I ate lunch with a colleague from the team I’m currently assigned to at work. The team’s name is self-explanatory (at least for the insiders): CEE&RUB. That means (I’m explaining, because however improbable it is that anyone will read this, chances are you’re an outsider anyway) Central and Eastern Europe & Russia, Ukraine, Belarus (the irony of excluding those three countries from Eastern European is not lost on me, believe me). The team comprises fourteen and a half people, excluding the Team Leader and myself (I’m on loan, and I’m moving to another team soon anyway). The half person is a girl who helps us out for about half of her time, the other half tending to her responsibilities in the Greek team (there are more countries in that team – Italy and Spain, I think, though I’m not sure – but D. works for Greece). From that fourteen and a half people, two are Ukrainian, one is Georgian (as in the one in Caucasus, not U.S.), two are Hungarian, one is Czech, one Slovak and two Romanian, the remaining six I assume are Polish, though it’s hard to say, sometimes, because except one Romanian girl and one Hungarian, all of them speak good-to-excellent Polish. Some of them could have been born here – well, maybe not in Kraków, but certainly on the eastern border.
The girl I ate my lunch with is Georgian. She speaks excellent Polish, her accent is nearly impossible to detect, and she has to search for a word very seldom (actually, I stumble on words far more often and can’t find the right one for far longer, and I am very much Polish). Apparently, she has some Polish ancestry, and there is a program for descendants of Poles who were displaced eastwards or remained there after those terrains were taken up by Russia and, later on, other countries (Lviv, nowadays one of the biggest cities of Ukraine, supposedly its cultural heart, used to be a part of Poland before the tripartition and during Second Polish Republic, meaning between world wars). My own paternal grandfather was supposed to come from what’s now Ukraine, but used to be Poland. (My maternal grandparents, on the other hand, come from around Poznań, and these parts used to be, at one point or another in history, German.)
But I’m straying off the point. I. has some Polish ancestry, and she took a chance with that program. She said coming here was better than staying there. I didn’t press for details, so I can only imagine what she might have meant. Tbilisi might be beautiful and colorful on photos, but that’s only one side of the story, ain’t it? At any rate, I. came to Poland and stayed. I don’t know if she applied for citizenship, or if she plans to, but I do know that she speaks perfect Russian, which is why she works for the RUB part of the team, good English and excellent Polish. She had to learn hard and long; Polish is not an easy language, although, granted, it’s much easier for a fellow Slavic person than for, let’s say, a New Zealander (and I know one that does speak Polish!). She works hard, she is very bright, she’s about to graduate extramural studies in law, for God’s sake. She’s rather quiet, though not shy, and very nice and kind.
And so we ate lunch and she told me a story that happened to her just yesterday, when she got on a bus at 9 pm. It was late and she was alone in the bus. She was on the phone with someone from home, and she was speaking in Russian. She got onto the bus through the first door. And when the driver heard her speaking in Russian, he turned and in a very rough, churlish tone told her to go on the back, because he didn’t want to hear her talking. When she hung up and in a polite, perfect Polish answered him, he was very taken aback. She asked him what she did wrong, since she was in a public bus, not raising her voice, but simply talking on the phone. She didn’t smoke or drink, she didn’t have her phone play loud music (as it’s increasingly popular with teens and hoods), she wasn’t doing anything wrong. They got into a sort of argument, ending up with the driver loosing his bearing and her having to guide him to get back to his regular route, and him barking another coarse and hurtful near-insult as she was getting off the bus. Being a law student, she knew her rights; she asked to see his ID badge, but he refused to show it to her. She will make a formal complaint, of course, but that is beside the point.
The point is that the driver started to offend her only when he heard her speak Russian. And he thought it ok to push her around like that. Thankfully, she knew how to respond, I wouldn’t. I would have either started cursing, or quietly removed myself, forever after regretting my lack of pluck and wit.
But this driver’s behavior is not an isolated incident. And I don’t mean generally people being offensive and caddish. There are more layers to that, like people saying things when they think you can’t understand them that they wouldn’t say to a fellow countryman. But that happens everywhere, I’ve heard more than one insult from French or Belgian people who thought I couldn’t understand them when I was in France and Belgium (strangely, not in Tunisia nor Morocco, but maybe they were saying those things in Arabic and not French).
What I mean in this case is – Russian.
Historically, we’ve never had the best relationship with Russia. Look it up. There is some deeply ingrained distrust for each other. There have been some improvement not so long ago, but now it’s worse than I ever remember. Putin is the problem, of course, and I don’t need to explain why, but for the first since I remember people started to completely loose the ability to discern between politics and real life. Not only governments are at each other’s throats now, it has reached ordinary people as well. I’ve never seen so much venom being spilled when there’s talk about Russia and the Russians. Until now, the distrust might have been there, but it was shallow. At heart, we are, after all, all Slavic. There’s more in common between Russians and Poles than there is between Poles and Germans, another of our neighbors that we historically found ourselves at odds with – culturally and mentally we’re akin. But now it doesn’t matter anymore. Russian is bad. Doesn’t mean what kind of person you have in front of you – if they’re Russian, they’re evil. Like the USSR during Cold War, today’s Russia is the Evil Empire.
And it’s not that an average Pole got to meet so many Russians. Not that they were in any way mistreated by them. Ordinary Russians are in no way responsible for the way we view them now, especially those living in Poland. They’re victims of an image projection. We see Russia, with its puppet government dancing to Putin’s tune, as a huge, powerful, but dangerously unsteady and unpredictable country, making aggressive moves against independent states: first Georgia (Abkhazia and South Ossetia, remember that? It was a real war), then just Crimea, and finally Ukraine itself. And that image permeates onto its citizens. We don’t like Russia so we don’t like Russians. It’s always been like that to an extent; but lately, as I see, we seem to be losing all perspective. Snapping at a perfectly polite person just because she is speaking Russian? That’s just one example that we’re going overboard. And I fear that it’s gonna be only worse from now on. Our society is more and more polarized, more and more people adopt extremist views. Xenophobia is part of that, too. And I’m concerned. Because in my mind there isn’t any doubt that a healthy society is one with minorities at the extrema, and the majority somewhere in between. This ratio seems to be changing rapidly. And I don’t care for that one bit.
In one sentence: congrats, Mr. Putin, you single-handedly managed to make the whole country (if not the majority of the rest of the world) hate every single Russian in sight.