Hours after a 2010 plane crash in Russia that killed Poland’s president, philosopher and professor Zbigniew Mikołejko predicted that it would show how “similarly to a religion, a disaster may be transformed into a socio-political scheme.”
Here, Natalia Ojewska speaks to Mikołejko about the meaning of “Smolensk religion”, who its followers are and how it is helping to win elections.
You coined the term ‘Smolensk religion’. What does it mean?
This catastrophe has become an integrating mechanism for the Polish populist right wing. I have been observing and analysing Polish religiosity for a living. This process has been heading towards something.
If not for the Smolensk catastrophe, we would live in a different political and religious reality. The positive concentration of the right-wing populist proponents — whose programmes include some radically left-wing ideas — could not have happened without it, as its supporters are highly dispersed. There would be no mechanism to integrate the local populism, which promotes very radical socio-economic ideas.
Who are the people who take part in the monthly anniversaries of the Smolensk plane crash catastrophe?
On the one hand, we have a lot of elderly people who listen to [conservative, Catholic station] Radio Maryja and supporters of [the station’s founder] priest Tadeusz Rydzyk. Those people were left behind during the transformation; they were uneducated, poor, elderly, rejected people, who did not find a place for themselves in an emerging global capitalism of the modern world. Their basic concern was this feeling of meaninglessness in the society. And then Rydzyk told them: “You are what you are, you are worthy, you are the salt of the earth, the roots of ‘Polishness’”. They are very grateful for the validation of their self-worthiness and they are ready to pay any price for it.
Another group are the football hooligans. This is a group of young alpha males haunted by cheap emotions and hatred. They too could not find their place in society. They tend to be poorly educated and often come from run-down suburban areas or blocks built during the period of socialism. What is important here is the fact they were raised in a patriarchal environment, usually heavily marked by violence. They do not have any other role models. Their patriarchal model of existence failed them in the liberal economic model, in which young women are able to achieve better socioeconomic status. Traditional gender roles are over — and those men do not fit in the new gender roles due to their lack of education. As a result, they started looking for slogans that would empower them, give them strength, position, as well as value and the sense of importance as representatives of the “white power”, male strength, community. Individually, they are weak. This environment is evidently afraid of women and of failure. This fear stems from the fact that traditional patriarchy empowered men by default, whereas capitalism doesn’t. Thus, they need to find a niche for themselves in this new system.
The next group is the middle class. The representatives of this group often have some formal education, which is often not worth very much. There are 450 higher education institutions in Poland, three times more than in the US. This is significant. It is a mistake of the democratic and liberal social policies: creating excessive opportunities to obtain higher education without any requirements. The middle class has got some education in majors such as tourism or cosmetology. Now they think of themselves as educated but in fact, they are not. However, now they have university diplomas and they try to compete with graduates of decent degrees like medicine studies, architecture, IT or sociology. Obviously, this group of people have their expectations and aspirations, but cannot find a job that would meet those expectations. Many of them have emigrated abroad in search of jobs. Although they do not have many valuable skills, they have demands and expectations. They are used to living in a socialist welfare state, and they expect it. This attitude is something that is passed down from generation to generation. Some of them feel they have been tricked out of something, left behind — some have some right to feel like that, but others do not, and they will feel jealous because their neighbour has a better car. And such people also needed to be integrated into a broader structure.
What do these people look for in the ‘Smolensk religion’?
They are looking for something that would integrate them, and cheer them up. For politicians, it is only a tool. They take advantage of it by appealing to negative emotions, to what Nietzsche referred to as “ressentiment” — an assignment of blame for one's frustration. Every group of people I have talked to have some sense of hostility or regret for liberal democracies.
Disappointment towards the political class that is being manifested today was revealed already in the first semi-free election in June 1989. At that time about 60% of Poles voted. They did not have any experience. What disappointed them? What kind of political class? Between 40% and 60% of Poles do not take part in any political elections in Poland. Some 60% do not read any books or newspapers. This is the heritage of the long history of Polish serfdom. After all, a man belongs to the land without questioning or expecting any rights, but focusing only on the survival of himself and his family. And this attitude is passed down from generation to generation.
What are the characteristics of the ‘Smolensk religion’?
The “Smolensk religion” is built on the cult of victims. This is significant. Poles see themselves as victims, martyrs, sufferers, a pure nation. This martyrology is glorified in the school curricula and deeply rooted in the collective self-conscious.
Ludwig Dorn once said: "Any idea needs a sacrifice in its very foundations”. As follows, Romulus killed his brother Remus to set up the city of Rome and rule it by himself. The Smolensk catastrophe is the founding victim of the Fourth Polish Republic.
The most responsible figure for the Smolensk catastrophe is Jaroslaw Kaczynski [the twin brother of the late Polish President Lech Kaczyński]. He pushed his brother to compete for power at all costs, with tragic consequences.
Can the ‘Smolensk religion’ be considered political fuel that helps to win elections?
Sure. Because lots of people were angry with the liberal-democratic system for various reasons, justifiably or not.
Elderly people, the generation of Rydzyk, were harmed objectively, while these younger middle-class people feel the way they do because they want to. Appetites were growing while seeing those luxury beautiful goods in commercials on TV, when at home you’ve got only 2,000 PLN (around 477 euros) to pay the rent and spend on urgent needs. Luxury looks nice, but it is not available to me, so I suffer.
This is rebellion; frustration. Comparing your income with people in the West. But the West had been working for several hundred years to achieve the standards that they can enjoy now.