Today marks the 1-year anniversary since the tragic plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczyński, his wife and 94 others who were on their way to commemorate the Katyń massacre of 1940 when approximately 22,000 Polish prisoners of war were executed on command by the Soviet NKVD. Ceremonies and commemorations are being held throughout Poland – the largest ones in Warsaw under the Presidential Palace and at Wawel Castle in Kraków, where the presidential couple were buried almost a year ago.

In an earlier post, I expressed hesitation about accepting the ‘grand reconciliation’ that has been anticipated after the tragic events of April 10, 2010 – specifically citing Polish discontent with Russian handling of the crash investigation. However, it is true that since the crash, Polish-Russian relations have undergone a thaw, with increased dialogue, state visits, and cooperation between the two sides. Presidents Medvedev and Komorowski even signed a letter of intent on establishing a Center for Polish-Russian Dialogue back in December 2010. Medvedev also presented Katyń director Andrzej Wajda with the Order of Friendship of the Russian Federation. However, despite symbolic gestures, concrete joint efforts at investigating the causes of the crash have all but crumbled. Russian strong-arming and Polish paranoia have clouded conclusive results and thrust hopes of any long-term rapprochement through cooperation back into the ether.

I didn’t mean to be a doubting Tom, but I still believe my comments were not so far off the mark – then or now. In fact, just yesterday, a commemorative plaque was unveiled in Smolensk featuring last-minute changes made by the Russian side.
The reference to the purpose of the visit – to commemorate “the 70th anniversary of Soviet genocide in the Katyń forest performed on prisoners of war and the officers of the Polish Army in 1940” – was removed without any prior consultation with the Polish side. The new plaque features a Russian translation of the Polish text and is anonymous. The original plaque, which Governor of Smolensk District, Andrei Yevseienkov says will be transferred to the museum in Katyń, was funded by the Katyń Families Association.

The original version:

„Pamięci 96 Polaków na czele z prezydentem Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej Lechem Kaczyńskim, którzy 10 kwietnia 2010 r. zginęli w katastrofie lotniczej pod Smoleńskiem, w drodze na uroczystości upamiętnienia 70. rocznicy sowieckiej zbrodni ludobójstwa w Lesie Katyńskim dokonanej na jeńcach wojennych, na oficerach Wojska Polskiego w 1940 r.”.

(In Memoriam of 96 Poles led by President Lech Kaczyński, who died in a plane crash near Smolensk on the way to the ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of Soviet genocide in the Katyn forest performed on prisoners of war and the officers of the Polish Army in 1940.)

The substituted version:

„Pamięci 96 Polaków na czele z prezydentem Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej Lechem Kaczyńskim, którzy zginęli w katastrofie lotniczej pod Smoleńskiem 10 kwietnia 2010 roku”.

(In Memoriam of 96 Poles led by the President Lech Kaczyński who died in a plane crash near Smolensk 10 April 2010.)

Unsurprisingly, the change (which happened the night before a delegation from the Katyń Families Association along with First Lady Anna Komorowska arrived to mark the anniversary of the crash)  has been met with uproar from the Polish side.

“Zamiana przez Rosjan tablic na kamieniu upamiętniającym miejsce katastrofy smoleńskiej w takim momencie i w taki sposób to brak szacunku zarówno dla jej ofiar, jak i dla ich rodzin... To bardzo znamienne, w jaki sposób Rosja traktuje nas, Polaków i rodziny ofiar katastrofy. To brak szacunku… Fakt, że stało się to dziś w nocy, kiedy do Smoleńska jechała polska delegacja, gdy przygotowujemy się do obchodów pierwszej rocznicy katastrofy, to upokorzenie i policzek dla Polaków i Polski. To pokazuje, jak Rosjanie wyobrażają sobie polsko-rosyjskie pojednanie.”

(The replacement by the Russians of the plaque on the stone commemorating the Smolensk crash site at such a time and in such a way is disrespectful to both the victims and their families… This is very revealing of how Russia treats us Poles and family members of the victims of the disaster. It’s a lack of respect…The fact that it happened tonight, before the Polish delegation was coming to Smolensk in preparation to celebrate the first anniversary of the disaster, is a humiliation and insult to Poles and Poland. It shows how Russians imagine the Polish-Russian reconciliation.)

-Susan Kurtyka, widow of the President of the IPN (The Institute of National Remembrance) and chairman of Association of  Katyń 2010, Janusz Kurtyka. (Taken from

The question is: was the decision to swap the plaque a local initiative, within the Katyn District itself, or was it done with the knowledge and support of Moscow? Poland’s Foreign Ministry has yet to receive a response from the Russian side in this matter, perhaps because the answer could have wide-ranging implications for Polish-Russian relations.

Polish President Bronisław Komorowski will be traveling to Russia tomorrow, April 11th, 2011, to meet with Russian President Medvedev. On their itinerary is a visit to the Katyń Memorial. Recent events should make for an interesting conversation…

It seems that the life of a Master’s student is completely incompatible with keeping up a blog; it is in my case, at least.

With that, I’ll say that I have been closely following recent developments in Polish-Russian relations in regards to Katyń. I actually came close to posting my initial reactions to the Duma resolution, which recognized Katyń as a Stalinist crime, carried out by the NKVD in 1940 (announced on Friday, November 26, 2010).

I listened to Polish radio and read articles from Polish newspapers and journals, interviews with Polish historians, I even talked to my family in Poland to hear their reaction. I also perused several Russian news websites and the Duma’s website to see it from another perspective. Of course, the announcement was plastered on the front of every Polish news site, with dramatic pictures of the Katyn memorial in tow. Russian news sites… not so much. Hours after the story broke, I still didn’t find much in the way of articles. Interestingly, the Duma’s website made no mention of Stalin’s responsibility and merely wrote, “Seventy years ago, thousands of Polish citizens were shot.”

At any rate, the Duma’s resolution was warmly embraced by Poles — any such statement by the Russian government was unthinkable, even a year ago. What I took from the Polish side was sort of a collective, “finally” (insert: uneasy sigh). There is no doubt that the recent Polish-Russian ‘thaw’ triggered by the Smoleńsk crash played its role in the passing of this resolution. (Others are considered below.)

Inspired, emotions swelling up, I set out to write a bit about it… then, inexplicably, I decided to hold off. Undoubtedly, I was very excited about the new (rather shocking) development and was thrilled at the prospect of another (major) ‘step forward’ in the relations between these two nations. But something in me couldn’t help, but express doubt: was this REALLY the ray of sunshine that would pierce through the thick fog of Polish-Russian relations? Was an official Russian resolution all it would take to finally melt that icy core and close the Katyń file for good? I said no. And so, I held off from publishing an emotionally-charged blog post about it.

In my opinion, the Duma’s resolution was an important step–without a doubt. This, in light of previous developments, of course. For example, Putin’s speech just two days before the fatal Smolensk crash on April 10, 2010 (the first ever joint Polish-Russian commemoration of the tragedy at Katyń) was perceived by Poles as a lost opportunity. They waited in vain for words like zbrodnia (massacre) and even more so, for anything resembling an apology from the Russian side. Instead, they were treated to accounts of atrocities that the Russian people themselves experienced, and a reference to the Russian troops that were killed in Polish POW camps in 1920 (a recurring argument from the Russian side for their revenge on Poland in Katyń).

I guess that’s also what I found lacking in response to the Duma’s resolution. A sincere effort to put the past to rest and (attempt) to move on. Furthermore, I saw the move as being first and foremost strategic, politically speaking. A sort of, “whatever we can do to separate ourselves from the crimes of Russia’s Soviet past is good for Russia’s government today.” Secondly, Poland assumes the EU presidency in the second half of this year, and good Polish-Russian relations make for good EU-Russian relations.

Seen in hindsight, and coupled with the newest revelations of Russian investigations into the Smolensk crash (that it was the ‘fault of Poland’ and that several top-level Polish commanders, including the Polish Air Chief Marshal, General Andrzej Błasik [who is suggested to have been drunk] entered the cockpit and pressured the pilots to land), I can’t blame myself for holding out on that post. At least for now, that flame of optimism was put out by the reality of geopolitics.

The Power of Visual Symbols

October 21, 2010

“it looks like i’ll be studying political science in italy for the next two years. masters program. university of bologna.”

It all began with this one Facebook post. Many comments ensued… “This seems like it is pretty much out of left field! Political Science??? Italy???” “what?! thats sooo random.”

Yes, indeed,  it might have seemed random to some. But to those whom I exhausted with my tireless rants about the state of the world whilst inebriated at art school; my colleagues and teachers to whom I’d explain the conceptual inspiration behind my design work; my professor Andrew Savchenko who saw potential in me and helped formulate my understanding of history, social theory, and political economy (and who introduced me to writers that articulated on paper what I had in my head and heart, for which I am truly grateful); and to my family who is, quite frankly, always surprised at what I do–and therefore not phased by anything anymore…. to all these people, my choice to study political science–and in Europe at that–was understandable. But some questions still remained. And I’m afraid that they might remain for some time.

However. Here’s one I’ve been working on: textile artist, political scientist. What could they possibly have in common?

For me personally, it’s simple: it comes down to the understanding of patterns.

On the surface– one is visual, the other belongs to the realm of the abstract and theoretical. But I argue that it’s not–and cannot be–so black-and-white. If you ask me, one is not exclusive of the other… ever.

The first thing you generally notice in a textile is its visual characteristics: its color, the design of the pattern, its luster (or lack thereof), etc. The materiality of the fabric–its hand, texture (achieved through conscious decisions in weave/knit structure, the fiber content and scale of yarns, various finishing processes, etc.) is secondary, but by no means less important. Of course, at times, looking at a fabric helps in ascertaining its fiber content and subsequently, inferring its hand (slick, shiny cotton sateen vs. nubby hand-knit wool), but generally, you never know for sure unless you take it between your fingers and touch it. So, it’s safe to say that understanding the materiality of a fabric is dependent on the act of physically touching it: a purely sensory event, which warrants a sensory reaction.

The approach to the study of history and the science of politics relies heavily on the written and spoken word. Both sensory: one visual, one auditory. But the power of visual images and symbolism cannot be overlooked here, either. It is visual culture that allows us to understand how societies process political, social, and economic events, as well as how society, itself, shapes these events. The Bolshevik Communists realized early on the power of visual culture, creating the Proletkult institution in 1917 just days before the October Revolution to bring art ‘under the service of the dictatorship of the proletariat.’ This organization laid the foundations for Socialist Realism, which would dominate Soviet art and shape Soviet culture for the next sixty years.

Visual symbols wield a lot of power, particularly in this day and age. And the use of these symbols must be carefully considered, as they hold particular and universal associations (they are not mutually exclusive in this case) and at times have heavy ideological baggage attached to them. Take the hammer and sickle, for instance.

My bet is that while scrolling down this page–even before you got to this paragraph–your eyes were arrested by the above image. Maybe you even stopped reading, took a moment to fixate on it, possibly even read a few lines beneath it to see what I had to say. Furthermore, you probably had either one or a combination of the following reactions: 1) surprise; 2) repulsion; 3) delight; 4) indifference; 5) pride; the list can go on forever. The fact is, symbols like the hammer and sickle evoke strong emotions–be they positive, or negative. They are drenched in memory and experience for some; they take on abstract ideological meaning for others. As someone once said to me, “it’s all about personal perception” with icons and symbols. And while I agree with this–to an extent–the fact is, that when faced with the above symbol, the universal association is with the Soviet Union. Communism. Lenin. Stalin. Political repression. Gulags. Famines. Mass murders. One tends to forget the idealistic socialist ideals around which it was designed. As Bijal P. Trivedi wrote in his article, Why Symbols Become Targets for National Geographic Today on September 13, 2001 just 2 days after the attack on the World Trade Center, “while symbols can be damaged and destroyed [or in the hammer and sickle case, become more obsolete]… the attitudes for which they stand cannot.”

Historically, the overlapping hammer and sickle represented the unity of the industrial proletariat and the peasants. It was conceived during the Bolshevik Revolution, officially adopted by the Soviet Union in 1922, and finalized in the 1924 Soviet Constitution. It began being used by other Soviet republics in 1924. With the fall of Communism and subsequent dissolution of the Soviet bloc, the symbol was removed from official use, although some oblasts continued (and still continue) to feature the hammer and sickle in their flags.

Today, the hammer and sickle is illegal in Hungary, Poland, Lithuania, and Latvia. In Poland, possessing, producing or distributing communist symbols may result in a two-year prison sentence. Apart from Communist (and some Socialist parties) the world over and the Russian oblasts already mentioned, the Russian airline, Aeroflot (which has recently been in the news as Russia is preparing a wide-ranging privatization program in a bid to reduce its budget deficit) continues to use the hammer and sickle in its logo:

Some background: Aeroflot was founded in 1932 as the official Soviet national airline and was at the time, the largest airline in the world. It was the pride and joy of Soviet civil aviation. Following the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1992, Aeroflot was divided into hundreds of regional airlines, including national airlines of newly independent states, like Lithuania and Uzbekistan. During an attempt to reshape the company’s image in 2003, replacing the hammer and sickle in the logo was met with resistance, since it had been such a recognizable symbol of the company for almost 70 years. In the end, it stayed.

However, this is an interesting case study. The decision to retain the airline’s logo–hammer and sickle and all–was made in 2003. Is it possible then, to infer from this instance that the adaptation of such loaded symbols (like a hammer and sickle) to other uses, like an airline logo for example, is possible, but requires distancing them from their original context? (In this hypothetical case, the addition of wings and getting rid of the red ground, for example– granted this was all in the original logo of 1932.) Is an attempt to disassociate these symbols from their negative historical connotation, and instead, to draw on certain positive attributes surrounding the symbol itself, necessary? (In this case, it would be nationalist pride.) These decisions, however, would prove that a negative connotation existed in the first place. And so it can be said that by adapting these loaded symbols to new contexts, you run the risk of stirring up the potent emotions associated with them, despite trying to distance the symbol from its original context.

In brief: it is my belief that one simply cannot underestimate the universal associations with a symbol like the hammer and sickle, nor attempt to separate the Socialist ideology behind it from the disastrous results which occurred after the implementation of Socialist policies; it is simply foolish. And like with Communism itself, while ideological sincerity might be the motivating force, the harsh realities–in this case, say, a two-year prison sentence or a stab in the stomach from a nationalist–might just not be worth it. Not even to fit in with the hip, retro-kitsch crowds that seem fascinated with Communist iconography.

Just one example of how visual symbols can play a big role in the study of history and political science.

So, I just finished my first week of classes… and so far, so good. The program seems promising. There are three compulsory components for the first year: (1) courses in Statistics; Research Problems and Methods; and State Building, Nationalism, and Development in Eastern Europe; (2) compulsory open lectures which we must attend and then report on; and (3) language courses in either Russian, Slovak, Bulgarian, or Bosnian-Serbian-Croatian.

Monday, I attended one of the elective courses being offered this semester: Community Participation and Social Trust in Eastern  Europe. Seems interesting– sociology-based. Main topics include social capital and social trust, globalization, and democratization of post-socialist countries. The professor (Antonio Maturo) is Italian. He actually spent some time at Brown University as a research fellow and has been to Greenpoint, so we have some common stomping grounds. I’m still not sure if I’ll stay in his class, since it doesn’t fit into my program of study, but an option might be to just follow it and then abstain from taking the final exam. I’ve only attended two classes so far, so we shall see.

I also went to my first class of Russian on Monday. I was thrilled to find out that the program is offering an introductory-level Russian course, since initially, only Russian advanced was listed. The course is being taught two days a week by two professors, working in concert. One is Italian (Berardi), the other is Russian (Buglakova). It was only a short introductory meeting, but this coming Monday, we start with the Russian alphabet(!) Exciting!

Professor Bianchini–director of MIREES–is teaching two courses this semester: Post-Socialist Transition and EU Enlargement Eastwards (elective) as well as State Building, Nationalism, and Development in Eastern Europe (compulsory). The former will mainly explore both the supranational as well as the regional dimensions of recent EU enlargement (mainly the enlargements of 2004). The latter, which is a compulsory course, will begin with the 19th century and the Narodniks and follow through to Gorbachev, focusing on the social/political dimension of development in Eastern Europe.

Lastly, we had our first compulsory class of Statistics with Professor Luciano Picci. So far, it was just an introduction of basic terminology. I’m excited about this class. The professor speaks English very well and is really organized and to-the-point. I mean, he is an economist, after all.

All in all, the first week was low-key: course presentations, introductions of basic concepts, a few readings.

By the end of October, we are required to choose a study plan from one of three curricula: Economics; Politics and International Relations; and History, Media, and Cultural Studies. One course from both remaining curricula is compulsory. The program is a Master’s in Interdisciplinary Research and Studies on Eastern Europe, afterall.

I’ve chosen the Politics and International Relations curriculum, and preliminarily would like to focus on “Political Transition, the EU, and Security.”  Courses in this study plan include National Political Movements in East-Central Europe; Regional Policies in East Central EuropeSecurity Building in Central and Eastern Europe: NATO, Russia and the EU; and The US, USSR and the «New Europe». We shall see, however. I still need to consult. But I’m ready to get going!

This week was also the welcome week for ERASMUS and international students. There were some planned events and we all got to mingle. It was nice to get out and away from student loan issues… let’s just say that international institutions and American loan companies don’t mix.

Like many people all over the world, I have been deeply troubled and concerned about Pastor Terry Jones‘ plan to host “Burn a Koran Day” at his small church in Gainesville, Florida. Amid mounting tensions surrounding the mosque debate in New York and the international backlash from Muslims worldwide, I can’t help but think: could this small, isolated incident prove to be as precipitous as the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand in 1914? Almost a hundred years later–and this being the nuclear age, the stakes are much higher.

As emotions are heightened on all sides of the debate, it seems that radicals on both sides are shaping the discourse. It has come down to radical Christians (personified by Terry Jones) vs. radical Muslims. I agree with Feisal Abdul Rauf (Imam of the controversial mosque in NY) when he said in an interview on CNN,

“The radicals actually feed off each other. And in some kind of existential way, need each other. And the more that the radicals are able to control the discourse on one side, it strengthens the radicals on the other side and vice-versa.”

Now, with Florida Imam Muhammad Musri denying having said to Pastor Terry Jones that the mosque in New York will be moved in return for the cancellation of the Koran burnings, it seems that the nightmare is far from over.  Furthermore, the way the discourse in this matter proceeds from here on will need to be handled very carefully, as any tip in the balance can send U.S. and global security into a state of red alert. In fact, Interpol (the International Police Organization) has already issued “a global alert to its 188 member countries, warning of a “strong likelihood” of violent attacks if plans for a Quran burning in Florida go ahead” (CNN).

But it isn’t just a heretofore-unknown radical Christian pastor of some small, 50-person church in Florida that has resorted to radicalism as a means to an unjustifiable end. Erika Steinbach, an ally of German Chancellor Angela Merkel, has stepped down from her post after suggesting that Poland may have been as responsible as Hitler for the outbreak of World War II. She said that Poland had mobilized its troops six months prior to the Nazi invasion in September 1939, and therefore are to blame for provoking Hitler’s attack.

Mrs. Steinbach heads the Federation of Expellees, a conservative group dedicated to documenting the suffering of Germans expelled from parts of Eastern Europe after World War II. She is the daughter of a German army officer who served in Nazi-occupied Poland and a member of the Christian Democratic (CDU) party.

However, Steinbach did not appear out of nowhere; she has been a figure of hatred for Poles, who often depict her as a Nazi on magazine covers and call her the “Blonde Beast.”

The controversy over Steinbach began in the 1990s, when she voted against accepting the Oder-Neisse line (the present-day border between Poland and Germany) in the Bundestag in 1991. She also repeatedly and publicly expressed doubt about Poland’s readiness to join the European Union, before it eventually did in 2004.

The current debate centers on Steinbach’s Federation of Expellees and its efforts to build a center in Berlin which would document the expulsion of Germans from Poland and other parts of Eastern Europe after WWII. In an online interview with Der Spiegel on September 3rd, when accused of asking too much of Poles in the way of a shared interpretation of history, she responded:

“The post-communist countries have not completed their process of self-discovery yet. They are still holding on to their trauma and they are still holding on to their economic problems. For them, the process of finding their identity is a long way from complete… The Poles just have to deal with their own issues first. But they have no right to meddle in domestic German affairs and determine how we commemorate our victims.”

Angela Merkel, a long-time friend and ally of Steinbach, tried to remain out of the debates, but put her foot firmly down after Steinbach’s comments about Poland having a share in Hitler’s 1939 invasion. The Polish ambassador to Germany, Marek Prawda commented that today’s relations between Poland and Germany were too strong to be affected by Steinbach.

Settling into Forlì

September 5, 2010

So I finally arrived in Forlì on Friday, September 3rd!

First impression: gorgeous little city, calm and quiet, not far from the Adriatic coast. The rolling Apennines–the mountain range that runs along the length of Italy–happily greeted my one hour-delayed flight.

The University of Bologna’s Student Association, which helped me find accommodation in Forlì, picked me up from the airport and whisked me off to my new apartment. Right in the center of the city, it’s a street over from my university, a 5 minute walk to the main square (Piazza Saffi), and a maximum 20 minute walk to anywhere else of importance.

After unpacking and settling in, my new flatmates Chiara and Paola– who are graduating this September as International Relations majors–welcomed me to the apartment with a delicious dinner! We began with a salad and purè (mashed potatoes). Then, Chiara, who hails from a town in central Italy (Umbria), made a pizza with arugula and stracchino, a soft white cheese that comes from her region of Italy. The following day, they made me try real, authentic, home-made pasta carbonara. It was so good!!

On Saturday, I walked around the city to get familiar with the streets and shops. Of course, I walked towards Piazza Saffi, Forlì’s main square which features the 12th century cathedral, San Mercuriale and its 75m-tall belltower (one of the tallest in Italy!). I mainly walked down Corso Garibaldi– one of the four main arteries of the city. Palazzo after palazzo, piazza after piazza, I began to get the feel of this picturesque city.

Some History

Founded in 206 BC, and the site of the ancient Forum Livii, Forlì has a rich history. The region itself has been inhabited since the Paleolithic era. It is currently an important agricultural center and primarily focuses on the manufacture of silk, rayon, clothing, machinery, and metals. The city itself has many buildings of architectural, artistic and historical significance, many of which include beautifully restored frescoes. It is also the seat of the University of Bologna’s Roberto Ruffilli Faculty of Political Science– which is why I’m here!

I was quite confused when I first saw the Forlivese coat-of-arms; it featured a German eagle……which–I think– perfectly reflects the colorful history of the city. It became a republic for the first time in 889 AD and offered its loyalties to the Holy Roman Emperors in order to keep its independence. This was no exception in the case of Frederick II, one of the most powerful Holy Roman Emperors of the Middle Ages (and also a king of the German Hohenstaufen dynasty). In 1241, Forlì aided Frederick II in the capture of its rival city, Faenza, and was presented the Hohenstaufen eagle as a token of gratitude.

Forlì is also home to many known artists throughout history, who collectively created the Forlìvese School of Painting (famous for its sophisticated use of perspective, foreshortening, and color.) The most famous of these artists was Melozzo da Forlì, a celebrated Renaissance painter and architect. (He was the first to practice foreshortening with much success and one of the most outstanding fresco painters of the 15th century.)

Pope Sixtus IV Appoints Bartolomeo Platina prefect of the Vatican Library, c. 1477 (fresco, Vatican Museums)

However, probably the most famous Forlivese native is Benito Mussolini(!) He hailed from this region and became actively involved in local politics in the 1920s, before becoming a powerful dictator who would rule over Italy for almost 20 years. Eeek….

So, who knows? Maybe Forlì is the ideal place to cultivate art as well as politics…

Those of you who have followed my blog this past year have probably noticed a change in title. The reasons for this are twofold: 1. My year in Poland on the Fulbright… is over; and 2. I’ve been accepted into a two-year Master’s program at the University of Bologna–Forli. And so, new adventure, new blog title.

The last few months of my Fulbright were quite stressful–in a good way. (A little stress keeps you on your toes.) But I had finally gotten into the swing of things: I was working on numerous projects, traveling and seeing new places, really settling into a life abroad. But, the inevitable end of my grant period also signaled a big question mark for me: What was I going to do next?

I had been thinking about (and stressing over) this very question since the beginning of my year in Poland. And the answer still remained unclear towards the end. I left myself open to chance. And for someone who usually likes to have a Plan B, or even a hypothetical Plan C… or D, the prospect of not knowing was terrifying. But it also proved to be quite liberating.

It was the tragic Smolensk plane crash, in which all passengers were killed including the President and First Lady of Poland, that reawakened an old conflict within me. I was immediately transported back to the 11th grade, when I had to make the decision between political science and the arts. Although I went on to study Textiles at the Rhode Island School of Design, my interest in political science never died down. A particular focus on Post-Communist Eastern Europe surfaced during my junior year, and culminated in an independent study my senior year. I ended up graduating with a concentration from the Department of History, Philosophy and the Social Sciences under the theme, History and Politics in a Postcolonial World.  It was the Fulbright that finally allowed me to try and combine my seemingly discordant interests into a single project. This past year, however, I realized that my work had focused more so on art, than on politics, while my personal interests were weighing out differently.

That brings me to the new title of my blog, The Art in Political Thought: My Two Years at the University of Bologna. I was introduced to UniBo’s Master’s program by my professor at RISD, Andrew Savchenko, who continuously encouraged my interest in the history, economy, and politics of Eastern Europe while I was studying at RISD. Upon hearing that my interest in the region had increased significantly while living there for the year, he suggested I look into the MIREES Master’s Program at the University of Bologna. I researched the program and quickly determined that it was a chance I could not pass up.

MIREES is a two-year Master’s Program in “Interdisciplinary Research and Studies on Eastern Europe.” It is offered by the Roberto Ruffilli Faculty of Political Science at the University of Bologna, in the city of Forli. The program is taught entirely in English and aims to combine the study of Economics, International Relations and Politics, History, Linguistics, Anthropology and Cultural Studies to help students acquire a specialized, in-depth knowledge of East-Central Europe and the Balkans. The interdisciplinary nature of the program is what particularly appealed to me.

And so, I applied and was accepted(!) as one of only 40 students into this unique program! I could not believe that I would be studying at THE oldest university in the world! (The University of Bologna was founded in 1088, and is the first institution in the world to use the term universitas.) Dante Alighieri, Petrarch, Nicolas Copernicus, Albrecht Dürer, and Umberto Eco all studied at the University of Bologna. So cool.

I then began the long, arduous road to enrollment, which entailed the translation, authorization, and legalization of my American undergraduate degree and transcripts (known in Italian as dichiarazione di valore); the pre-enrollment application for all Italian universities; and student visa application. NOTE: The preceding sentence hardly does justice to the fire and brimstone I encountered in dealing with government bureaucracy. However, I’ve put it all past me and am now preparing for the immediate years ahead.

And so, veni, vidi… vici? Only time will tell.

So, my Fulbright is officially over.

This year has been incredible– it was hard at times, but I have seen and have learned so much just in this one year. And most importantly– not to sound cheesy– I  learned a lot about myself. I have most definitely become more independent. And although I missed my family very much, I was able to spend time with my family here, in Poland. Visiting them for a few weeks over the summer every couple of years was quite different than popping by for the weekend a few times a month! For this opportunity, I am especially grateful. I always wanted to have a big family–I just didn’t realize I already had one… they were just so far away.

In terms of my project, it may not have turned out exactly as I had imagined, but what I accomplished in its stead was just as great, I think. There were even a few unexpected surprises along the way. My work was part of 4 exhibitions– one in Warsaw, two in Łódź, one in Berlin. I met many accomplished artists (and was personally instructed by two of them), I met with the foremost art historian when it comes to contemporary textile art (Prof. Irena Huml), and was witness to new and exciting work as part of national and international exhibitions. I made friends, who I will be sad to leave. I will miss this city, too, which I have grown to love, despite first impressions. I will always have fond memories of this year: of the places I’ve been, the things I’ve seen, the people I’ve known. I count myself very fortunate for this chance and I hope to carry on with the same spirit of adventure in the future.

2009-2010 U.S. Fulbright Grantees

U.S. Ambassador to Poland, Lee Feinstein

P.S. This doesn’t mean that I’ll stop posting on my blog… I’ll still be in Poland for the summer– minus a week’s vacation in Italy and a two week stint back to the USA for another student visa– this time to Italy for a Master’s program in Interdisciplinary Research and Study on Eastern Europe (MIREES) at the University of Bologna, at Forli… I smell a change in blog title…

Today — June 20th, 2010 — marked election day in Poland. After the sudden and unexpected death of Lech Kaczyński on April 10, 2010, the world’s second oldest constitution (after that of the United States) called for the Marshal of the Sejm–thereafter Acting President–to declare an election date within two weeks. The election would then take place within the next 60 days. June 20th marked this day.

Polls opened at 6am and the last votes were cast at 8pm. The initial survey results were then publicized.

As of now, according to TVP (the Fox equivalent in Poland),  Bronisław Komorowski (Acting President, Platforma Obywatelska candidate) received 40.7% while Jarosław Kaczyński (twin brother of the former president, Prawo i Sprawiedliwość candidate) received 35.8%.

According to TVN (the NBC equivalent in Poland), Komorowski received 45.7% and Kaczyński received 33.2%.

Results will undoubtedly change after actual counting takes place.

Without any candidate receiving a clear majority of votes, a second round of voting will take place in two weeks– on July 4th.

With more than 30 million of Poland’s 38 million citizens who are registered to vote, voter turnout was only 54.4%.

Another absolutely amazing exhibition that accompanied the Tapestry Triennial here in Łódź was called “Framework…/W Ramach…”– showing the works of Włodzimierz Cygan. I was absolutely floored by this exhibition. The opening was on Monday night– the same day as the opening of the International Tapestry Triennial, the Polish National Tapestry Exhibition, and the Polish National Exhibition of Textile Miniatures at the Central Museum of Textiles. I was absolutely exhausted by the end of the day and wasn’t even planning on going to see “Framework.” However, after having dinner with Professor Lidia Choczaj and her visiting textile artist friend, Teresa Albor, I decided to head over to see the exhibition. Professor Choczaj and I got there quite early– in fact, we were the first visitors at the gallery! And since Professor Choczaj is friends with Włodzimierz Cygan (who also happens to be recent addition to the faculty of the Academy of Fine Arts, Łódź), I got to meet him before the crowds descended upon him.

I didn’t know much about his work, except that he had won the Grand Prix at the last edition of the International Tapestry Triennial.  (This year, he was one of the judges of the triennial.) Already an accomplishment in its own right, this solo exhibition was his way of showing the rest of his work– with which people might not be familiar. The exhibition featured his incredible gobelin weavings, as well as digitally printed images of the work. His idea was to see people’s reaction to his exhibiting them together: weavings that took a year to create, next to images that took 12 minutes to print. To which would people be more drawn? For me, it was definitely the weavings. They were so elegant, so quiet. Natural colors: black, cream, beige. But technically they are revolutionary. Włodzimierz Cygan created a new technique–what he’s entitled “circular weaving”– in which the warp is no longer trapped in its stationary vertical position. In his works, the warp has as much freedom as the weft threads; it can run diagonally, sideways, etc. “Framework” was the first time that Cygan exhibited his weavings in the actual frames on which they were woven. And indeed, rather than running vertically as they do traditionally, they run radially. Absolutely incredible. I’m so glad I ended up coming to see this exhibition. Cygan’s works are very important in the realm of weaving.

The weavings were exhibited at Gallery PATIO, in what was once a factory. The raw interiors, with their exposed bricks and high, arched windows were so appropriate for exhibiting Cygan’s pieces. Definitely added to the overall mood. Please check out Włodzimierz Cygan’s great website as well.