy. However, according to the Polish literature specialist Jacek Kolbuszewski, Pol’s aim was to “resurrect only one character”, that is to say, the legendary, invincible knight Mohort. By invoking the ideals of defence of Poland and Christianity, Pol would appeal to several generations of Poles dreaming about regaining their independent homeland. Evidence of Mohort’s popularity is the fact that the poem was included in the compulsory reading list in Polish schools in Galicia, and also that it was published in the Russian partition, and in St Petersburg and Vienna. By 1922, a total of twelve editions of the work had been published. The Song of Our Land, written in a similar spirit, was published eleven times, and Songs of Janusz were learnt by heart and recited by young people in Galicia, as well as in the Congress Kingdom of Po-land. Some even claim that, in terms of popularity, all the aforementioned works by Wincenty Pol have competed with the Polish national epic poem Pan Tadeusz by Adam Mickiewicz.

Axiology appropriates territory

The way in which the Kresy region was perceived and described was created by Romanticism. Even critics of Romanticism had to acknowledge its main ideas, namely, struggle for freedom, dedication to one’s home country, and love for a lost homeland. Everyone would become “sons of the Homeland” in Vilnius and Lviv, as well as in Warsaw and Kraków. Polish Romanticism was both a literary period and a ritualised message of cultural memory. A part of the social life, it generated a symbolic “iconosphere” in which the modern national identity was defined. The power of the identity code that was shaped at the time resulted from the fact that the high quality of literature and the source of Polish mythology (i.e. the events around the year 1800) had no other cultural alternative which would satisfy the elite’s expectations. One of the forms of Polish Romanticism was messianism, in which Poland was presented as the “Christ of nations”. In this way, the narrative of Polish national sacrifice and suffering was given a sacral dimension.

By the early 1920s, the symbolism attached to the notion of the “Kresy” would considerably expand in terms of semantics and space. The notion became increasingly important in the transfer of popular national ideas to the society as a whole. A “lost”, or “sto-len” region, the Kresy came to embody the political myth of Poland which, owing to an ardent spirit of patriotism and the “decrees of God”, is to be reborn again. They were no longer a mere background to the national narrative (like in Pol’s poetry), but they would increasingly become its very subject. Further-more, the attribute of kresowość would be connected post facto with earlier concepts and political myths, especially Sarmatism and antemurale christianitatis (the bulwark of Christendom).

Contemporary scholars (literary historian Maria Janion, philosopher and historian of ideas Marcin Król) agree that, to the Polish people, the Roman-tic message was just as important as its interpretations. Poland’s history since the 1820s has large-ly been a continuation, reinterpretation, trivialisation, and condemnation of Romanticism[1].
1 No wonder then that, almost parallel to the trend of perceiving the Kresy as a realm of memory, an emotionally neutralised legend of the region emerges:

“In everyday life in the late 19th century, it [the notion of the “Kresy” – RT] would lose its significance, because traditional components of the myth of the Kresy collided with actual reality. Thus, it would increasingly become an idealised historical notion – a mere tale of a glorious past rather than a myth capable of inspiring and integrating people.”[2]

As early as 1860, Jan Zachariasiewicz called upon people to move the  Kresy from the  Dnieper and the Ukrainian Steppes to the Warta and Noteć riverbanks, where “the real struggle for Polishness was fought”. The symbolic meaning of the region was fur-ther blurred by politicians. Jan Ludwik Popławski, an  ideological father of the  National Democracy movement, would see the borderland in every single place where the “Polish element” clashed with other ethnic and national groups, that is to say, in Bukowina, Cieszyn Silesia, Upper Silesia, East Prussia, and Pomerania. Jacek Kolbuszewski claims that, despite deliberate propaganda, the effort to universalise the myth of the Kresy and to transfer it onto all border territories did not bring the expected results.

A circumstance which was favourable in the pro-cess of mythologising the Kresy was a dispute about the Polish society’s attitude towards foreign authority, an effort to define modern patriotism in a situation when a real chance of regaining independence seemed remote. This argument dominated the public debate between the 1870s and the outbreak of the First World War. It assumed special importance as Ukrainian and Lithuanian national movements developed. As a reaction to the obvious, but not dominant tendencies of self-assimilation (“merging with Russia so as to […] revive in Slavdom”), inspired by Polish in-telligentsia of different political orientations, an un-written code of the modern Pole emerged in which boundaries between patriotism and national treason were set[3]. One of the code’s ideological pillars was about invoking the times of glory and magnificence of the Republic of Poland, and the bravery and heroism of the Polish people. The Kresy – a “lost area” – were indeed the perfect field to cultivate these values. It was the vast areas of Podolia, Halych Ruthenia, Volyn, and later also Lithuania and Livonia that served as the setting for most Polish national novels.

The archetype of kresowość was essentially made up of four components: namely, heroic defence of the stronghold of Polishness against hordes of infidels and enemies of the Republic of Poland (the myth of antimurale christianitatis); pastoral landscape and idyllic life (the myth of Arcadia and Sarmatism), exoticism of a mysterious distant land; a courageous, righteous and slightly sentimental hero “devoted to God and the Homeland”.

Two self-complementary images of the  Kresy emerged. The first was created by Henryk Sienkiewicz. The type of narrative and the story in his Trilogy, published in the 1880s, became a “meta-space of adventure” in which the chivalrous characters, wild scenery, and dynamic plot made up a kind of a European Western (Kolbuszewski). Regardless of the artistic value of the Nobel Prize laureate’s prose, we must recognise the indisputable thesis formulated by literary critics, that Sienkiewicz captured the imagination of several Polish generations. His most popular books are set in the boundless Ukrainian landscape of Wild Fields (now Zaporizhia), the steppes of Podolia, and Cossack stanitsas on the Dnieper. Sienkiewicz’s Ukrainian creations such as Ukraine’s national hero, Hetman Bohdan Khmelnytsky (1595–1657), Cossack atamans, and characters from Ukrainian folk tales, have also become part of the Polish national mythology. In these creations, references can be found to the typically Romantic fascination with Ukrainian-ness (Rusynness) as a component of the Slavic com-munity, Ukrainness as intriguing folklore of the former Republic of Poland. Sienkiewicz’s Ukrainians are part of “our own”, Polish community. Owing to Sienkiewicz’s writings, the great battles that the Polish fought with Turks, Tatars, Moscals, and Cossacks in the 17th century went beyond their historical context and acquired the meaning of a literary and artistic myth which became widespread as historical truth, and in this way became part of cultural memory.

This way of perceiving the geographical Kresy, inherent in the strong 19th-century tradition of Sarmatism, favoured a further broadening of the region’s chronological as well as semantic meaning. Sarmatism was a type of ideology of the Polish nobility, popular from the 17th century, out of which a unique cultural formation developed. Its ideological core was the conviction that a “genuine Pole” is a Polish-speaking Catholic who fights for “God, Freedom, and Homeland”. This message aroused contradictions and conflict in a multi-ethnic and multi-religious environment, but at the same served as a stimulus to the unique form of Polish political nation. Sarmatian ideology included, among other things, the myth of the earliest beginnings of the Polish nation, created by ancient Sarmates who inhabited the steppe west of the Black Sea – the furthest reaches of the Republic of Poland. Thus, the Kresy were equated with the founding myth of the Polish nation, a part of which were also Ruthenians and Lithuanians, “fighting shoulder to shoulder to defend the Holy Cross from heathens and the Moscow Schism”[4]. The idea of the bulwark of Christendom favoured the sacralisation of the historic mission of the Kresy. This was reflected in an expansion and domination of the influence of Roman Catholic Church confronted with the Orthodox Church and the Uniate Church (since the Union of Brest in 1596). In the 19th century, under Russian rule, the Roman Catholic Church found itself under pressure from the Tsar’s authority and had to protect its possessions – which supported the idea of Polish people as a “nation entrusted to the special care of God”. A broad public confidence, also in the interwar years, was enjoyed by the Marian cult, manifested in pilgrimages to sanctuaries with images of “the miraculous Blessed Virgin Mary” of the Kresy, and also to the famous Polish Calvaries. A cult of saints – heroes who died for faith in the Kresy – spread across the country.

The other vision of the Kresy was expressed to its fullest by the prose of Maria Rodziewiczówna, Poland’s most popular writer of the first forty years of the 20th century. Her Kresy encompass Samogitia and Polesye and are considerably different from the actual geographic region. The writer’s oeuvre was not only a glorification of pastoral life, but also an ideological message whose basis consisted in social solidarism, the cult of native nature, and defence of Polish national identity. In her works, the female writer cultivated the figure of the Polish mother whose sons have died or suffered for their homeland. A lonely woman, she becomes the embodiment of national and social life, acting as a philanthropist, a teacher, and a protector of hearth and home. This literary type of mother and social worker, set in the landscape of Polesye and Lithuania, defined a model for the patriotic woman in the early 20th century. In contrast, colourful anti-heroes emerged, appealing to the popular imagination: “…various layabouts and squanderers, careerists travelling to Russia, changing their faith and marrying Russian women […], cosmopolites, socialists kowtowing to the ‘black God’, and Moscals. Furthermore, Jewish usurers and innkeepers encouraging peasants to drink, lessees of mills and distilleries, trading in land, forests and cattle, collaborating with Russians and ruining the Polish kresowość…”[5]

The colour of the national and social diversity of the Kresy region was present in the literary works of Sienkiewicz, Rodziewiczówna, and dozens of other novelists, as well as poets and painters. The peaceful or maybe even idyllic quality of perceiving national relations resulted from a widespread paternalist and solidarist ideology: the togetherness of the folk, landowners, and intelligentsia. In this approach, social as well as national stratifications became completely unimportant. Lords were Poles – righteous protectors; and peasants were Ruthenians, Ukrainians, or Lithuanians who were educated by the virtuous Polish landowners. This literary motif is best shown in the following sentence from Maria Dunin-Kozicka’s widely-read novel, Storm from the East: “We liked […] Ruthenian people, we spoke to them using their language, we enjoyed singing various Ukrainian dumkas and shumkas, and, as we were never hostile towards them, we never sensed hostility towards Polishness in them.”[6]

The “others”, needing care, would become the target of this civilisational mission. They played the role of a slightly backward yet good folk who, owing to their contact with “enlightened lords” become better, and in time more Polish, too. Even though colonialism never existed in Poland, the colonial nature of those declarations became part of the popular West European “white man’s ideology”.

The role of the “bad ones”, excluded from the national community, frequently the role of traitors, was taken by socialists and Jews. The former did not create an alternative borderland narrative. Instead of creating a competitive world, Jewish people (with their powerful intellectual and political centres in Vilnius and Lviv) who dominated the demographic structure of borderland towns, made up their very own mythical world which was embodied by life in the shtetl and the image of a wise Rabbi. This world’s cultural epicentre was Vilnius, “the Jerusalem of the North”.

 Making Vilnius and Lviv part of the Kresy

Warfare on the Eastern front in 1915 and 1916 and, later, the outbreak of the Russian Revolution, left the Kresy with incalculable material damage, causing the region to suffer considerable losses in men. The tragic events were accompanied, between 1918 and 1921 in particular, with a struggle over the borders of a new Polish state, and the Polish-Soviet War. As in the late 18th century, the Kresy became the scene of events significant for Poland as a whole. The “bleeding border” assumed new mythological potential; first and foremost, however, it was a most tangible painful reality. “Cultural monuments erected over hundreds of years turned into a blood-soaked pile of ashes,”[7] as the writer Kornel Makuszyński tersely described the situation in the Kresy region after the First World War.

Beginning around these dramatic events, Vilnius and Lviv, which were situated far away from the Kresy, and served as major cities in Polish culture, came to be identified with kresowość. In 1920, inspired by Józef Piłsudski, Vilnius was captured by the army led by General Lucjan Żelichowski, and, in spite of the intervention of Lithuania and many European countries, incorporated into Poland. Marshal Piłsudski, born in the vicinity of Vilnius, was the archetypal borderland Pole in that he was courageous, kind-hearted, and whole-heartedly dedicated to his homeland. Between 1918 and 1920, Lviv became the arena for bloody Polish-Soviet-Ukrainian battles. As a result of the battles, this city, as well as Eastern Galicia, was also incorporated into Poland. Two symbols of the “defence of Lviv” became the permanent symbol of heroism and dedication in the fight for the Homeland, namely, the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, and the Memorial of Lviv Eagles. As far as the former is concerned, it was made by transferring the ashes of one of the unknown defenders of Lviv as a symbolic foundation stone to the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier established in Warsaw in 1925. As regards the latter, the fact that the fight against Ukrainians and Soviets was participated in by voluntary units of children/young people (the youngest participant was nine years old) – commemorated in history as “Lviv Eagles” – came to stand for utter dedication and patriotism. The solemnity of their attitude was given a religious aspect by the Lvivian poet Kazimierz Bukowski:

Blessed are those,
who with their eyes fixed on the star of the Homeland,
were killed in the Kresy, defending their town,
for their death is the Nation’s greatest pride
and amongst heroes they’ll be placed –
the blessed! [8]

Lviv came to be widely perceived as a heroic city. It symbolised a new type of “Polish stronghold”, which was earlier immortalised in Romantic poetry, or the novels by Henryk Sienkiewicz.

The literary image of the Kresy Wschodnie received support from Poland’s first official international representatives for over a hundred years, as well as from legal political parties. There was nothing new about the political definition of the Kresy, but it was during the First World War that, for the first time ever, the region assumed a real political dimension due to the fact that the state borders had to be delineated. The sole points of reference were the borders of pre-partition Poland (1772), extending to the Dnieper in the southeast, the Polish Livonia in the north, and Belarus Minsk in the east. According to the Gdańsk political historian Roman Wapiński, however, among major political powers there was no tendency to return to the borders of pre-partition Poland. The Kresy were an important part of ideology and practical strategy in the programmes of national democratic parties, mainly represented by Roman Dmowski’s National Democracy movement, for the longest time. By the end of the war, all political orientations, apart from Communists, would discuss the subject of the region. In these discussions, the Kresy appeared as a part of the interwar period’s fundamental argument about an idea of federal (also referred to as “Jagiellonian”) Poland (broadly conceived groups centred around Józef Piłsudski’s ruling camp), and an incorporation idea, an idea of Poland as a “great Catholic state of the Polish nation” (strong right-wing opposition). The latter idea also referred to the borders of the Piast-period Poland, which were moved westwards. The main point of the argument was not so much about how far Poland’s borders were supposed to reach, but how one was supposed to treat the independence of Belarus, Lithuania, Ukraine, and also national minorities inhabiting the eastern parts of Poland. Strong independence movements, chiefly Lithuanian and Ukrainian, caused an increasing sense of the political foreignness of the eastern region of the First Republic of Poland. At the same time, the Soviet threat deepened the vision of Poland as bulwark of West European civilisation[9]. In this context, the ruling camp developed the concept of the “Promethean idea” (supporting non-Russian nations of the USSR), which was also presented as the political concept of “Intermaria”, based on a loyal co-operation of East Central Europe’s countries. The Kresy, mainly the “captured” Vilnius (Lithuania) and the “defended” Lviv (Eastern Galicia), played an important role in domestic politics as a nation- and state-building factor. The National Democratic Party also included in their political programme the Kresy Zachodnie (Western Borderlands), namely, Polish-German border areas. The role of a historical equivalent of the Kresy Zachodnie, created in historiography and historical journalism, was played by “native lands” which, in the course of time, originated the myth of Regained Lands.

In the interwar period, novels by Maria Rodziewiczówna and Henryk Sienkiewicz were still the most popular books in Poland. The mythology of the Kresy spread from belles-lettres to pamphlets and country community newspapers published in thousands of copies. Most importantly, the Kresy issues became a permanent part of the curriculum – dominated by the image of the Kresy as an area where the heroic struggle over Poland’s independence was fought. The region was threatened by the newly forming national Lithuanian and Ukrainian movements, allegedly the result of a Soviet conspiracy. This was why the new Lithuanian state was treated in a disrespectful and patronising manner[10]. In Krzysztof Buchowski’s opinion, the myth of Poland’s eastern “younger brothers”, who were Christianised and culturally educated by the Polish, was becoming stronger.

Paradoxically, in comparison with the above, in the Kresy the situation was perceived in a different light, that is to say, the problems of everyday life were crucial in the discussion about the region. Owing to Józef Mackiewicz’s outstanding reportages (The Revolt of the Marshes, 1938), published in popular Vilnius newspapers, they also reached a wide public. The Kresy as presented by Mackiewicz are not a mythical area. On the contrary, they are permeated with destitution and apathy, difficult living conditions, and a struggle for survival against nature which is not charming but hostile.

Myth – realism – phantom

During the Second World War, the Kresy became a temporary area between the Soviet occupation (until June 1941) and the German occupation. As a result of the Yalta and Potsdam Conference, after the year 1945 the region as a whole was incorporated into the Soviet Union. To Poles, Ukrainians, and Lithuanians of the Kresy, the Soviet occupation turned out to be extremely brutal, which is symbolised in the Polish memory by the mass murder of Polish soldiers in Katyń (1940), in particular. The Sovietisation of the Eastern Kresy caused, during the Second World War, mass deportations of Polish citizens of the Second Polish Republic into the depths of the USSR (historians estimate the number of the deported to be over 300,000) and to Germany for forced labour (more than 400,000), then a migration to Western Europe, and finally a forced migration to Poland’s western and northern lands with the newly delineated borders (a total of approximately 1.3 million people)[11]. Again, like in the early 19th century, strong Polish intellectual centres developed abroad, chiefly in London (the seat of the government-in-exile) and in Paris. Various ways of commemorating the lost Kresy would also emerge.

The interwar myth of the Kresy was retained abroad by politicians, as well as the rapidly growing culture. A demand that Poland should regain its border from before the year 1939 was part of the government-in-exile’s policy until the 1980s. The Polish government in London advocated “integrity of the Republic” and “recovering the possession of the beloved eastern lands”.

Parisian Kultura circle perceived the essence of the transformation after 1945 in active dialogue and partner involvement in contact with Poland’s eastern neighbours. Inspired by, among other things, the interwar experience of the Kresy and the discourse on the region, Jerzy Giedroyc, Juliusz Mieroszewski, Jerzy Stempowski and their collaborators formulated a new, critical political and cultural programme for Poland, which has survived until today under the acronym of “ULB” (Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus). Contrary to the dominant nostalgic, sentimental memory leading to political helplessness, they proposed “active memory” which ought to become the matter of Poland’s future democratic consciousness. “Active memory” was about accepting the loss of the region, cultivating kresowość, and also understanding the identity of other national communities and the aspirations of Belarus, Lithuania, and Ukraine to become independent states. The concept of ULB became a permanent element of Poland’s foreign policy after 1989[12].

Besides literature, historiography also played a significant role in creating historical consciousness among Polish immigrants. Historical thought served a compensatory purpose. It became part of a specific social demand; in many aspects, it idealised the national past. Like in politics, the Kresy were treated as an integral part of Polish civilisational area. Poland’s entitlement to the region was supposed to result from centuries-old labour and tribute of blood. Interpreted in this way, the Kresy would lose their inner uniqueness: the Vilnius land blended with the Grodno land; Polesye blended with the Lviv land. The differentia specifica of the Kresy was marginalised, and they lost their original characteristics[13].

In Poland, until the mid-1950s the Kresy region was absent from official culture due to the fact that the former eastern lands of the Second Polish Republic had been incorporated into the Soviet Union. After 1956, the national literary canon with Mickiewicz and Sienkiewicz was gradually re-introduced to the school curriculum. The notion of “Kresy”, however, remained on the blacklist. Several million Poles were connected with this area in different ways, but they were not allowed to discuss it openly. A “phantomisation” of the Kresy occurred The meaning of this notion is best illustrated by the renowned Polish lexicographer Władysław Kopaliński’s Dictionary of Myths and Cultural Traditions. In his 1985 (sic!) opus magnum (1360 pages), aside from references to ancient tradition and modern European culture, we can find among the entries both Wincenty Pol’s Mohort and The Song of Our Land, and the eastern motifs from the works by Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, and Henryk Sienkiewicz. It would be no use trying to find the word Kresy[14]. Kopaliński described all attributes of the cultural phenomenon of kresowość in Polish culture, but omitted the name of the region itself. This shows the mechanism of creating a phantomatic reality in the system of monopolised history by the ideology of “socialist state”; everyone knew that the Borderlands existed, but nobody would mention them publicly. The approach towards the Vilnius and Lviv traditions of two prestigious Polish universities, in Toruń and in Wrocław, was similar. Not only was the student community well aware that the tradition of the universities of Vilnius and Lviv were continued, but, officially, the history of the universities in Toruń and Wrocław began after 1945. At the same time, it did not even cross anybody’s mind to refer to Wrocław University using its official name, that is the Bolesław Bierut University.

In the Polish People’s Republic, the “non-existence” of the Kresy was manifested in the general perception of national and patriotic issues in public life (in schools, state celebrations, youth organisations’ activities) when the doctrine of the “internationalist socialist state” was officially binding. This paradox was able to work solely due to the fact that Poland’s cultural oeuvre was bowdlerised, deprived of passages and interpretations that disrupted the “brotherly alliance” with the Soviet Union (and also the Kresy region, the USSR’s geographic and political segment). At the same time, the most outstanding artists inherently connected with the Kresy, namely, Mickiewicz, Słowacki, Moniuszko, Szymanowski, Sienkiewicz were not banned. The brutal Sovietisation of the Kresy and the Ukrainian massacres in Volyn were erased from textbooks and, in a broader sense, cultural memory.

However, the issues of the eastern lands of the Second Polish Republic could be present in public space to some extent as the Kresy were always attainable by the imagination. This was a trend in outstanding Polish prose, which was about escaping into the past and imagination, and also finding one’s identity in the memory of the Kresy (Lithuania, Ukraine, Galicia)[15]. Autobiographism, which often appears in this type of literature, allowed the writers to invoke eastern lands (never referred to as the Kresy) by idealising the native land, recalling the myth of Arcadia, describing the brotherhood of various nationalities, religions, languages, and cultures, as well as creating Polish national identity. As Jan Błoński claims, this trend existed in the works of émigré writers (for example Czesław Miłosz, Stanisław Vincenz) as well as domestic ones (Tadeusz Konwicki, Andrzej Kuśniewicz, Leopold Buczkowski, to name but a few).

In his cycle Elegies, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, the most influential creator of literary life in the Polish People’s Republic, outstanding prose writer and poet, lyrically expressed giving up the old myth, and the necessity to create a new image of Poland:

It’s gone. Closed. Finished. For ever!
I don’t stop this water. It’s floating away, it’s leaving.
Let it run where all, all rivers disappear,
The old world bent down; a new day is born.

Thanks to Julian Stryjkowski’s Galician trilogy (mainly Austeria) and Kuśniewicz’s novels, the Kresy world was complemented with a colourful picture of Jewish community life that was very different from the popular myth introduced by Maria Rodziewiczówna.

The 1970s set off a boom in heroic adventure films set in the beautiful, severe landscapes of Ukrainian Podolia and Zaporizhia. Moviegoers’ interest in the region was inspired by the filmmaker Jerzy Hofmann and his screen visions of Polish national literary classics. His tremendous success (equalled only by Aleksander Ford’s earlier Knights of the Teutonic Order) was mainly due to his film adaptations of the third and second parts of Henryk Sienkiewicz’s Trilogy: Colonel Wolodyjowski (premiered in 1969) and The Deluge (premiered in 1974). The greatest film productions of the Polish People’s Republic era enjoyed record-breaking attendance in cinemas, as well as countless reruns on both of the two Polish Television channels operating at the time. Later, Hoffman adapted other pre-war borderland classics for the silver screen, including Leper, the most popular novel of the interwar period (published sixteen times by 1939), written by Helena Mniszkówna.

Polish readers increasingly broadened their knowledge on the Kresy as a result of clandestine publications, mainly by the Parisian Kultura and Literary Institute in Paris. In mimeograph printed books and Radio Free Europe’s programmes, extremely popular were subjects officially banned by the regime censorship. The ban chiefly concerned the Soviet occupation of the Kresy, deportations, and the crime of genocide on Polish soldiers. Between 1982 and 1987, Józef Czapski’s book The Inhuman Land (1949) was published illegally nine times in Poland. Legally, it appeared in print in 1990. Another World, by the outstanding Italian-based writer Gustaw Herling-Grudziński, was also very popular. After 1990, this book became part of the required reading. The two Gulag stories complemented the picture of borderland Polish people’s experience.

Return to tradition and the argument over bestowing new meanings

Since 1989, the Kresy and kresowość have gradually been recovering their mythical dimension. For more than twenty years, Poles have been witnesses to and actors in the process of an enthusiastic release of the longing for the lost Kresy. The inherently human need to remember, sentimentalise, and idealise the native land that was “forbidden” for decades has been incorporated into great ideological narratives and political programmes. When censorship was abolished, the political system was democratised, and the contacts with immigrant circles became legal again, the demand for subjects that were moved from public life to family tradition at best resurfaced. Consequently, societies for promoting the former eastern lands have emerged and developed, the Kresy have become part of political programmes; borderland festivals and performances have been organised. In a short time, the region became part of Poland’s cultural memory again. Monuments to those “killed in action in the East”, “Siberians”, and the “lost Kresy” can be found in prominent points of cemeteries and squares in most Polish cities. It is around them that patriotic ceremonies and national holidays are celebrated. Dozens of societies of friends and enthusiasts of Grodno, Vilnius, and Lviv organise sentimental journeys to their “native places” as well as borderlanders’ conferences and festivals. Old forgotten customs, rites, and songs have been revived. In interwar Poland varying attitudes between the partitions existed that defined the perception of the Kresy, whereas today – as a result of the unprecedented transfers of the population during and after the Second World War and the socialist policy of domestic migration – the interest in the Kresy has gone beyond their actual territory. The Kresy are omnipresent, as their former inhabitants have been dispersed, but also due to the status of the Kresy as one of the main categories of defining Polish culture. Poland is full of unquestioning apologists of the Kresy, as well as critics of the nostalgic, sentimental approach. However, it would be difficult to identify a social group, political party or organisation which has refused to acknowledge them on purpose.

The contemporary Polish author Włodzimierz Odojewski reeled off the names of artists of the borderlands in one go. Writers and poets: Adam Mickiewicz, Juliusz Słowacki, Antoni Malczewski, Władysław Syrokomla, Seweryn Goszczyński, Wincenty Pol, Ignacy Kraszewski, Henryk Sienkiewicz, Eliza Orzeszkowa, Maria Rodziewiczówna, Stanisław Mackiewicz and Józef Mackiewicz, Melchior Wańkowicz, Sergiusz Piasecki, Jarosław Iwaszkiewicz, Joseph Conrad (sic!); composers: Stanisław Moniuszko, Karol Szymanowski; painters: Artur Grottger, Józef Brandt, Juliusz Kossak, Leon Wyczółkowski[16]. The list could go on and on: Jerzy Giedroyc, Witold Gombrowicz, Bruno Schulz, Stanisław Ignacy Witkiewicz, Józef Wittlin, Czesław Miłosz, Jerzy Stempowski, Stanisław Lem, Witold Wirpsza, Tadeusz Konwicki, Ryszard Kapuściński, Adam Zagajewski, Czesław Niemen… What all these people have in common is the fact that they were born in the eastern lands of the Polish Republic. Above all, however, they are among the most outstanding creators of Polish culture of the 19th and 20th centuries, who incorporated autobiographical topics into their remarkable works in a most original fashion. Most of them spent part of their lives as émigrés, far from their native land, which naturally intensified their emotional attitude towards their “lost homeland” and personalised it. The values with which they filled the Kresy have been very diverse, dependent on their lifestories or political views. To some extent, this is illustrated in Odojewski’s selective list quoted above. The semantics of the term “kresy” has gone beyond its definition. Until today, political selectivity (excluding the characters and/or events which do not fit into the tradition of pre-war myth) has been accompanied by a process of incorporating “all things eastern” of the former Republic to the poetics of kresowość.

Fundamental arguments about the Kresy have been expressed by two opposing pairs of notions: sacralisation versus demythologisation, and a sense of longing versus commercialisation. It is only the sum of these narratives that makes up a contemporary, hybrid meaning of “the Kresy”. Despite the dominant trend of sacralisation, new meanings have been given to things; alternative narratives have been created of the Kresy as part of both Poland and its neighbouring countries. Or maybe some of these narratives are so unique that we are witnessing the creation of many alternative memorials, the core of which are the Kresy? Demythologisation has inspired a number of questions in this respect. Perhaps the Kresy will become a “family Europe” (Czesław Miłosz, Andrzej Mencwel)? Perhaps they will be absorbed into the broader notion of Central Europe versus Central Eastern Europe (Krzysztof Czyżewski), where they will meet the Ukrainian myth of Galicia (Andrzej Stasiuk, Yuri Andrukhovych)? Maybe they will transform into a mythical, multicultural borderland? Or else, in the course of new decades, they will simply become an attractive region of multicultural Europe, where, centuries ago, the Byzantine East met the Christian West, creating space for the Jewish, Muslim, and Armenian Orient?

These questions materialise as they have been constantly referred to in journalism (Gazeta Wyborcza versus Rzeczpospolita), non-profit organisations (Borderland in Sejny, Borussia in Olsztyn, the Lublin quarterly Kresy), numerous scientific publications indirectly influencing broad circles of the Polish intelligentsia community (for example the International Cultural Centre in Kraków). The condition of being weary with the mythologised interpretation of the Kresy was aptly described in the following complaint to Eliza Orzeszkowa, by the late poet Zbigniew Dominiak, editor of the Łódź monthly Tygiel Kultury:

No, Miss Eliza, let’s throw away those myths
The mission is over. Here on the Neman is
The sad culture bearer with a bag full of clothes
And sweets in colourful wrapping

Absolve this woman from staying at her outpost
I see. You’ve lied for a just cause
May my candy sweeten her bitterness
And let the Neman flow Faraway[17].

Many critics have made their motto the much-publicised expression of a necessity to “put an end to the myth of the Kresy”, which was first formulated in 1922 by the French historian, expert in the history of Poland and Ukraine, Daniel Beauvois. This message resulted from a critical analysis of social relationships, especially Polish landed gentry’s attitude towards Ukrainian peasants, as well as an urge to reinterpret the problems of the multi-ethnic region in a way similar to the ULB concept. Emotional tensions connected with the interpretation of the Kresy were revealed as Izabella Cywińska’s TV series God’s Lining (1997/1998 and 2003) was broadcast. The region, portrayed in the best tradition of television drama, was shown from an everyday life perspective. The atmosphere of the distant world of countryside near Vilnius, as presented in the series, was more similar to Józef Mackiewicz’s naturalistic reportages than to the idyllic imagery that Polish people had developed throughout the restrictive Communist period. During the many months that the show was broadcast, the most heated debate concerning the Kresy was conducted in the Third Polish Republic, which consolidated the opposing viewpoints.

The background to the most important discussions on the region has been the debate over the “end of the Kresy”. There is a consensus that the day of the Soviet invasion of Poland, namely 17 September 1939, was a groundbreaking moment. To some people, the Kresy ceased to exist as they became part of the history of Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, and also part of the multi-ethnic cultural borderland. Others perceive it as “destruction” which only requires a commemoration of Polishness[18]. Another approach, nostalgic as well as realistic, was formulated by Tadeusz Chrzanowski[19]: “Farewell, Kresy. This goodbye, however, is not final, because I wish to return to you both physically and mentally, and I wish to believe that the borders delineated after the Second World War do not divide but connect people; that history, even at its most bloody and cruel, will connect us”.

Today, the discussion has been polarised chiefly by the sacralisation of the Kresy. I will refer to one example which shows the scale of ideologisation and emotion of this discussion. On 18 April 2010, ten minutes after the funeral of Poland’s presidential couple in the royal crypt of Wawel cathedral, in his commentary for a national Polish television channel, Father Tadeusz Isakowicz-Zaleski (one of the main advocates of the Kresy revival movement) connected the murder of Polish officers in the Katyn forest (1940) with the plane crash near Smolensk. In the context of those events, he evoked the need to create a new myth of the Kresy, which would be immortalised by founding a “Kresy chapel” in Wawel Cathedral. In this way, there was a symbolic realisation of the Polish “Jagiellonian idea”, that is to say, the heroic idea of Poland as a superpower containing the former eastern lands. The Kresy would become the Golgotha of Polishness. The sacralisation current is close to the ideology of national and Catholic circles which, over the last few years, have been represented in the Sejm by the Law and Justice party, and in the public space by the Catholic Radio Maryja and high-circulation newspaper Nasz Dziennik. Efforts have been made to incorporate borderlanders into the myth of national unity and the mission of ethnic Poles scattered around the world. A leading role in this respect has been played by some programmes of the public TV channel Polonia, targeted at Polish people abroad. In the sacralising narrative, one can find a kind of a cultural schizophrenia, to quote the French-Polish specialist in literature Michał Masłowski: “a dilemma between the Romantic, messianic tradition which aims at connecting Poland, in a unique way, with European universalism, and the 20th-century world torn by wars and genocide”[20].

Nostalgia triggers emotions untainted by politics; it idealises one’s beloved distant homeland. In this narrative countless representations and attitudes meet which seem poles apart, ideology-wise. In my opinion, this is exemplified by both Czesław Miłosz and Ryszard Kapuściński, who were among the critics of Polish national megalomania. Miłosz defined himself not by kresowość but by his cultural ties with Lithuania – “my true spiritual homeland”, “my family European marches”, and Eastern Europe. However, The Issa Valley, depicting the poetic, sublime landscape of the writer’s homeland on the Lithuanian Nevėžis, makes his work part of the Kresy literature. Ryszard Kapuściński, like Marion Countess Dönhoff, who idealised the “East Prussian soul”, invoked the Kresy ethos: “I have been shaped by all things which shape the so-called borderland man. The borderland man is, always and everywhere, a man between two cultures, the man of the ‘in-between’. He is a man who from his childhood […] learns that people are different, and that otherness is simply an inherent part of human life”[21].

On a popular Polish right-wing website, however, we will find words of protest against the sentimentalisation of the Kresy region, and also encouragement to rationalise its perception: “I disagree with your lament over the so-called Kresy, for the names you mentioned [renowned artists born in the Kresy – R.T.] have functioned in Polish culture and tradition because they are great names and, additionally, Polish names, not because of their Kresy connotation. It is similar as regards the Polish immigrants who, over the last two centuries, have been creating Polish culture”[22].

Such a statement could also be published in a liberal Polish paper, because the different approaches to the issue of the Kresy do not directly reflect the different political viewpoints.

Likewise, the commercial aspect of the Kresy, which have become rather trendy, concerns different political options. This is manifested by the development of sentimental tourism of Polish people to the Kresy Wschodnie, a souvenir industry, and restaurants serving the region’s cuisine. The nostalgia and mythology of the Kresy have produced innumerable commemorative publications, picture albums, and guidebooks, and also souvenirs and gadgets. Kresy websites have had approximately 1.11 million views, but the Virtual Museum Kresy – Siberia has had only about 9000 views, although no Polish museum devoted to the Kresy has been established so far. Unexpectedly, the Kresy and Ziemie Odzyskane (Regained Territories) were associated in a non-political manner, during the 2010 presidential campaign, by Bronisław Komorowski, who invoked his family’s place of birth in Lithuania, and his birthplace, namely, Lower Silesia. He mentioned his origin in an ideology-free, casual manner, so as to appear a good guy. Judging by electronic media, newspapers, and the semantics of everyday life, we can definitely conclude that this demythologised way of defining the Kresy is now dominant in Poland.

Translated from the Polish by Paweł Łopatka



Daniel Beauvois, Trójkąt ukraiński. Szlachta, carat i lud na Wołyniu, Podolu i Kijowszczyźnie 1793–1914, Lublin 2005.

Krzysztof Buchowski, Litwomani i polonizatorzy. Mity, wzajemne postrzeganie i stereotypy w stosunkach polsko-litewskich w pierwszej połowie XX wieku, Białystok 2006.

Dziedzictwo kresów – nasze wspólne dziedzictwo?, ed. Jacek Purchla, Kraków 2006.

Encyklopedia Kresów, Kraków [undated].

Europa nieprowincjonalna: przemiany na ziemiach wschodnich dawnej Rzeczypospolitej (Białoruś, Litwa, Łotwa, Ukraina, wschodnie pogranicze III Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej) w latach 1772–1999, ed. Krzysztof Jasiewicz, Warszawa 1999.

Bolesław Hadaczek, Historia literatury kresowej, Szczecin 2008.

Jacek Kolbuszewski, Kresy, Wrocław 1996.

Kresy – pojęcie i rzeczywistość. Zbiór studiów, ed. Kwiryna Handtke, Warszawa 1997.

Kresy na nowo odkryte. Wspólne dziedzictwo Polski i Ukrainy, Kraków 2007.

Andrzej Romanowski, Prawdziwy koniec Rzeczy Pospolitej, Kraków 2006.


[1] Marcin Król, Romantyzm. Piekło i niebo Polaków, Warszawa 1998, p. 4; cf. Maria Janion, Płacz generała. Eseje o wojnie, Warszawa 1998.

[2] Jacek Kolbuszewski, Kresy, Wrocław 1996, pp. 84–85.

[3]Magdalena Micińska, Inteligencja na rozdrożach 1864–1914, Warszawa 2008, p. 110.

[4]Bolesław Hadaczek, Historia literatury kresowej, Szczecin 2008, pp. 54 and 52–57 and 68–76. Cf. Daniel Beauvois, Nowoczesne manipulowanie sarmatyzmem – czy szlachcic na zagrodzie był obywatelem?, in: (ed.) Przemysław Czapliński, Nowoczesność i sarmatyzm, Poznań 2011, pp. 121–140.

[5] B. Hadaczek, Historia literatury kresowej, op. cit., p. 119.

[6] Maria-Dunin Kozicka, Burza od Wschodu. Wspomnienia z Kijowszczyzny, Kraków 1925.

[7] Kornel Makuszyński, Radosne i smutne, Warszawa 1922, p. 78.

[8] Serce wydarte z polskiej piersi. Lwów w poezji, Warszawa 1993, p. 186.

[9] Roman Wapiński, Kresy w polskiej myśli politycznej w XIX i XX wieku, in: Kresy – pojęcie i rzeczywistość, by Kwiryna Handke, Warszawa 1997, pp. 100–101; cf. Między Polską etniczną a historyczną, Wrocław 1988 (in the series: Polska myśl polityczna XIX i XX wieku, vol. VI, ed. Wojciech Wrzesiński).

[10] Hanna Wójcik-Łagan, Litswini i stosunki polsko-litewskie w podręcznikach historycznych lat 1918–1939, in: Między Wschodem a Zachodem, ed. Hanna Dylągowa, Mirosław Filipowicz, Lublin 1994, pp. 31–42; Karol Sanojca, Obraz sąsiadów w szkolnictwie powszechnym Drugiej Rzeczypospolitej, Wrocław 2003, pp. 118–128.

[11] Przesiedlenie ludności polskiej z Kresów Wschodnich do Polski 1944–1947, ed. Stanisław Ciesielski, Warszawa 1999, pp. 11–12 and 48–49.

[12] Cf. Leszek Szaruga, Kresowa lekcja „Kultury” paryskiej, in: Tematy polsko-białoruskie, ed. Robert Traba, Olsztyn 2003, pp. 162–171.

[13] J. Kolbuszewski, Legenda Kresów w literaturze polskiej XIX i XX w., op.cit., p. 52; cf. Rafał Stobiecki, Obraz Kresów Wschodnich w historiografii polskiej na uchodźstwie po 1945 r., [in:] Wielokulturowe środowisko historyczne Lwowa w XIX i XX w., vol. IV, eds J. Maternicki, L. Zaszkilniak, Lwów–Rzeszów 2006, pp. 77–92.

[14] The publisher (the prestigious Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy) failed to correct this obvious omission even in the fifth, “revised” edition (1996)!

[15] Jan Błoński refers to this phenomenon as “immigration of imagination”, in: Bezładne rozważania starego krytyka, który zastanawia się, jak napisałby historię prozy polskiej w latach istnienia Polski Ludowej, Teksty Drugie 1990, issue 1.

[16] Kresy. Zapomniana ojczyzna, wstęp [introduction by] Włodzimierz Odojewski, fotografie [photographs by] Krzysztof Hejke, Warszawa [2007], n. pag.

[17] Bohatyrowicze, 23 czerwca 1996, in: Tematy polsko-litewskie, ed. by Robert Traba, Olsztyn 1999, pp. 160–162.

[18] Krzysztof Jasiewicz, Zagłada polskich Kresów: ziemiaństwo polskie na Kresach Północno-Wschodnich Rzeczypospolitej pod okupacją sowiecką 1939–1941, Warszawa 1998.

[19] Tadeusz Chrzanowski, Kresy, czyli obszary tęsknot, Kraków 2001, p. 220.

[20] Michał Masłowski, Problemy tożsamości. Szkice mickiewiczowskie i (post)romantyczne, Lublin 2006, p. 315.

[21] Człowiek z bagna, z Ryszardem Kapuścińskim rozmawia Barbara N. Łopieńska, Przekrój, 13.07.2003.

[22] Jerzy Kałwak in a discussion forum, replying to: Stanisław Srokowski, Czy polskie KRESY jeszcze coś znaczą? [Do the Polish Eastern Borderlands still mean anything?], (May 1st 2011).

About authors

Robert Traba

Professor of history, political scientist, theorist of culture, founder of the Olsztyn Stowarzyszenie Wspólnota Kulturowa „Borussia” and editor of the Borussia quarterly. He began his scholarly work at the Research Station of the Polish Historical Society in Olsztyn – professor of history, political scientist, theorist of culture, founder of the Olsztyn Stowarzyszenie Wspólnota Kulturowa „Borussia” and editor of the Borussia quarterly. He began his scholarly work at the Research Station of the Polish Historical Society in Olsztyn. In 1995–2003 he worked in the German Historical Institute in Warsaw. Since 2006 director of the Historical Research Centre of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Berlin. Co-president of the Polish-German Textbooks Commission. Honorary Professor of the Freie Universität in Berlin. His numerous writings include Kraina tysiąca granic. Szkice o historii i pamięci (A Land of a Thousand Lakes: essays on history and memory, Borussia, Olsztyn 2003), „Wschodniopruskość”. Tożsamość regionalna i narodowa w kulturze politycznej Niemiec (“Eastern-Borussianism”: regional and national identity in the German political culture, first edition PTPN, Poznań 2005, German edition Ostpreußen – die Konstruktion einer deutschen Provinz. Eine Studie zur regionalen und nationalen Identität 1914–1933, Fibre Verlag Osnabrück 2010), Historia – przestrzeń dialogu (History – a Space of Dialogue, Instytut Studiów Politycznych PAN, Warszawa 2006), Przeszłość w teraźniejszości (The Past in the Present, Wydawnictwo Poznańskie, Poznań 2009).  


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