Poland's 'Return to Europe' Is a Plunge Into Modernity

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The Polish countryside is always about one epoch behind the times. Now that Poland is free, its countryside is once again out of step. Just as Polish peasants once refused communism, now they resist capitalism.

Under communism, Polish farmers were the only landowners in Eastern Europe able to keep their property. Millions of stubborn Polish smallholders, along with the unusually strong Roman Catholic Church, ensured that communism never reached very deep into Polish hearts. Their sons and daughters, the workers who formed the anticommunist Solidarity movement, articulated their resistance in terms of the religion and tradition they learned at home. Lech Walesa, Solidarity's first leader, is a proud peasant son himself.

Solidarity brought down communism in 1989, and so began the historic "return to Europe" of Poland and its neighbors.

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But now peasants still sell their produce to the state, as they did under the communists - 50 percent of farmers have no contact whatsoever with the marketplace. Though they own their own land, they are attached to the tiny and bizarrely shaped plots their fathers and grandfathers saved from collectivization. About a quarter of the Polish population lives off agriculture - about five times the percentage in America or Western Europe.

This outdated mode of production can make for a haunting gothic beauty. Whereas the American countryside is blanketed by huge fields of a single color - "amber waves of grain" - Polish fields are a patchwork quilt of almost every color. Whereas our agricultural work is done by giant combines and tractors, Poles still work the fields with plow horses and reap the harvest by hand with sickles. The view of these slow movements across the mosaic of the fields can be spectacular, especially as dusk erases the other signs of human habitation.

The last time I was in the country, near a little town called Gamek, which means "pot," I stayed in an inconspicuous 18th-century farmhouse without running water and electricity that somehow escaped the concrete and barbed wire communist-era remodeling done to most buildings. As Polish cities have quickly become showcases of modern capitalism, villages like Gamek remain what they were. Under communism they seemed like bastions of a regretted past; today they often figure as simple examples of contrariness.

The countryside still preserves old traditions, forgotten dialects, and simple faith - all of which, along with the boredom, cause the young and ambitious to flee to the cities. In Gamek, there is nothing to do: If you tire of the colorful fields, you won't be long amused by the occasional passing horse and wagon. At night, the blue light of television shining from behind the closed remains of house after house bespeaks not openness to the outside world but isolation.

So as Poland returns to Europe, the Polish countryside remains where it has always been, a step behind.

The reforms begun by Solidarity governments (1989-1993) will earn Poland full membership in the NATO alliance, and a chance to negotiate membership in the European Union (EU). After four years of government by former communists (1993-1997), Solidarity regained power in the parliamentary elections last September. Its two branches - a liberal party and a patriotic movement - now govern in coalition, and should complete the reforms they began. Poland has just thanked the US Senate for ratifying the enlargement of NATO, and packed its first negotiators off to Brussels to begin membership negotiations with the EU.

But the countryside stands between Warsaw and Brussels. Although cheap Polish produce could dominate European markets once Poland joins the EU, Polish peasants are fearful of foreign competition. Until these last elections, most farmers voted for a post-communist People's Party, the most backward political formation in Poland. In government with the post-communist socialists (1993-1997), the People's Party taught the peasants to fear change. Its absence from the present coalition clears the way for needed agricultural reform. Not only does much of Poland's produce fail to meet EU standards, but the EU cannot afford to extend its agricultural subsidies to Poland's millions of farmers.

So as irony would have it, the reforms of the 1990s must strike at some of the very groups which brought about the Polish revolution of the 1980s.

Solidarity's first reforms, after 1989, decimated the working class which had created the movement. The next round will eventually reshape the traditional Polish countryside, home of the values those workers brought to the cities where a new middle class and millions of new jobs have arisen to make Poland Europe's most impressive economy over the past five years. The EU will help with the next stage, with aid to restructure agriculture.

But when the dust from the last plow horse clears, when Poland's countryside is as modern as its cities, when Poland joins the EU, we will see that the "return to Europe" is not a return at all. It is rather an astonishingly rapid plunge into modernity, Poland's great chance to escape its historical backwardness.

The old countryside, doomed by this transformation, preserved the values which made that transformation possible. During the long winter of communism, Polish peasants saved the seed corn, the grains of tradition and faith which only now can bloom and prosper. As their moment passes, they are due a word of thanks from all of us who reap the benefits.

* Tim Snyder, temporarily based in Prague and Warsaw, is a historian at the Center for International Affairs at Harvard University.

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