Crossing Boundaries

The Case of Wanda Wasilewska and Polish Communism

in Aspasia


The article sketches “a personal genealogy” of Wanda Wasilewska (1905-1964): a writer, a devoted communist, and head of Związek Patriotów Polskich (Union of Polish Patriots) in the USSR during World War II. Referring to Michel Foucault’s lectures on “revolution which becomes an existential project,” the author frames Wasilewska neither as a communist icon nor as a symbol of national betrayal, but instead as a living human being, a social actor, a person strongly embedded in the historical and geopolitical context of her era. The author reconstructs the process of shaping the communist identity in prewar Poland, points to the moments of transgressing subsequent boundaries—gender, national, and class—and uncovers a gradual exploring of the limits of the communist transgression by the protagonist.

Personal Genealogy

In an autobiographical account entitled “O moich książkach” (About my books), which was an introduction to her collected works, published in Moscow in 1955, the prominent Polish female communist leader and writer Wanda Wasilewska confessed: “My childhood home was a good school for me: it was far from bourgeois self-contentment and ideals; a home in which everyone was preoccupied with social issues … ; the atmosphere of my childhood home, where social issues—and not personal ones—were always in the center, had a huge influence on my later life. It was obvious that one had to be interested in what was happening around us, one should take an active part in life.”1 Wasilewska (1905–1964) was a writer, a devoted communist who during World War II headed Związek Patriotów Polskich (Union of Polish Patriots) in the USSR—a communist political organization closely associated with Stalin—and who eventually became a deputy to the Supreme Soviet of the Soviet Union. Reflecting on her childhood, she declared that “the struggle” had always been at the center of her life: the kind of struggle that becomes the point of one’s life and consumes the entire individual. For Wasilewska, the close connection between one’s political beliefs and one’s life choices was self-evident: political life was bound to trespass on every aspect of personal life, devouring and subjugating the “private” self. At the same time, personal experience became an impulse for taking up political action, initiating change, or interfering with an ongoing process. This was a practice that was not strange to the Polish intelligentsia, who had been at the forefront of advocating and implementing social and political change for decades. But there were also new elements in this active involvement in public life: the communists with whom Wasilewska associated believed in a radical union of the public and the private, in revolutionizing each dimension of social life. Indeed, they began this process by first transforming themselves and their environment. As Michel Foucault wrote: “Revolution … was [for communists] not just a political project; it was also a form of life.”2

In one of his lectures delivered at the Collège de France in the early 1980s, Foucault noted that since the Cynics until modern times, revolutions were not just political events, but also living ideas, organizing principles, and projects carried out by those who professed them. Revolutionary leaders confirmed with their own lives the genuineness of the ideological slogans they voiced, sometimes to the point of selfdestruction. Foucault was far from drawing a simple analogy between the French May of 1968 and earlier revolutions, including the October Revolution of 1917. There were too many differences: historical, political, and cultural. There were also differences in the methods of executing the claims and in the very way in which these claims were defined. Still, he noted a certain continuity in thinking about revolutions and in the involvement of leaders who, while creating a vision of social change, did not place themselves outside of that vision. By manifesting their views with their own life trajectories, revolutionaries posed a challenge to the world. In practice, this often meant breaking with the community in which they were raised, rejecting moral principles that had been inculcated in them, including the most fundamental one about using violence against others. Foucault contended: “Going after the truth, manifesting the truth, making the truth burst out to the point of losing one’s life or causing the blood of others to flow is in fact something whose long filiation is found again across European thought.”3

Taking Foucault’s observation as a starting point, this article looks at Wanda Wasilewska and her place in Polish collective memory as a symbol of the establishment of the communist order after World War II. Wasilewska was a Polish communist leader known to her contemporaries as “Leon’s daughter.” The name referred to her father, Leon Wasilewski (1870–1936), a prominent patriotic socialist and a close associate of Józef Piłsudski (1867–1935), a national political leader, who played a key role in securing Polish independence in 1918, and who in 1926 became the dictator of Poland. The phrase “Leon’s daughter” encapsulated the ambivalent place of Wasilewska in Polish collective memory. It evoked Wasilewska’s “good heritage.” She was Polish, she came from a patriotic household, and she was born into the intelligentsia. At the same time, the name evoked her “rejection” of this patriotic tradition in her decision to join the Soviet-led communist movement.4 Joanna Szczęsna, author of a critical article about Wasilewska (2001), in which she justified many of her political decisions with the Freudian “father complex,” emphasized that Wasilewska, while “betraying” her fatherland, simultaneously “betrayed” her father and everything he served as the Minister of Foreign Affairs in the first Polish government following the country’s unification after the partitions. She was, then, a rebel, a degenerate daughter, one who rejected her family, patriotic, Polish traditions, as well as Poland itself when she opted for Soviet citizenship in September 1939, and especially once she proclaimed that she would not return to Poland after the war (she went on to live in Kiev).5

For decades, the life and works of Wanda Wasilewska were scrutinized by Soviet and Polish biographers, who either emphasized or obscured various tropes of her life story and literature and who, on other occasions, adjusted them to fit into the currently binding political interpretations, thus forcing her into a framework of the dominant remembrance of communism, patriotism, (in)dependence, and so forth. She was a malleable character, one with a rich biography brimming with twists of action and question marks, such as: Why did she not join the Komunistyczna Partia Polski (KPP; Communist Party of Poland),6 instead following in her father’s footsteps and joining the Polska Partia Socjalistyczna (PPS; Polish Socialist Party)?7 Why, despite her leading role in the Polish émigré circles in the USSR, did she decide against returning to Poland after World War II, thus rejecting an opportunity to become part of the political elites of the Polish People’s Republic? Wasilewska was at times treated as the perfect symbol of a new, socialist community, and at others as someone alien or even hostile to the Polish nation. Her numerous biographies published prior to 1989 depicted her as an outstanding writer and diplomat, a “Great Pole,” a “connection” between Poland and the Soviet Union, as she frequently visited Poland at the invitation of the authorities, especially before 1956, the year that marked the onset of the so-called thaw. After 1989, she became the embodiment of national betrayal, a “degenerate daughter of the Polish nation,” and her name—once a hallmark of pride—wilted away into a synonym of disgrace.8

Keeping in mind Foucault’s take on the revolution as “an existential project,” my goal is to capture what has so far escaped Wasilewska’s biographers and other commentators. I see her not as an icon, a monument of the communist takeover in Poland or a symbol of a national betrayal, but as a social actor, strongly embedded in the historical and geopolitical context of her era. I am interested in Wasilewska as a revolutionary in both public and personal life. She was as much a theorist, an ideologue, and a strong promoter of communism in Poland as a person whose entrance into communism took place on many levels of everyday life, resulting in a kind of “scandal of the truth” that Foucault described.9 While reading Wasilewska’s works, be it her novels, journalistic writings, memoirs, letters, or interviews, one is struck by the strong intersection of the private and the political. Wasilewska’s voice—rarely heard today in Poland, marginalized for its lack of credibility (after 1989, her books were withdrawn from the school curricula and libraries)—provides insights into the process of shaping the identity of a communist. It points to moments of transcending multiple borders: those of gender, nationality, and social class—a gesture seen by her as “rejecting superstition” or “freeing oneself from shibboleth.”10 It also reveals Wasilewska’s gradual exploring of the limits of communism as multidimensional transgression.

Toril Moi, a feminist literary critic, proposes a method of writing about a person that takes into account his or her voice, assumes the agency of the object of research, but also reads this voice in context, making it possible to view a person’s life not as a coherent and ready-made product but more as a process of the making of “I.” Moi calls her method personal genealogy, highlighting that it differs from biography in that it “seeks to achieve a sense of emergence or production [of self] and to understand the complex play of different kinds of power involved in social phenomena. Personal genealogy does not reject the notion of the ‘self’ or the subject but tries instead to subject that very self to genealogical investigation. Personal genealogy assumes that every phenomenon may be read as a text, that is to say as a complex network of signifying structures.”11 In my attempt to sketch a “personal genealogy” of Wanda Wasilewska, I also assess to what extent this method—which Moi used to study Simone de Beauvoir—can be applied to shed new light on communism and its memory in Poland. Analyzing the identity of a particular person/group/generation in the process of becoming and change, their motivation to participate and the outside forces enabling or restricting their actions, registering the moments of intersection of public and private life—all these contribute to complicating the conventional approach to studying biographies of people involved in communist activity in pre- and postwar Poland, which is still dominated by the black-and-white model of narrative.12

American historian Marci Shore has recently applied this methodology to study Polish Marxists born at the end of the nineteenth century in her book Caviar and Ashes (2006). She drafts a picture of a generation “enchanted with and disappointed with Marxism,” firmly situating them within the context of Polish and European history. In a similar way, Polish sociologist Anna Zawadzka in her documentary film Żydokomuna (Judeo-Communism, 2010) looks at communism through the eyes of Jewish and Polish Jewish activists, recording their different starting points but also the evolution of their beliefs and attitudes since the interwar period. While building on these approaches, my discussion centers on an individual rather than a collective biography and pays particular attention to the gender dimension of this “genealogy.”13

My approach toward the history of communism or, more precisely, the stories of lives and activities of people involved in radically leftist circles in Poland does not boil down in this text to a chronological reconstruction of historic events and biographical facts, nor to a moral assessment of the political and private choices of communist politicians and activists (here, specifically, of Wanda Wasilewska); it is not about “finding the truth” about their identity, either. It is more of an attempt to trace the process of how this identity was formed, with all the attendant cracks, discontinuities, and ambiguities. In analyzing Wasilewska’s biographies, as well as her autobiographical texts, which she wrote in various moments of time, frequently redacted, most likely also (self-)censored, as well as her literary output, I attempt to show that she was not only the object of biographical works, of external narrative processing, the result of which corresponded with the dominant historical narrative, but also a character in her own tale, a midwife of her own identity. At the same time, I am aware of the fact that Wasilewska, as a writer, was more apt at turning her life story into literary material than amateur autobiographers from (post)revolutionary Russia, such as those described by Jochen Hellbeck or Anna Krylova.14 In accordance with the binding conventions of socialist realism, this material then turned into a model to be followed: especially in the Soviet Union, where Wasilewska’s works were much more appreciated and prized than in Poland,15 it took on the role of a tool for shaping the biography of the Soviet population.

One Is Not Born a Communist

The belief in communism is not an inborn trait. Neither is it—as the biographies of various communist activists or, quite the contrary, anticommunist activists demonstrate—something one inherits from one’s parents or grandparents.16 As a set of ideas, beliefs, attitudes, and behaviors, it is rather something one can acquire through the process of socialization: through reading specific texts, mixing with a certain crowd, being in a particular environment. Communism can also be something one may identify with in total opposition to the socialization process one has gone through; something contrary to one’s upbringing, the tradition that formed him or her; something shaped in a certain field17—intellectual and political—as an effect of the rules existing in that field or in opposition to them.

I purposefully point this out because it is a common misconception in Poland that communism—particularly that of the intellectual elites—was a result of “blindness,” “succumbing to seduction,” “being possessed”; a kind of “impulse,” “drive,” or “action” that resulted in a regrettable “reaction.”18 Such is also the take on Wanda Wasilewska. Adam Ciołkosz (1901–1978), an activist of the Polish Socialist Party, an acquaintance of Wasilewska from the time of her activities in the Kraków Związek Niezależnej Młodzieży Socjalistycznej (Independent Socialist Youth Union)19 in the 1920s and later, in the postwar period, her political opponent, who belonged to Polish anticommunist circles in London, wrote about Wasilewska’s involvement with communism as a certain “love affair,” “a passion” that consumed her suddenly and completely.20 Meanwhile, the ex-communist poet Aleksander Wat (1900–1967), who in his literary confession My Century (1977) reminisced about Wasilewska in her Lviv period (1939–1941), that is, in the time she spent in the so-called Western Ukraine between the beginning of the German-Polish and the German-Soviet conflicts, pointed out her “fanaticism,” her “religious ecstasy,” “exaltation,” “mysticism of Saint Theresa of communism.”21 Both observations, highly critical of communism, depicting it with the use of metaphors of religion and love, created a particularly powerful effect when used in relation to a woman: femininity sharpened the image of a communist as someone irrational, consumed by a sudden passion, ecstatic.

The religious-passionate explanation of the “nature” of communism does not, however, reveal the subject’s motivation, other than a psychological one, according to which the communist is a weak person, someone prone to “addiction.” Neither does it help in analyzing the subject’s “path toward communism,” because what is regarded as important is movement in the opposite direction: the process of freeing oneself from the “addiction,” particularly valuable as a show of individual strength, of will and determination. It does not, finally, enable reflection on the consequences of this path: what obstacles or sacrifices did the person go through? If we read one’s involvement in the communist movement as an “impulse” or “sudden blindness,” we lose the complexity of this involvement as a process. Everything that is connected with movement—changes of direction, periods of stagnation, changes of speed—becomes irrelevant.

Meanwhile, as is evident in Wasilewska’s life story, one’s involvement in the process is often spread over many years. Looking at the movement as anything but uniform and one-directional seems particularly important when discussing Wasilewska. Her “path toward communism” was not, as her letters reveal, a single “leap to the kingdom of freedom,”22 but a long-term process: although a member of the Polish Socialist Party, and in the years 1934–1937 also of its National Council, from the mid- 1930s on, Wasilewska declared a willingness to come closer with the communists and to cooperate with them, forming a “single front” of the Polish Left (which was part of the Popular Front policy). After her move from Kraków to Warsaw in 1934, she was involved in the activities of the Polish section of International Red Aid, an organization that provided help to political prisoners and their families, as well as of the Polish League for the Defense of Human and Citizens’ Rights, set up to protect democratic freedoms. At the same time, she published texts in radically leftist newspapers, such as Dziennik Popularny (Popular daily), Oblicze Dnia (The face of day), Lewar (the title came from a pun on words: lewi artyści, or left artists), which were censored and ultimately shut down by the Sanacja23 authorities in Poland. Her first novel, Oblicze dnia (The face of day, 1934), came out with many blank spots (as a result of intervention of the censors), and it was only the involvement of Wasilewska’s father, well-connected with government circles, that made the publication possible at all.24

So, on the one hand, this process of radicalization of Wasilewska’s views and attitudes proceeded relatively smoothly: as a young lady from a good family she could afford to “mature into radicalism” (the name of her father, an old comrade of Piłsudski, protected her from arrest, which she desired as something akin to political initiation).25 On the other hand, it was a process not free from shocks and frictions that mostly emerged from the environment in which she grew up: as the distance between her and the communists closed, and as she declared her positive attitude toward the situation in the USSR, her relationship with her father, who was an adamant critic of first tsarist and then Soviet Russia, became strained. Her rapport with her older sister, Halina (1899–1961)—an orderly of the First Brigade of the Polish Legions during World War I, a participant in the defense of Lviv during the Polish-Ukrainian war of 1918 and 1919, and, in the interwar period, one of the organizers of the Female Military Training movement in Lviv, a Polish city at that time26—also weakened, just like her friendship with people from the Polish Socialist Party circles, such as in the case of the already mentioned Adam Ciołkosz.

The analysis of this process should begin with several key questions. What turns one into a communist? What kind of public or private events propel this? What kind of emotional shocks or thought processes enable it? When can one say with certainty that one is a communist? Is membership in a political party crucial, or is it related to a declaration of beliefs, or a particular act (if yes, what kind)? In Wasilewska’s case, these questions were often asked. Depending on who and when was writing her biography, the date of her “entering into communism” shifted. In the first (laudatory) biographies, penned by Soviet authors,27 each instance of her childhood rebellion was interpreted as an early expression of radicalism, which perfectly fitted the socialist realist convention of writing a heroic biography.28 In other (anticommunist) accounts, the focus was placed on her long “socialist childhood,” a safe life under the protective wings of her influential father, culminating with a “leap” into the deep waters of communism on 17 September 1939, when the Soviets invaded eastern Poland, placing her right in the arms of Stalin.29 Questions about a specific date of “joining the communists”—was it indeed the moment of becoming an official member of the (All-)Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks) in September 1939, just after she settled in Lviv as a refugee from wartime Warsaw?—but also of the symptoms of her prewar communist activity served to legitimize her status as an icon of the communist revolution in Poland or to unmask her as a “traitor,” a “renegade,” and “her nation’s ungrateful daughter.”

The case of Wasilewska is even more interesting because it does not, in many ways, fit the conventional communist narrative. After all, she called herself pepeesówka (a female member of the PPS), not ashamed of her background in the Polish Socialist Party, a traditional socialist party in Poland of national orientation. In January 1964, she opened her interview with historians from the History Department of the Central Committee of the Polish United Workers’ Party (KC PZPR) with the following confession:

I was born into a PPS family; a family who strongly supported Polish independence and were not just unfavorably disposed toward but actually hostile to Russia, regardless of whether it was tsarist Russia or the Soviet Union. A PPS family, the cult of Piłsudski, since early childhood, certain things went together for me. It was clear that the red flag was the workers’ flag. My father worked in the socialist press, he attended workers’ meetings, my mother took active part in the workers’ movement. Already as a child I got used to the concept that May Day [International Workers’ Day, the first of May] is an important holiday; that that is when I take my mother’s or father’s hand and walk in the march, in the first row.30

Recalling her childhood, she was also reconstructing the tradition in which she had been raised: patriotic, involved, where the romantic concept of the fight for independence was intertwined with the idea of everyday hard work. For her parents—Leon Wasilewski and Wanda Wasilewska, née Zieleniewska (1874–1958)—the struggle for Poland was of primary importance (they both supported Piłsudski’s independenceoriented activities), as was social and educational activism and social work (before World War I, Wasilewska’s father published the magazine Przedświt [Daybreak],31 and her mother was a member of Koło Oświaty Ludowej [Circle for People’s Education]).32
In the autobiographical work “O moich książkach,” Wasilewska wrote about her childhood home as a “good school,” where she learned to combine the private, personal, and intimate with the public, social, and political; a secular, democratic, and egalitarian home. She confessed that the environment she grew up in did not teach passivity but rather encouraged activity.33 This was a certain type of activism: teaching, writing articles for leftist papers, canvassing in the countryside, organizing workers’ libraries or participating in student theatre, with which Wasilewska staged, in 1933, Friedrich Wolf’s play Cyjankali (Cyanide, 1929) concerning the issue of planned motherhood. These traditionally socialist activities were regarded in Wasilewska’s social circle as reformist, while those associated with communists, that is, attacks on policemen, assassinations of provocateurs, were perceived as revolutionary; for a period of time Wasilewska viewed the latter as “fanatical” and “sectarian.”34 Her attitude toward communism was similar to that expressed by a large segment of Polish society. If not necessarily overtly hostile, it was at least full of suspicion and detachment. Years later, Wasilewska explained that one of the reasons she decided to join the Independent Socialist Youth Union (ZNMS) in Kraków, where she studied, worked, and lived until the fall of 1934, instead of one of the communist youth groups, was what she considered the communists’ radicalism in their methods of action. She wrote:

I can’t remember to this day what the title of this brochure was, but I found the following sentence in it: “Fight social fascism. Trade unions should be infiltrated and if there is no possibility of taking over the union, it should be dismantled.” This was the moment that sparked my decision to join ZNMS and not “Życie [Life],”35 because it seemed to me that you should enter trade unions, that you should work within them. I thought it made no sense to break up unions that had been organized with so much effort; that you had worked tirelessly for and then you were expected to dismantle them.36

In another place, she recalls: “We had huge trouble with communists because they were adamant about carrying out actions that could lead to bloodshed and we thought that was something that should not be done. Rather, we were into innocent skirmishes with the police: we’d throw salt and pepper in their eyes. But we tried to avoid bloodshed.”37

Many of Wasilewska’s friends, those who were critical of communism after World War II, appreciated her PPS history. Aleksander Wat wrote: “She was the daughter of a government minister, a socialist, and she had carried on the family’s good traditions.”38 Julian Stryjkowski (1905–1996) claimed that “the smell of Austro-Hungarian Kraków, of the home of Leon Wasilewski, a minister of foreign affairs in Pilsudski’s government” that enveloped her helped familiarize the strangeness of the “Red Army colonel,” the rank that Wasilewska held during the war in the Soviet Union.39 Stalin is said to have valued Wasilewska’s membership in PPS for other reasons. According to Eleonora Syzdek, one of Wasilewska’s biographers, Stalin chose Wasilewska as a representative of Poles in the USSR because, as a PPS member, she did not raise his suspicions like the activists of the Communist Party of Poland, which had been dissolved on his order in 1938.40

Yet it was Wasilewska’s absence of institutional membership in the KPP before the war, coupled with Stalin’s trust that she had gained in the Soviet Union, that evoked particular interest—or maybe suspicion—in postwar Poland. After all, if Wasilewska did not belong to the Communist Party before the war, why was she representing Poland’s interests to Stalin? Was she representing them as a Polish communist, or as someone who had accomplished something for the Soviet Union (or for Stalin himself)?41 In 1964, when Wasilewska talked to Polish historians, these questions had a political dimension: on the one hand, they served to legitimize Wasilewska herself (who was she: a Polish communist-patriot or a Soviet agent?), and on the other hand, to legitimize Władysław Gomutka’s (1905–1982) “Polish path to socialism,” a reformed communist system implemented after October 1956.42 This explains why Wasilewska weighed her words carefully when she was answering questions:

I never had a desire to be a leader, but I did certain things because I could, because I had the possibility of doing them and others didn’t. And even though I really tried not to exacerbate conflicts, I understand that for some people it must have been uncomfortable that they had to arrange things with me instead of talking to communists, to members of the KPP, to people who had a certain attitude to the Soviet Union, who had been in the party, or who had been imprisoned.43

From the perspective of Adam Ciołkosz, Wasilewska’s absence of institutional membership in the Communist Party was significant also for another reason: it discredited her as a radical. Ciołkosz wrote sneeringly that until the war broke out Wasilewska “stuck with the PPS” and if she had been radical, it was only “in the same sense that all of PPS was radical at the time.”44 According to his memoirs, Wasilewska’s choice of PPS was “practical”: as a socialist, she could act using legal means and, furthermore, thanks to “good fairies,” “this revolutionary, this new version of Rosa Luxembourg (although lacking her intellect), this Polish La Pasionaria had never (I repeat: never) tasted the bitter taste of prison bread, had never seen the inside of a prison cell, had never felt the lashes of a police baton.”45 Questioning Wasilewska’s radicalism, presenting it as “sudden,” “emotional,” almost childlike, Ciołkosz also painted a picture of the prewar PPS as the only leftist party that—in a stable, mature, and persistent way—remained critical of the Sanacja government and decisively resisted it.

When Wasilewska herself was trying to explain her institutional affiliations, she said: “It so happened, as it happens with everyone, that your personality is shaped by the environment. The people I associated with played a very big role in my life.”46 As her memoirs reveal, she followed her parents’ path in many fields: the ethos and involvement, choice of fields of activity; she also continued a certain school of thinking and acting of the Polish intelligentsia.

Her radicalism increased gradually. It resulted from her disappointment with the situation in the country. She wrote about this after World War II:

My early childhood took place in an atmosphere of dreams of a free, independent Poland. … What this independent Poland would be like was somewhere in the background; it was foggy and unclear, though it was evident that it would be free and just for everyone. I grew up reading romantic literature; the kind of poetry that talked about the fight for freedom; the tradition of Polish uprisings; I grew up reading books about the fight against the tsar, against the Prussians; deeply believing that the free country would become a paradise for all its inhabitants. Then, 1918 came around. The Polish state, which had been devoid of an independent existence for 120 years, came into being as a result of World War I; as a result of the tsar being overthrown. And it immediately revealed its class façade. It was a capitalist state, dependent on foreign capital and on all the implications this had. The abyss between the dreams and the reality was clear even in the eyes of a child. This is why, when I was thirteen or fourteen years old, I attended workers’ meetings and from the first year of my university studies, I was a member of a socialist youth organization.47

Wasilewska was also disappointed that the chosen road—the road of reforms—was leading nowhere, because former revolutionaries—from the older generation and those her age—had made trade-offs with the government: they took on lucrative positions; they became conformists. In a letter to her mother dated 10 September 1934, she wrote:

I am suffocating. Kraków is quickly turning into a puddle covered with a thick skin. … Anyway, I know that we are a bunch of fools, lunatics who risked their lives for several years so that someone could make a profit on us, so that a few scumbags could get into high-powered jobs and get rich at our expense. … After all, we were complicit in tricking people, we took part in a huge con game that is still taking place at the expense of the masses. The communists are completely right in this respect.48

Complaining about the blocked possibilities of action, stagnation, Wasilewska also criticized the elitism of the leaders of the Kraków PPS chapter, the distancing of the party “top” from the “bottom,” which constituted a violation of the very principles on which the PPS was based. In an even earlier letter to her mother, dated 8 April 1932, Wasilewska wrote:

The masses have moved to the Left—I am now up to my ears in work, so I can really say that within the past months this process has moved forward significantly. And the “top” is still in the same place. That explains the distance between the top and the masses; additionally, the “top” is convinced of its greatness and wisdom, which makes any cooperation impossible. … I am certain that—a few more months of poverty—people will be ready for anything. … The party will have no say in this, that is the party as the current group of people. The communists will do something or we will, or we together with the communists.49

In the spring of 1932, Wasilewska became a part of a radical youth faction that was clearly pushing toward a confrontation with the Sanacja government and advocating for the forging of a broad front with the communists. She wrote about this to her mother still in 1931: “I have been turning increasingly Bolshevik recently and it looks like I am leaning in this direction more and more. I have gone far too long without examining various primitive superstitions.”50

What did she mean when she spoke of “superstitions"? Did she mean only formal, institutional closeness with the communists? Or was it rather—particularly in some points—a communist perspective on Poland and Europe, including the situation in the Soviet Union? This last issue seems particularly important, because it related not only to Wasilewska’s worldview and the direction of its evolution, but also to essential questions about the nature of communism in interwar Poland. The axis of these questions centered on the extent to which it resulted from Polish communists’ “fascination” with the Russian Revolution and to the extent to which it grew out of disappointment with the social relations in independent Poland. There was also the question of the conditions for the intellectuals’ support for communist ideology; according to the intellectuals’ own explanation, provided in a series of interviews conducted by Jacek Trzandel, a writer and literary critic, in the early 1980s,51 this support resulted from the political atmosphere of the second half of the 1930s and the rumble of the upcoming war. The case of Wasilewska reveals that the issue was more complex: in the 1964 interview with historians, she claimed that at the outbreak of World War II she had no doubt that only the Soviet Union was capable of stopping fascism. Even the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 23 August 1939 did not shake her conviction: “In conversations we evaluated the situation in such a way that the Soviet Union must delay its confrontation with Germany at all costs. And this was a complicated feeling. Apparently, it was necessary to save the Soviet Union.”52 Just before the war, Wasilewska was already betting on the Soviet Union. Also one year and two years earlier, when the Moscow Trials were taking place and when the KPP was dissolved, she felt that “certain steps were necessary” in light of the spread of fascism and the USSR’s isolation in the international arena. Years later she blocked voices critical of the events from before the war: “I think that today these issues should be approached with caution, so that later suggestions and later understanding are not transferred onto that time.”53 That she was not alone in this opinion one can see when reading interviews that the journalist Teresa Torańska conducted in the early 1980s with retired Stalinist politicians of Wasilewska’s generation, such as Jakub Berman (1901–1984), Julia Minc (1901–1987), Stefan Staszewski (1906–1989), and many others.54

In May 1936, Wasilewska attended the Congress of Cultural Employees in Lviv that brought together writers, intellectuals, and cultural activists, those who opposed fascism and imperialism and professed humanistic values. The participants of the congress adopted a resolution that stated, “recognizing the common fight of all those exploited and oppressed by fascism, regardless of nationality, we state that the fight with imperialism, the fight for peace, is the first and primary duty of all progressive cultural employees.”55 This was a declaration of international cooperation of the leftist intelligentsia. There was no mention of the leading role of the Soviet Union; rather, the emphasis was on humanistic and internationalist values. Wasilewska left Lviv convinced that “the place of the writer, of the artist, is among the urban and rural proletariat struggling for freedom.”56 This was already evident in her last novel from the interwar period, Ziemia w jarzmie (Land under yoke, 1938). It was simultaneously an anticapitalist and antinationalist work: because of its setting upon the River Bug among Polish landowners exploiting local peasants, who speak a mix of Polish and Belorussian, the work revealed the strong interconnection of classist and nationalist relations, of economic exploitation, amplified by power resulting from access to the dominant culture and language. Both in this novel and in her earlier ones—Oblicze dnia (The face of day, 1934) and Ojczyzna (Homeland, 1935)—Wasilewska accused Poland of treating its citizens unequally; of being “a homeland of double standards”; different for the bourgeois and different for the proletarian; “good” to the elites and “bad” to the masses. Wasilewska expressed, years later, her disappointment with interwar Poland: “What did independent Poland give to those who fought for it? For whom did it become a real motherland? The answer was clear and unambiguous—this Poland has become the mother for factory and landowners and a mean stepmother for the worker and the peasant.”57

What we find in Wasilewska’s prewar novels the Sanacja government could not have accepted without reservations: a roughly drawn picture of poverty and exploitation, anger born out of lack of perspectives for the future, the growing “rumble” of the revolution. In the final scene of Oblicze dnia, bricklayer Anatol, heading a group of protesting workers, announced that they would build “a new world” together:

Anatol turns his head and looks at the street. The crowds are flowing like a river. Red flags are blooming here and there. A triumphant song towers above everything, joyfully, gloriously. Joy is flowing down the streets like wine, unspoken happiness, a longing fulfilled. He speaks powerfully and joyfully to the fearful faces, to the cowering crowd. “We are building a new world of free people”—he utters these words not to them, but to his gloomy childhood, his rebellious youth, to the river of people, to the flags fluttering in the wind.58

The construction of “a new world”—in the novel expressed in a revolutionary gesture of building on the ruins of the old world59—had earlier been announced in Wasilewska’s poem, written after the so-called Kraków incidents of 1923, when the police opened fire on protesting workers.60 The final verses read: “From their death, bright day dawns, / They are grain, thrown into the ground, / From which there will once grow / A great, happy, joyful / Proletarian homeland!”61 The key fragments here are “free people” and “proletarian homeland”: they announced that those who have been promised justice along with independence would claim it themselves. In March 1936 Wasilewska mentioned such an example of a “proletarian homeland” that was being built right next door in a children’s magazine that she was coediting, Płomyk (Glimmer). This immediately stirred the media and gave rise to accusations of “pro-Soviet propaganda.” Was Wasilewska indeed “promoting” a Soviet-like revolution and using “foreign money,” as the title of one of the recent films about her proclaims?62 Was she teasing the Polish authorities, knowing that her father would be able to get her out of trouble? Even decades later, rumors were still circulating about this case,63 contributing to Wasilewska’s “black legend.”64

According to Ciołkosz, Wasilewska was “glancing” to the East in search of positive models, modern solutions to social problems until, finally, she “substituted her Polish homeland with a new one: Russian-Soviet.”65 This defined her as a communist of a certain type. Ciołkosz, backing up his claims with having known Wasilewska personally and having introduced her to party work, argued that until the mid-1930s she was not a communist and once she became one, it was immediately “the Soviet way” (he slighted her earlier radicalism as a “romantic whim”).66 His memoirs presented Wasilewska in a bad light: they reveal that the status of a Polish female communist before the war was unclear and the only communist tradition she could be connected to was the Soviet, Stalinist one.

It is not my intention to look for the “truth” about Wanda Wasilewska: to uncover facts that, for example, could precisely pinpoint the moment when she became a communist or the way she identified her communism. This moment, anyway, cannot be identified accurately based on personal documents or literary testimonies. This is due to the fact that Wasilewska changed her version of the story depending on where, when, and to whom she told it. Whatever she left unsaid was filled out by her numerous translators, editors, and publishers, often more zealously committed to manipulating information than the author herself, who, depending on the times, either left out inconvenient bits or accentuated the useful ones. It must not be forgotten that as a writer who mostly dealt with emotions, Wasilewska frequently gave center stage to whatever best coincided with her spirits at the given moment. This is clearly visible, for example, in her letters, where her warm words about communists go hand in hand with her acute disappointment with the relationships within the PPS, which she never left despite of this. Thus, the case of Wasilewska is compelling for other reasons. Studying this female political leader enables us to look at communism in Poland (particularly in the interwar period) as an “identity in process,” which was shaped in a specific context. This identity underwent changes depending on external and internal factors, and was manifested in different ways in public and private life. By studying Wasilewska, we can also see how becoming a communist was accompanied by the breaking of gender role stereotypes and transcending national borders. But this process also included the formation of new borders.

Life as a “Scandal of the Truth”

Wasilewska often described her life as a motion, a flow, or a change: “My nerves were constantly on edge, I was constantly on my last legs.”67 Motion had a very literal meaning related to the particular actions that she undertook, but it was also a metaphor to describe communism. This was a total movement that transcended all norms, barriers, and borders. As Marx wrote in The Communist Manifesto (1848): “All that is solid melts into air, all that is solid is profaned and men at last are forced to face … the real conditions of their lives and their relations with their fellow men.”68 The more communism as a political idea “consumed” Wasilewska and came to life in her novels and speeches, the more it became—as Foucault writes—“a form of life,” an idea one lives out, a “principle defining a particular lifestyle”; resulting in “the scandal of the revolutionary life which—breaking with all accepted life, reveals the truth and bears witness to it.”69

The “scandal” of Wasilewska’s life encompassed the overstepping of norms that were accepted by her family environment: she crossed the boundaries between social classes, she transgressed her gender role as a woman, she broke the unwritten rules of living in the national community. One of such manifestations was her relationship with bricklayer Marian Bogatko (1906–1940), with whom she lived in an informal union after the unexpected death in August 1931 of her first husband, Roman Szymański (b. 1900), who had been a son of a railway worker, a student of mathematics at Jagiellonian University, a member of the PPS, and a trade union activist. In the Kraków environment, Wasilewska’s relationship with Bogatko did not stand out. As Jan Topiński recollected: “There were bonds of sincere friendship between us and quite a few worker-student marriages started off among us.”70 But from the perspective of the Warsaw intelligentsia, where Wasilewska found herself in the fall of 1934, a relationship between a worker and a government minister’s daughter was seen as something unusual, as suggested by the description in Janina Broniewska’s (1904–1981) memoirs: “Marian Bogatko, Wanda’s husband, to an extent the prototype of Anatol, from one of her novels, Oblicze dnia. By profession he was a bricklayer and a Cracovian at that, which entails a certain specificity.”71 Like Broniewska, Ciołkosz also viewed Bogatko as Anatol’s prototype. In contrast to Broniewska, however, he thought that the relationship harmed the bricklayer, as it led to his “declassing.” Ciołkosz wrote: “Bogatko declassed himself and stopped working at all. He did housekeeping, assisted his wife in literary leftist circles, he attended the First of May marches with the writers and the journalists, not with construction workers, he took up the bourgeois lifestyle and he ceased to be anything like Anatol—the flame and the sword of the revolution.”72 According to Ciołkosz, Wasilewska and Bogatko’s transgressing of accepted boundaries in private life harmed socialist politics: the strange hybrid that Bogatko became—a worker aspiring to be in the intelligentsia and a secretary to his wife—did not fit the masculine image of the proletarian leader of the revolution that the interwar leftist intelligentsia desired. Instead, it was Wasilewska who became the leader of the communist Left. Bogatko’s tragic death in Lviv in May 1940 added a rather uncanny, demonic, and castrating aspect to this story.73 As decades passed, Ciołkosz evaluated Wasilewska’s life: “There was something abnormal in how she chose her men: she had to have men who were not an intellectual match for her. She confessed that she could only love men who were inferior to her. She was fond of them and jealous of them, she had something of an ‘owner’s instinct.’ She loved them in a way. They were indispensable, but they were not the most important in her life.”74

This is not how Wasilewska looked at her relationship with Bogatko. Although she did model Anatol from Oblicze dnia on him, she did not see him only as “book material.” She was raised, as she said, in a mixed environment composed of intelligentsia and workers;75 she did not treat her relationship with a worker as a misalliance or a whim. Wasilewska wrote to her mother from Kraków:

So you’d like me to tell you something about Marian [Bogatko]. … I never suspected that you can feel for anyone what I feel for him. … There’s not one second when this boy is only thinking about himself—giving comes so easily and simply to him that you don’t even notice it. … For a while, it kept him down that he was a worker …, we debated on turning him into a member of the intelligentsia … but I staunchly opposed this idea. I wouldn’t want him to do something just because of me.76

She admitted that Bogatko inspired her and motivated her to work: he was the first reader of her writings, and he suggested corrections. She was proud that he led the Kraków bricklayers’ strike in July 1933. According to Broniewska, Wasilewska’s relationship with Bogatko “was considered, not without justification, as one of the most successful in our social circle.”77 Perhaps the key to happiness was in the abandonment of normative gender roles. Bogatko—who came from a “masculine” working-class environment—clearly did not consider it “effeminate” to take care of Wasilewska’s daughter from her first marriage, to make coffee, or to act as his wife’s secretary. He was not envious of her literary or political accomplishments (he joked with Broniewska that together they formed Wasilewska’s “entourage,” they were “the court” of the “queen,” as they called Wasilewska).78

Did her relationship with a worker bother Wasilewska’s parents? The correspondence between Wanda and her mother shows that the issue of the union’s informal status seemed more sensitive than the social status of the partner (paradoxically, it was Wasilewska’s father who pushed for the legalization of Wanda’s relationship with Bogatko). Disdain for a legal marriage was a public demonstration of contempt for etiquette among the middle class. Wanda wrote:

On different occasions I find myself saying how glad I am that we did not get married. Firstly, because of ourselves—you remember, dear Mommy, how you wrote me yourself that one should always follow one’s internal needs and not worry about people, appearances, or compromises? It would have been a cowardly concession to a few gossipers whom we don’t even care about. Next, I am finally a person and not an addition to someone. If my husband was an idiot and a fumbler, then he could be an addition to me—but the way it is, even if both Marian and I expressed the same values, I would always be at a disadvantage, because I am a woman, and that’s why I would have to be something, I could never be myself. For party reasons, as two independent individuals, we can serve various functions that would not be assigned to a married couple. … Anyway, what is the problem, really? We feel so well together that it’s almost funny. … Marian is an extraordinary person, an exceptional husband and an exceptional father and he’d be all that with or without marriage.79

This letter is important for two reasons. First, Wasilewska criticizes marriage as a union that often resulted from external pressure and was designed to maintain tradition. Wasilewska favored relationships based on choice, not on the necessity of adapting to existing norms; she wanted to have a relationship based on personal freedom and equality. Of course, it is possible to argue that Wasilewska’s declaration and her relationship with Bogatko were nothing unusual among Warsaw intelligentsia. One may recall, for example, the support of writer and feminist Irena Krzywicka (1899–1994) for “free love” and her extramarital relationship with the famous writer and translator from French, Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński (1874–1941).80 However, what set apart Wasilewska and Bogatko was their declared (and practiced, according to various observers) gender and class egalitarianism. They conceptualized their relationship as free from power and constraints based on gender or social class. The issue of power relations must have been important for Wasilewska, because she devoted a significant section of the letter to the place of a woman in a private relationship with a man and, more broadly, in her relationship with society. Wasilewska wanted to see herself as equal to a man. A Catholic Church wedding would allocate an inferior position to her, as a woman. Through entering a church-sanctioned marriage she would cease to “be herself,” to exist as “an independent entity,” and would become “an addition” to her husband, that “something.”81 In her eyes, an informal relationship did not deprive her of what marriage would, that is, autonomy, independence. Her role in public life did not have to be reduced to that of “her husband’s wife.”82

Echoes of this letter ring in the novel Oblicze dnia, when a female protagonist, Natalka, appears alongside Anatol. She does not feel like an accessory to her husband, but rather as an autonomous person, a comrade in a common struggle. She builds her identity on this sense of autonomy: “Natalka is happy. Since she found her way here, among these people, she no longer feels an orphan. Everyone thinks about everyone else, everyone takes care of everyone else. Natalka soon begins to understand that ‘comrade’ means more than ‘brother.’”83 She lives with Anatol in an informal relationship despite the hostility this provokes, particularly among women, who point their fingers at her and label her a “slut.” These women hold up marriage as the only place where a woman may find fulfillment. In the novel, women are depicted as victims of marriage. They suffer abuse at the hands of their husbands, while the physical exhaustion from performing household chores turns marriage into an ordeal rather than happiness. To Wasilewska, marriage was a cruel institution: “A paper, a certificate, an identity card. Like a stamp on your forehead. It gives meaning, position; it sanctifies. Everything: drunken beatings, syphilitic lesions, dumb children. After all, they’re not bastards. And here, Natalka walks from the ground floor up to the third floor without a seal, a stamp, with the shameless light of love on her face.”84 In Wasilewska’s novel, marriage joins other oppressive institutions, such as the church and the workplace; and it reveals itself as particularly oppressive to women: this is where patriarchal power is most strongly connected to the power of capital.85 This is why Natalka and Anatol reject marriage. They believe that it is the only way to save their love, mutual respect, and human dignity.

One may wonder how much of Wasilewska’s own experience is vested in the figure of Natalka. During the time of the Kraków bricklayers’ strike in 1933, she helped Bogatko and lived with him without being married. Still, it seems there is more to it than a simple analogy between life and literature. Both Wasilewska’s letters to her mother and the novel are important manifestations of private and social independence. They signify the search for possibilities of autonomous activity, a strong expression of the self. Was that the chance Wasilewska recognized for herself among the communists? Despite the success she was enjoying at the time as a writer and a speaker, for many people, including her comrades, Wasilewska was still defined by her relationship to the men in her life. She was her father’s daughter, “Leon’s daughter,” or “Roman Szymanski’s widow.” Constantly placed within the patriarchal kin structure, in the minds of other political activists, she lost the right to individual accomplishments. As a woman and as an activist, she acquired symbolic meaning through the names of the men to whom she was connected, particularly through her father’s last name: it defined her, established her political value. She wanted to build her own story among the communists: “When father died [in December 1936], I was an adult person. The comrades, communists—who had very strong opinions about him—brought flowers for my father’s casket with the words: ‘For Wanda’s Father.’”86 We may venture to say that her father’s death marked the symbolic end of the secondary role Wasilewska had played in the public sphere until then: in 1937, along with Janina Broniewska, she led the strike of employees in Związek Nauczycielstwa Polskiego (ZNP; Polish Teachers’ Union) and in September 1939, at Stalin’s order, she was called to Lviv, where the most active period of her political activities began. It culminated in 1943, when she became the leader of the Union of Polish Patriots87 and assisted in the formation of the Polish army in the USSR. Years later, Jan Karaśkiewicz (1905–1987), a communist activist and a soldier of the First Polish Army in the USSR, recalled the wartime image of Wasilewska: “I started looking at Wanda somewhat differently. So far, I’d only seen her and known her as a social activist, one of those people who fought for social justice and political freedoms using word and pen. She then grew in my eyes to the rank of a statesperson who consistently represents a particular political option.”88

It was not only her public story that Wasilewska tried to build among the communists, but also her private one. It was there that she found her family of choice: before the war she lived in Warsaw together with another female writer and socialist activist, Janina Broniewska, the ex-wife of the famous revolutionary poet Władysław Broniewski (1897–1962). They both edited the children’s magazine Płomyk, published by the Polish Teachers’ Union. Later, the two also shared their war fate in the Soviet Union and became united by “friendship stronger than love.”89 Wasilewska’s thinking of the family as a relation one may choose departed from the traditional definition: intimacy, bonding, were not an issue of genes, but rather of common experiences, beliefs, and work; they did not result from birth, from a natural state of things, but from a process of “growing” in memories, or of creating certain codes of communication. Broniewska wrote about this conception of the family in this way: “They [Wasilewska and Bogatko], inseparable and complementing each other, meant to me, at that time and in later years, more than natural siblings would have meant. One does not choose one’s siblings. They had been chosen by my heart, by my mind. Each day made us more like family.”90 Although Wasilewska never rejected her biological family (and she was never rejected by them), she admitted that she would be capable of “forgetting about the existence” of some family members. She also stated that she “had never been particularly close” to her older sister, Halina, and that this did change somewhat when they were both living in Lviv in the period of 1939–1941.91 At the same time, Wasilewska had always been close to her father and had a “silent agreement” with him: “We would not talk about political issues because we knew that would lead to an unavoidable breakup.”92 Russia was a particularly touchy subject for them: “Father, whom I loved very much and with whom I had a strong emotional connection, hated [Russia] as such. It didn’t matter to him whether it was white Russia or red Russia. He just had a negative attitude toward Russia in all forms.”93

One may ask whether this different way of thinking about the individual and the community, which was also exemplified in Wasilewska’s own political evolution, did not require self-restraint when it came to issues fundamental for her community of origin, such as nation, homeland, or patriotism. Should there not be some limits to even the most radical critique of the homeland—described as double, divided into two antagonistic classes? Ciołkosz wrote that Wasilewska’s concept of two homelands was not anything new or shocking in the PPS: “We did not mind Wasilewska’s Ojczyzna it actually suited us, Polish socialist nationalists, completely.” What they could not accept and forgive was “her breakup with the Polish homeland” and “its replacement with the new Russian-Soviet homeland”: “That was the biggest mistake she made in her life.”94 Ciołkosz’s judgment, especially harsh, sounds like that of a teacher chastising his student for failing the exam of being a good, that is, patriotic, Pole. Meanwhile, just as important as the question of why Wasilewska felt “at home” in the Soviet Union is why (even before accepting Soviet citizenship) she ceased to feel that way in Poland? And when did seeking an alternative home become a “betrayal”? An interview with Antonio Negri, where he provides the following definition of betrayal, can shed light on her choices: “Betrayal signifies the ruin of an ongoing project of construction. It is, strictly speaking, an act of destruction. … Betrayal shatters the ‘common.’”95 It seems that the case of Wasilewska makes it possible to approach this topic from a different angle: Can we speak of betrayal where there is no sense of community or where functioning of the community makes it impossible to become/feel a part of it? What kind of national community did Wasilewska reject and what nation was she fighting for? This is a complex issue, particularly because the war imposed new obligations on everyone in Poland, also on communists: obligations related to Poland and to the Soviet Union. As Eric Hobsbawm has noted, internationalism acquired a new significance in the face of interwar fascism: it became “antifascist patriotism” or even “antifascist nationalism,” “patently engaged in a social as well as national conflict.”96 This change was visible in Wasilewska’s wartime articles, collected in the volumes Płomień i próchno (Flame and rot, 1945) and O wolną i demokratyczną (For a free and democratic Poland, 1985),97 but a detailed analysis of this issue falls beyond the scope of this article.

One should note, however, that Wasilewska’s understanding of communism in Marxist terms as “a ruthless criticism of all that exists”98 could not exclude issues such as nation, homeland, patriotism, and Polishness. Seeking alternatives for existing concepts was inscribed into this kind of thinking, acting, and living. To Wasilewska, as to many Polish (and not only Polish) communists, the Soviet Union provided such an alternative, which did not change despite the chilling news of Stalinist purges of the years 1936–1938, despite the disbandment of the Polish Communist Party in August 1938 on the grounds that it was infiltrated by spies, and even despite the signing of the German-Soviet Nonaggression Pact in August 1939 that also entailed the division of Polish territories between the Third Reich and the USSR. This last event was the most difficult to understand for many activists faithful to the anti-Fascist line of the Communist parties of the 1930s. Marci Shore, in her attempt to dissect this phenomenon of “captivation” of Polish communists with the Soviet Union, used the term “enchantment,”99 which connotes both “fascination” and “blindness.” I prefer to speak of, after Foucault, a “scandal of revolutionary life”: the loyalty to the Soviet Union was not so much based on a religious, devout, and irrational faith (which was easy to acquire and just as easy to lose), but on faithfulness to a certain political project, on consistent adherence to a road once chosen with full confidence that it will lead to the expected destination; even if following this road demanded sacrifices, including personal ones, or if the original ideas and assumptions as to what was to come next must be forgone or revised.

Following historian Mieczysław Porębski, one can define this “scandal” as a series of “spectacular transgressions of a socially sanctioned state of affairs.”100 Wasilewska transgressed boundaries in different directions and on different levels. She transgressed them in her private life and in the public sphere, often by erasing distinctions between the private and the political. Sometimes she would undermine the private in the name of the political, for example, as she did when she decided to cooperate with the Russians even though she knew that the Narodnyi Komissariat Vnutrennikh Del (NKVD; People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) was responsible for Bogatko’s death in 1940 in Lviv. Nikita Khrushchev (1894–1971) revealed in his diaries that “Wasilewska believed us when we told her there had been nothing premeditated, no hidden malicious intention behind this incident. With no letup in her activity she continued to work in a manner favorable to us.”101 The entire case may appear difficult to comprehend: Did Wasilewska treat the death of her husband as a war casualty? Or did she see his death and her own life as a sacrifice for the cause that they had been fighting for all this time? Was it simply political pragmatism? Or, perhaps, fear? It is difficult to answer these questions. According to Wasilewska’s daughter, Ewa Szymańska (b. 1928), if her mother suffered, she did not show it: “Bogatko’s death was taboo at home. We never talked about it.”102 Either way, this was still another (emotional this time) boundary that she crossed and left behind her.

Boundaries of Transgression

The concept of boundaries has somehow “stuck” to Wasilewska. Those who wrote about her often assessed her actions through the idea of limits that she infringed upon or transgressed. Ciołkosz claimed that one significant boundary on Wasilewska’s path to communism was her move to Warsaw in September 1934, that is, when she left her old friends of the Kraków PPS chapter and entered the circle of the Soviet-friendly intelligentsia. Another one was her choice of the Soviet homeland in September 1939. Joanna Szczęsna wrote that after her father’s death, there was no longer anyone who would limit Wasilewska in her life choices and that the issue of the shifting eastern border of Poland became symbolic in the father-daughter relationship. In 1921, Leon Wasilewski helped negotiate the border between Poland and the Soviet Union, after the territorial war between the two countries had ended—the same border Wanda Wasilewska was ready to give away to the Soviet Union in 1944–1945.103 The precise setting of boundaries helped in establishing the spheres of Polishness, foreignness, patriotism, and “betrayal” in Wasilewska’s biography. It helped in disambiguating that which had been ambiguous, fleeting, unclear; it became a mechanism of restoring the order that was disturbed by Wasilewska, and even more by the ideas she professed. Labels attached to her by commentators, such as “renegade,” “traitor,” and “collaborator,” can be read as an attempt of calling her to “order.” The same goes for labels related to her gender that defined her position in relation to men, such as “Stafin’s favorite” and “Leon’s ungrateful daughter.” These descriptions not only robbed Wasilewska of her individual agency, but also tamed the vision of communism, the symbol of which she became, as a world turned upside down. The assumption that a female communist is not a comrade, a woman who is equal to a man, an independent activist or politician, but rather someone’s daughter, or someone’s lover, made it easier to impose symbolic control over her (and the entire system), to restore the temporarily disturbed “natural” order of (gender) relations in the national community.

Wasilewska’s transgressive inclinations deserve attention not only in the context of a biographical study, but also in its political and cultural dimension: there was some symbolic potential in this figure, which made her particularly “attractive” to various political authorities. They would ascribe their own content to this figure, and its meaning changed depending on the political situation. A detailed analysis of her biography—constantly rewritten, updated, corrected—makes it possible to see Wasilewska as someone used to measure the borders of various political periods and ideological positions. During Stalinism, she became an icon of the revolution, a figure of progress, a symbol of the transformation of bourgeois Poland into a workers’ Poland; the movement ascribed to her life became an allegory of the movement of the entire society. Soviet biographies from the 1950s104 portrayed a minister’s daughter who had chosen the common people whose lives she wrote about in her books; a socialist who forged an alliance with the communists; a Pole who embodied the idea of internationalism when she settled in Kiev after the war and when she represented socialist countries in the international peace movement as a member of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR; finally, a woman who did not hesitate to sacrifice her personal matters in the name of politics that determined the fate of the world. However, during various “patriotic turns,” Wasilewska’s involvement in military and prewar social activity would be emphasized and associations with Polish nationalist and romantic symbols would be reactivated. In a long series of such associations, evoked in the 1970s and 1980s, when the first Polish biographies of the writer appeared, Wasilewska “got rid” of the uniform of a Red Army colonel, which she had worn in the USSR during the war, and became simply a woman leader: the Polish Joan of Arc.105 Meanwhile, for her political opponents, she embodied the monstrosity or a world without borders, the horror resulting from the fact that “all that is solid melts into air,” the pathology of communism as a system of disturbed norms.106 This explains the already mentioned gestures of disambiguating her choices, defining her positions, creating boundaries for her identity transgressions on the level of gender, nation, and class.

Finally, one may also ask to what extent the mechanism of displacing women from public space and simultaneously making them allegories, that is, “living signs of the revolution,” as Polish literary scholar Maria Janion demonstrated with the example of women involved in the French Revolution,107 was operating also in the case of Wasilewska and the communist revolution? Was it, as Janion wrote, a universal, tried and tested, one-size-fits-all model of the patriarchal authorities “dealing” with women who participated in breakthrough political events, shunning them into the private sphere once these events had finished? Or was it rather—despite various reservations—that the communism of just after the war complicated something in this model, for example, by the gesture of appointing women to prominent positions in institutions of culture, science, education, and also politics? The case of Wanda Wasilewska fails to provide an unambiguous answer, primarily owing to the “tinkering” with her (auto)biographies throughout various stages of history. As World War II drew to a close, she was gradually withdrawing from big politics, the sphere of power and decision making, in favor of different kinds of activities such as propaganda work, diplomacy, writing, household duties, and family life. In her own memoirs, she rather vaguely described the moment of withdrawing, or of being removed, from Polish decision-making bodies in the USSR (in the second half of 1944 she was still vice-chairperson of the Polish Committee of National Liberation,108 but later she disappeared from the Polish political life once and for all). She explained her abandonment of political activism with health issues, new literary challenges that awaited her, and the need to be more involved in family life.109 Taking into consideration that her home at the time was located in Kiev, these endeavors precluded Wasilewska’s top-level political activity. Her friends, relatives, political opponents, and official biographers eagerly saw the “postwar Wasilewska” as a woman predominantly focused on domestic life,110 and only then did they acknowledge her as an accomplished writer or a politician.111

Not much is known in Poland about Wasilewska’s rich postwar life as a public figure. Information regarding these pages of her life story is fragmented, as if the end of war marked the end of her life, and not just her withdrawal from Polish politics. All this despite the fact that she lived for another twenty years in the Soviet Union. In this period, she was a member of the Supreme Soviet of the USSR, was involved in the worldwide peace movement, traveled the world (she visited, among others, France, Austria, Germany, Romania, Cuba, Cambodia, Mexico, and China), and wrote new works of literature. If we were to make a reference to Janion’s thesis that women tend to be allegories of revolutions rather than their participants and beneficiaries, then the case of Wasilewska serves as a clear example that this if often more complex; or, more precisely, she serves as a clear example that the Soviet model of allegorization differed from the Western one. Following the end of the war, Wasilewska was not relegated to the private sphere, but instead she was sent off to another front of political struggle. She was once again invited as a speaker (among others, to the Second World Peace Congress, held in Warsaw in November 1950), she was once again writing passionate articles and reportages (e.g., W Paryżu i poza Paryżem [In Paris and out of Paris, 1949]). She was back in her element—struggle. Her postwar works reveal that she felt more fulfilled as an adamant critic of capitalism and fascism than as the author of smooth paeans celebrating the greatness of the Soviet reality. In an autobiographical sketch from the mid-1950s, she thus explained her inability to grasp the “Soviet essence”: “What is the Soviet person truly like? … How to uncover what sets him apart from the others, what makes him a formation unique in his nature, different, well—simply what makes him a Soviet person?”112 Also in her letters to Janina Broniewska from the same period, she confessed that she was lost for words needed to describe what she had seen in the Soviet Union:

I have seen with my own eyes how hundreds and thousands of people live in the era of communism, and not on the moon, but a mere thousand kilometers from Kiev, in the Dnepropetrovsk and Kherson Oblast, of which I—a local dweller—had no clue, I admit with shame. And all this, from the foundations of single-family houses to enormous structures of power plants, is spanking new and in mint condition, no more than four, three, two, or even one year old, and it all just sprung up like mushrooms after the rain, and it grows, and expands with incredible velocity. How to describe it? What else to make of it, since no one will believe me anyway and they will say I’m an old, blinded loony.113

There may have indeed been an element of blindness to it. But there was also, I think, the shyness of a member of the Polish intelligentsia toward the “Soviet people”—this new historical entity that, she believed, was a result of groundbreaking changes in the first half of the twentieth century. There was also the helplessness of a writer, who had been accustomed to grasping history as it rolled through human lives, and who this time was caught speechless in the face of “the end of history,” as Soviet communism must have seemed to her.

However, according to historian Feliks Tych, who was a member of the group of scholars conducting an interview with Wasilewska in 1964 in Warsaw, she only “played her part” and she did it “until the end”: “she seemed very Sovietized."114 Even if so, we do not know whether she was in any way disappointed with the part she played. Possibly she was subject to (self-)censorship, which eliminated all (auto)criticism as regarded what she had experienced and seen in the USSR and in postwar Poland, although it is impossible to rule out that she was truly convinced that the road to development, peace, and welfare led through communism.

The revolution, which Wasilewska helped consolidate, brought an end to her individual transgressions: given the transformation of the system, of social and economic relations, but also of human relations, personal gestures of overstepping boundaries, of breaking the mold, now seemed obsolete, or perhaps even harmful, and as such had to be curbed.115 Only her letters to her mother, where she discussed her health issues, indicate that there might have been something that bothered Wasilewska: “I really think that all my illnesses have one cause, as they used to sing in prewar Warsaw: ‘nerves, bloody nerves, damn it.’”116 Was it possible that her ailing body expressed something that could not find any other channel? Did her body refuse to accept being tied down, turned into a monument while still alive? That is one possible perspective. But we may also presume that her suffering, exhausted body was just the price for a life understood as the “will to truth,” which Foucault wrote about as leading to the boundaries of (self-)destruction.117


The analysis of the life and work of Wanda Wasilewska presented in this article does not unambiguously answer the questions that her numerous biographers, commentators, and interpreters of her texts asked, the chief one being the question about her reasons for having stayed outside Poland after the end of World War II. Neither does it settle the doubts of whether communist Wasilewska was a Polish patriot or a traitor to the Polish nation and, consequently, whether the communist idea with which she identified was an instrument of Soviet colonization of Poland or a trigger of modernization of the Polish society, pressed by the native fighters for socialism. My aim was, rather, to point out that unequivocal judgments about people involved in communism in the first half of the twentieth century, as well as about the very idea to which they were faithful, are frequently not only blind to the geopolitical, social, and cultural context, which makes them a handy tool in ongoing political squabbles, but also devoid of research curiosity, of openness to delve into problems that do not lend easily to schematic, black-and-white evaluations. One of such problems that I raise in my article is the issue of possibilities, but also limitations, of the political emancipation of women under communism, in this case of women actively involved in the dissemination of this idea in pre-and postwar Poland, and primarily the philosophical reflection on communism as a transgressive and revolutionary project and on the motivations, choices, and practices of life of people who were the architects and constructors of this project.

One helpful instrument in deliberations on thus formulated problems is the concept of “personal genealogy,” used by Toril Moi in her analysis of the life and works of Simone de Beauvoir. The “personal genealogy” employed in this text, or—more broadly—the Foucauldian genealogy, is not a tool of constructing a grand, monumental, unifying narrative of communism. Rather, it is a proposition to break the narrative into smaller parts in order to expose the agency of the actors, to give them their voice. This approach makes it possible to take into account the complex relations of power in which historical actors functioned, and that sometimes undermined them, and at other times stabilized them. It also allows for capturing multiple aspects of the same story (communism) and for the recognition of the people involved in (its) history as more than simply passive objects of the depersonalized powers of the system.

In the cases of people such as Wanda Wasilewska, about whom we do not know everything and who for this reason are so susceptible to what Pierre Bourdieu referred to as “biographical illusion,”118 “personal genealogy” proves the only method to reach them: to unearth not so much the “truth” about them, but rather to reveal the mechanisms of how it is produced. It is also a method that stimulates the self-critical reflection on the participation of the researcher in the process of manufacturing this “truth.” This reflection guided also the author of this article.


This is a revised and significantly expanded version of a text that was published as “Komunistki i duch transgresji: ‘Przypadek’ Wandy Wasilewskiej” [Communists and the spirit of transgression: The ‘case’ of Wanda Wasilewska], in Teksty Drugie [Second texts], no. 3 (2013): 11–35. The translations of quotations and titles in the notes are the author’s.


Quoted in Eleonora Syzdek, W jednym życiu tak wiele [So much in one life] (Warsaw: Młodzieżowa Agencja Wydawnicza, 1980), 18–19. Wasilewska’s autobiographical account “O moich knigach” [About my books] was first published in Russian as an introduction to her six-volume Sobranie socinenij [Collected works] (Moscow: Goslitizdat, 1954–1955). In 1964 it was republished in Voprosy Literatury [Issues of literature], no. 10. In 1966 the Ukrainian publishing house Dnipro published its translation into Ukrainian in the first volume of Wasilewska’s collected works. In 1983 it was published in Polish in the weekly Tu i teraz [Here and now] as “Podróż po życiu i książkach” [Journey through life and books]. Eleonora Syzdek, who picked extensive excerpts and edited them, emphasized that she had drawn from the original Polish manuscript, which was stored in Wasilewska’s family archive. Her book on Wasilewska, entitled W jednym życiu tak wiele, also contains some fragments that had not been published before.


Michel Foucault, The Courage of Truth (The Government of Self and Others II): Lectures at the Collège de France 1983–1984, trans. Graham Burchell (London: Picador, 2011), 183.


Foucault, Courage of Truth, 185.


See, for example, Adam Ciołkosz, Wanda Wasilewska: Dwa szkice biograficzne [Wanda Wasilewska: Two biographical sketches] (London: Polonia Book Fund, 1977); Władysław Pobóg-Malinowski, Najnowsza historia polityczna Polski 1864–1945 [The contemporary political history of Poland 1864–1945], vols. 1–3 (Komorów: Antyk, 2000).


Joanna Szczęsna, “Wanda Wasilewska: Bywszaja Polka” [Wanda Wasilewska: An exPolish woman], Gazeta Wyborcza [Electoral newspaper], 23 March 2001,,0,1382210,20010324RP-DGW,Bywszaja_Polka,.html (accessed 22 November 2016).


Komunistyczna Partia Polski (KPP; Communist Party of Poland) was founded in December 1918 as a result of the merging of the Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL) and the Polish Socialist Party-Left (PPS-Lewica). It was a radical leftist party, which—inspired by Rosa Luxembourg’s ideas—desired to create a Polish Socialist Republic as part of the Pan-European Commonwealth of Socialist States. The KPP did not support the decree on the formation of an independent Polish state, and in 1920 it supported Lenin in his war with Poland. The KPP carried out its activities in Poland illegally from March 1919 until it was dissolved by Stalin in August 1938 after he had—as a part of the Great Purge—executed many of the party’s members and almost the entire leadership. In January 1942, the party was reactivated in the strife-torn wartime Warsaw and operated under the name Polish Workers’ Party (PPR) until December 1948, when, following its merger with the PPS, it became a part of the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR). PZPR was disbanded in January 1990.


Polska Partia Socjalistyczna (PPS; Polish Socialist Party) was a left-wing political party founded in 1892. From the very beginning, its program centered on the fight for social justice coupled with the struggle for national independence. In 1906, the party split up into PPS-Revolutionary Faction, which, following in the footsteps of Józef Piłsudski, grew more and more focused on national and independence-oriented activities, and PPS-Left, which concentrated on class struggle, which brought it closer to Social Democracy of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (SDKPiL). In 1918, the two factions formed a single Communist Party of Poland (KPP). In the interwar period, the PPS at first supported Piłsudski, and this backing also extended into his May 1926 coup d’état, which imposed a new authoritarian system called Sanacja, but later it switched sides, becoming the opposition. In the 1930s, many leaders and rank-and-file members of the PPS were charged with antinational activities and sentenced to prison, while PPS periodicals, such as Robotnik [The worker] or Naprzód [Forward], were watched closely by the censors. In 1948, along with the Polish Workers’ Party (PPR), established in 1942, the PPS formed the Polish United Workers’ Party (PZPR). In 1987 the party was reactivated and it is in operation to this day.


I analyze biographies of Wanda Wasilewska written before and after 1989 in the context of Polish policies of remembrance of communism in the text “‘Wanda, co wolała Rusa’: Wytwarzanie (biografii) komunistki—wytwarzanie (tożsamości) narodu” [“Wanda who preferred the Russian”: The manufacturing of a communist (biography)—the manufacturing of nation(al identity)], in PRL—życie po życiu [PRL—life after life], ed. Katarzyna Chmielewska, Agnieszka Mrozik, and Grzegorz Wołowiec (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo IBL PAN, 2013), 47–89.


Foucault, The Courage of Truth, 183.


“Listy Wandy Wasilewskiej (I)” [Wanda Wasilewska’s letters (I)], ed. Eleonora Syzdek, Zdanie [Sentence], no. 6 (1985): 36 (letter to mother dated 25 November 1931).


Toril Moi, Simone de Beauvoir: The Making of an Intellectual Woman (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2009), 29. See also Michel Foucault, “Nietzsche, Genealogy, History,” in The Foucault Reader, ed. Paul Rainbow (New York: Pantheon, 1984), 76–100.


The current Polish remembrance of communism or, more precisely, of state socialism, which is the term used in literature on the subject to denote the social and economic system of the Polish People’s Republic (PRL), oscillates between a nostalgic narration (positive evaluations focus mainly on the welfare aspects of the state, but also on the agency granted by the authorities to the formerly subjugated classes, that is, workers and peasants) and a critical one, which admonishes the PRL en masse as a “totalitarian system” (the approach of the nationalist right) or disavows the socialist economy as “inefficient,” “outdated,” and “irrational” (the neoliberal approach). Negative assessments of the PRL, dominant after 1989, are at the same time viewed as an important element of the strategy legitimizing the neoliberal project of transformation, a strategy that sees this project as the only possible remedy for the “civilizational backwardness” of Poland in relation to “the West.” A critical analysis of modern-day Polish discourses about the PRL and communism is offered, among others, by the authors of the book entitled Opowiedzieć PRL [To narrate PRL], ed. Katarzyna Chmielewska and Grzegorz Wołowiec (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo IBL PAN, 2011).


Marci Shore, Caviar and Ashes: A Warsaw Generation’s Life and Death in Marxism, 1918–1968 (New Haven, CT, and London: Yale University Press, 2006); Żydokomuna [Judeocommunism], directed by Anna Zawadzka, 2010. See also Anna Zawadzka, “Kawior w sowieckiej ambasadzie” [Caviar in the Soviet embassy], Recykling idei: Pismo społecznie zaangażowane [Recycling of ideas: Magazine socially involved], no. 13 (2013): 178–179. In the past few years, there has been a surge of biographies of Polish communists. Their authors avail themselves of various types of texts, including personal documents (letters, notes, diaries, memoirs, autobiographies), to portray their protagonists. Significantly, the prevalent attitude is one not devoid of moral judgments, which have as their point of departure the current, critical assessment of communism. In this sense, they are often ahistorical. See, for example, Anna Sobór-Świderska, Jakub Berman: Biografia komunisty [Jakub Berman: Biography of a communist] (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo IPN, 2009); Eryk Krasucki, Międzynarodowy komunista: Jerzy Borejsza—biografia polityczna [An international communist: Jerzy Borejsza—a political biography] (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Naukowe PWN, 2009); Mirosław Szumiło, Roman Zambrowski 1909–1977: Studium z dziejów elity komunistycznej w Polsce [Roman Zambrowski 1909–1977: A study of the history of communist elites in Poland] (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo IPN, 2014). Interestingly, not a single academic biography of a Polish woman communist was published in Poland after 1989. Their stories are told either in the convention of family memoirs—see Aleksandra Domańska, Ulica cioci Oli: Z dziejów jednej rewolucjonistki [Aunt Ola’s street: The story of a revolutionary] (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, 2013)—or in the form of scandalizing, tabloid-like works that aim to expound the (miserable) private lives and “accidental” role of female communists in the public sphere—see Sławomir Koper, Kobiety władzy PRL [PRL’s women in power] (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Czerwone i Czarne, 2012). I discuss the contemporary Polish strategies of writing about female communists in my article entitled “Poza nawiasem historii (kobiet), czyli po co nam dziś komunistki” [On the margins of (women’s) history, or why we need communist women today], Wakat On-line [Vacancy online], no. 3 (2014), (accessed 22 November 2016).


See Jochen Hellbeck, Revolution on My Mind: Writing a Diary under Stalin (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2006); Anna Krylova, Soviet Women in Combat: A History of Violence on the Eastern Front (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2010).


See Eleonora Syzdek, Działalność Wandy Wasilewskiej w latach drugiej wojny światowej [Wanda Wasilewska’s activity during World War II] (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Ministerstwa Obrony Narodowej, 1981); Syzdek, W jednym życiu tak wiele.


See Marci Shore, Nowoczesność jako źródło cierpień [Modernity and its discontents], trans. Michał Sutowski (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, 2012).


I am thinking about the term “field” in the understanding expressed by Pierre Bourdieu in Distinction: A Social Critique of the Judgment of Taste, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1984).


See, for example, Czesław Miłosz, The Captive Mind, trans. Jane Zielonko (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1953).


Związek Niezależnej Młodzieży Socjalistycznej (ZNMS; Independent Socialist Youth Union) was a student organization of Polish socialist youth established in May 1922. It closely collaborated with the Polish Socialist Party. It was dissolved by the authorities in 1938.


Ciołkosz wrote: “In these words there is a key to the life story of Wanda Wasilewska. Like Piotr [a character from Wasilewska’s wartime story], the moment the Soviet army entered [Poland] she also discovered the love of her life. It was the red star.” Ciołkosz, Wanda Wasilewska, 32.


Aleksander Wat, My Century: The Odyssey of a Polish Intellectual, trans. Richard Lourie (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1988), 108.


See Andrzej Walicki, Marxism and the Leap to the Kingdom of Freedom: The Rise and Fall of the Communist Utopia (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1997).


Sanacja, after the Latin word sanatio (healing), was a political movement of Józef Piłsudski’s associates, who came to power in May 1926 and remained influential until 1939. Their program called for a moral renewal of Polish political life. With the adoption of a new constitution in April 1935 the role of the Parliament was limited in favor of the president and government. It was in fact authoritarian rule with a developed system of censorship and prisons for political opposition.


Helena Zatorska, Wanda Wasilewska (Warsaw: Wydawnictwa Szkolne i Pedagogiczne, 1976), 25.


In a letter to her mother dated 28 May 1934, Wasilewska wrote: “On 4 [June] I will be interrogated by the police. … It looks as though they might lock me up for a few days, which makes me very happy—sometimes I feel embarrassed by the fact that I have not spent a day behind the bars so far—and this way at least I’ll have something.” The author of this article is in possession of the typescript.


Following her departure from war-stricken Warsaw, and a rather chaotic wandering in the general direction of the USSR, Wanda Wasilewska, along with her husband and a group of friends, made a stop at the Lviv apartment of her sister Halina in September 1939. They had diverging political views: while Wanda officially joined the Soviet communists, Halina was an activist of the Union of Armed Struggle, first in Lviv and, from 1941, in Warsaw. Arrested in 1943, she was held captive in the so-called Pawiak political prison and then sent to the concentration camp in Ravensbrück. After liberation, she made her way to Sweden and then to England, where she lived for the rest of her life. Anna Eliza Markert, “Kobiety w kampanii polskiej: Halina Wasilewska” [Women in the Polish campaign: Halina Wasilewska],,Halina-Wasilewska.html (accessed 22 November 2016).


See, for example, Elena Usievič, Vanda Vasilevskaâ: Kritiko-biografičeskj očerk [Wanda Wasilewska: A critical-biographical essay] (Moscow: Sovetskij Pisatel’, 1953); Leonid Vengerov, Vanda Vasilevskaâ: Kritiko-biografičeskj očerk [Wanda Wasilewska: A critical-biographical essay] (Moscow: Goslitizdat, 1955).


See Hellbeck, Revolution on My Mind.


See, e.g., Ciołkosz, Wanda Wasilewska; Wat, My Century; Julian Stryjkowski, Ocalony na Wschodzie [Saved in the East] (Montricher: Les Editions Noir Sur Blanc, 1991).


“Wspomnienia Wandy Wasilewskiej” [Wanda Wasilewska’s memoirs], Z Pola Walki [From the battlefield] 41, no. 1 (1968): 118.


Przedświt [Daybreak] was a socialist periodical published between 1881 and 1905 in Geneva, Leipzig, and London, and between 1907 and 1920 in Kraków, Lviv, and Warsaw. It was the official magazine of the Foreign Union of Polish Socialists. Between 1897 and 1905 Leon Wasilewski was the editor in chief of Przedświt.


Koło Oświaty Ludowej [Circle for People’s Education] was a secret organization established in 1882 by Mieczysław Brzeziński and Bolesław Hirszfeld. Its main goal was to spread education among the rural population in the Polish territory under Russian rule. It published books, leaflets, and a periodical Zorza [Dawn]. It operated until 1905.


Andrzej Mencwel writes about the ethos of Polish prewar intelligentsia in Etos lewicy: Esej o narodzinach kulturalizmu polskiego [Leftist ethos: Essay on the birth of Polish culturalism] (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Krytyki Politycznej, 2009).


Syzdek, W jednym życiu tak wiele, 56.


Związek Niezależnej Młodzieży Socjalistycznej “Życie” (ZNMS “Życie”) [Independent Socialist Youth Union “Life”] was a student organization of Polish communist youth, established in December 1923 as a result of the split of the Independent Socialist Youth Union (ZNMS). It closely collaborated with the Communist Party of Poland.


“Wspomnienia Wandy Wasilewskiej,” 123.


Ibid., 135. Wasilewska’s opinion about the communists was certainly contingent upon the current political course in Poland. In an interview given to Polish historians in the very middle of the rule of Władysław Gomułka, who rose to power during the “thaw” that followed Stalin’s death, she asserted that in her youth she had been skeptical of the communists. A few years before that, however, in her documentary works such as Historia jednego strajku [The story of a strike, 1949], and especially in Że padliście w boju [That you fell in combat, 1958], she repeatedly underscored the great role of the Communist Party in Poland in making the Polish society aware of its class subjugation. In Historia jednego strajku, which chronicled the 1937 strike of the Polish Teachers’ Union, coordinated by Wasilewska and her friend Janina Broniewska, the author wrote that only the KPP unambiguously supported the postulates of the strikers (thus criticizing the PPS for its cunctation and conformist attitude). Że padliście w boju, on the other hand, published in Poland in the postthaw period of crackdown on revisionism, presents communists as fearless heroes in the struggle for social justice. The main axis of this novel is the true story of three Polish communists, sentenced to death in 1925 and then fusilladed for attempted murder of an anticommunist provocateur. In an autobiographical sketch written in the mid-1950s for the use of Soviet publishing houses, Wasilewska called them “her comrades” and stated that she “wanted to recall what they had fought for; what the best sons of Poland, communists, died for in the interwar period. The title of the book is comprised of the first words of a revolutionary song: ‘That you fell in combat, may you be honored.’” See Wanda Wasilewska, “O moich książkach” (the author of this article is in possession of its typescript in its original, Polish-language, version). It is interesting that it is futile to search for these words in the fragments of Wasilewska’s autobiography published in 1983. Apparently, in the political atmosphere of the early 1980s, prewar communism was (once again) regarded as somewhat inconvenient.


Wat, My Century, 107.


Stryjkowski, Ocalony na Wschodzie, 180.


Syzdek, Działalność Wandy Wasilewskiej, 68. On the disbandment of the Communist Party of Poland see, for example, Stephen A. Smith, ed., The Oxford Handbook of the History of Communism (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014), 239.


One of the “legends” related to Wasilewska that is still repeated is her supposed sexual intimacy with Stalin. See Koper, Kobiety władzy PRL, 33–85.


See Andrzej Werblan, Stalinizm w Polsce [Stalinism in Poland] (Warsaw: Przegląd, 2009). Joanna Szczęsna, citing Andrzej Werblan, a historian and longtime party official in the PRL, writes that Wasilewska and Gomułka were politically incompatible. After Gomułka became the First Secretary, Wasilewska, associated with the Stalinist faction, was a much less frequent visitor in Poland (she mostly came as a private person, to see her mother and friends). Also, Gomułka allegedly refused in 1967 his consent for the organization of a celebration to commemorate the thirtieth anniversary of the strike of the Polish Teachers’ Union, which had been led by Wasilewska and Broniewska. Szczęsna, “Wanda Wasilewska.” We may presume that in the period that immediately followed the official festivities celebrating the thousand years of Christendom in Poland (1966), with the government and the church caught up in a tug of war over who was more patriotic and more Polish, Gomułka found it unfortunate to bring up Wasilewska’s name. See Hanna Diskin, The Seeds of Triumph: Church and State in Gomulka’s Poland (Budapest: Central European University Press, 2001).


“Wspomnienia Wandy Wasilewskiej (1939–1944)” [Wanda Wasilewska’s memoirs (1939–1944)], in Archiwum Ruchu Robotniczego [Archives of the Labor Movement], vol. 7 (1982): 427.


Ciołkosz, Wanda Wasilewska, 16.


Ibid., 47.


“Wspomnienia Wandy Wasilewskiej,” 120.


Wanda Wasilewska, “Podróż po życiu i książkach (I)” [Journey through life and books (I)], Tu i Teraz [Here and now], no. 1 (1983): 16.


Syzdek, W jednym życiu tak wiele, 97.


“Listy Wandy Wasilewskiej (I),” 37.


“Listy Wandy Wasilewskiej (I),” 36 (letter dated 15 November 1931).


Jacek Trznadel, Hańba domowa [Domestic disgrace] (Paris: Instytut Literacki, 1986).


“Wspomnienia Wandy Wasilewskiej,” 189.


Ibid., 148.


See Teresa Torańska, “Them”: Stalin’s Polish Puppets, trans. Agnieszka Kołakowska (New York: Harper and Row, 1987).


Syzdek, W jednym życiu tak wiele, 143.


Syzdek, Działalność Wandy Wasilewskiej, 48–49.


Wasilewska, “Podróż po życiu i książkach (I),” 16.


Wanda Wasilewska, Oblicze dnia [The face of day] (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo Ministerstwa Obrony Narodowej, 1955), 195.


Wasilewska’s novel Oblicze dnia bore many similarities to the seminal work of one of the most important leftist Polish writers of the turn of the twentieth century, Przedwiośnie [Coming spring, 1925] by Stefan Żeromski (1864–1925). The resemblances regarded mostly the main character—in both cases, a young man discontented with Polish misery, who takes it upon himself to fight against it. However, the heroes of Żeromski (Cezary Baryka) and of Wasilewska (Anatol) had different backgrounds (the former was from an intelligentsia family, and the latter from a peasant one) and, above all, different methods of waging their battle. Baryka teetered under the fire of abstract disputes between socialists and communists, and even when he decided to join a protest march to Belweder (the seat of Polish authorities), he walked next to the throng of people, not with them. Anatol had no such dilemmas and led the striking workers. Wasilewska, then, took things a notch up in relation to Żeromski: in her novel, the fight of organized workers replaced the theoretical musings of atomized intelligentsia.


See Tomasz Marszałkowski, Zamieszki, ekscesy i demonstracje w Krakowie 1918–1939 [Riots, disturbances, and demonstrations in Kraków, 1918–1936] (Kraków: Wydawnictwo Arcana, 2006).


Wanda Wasilewska, “6 XI 1923,” in Zatorska, Wanda Wasilewska, 165.


See the documentary film Wanda Lwowna Wasilewska (TVP, 2008).


Maria Dąbrowska, a famous writer, recorded that in Poland “not a hair on Wasilewska’s head was in danger: she made big bucks on her books and on Płomyk [Glimmer]. The only inconvenience she ever suffered was that Płomyk was taken away from her after it became too overtly Soviet propaganda.” Maria Dąbrowska, Dzienniki, 1914–1965 [Memoirs, 1914–1965], vol. 10 (1956–1957) (Warsaw: Polska Akademia Nauk, 2009), 41.


Wasilewska herself claimed that the situation with Płomyk was completely “innocent” and took place during a period of improved relations between Poland and the Soviet Union: “It should be remembered that an agreement had then been signed, according to which The International was played at the castle when the Soviet delegation arrived.” “Wspomnienia Wandy Wasilewskiej,” 180.


Ciołkosz, Wanda Wasilewska, 43.


Ibid., 50, 44.


Wanda Wasilewska, “Lata, które minęły (8)” [The years that have passed (8)], Argumenty [Arguments], no. 35 (1975): 8.


Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Experience of Modernity (New York: Penguin Books, 1988), 21.


Foucault, Courage of Truth, 186.


Jan Topiński, “Trzy pokoje w Domu Robotniczym na Dunajewskiego 5” [Three rooms in workers’ house at Dunajewskiego 5], in Cyganeria i polityka: Wspomnienia krakowskie 19191939 [Bohemia and politics: Kraków memoirs 1919–1939], ed. Kazimierz Bidakowski (Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1964), 88.


Janina Broniewska, Maje i listopady [Mays and Novembers] (Warsaw: Iskry, 1967), 242.


Ciołkosz, Wanda Wasilewska, 16.


Bogatko’s death was shrouded in mystery. According to one version, he was murdered by a “counterrevolutionary” Polish group; according to another, by a Ukrainian one. It was once said that his death was a warning for Wasilewska; another time, that he was murdered by mistake, instead of Wasilewska. Syzdek, Działalność Wandy Wasilewskiej, 78. In his memoirs Nikita Khrushchev admitted that Bogatko was shot by the NKVD but, according to him, this happened by mistake. Nikita Khrushchev, Memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev, Vol. 3: Statesman (1953–1964), ed. Sergei Khrushchev, trans. George Shriver (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007), 591.


Ciołkosz, Wanda Wasilewska, 25.


“Wspomnienia Wandy Wasilewskiej,” 119.


“Listy Wandy Wasilewskiej (I),” 38 (letter dated 6 November 1932).


Janina Broniewska, Tamten brzeg mych lat [That shore of my years] (Warsaw: Książka i Wiedza, 1973), 127.


Broniewska, Tamten breg mych lat., 97.


Syzdek, W jednym życiu tak wiele, 84. Wasilewska and Bogatko did get married, but not until 1936: “When in 1936 Bogatko and I were invited to the Soviet Union, the issue of marriage came up. … [W]hether we wanted to or not, we went to my Calvinist Church on Leszno Street [in Warsaw]. When the pastor asked for a declaration of religious character, and we really were in a hurry, he got irritated and angry and finally asked: ‘I don’t understand what it is that you want—a marriage or just a certificate?’ I answered: ‘Only a certificate.’” “Wspomnienia Wandy Wasilewskiej,” 121–122.


See Irena Krzywicka, Wyznania gorszycielki [Confessions of a scandalist] (Warsaw: Czytelnik, 1999).


Historians Anna Żarnowska and Katarzyna Sierakowska observe that even within the circles of leftist Polish intelligentsia and of socialist activists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the practice of marital life was not in harmony with the lofty slogans of equality and partnership. Despite their declared support of the idea of equality of the sexes, men had no quandaries about burdening their wives with housework and raising children. All the while, wives were expected to assist in their husband’s professional career as well. Anna Żarnowska and Katarzyna Sierakowska, “Stare i nowe wzorce i obyczaje rodziny inteligenckiej w Polsce i Europie Środkowo-Wschodniej” [Old and new patterns and customs of the intelligentsia family in Poland and Central and Eastern Europe], in Anna Żarnowska, Kobieta i rodzina w przestrzeni wielkomiejskiej na ziemiach polskich w XIX i XX wieku [Woman and family in the urban setting on Polish territories in nineteenth and twentieth centuries], ed. Agnieszka Janiak-Jasińska, Katarzyna Sierakowska, and Andrzej Szwarc (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo DiG, 2013), 101–127.


It is difficult to find a clear answer as to the degree to which Wasilewska chose to live with Bogatko out of wedlock in order to fulfill the communist model of “free love,” known for example from the works of Alexandra Kollontai (1872–1952), which were translated into Polish, and to what degree she was toeing the line of the “new model of femininity,” increasingly popular in the circles of big-city intelligentsia. According to this model, women were to focus more on the achievement of individual goals than on subordinating their lives to the family or national community. Her decision may have also been influenced by her family situation and, more precisely, by not wanting to repeat the fate of her mother, who had turned from a World War I social and military activist into a wife of her minister husband and a mother of three daughters. The memoirs of Wasilewska’s younger sister, Zofia Aldona Woźnicka (1908–1984), reveal that their mother was not satisfied with such a lifestyle and at a certain point became involved in the activities of the Polish Theosophical Society, which she probably treated as a way to get back at least a small part of her old, colorful life. Zofia A. Woźnicka, “O mojej siostrze” [About my sister], in Wanda Wasilewska we wspomnieniach [Wanda Wasilewska in memoirs], ed. Eleonora Syzdek (Warsaw: Książka i Wiedza, 1982), 46–48.


Wasilewska, Oblicze dnia, 139.


Ibid., 160.


In the early 1930s, Wasilewska was strongly involved in so-called women’s issues. In the Kraków period of her life, she actively participated in staging Friedrich Wolf’s play Cyanide (1929), written in protest against the total ban on abortion implemented in German law (staging this play in Poland was part of a heated public debate around the 1932 amendment to the Polish Penal Code, which only admitted two conditions for termination of pregnancy: strict medical indications; and pregnancy resulting from rape, incest, or intercourse with a juvenile under fifteen years old). As a member of the Women’s Section of the Polish Socialist Party, Wasilewska participated in the “Women’s Week,” an event organized annually in many Polish cities, during which she gave lectures on women’s rights addressed primarily to working women. She represented the Women’s Section in the National Council of the Polish Socialist Party between 1934 and 1937. The issue of gender inequality, violence (including sexual violence) against women, prostitution, the ban on abortion—all this was present in her journalistic writing, reportages written for Robotnik and Naprzód, as well as in her literary works. Over time, however, she got impatient with fighting for women’s rights only. In a letter to her mother dated 21 April 1934, she wrote: “[T]his woman’s work isn’t something I am really looking forward to—it is always somehow easier to deal with men; and besides, our activists in Warsaw, including [Dorota] Kłuszyńska [(1876–1952), a feminist, an organizer of women’s socialist movement, an editor of Głos Kobiet (Women’s voice)], color this event with feminism of half a century ago. They show off their injured femininity like a hen shows off an egg. Neither Lidia [Ciołkoszowa (1902–2002), a socialist activist, a member of the Polish Socialist Party, in private life Adam Ciołkosz’s wife] in Tarnów, nor myself in Kraków have inconveniences because of the fact that we are women—while for them this is always the reason for having stones thrown under their feet.” (The manuscript of a letter in the possession of the article’s author.) This quote demonstrates that Wasilewska was becoming reluctant to own up to the label of a woman activist. It is difficult to say whether this was because she regarded the slogan of women’s rights as less serious than the slogan of class struggle, raised by the radicalizing youth of the Polish Socialist Party, with which she identified herself in the mid-1930s, or because she began to see gender inequality as part of universally understood social and economic inequalities.


“Wspomnienia Wandy Wasilewskiej,” 133.


Związek Patriotów Polskich (ZPP; Union of Polish Patriots) was a political body created in the Soviet Union in June 1943. The decision to establish the ZPP was made by Stalin. The organization comprised mostly former members of the Communist Party of Poland, but its president, Wanda Wasilewska, was a former member of the Polish Socialist Party. The ZPP became a foundation of the government that took power in Poland after the end of World War II. The program of the ZPP emphasized the importance of alliance with the Soviet Union and the need to change the eastern borders of Poland: the return of Vilnius to Lithuania and of Lviv to Ukraine. Its main goal, however, was to implement socialism in Poland. The ZPP had its own press organ, Wolna Polska [Free Poland], and education and social services branches. In July 1944, ZPP members became part of the Polish Committee of National Liberation—the organ of executive authority in Poland until the end of 1944. Between 1944 and 1946 the ZPP was involved in resettling Poles from the Soviet Union to Poland. It was disbanded in 1946.


Jan Karaśkiewicz, “Wyrosła do rangi męża stanu” [She grew in rank to statesperson], in Wanda Wasilewska we wspomnieniach, 135. In 1943, as Stalin’s great trustee, Wasilewska took leadership in the Union of Polish Patriots, which laid foundations for the creation of the postwar Polish government. In the same year she participated in the establishment of the Polish army in the USSR, in the ranks of which there were Poles freed from Soviet prisons and labor camps. Earlier, in 1940, that is, before the outbreak of the German-Soviet hostilities, she sought Stalin’s permission to include Polish communists in the ranks of the (All-)Russian Communist Party (Bolsheviks), with recognition of their membership in the Communist Party of Poland, dissolved in 1938. She was also very active in organizing material help for Poles dispersed throughout the USSR, as well as for schools for Polish children. See “Wspomnienia Wandy Wasilewskiej (1939–1944),” 339–432.


Broniewska, Maje i listopady, 242. Marci Shore writes about the friendship between Wasilewska and Broniewska in “‘Czysto babski’: A Women’s Friendship in a Man’s Revolution,” East European Politics and Societies 13, no. 3 (2002): 810–863.


Broniewska, Tamten brzeg mych lat, 302–303.


“Wspomnienia Wandy Wasilewskiej (1939–1944),” 355.


“Wspomnienia Wandy Wasilewskiej,” 133.


Ibid., 120.


Ciołkosz, Wanda Wasilewska, 42–43.


Antonio Negri, Negri on Negri: In Conversation with Anne Dufourmentelle, trans. Malcolm Debevoise (New York: Routledge, 2004), 55–56.


Eric J. Hobsbawm, Nations and Nationalism since 1780: Programme, Myth, Reality (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1992), 146–147.


Wanda Wasilewska, Płomień i próchno: Zbiór artykułów i przemówień [Flame and rot: Collection of articles and speeches] (Moscow: Związek Patriotów Polskich, 1945); Wanda Wasilewska, O wolną i demokratyczną: Wybór artykułów, przemówień i listów [For a free and democratic Poland: Selection of articles, speeches, and letters], ed. Zbigniew Kumoś, Tadeusz Siergiejczyk, and Eleonora Syzdek (Warsaw: Wojskowy Instytut Historyczny im. Wandy Wasilewskiej, 1985). Wasilewska’s wartime speeches painted a vision of Poland different from the Sanacja one: “fair, great, democratic,” one that will “grow and consolidate through the toil of the worker, the peasant, and the intellectual, hand in hand in battle against the enemy and in joint work.” Wasilewska, Płomień i próchno, 119.


Karl Marx, “Letter to Arnold Ruge of September 1843,” trans. Clemens Dutt, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol. 3 (1843–1844) (New York: International Publishers, 1975): 142.


Shore, Caviar and Ashes.


Mieczysław Porębski, Ikonosfera [Iconosphere] (Warsaw: Państwowy Instytut Wydawniczy, 1972), 120.


Khrushchev, Memoirs of Nikita Khrushchev, Vol. 3: Statesman (1953–1964), 591.


See the documentary film Errata do biografii: Wanda Wasilewska [Correction to biography: Wanda Wasilewska] (TVP, 2009).


As a result of the Yalta Conference held in February 1945, the Polish borders were pushed to the west to include what had been German territory: Western Prussia, Western Pomerania, Lubusz Land, and Silesia. Kresy, or the Eastern Borderlands, on the other hand, was given to the Soviet Union; today this region is divided between Lithuania, Belarus, and Ukraine. According to the many critics of Wasilewska, she allegedly contributed to such a state of affairs. The evidence for this is a photograph showing Wasilewska and Stalin leaning over a map of Poland and tracing its new, postwar borders. In the collective imagination of Poles, this picture evoked associations with another photograph from the partition era: at the close of the eighteenth century, Catherine II of Russia, Frederick II of Prussia, and Joseph II of Austria were portrayed in an allegory by Jean-Michel Moreau le Jeune in the act of quarrelling over their Polish territorial seizures. See Szczęsna, “Wanda Wasilewska.”


See Usievič, Vanda Vasilevskaâ; Vengerov, Vanda Vasilevskaâ.


See Gertrud Pickhan, “Wanda Wasilewska: Bilder und Selbstbilder nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg” [Wanda Wasilewska: Images and self-images after World War II], in Geschlechterbeziehungen in Ostmitteleuropa nach dem Zweiten Weltkrieg: Soziale Praxis und Konstruktion von Geschlechterbildern [Gender relations in Central Europe after World War II: Social practice and construction of gender images], ed. Claudia von Kraft (Munich: Oldenbourg, 2008), 87–102.


In his memoirs, General Zygmunt Berling (1896–1980), commander of the First Tadeusz Kościuszko Infantry Division and of the First Polish Army, who owing to these functions had collaborated closely with Wasilewska in the USSR, described her as a monster, a devil, a woman whose character, demeanor, and appearance were far removed from the standards of Polish femininity. His antipathy toward Wasilewska can be explained by envy of her high political position and the trust Stalin gave her. Berling’s misogyny went hand in hand with his anti-Semitism: his memoirs are marked by a deep aversion toward Polish communists of Jewish origin, whom he accused of acting against Polish interests. See Zygmunt Berling, Wspomnienia [Memoirs], vols. 1–3 (Warsaw: Polski Dom Wydawniczy, 1991).


Maria Janion, Kobiety i duch inności [Women and the spirit of transgression] (Warsaw: n.p., 1996), 5–49. On women as allegories of social and political movements, as well as of milestone events such as wars and revolutions, see, for example, Eric Hobsbawm, “Man and Woman in Socialist Iconography,” History Workshop Journal 6, no. 1 (1978): 121–138; Gay L. Gullickson, “La Petroleuse: Representing Revolution,” Feminist Studies 17, no. 2 (1991): 241–265; Victoria E. Bonnell, Iconography of Power: Soviet Political Posters under Lenin and Stalin (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1999); Linda Nochlin, Representing Women (London: Thames & Hudson, 1999).


Polish Committee of National Liberation (PKWN) was the organ of executive authority in Poland from 21 July to 31 December 1944. Established in Moscow as a counterweight for the Polish government in exile, it was dominated by Polish communists from the Union of Polish Patriots and the Polish Worker’s Party. Its chairman was Edward Osóbka-Morawski (1909–1997), while the vice-chairmen were Wanda Wasilewska and Andrzej Witos (1878–1973). Its seat was initially in Chełm, and from 1 August 1944 in Lublin. On 22 July 1944, the PKWN proclaimed its “July Manifesto,” that is, an address to the nation, outlining the political, social, and economic program of the new government. On 31 December 1944, the PKWN was transformed into the provisional government of the Republic of Poland.


“Wspomnienia Wandy Wasilewskiej (1939–1944),” 418–419. There is no clear answer to the question of why Wasilewska withdrew, or was removed, from Polish politics at the end of World War II. One of her biographers, Eleonora Syzdek, associates this fact with the establishment, at the beginning of 1944, of the Central Bureau of Polish Communists, a political body composed of prewar communists, which claimed the right to control Polish affairs in the Soviet Union, as well as to influence the affairs in the parts of Poland occupied by Germany (e.g., by controlling the Polish Workers’ Party, established in 1942). According to Syzdek, Wasilewska was eliminated from the mainstream of Polish politics as a result of the intrigues of her erstwhile colleagues. Syzdek, Działalność Wandy Wasilewskiej, 240. However, historian Marcin Zaremba presents the whole thing as more complex. He argues that toward the end of the war Polish communists had to decide what the composition of the new government would be, which would legitimize their power in liberated Poland. Because of her close cooperation with Stalin, Wasilewska was regarded as a person too discredited to assume the role of a representative of the Polish nation. More suitable for this role seemed to be people who did not arouse similarly negative connotations, such as Edward Osóbka-Morawski, a prewar activist of the Polish Socialist Party, who in July 1944 was appointed chairman of the Polish Committee of National Liberation, or Bolesław Bierut (1892–1956), a prewar activist of the Communist Party of Poland, who in 1944 was appointed chairman of the State National Council, a parliament-like political body established on 31 December 1943 in German-occupied Warsaw and later accepted by Stalin; from 1947 to 1952, Bierut served as president of Poland, and from 1952 to 1956, after the abolition of the presidency with the creation of the People’s Republic of Poland, as prime minister. M. Zaremba, Komunizm, legitymizacja, nacjonalizm: Nacjonalistyczna legitymizacja władzy komunistycznej w Polsce [Communism, legitimation, nationalism: Nationalist legitimation of communist power in Poland] (Warsaw: TRIO, 2005), 121–173. Of course, it is difficult to overlook the fact that subsequent political bodies in postwar Poland were predominantly masculine. This may raise the suspicion that the elimination of Wasilewska from the political game was related to her gender. As a woman, Wasilewska did not always participate in the men’s parties organized by Stalin, where key decisions, including on personnel policy, were made. Jakub Berman, a member of the Central Bureau of Polish Communists and, after the war, head of the Polish secret police, recalled that Wasilewska, “like a typical woman,” was too emotional. This supposedly prevented her from making rational decisions (Berman referred to her conflict with General Zygmunt Berling, with whom she allegedly was not able to stay in the same room). Torańska, “Them,” 229. Thus the stereotypical image of a woman could have been one of the tools in a fierce political struggle, the result of which was that Wasilewska did not play any significant role in postwar Polish politics. In the 1950s, communist women in other countries of the Eastern Bloc shared her experience. Many of them on various occasions lost their political influence, position, or offices. See, for example, Robert Levy, Ana Pauker: The Rise and Fall of a Jewish Communist (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2001); Krassimira Daskalova, “A Woman Politician in the Cold War Balkans: From Biography to History,” Aspasia 10 (2016): 63–88.


See Wanda Wasilewska we wspomnieniach. The role of Wasilewska’s relationship with the Ukrainian writer Alexander Korneychuk (1905–1972), whom she met in Lviv in 1939 and began seeing after Bogatko’s death, is yet to be interpreted in reference to Wasilewska’s postwar life. According to accounts of many people who knew Wasilewska, but also according to the writer’s official biographies, it was Korneychuk who was the “reason” for her not returning to Poland. The relationship with him was said to fulfill her as an intellectual and, primarily, as a woman. This vision perfectly fit the ideas of the postwar order, where finally there was place for love and family happiness, the vision that Wasilewska described in her postwar novels Po prostu miłość [Just love, 1944] and Gdy światło zapłonie [When the light comes on, 1946]. According to Władysław Gomułka, “following the heart” did not bring only positive outcomes for Wasilewska. He wrote: “As it often happened with women, she valued her relationship with Korneychuk and the feelings she had for him at that time above all else. I think she regretted this in later years. But there was no going back. She had to drink her cup of bitterness that once was her cup of love and personal happiness.” Władysław Gomułka, Pamiętniki [Memoirs], vol. 2 (Warsaw: Polska Oficyna Wydawnicza “BGW,” 1994), 493–494. One may wonder whether Wasilewska found happiness in that relationship or whether she felt “stuck” in a certain public role that included—in addition to being a fulfilled activist and a writer—the image of a happy woman (even if the reality was different).


During and after the war, literature was the space in which Wasilewska eagerly explored women’s issues: women’s struggle for empowerment and their fight against gender stereotypes. In the novel Tęcza (Rainbow, 1943)—awarded by Stalin and filmed by Mark Donskoy in 1944—she portrayed women as active subjects of history: partisans, but also ordinary citizens who defended their village from German invaders. She characterized women as victims of wartime violence and, at the same time, as heroines who bravely fought on equal terms with men. In her postwar works women exemplified the tragedy of communities devastated by the horrors of war and seeking to recover. In Po prostu miłość she described the dilemma of a young wife of a man who had lost his legs and arms in battle—a woman torn between a sense of duty to take care of him and the desire for personal happiness. In Gdy światło zapłonie she described the story of two women in love with the same man: a wife who waited for his return from the war and a female soldier who felt united with him by the wartime experience. Although Wasilewska usually resolved these dilemmas traditionally, that is, she tipped the scales toward family, marriage, and commitment rather than toward personal happiness and passion, to merely raise these problems was a bold step, as it showed the nonobviousness of socially accepted behaviors, attitudes, and values.


Wasilewska, O moich książkach (the manuscript in Polish is in possession of the article’s author).


Quoted in Zatorska, Wanda Wasilewska, 186–187.


Szczęsna, “Wanda Wasilewska.”


Marx was already interested in the relationship between transgression, or the individual gesture of overstepping and obliterating boundaries, of breaking the socially accepted standards, and revolution, that is, changing the social structure along with its binding standards, in The German Ideology (1845–1846). He claimed that “revolution is necessary, therefore, not only because the ruling class cannot be overthrown in any other way, but also because the class overthrowing it can only succeed in ridding itself of all the muck of ages and become fitted to found the society anew in a revolution.” Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, “The German Ideology,” trans. Clemens Dutt, in Karl Marx and Frederick Engels, Collected Works, vol. 5 (1845–1847) (New York: International Publishers, 1975), 53. However, as demonstrated in works devoted, for example, to the French Revolution, the practical aspects of life following major overturns often depart from the grand prerevolutionary postulates: in France, people who had been raised under a monarchy were thoroughly unable to morph into completely new citizens and constituted a significant group of so-called ex-people, who lived in a type of limbo, “in between” the past and the present. This group also included some leaders of the revolution. See, for example, Jan Baszkiewicz, New Man, New Nation, New World: The French Revolution in Myth and Reality, trans. Alex Shannon, ed. Janusz Adamowski (Frankfurt am Main and New York: Peter Lang, 2012).


Zofia A. Woźnicka, “O mojej siostrze,” 77 (letter dated 2 April 1947). Woźnicka recalled that after the war “Wanda suffered from many problems with her health which she had never taken care of. She was sick with a stomach cold (in late 1946), some painful inflammation of the nerves in her left arm (1951), in the summer of 1952 she suffered from a bout of sciatica that made her immobile for over a month. She was constantly having problems with her throat, which was damaged after all the speeches she had delivered.” Woźnicka, “O mojej siostrze,” 76–77.


Wasilewska died suddenly, most likely of a heart attack, in 29 July 1964. She was buried in Kiev.


Pierre Bourdieu, “The Biographical Illusion,” trans. Yves Winkin and Wendy Leeds-Hurwitz, in Identity: A Reader, ed. Paul du Gay, Jessica Evans and Peter Redman (London and Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 2000), 299–305.

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Contributor Notes

Agnieszka Mrozik is researcher at the Institute of Literary Research, Polish Academy of Sciences. She holds a PhD in literary studies and an MA in American studies. She is a lecturer on postgraduate gender studies at IBL PAN. She is a member of the editorial staff of the sociocultural quarterly Bez Dogmatu (Without Dogma). She recently published the book Akuszerki transformacji: Kobiety, literatura i władza w Polsce po 1989 roku (Midwives of transformation: Women, literature, and power in Poland after 1989) (Warsaw: Wydawnictwo IBL PAN, 2012). She is currently working on the project “Communist Women in Pre- and Postwar Poland (History, Biography, Literature).” E-mail:


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