In this week’s issue of The Spectator, Timothy Garton Ash announces the winner of the prize founded in his name for European writing. Below is the extract from his diary, as well as the winning entry.
I’m delighted to learn that a former student of mine, Annabelle Chapman, is the first winner of The Spectator’s Timothy Garton Ash Prize — and especially so because she writes about Poland and eastern Europe. Nice though it is to have a prize offered in my name, it does make me feel vaguely, well, deceased. I recall a bibulous Spectator lunch many years ago when the question came up if so-and-so was dead. Alexander Chancellor memorably responded, ‘Er, I don’t think he is… completely.’
Winter in Warsaw
Jaroslaw Kaczynski lives alone. His semi-detached house stands in the leafy neighbourhood of Zoliborz in northern Warsaw, small and unassuming. Closing the door on the winter night, he pulls off his black trench coast and sturdy hiking boots. Now 66, he lived for years without his own bank account, sharing his mother’s instead. He never married, but he had a cat. Neighbours rarely see him, though they heard the protesters outside his house that December night; supporters on one side, critics on the other. He goes by the title prezes or chairman, but is neither president nor prime minister. Even so, Kaczynski is the most powerful man in Poland, and one of the most divisive.
It was an October revolution, of sorts. Kaczynski’s right-wing Law and Justice party swept back to power after eight years in opposition, defeating the worn-out centrist government. People in London still ask me what went wrong. Twenty-five years after the Velvet Revolution that brought down Communism in Eastern Europe, Poland was thriving. It was an enthusiastic member of the European Union and Nato. The economy had grown by a third since 2007. Blue skyscrapers had shot up around the Stalinist Palace of Culture and Science that dominates central Warsaw. International economists and reporters heralded it as Poland’s new golden age, the latest since the Jagiellonian rulers of the 16th Century.
Many Poles were unconvinced. The country was restless; jobs were uncertain and hundreds of thousands of people had left. The centrist government previously led by Donald Tusk came to be seen as complacent and sleazy. Law and Justice promised change and won the elections. ‘Poland’s golden age is finally about to begin,’ cried a voice in the crowd at the party’s headquarters as exit polls were released.
Tonight a small crowd huddles in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw, defying the sleet and angry voices in Brussels. They are here to mark the date of the plane crash in Russia that killed Kaczynski’s twin brother Lech six years ago. Perched on a stepladder, Kaczynski delivers a short speech (it is too cold to linger). Pale faces are turned towards the leader. Black hats and umbrellas fade into the gloom, the red-and-white flags glowing under the street lamps to complete the circle. It would make a fine oil painting, a friend quips.
The brothers were born a few streets away from Kaczynski’s house in a low 1930s block of flats, where I lived after moving to Warsaw to write. Drawn by the modernist architecture, I only found out when a plaque commemorating Lech Kaczynski was mounted on the façade. The size of the font and spacing was decreased so that all his achievements would fit. Looking out at the yard, I would imagine life here in the first years after World War II. As children, the twins starred in a film called The Two Who Stole the Moon. These days, Poland’s liberal and centrist opposition accuses Kaczynski of stealing democracy, pointing to how the new government has moved to ensnare the Constitutional Tribunal, the public media and the civil service.
Still, Law and Justice continues to lead in polls. Its politicians rail against enemies, real or imagined; in an interview with a German daily, the foreign minister denounced ‘a world made up of cyclists and vegetarians, who only use renewable energy and who battle all signs of religion’. The conflict stretches back to the fall of Communism in 1989, Whereas liberals see the years that followed as a success, Kaczynski presents them as a sham. The ‘most demoralised, base, animal element’ in society is to blame, he said recently. While Europe grapples with migration, climate change and the prospect of Brexit, the Polish government is turning inwards. Criticism from abroad, especially from Germany, merely reinforces its image of Poland as a besieged fortress. Besides, who needs Berlin. Budapest and London are Warsaw’s new best friends, a minister tells me.
Down the road from the Presidential Palace, students are dancing. Steps lead down into a cavernous bar beneath the Academy of Fine Arts. This crowd is dressed in black too. Most of the people here were born shortly after Communism fell, in the new Poland. Some are cyclists, some vegetarians, some read the news, others do not. Two girls with cropped hair sway closely. For them, as for most Poles, life continues as usual; the long winter will end and underground dances give way to velvet nights along the river. Yet day by day, the rift in society deepens.