How much are people responsible for their governments?

One country, the same eastern border. Thousands of people are trying to cross it each day, fleeing from war and inhumane conditions. In the south, there are hundreds of volunteers distributing food and toiletries, then helping everyone find shelter and transportation. Most of them are ordinary people volunteering in their private time, with the support of many companies, NGOs and government institutions. In an incredible act of solidarity, Poland is hosting now over two million people from Ukraine, many of them staying in private homes.

But move a hundred miles further north to the border with Belarus, and it’s illegal to even enter the outpost area – neither in order to enter the country, nor to bring help. The people who are trying to enter Poland in that place are trapped, taken as hostages in a political game they were never a part of. They’re not allowed to enter the EU and not allowed to go back, stuck for may weeks in a freezing cold forest. When they encounter a Polish border patrol, they’re taken back to the Belarusian side. When they meet a Belarusian border patrol, they’re taken back to the forest again. There are brave volunteers bringing them food and warm clothes, but doing so is illegal, and transporting someone further inland can be even punishable by jail.

One country, the same eastern border, two completely different worlds. I don’t want to diminish what we’re doing for Ukraine. I’ve never seen ordinary people give away so much of their time, belongings and money, open their hearts and homes on such a massive scale. This is a truly heroic project, and the folks involved in it are real heroes. Never before I felt this proud to be Polish.

But knowing there are other families left to die of hunger and cold so close to where I live, I know being Polish has another, much darker side. If I’m feeling proud for what my compatriots are doing for Ukraine, perhaps I should also feel responsible for the awful things our government is doing too.

Or should I? I didn’t vote for this government, and neither did most of my friends. This isn’t their first shady action. Ever since they are in power, there has been one massive protest after another, against their meddling with the constitution, judicial system or abortion laws. There were protests against setting an emergency zone on Belarusian border too, and they didn’t change a thing. Is there anything else we can do? How else can we respond to this?

Hear no evil, see no evil, speak no evil. Photo by Bettmann

And yet the ruling party has been in power for almost 7 years now, reelected twice because nobody else cares about their voters enough. We’re all so busy protesting and getting upset that nobody really put in the effort to find out why people keep voting for them, and what’s needed to change their hearts. A part of me thinks that perhaps we just don’t deserve any better.

I didn’t vote for my government, should I be held responsible for the people they left to die?

If everyone wasn’t busy with Russian invasion of Ukraine, I might be, for what is clearly a terrifying violation of basic human rights. Knowing this, I can’t help but think about my Russian friends, all terrified now and praying for this madness to end. Should they suffer the consequences of what their government did, even though they never voted for them, never supported them, and might get thrown in jail if they post a single word of criticism on social media? And yet… if ordinary Russian people won’t put an end to this war, who will?

Unlike in Russia, our government was chosen democratically. We can criticise their actions as much as we want without worrying about torture or jail–in fact nearly all mainstream media are openly against them. Still, when they left entire families in a freezing forest to die, all I managed to do was sending money and prayers. Some of my friends are still secretly going to the Belarusian border, delivering food and medical supplies even though they might get arrested. A part of me wants to be as brave as they are, but taking care of myself and my daughter alone is sometimes challenging enough. She’s fully dependent on me and as heartless as it sounds, I need to be there for her before I can be there for other people.

I’m sure a lot of decent ordinary Russian people have children too.

How could I possibly expect them to stop an ancient autocratic regime reigning with violence and terror, when I’m unable to influence our own mediocre government that’s been in power for just a few years?

Poland might be divided about many things, but there’s one thing we all agree upon

It’s the Russian invasion of Ukraine. All the long-sworn political enemies here agree that one country attacking another can’t ever be justified, period. We’ve been in this exact situation, there are still people here who remember. What we’re doing now for Ukraine is what we wish someone did for us back in 1939.

Many of my American friends feel uncomfortable about such confident declarations, cautious to take a side in a military conflict far away. I can understand why–located between two oceans, America was never under the threat of a hostile army coming to their backyard, burning their whole city down and killing all their loved ones. Short of a full-blown nuclear apocalypse, there is no plausible scenario where the United States of America, American culture or American way of living doesn’t exist anymore. I can’t think of a plausible scenario in which even a single American city would be under a siege.

Unlike America, my country has a bit less fortunate location right between Germany and Russia, which means that all the wars involving either of them came to our own home first. We don’t have to speculate about what would need to happen for Poland to cease to exist as a country. It’s already happened, more than once. For all of the 19th century, Polish land was divided between Germany, Austria and Russia, which was later followed by World War 2, Nazi, and then Soviet occupation. Every time, it took a heroic effort and sacrifice of ordinary people to win our freedom back. Knowing how many of them lost their lives so that I can safely live in Warsaw and speak Polish to my kid makes me feel quite uneasy. We don’t seem to know what to do with this hard-won freedom at all.

My parents, on the other hand, care a lot about Polish independence, and growing up I kept hearing the history of what it took us to get here. All the uneven and hopeless battles we eventually won through impossible willpower and effort, all the hopeful uprisings that eventually failed. For a long time I couldn’t wrap my head around it. Why should I risk my life for the sake of an abstract symbol like a nation or a flag? It’s the people that matter the most anyway.

Now that I have a child of my own, I think I understand what my parents had in mind. It’s about a sense of belonging, of continuity. My daughter comes from a long line of people who passed their wisdom, beliefs and values on to the next generation, and collectively embodied these values by the way they lived their lives. If she was raised in India, Uruguay or North Korea, she’d be a completely different person even if she was still raised by my husband and I. Who I am and who she is depends in a large part on the culture we grew up in, the culture she’s so immersed in that to her it’s like water to a fish. Yes, it is the people that matter the most, but they’re a certain kind of people, with certain things they care about and do in certain ways.

It is the people–both each of them individually, and all of them together as a whole–that matter the most. I never thought about this distinction until recently, like a fish doesn’t care about the water she swims in. But at certain times in history, some of us get to realize there is a distinction here, and to face an impossible dilemma:

How much of my right to exist as a person am I willing to sacrifice so that we can exist as a people?

This might be hard to grasp for people whose existence as a people has never been threatened. If you’re one of them, try to imagine this:

One day you wake up, and suddenly there are bombs falling on your city and enemy soldiers at its gates. Surrender, and you’re officially a Soviet citizen now, living under a totalitarian regime. All books, movies, music and art you have access to will be replaced by state propaganda, your connection to the outside world will be heavily censored, and any criticism of the government might put you in jail or get you killed. Fight, and there’s a high chance thousands of your friends, relatives, and neighbors will die a terrible death, many women and children among them. Run, and perhaps some other country will offer you shelter, but most of your friends and relatives won’t be able to make it. What do you choose? If you don’t choose for yourself, somebody else will.

This isn’t a hypothetical scenario. A similar dilemma pushed the people of Warsaw to liberate their city from the Nazis in 1944 so that the Soviet army wouldn’t be the ones to do it. Perhaps you’ve heard about what happened next. More civilians got killed than in Hiroshima and Nagasaki combined, all that was left of Warsaw was a pile of ruins, and we ended up under Soviet occupation anyway, at a tragic cost.

Warsaw in 1945. More than 85% of all buildings got completely destroyed.

Living in this city, relating to the patriotic education that my parents gave me became almost impossible. The unspeakable tragedy of Warsaw Uprising is still visible on every street corner if you’re paying attention. There’s so much collective grief and pain that you can almost feel it in the air. In Warsaw Old Town there’s a monument of a child soldier, with a rifle in his hand and a military helmet way too big for his tiny little head. Is this our legacy? Is this the price we need to pay in order to exist as a people? I’d much rather speak German or Russian to my daughter for the rest of our lives than give her a rifle and send her to battle while she’s still so small.

To live in Warsaw and stay sane we all tiptoe around this grief and pain, either declaring that all the Warsaw Uprising rebels should be celebrated as heroes, or that it was an idiotic suicide mission that should be completely forgotten. Neither rings true, but in Poland we seem to be locked in this dichotomy, that you either go to fight and die for our freedom no matter the cost, or you’d better give up instantly and surrender. Without acknowledging and processing all the grief of World War 2, we won’t likely see other options. We only know how to die a heroic death or how to reject our heroic legacy. When Western countries act in their best self-interest, they’re often seen in Poland as spineless cowards. Nobody knows how acting in our best self-interest would look like.

The monument of a child soldier in Warsaw Old Town

My ancestors would be probably quite disappointed with us now

They sacrificed so much so that Polish people can govern themselves however they’d like, and yet we spend so much of our time and energy fighting against each other. For hundreds of years there were always some occupying forces at the top, rarely having our best interest in mind. Perhaps our history makes us uniquely great at rebelling against oppressors and fighting heroically for our freedom, but also completely incapable of actually governing ourselves once that freedom is finally ours?

When I was a teenager, there was a running joke among my friends: “perhaps we should just declare a war with Germany and then immediately surrender”. Most of them believed we’d all be better off living under the German government. It’s ironic that the well-governed country they would rather live in is one that brutally invaded us just a few decades earlier, and had to be literally conquered by force and taken apart in order to stop doing that. I’d like to believe that being conquered by force and taken apart helps people reconsider some things and gain perspective, but unfortunately this happened to Poland too, more than once, and so far we don’t seem to have learned a thing.

For what it’s worth, I never heard anyone say even jokingly that we should declare a war with Russia and surrender. No matter how much troubles we might have with governing ourselves, we all know that people in Russia have it much, much worse. As far as I’ve heard, many of them would rather immediately surrender to someone else too, or emigrate so that they have nothing to do with Russia again. Some of my incredibly intelligent Russian friends who already left the country told me on a few different occasions that all Russians are idiots. That was a decade ago, long before the Russian invasion of Ukraine. When so many of the brightest and most driven people are leaving, I can see how everyone else might feel even more hopeless than before.

I wonder how ordinary German people felt during the World War 2

How many of them opposed the war but feared too much to speak up? How many secretly hoped someone would assassinate Hitler but felt like nobody could possibly do that? Could some of them have felt some kind of relief when their country got eventually conquered? In a mind-blowing comparison of Polish newspaper headlines between 1939 and 2022 there was a mention of large-scale anti-war protests in Berlin and Hamburg when Poland was first attacked. What happened later to all the people who protested? Were they glad when the war was eventually over?

I can only imagine what it’s like to live as a citizen of a totalitarian regime that brutally attacks another country. I have no idea how I’d actually react in such situation. Perhaps there comes a point where what your government is doing becomes so unacceptable, all the efforts to influence them become so ineffective, and you’re feeling so desperate that you might actually welcome an intervention from the outside?

I know at least a few people who are feeling so desperate about the families trapped on the Belarusian border that they’d rather invite some international organizations to come here and make things right. I still believe that we’ll be able to do so without anyone conquering us by force. But that’s Poland, where we have democratic elections, freedom of press, and also currently an incredibly complex and challenging geopolitical situation. If I lived in Russia, perhaps I’d welcome such organizations with open arms.

At what point should you say “we did a bad job governing ourselves, someone please help”?

Is it ever acceptable to say this? Present-day Germany is without any doubt a much better place to live for both Germans and everyone else than it was in the 1930s. How much different would it be if nobody stopped their army at that time and literally conquered the whole country? I wonder how German people are feeling about it right now.

In Poland our ancestors sacrificed so much fighting for independence that I can’t imagine what would need to happen for most people to welcome an outside intervention. I still believe that we’re wiser now than Germany was in 1939, and that we’ll find a way to do the right thing despite our differences. If there is any way for us to wisely honor the legacy of our ancestors heroically fighting for freedom, this is it. Thanks to their effort we’re living in a free country now, with the best government we could have selected ourselves rather than under Nazi or Soviet occupation. My generation hardly remembers how it was like, and we’re taking our freedom for granted.

How would working together to do the right thing look like in practice? I don’t know, because nothing seems to be helping so far. If public debates are going nowhere, thousands of signatures don’t mean a thing, and protesting in the streets only escalates the tension, what other options do we really have here?

We might be quite a rebellious nation, but the problems we’re dealing with aren’t uniquely Polish. Politics everywhere is getting increasingly polarized, with people who think or vote differently increasingly seen as idiots or inhumane monsters. America has kids in cages, China has concentration camps, most of the world has drastic covid restrictions and even more drastic treatment of the protesters against them. As my friend Visa says, every government is an embarrassment in some way.

If protesting against the government doesn’t help, what will? I don’t know, but we’d better all figure something out. We’re a free nation now, we’ve chosen this government. It’s time to stop waiting for someone from the outside to come and do something. If anyone does, the most likely scenario is that we’ll end up under Soviet-like occupation again.

Is your government really beyond redemption?

If you’re living in Russia, I’m sorry. It probably is. I like to believe that Russia as a country is not and wholeheartedly support the Russian resistance movement, but I know they don’t have it easy at all. There must be a reason why so many of my smart Russian friends have left the country forever. If I were in their shoes, I’d probably do the same too.

Otherwise if you live in a country that has major newspapers and TV stations openly criticising your government, you’re lucky. No matter how difficult things might be, you’re still a part of the free world. You’re free to vote for whomever you’d like, you’re free to get upset when the majority of your compatriots vote differently, and you’re free to influence them in whatever way you can, through clear logical arguments and passionate appeals to their hearts, intimate private conversations and massive public protests, explaining your point of view again or getting to know theirs better. You’re even free to do nothing at all and complain.

The only thing I wouldn’t recommend is waiting for someone to come and save us from our own government. If anyone ever attempts to do that, we might not be able to enjoy these freedoms again.

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