Andrzej Leder.

Andrzej Leder.

Interviews The post-communist legacy in the shadow of the Empire

Professor Andrzej Leder, psychoanalyst and professor of philosophy, in a conversation with Aleksandra Reczuch about the history and social transformations in the region, the threat of Russia, and the historical memory embodied in buildings, symbols, commemorations, and family albums.

Published in the printed edition of Baltic Worlds BW 2022:1-2, pp 61-66
Published on on June 22, 2022

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Professor Andrzej Leder, psychoanalyst and professor of philosophy, in a conversation with Aleksandra Reczuch about the history and social transformations in the region, the threat of Russia, and the historical memory embodied in buildings, symbols, commemorations, and family albums.

The building of the Polish Academy of Sciences in Warsaw always makes me think about Foucauldian power/knowledge — a monumental neoclassical palace built in the 19th century by Stanisław Staszic, a leading figure in Polish Enlightenment, and donated to the Society of Friends of Science after 1823. The building’s history is a history of the attempts to organize education under Russian partition and the repressions those attempts faced. The Society of Friends of Science was banned after the November uprising in 1830; later in 1857 the palace became a seat of the Academy of Medical Sciences, the first higher education institution re-established in the Russian partition. As the academy was closed soon after another unsuccessful insurrection in January 1863, in 1890 it became an orthodox church and was renovated by the Russian authorities and remodeled in neo-byzantine style. The building was nearly razed during World War II and rebuilt in neoclassical style after the war. Today it is the seat of the Polish Academy of Sciences, where Professor Andrzej Leder works. He is the author of Prześniona rewolucja. Ćwiczenia z logiki historycznej [Sleepwalking the revolution. Exercises in historical logic]. His studies focus on the period between 1939—1956 or even 1989 and analyze the consequences of the radical and brutal change in the structure of Polish society — firstly in the Holocaust and then during Stalinist times, when the remaining elites of interwar Poland were annihilated. Those events, despite their formative aspect, never became a part of the common imaginary of the Polish nation, and are not remembered as revolutionary, but rather as a sense of injustice that has not been accommodated by the collective memory.

We meet in the lobby of the building for the interview about the book, the collective memory of the nations in Eastern Europe, the ways in which the politics of memory influence the discourses of the present, and the common experience of Communism and historical differences.

Aleksandra Reczuch (AR): Your book Prześniona rewolucja: the title can be translated as overslept or slept through revolution…

Andrzej Leder (AL): The translation I like is: Sleepwalking the revolution.

AR: Oh, that sounds very good! The book presents the thesis that during WWII, and the early years of establishing the communist regime in Poland, the country went through a major social revolution from an agrarian peasant society to a modern industrial one with a visible working class. It was a revolution imposed upon rather than organized by Polish society. Communism and the communist regime played a great role in the modernization processes, yet it seems that the impact that Communism had on creating Polish society in its current form is not remembered; why is this?

AL: As this revolution was performed mainly by two alien and hostile forces — one might even call them empires — Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia, there was no feeling of agency in Polish society. For a revolution to become a part of social identity, a common identity, or — to use Charles Taylor’s term — part of the social imaginary, it has to become part of the structure, and structure in this theory is the symbolic field of extraction. A historical event such as the revolution has to have some symbolic signifiers which will become a reference point to forge a new identity and in Poland, the main symbols or the main signifiers for this period are the signifiers of the resistance against it. The signifiers brought by it… I would say that Nazi Germany didn’t even try to bring any new signifiers which would be comprehensive for Polish society and stand in time, while even if the communists tried to force some kind of social imaginary it was too much connected or copied from the Soviet imaginary to be attractive for Polish society. And in this sense, no, not much was left from this system of signifiers to provide a base, and in this sense, after the Stalinist period, Polish society did not have any positive social symbols that could be connected with this enormous and very profound change.

The imaginary, the points of reference that were available, were the ones connected with the tradition of the Polish intelligentsia, the uprisings in the 19th century, and even today, they still remain the main symbols in the Polish imaginary. Even when there are symbols, signifiers that are still present and cherished in popular memory — for example, Edward Gierek, the good first secretary of the party who really modernized Poland, introduced Poland to the mass and consumption culture as it was known in the occidental world — they are too weak to reshape the way society remembers this period.

AR: And what about social mobility? A large group of people moved from the countryside, from this peasant, feudal environment, to something that you might even call a modern socialist middle class. One might assume it’s like a positive move upwards. Is there maybe something that could reshape the memory of that period as something positive?

AL: I do not think that this moment of the social movement could serve as such a symbol; at least it is not narrated in this way. It is also one of the biggest holes in Polish historiography that the emancipatory history is not narrated. It is changing now, let’s say during the last five to eight years, where we see research on the history of slavery, of serfdom in Poland, it is flourishing, and it is a very positive phenomenon, but I think that what this wave lacks is that it shows only a snapshot of the poverty and oppressive conditions of this serfdom system. Currently, we do not have a way of narrating history which would show the social movement of emancipation. And that even when serfdom was abolished, again, by the emperors of Russia and Austro-Hungary at the end of the 19th century, when mass politics and mass parties were organized, there was a huge shift in the consciousness, attitudes, a spring of political agency, yet it is still not a part of Polish imaginary. We are completely focused on the unfortunate uprising in 1863 and then on the resurrection of the Polish state in 1918. There is a huge gap in between. Historically, it was one of the most important epochs for modern Polish society, the forging of modern Polish society, so in that sense, we lack this kind of emancipatory history. Having done this, one could then talk about the history of this enormous movement that happened after 1945: from the countryside to the cities, from Eastern Poland to cities and provinces which became Polish after 1945: it is not done. It is to be done.

I think that we are living in very interesting times with the authoritarian or more or less authoritarian regime of Kaczyński because it pushes the citizens, the middle class, to redefine their identity. And I think it will have positive consequences in the end. Well, if we are not pushed out of the European Union. Because if that happens, we will be eaten and digested by the Russian empire. But if we stay in the European Union, I think that this period of the fight for democracy and in some way, the fight against this nationalistic catholic authoritarianism can redefine the Polish social imaginary.

For the generation of people who still remember the penuries of communism, the most important thing was to have basic comfort in life. I am from that generation, but now I see the question of what it means to live in a free society, and how important the questions of human rights are for the generation that does not remember communism.

AR: And what about the threat of Russian imperialism? It seemed that with the war in Ukraine, the threat became real for many Poles. Won’t it push people into the nationalist, conservative vision of Polishness?

AL: I would say that it was an object of attention in the first days of the war, the first days of the Russian invasion. Now, I think we have the quite opposite. We, I mean people who are analyzing political consciousness in Poland, are aware that wars always strengthen the government in place. Also, the Russian danger is always a good way to mobilize people in Poland around a nationalistic or military agenda. However, I think that it is not going in this direction. For example, polls do not show growing support for the main political force: Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (PiS, Law and Justice). They also show rather stable support for democratic parties. In my opinion, what we face right now is not a direct confrontation with Russia but the social consequences of the war in a neighboring state. It means immigration. And that is a completely different social experience. For the first time in history, Poland is facing such massive immigration of war refugees and I think that ideas which are promoted in such a situation are different than typical militaristic ideas. This is the question of the organization, the efficiency of the state, and people’s activity, NGO activity, or as we call it now: the care capacity of society.

Those are typical democratic themes. And in this sense, I think that if the war continues as it is now, it means that the Russian army is not capable of crushing Ukrainians. The fear of war will diminish in Poland; it has diminished already. And the main problem will become providing help to refugees. Therefore, I think that if we now have to face a direct threat, and I don’t think we will, if we are going to be bombarded with an atomic bomb, we will not have the time to discuss it. In this sense, I think it shifts the political situation. It pushes society towards more modern questions than the question of how to fight Russian invaders.

AR: Talking about Russian imperialism and Russian aggression, it is 30 years since the collapse of the USSR, and I was wondering to what extent the Russian invasion of Ukraine can be seen as an attempt to rebuild the empire, to give the people a feeling that Russia is once again a powerful state?

AL: I have a family history with Russia. My family fought tsarist autocracy, then they were in social democratic and communist movements. My grandfather was killed in 1937, in the purges. My father was imprisoned by the Stalinist rulers in Poland. So I have a long experience of thinking, reading, and discussing the question of Russian imperialism and in this sense, my opinion is that first of all, it is not only about bringing back Soviet imperialism; it is Russian imperialism at its core.

Rus, Muscovite Rus, not Kievan Rus, was always an expansionist state, but what is maybe more important is the legacy of the late 19th century. After the failed assassination attempt on Emperor Alexander II, political police became the spinal cord of this state. The tsarist secret police Okhrana and its traditions were copied and continued in Soviet Russia. Cheka, and then NKWD, became organizations that worked in the same manner, then KGB and FSB in the present. As the democratic experiment from the Gorbachov-Yeltsyn times failed, this vertebral column came back to power. The modern Russian state was built on this vertebral column and the raison d’être, the core reason for the existence of this institution is a system of expansion. So, in this sense, Russia cannot accept the failure of the empire. All the symbols Putin uses, all the signifiers of his rule are a strange mixture of Imperial Russia — the two headed Eagle and green uniforms of the soldiers in the Kremlin, which are tsarist uniforms — and Soviet symbols. And I think that until this vertebral column is broken, the Russian state will continue its imperialistic politics, but the problem is that the economic basis of the empire is very weak. It is maybe the last aggressive jump before it becomes vassalized by China.

AR: I was thinking a lot about how this strange mixture of signifiers is going to work together on the discursive level. And how for example the concept of “brotherly nations” is used to justify aggression against an independent state. Can it be understood as a colonial logic, in which the attempt to liberate a certain country is used to rebuild the empire and enslave that country?

AL: I think that there are some similarities between, for example, European colonialism and Russian imperialism on a general level. But I think the sources of these ideologies are different. Modern European colonialism, and I am talking about 19th-century colonialism, not early Spanish or Portuguese colonialism, was based on the idea of modernization — we are colonizing those savages because we want to see them, we want them to act like civilized people — and in Russia the sources of this colonial logic are different. What is at the core is the concept of the third Rome and the necessity to defend it against the enemy, the teleological enemy. Russia will always find itself an enemy, be it American imperialists or Nazis, as Putin now calls Ukrainians, or modern secularized societies. The main point is the defense of the values connected with Orthodox Christianity against this diabolic civilization, the teleological enemy. And when you look at it this way, the idea of russkiy mir, the Russian order, is an emanation of this kind of teleological idea. It is not only the question of political play of power but is the Manichean combat of good and evil. And it has mobilizing power. Even if again, we have the impression that this mobilizing power is not so strong now as it was in the past.

AR: How is nostalgia for the Soviet Union mixed up with those discourses around the ultimate combat between good and evil, defending the russkiy mir? And, given the current circumstances, can anyone outside Russia be nostalgic about it? Are people still nostalgic about that Soviet force that was to bring ‘the good’?

AL: I think that the nostalgic feelings were at their peak in the late nineties, early 2000, partly for generational reasons. Now we have an adult generation that does not remember the Soviet Union, but I can easily understand that people are nostalgic about the USSR. We know all of this because in Poland, East Germany, in Czechoslovakia, or Czechia and Slovakia, and other countries we have seen nostalgia for the former people’s republics. The transition in those countries was often very positive for just one part of the society, and at the same time deeply catastrophic for another part. In Poland, all the big industrial centers were almost completely destroyed. In Russia and all the former USSR republics, it was even more brutal.

I can imagine a lot of nostalgia for the Soviet Union, which was a stable society in the last decades of its existence, not a free society afterward. I think this is why Putin thought that he would be supported in Ukraine as he was in Lugansk and Donetsk in 2014, or in Crimea where, to some extent, he had real support. What he did not understand was that there was a real revolution in Ukraine and that they have their own new identity which is connected with Maidan and all those revolts and with democratization, looking toward Europe.

AR: What happened to the Soviet identity, the feeling of commonness or togetherness, coming from the shared experience as Soviet people?

AL: I think it is not that strong anymore. Partly, as I said before, for generational reasons. We have already an adult generation which never experienced the Soviet Union. And we can also see it in the Yugoslavian process, where the identity of Yugoslavianness was quite strong, and now does not exist anymore. It is really purely nostalgic and maybe it is questioned by some intellectuals living completely in the past. But then, in ex-Yugoslavia the national identities became nation-states; they are self-ruling crowds now, Serbians in Serbia, Slovenians in Slovenia, etc. And we don’t have any kind of popular movement aiming at the restoration of Yugoslavia and I believe this is more or less so also in the former Soviet Union.

AR: When we talk about identities, what comes to my mind is Belarus. In Ukraine, people now are all very much mobilized to fight for their independence and the nation-state, and all those elements that they understand as Ukrainian, Ukrainian culture, and Ukrainian land, and I am wondering whether you can see similar processes in Belarus. We have seen the waves of democratic protests in 2020, but Lukashenko is still trying to push the Soviet narrative, defining Belarus as a Soviet state.

AL: In the Graduate School for Social Research, here at the Polish Academy of Science where I teach, we have and have had students from Belarus, and what they say, and what I also see, is an evolution of the way they define themselves. This discourse has changed during the last ten years. Ten years ago, they were saying as a matter of fact that there is no Belarusian nation; there are tiny circles of intellectuals, artists, political activists, and nationalists who cherish this idea but the popular attitude is that we are soviet people; now, those students are speaking in a very different way. That summer, I think, made possible what happened in many other countries with different uprisings, even the crushed ones. It means that people are identifying Lukashenko not only as an autocrat but also as Putin’s puppet. And when they want to identify the difference between Putin’s puppets and themselves, they will define it in a national way. They will say: we are different from Russians, and I think this is a nation-in-building.

It is a similar process to the one that happened in Czechia, for example, in the late 19th century. It was a non-existent nation and because of the resistance against Austrian dominance and the activity of a small group of intellectuals, this nation became a nation. And I think this happened in Belarus.

We will probably see again some kind of revolt against Lukashenko’s autocratic regime and then Belarus will become a nation-state. Because before it can be a fully democratic state, maybe it must be a nation-state.

The way Lukashenko crushed this wave of protests in the summer is horrible and extremely repressive, but at the same time, at least during the last 30 years, he was trying not to become Russian. So, what he actually was saying was: “Yes, we are like Soviets but also Belarusians and we have our own Belarusian identity”. And in this sense, he created a space for Belarusian national sentiment to grow, even if he is now against it.

AR: The final thing I wanted to discuss is the collapse of the USSR and the transition to a liberal economy. We briefly spoke about that, about how it was beneficial for a certain group of people and how deeply traumatic and hard it was for others, mainly industrial workers and those on state-owned farms. In Poland, the main beneficiary of the transition were the people that now can be called the middle-class, but my guess would be that in other countries that were under influence of state socialism similar processes can be observed?

AL: Yes, but I would say that there are huge differences! It can be simplified into two models; We have the middle-class model and the oligarchic model. In Poland, in Estonia and Latvia, for example, we have a more or less a middle-class model. And the reasons for it are different in different countries. For example, Estonia, Latvia, and Czechia were already middle-class societies before the Soviet invasion in the 20th century, and Poland was not, but Poland had a very active working class with strong democratic aspirations.

The Solidarity movement can be read as a history of that type, a history of democratic aspirations. I think that in Russia, they do not have this kind of middle class. And that is why the system is so strongly oligarchic, also in the sense that the only way to become economically wealthy is to be in a vertical position, directly facing the power, political power. This is also the program PiS wants to introduce in Poland, but they face the resistance of the democratic middle class. In Russia, there is no alternative, no democratic middle class outside the big cities like Moscow or St. Petersburg. What is very interesting, when talking about Ukraine, is that it seemed it was a society with exactly the same oligarchic system as Russia and now the society is changing. And I do mean it. If I were to compare it with Polish history, I would risk saying that this is a similar process that happened in the seventies and eighties, when some kind of new democratic consciousness was appearing in the society.

And I think that what has happened during the last ten years in Ukraine is the growth of democratic consciousness, but when we talk about Russia, I think they have a long, long way to go before they will be able to have this widespread social identity, which now is present among some groups in Petersburg or Moscow. Really tiny groups, not a whole class in society.

AR: When I think about what you just said, and about the beginning of our interview when we talked about the way Polish society was modernized and the way it moved from a peasant society to a modern middle-class one: Well, of course, communism in Poland and communism in Russia had different shades and they looked a bit different. Modernization in the USSR was much more brutal – forced collectivization, deportations, the gulag system, prisoners as a slave workforce, etc.: All those things did not happen in Poland. But I am still wondering if the communist era in Russia created any possibility or space for a conscious middle-class to emerge outside big cities as it did in Poland?

AL: I think that if Khrushchev had not been swapped for Brezhnev, maybe the evolution of Russian society would have been different. There is one event, a date in Polish history, which is very important and not enough remembered and analyzed: it is the year 1956. It was a true social revolt. First of all, we had the big strikes in Poznań and then many other places. Then we had a complete change of discourse within the communist regime and it never again became truly communist. It was the most socialist revolt in Polish history. Industrial workers were fighting for workers’ councils and one could see the strong influences of the Yugoslavian model where workers’ councils had something to say and could influence working conditions.

It was the industrial plants with the struggle for better working conditions, and the fact that new communist discourses appeared, brought by young people in the communist party, activists who were very, very socialist, in the positive sense of this word. It opened the communist party to many other streams of thought, not just hardline communism. I would say also that the history of Polish liberalism connected with the period before the war, so more or less connected with Piłsudski in the first period of his political activity, never fully died. And then there was the tradition of Armia Krajowa which had also a very strong civic and democratic orientation and has been rehabilitated to some extent after the Stalinist period. So all of this exploded. The end of the Stalinist era was also a time of some degree of cultural liberty; translations, and cultural influences from the West started to appear. The party line never came back to communist orthodoxy, which was the case for example in the German Democratic Republic, the Soviet Union under Brezhnev, or Czechoslovakia after the fall of the Prague spring.

I think that gave Poland this space to form a really different imaginary for the new middle class and democratic identity, which was never the case in Russia. Brezhnev absolutely crushed all those kinds of things.


  1. Edward Gierek was the First Secretary of the Polish United Workers’ Party between 1970 and 1980 and the main person behind opening the economy of communist Poland more towards the West. He is still remembered today for his modernization processes like the construction of over 1.8 million apartments, building the first modern motorway between Warszawa and Katowice (called colloquially “gierkówka” even today), and the improved living standard of average Poles.

  2. Serfdom in Poland became the dominant form of relationship between peasants and nobility in the 17th century and was a major feature of the economy of the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth.

  3. The January Uprising (1863—1864) was an insurrection in the Russian controlled Kingdom of Poland, aimed at restoration of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. The uprising, the longest in the post-partition history of Poland, is often described as a partisan war and ended in 1864 when the last insurgents were captured by Russian forces.

  4. Also sometimes translated as Russian world, is a concept of social totality connected with the Russian language and Russian culture based on essentialized identity of “Russianness”

  5. The events of autumn 1956 are often described as the Gomułka thaw (Pol. Odwilż gomułkowska), from the name of the First Secretary, during whose rule some liberalization of the communist system was introduced and to some extent the communist terror was limited. The strikes in June 1956 were also the catalyst of those reforms.

  6. Armia Krajowa, [Home Army] was the dominant resistance force during World War II, the armed forces of the Polish Underground State.
  • by Aleksandra Reczuch

    PhD-candidate in Ethnology at the Baltic and Eastern European Graduate School. Her research interests include populism, political anthropology, gender, and identity. She has conducted ethnographic research in Greece, Slovenia, Poland, and Ukraine, focusing on the role of identity and state policies. Currently, she is working on a thesis entitled: On possibilities of Left and Feminist Populism in the Postsocialist Context.

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