Panel discussion at Georgetown University on Jerzy Giedroyc’s legacy

by Nicole Rybak

It is impossible correctly to understand transnational patriotism without learning about the life and good works of Jerzy Giedroyc. Born on July 27, 1906 in Minsk to a noble Polish-Lituanian family, Giedroyc did not do his most important work in Poland: although he went to school there, served as the editor of Polityka (Politics), and fought under General Anders in World War II.   After the war he moved to Paris and began editing and publishing the periodical for which he is best known, Kultura. This famous émigré literary-political journal appeared from 1947 to 2000 and served two purposes.  First, Kultura introduced new authors, such as Leo Lipski, and gave a forum to established writers, such as Wisława Szymborska. Second, and just as importantly, Kultura made Polish literary works accessible to those who lived in communist-occupied Poland. From beginning to end Kultura strongly advocated the reconciliation of Poland with Ukraine, Lithuania, and Belarus.

Initial statements made by Professor Iwona Sadowska introduced Kultura, its history-oriented counterpart Zeszyty historyczne (or Historical Notebooks), and all books published or reprinted through the efforts of Giedroyc and his team as an “island for those who sought refuge.” She reminded attendees of the power that literature harnessed, to the point where Communist leaders would not permit their open distribution, which made it necessary for patriotic readers to smuggle these works into Poland. Professor Sadowska said that preventing the legal spread of these works constituted a “trial again education,” and she praised the efforts of those involved in trying to bring important literature to  Poland under Communist rule.

Piotr Wilczek, the Ambassador of Poland to the United States, also recognized the importance of Giedroyc’s efforts, calling his establishment of Kultura as “legendary.” He mentioned his own fond memories of reading various issues of the publication, praising both the individual works of the authors and the historical importance of the publication itself.

Speaker Dovydas Špokauskas, Deputy Chief of Mission (DCM) of Lithuania’s Embassy in Washington linked the importance of Kultura and its legacy with what he called the “freedom of Europe.” He cited the contemporary internal political complications in Moldova and Georgia and the countries’ relations to other nations in Europe and around the world to support his argument that “the freedom of Europe is incomplete.” The DCM concluded that Giedroyc’s work inspired and continues to inspire the slow but sure development of this freedom.

No different from the previous speakers, Marcin Przydacz, Poland’s Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs, marveled at the open-mindedness of Giedroyc, echoing Professor Sadowska’s statement regarding how Kultura and its sibling publications became a “refuge for Polish people” and a stimulus for independent Polish thinking through tough times of oppression. Deputy Minister Przydacz described how the continuous publication of Kultura proved to be of great importance in changing attitudes towards the independence of Lithuania, Ukraine, and Belarus.

Dr. Saulius Sužiedėlis, a scholar focusing his research and studies on Eastern Europe and Russia began the panel discussion by mentioning the importance of reconciliation in relation to history and legacy. He spoke on the importance of confronting history, but not letting it weigh down present relations. To that end, Dr. Sužiedėlis cited Polish-Lithuanian conflicts as important to remember, but not good to dwell on, as he shed light on the fact that cultural similarities between the nations exist, and it doesn’t make sense to call the two “enemies,” per se, because “it’s important to look at what went wrong, but it’s also important to look at what went right,” especially in this case.

Ambassador Richard Kauzlarich, who has delivered lectures to several specialized groups in the Foreign Service, and who currently is visiting professor at George Mason University, expanded on the cultural aspects of the Giedroyc discussion.  He began by mentioning that different countries have different views of their cultures. These varying views could either be used for unity or alienation; recognizing but appreciating difference is how Giedroyc was able to get his ideas regarding the independence Lithuania, Ukraine, and Belarus across. Kauzlarich also touched on the importance of recognizing pre-1989 successes in the fight against Communism, echoing Dr. Sužiedėlis’ point about remembering what went right.

Scholar and political activist Vincuk Viačorka went on to elaborate on Ambassador Kauzlarich’s point by bringing Belarusan ideals directly into the context. He praised Gideroyc’s “pragmatism and idealism” and his belief in the Belarusan culture, an act that “caused Belarusans to believe in themselves” and fight for the values that their society held, rather than the values that the Communist-dominated Belarusan government held. Empowering “the people” through literature is an important trend present throughout history, and looking at this particular moment in history, it is vital to recognize Giedroyc’s contribution to the movement. 

The last speaker, Irena Lasota, journalist and president of the Institute for Democracy in Eastern Europe summed up the discussion by highlighting how Giedroyc did not follow pre-determined rules and was very much “a fighter.”  Giedroyc’s somewhat mischievous personality manifested itself in his plan for reconciliation, which actually included making some peace with the Soviet Union.  This confused nearly everyone who understood that though the Communist ideology was created in Europe, it was first put into practice in Russia. This all circles back to cultural differences in relation to unity, so in light of that ideology, one could see how he came up with this controversial solution. He was also a part of the Congress for Cultural Freedom, an anti-communist advocacy group created by the CIA, which made him “not only a window to the East, but a window to the West”, as he attended these conferences.

Overall, this conference was able to provide both attendees with no previous information about Giedroyc and attendees who extensively have studied him and his publications with new perspectives and new information regarding various aspects of his literary persona and its long-term impact on our past and present. We can all learn from Jerzy Giedroyc’s ideals, which are mostly based on paradoxically embracing difference in order to create unity, something that the world so desperately needs.

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