By air, Warsaw is about as far from Moscow as it is from Amsterdam. Psychologically, however, the distance is even greater.
It's ironic, but one of the first things that strikes a visitor arriving in Moscow from Poland, which is under a state of martial law, is the awesome security apparatus. The police patrolling the streets of Warsaw may wear machine guns slung over their backs but, if it's a question of which country feels more like a police state, the Soviet Union wins hands down.
To a Western newcomer in Moscow, the police seem omnipresent. They watch you from little glass booths as you leave your apartment building or drive out of the city. Uniformed officers seem to be stationed on every other corner. A walk around Red Square or the Kremlin is punctuated regularly by the sound of piercing whistles accusing you of some infringement or other.
What's even stranger for someone accustomed to Poland is that the mainstay of this policing system is ordinary people. Complete strangers will come up and tell you that you must tie your shoelaces, that you mustn't swim in the river after a picnic, that your car is dirty and you should clean it.
An Englishwoman living here said that her 18-month-old son had just pronounced his first word. To her chagrin, it was not "mama" or "papa," but what is possibly the most ubiquitous word in the Russian language: "nel-zya," meaning "It is forbidden." The child had evidently learned it from the Russian maid.
It is hard to imagine such a thing happening in Poland. Polish children are brought up to be intense individualists. The expression "it is forbidden" thus has little meaning for the average Pole other than being a reinforcement of his ingrained dislike of authority.
The different upbringing of Poles and Russians is reflected in diametrically opposite attitudes toward the state and the concept of patriotism. In the Soviet Union, the idea that the state knows best appears to be broadly accepted. With the exception of a handful of dissidents, whose importance is exaggerated in the West, patriotism consists of being a good Soviet citizen and furthering the interests of the state.
In Poland, by contrast, the state and the nation are two entirely different things. Years of foreign occupation have created a mentality to which the state is something alien; real sovereignty is vested in independent institutions like the Roman Catholic Church or the family. For many Poles, patriotism means working actively to undermine the state.
Culturally and spiritually, Poles look to the West for inspiration. Every second Pole, including a large proportion of the Communist Party leadership, has a close relative living abroad. Before martial law, Poles traveled abroad in greater numbers than any other Soviet Bloc people. For Soviets, even travel to Warsaw is a big privilege.
In Poland, the dollar is widely used and is the basis of the vast underground economy. Poles have hard-currency bank accounts and are allowed to make purchases at the special dollar shops run by the state. A Soviet citizen is breaking the law if he possesses a single dollar without authorization.
Of course the differences between Russia and Poland go back many centuries and are a product of their historical rivalry. Remarkably, however, decades of Communist rule in both countries seem to have accentuated their national character traits rather than eliminated them.
The stereotyped views that each nation holds of the other seem to have become cruder over the past two years following the emergence of Solidarity in Poland. Poles see Soviet citizens as boorish, hopelessly inefficient and aggressive. Soviets view Poles as lazy, incurably romantic and permanently on the make. Each nation is convinced that it is being bled dry through supplying food, raw materials or finished goods to the other.
Asked what he thought of Poles, a Moscow cab driver responded with a gesture of impatience and then launched into a fairly typical tirade:
"If they worked a bit harder, they might get somewhere. Look at those East Germans: they work hard and, as a result, they live well. But the Poles, all they do is complain."
Asked what he thought of Russians, a Warsaw cab driver was equally forthright:
"They're uncivilized barbarians. All they understand is military power. Take my word for it, they're out to conquer Europe."
At the level of intellectuals, attitudes are slightly more sophisticated. A Soviet writer who permits himself mild criticisms of the Soviet system said that at first he and his friends had watched the Polish experiment with free trade unions with interest and a good deal of sympathy.
"It seemed to us that this might be a way forward," he said. "At the beginning, no one here criticized Solidarity. But then the Poles blew it. They just did not know when to stop and instead of reforming their system wanted to destroy it."
A Western diplomat here commented that the imposition of martial law in Poland was, in an odd way, comforting to Soviet intellectuals. Solidarity's initial success, according to this argument, created a vague feeling of guilt among liberals here since it suggested that they could be more effective in pushing for liberalization. The military crackdown, when it came, proved that it was indeed futile to challenge the system.
The sense in Russia that opposition is useless stems in part from the country's size. The visitor from Poland is immediately impressed by the vastness of everything--from the landscape to the buildings to the avenues that radiate out from the Kremlin like the spokes of an enormous wheel. The larger the scale, the more insignificant the individual human being seems to become.
In Poland, uprisings and revolutions have been almost commonplace; in Russia they seem to run against the grain of history. The Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was in this sense atypical, made possible only by three years of debilitating world war, the disintegration of the Czarist regime, and the determination of a disciplined Communist Party led by Lenin.
The Polish tradition of insurrections is directed primarily against foreign domination. It finds its expression in the words of the French philosopher Jean Jacques Rousseau some two centuries ago: "Poles, if you cannot prevent your neighbors from devouring your nation, at least make it impossible for them to digest it."
The relationship between Poland and Russia has changed little since.