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Andrzej Kompa, 39 years old, is part of the history and philosophy faculty of the University of Łódź in Poland, giving classes on ancient civilizations such as the Byzantine Empire. Since 2015, he has been denouncing the attacks on the Constitution committed by the current government. A year ago, he publicly renounced a bronze medal of service, awarded by Andrzei Duda, the Polish president, at the request of Łódź University. On the eve of the legislative elections held on October 13th, he gave his point of view as an academic and as a citizen, worried about Poland’s future.
Why did you refuse the medal?
I have been teaching at the university for the last 13 years. When I was singled out for this distinction, I had the feeling that I deserved it. I devote my life to the university, I love to teach, I have a passion for research. The university is a fantastic institution, a veritable bridge linking generations and countries. It is a place of sharing, discoveries and knowledge. But when I learned that the prize certificate would be signed by our President, I wasn’t able to accept it. Since 2015, our government has been violating the Polish Constitution. It is attacking the principle of separation of powers, especially in putting the justice system under its supervision. The last four years, I have taken to the streets in order to defend our Constitution, human rights and those of minorities. I have been battling against racism and xenophobia. So it was just impossible for me to accept anything signed by the President.
Was it difficult to make this decision?
Yes and no. Yes, because my academic world and the relationships with my colleagues and students mean a lot to me. I have always done what I could to separate my life as a citizen, opposing the government, from my work at the university. When I saw that my refusal was going to be made public, I realized that these two realities of my life were going to collide. At the same time, the decision wasn’t as difficult as you might think. I am not the first person to have refused this distinction, and the University of Łódź is still an important place of liberty. The day before the ceremony, I went to see the university head. I warned him of what I was going to do and he didn’t stop it, he didn’t find fault with me. Dissident voices like mine are not stifled or persecuted every day, even if we are mocked or criticized.
What was the ceremony like?
It was an official ceremony before 400 people. There were about 20 of us being decorated that day. There was no dramatic action on my part. When the President’s representative, the Voïevod of Łódź, held out the medal to me, I said: « No, I’m sorry, I cannot accept it. But here is an open letter to give to the President. » Then I returned to my place. At the end of the day, I went to a small cafe, wrote a text on the reasons for my action and then posted it on Facebook, along with a photograph of the letter.
What were the consequences?
I was very surprised. My post was shared thousands of times. I belong to no party, I was never part of a youth organization, I have never had any personal political ambition. My text was quoted and relayed on Internet by journalists. Of course, I received some disgusting messages, but in general people supported me. Many wrote to me, admiring my open letter, calling it “elegant” and an argument for the principles of our Constitution. I received a flurry of e-mails to which, unfortunately, I couldn’t respond.
When did your activism begin?
I started in December, 2015. I was contacted by the Committee in Defense of Democracy, a civic group founded a month earlier. The Committee was looking for a historian to enlighten them on several subjects and to intervene publicly. It was just at the beginning of the government’s attacks on the justice system’s independence. I saw all that on television and felt frustrated, sad and useless. I agreed to join the group.
How would you describe your life now?
I am one of the principal voices of opposition in Łódź. I assemble with others, and I am sollicited because fortunately I have a talent for oration, I am a moderate, and I have no political ambition. I participate by explaining our Constitution, the importance of the separation of powers, human rights, and the defense of the LGBT community… I also demonstrate in Warsaw or in front of the Polish embassies when I teach elsewhere, especially in England and in Ireland. My Facebook page is dedicated to my political actions. But I would like to say something very important: there are many of us fighting from the inside, I am not alone. I am one among many others.
According to you, why does the PiS continue to win the elections ?
It’s a complicated question. The popular right is neither “openly” antisemitic nor “openly” nationalistic. But it uses a rhetoric which pleases its base. Its discourse is a sort of toxic blend which hides its nature. In parallel, it rides on the coattails of the dissatisfaction of those people left behind during the liberal transition. It has taken some social measures, such as the reformation of retirement age, and it distributes family allocations and other types of assistance. More and more women have stopped working. It has taken over the media with terrifying government propaganda. The enemy is everywhere and nowhere, amorphous. One day, it’s the migrant, another day it’s the gender theory. Eventually, people end up believing the propaganda which hits them over the head day and night.
Also, I feel that the population is worn out now. Demonstrations don’t result in anything. At the same time, the country’s economic situation is rather positive, there is no crisis. Accordingly, people stay home. And then, the opposition of the left and center is divided, while the current government has taken over the right.
Are you hopeful?
Yes, this week, because the Nobel Prize of literature has been awarded to Olga Tokarczuk*. I am extremely happy about it. She is a very important writer, who has always defended dissension, the separation of powers, and minorities. I do hope that we succeed in Poland to stop the process of compromising fundamental liberties. I grew up in the era of Solidarność, where all hopes were allowed. We have the resources to turn back the tide, but I am just not sure that we are strong enough to do it now.
Interviewed by Flore de Borde
Translated from French to English by Sally Gordon-Mark