Posted inInterviews

The Radosław Sikorski Interview: Part I – Poland to Oxford

Illustration by Ben Beechener

Head of the Standing Committee at the Oxford Union, member of the Bullingdon Club alongside Boris Johnson, honorary Mujahideen during the Soviet occupation of Afghanistan, journalist, Polish foreign minister, Polish defence minister, and most recently, MEP for the Kuyavian-Pomeranian province. I find it hard to get my mind round the list of Radek’s accomplishments. Studying Philosophy, Politics and Economics at Oxford (Pembroke College), you might think Radek had always been on track to have a distinguished political career, but as a child under Communism, the desire to bring about change of his own was more likely to land him in prison.

In the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, Radek grew up on a communist housing estate in Bydgoszcz, a provincial town in northern Poland. He attended a Millenium Memorial school near his hometown, built as part of a Polish initiative to provide one thousand new schools commemorating the thousand-year anniversary of Polish statehood. Without the private sector, Radek says that communist schools in Poland were ‘a great social leveller.’ At Radek’s school, there were ‘children from…the army blocks, and [from] the police, and some people that we would really describe as criminal classes, and some farmers.’ Now, Radek appreciates mixing with such a diverse range of backgrounds as ‘a good thing to have done.’

Radek’s children have had an experience very different from his own. Married to Anne Applebaum, an equally distinguished American historian, academic, journalist, and influential political thinker, he sent his two boys to schools in Warsaw, in Washington D.C., and a certain public school near Windsor that has produced more than its fair share of Prime Ministers, and I’m interested to see how he compares education in the different countries. ‘We found the English system superior,’ he says. ‘What they have which doesn’t exist in the Polish school system is a really fast and effective meting out of punishments. Which works.’ I’m sure Radek would also have a thing or two to say about ‘Abolish Eton’ as well, but I shy away from putting my head any further into the lion’s mouth.

Radek has seen his country change radically since the fall of communism. The house I see him in now over Zoom was once owned by his parents. It was collectivised after the Second World War and quickly fell into disrepair. When Radek’s parents bought it, the house was a ‘half-ruin’ and so uninhabitable that it would later make them eligible for a council flat. Radek sees this story as ‘a metaphor for Poland.’ Under communism, the state was as ruinous as the house – ‘everything old and unkempt, buildings just not maintained, everything grinding to a halt.’ He’s written a book based around this metaphor, The Polish House, one of the many tomes that surrounds him in his living room.

I have to say, if the house was once a ‘half-ruin,’ it is no longer. Radek has done wonders with the place. And so, in a sense, the metaphor continues. Radek now happily boasts of the state of Poland today: ‘My internet here in the countryside, I don’t know, maybe it’s not working now…’ (I should say we’ve had to restart the video call twice so far) ‘…But on the whole, it’s better than the average you get in the US.’ Wi-Fi aside, Poland has managed to pull itself from deep economic depression since the 80’s, the years that saw martial law imposed on the Polish people. For Radek, the 80’s were ‘a lost decade in Poland,’ and not just for the state, but for him as well. It was during this time that Radek went into what he calls his ‘exile’.

In 1981, when martial law was announced, Radek sought and was granted political asylum in England. He tells me he learnt English from the covers of Pink Floyd LPs, citing Dark Side of the Moon and Wish You Were Here as favourites. I can only imagine the vocabulary of a person whose knowledge of English comes exclusively from Roger Waters – ‘Hello? Is there anybody in there? How do I find my way to the cold steel rail?’ Originally, Radek’s plan was only to ‘earn a few quid,’ but in fact he would not return until 1989, the year of the first (semi-) free election in Poland. Political asylum gave him access to an advanced English language college, Southwark College, which in turn allowed him to apply to university.

After initially considering Law at UCL, Radek’s landlord recommended Oxford, where he knew there was a Polish PPE tutor: the late Zbigniew Pełczyński. In his interview they asked him, ‘So, you’re from communist Poland. What do you think of Marxism?’ We’re all familiar with that unforgivingly blunt sort of Oxford interview question. He replied, ‘Well I am, but I’ve never met a Marxist. We’re all anti-communist over there!’ 

Somewhere along the way, Radek became a member of the Bullingdon Club and met Boris Johnson. Naturally, I want to know more. Radek describes the Bullingdon as ‘a kind of fantasy on Englishness.’ He remembers that Brideshead Revisited was new at the time, and that this influenced the Club. Speaking of his experience in the Bullingdon, Radek comments, ‘It was partly a joke, which was why we liked it.’ Boris and Radek still keep in touch. The week before I interviewed him, Radek received a personal letter from the UK Prime Minister.

Unsurprisingly, Radek also climbed the Union ladder. He shows me flyers from talks he organised as Head of the Standing Committee. One advertises an address to the Union written by Lech Wałęsa, who was detained in Poland at the time. The caption begins, “This text was smuggled out of Poland within the last few days and contains vital new information…” Radek clearly began cultivating his international man-of-mystery image even before writing Dust of the Saints, which reads like an adventure novel just as much as a nonfiction account of Radek’s time with the Mujahideen. It must have been odd to have lived in and experienced Poland first hand and then to have watched its affairs from the cool, (comparatively) liberal distance of the UK. I can’t help but imagine that hearing Brits debate the fortunes of his own country must either have been frustrating or amusing, though having met Radek, I think it was probably the latter.