The Elixir of Freedom by Michael Moran

Michael Moran was first posted to Poland shortly after the collapse of communism, and he’s clearly grown deeply attached to the country. Born and raised in Australia, he initially felt a degree of objectivity that Europeans attempting to study Poland might not, and arrived unshackled by any preconceptions or stereotypes about the Poles. It’s interesting then to see how this relative neutrality has matured over the years into a deep fascination with and, it seems, protective love for the country.

Speaking at Ognisko Polskie in South Kensington on September 29th, Moran made a point of not going too deep into the factual details of Poland’s history. He did touch upon the Warsaw Uprising, Nazi occupation, “Polish Socialism” (a more accurate term, he assured his audience, than “communism”) and EU accession, but his focus was more on the whys and the hows than the whats. As he pointed out, there’s enough in-depth literature on the events that have shaped Poland today – his aim was to show interested laymen the character and feel of Poland, more than its history.

Book Cover

Whatever the situation, Moran has an uncanny ability to take a photograph summing it up. A plaque in Jemielnica showing dozens of name changes the village has undergone bears witness to the region’s tumultuous history of occupation. Side-by-side pictures with the Warsaw skyline in 2005 and 2015 show how much the city has developed in just ten years. And photos of a subsistence-farming community harvesting crops with a horse and cart in the 1990s demonstrate a “romantic intimacy” that has been eroded by the prosperity of recent years.

What emerged from Moran’s talk was Poland’s identity as a sort of in-between land, existing in an almost constant state of occupation. “We have to remember,” he pointed out, “that Poland was a state of mind for 150 years.” From the end of the eighteenth century until the end of the First World War, and then again from Nazi Occupation to the fall of the Iron Curtain, Poland did not even exist as an independent country. Absent from maps, it was sandwiched between two dominant powers – Germany in the West and Russia in the East. Thomas Carlyle once described it “as if broken-backed on the public highway; a nation anarchic every fibre of it, and under the feet and hoofs of travelling neighbours.” Moran himself called it a “buffer-state.”

It’s astounding, then, to see how far Poland has come, with the swiftest progress since its accession to the EU in 2004. Some of the figures Moran cited are genuinely impressive: from 1989 to 1992, inflation was at 800%. Since then, the Polish GDP has leapt from 30% of European GDP to 70%. The workhorse and wooden sledges of yesteryear have been replaced by Bentleys and motorcycles and Warsaw’s skyline is now filled with state-of-the-art skyscrapers. Culture’s flourishing, too, with museums, theatres and concert halls popping up everywhere.

But although today’s Poland is a far cry from the “broken-backed” country of the early nineties, this boom is not without its challenges. With free migration across Europe, Moran discussed the issue of the “brain drain” experienced in major cities. He placed Polish migrant workers roughly into two categories: the “rural” Poles who’ll do a stint abroad to earn some cash, then return to Poland to settle down; and the “urban” Poles who are more likely to go abroad and stay there.

The Author Michael Moran

In the spirit of positivity, the evening ended with a surprise: a violin duet playing pieces by Bartok and some original compositions, against a backdrop of breathtaking photographs of the Polish countryside. The music and photography provided some respite from an evening asking tricky questions about political tension and economic development.

Ninety minutes was never going to be enough really to get under the skin of Polish identity, but Moran certainly made a fair stab at it. In one short evening he whirled through occupation, independence, economic stagnation and prosperity, all accompanied by enlightening photographs, pithy quotes and his own dry wit.

Review by Judith Fagelson

Michael Moran’s A Country in the Moon: Travels in Search of the Heart of Poland is available from Amazon, priced £9.99

Date: 29 September 2015