Soviet Soft Power in Poland
Culture and the Making of Stalin’s New Empire, 1943-1957
University of North Carolina Press, Chapel Hill, North Carolina, 2015, 344 pages
Book Review published on: March 10, 2017
Soviet control over Eastern Europe after World War II was nowhere as monolithic, static, and uncompromising as we sometimes think. Behind the Iron Curtain, intellectuals, politicians, officials, and others negotiated an often shifting and often dangerous world of changing doctrine and policy. This is particularly true of Poland in the years between the Soviet conquest and the death of Stalin. Patryk Babiracki’s Soviet Soft Power in Poland: Culture and the Making of Stalin’s New Empire, 1943-1957, traces Soviet efforts to influence Polish culture and politics through propaganda, newspapers, plays, literature, and the arts. He shows that Polish writers and audiences had at times, considerable input into their new Communist culture, but more importantly, that the Soviets actively engaged with the Poles with a surprising degree of sensitivity. Written with an impressive breadth and depth of knowledge about bureaucratic and artistic circles, Soviet Soft Power in Poland is an extremely valuable examination of cultural politics in Communist Eastern Europe.
Soviet cultural influence in Poland always faced an uphill battle. Poles have a long enmity with Russia, which was not helped by intense anti-Communism during the interwar years, and by the USSR’s base partnership with Nazi Germany in 1939. Poles naturally viewed Soviet efforts to influence Polish culture with suspicion. One of the first and most emblematic Soviet attempts to reach out to the Poles came in 1943, when the USSR formed the Kosciusko Division. This Polish unit was made up of opponents to the USSR, most recruited from the Gulags, and had a large proportion of Russian officers. Though it was never as legitimate as the Polish resistance—the Home Army, Babiracki shows that the Division was a real source of national pride and used Polish culture, including Catholic rituals, to encourage some degree of loyalty.
In the immediate postwar era, soft power was especially important. In general, in 1944 the country was a relatively free “marketplace of ideas,” but Poland had become another Cold War battleground by 1948. Writers were a crucial part of this battleground, as pro- and anti-Communist newspapers frantically tried to produce more material than their opponents. Babiracki shows the many administrative challenges of importing Soviet culture, problems like translation, quality of writing, and vague instructions from Moscow. These really were years where soft power influence was key, as Polish and Soviet Communists tried to attract the intelligentsia and the general population alike. Of course, the last burst of Stalinism from 1948 to 1956 quashed much of the gentle parts of Soviet power.
Babiracki argues convincingly that Sovietization—the process of making a culture “Soviet”—is a complicated process. It involves conflicting processes, policies, personalities, and perspectives. Soviet Soft Power in Poland is an excellent contribution to the current reexamination of the Cold War, allowing a more nuanced look at Soviet life. While this book is aimed at Cold War historians, it can give useful lessons for advocates of soft power still.
Book Review written by: John E. Fahey, Purdue University, West Lafayette, Indiana