1998 Balzan Prize for the Cultural and Social History of the Slavonic World
Acceptance Speech – Rome, 23.11.1998
Members of the Balzan Foundation,
Ladies and Gentlemen,
The award granted by the Balzan Foundation is a great honour. I am overwhelmed with gratitude, and yet feel a need for self-examination: do I deserve it and why?
lt is a difficult question —too difficult, if the achievements of various persons were to be compared from a strictly intellectual point of view. I know a number of historians who deserve such a distinction, and I certainly would not dare to claim that have a better right to this award than they do. I accept it, however, as a mark of recognition for research in my field, that is, the cultural and intellectual history of the Slav nations. At the close of the twentieth century, which has been marked by the multiple consequences of the Russian Revolution, after the collapse of communism in Russia and the breakdown of the communist regimes in the Slav and non-Slav countries of Central Europe, such a recognition seems vital and essential.
The fact that the General Prize Committee of the Balzan Foundation has chosen to select the research on the social, cultural and intellectual history of the Slav nations, from the period of the Enlightenment to the communist Russian Revolution, I interpret as indicative of the magnanimous and sagacious sympathy with the Russian nation, which is now facing a new and difficult historical test. I also consider it as corroboration of sympathy with the nations of Central Europe, which was strong in Italy already in the epoch of Giuseppe Mazzini, a great friend and teacher of the Poles. Such sympathy is invaluable in the period when these nations have opened the procedures to allow them to join the European Union.
If this is the case indeed – if conferring on my person the highly regarded Balzan Foundation Award indicates not only recognition for my research work, but also acknowledgement of a specific moral and political objective – then I feel it necessary to comment briefly on the purpose which has motivated and defined my research.
I formulated my research programme which was to become my life task as early as 1955-56, the years of the Polish “Thaw”. In 1960 I had the opportunity to discuss it with Sir Isaiah Berlin in Oxford, and then in my correspondence with the great Polish poet Czeslaw Milosz (which was later published in my autobiographical book Spotkania z Miloszem (Encounters with Milosz), London 1985). Therefore what I am going to say is not an ad hoc conception created far the purpose of the present occasion.
I outlined my programme in three words: Russia – Poland – Marxism. It expressed my belief that a lot depended on the Russians’ knowledge of themselves and on the Poles’ knowledge of Russia, as well on how we, the Poles, were to define our identity and national tradition; and finally, how we were to tackle the Marxist ideology which had legitimised the system of “real socialism”. Honest intellectual work in these three fields was for me a form of struggle for liberating thought from the obtrusive dogmas imposed by Soviet ideocracy. I did not mean to replace one kind of dogmas with another kind of dogmas; I meant an emphatic approach which would help to understand the historical and intellectual circumstances defining the situation of the Russian intelligentsia, and later, of the Central European intelligentsia. In my books on Russia, was as far as possible from smuggling into them anti-Russian stereotypes. On the contrary, dreamed that my country, Poland, should become a catalyst of internal transformations in Russia, and that the Polish intelligentsia should use the limited freedom it enjoyed, which much exceeded what was allowed in the USSR, in order to cooperate in the process of the intellectual liberation and renewal of Russia.
It was a very idealistic programme, and it much exaggerated the importance of intellectual factors in systemic transformation. Yet it was received with understanding, sympathy and support by a number of people. Sir Isaiah Berlin immediately gave it his enthusiastic approval. It was supported by many British and American scholars, whom I met as a Ford Foundation scholarship holder in 1960. I remember gratefully and emotionally my long discussions with the Russian veteran Mensheviks in New York. I also wish to emphasise that my concepts were particularly well received and understood in Italy. It was here that the first translation of my book on Russian Slavophilism appeared, in the highly regarded “Historical Library” edited by Giulio Einaudi; it was Una utopia conservatrice. Storia degli Slavofili, with the preface by Professor Vittorio Strada. My works were published in Italian more frequently than in other languages, naturally, apart from Polish and English.
Thus if today I receive an award from the Italian-based Foundation and if it takes place in Palazzo del Quirinale, it seems to follow from the fact that my writings were appreciated by Italian intellectuals as early as the 1960s. On this occasion, I would like to express my warmest thanks for such appreciative reception of my ideas. I am embarrassed by the size of the Award and the magnificent ceremony which accompanies it. However, I believe that my late friend, Sir Isaiah Berlin, would be glad that I have received it. I am fully aware that my present achievement owes a lot to many people in many countries all aver the world, in the West, in Poland, and also in Russia. And, most importantly,
I consider this Award to be not only acclaim of my work, but also of a specific type of constructive involvement in Russian and Central European problems, which has been characteristic of many intellectuals in my generation. This thought makes it easier for me to accept this honourable distinction. I would like also to say that I am very happy to receive this mark of distinction in Italy, in the year of the 2OO anniversary of Adam Mickiewicz and of the 2Oth anniversary 01’ the pontificate of John Paul II.