The responsibilities of freedom. Witold Szablowski’s trip to the countries of the former Soviet bloc

With the collapse of the Soviet Union, Eastern Europe was suddenly liberated. But freedom, reflects Witold Szablowski, born in 1980, Polish, journalist (also for Gazeta Wyborcza) and a writer, is not something that can be given without a guide to those who have never known it: it carries with it many responsibilities. And there is a risk that whoever receives it will not know what to do. This is Szablowski’s dissertation on the nostalgia for communism: a collection of years of reporting on the countries of the former Soviet bloc, including Cuba.

In short, freedom must be taught, as it is with children Dancing bears which give the volume its title. Animals that the Roma trained with iron and alcohol. popular attraction, until the European Union made it illegal. These beasts, tormented by wounds and tumors of captivity, after being saved, must be taught everything: in practice, to be bears. Their freedom has the limits of the sanctuary that hosts them, because in nature they would die. But despite the care and efforts to make him forget his past as a slave, Szablowski writes, “almost all bears still dance today.” The metaphor is ruthless but clear. When the book arrived in Italy (Keller), however, the Russian attack on Ukraine was missing from the equation. We discuss it with the author, who has already published it from us The killer of the city of apricotsfor Turkey, and who in Poland, as a journalist, covers the war and the reception of Ukrainian refugees at the border.

He believes that the Russian invasion will eliminate all Soviet nostalgia?

“There will always be some nostalgic dinosaurs. people who have not found a better alternative to democracy and who long for the old. But Russia certainly reminded not only the Ukrainians, but the whole region, because no one wanted to be part of the world the Russians were building. One thinks of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan, the repressions in Hungary and Czechoslovakia. I suffer for Ukraine, but also for the Russians living in this horrible imperialist country. I know many of them and I think they deserve better. “

Can’t nostalgia be used by Russian propaganda as another weapon against the West?

“Well, Putin is definitely trying. But I think he overestimated his capabilities, as he did with the strength of his army. The people who really remember communism, and I mean those who lived, worked and had children at that time, are now 60 years old. They would soon become like the old Stalinists who protested with photos of Stalin at every opportunity. Something graphic, but that does not count “.

During your travels, have you ever asked people what they think of Putin?

“I wrote another book about how Russia uses even something as insignificant as food to build its empire. I have spent a lot of time there and in Ukraine, writing about chefs from Chernobyl or the war in Afghanistan, and I have not found anyone who likes Putin, not even among the Russians. Instead, I had the impression that they would be happy to replace him with someone else, if they had the chance. Smart Russians, like director Andrei Konchalovsky, whom I met personally, know that their country does not use even ten percent of its potential. “As you know, Italy is richer than Russia, which is the largest country in the world, with large sources of oil and gas.”

He kept in touch with some of the people he met for his reports?

“Yes, with those from Estonia. I went to see them two years ago while filming a documentary about the Russians living there (for years after the end of the USSR, the country’s Russian-speaking community was treated as a former occupier: it lost its citizenship and it was necessary to get it back). to take an exam in Estonian, a language none of them spoke, ed.). I was shocked by the change: the Estonians managed to change “their” Russians and integrate them into society. TO praise themIf we want”.

Let’s go back to the bear transport: how did they get it in Poland?

“Let’s just say they were not very happy to be compared to animals that grew up in captivity. But after reading the book, you understand how the metaphor works. It is about the price that everyone has to pay for their freedom. “What is happening in Ukraine is a good example.”

What a bear Poland is?

“Sometimes free, sometimes he dances. Free when we support our Ukrainian neighbors. It is in these moments that I am proud to be Polish. Dancing when we empower politicians who only know how to promise. “And I think of the right, in power for six years.”

Do we really have to teach freedom? And, again metaphorically speaking, will the bears ever stop dancing?

“First of all, we have to teach people how companies and parties work. In Poland, when you finish high school, you know exactly what is inside a frog, but you do not know what a real political debate should be like. And in general we should pay more attention to education. It’s something we’ve been missing out on during the transition.

As for the bears, on the other hand: yes, they can. See the Ukrainians now. They certainly do not dance. Their war against Putin should be the last chapter of this book. We are responsible for an entire nation that believed in our values ​​and our beautiful words. If we abandon them now, what is the meaning of these words and values?

The book

“Dancing Bears”, Witold Szablowski, Keller, translated by Leonardo Masi, pp. 288, 18 €

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