Don's Diary

September 29, 1995

SATURDAY. Off to Warsaw for the Fifth World Congress of Central and East European Studies. Congresses I-IV, we recall as we fly past Berlin, included in their title that outdated word - "Soviet".

SUNDAY. The Europejski Hotel is right by what my old street map calls Victory Square.

Strolling around it before breakfast, I watch the changing of the guard at the memorial to the unknown warrior, and note that its columns record victories not only over Nazi Germany but also over Russia, both tsarist and Bolshevik.

I miss most of the opening ceremony of the congress, but then make up for it with three sessions on the trot.

After a glass or two of wine at the welcome reception, a group of us wander off to the beautifully reconstructed old town for dinner.

MONDAY. A longer walk before breakfast. I had not noticed that statue before, covered up securely in black plastic. One of the last of the Lenins, I assume, and regret that I do not have a camera. I chair a panel on another has-been, Gorbachev: one of the paper-givers has not shown up, but the other two provoke a lively discussion among all nine of us (at the preceding congress, it would have been more than 90 - the study of recent history has many pitfalls, as one of the speakers reminds us). There is a good attendance at the next session on Peter the Great, where I am the discussant. Yes, just those few years ago we were comparing this master tsar to Gorby, but time had moved on so quickly that no such comparison has come and almost gone with Yeltsin, too. In any case, the subject is a lively one for his own sake, and the give and take following three good papers is stimulating. Tiring too, as I fight later in stuffy rooms to stay awake.

TUESDAY. A sounder sleep after an even more convivial evening, but up early again for the changing of the guard. After breakfast, I notice a couple of trucks drawing up at that statue.

Am I to miss the dismantlement? No responsibilities today, so just take notes and make a couple of comments, and chat to friends.

Some friction between Czechs and Germans over the Sudetenland, I learn, more between the Poles and the Russians over almost everything. But the enthusiastic staff at the information desks keep the congress running smoothly. A reception given by the Central European University, where an old acquaintance from Budapest complains of the damage done by stringent policies to higher education in Hungary in general.

WEDNESDAY. The statue is still there, and now uncovered. Silly me, I realise, it really was too late for an old one to come down, it is a new one about to be inaugurated - Marshal Pilsudski, the inter-war Polish national hero.

Over to a retrospective on Lenin, knocked off his pedestal right enough by most of the speakers in a surprisingly crowded hall - just one suggestion that the only realistic alternative to the red leader, a white general, would have been worse.

A welcome break in the afternoon, an excursion to some peasant huts, an aristocratic palace and the middle-class birthplace of Chopin.

Did you know that his father was French, and that is why his surname is pronounced that way?

From the sophisticated mazurkas of the great composer (in a live recital through a window to an audience sitting in the beautiful garden) to the original popular dance relayed to us by an ensemble in appropriate costume at dinner in a country tavern (or to be frank, a log roadhouse in outer suburbia).

THURSDAY. The old map was indeed out of date. It is no longer Victory, but Pilsudski Square, and there is a spring in the step of the changing guard, and more flags have been put out. By now, the pace is really beginning to tell, and, after summoning up the strength for three more sessions, I go back to my room and the Land of Nod.

Rather surprised as I struggle to return to reality via television to Pilsudski Square.

There, just by the statue, is the Marshal's most recent successor, Lech Walesa, in the middle of an evident attempt to take up the baton as he addresses a jamboree of scouts and guides.

FRIDAY. Myth and legitimacy in central and eastern Europe, the theme of my early-morning thoughts as well as of the last day's first session.

Then, the Great Terror, the most recent estimates of the number of the victims, and the place of Stalin's barbarities among all the others in human history.

In an earlier session, a colleague had compared Lenin to Genghis Khan and Pol Pot. How far would we have to roam to find counterparts for Stalin? Of course, one of them had made his atrocious mark nearby, in the ghetto.

This is on the agenda for a post-congress tour of post-Soviet Warsaw, as are the palaces and the parks beyond the university and Pilsudski Square.

Paul Dukes Director of the centre for Russian, east and central European studies, University of Aberdeen.

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