Russia Is Sick
Until someone lances the boil of denial by telling the truth, no one will be safe.

John Paul II and Józef Tischner (From the cover of Józef Tischner: Idąc Przez Puste Błonia)


George Weigel

Thirty-three years ago, on September 6, 1981, Father Józef Tischner preached one of the great sermons of the 20th century at a Mass opening the second day of the inaugural Solidarity Congress in Gdań​sk. Tischner, an old friend of John Paul II and the pope’s fellow philosopher, combined the rugged good humor and patriotism of a Polish highlander with a first-class intellect.

So he began his sermon with some essential truth-telling to the men and women about to deliberate the future of the Communist world’s first independent, self-governing trade union. Father Tischner didn’t tell the thousands assembled in Gdansk that they were heroes for having formed Solidarity, although he, and they, understood that they had already done something of historic importance. He told them they could indeed be men and women of destiny and national renewal, but only if they faced the hard truth about their lives — the truth of what Communism had done to their work, and to them:

Polish work is sick. That is the reason why we are here — because Polish work is sick. It is as great as the Vistula [River], but equally polluted. Today we ask, why is it sick? It is not easy to answer this question, but certain facts are obvious. Instead of enhancing reciprocity, instead of being a sphere for man, work in Poland became a sphere for disagreement, dispute, or even treason. The waters of the Vistula are dirty. The waters of the Vistula are even bloody. We are here to clean the waters of the Vistula. Let us work on work, so that work can again become a sphere for agreement, accord, and peace.

Curing Polish work (and, by extension, Poland) of its Communist-inflicted sickness was not just a matter of politics, Tischner continued. Nor was it simply a matter of adjusting the mechanics of labor and industry, such that the old joke about Polish labor — “We pretend to work and they pretend to pay us” — was rendered a thing of the past. The cure was, fundamentally, a matter of the spirit, of national cultural renewal. It was a matter of recovering the truth about Poland’s history and culture, as John Paul II had challenged his countrymen to do in June 1979. It was a matter of conversion:

We must look at the issue [of work] from above, like looking from the peaks of the Tatras, where the waters of the Vistula have their beginning. The very liturgy of the Mass encourages us to do this. . . . This bread and wine will become in a moment the body and blood of the Son of God. This has a deep meaning. . . . Were it not for human work, there would be no bread and wine. Without bread and wine, there would not be among us the Son of God. God does not come to us through a creation of nature alone, holy trees, water, or fire. God comes to us through the first creation of culture — bread and wine. Work that creates bread and wine paves the way toward God. But every work has a part in this work. Our work, too. In this way our work, the work of each of us, paves the way to God. . . .

Our concern is with the independence of Polish work. The word “independence” must be understood properly. It does not aim at breaking away from others. Work is reciprocity, it is agreement, it is multifaceted dependence. Work creates a communion. . . .

We are living history. A living history means one that bears fruit. Christ has said, “Let the dead bury their dead” [Matthew 8:22]. Thus, let us do the same. Let us become occupied with bearing fruit. . . .

Poland’s transition to democracy — which reached its first dramatic high-water mark 25 years ago this summer, when Solidarity swept the freely contested seats in Poland’s first free elections since World War II — was not perfect. No such transition ever is. But as Father Tischner’s sermon demonstrates, Poland’s democratic renewal began with truth-telling: the truth that Communism was sick; the truth that the Communist sickness had infected an entire country; the truth that the dead system of Communism must be buried so that the living could get on with “bearing fruit,” with building a society fit for human beings. That truth-telling set the foundations for everything else — including biting the bullet of serious economic reform as soon as the Warsaw Pact collapsed, a brave decision that created the conditions for the possibility of economic health in Poland ever since.

Why is this worth revisiting today? Because it helps explain why Russia has re-emerged as a grave danger to the post–Cold War order in Europe and elsewhere. There was no Józef Tischner in post-Soviet Russia. There was no such truth-telling. There was no summons from a nationally respected moral leader to name and diagnose the national cultural illness so that the future might be different from the past. The dead system was not buried; indeed, its primary symbol, Lenin’s mummy, remains on honored display in Red Square to this day.

The results of that truth-deficit are, now, much with us.

As David Satter demonstrates in a book that ought to be essential reading for Western political leaders today, Russia has never come to grips with its Communist past. The title of Satter’s study — It Was a Long Time Ago, and It Never Happened Anyway – captures the essence of the contemporary Russian sickness: historical amnesia and denial, leading to systemic and internalized misrepresentation of the past, and thence to falsification of the present. The crimes of the Soviet past have never been publicly examined, much less repented. Millions of victims of Communist terror and murder have been forgotten. There has been no public confrontation with the questions, How did this happen in the first place? And, What allowed it to continue? Denazification was regarded as essential to German rehabilitation after the collapse of the Hitler regime; no such attempt to reckon with the Communist past has taken place in Russia, in part because the West, playing the good sport after 1991, did not help facilitate it. Thus Vladimir Putin’s laments for lost Soviet “glory” are not dismissed as the ravings of a warped mind (and soul); they are applauded, as are his attempts to re-create a simulacrum of Stalin’s empire under the rubric of “New Russia” or a recovered and reconstituted “Russian space.”