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Andrzej Stanislaw Walicki (1930–2020)

by John Besemeres

Professor Andrzej Stanislaw Walicki, Professorial Fellow in the History of Ideas Unit at the ANU between 1981 and 1986, died in his home city of Warsaw on the 20 August, at the age of 90.

Walicki built a towering reputation in the fields of Russian and Polish history, philosophy, culture and politics, as well as the history of ideas more generally. His depth and breadth in Russian studies was such that the prominent Polish scholar of all things Russian, Professor De Lazari said of him ‘there can be no students of things Russian, who would not have felt themselves to be his pupil’.

He maintained a formidable output of scholarly works over the many decades of his long life, for which he was widely respected throughout the world. He was also a perceptive commentator on current events and issues, to which he devoted a good deal of time and intellectual commitment.

Though Walicki never hesitated to point objectively to the failings of Poles, he was an ardent patriot, raised in a very patriotic family and milieu. It might seem curious then that he opted for Russian studies at university, just after a war in which the Soviets had twice laid waste to parts of pre-war Poland, murdering many Poles and brutally deporting others to the Gulag. These developments naturally strengthened the traditional Polish hostility towards their Eastern neighbour.

The explanation may lie in the fact that his father was a pre-war professor of art history, who was arrested in 1949 and jailed for four years. Another close relative, after heroic wartime service among the young boys of the so-called ‘grey ranks’ in the Polish anti-Nazi resistance forces (Armia Krajowa), escaped illegally from communist Poland in that same year and joined the US administration in West Germany, later becoming a leading figure in the delivery of anti-communist information to Poland via Radio Free Europe.

Children from families designated as ‘class enemies’ were not infrequently persecuted. For the young Walicki, with his family background, it would have been difficult to gain entry to the most desirable courses of study. Russian studies, on the other hand, tended to be undersubscribed, as it was hard for the regime to attract young Poles to those courses, despite the perceived ideological need to do so. Thus opting for Russian studies would have been an easier option for Walicki and, as it was politically correct, may have been a wise move for him in all the circumstances.

Be that as it may, he certainly pursued Russian studies with zest and great success, and his academic career ran smoothly. He completed a master’s degree in 1953, a doctorate in 1957 and a habilitacja (second doctorate, enabling the recipient to qualify for a senior teaching position) in the Institute of Philosophy at the Academy of Sciences in Warsaw. He was appointed a docent at the Academy in 1964, and a professor in 1972.

Shortly before General Jaruzelski imposed martial law on the entire country in December 1981, Walicki had left Poland to take up the professorial fellowship in Eugene Kamenka’s History of Ideas Unit at the ANU, which he was to hold from 1981 to 1986. Australia was a place of special significance for him. Though not someone who appeared to have any particular interest in the occult, he told Anna Wierzbicka and me on more than one occasion that his enthusiasm for Australia went back to a visit he’d paid to a gipsy fortune-teller who had said that he would definitely live in Australia and that this would be important for him. He sensed that the Solidarity crisis might end badly and decided he should leave Poland before that happened.

From the outset, he was enthusiastic about all aspects of Australia. He particularly appreciated the easy-going friendliness of Australians, and their egalitarian manners and values. Though he had a professorial gravitas and presence, he found first-name terms congenial. A next-door neighbour who liked to chat across the fence and had difficulty pronouncing the name ‘Andrzej’ informed him that he would address him as Andy. Anyone who knew Walicki would have found this comically incongruous, and so did he. But he chuckled about it heartily as he related the story, and obviously greatly enjoyed it. He placed a high value on the informal discussions with visitors from overseas that took place in the History of Ideas Unit, and again found the informality very appealing. He developed a fondness for Australian art and took a particular interest in the work of Sidney Nolan.

It was a great disappointment to him that it proved impossible for him to extend his fellowship, as he very much wished to do. He felt reluctant to return to Poland in the polarised atmosphere that prevailed there after the martial law period. Instead, he accepted a position at Notre Dame University in the USA, where he was to remain for over a decade. Following his retirement in 1999, he continued to remain in contact with Notre Dame as a highly esteemed Emeritus Professor.

The extended period Walicki spent in the Anglosphere led to the publication of many works in English, which strengthened the international standing of his work. In 1998, he received the Balzan prize for his contribution to history, the most prestigious such award in Europe. He also received the Vucinich Prize for the most outstanding book in Slavic Studies from the American Association for the Advancement of Slavic Studies.

His links with Polish institutions remained fully alive during this same period. In 1998, he became a full member of the Polish Academy of Sciences. In 2005, he received the Great Cross of the Order of the Rebirth of Poland. In 2015, he was given the Special Award of the Polish Minister for Culture and National Heritage.

His philosophical dialogues with the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin and the Polish émigré Nobel Prize winner Czesław Miłosz were widely acclaimed as works of outstanding quality and significance.

Andrzej Walicki was a Polish patriot, but a discriminating and sometimes sceptical one. At an ANU seminar devoted to Solidarity in 1981, he criticised the Solidarity leadership for demanding the delivery by the state of what he judged to be extravagant economic concessions. We were concerned that such a line of argument might reduce the amount of sympathy and support Western milieus would accord to the Solidarity movement, and said so. Andrzej was at pains to demonstrate that this was not his intention. On other occasions he would again be critical of aspects of Polish patriotic sentiment. Over time, we came to realise that his criticisms were carefully considered and usually justified. He deplored any cult of victimhood, radical messianism, combative excess in internal disputes or external policies, or failure to pursue rational middle-ground objectives.

In his book Philosophy and Romantic Nationalism: The Case of Poland (1982), he devoted a masterly chapter entitled ‘A Critic of Messianism: Cyprian Norwid’ to ‘the last great philosophising poet of Polish romanticism’, Norwid, whose ideas were often ‘in sharp conflict with [Adam Mickiewicz’s] revolutionary Messianism’. Mickiewicz is widely regarded as Poland’s greatest poet of all time. Walicki wrote that he would not seek to pronounce on which of the two was right in their controversy about Messianism, but his sympathy is clearly with the less fiery patriotism of Norwid.

In less lofty discussions of rights and wrongs, he could be as stalwartly patriotic as anyone. During a discussion at St Antony’s College in Oxford in 1966, out of a misplaced attribution to him of what I assumed would be the usual tendency for Soviet bloc people to defend the official ideology of their country, I made polite reference to the ‘revolution’ in Poland at the end of World War II.

I was aware, of course, that the communising changes imposed on Poland had been brought about by the Red Army, and the brutal purges conducted by the NKVD and Soviet-controlled Polish military and police units, rather than by any spontaneous local enthusiasm. But I thought to allude to this in public might embarrass him. But he responded immediately and emphatically: ‘We didn’t have a revolution; we had Russians.’ Again, it was the kind of candour that set Poles apart from Soviet citizens, and endeared them to Westerners.

Despite his great respect for Russian culture and intellectual traditions, Andrzej himself could on occasion be lustily patriotic and anti-Russian. Endowed with a very fine singing voice, he would often like to lead a convivial social group in a performance of martial and patriotic songs. One such, which we heard from him in Canberra (and which he would certainly have performed in Communist Poland), included the following rhyming lines:

Będzie Polska wolna, będzie Polska silna/ Powrócimy znów do Wilna.
(Poland will be free, Poland will be strong/ And we’ll return to Wilno)

In Communist Poland, any audible references to former Polish territories like Wilno (Vilnius) or Lwów (Lviv) that had been appropriated by Stalin’s forces, or to issues like the massacre of 22,000 Polish officers by the NKVD in Katyń, and other prison sites could have career-destroying consequences or worse for the speaker.

Like nearly all Poles, even in the darkest of times, Andrzej could be irrepressible.

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Citation details

John Besemeres, 'Walicki, Andrzej Stanislaw (1930–2020)', Obituaries Australia, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, accessed 26 May 2024.

© Copyright Obituaries Australia, 2010-2024

Life Summary [details]


15 May, 1930


20 August, 2020 (aged 90)
Warsaw, Poland

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.