Monday, January 22, 2007

Minority Report

I made a comment on the putatively Scottish antecedents of Lech Walesa.

I see Lepidus suggest that Walesa is another version of the proto-Indo European word for stranger that gives English the word Welsh and the Germans the word Wendisch- and indeed is the root of the name Wallace, from which (it is suggested) the Walesa actually derives.

I don't think- short of DNA evidence- that we can truly check to what degree Lech Walesa is actually Scottish- after all there were so many Scots who settled in Royal Prussia, and in particular the City of Gdansk (then, of course, Danzig), so there is every chance that the former President has at least some Scottish blood- if not from the first bearer of his surname.

The area around Gdansk has a distinct identity- and, unusually for Poland, quite a strong accent. Indeed the Slavic population of that formerly most German of Provinzen, Prussia has not always regarded itself as Polish, but rather Kashub- or Kaszub, in its Polish spelling. The Kaszuby retain a distinct identity (Like the Goraly of the Polish Tatra, whose greatest son was, perhaps Papierz Jan Pawel II- Pope John Paul II).

The Kaszuby are just one group in the Baltic who have retained an identity despite the periodic tides of history often being unfavourable. In Skane- today southern Sweden- the local population retain a dialect and customs that have more in common with their Danish neighbours- not too surprising, considering the area was Denmark as late as 1658.

In the Aland islands, nominally part of Finland, Swedish speakers have established a high level of autonomy- and this carries over to the Swedish minority on the mainland of Finland, whose culture and language remain obvious even in modern Helsinki (Which the Swedes still call Helsingfors)- the Swedish language newspapers are still respected and have a long history behind them.

In Estonia, there is a great tradition of respecting the identities of national minorities. During the first republic the World Jewish Council gave a gold medal to the Estonian government for the way the Estonian constitution promoted the building blocks of cultural autonomy: schools and even guaranteed representation in the Parliament of Estonia. Even today such provisions continue to hold, but bear in mind that in 1938 the population of Estonia was 88% Estonian, but after the Second World War, the Estonians were decimated: exile and the camps took a dreadful toll, while the colonisation of Estonia by Russians was encouraged by Soviet authorities. The population of Russians grew to 25.7% and the proportion of Estonians fell to 68.6%. Still, even this recent wave of immigration is developing an Estonian identity- and indeed an identifiable Estonian accent when they speak their own language. Nevertheless the Russians and the indigenous minorities: the Setulased and the speakers of the impenetrable Voru Keel continue to have a rich and full cultural life. Even the Old Believers - hidden away on the shores of Lake Peipus- retain a proud independence.

In Latvia, in addition to Russians ,there are still the survivors of the ancient Livonians whose Finno-Ugric tongue, related to Estonian, still has a few hundred speakers- and indeed it is taught in schools even today.

Lithuania, at first glance, seems to have little to differentiate the various groups, but in fact each region, as in Latvia and Estonia has certain distinct characteristics. Although it might be going a bit too far to call the Samogitians a group separate from the Lithuanians, there is no doubt that they are certainly distinct.

After a while it is possible to see the Baltic as a patchwork, not of different states but of different cultural-linguistic groups. Sometimes this can get very complicated: For example, while Latvians are generally Protestant, there is group in the South East- the Latgalians- that are generally Catholic, like their neighbors the Lithuanians. Yet the policy of Latvia has more often been aligned with its northern neighbour than its southern, despite a common linguistic root.

The new President of Estonia, Toomas Hendrik Ilves, has often spoken of Estonia's membership of a wider Northern European cultural identity- he calls this Yule-land, based upon the fact that all of the Northern side of the Baltic, plus Britain and Estonia use the word Yule, or a variant thereof. Indeed he has previously suggested that this cultural identity could have a political dimension.

So distinct identities do still have some definition, even in a part of Europe where the question of national identity is not so controversial as once it was. In some sense we could identify Lech Walesa as a Kaszub, a citizen of the Hanseatic City of Gdansk and as part of the wider Baltic world.

However, I think that his chosen identity is neither Danziger nor Scottish, but as a patriotic, pious and proud Pole: Semper Fidelis.


mel said...

Walesa was a hero but not a good president -- much like the Havel disease (good man, bad president). And you ended up with so much worse now (Kaczynski is a joke...I love Ed Lucas's take; Klaus is just a nutter). This is why I support constitutional monarchies. Otto, Simeon and friends, come back!!!

Anonymous said...

Don't think I said that about Walesa Consul. My comment was on the Wi Wallace artivle about the colossal impact of the Poles on Britain and what it means for both in the years ahead. That would make interesting topic for your next article. It really opens a path to British leadership in the "New Europe" I think. No Mel Havel was a good President, else the Czechs wouldn't have tried to get him stay on.


Etzel Pangloss said...

DNA evidence would show us all to be cousins.

Folk are folk.

Thankyou for introducing me to Livonians, (never heard of them before) are they remnants of Finns/magyars? or a different history?

Yule is just another Germanic concept.

mel said...

Hi Lepidus, no Havel was a great man, a good writer and a bad president. They tried to get him to stay on because there were no alternatives. And look who they ended up with...infant terrible...

And Etzel, the Livonians are a Finno-Ugric nation that lived in what is today the northern part of Latvia. Riga was once a Livonian fishing village "Righa" (btw this is the why in Estonian it is "Riia" and the form for "to Riga" in Estonian is "Riiga").

Sadly, there's only about a dozen or so native speakers, and a few dozen who speak it fluently. Most of the efforts to keep the culture and language alive have come from fellow Finno-Ugrics nations like Estonia and Finland, and Indiana University actually does some teaching of this dying language.

If you find it interesting, the ethno-folk-jazz group Tulli Lum ("hot snow") from Tartu features Livonian singing by one of the few fluent speakers of the language...