Poland’s Man of Many Nations – Adam Mickiewicz: A Life On the Periphery

If Adam Mickiewicz could be transported to the present, the famous Polish poet would be perplexed by the Poland that exists today. On one hand, he would almost certainly find it immensely gratifying to discover that a Polish state had been reconstituted and the late 18th century partitions which had splintered the Poles into three states under foreign domination were a thing of the past. A contiguous Polish state dominated by Poles is now thriving in East-Central Europe. Conversely, he would be shocked to learn that the region he had grown up in had been excluded from the modern nation of Poland. He would have been just as surprised to learn that the Lithuania he was born into was not only excluded from Poland, but also Lithuania. And Lithuania as it exists today has only a small minority of ethnic Poles. Just as bizarre, Mickiewicz would find that he is considered the national poet of not one, but three nations, Poland, Lithuania and Belarus. The latter, something of an afterthought in Mickiewicz’s life, now is home to his birthplace. These complexities are actually not quite as quixotic as they might at first appear. Actually Mickiewicz’s geographic existence was contradictory as well. For a man who loved Poland, who wrote some of it most famous literary works, who was a Polish nationalist through and through, he spent remarkably little time in the Poland that exists today.

Adam Mickiewicz birthplace

Zaosie – Artistic rendering of Adam Mickiewicz birthplace

A Man Of Multiple Cultures
Adam Mickiewicz was born on Christmas Eve 1798 in Russian Poland, an area that only a few years before had been in the Grand Duchy of Lithuania, part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. This area had long been associated more with Lithuania than Poland, though it continued to be claimed by both right up until the Second World War. Today it is quite a different story. A reconstruction of the home Mickiewicz grew up in can now be found in Zaosie, near the small city of Navahrudak in western Belarus. Yet Mickiewicz was certainly not Belarussian and his life was dedicated to opposing Russian rule in his homeland. With all of these competing identities, the question of Mickiewicz’s ethnicity is one that has been posed by historians and defies easy categorization. Modern claims often impose today’s prevailing beliefs on identity. These beliefs are based around nationality. Such ideas did not apply during Mickiewicz’s lifetime. To complicate matters, he grew up in a frontier area, on the periphery of Poland, Lithuania and Russia. This was a multi-cultural land. The great poet’s background reflected that.

Mickiewicz came from a family of poor Polish gentry. His forebears may well have been ethnic Lithuanians who had been Polonized. His language of choice was Polish, but he was also fluent in Lithuanian. It seems that when it comes to the life of Mickiewicz, Poland and Lithuania are somewhat synonymous. It is probably best to say that he identified as Polish, but came from Lithuania. An example of this can be found at the beginning of his epic national poem Pan Tadeusz which was written in Polish, but the first line of which states, “Lithuania, my fatherland! You are like health.” The full Polish title of the work, Adam Mickiewicz, czyli ostatni zajazd na Litwie. Historia szlachecka z roku 1811 i 1812 we dwunastu księgach wierszem (Sir Thaddeus, or the Last Lithuanian Foray: A Nobleman’s Tale from the Years of 1811 and 1812 in Twelve Books of Verse) also refers to Lithuania.

Mickiewicz monument in Minsk, Belarus

Man of many nations – Mickiewicz monument in Minsk, Belarus (Credit: Zedlik)

Everywhere But Home – Paris Is Not Poland
The mystery of Mickiewicz’s identity does not stop there. Some historians state that he was also partly Jewish, coming from his mother’s side of the family. Others argue the opposite. One thing is for certain, different groups dominated Mickiewicz’s home region in distinct ways. The Poles and Polonized Lithuanians as landed gentry, Belarusians as the peasantry, the Jews town life and the Russian state administratively. Due to decades in exile, Mickiewicz spent the majority of his life away from his beloved homeland. And it was not just Russian Poland that he was estranged from. In truth, he spent an astonishingly small amount of time in what his today Poland. His longest sojourn was several months in the Prussian ruled part of western Poland, in the city of Poznan starting in the latter part of 1831. The historic capital of Poland, where one of his most famous statues stands today and his remains are interred, Krakow, was terra incognita to Mickiewicz.

In 1848, the year that Europe blew up in Revolution, he was offered a position to teach at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow, but the offer was withdrawn under pressure from Galicia’s Austrian administrators because of Mickiewicz’s credentials as a fervent Polish nationalist. The latter half of Mickiewicz’s life was spent mostly in Parisian exile. This was where he would find a home teaching and writing. He became involved in helping lead the large Polish émigré community in the city. Paris may have been a home, but it was not a homeland. It was in his long and unsuccessful efforts on behalf of Polish independence that Mickiewicz was carried to his last, improbable port of call. In 1855 he sailed in the early autumn to Constantinople, where he would spend the next several months trying to organize Polish military forces to fight under the Ottoman Turks in the Crimean War against Russia.

Adam Mickiewicz Monument in Warsaw

Home Is Where The Heart Is – Adam Mickiewicz Monument in Warsaw

Life & Death On The Fringes Of Europe
Mickiewicz’s lifelong opposition to the Russians brought him to the very edge of Europe. Where East and West converged, Mickiewicz lived out his final days. Constantinople was a long way from Poland, but so was Paris. After only a few months, he contracted cholera. He died soon thereafter, just a few weeks before his fifty-seventh birthday. Sadly, over the final twenty three years of his life Mickiewicz was unable to set foot back in his beloved Poland. That was what he most longed for, but history decided otherwise. His was a life spent on the periphery, the defining characteristic of his geographic existence. As for his identity, it was definitely Polish, but greatly influenced by a Lithuanian homeland, in addition to Belarusian and Jewish neighbors. Mickiewicz was a man bred from multiple cultures. Perhaps that is why his words and deeds still speak to so many across the ages.

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