The Second World snugly finds its place between the First and Third worlds. These are constructs of the Cold War, antiquated political categorizations that pigeonhole the world as we know it into a neat, fun, digestible grouping of three. The Second World isn’t halfway between ‘developed’ and ‘undeveloped’, but simply denotes countries that are communist or have recently been communist and have retained a certain Leninist flavor in their renovations, despite progressive efforts, in some places, to try to dispel it. In fact we don’t really hear the term anymore, probably because modern day communism fails to resemble traditional communism in any shape or form. Direct observation of China’s version of communism tells me, for example, that it’s little more than capitalism on steroids.
Geographically, the Second World is mostly Eastern Europe, Southeastern Europe, the former USSR, and its formerly imprisoned satellites. Cuba, Vietnam, and China are in there too, but the conditions and histories of these nations are so rich, varied, and diverse, it does a disservice to place them under the Second umbrella, as I said.
Poland is technically in the Second World. While maintaining one of the most successful post-communist economies, it’s still backwards in many ways. As Polish cities grow and become points of interest on the worldwide grid, much of the country still sees intense poverty and isolation from basic services like healthcare. Someone said they would put it in the First-and-a-half World, not quite Second, not quite First. In short, I was confused. And then I remember why these terms have been abandoned. The world is too complicated to be able to accurately sum it up in three groups. It’s cute that someone tried!
One of my favorite places in Poland is called Mazury, a lake and forest region in the northeast. It’s cradled by Belarus, Lithuania, and the Russian exclave of the Kaliningrad Oblast because, you know, Russia doesn’t have enough coastline or access to resources and if they didn’t have a port city on the Baltic it just wouldn’t be fair! Mazury has a rich history which, to be thorough, begins with the lakes’ creation 14,000 years ago in the ice age, a dreadfully boring epoch that people like to dramatize with woolly mammoth hunting (great fun and a thorough exercise in showmanship and teamwork!) and the glorious sabre tooth tiger and hairy men in loin cloths and hats made out of bears’ heads. The glaciers that once covered most of Northern Europe carved into the soft earth and then unceremoniously melted. And voila! Lakes were born, about 2,000 of them!
Fast forward a few thousand years, and you’ll see Mazury being manhandled like a new labradoodle puppy at an eight-year-old’s birthday party. Over a span of centuries, the Kingdom of Prussia, the German Empire, the Red Army, inferior Polish leadership, as well as other groups, fought over this strategic piece of territory for basically the same reason behind most land conflicts – everyone was just being a bitch all the time. There were also issues about official demarcations, resources and agriculture, ethnic majorities and national verification of the local population and such, but none of that matters. Everyone was just a goddamn bitch, all the time.
Mazury was then placed in Polish hands, or potato wheelbarrows, in 1945 as a result of the Potsdam Conference. The country also annexed a substantial amount of land to the west, and this concluded the seemingly never-ending issue of Poland’s official borders. People like Roosevelt and Truman and Churchill liked to draw these boundaries in pencil and erase or change them whenever they saw fit, “fit” here meaning when it would be advantageous for them to do so. This was often done in secret with no acknowledgement of Polish leadership or government, and I can only assume that Poland grew tired of this trend after a while. This was yet another ‘Western Betrayal’, a term that describes how Western nations saw countries like Poland and Czechoslovakia as nothing more than pawns on their chess board, feeling free to barter and negotiate with the livelihoods of millions of face-less people. Poor old Mieczysław must have been positively livid when word came to his village that everyone had to move their huts over three meters, yet again, to honor the geopolitical scribbles of powerful distant overseers.
When the West was done using Poland (the bastards!), the Soviets came knocking and smuggled Poland to the Bloc in a burlap sack. What was then achieved is something I like to call: “everything-is-gray-and-dismal-but-ignore-the-suffering-comrades-everything-is-wonderful-I-assure-you-and-prosperity-is-among-us-I-will-slice-your-throat-with-my-sickle-if-you-fail-to-give-me-last-piece-of-rye-bread-comrade” status. It’s a technical term. Eventually and thankfully, the wrongdoers crumbled under swift pressure delivered from the people, the commie regime collapsed, and a market economy rose from the ashes anew. The economic turn-around is actually pretty amazing. Warsaw is now an internationally recognized business center, evident in the tall modern buildings but also in the fact that I can’t walk through the center of the city without accumulating at least 97 force-fed flyers and pamphlets.
I can go on and on about European history with a color and enthusiasm that only I deem endearing. I’ve yet to tell a historical story without someone walking out on me out of annoyance. Sometimes the color fudges the facts a bit, or at the very least, precision is sacrificed. All the above is true, though! I think we all acquire information and ‘facts’ through subjective means, and I happily transfer this outlook to my take on history. So take it with a large rock of salt.
The vague, generalized slipshod tale I just penned is something I think about a lot, especially within Polish borders. If I’m in Poland, I always drive up to Mazury from Warsaw with my relatives. They have a cottage in a village called Strzelniki, the unassuming epicenter of an evil curse that has resulted in many village-wide deaths, illnesses, gruesome mysteries, the burning of a barn, and the drowning of a wedding party on a nearby lake (that’s another story). My time there is always short but it has produced some of my fondest memories. I see that branch of the family very infrequently, but when we’re together it’s as if no time has passed.
There’s little to do in Strzelniki other than eat, breathe, sleep, look, run, talk, and read. This suits me. Sometimes life demands some simplicity away from invasive technology, incessant contact with people you don’t like, and general 21st century responsibilities. While there, I especially like to go on long walks. Sometimes alone, sometimes with someone I like or love. Winding dirt roads snake their way through cornfields then forests, cornfields and forests, terrains alternating at random until somehow I magically find my way home. One time, my cousin and I were strolling through the woods and we heard a pick-up truck full of drunken men coming along the road. We dashed into the foliage, hidden by the green that swallowed us whole as we watched them slowly creep by with vodka, torches, and surveying eyes. These woods are magic but they’re dangerous, too. Villages in the middle of nowhere can depict a façade of paradise and wonderful simplicity, but isolation, poverty, boredom, and laziness bring their own troubles. With simplicity might come the dangerously erroneous worldview of seeing things in black and white.
Today, Mazury leaves little trace of its German and Prussian roots, excluding the occasional ill-maintained, infrequently-visited cottage museum that serves as a slapdash homage to a history marked with incessant tug-o-wars and large blocks of slow-moving ice. But that’s why I love it. Besides the occasional domestic tourist, Mazury is empty. The larger towns are surrounded by pockets of small communities that rely on home-grown food and cows for milk and cheese. Beyond that you’re much more likely to meet a field mouse or a crane before you come across a person. If it’s after 5 pm, odds are he’s drunk. While many of the people are overwhelmingly impoverished in any sort of city standard, most of them live simply and live well. Happy urban families head north to their lake houses every summer, and children can be seen playing along the dirt roads while their mothers cook and hang laundry and go on walks with their best girlfriends. It’s a place where baked goods picked from ovens are put on open windowsills. The region’s lakes are dotted with local fishermen earnest for a day’s catch and a hot fishy supper, its rolling hills blanketed with forests and pines that still go unmarred. I imagine that should you pick any random spot in a Masurian forest, it very well could be the site of a ghastly 20th century war crime, but hey. That goes for pretty much all of Poland and the rest of the Second World.
Today is my birthday. While the 1500 words located above this sentence are disorganized, and painfully nostalgic, I write them simply so that I can read this in 10 years and remember what I was thinking on my _____st/nd/th birthday. These blog posts are largely inconsequential, but they’re important to me all the same. All this is my feeble attempt at seizing time and making it slow down because, you know, the year is almost half over and I can still feel that ocean breeze on my face the night 2012 was born.