Living in Poland Today

Poland is not a small country, and, as in any sizable country, pronounced regional differences exist. The study of these spatial variations is what makes geographers ideal students of nations and cultures. Unlike other scientists, geographers identify the significance of a place or region as it relates spatially to a larger whole. This type of analysis not only explains the significance of a particular place, it provides a clearer picture of the whole region. Six historically recognized regions constitute the country of Poland. In this brief overview, we will highlight their main cultural characteristics and underline their current importance to and status within the nation. Because contemporary Poland is rather uniform in regard to ethnic, linguistic, and religious differences, traditional cultural differences are less pronounced than they would be in multiethnic countries. Here, economic and political factors have played, and are playing, the primary role in present regional diversity.

The six regions are: Great Poland, Little Poland, Mazovia, Silesia, Pomerania, and Mazuria. It is important to remember that these regions are not strictly defined administrative units, like the voivodships, despite having similar or identical names. Nor do they necessarily follow strict voivodships’ administrative boundaries. But they do help us to better understand the evolution of Poland.

Mazovia

It seems appropriate to begin with Mazovia, a region centrally located in both spatial and cultural terms. Its significance and status in today’s Poland are directly tied to Warsaw; were it not for the capital city, this region might have remained a predominantly rural backwater. Historically, Mazovia was the early center of the Polish medieval state and includes the land around the middle flow of Vistula, then eastward toward borders with Belarus and Ukraine. This is mainly the current administrative area of Poland’s largest voivodship, which includes Mazovia as well as parts of the smaller Lublin and Podlaskie voivodships. Some 20 percent of the country’s population is located in this region, the majority on the Vistula’s plain in and around Warsaw.

East of Warsaw lies the countryside in which villages are scattered among some of the oldest forests in this part of Europe. No notable urban centers exist until Lublin, the main city of the eastern borderlands. Here, forests become thinner and agricultural land begins to dominate a landscape that continues into Ukraine.

Warsaw

More than half of the entire Mazovian voivodship’s population of 5.17 million resides in Warsaw. According to Poland’s Central Statistical Office, which provides demographic updates, up to 3 million people reside in Warsaw’s metropolitan area alone. The city itself has about 1.7 million residents. Warsaw was first settled by Slavs in the ninth century. It gradually became one of the local nobles’ preferred cities and the hub of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth. Its central position in Polish settled territory had much to do with the city’s growth; even when Poland was partitioned and ruled by others, Warsaw was never marginalized, or on the fringe. More than 1,000 years of growth, development, and regional importance resulted in Warsaw becoming one of Europe’s great cities in both demographic and cultural terms.

During World War II, Warsaw was savagely destroyed and left in ruins. With amazing dedication and precision, much of the historical city center was rebuilt. Being the center of national government helped its growth as well. In fact, since 1945 the city’s population has grown by more than 400 percent. Economic output and personal wealth in Warsaw are closer to the Western averages than any other area of Poland, and its economy contributes between 15 percent and 20 percent of Poland’s entire gross domestic product. In addition, the per capita income of the city’s residents is twice the national average. Much of the income is produced by the service sector, such as the rapidly expanding communications infrastructure.

About twice as many people work in the private sector as in government jobs. Thousands of businesses—­ some small, others huge—­ thrive in the city and provide jobs for hundreds of thousands of employees. The growth of business and government is evident in the cultural landscape, as well. For example, the gray, drab, eye-sore, cement architecture of the socialist era is now being replaced with buildings of modern design.

The emphasis on Warsaw has, however, left other parts of the region lagging behind in development. This often happens when a country fails to diversify its economy or allows it to become centralized. Warsaw is a leading educational center with four major universities that attract individuals from other parts of Poland who, after they graduate, may not return home. Rather, they remain in Warsaw where there are more jobs, higher wages, and more services and other amenities.

In the long term, Warsaw’s development is helpful for all of Poland. Yet, in this transitional period to a more developed economy, it is the countryside that suffers a continuous “brain drain.” Within the rest of the Mazovian voivodship, only two cities exceed 100,000 residents: Radom (230,000) and Plock (130,000). Both are located peripherally in regard to Warsaw, Radom at the southern edge of Mazovian voivodship and Plock in the northwest.

Lesser Poland

At the peak of its power centuries ago, when Poland was twice its present size, Lesser Poland was the heart of the kingdom. (Lesser does not mean of less value in any way; the distinction between upper and lesser in this context is geographical rather than cultural.) As Polish territory was lost, however, so was Lesser Poland’s importance. Eventually, it became geographically and culturally peripheral. Located in the country’s southeastern corner, Lesser Poland is predominantly a rural agricultural area with scattered urban centers. Only its far western edge, the Cracow area, changes its predominantly rural character. Heavy reliance on agriculture has left little room for industrial development, the result of which is the region’s economic stagnation.

Lesser Poland is a fine example of how an area can become marginalized (lose importance) simply because surrounding places grow while it remains stagnant. The industrialization and subsequent urbanization of Poland’s other regions have resulted in most of Lesser Poland becoming a marginal area. In order to survive economically, a place needs to follow outside changes. Those places whose economic existence depends on a single product—­grain or coal, for example—­can fall behind if the need for their product declines or ceases. Traveling outside of cities, one sees broad expanses of farmland with many small so-called “street villages.” This is the type of rural cultural landscape common to much of Eastern Europe. Farmsteads, which include houses, gardens, and farm buildings, are adjacent to each other in a long stretch and separated from an identical row of farmsteads across the straight street. The street is the main transportation route in the village.

Much of the private land exists outside of the village, and farmers cultivate it during the growing season. It is not unusual for most of the village families to have lived in the same village for many generations. For several centuries, this corner of Poland was known for its many Jewish residents. The first wave of Jewish immigrants arrived in Poland in the fourteenth century; another wave arrived from Iberia and elsewhere in Western Europe during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Many settled in Lesser Poland; at one point, half of the city of Lublin’s population was Jewish. Tragically, these residents perished during the Holocaust of the World War II era. Some of the largest Nazi concentration camps were erected in southeastern Poland, including Majdanek and Auschwitz. Few Jews remain in the area today.

Regional boundaries of Lesser Poland overlap with others, yet it is commonly assumed that they include portions of the current voivodships of Lublin, Subcarpatian, Holy Cross, and Lesser Poland. In the east, Lublin voivodship is Poland’s gateway to Eastern Europe’s vast steppes. Except for the city of Lublin (355,000), most settlements have fewer than 100,000 inhabitants, and population density is among the lowest in the country. A lack of industrial development has resulted in an unemployment rate of 13.5 percent, creating a heavy burden on the regional economy. In no other area of Poland does agriculture contribute more or industry less to the regional GNP.

Because of its dominantly rural character and the retention of many traditional (folk) cultural traits, this region is the most religious in all of Poland. Most people are devout in their faith and very conservative in regard to social issues. The Subcarpathian and Holy Cross voivodships, which form the border region with Slovakia, display similar cultural characteristics. In the socioeconomic context of modern times, clinging to tradition seems to be counterproductive. In a traditional society, many progressive individuals tend to migrate to places that offer better economic and opportunities. For the region to get back on its feet, it must have something to offer. In recent years, an attempt has been made to draw tourists to this region, but it takes time and capital resources to develop an adequate tourist infrastructure. So far, in Lesser Poland, most such projects are in their infancy, yet its rich cultural heritage is something that cannot be taken away. Drawing upon this strength, perhaps the future of southeastern Poland will be tied less exclusively to agriculture.

A well-developed transportation network is one of the keys to regional development and accessibility. As noted earlier, places become stagnant because they lose their purpose. Then they rely on changes in the world around them to revitalize their importance. In the case of Lesser Poland, that may indeed happen if Ukraine and Russia eventually join the European Union. Removal of political and economic barriers with the East, to which Lesser Poland is directly connected geographically, may radically change the importance of this part of Poland. Plans for future highways and expressways, as described in the previous chapter, may provide the medicine that will speed the recovery of what today is Poland’s least healthy economic region.

Cracow

Cracow is located in the extreme southwestern corner of Lesser Poland. The city lies at the foothills of the Carpathian Mountains and spreads out along the banks of the upper Vistula River. It is the main city of the identically named voivodship and, for a time, was Poland’s capital. The city and its surrounding area is by far the most developed part of Lesser Poland. In fact, because of its development, some geographers consider it to be an eastern extension of the Silesian industrial region. Yet, historically, Cracow is recognized as part of Lesser Poland. With a population of about 758,000, and some 1.5 million in the metropolitan area, it serves as southern Poland’s main urban center.

Its geographic location has helped Cracow’s growth tremendously. The mighty Vistula provides water access northward to the cities of Warsaw and Gdansk and eventually the Baltic Sea. Not far to the west is Poland’s main industrial region. A short distance south lie the two cities of Vienna, Austria, and Budapest, Hungary. Because it is located so close to a number of major cultural centers, it did not take long for Cracow to achieve a cosmopolitan mentality. In fact, it became Poland’s most “modern” cultural center as early as the nineteenth century. Today, the city is considered a leader in higher education. It is home to Jagiellonian University, founded in 1364, the second oldest institution of higher learning in all of Central Europe. The city also has many other colleges and universities. Cracow’s cultural heritage ranks among the richest in the country.

The industrial development of southwestern Poland has resulted in Cracow’s rapid population growth during the past century. Currently, however, the city is undergoing difficult economic times. Even though the unemployment rate is well below the national average, Cracow has seen slower economic growth during the past two decades. The transition from a centrally planned to a free market economy, and the associated economic difficulties experienced during the 1990s, have temporarily slowed Cracow’s growth. Still, with the second highest level of gross domestic product and a well-educated labor force, Cracow’s future seems bright. The lack of tourism in other portions of the Lesser Poland region is balanced by Cracow’s status as one of the most visited cities in this part of Europe.

Silesia

No other region of Poland has experienced more historical and geopolitical controversy than Silesia. For a country like Poland, which has had a long history of troubles, this is a significant distinction. In the early twentieth century, for example, a vast majority of Silesia’s inhabitants were Germans, not Poles. It was not until the end of World War II and the expulsion of ethnic Germans that Poles finally took firm control of this region, known historically as Silesia. Today, Poles consider the region to be essentially Polish. Territorial domains of three voivodships cover Poland’s Silesia: Silesian, Opole, and Lower Silesian. Interest in this region began in the eighteenth century, during the era of Poland’s partitions. Prussians, in particular, were interested in the region because of its excellent mining and farming potential. The nineteenth-century Industrial Revolution’s need for coal, iron, and other minerals further fortified Silesia’s significance. It was by far the most rapidly developed part of present-day
Poland and also the most urbanized. Polish independence in 1918 and various subsequent boundary changes in Central Europe generated many geopolitical issues within the region—­some of which required international arbitration to resolve. The relationship between resident Germans and Poles was often tense and politically polarized. These tensions ultimately led to large-scale persecutions of Slavs and Jews by Germans. At the end of World War II, Poles returned the favor by expelling thousands of Germans. Smaller numbers left willingly once it became evident that Germany was going to lose the land regardless.

In the years following World War II, many previously private companies were nationalized (became state owned). Aside from the nationalization of industries, the Communist takeover did little to change the basic industrial activities of the region. After the Germans left, however, the openings in the labor force had to be filled by Poles from other parts of the country. Industrial growth and the need for labor led to further expansion of what already was the most urbanized area of Poland. As in other major European industrial zones, notably the German Ruhr, numerous industrial cities of various sizes were established throughout the region.

Since 1990, Silesia’s primary economic goals have been to restructure the local economy, eliminate unproductive factories, and privatize companies. The transition from a manufacturing and heavy-industry-based economy to one based primarily on the provision of services has been difficult; however, considerable progress has been made. Today, the region of Silesia, and the Silesian voivodship in particular, is among the highest contributors to Poland’s GNP. It also has one of the country’s lowest rates of unemployment. Many jobs, however, continue to be in mining and manufacturing rather than in the higher-paying service sector of the economy.

Mining has been important to the Silesian economy for many centuries, possibly dating back to prehistoric times. It has heavily influenced the geographic distribution of settlements within the region. First, not too far west of Cracow, is the capital of the Silesian voivodship, Katowice (population 318,000). The city and its satellite settlements form the heart of Poland’s mining and manufacturing industries. Eleven other cities in the voivodship have more than 100,000 residents each, which spotlights the region’s high degree of urbanization.

Most urban centers owe their existence directly to mining and manufacturing. Katowice’s greater metropolitan area is almost 10 times more populated than the city itself. A second cluster of large settlements is located along the boundary with the Czech Republic in Opole and the Lower Silesian voivodship, in another mining basin. Finally, the line of cities—­with similar economic bases—­follows the flow of the Odra River toward the German border.

Wroclaw

With 636,000, residents, Wroclaw is the largest city in southwestern Poland and is the region’s economic, administrative, and educational center. In many ways, it owes its regional supremacy to its geographic location. It is located on the Odra River, close to Germany and the Baltic Sea on one side and Silesian mining centers on the other. This entrepôt (a city ideally situated to engage in trade between two or more other areas) status has helped Wroclaw to overshadow other regional settlements and become Poland’s fourth largest city. Vibrant and cosmopolitan today, Wroclaw has a terrible past, as do far too many other Polish cities. German until 1945, Wroclaw—­then known as Breslau—­was ravaged by war and reduced in population.

In fact, it only reached pre-World War II population levels in the 1980s. The city fell into Polish hands as the result of the Potsdam Treaty of 1945 and was largely populated by Poles who relocated from Ukraine. The cultural landscape can best be described as “typical Polish.” Much of the original architecture was destroyed and then rebuilt following the drab socialist model of simplicity and uniformity.

Greater Poland

Whoever said that a remote geographic location bears no significance must have never visited Poland. This is especially true for its historical core area known as Greater Poland. It was here, among lakes, forests, and marshes that seemed unattractive to others, that Poles created their first dukedoms and kingdoms remote from European centers of power. After the many turbulent centuries that followed, the core area of the Polish nation is still largely unknown. Most people identify Greater Poland only with well-known cities, but its countryside is perhaps the most culturally Polish area in the country despite much of it having been part of Germany until 1945.

Greater Poland is bounded on the west by the Odra River and Germany; the eastern margin is roughly defined by the area in which the plain of the Vistula River gives way to Masovia; to the north lies the coastal zone of former Prussian Pomerania; and the southern border falls within the zone where Greater Poland gives way to the mines, mills, and factories of Silesia. The region comprises four voivodships: Lubusz, Greater Poland, Kuyavian-Pomeranian, and Lodz.

Following the unification of Germany in 1990, western Poland’s fortunes changed. Rather than neighboring an equally grim East Germany, it suddenly found itself at the doorstep of the European Union. For Berliners, who live approximately 100 miles to the west, the quiet settlements of the Lubusz voivodship make an ideal weekend trip destination. In fact, they lie just off the planned major highway connection between Germany and Russia that was described in Chapter 6.

The region’s relatively flat, featureless landscape, with its many shallow ponds and lakes, may contribute to an image of anonymity. This will not last for long, as western Poland is developing rather rapidly, with an emphasis on services that include tourism and other businesses. The primary problem, and one that is common to other post-Communist countries, is the unevenness of development. Economic development is associated primarily with urban centers, and rural environments tend to be rather stagnant economic backwaters. Today, however, rural economies are ready to capitalize on tourism—not
the Las Vegas or Orlando type, of course, but more the $20 per night, log cabin by the lake variety.

Poznan (population 568,000) and Lodz (population 768,000), two main cities in Greater Poland, illustrate the theme chosen for this book—­Poland as a country of transition. Their stories are different, but their future goals are identical. Poznan is where the local Slavs formed their earliest state and holds the highest status in regard to Polish nationhood. Despite centuries of foreign control, it remained culturally Polish but with much positive outside influence. Western, mainly German, influence has resulted in different attitudes among residents of Poznan, which is emerging as one of the country’s main business centers.

The city is located on the main transportation artery that connects Poland, and the city, with the rest of Europe. Well-known international fairs account for foreign business interest. Poznan will certainly become one of the first Polish cities to reach a standard of living associated with the well-developed, postindustrial world. The emphasis here, in regard to success, is to look westward.

Lodz is Poland’s second largest city. Because of its proximity to Warsaw, it is also sometimes considered part of the Masovian region. During the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Lodz developed into what visitor guides call “the Polish Manchester” because, like Manchester, England, the city’s economy is based on heavy industry. Once a provincial village, its status grew when Russia gained control over central and eastern Poland as a transit area between Russia and Prussia (later Germany). Since World War II, Lodz has become known as a blue-collar socialist industrial town and a symbol of progress.

Its main transportation connections were once headed toward Warsaw and the east. Now, however, the city is working to remove what is perceived as a negative stigma of the past and to shift its focus of attention toward the west. This dilemma is similar in some respects to that faced by once great industrial centers in the United States. Detroit, Cleveland, and Buffalo, for example, shared similar experiences of economic progress until the United States changed from a manufacturing-based industrial economy to a postindustrial economy based on services. Then these cities fell into rapid and painful economic decline.

Pomerania

As its name suggests, the Pomerania region (a German version of the original Slavic term meaning “by the sea” or “near the sea”) follows the Baltic coast. In Poland, it spreads between Szczecin at the mouth of the Odra to the Gulf of Gdansk.

Historical Pomerania also includes the coastal lands across the German border. Although people of Slavic stock formed a majority in this region (early place names were mostly Slavic), for many centuries it remained under continuous German cultural pressure. Germans considered Pomerania a natural connection to their possessions and interests in the eastern Baltic region. The Nazis used similar justification for their lebensraum (living space) expansion eastward, which shortly led to World War II. Following the Treaty of Potsdam, the majority of historical Pomerania became Polish territory. The Poles always considered that Pomerania was always theirs; it just was not under Polish rule for periods of time. Historical haggling aside, Pomerania’s current role is to serve as Poland’s direct connection with the global ocean through its link with the Baltic Sea, and as a coastal vacation destination.

West Pomeranian and Pomeranian voivodships cover the vast majority of what constitutes this region. Economic activities vary from agriculture to fisheries, shipyards, and manufacturing on the coast. Agricultural activities are the extension of Greater Poland’s cultivation zone. The once lucrative fishing industry has been the victim of overharvesting, resulting in a depletion of marine resources. A major deficiency for Pomerania has always been its lack of natural harbors. This fact alone has prevented the growth of coastal settlements, and only Szczecin and Gdansk (on the mouth of the Vistula) have prospered. Several hundred miles of coastal sand dunes between them are home to only a handful of towns.

The largest urban areas in this stretch, Koszalin and Slupsk, each have approximately 100,000 residents. They are not on the coast but are both located about 10 miles inland. This is why only Gdansk has a reputation for shipbuilding and Poland’s contribution to the seafaring world has remained insignificant. Most communities have an economy based on light industries that feature manufacturing and product assembly. Recently, increasing attention has been given to developing of tourism in coastal Pomerania. With its attractive seaside environment, many of the region’s residents see a bright future for large-scale tourism.

With about 460,000 residents, Gdansk leads northeastern Pomerania in all aspects of culture, from economics to education. The fact that historical events in 1981 made Gdansk Poland’s most widely recognized city is not without merit. Its strategic location has worked as both a blessing and a curse. As a port city and shipbuilding center, it had been ravaged by war. Now that peace has descended upon the region, however, the Gdansk-Gdynia area should continue to prosper economically.

Because of international competition, Gdansk’s glory days of shipbuilding may be over. But the city has access to about 60 percent of Poland via various waterway connections and it is on the route of planned expressways, so there is hope for the future.

Szczecin (population 410,000) shared a fate similar to that of Gdansk. Initially, the city was among the larger German ports directly connected to Silesia by Odra’s waterway; however, Szczecin was awarded to Poland in 1945. The cultural landscape reminds visitors of the city’s past glory and overwhelming German influence. After the war, Poland utilized Szczecin’s functions as a port. Yet, by the early 1990s, the city began to fall into economic decline. Presently, its economic goals are to capitalize on its proximity to Germany and on Poland’s economic growth, perhaps regaining the status it once had.

Mazuria A nd Podlaski

Once the boundaries of Poland were finally redrawn, the Polish government turned its emphasis westward. Industrial development and the need to rebuild the country’s ravaged cities cast a dark shadow over the rural, agricultural, and poorly developed northeast. Decades later, things have changed little. Mazuria is a rural area of poor soils and, as one scholar noted, serves as a poor model of agricultural efficiency. Lack of modernization, little development, and a notoriously poor infrastructure have contributed to some of Poland’s highest unemployment rates.

It has not helped that the region’s main neighbor is Russia’s Kaliningrad Oblast, whose economic troubles are comparable to those of Mazuria. Equally depressed is Belarus, Mazuria’s eastern neighbor. Contributing to the region’s stagnant economy is the fact that the ethnic Germans, who were excellent farmers, were forced from the area following the end of World War II.

The region does see a glimmer of economic hope in its thousands of glacial lakes. The Poles believe that the Minnesota-like landscape has great potential as a future tourist destination. Vacations in Mazuria are popular among Poles, but the region draws very few international tourists. It is hard to imagine, however, what economic change could turn it overnight into a land of prosperity.

The Podlaskie voivodship is one of the more ethnically diverse corners of Poland. This old center of the Polish-Lithuanian commonwealth suddenly became a borderland in 1945, leaving an ethnic mix of Poles, White Russians, Lithuanians, Tatars, and a few Jews to determine their future. Today, Podlaskie is known for its dense forests and national parks, in which the last European bison roam freely. The largest town not only in the Podlaskie voivodship, but in the entire province, is Bialystok, with 350,000 residents.