Since 1904, an impressive column of granite and bronze, nearly 70 feet tall, has adorned the center of Lviv in western Ukraine. It survived untouched by the devastation of World War II. So far, it is unscathed by Putin’s invasion. That fact is especially poignant, because it is a monument to the brotherhood between Ukraine and a neighboring nation only 40 miles away.
The man the column honors, Adam Mickiewicz, was not Ukrainian. He was born in 1798 in what only three years earlier had been the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. That free and venerable nation had disappeared in 1795 at the hands of Prussia, Austria-Hungary and Russia and its components (such as Poland and the Baltic states) would not reappear as independent nations again until 1918.
Adam Mickiewicz is known as one of the greatest Slavic poets that Europe ever produced. He is recognized today as the national poet of three countries—Poland, Lithuania and Belarus—and “a pilgrim for the freedom of nations.” His literary contributions were immense, but he is beloved as much for his political activism against Russian domination of Eastern Europe. In his 2008 English-language biography of Mickiewicz, Roman Koropeckyj notes that “in the 19th century he had won substantial international fame among people that dared resist the brutal might of reactionary empires.” The Lviv square in which the column sits is also named for him.
For reasons only magnified by Putin’s invasion, the Mickiewicz column is in a most appropriate place. Lviv was once a Polish city and is the birthplace of the great economist and lover of freedom Ludwig von Mises. (Watch Mises: The Movie here).
Lviv is courageously defending itself—as is the country of Ukraine as a whole—against the brutal might of the reactionary Putin empire. As the war moves ever closer to Lviv, air raid sirens are heard now with regularity.
Many countries are performing heroic humanitarian service by welcoming legions of Ukrainian refugees, some 3.5 million in the past six weeks. None exhibits more generosity than Poland, which has accepted well over 2 million of them. Jan Kuban, president of the Polish-American Foundation for Education and Research in Economics, echoed the sentiments of millions of Poles when he told me the war is “a shameful and unfair assault on a people we in Poland respect and admire.”
The most beautiful aspect of that generosity is the outpouring of help from Polish civil society. Private individuals, businesses and charities in Poland have mobilized to help Ukrainians in record numbers. Mikolaj Pisarski, president of the Instytut Mises-Poland explains:
Since February 24 Poland has daily proven herself to be a humanitarian super-power. With the country’s population increasing by over 5% in what already is the largest European migration after World War II, one would reasonably expect to see refugee camps. But none of them are needed. Most of the people found shelter in privately owned houses and flats, welcomed warmly into Polish households. Many more stay in company buildings, offices, and other spaces rapidly adapted to accommodate them. All this effort is financed by an endless stream of donations, public collections, and volunteering work. As one of the commentators put it: “Today Poland does for Ukraine what nobody did for Poland in 1939.”
James Fenimore Cooper was one of America’s greatest literary figures of the 19th Century, and a passionate lover of liberty. His masterpiece, The Last of the Mohicans, is still well-known to Americans today, both in novel form and as a celebrated 1992 movie starring Daniel Day Lewis. What few Americans likely know is that Mickiewicz and Cooper became close friends in Italy over a six-month period in 1829-30. They spent many hours in conversation about Poland and Polish history. The influence of Mickiewicz on Cooper was profound, according to Barbara Rumbinas and Zygmunt Mazur of Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland:
Cooper finally had the opportunity to discuss his cherished beliefs about liberty, both at the level of government, and that of the people, with someone who held a perspective that was not abstract, theoretical, or even American Mickiewicz was the perfect person, perhaps the only person, who could have broadened Cooper’s perspective on liberty and freedom. He was Cooper’s literary and social equal, welcomed and celebrated by the same aristocracy, as was Cooper. However, Mickiewicz was a man who had been jailed, exiled, and abused for beliefs very similar to those espoused by Cooper. His first-hand account of the real, as opposed to Cooper’s theoretical struggle for liberty, made a lasting impression on Cooper.
Mickiewicz left a lasting impression on everybody with whom he spent any time, which is why there are monuments to him not only in Lviv, but in cities across the region. If he only knew how courageously Ukrainians today are resisting the Russian onslaught, and how generously Poles are helping Ukrainian refugees!
He would likely beam with pride that near the Polish border in Lviv stands a column that bears his name and image.