Orientalism in the Polish Borderlands Culture

The “Borderlands” are a region to the East of Poland with a longstanding mythology in Polish discourse. Being at different points in history part of the Polish state, they are a central place of political confrontation and national identity. The very term hints that they are part of Poland, albeit not in the centre. Speaking vaguely, they can form a part of ‘Greater’ Poland, constituting the old Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth which I have written about already.

Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth map

Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth map

Looking further into the word, it symbolises an ‘Otherness’ of the area’s inhabitants, who are defined only in their peripheral location from the Polish centre, which lowers their position in Poland. They are also ‘orientalised’, made exotic and uncommon to the Polish norm.

In 1996, at the ‘Borderlands Conference’ in Warsaw, Ryszard Kiersnowski slammed the then Polish Pope for talking about Lithuanians of Polish origin, but not about repressed Poles. Using the word “Borderlands”, Kiernowski isolated these Poles from Lithuania as their homeland. Kiernowski’s views are not an anomaly, and according to many who talk about the “Borderlands”, they are to be exclusively Polish. At around the same time as the conference in Warsaw, the Catholics of Przemyśl (a multi faith city), closed the doors of one of their churches, when their highest Earthly superior within their belief, attempted to hand the shrine to Ukrainian Catholics for the sake of good relations.

In many post-Soviet countries, there has been an idealisation of the past. In Russia for example, the pomp and grandeur of the former Russian Empire, together with its emblems and the might of the Orthodox Church, has seen a strong revival. In Poland, however, a cult has been formed around the lost lands of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and ‘greater’ Poland in general.

Many of those within the “Borderlands” react strongly against the Polish discourse, and it can easily be seen as a Polish Orientalism. Polish views on the Borderlands, exclude those who do not identify as Polish but who live in the Borderlands, such as Ukrainians, Ashkenazis, Belarusians, Lithuanians, etc. In this respect:

Orientalism was more susceptible to the influences of the culture that had created it than to the supposed aims of its research, also created by the West; hence its history shows both cohesion and clear connections with the culture dominating in its surroundings. [Said 2003, 57, also see 56].

In summary, the concept of the Borderlands in Poland is harmful to outsiders, and bears many similarities to colonial discourse. The assumption of the Ukrainian borderlands as pastoral, idyllic, and backwards (implicitly inferior), creates many problems and prejudices (Beauvois 2005, 8-13), and is a barrier to better neighbourly relations. As Said says, “culture [is] regarded as politically and even historically innocent; in my opinion exactly the opposite is true …” [Said 2003, 63].