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ETHNONYMS: Polacy, Polak/Polka, Polen, Poliak, Poliane, Polyak


Identification. Poles speak Polish and the overwhelming majority are Roman Catholics. Although Poles reside world-wide, most live in Poland and their name for their country is Polska.

Location. Poland is located in the center of Europe Between 49° and 54°50 N and 14°7 and 24°8 E. In the United States and western Europe, Poland is thought to be in eastern Europe; in Poland the country is considered to be in central Europe. Poland is bounded by Lithuania and the Baltic Sea on the north, the independent republics of Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine on the north and east, the Czech and Slovak Federative Republic on the south, and Germany on the west. Poland is mainly an open lowland plain, as 75 percent of the land is less than 200 meters above sea level, with drainage to the Baltic in the north. The north consists of the swamps and dunes of the Baltic coastal plain. Southward is a belt of glacial-origin lakes. Farther south are the central Lowlands with agricultural (Lower Silesia and Great Poland) and industrial areas. South of these lowlands are the Little Poland Uplands and the Little Poland Lowlands with deposits of coal, iron, lead, and zinc. This is Poland's most important industrial area. At the country's southern border are the Carpathians and their foothills, with a large rural population and medium-sized towns. Deposits of salt, sulfur, natural gas, and oil are found here. Poland lies in the temperate zone, and its climate is transitory from oceanic to continental. In general, the warmest area is in the southwest and the coldest in the northeast. The country can be divided into twenty-one agricultural and climatic divisions with six seasons. The highest recorded temperature is 40.2° C and the lowest 42° C. The mean annual temperatures range from 8° C to 6° C, Except in the mountains where the temperatures decrease with altitude.

Demography. There are 51 million Poles worldwide; 38 million live in Poland, while 13 million live outside the Country. Of those residing abroad, the vast majority live in the United States, Belarus, and Ukraine. Significant Polish Populations also are found in Australia, Brazil, Canada, France, and the United Kingdom. Ethnically, Poland is one of the most homogeneous (over 98 percent Polish) countries in the world. Ukrainians constitute the largest minority followed by Belarusians, Slovaks, Russians, Gypsies, Lithuanians, and Greeks and Macedonians. Because of the genocide perpetrated by Germans during World War II and subsequent Emigration, the formerly sizable Jewish minority has all but disappeared.

Linguistic Affiliation. The Polish language belongs to the West Slavic Group of languages of the Indo-European Family, which is a part of the Nostratic Macrofamily. The Poles use the Latin alphabet. The spelling of foreign words diffused into Polish usually is changed to reflect Polish alphabetical values. Literary Polish has been developing since the sixteenth century. It is based mainly on the speech of the Polish upper class and the Great Polish and Little Polish dialects. As a result of universal education and mass migration, literary Polish is becoming more homogeneous and more widely used. However, most Poles can still identify an individual's place of origin by his/her speech. The main dialects are Great Polish, Kashubian (which has its own orthography and literature), Kuyavian, Little Polish, Mazowian, Pomeranian, and Silesian.


Sixty-one percent of Poland's population is urban. Warsaw (Warszawa), the capital of the country and its largest city, has a population of 1.7 million. Four other cities (Lodz, Krakow, Wroclaw, and Poznan) have over 500,000 inhabitants each. In rural areas, people live predominantly in villages. In the eastern portion of the country, the street village type predominates; in the western areas, other types are more common. Farmsteads are surrounded by a fence and have several buildings located around an open center with the family dwelling facing the road. Traditionally, buildings were wooden with thatched roofs; now they are built of masonry with fireproof roofs.

History and Cultural Relations

We do not know when and where the ancestors of the Poles originated. Some hypothesize that the original home of the Indo-European speakers was in the territory covered by Modern Poland or its vicinity. It is generally agreed, though, that by 4,000 years ago the Poles' Slavic ancestors inhabited much of what was to become modern Poland. By the ninth century, some of the Slavic tribes were beginning to form states. Mieszko I of the Piast dynasty founded a state in the western part of modern Poland. In a.d. 966, he married a Bohemian princess and accepted Christianity. This date is considered to be the beginning of the Polish state. For the next thousand years, Polish history has been influenced by the fact that the country has no natural boundaries to the east and west. This has meant that there has been constant strife with the Germans, the Poles' western neighbors, with the Russian states to the east, and, for a while, with the Baits to the north. At times, two of these groups would combine to attack a third. Thus, in 1226, Prince Conrad of Mazovia invited the Teutonic Knights, a German crusading order, to help fight the Prussians, a group of Baltic tribes living in what later became known as East Prussia. The consequences of this invitation were removed only after World War II when Poland expelled the Germans remaining in the Polish part of East Prussia and in today's western Poland. In 1382, the Lithuanian Grand Duke Jagiello married Jadwiga, a Polish princess, and formed a Polish-Lithuanian state. Poland-Lithuania was quite successful and became one of the largest states in Europe. Its territory covered much of present-day Poland as well as considerable portions of what is now Belarus and Ukraine. For the commonwealth, the "golden age" was in the sixteenth century, which was marked by peace and prosperity in the Polish lands and by considerable achievements in the arts and sciences. By the middle of the seventeenth century, Political decline had set in. Among the reasons for this decline was that the nobility had enormous power and independence vis à vis the state and often used it to further their private interests at the expense of the commonweal. The gentry elected the country's kings, and the kings acted more like managers than rulers. In 1652, the Sejm, the Polish diet, introduced the liberum veto. This meant that all legislation had to pass unanimously. By the late eighteenth century, Poland-Lithuania had become so weak that the Russians and Germans, specifically the Austrians and the Germanic Prussians, divided Poland between themselves, even making an agreement that the very name "Poland" would not be used officially. It was not until the end of World War I when the Austrian empire collapsed and the Russian and German empires had been weakened that Poland regained its unity and independence only to be divided again between the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany in 1939. At the end of World War II, however, Poland regained political unity, albeit under the Soviet Union's suzerainty. In 1989, the Soviets no longer supported the Polish Communist government, and the Poles were able to begin democracy and a market economy.

Poles consider themselves to be affiliated with Western European culture. They see their allegiance to the Roman Catholic church and their use of the Latin alphabet as indicators of this orientation. In recent times, their main economic, technological, and fine-arts affiliations and influences have been with the West.


Subsistence and Commercial Activities. Farming produces 13 percent of the GNP and employs 28.5 percent of the labor force. The major field crops are potatoes, sugar beets, wheat, rye, barley, and oats. Poultry, cattle (mostly dairy), pigs, sheep, and horses are the main domestic animals. Tractors and other farm machinery are becoming increasingly more common. Industry accounts for 41 percent of the GNP and employs 28.5 percent of the labor force. The main Industrial products are chemicals, ferrous metals, machinery, and consumer goods (e.g., household appliances, shoes, and textiles). Coal, the main industrial and household fuel, is also a chief export.

Industrial Arts. Rural areas support local artisans such as blacksmiths, cobblers, tailors, and seamstresses. Some People, primarily in the south, make handicrafts patterned after the traditional folk culture. In most parts of the country, rural people specialize in farming. Crafts and home industries are gradually disappearing in favor of industrialized goods Purchased in stores.

Trade. Trade is a mixture of government-owned and -operated outlets, private retail and service shops, and fairs and markets where farmers sell their products to each other and to city dwellers. As of 1991 the government was attempting to convert the nation's planned economy to a market one. To this end, joint ventures with Westerners and other forms of free enterprise have been promoted. It is impossible to predict the final form that these economic institutions will take.

Division of Labor. By law, men and women have equal rights and pay. In practice, the average woman earns less than the average man and, even if employed outside of the home, has to do almost all the housework.

Land Tenure. The majority (77 percent) of farmland is privately held. Most private farms are not single, compact fields but are scattered, multiple strips. State farms occupy 19 percent of the farm land; 4 percent is held by collective farms and 0.4 percent by agricultural associations. It is anticipated that most of the land in the "communal" sector will be "privatized."

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kinship. The Poles use Eskimo-type kin terms. The ideal is the extended family. Kindreds may assemble for funerals and weddings. Kinship and extended kin ties are important when one attempts to manipulate the formal kin system in order to obtain scarce goods and resources.

Marriage. The expectation is that marriage will be monogamous, but increasing numbers of people are practicing serial monogamy. In rural areas, dowries are given. Marriages tend to be class-endogamous and in rural areas village-exogamous. Ideally, residence should be neolocal or virilocal, especially with farming groups and the upper classes. Because of the urban housing shortage many individuals are forced even after marriage to continue living separately with their own parents. Immediately after World War II, divorce was easy to obtain. More recently it has become more difficult, but Divorce still is obtainable. Socially, a certain stigma is attached to a divorced woman.

Domestic Unit. Ideally, the household consists of the Nuclear family or a stem extended family, with the aged parents of one of the spouses and adult unmarried children. In fact, a large number of households are single-parent families. A Significant portion of households consist of married or divorced daughters with their children, a type of household called a susu.

Inheritance. A father used to be able to divide the Inheritance in any way he chose. Currently, he faces certain legal restraints (frequently evaded in practice) on the minimum size of landholdings and inheritance payments by fanning people to city residents. The inheritance system does not work well. It generates strong antagonisms and frequent lawsuits among heirs.

Socialization. Great emphasis is placed on good manners and etiquettechildren who misbehave are considered "impolite." Boys, in particular, are raised to be brave, independent, self-reliant, and tough. Patriotism is also inculcated. Among farming people and workers, physical punishment is common; upper-class people tend to use psychological punishment. The father should be respected and obeyed. Ideally, the mother is kind and often mediates between the father, who is the stern disciplinarian, and the children. Since frequently both parents work outside the home, the grandparents play an important role in raising the children, especially in the cities.

Sociopolitical Organization

Social Organization. In rural areas, there are the peasants and the gentry. In urban areas, there are the workers, the "intelligentsia" (artists, writers, university-educated professionals, and the upper-echelon white-collar workers), and the old "new class." The "new class," the nomenclatura, consists of the upper echelons of the Communist party and the state apparatus (the two categories overlap). They have lost the Political power that enabled them to assume important posts in Soviet-dominated Poland and are now attempting by both legal and illegal means to retain economic power. Since World War II, the gentry and intelligentsia have been losing their social distinctions, and the peasants have been migrating to the cities and joining the workers.

Political Organization. The political structure is changing rapidly and dramatically, and it is impossible to predict its final form. Poles are struggling with the aftereffects of Soviet domination, but as yet Polish society has not reached a consensus regarding the form the new political structure should take. There is ongoing strife regarding the proper functions and powers of the president, the government (i.e., the prime minister and the various ministries and administrative bodies), and the parliament. The parliament consists of a 100-member Senate and the Sejm with 460 seats. In addition to government at the national level, there are regional and local self-governments. Since 1975, the country has been divided into 49 voivod ships (regional territorial units) and 2,404 local administrative bodies. At both levels there are self-governing legislative bodies and executives. Another area of disagreement concerns the function and structure of the political parties. A basic issue is whether the political structure should encourage ideologically committed parties or ones whose aim is to gain power, with ideological purity being a secondary concern. Another subject of debate is the future role of Solidarity and of labor unions in generalshould Solidarity become a political party or should it remain a labor union whose primary concern is the welfare of workers and peasants? These conflicts stem from the fact that from 1940 to 1989 the Government forbade any organizations except government-sponsored ones. The society was deliberately atomized. Today, organizations must be created by people with no experience in organizing and self-government.

Social Control. Families, kin, and neighbors exert strong informal social control, especially in rural areas. The mechanisms range from ridicule and gossip to ostracism, physical punishment, and surreptitious attacks on property. The Formal system consists of courts with appointed judges and prosecuting attorneys. There also are provisions for policing and incarceration. The most commonly seen police are the uniformed militia (MO). Currently, the legal system and the Police are being changed to transform them from instruments of oppression into agencies for the protection of Polish citizens. The judges and prosecuting attorneys are being retrained to prepare them for their new roles and some of the more notorious police units have been or are being disbanded.

Conflict. For the past 1,000 years, the Poles' main conflicts have been with their western neighbors, the Germans, and with the Russians, their eastern neighbors. When the Polish state was weak or nonexistent, wars between their neighbors were fought on Polish territory. This was especially the case during World War II when the Soviet Union and Germany initially divided Poland between themselves and pursued the same policy of killing Poles who might assume leadership roles. In 1941, Germany attacked the Soviet Union and drove its armies from Poland. About three years later, the Soviets reconquered Poland. During the war years, the Poles had several undergrounds fighting whatever foreign army was occupying Poland at the time. The best-known partisan units were the Home Army (AK), which owed allegiance to the Polish government in exile in London. The last vestiges of the partisans were not liquidated until the early 1950s.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs and Practices. Over 90 percent of the population has been baptized into the Catholic church, and 78 percent attend religious services regularly. The Roman Catholic church has great moral authority, in part because historically it has been the one organization the Polish people felt was opposed to foreign political and ideological domination. An additional twenty-five religious groups are officially recognized. In 1975, the Polish Autocephalous Orthodox, Lutheran, and Uniate denominations had over 100,000 adherents each. In some rural areas, folk beliefs and practices are found in addition to the religious dogma and services of the formal religions.

Arts. The Poles, especially in the upper classes, have been deeply immersed in all the great movements of Western Culture. The fine arts and architecture have been and are a part of the general European culture. Folk crafts were much more regionalized and are falling into desuetude, despite government attempts to revive them.

Medicine. Social insurance for health service covers free treatment for workers employed 2,000 hours per year, their families, students, invalids, pensioners, and, since 1972, private farmers. The state-operated system employs pharmacists, physicians, dentists, and nurses in hospitals, sanatoriums, clinics, pharmacies, and ambulance services. The system emphasizes preventive medical care, with special emphasis on immunization and intervention in trauma and contagious diseases. Patients, at their own expense, also may visit medical professionals in private practice. The medical system is currently in a crisis situation because of a shortage of resources.


Barnett, Clifford R. (1958). Poland: Its People, Its Society, Its Culture. New Haven: HRAF Press.

Graham, Lawrence S., and Maria K. Ciechocinska, eds. (1987). The Polish Dilemma: Views from Within. Boulder, Colo.: Westview Press.

Hann, C. M. (1985). A Village without Solidarity: Polish Peasants in Years of Crisis. New Haven: Yale University Press.

Kolankiewicz, George, and Paul G. Lewis (1988). Poland: Politics, Economics, and Society. New York: Pinter.

Wedel, Janina (1986). The Private Poland. New York: Facts on File.


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ETHNONYM: Polak (fem. Polka, pl. Polacy)


Identification. The Poles are a Western Slavic people who, for hundreds of years, have inhabited territory in what is now the western part of the former Soviet Union. The Poles became incorporated into Russia, and later into the former USSR, by the annexation of territory from neighboring Poland. The Soviet Poles include persons of ethnic Polish descent and Polonized Ukrainians, Belarussians, and Lithuanians.

Location and Demography. The exact number of Poles in the former USSR is a matter of controversy. According to the official 1979 census, there were 1,151,000 Poles in the USSR; however, even government sources agree that this figure is too low, and they suggest that 1.5 million is more accurate. Most Soviet Poles live in the western republics of the former USSR, in areas that were part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth or the Second Polish Republic. According to the 1979 census, 247,000 lived in Lithuania, 403,000 in Byelorussia, 247,000 in the Ukraine, 63,000 in Latvia, and 99,800 in Russia. Although the Polish population in these areas was locally concentrated (especially in Byelorussia and the Ukraine), Poles constituted only small proportions of the republics' populations (7.3 percent in Lithuania, 4-2 percent in Byelorussia, and 5 percent in the Ukraine).

There is also a sizable Polish community in Kazakhstan, estimated at 61,000. This community is descended from Poles who were deported from the western republics in the 1930s. The Poles in Kazakhstan live among a number of other ethnic groups, including Germans and Russians. Additionally, Poles remain in Siberia, where many were deported in the 1930s, but the exact number is not available. Many of the deportees to Siberia were repatriated to Poland immediately after the end of World War II.

Linguistic Affiliation. The two most important markers of Polish identity among Soviet Poles are the Polish language and Roman Catholicism. Polish belongs to the Western Branch of the Slavic Language Family and thus is more closely related to Czech and Slovak than to Russian, Ukrainian, or Belarussian. Written Polish uses the Latin alphabet. Under the encouragement of the Leninist nationalities policy in the 1920s, Polish-language publishing flourished in the western republics, but virtually all publishing in the Polish language in the Soviet Union was halted in the 1930s. At this time elementary and secondary education in Polish was suspended, and the Polish language was subject to severe repression. Children, for example, were completely prohibited from using Polish in school. The Soviet Polish population has become largely bilingual since 1945. Polish is spoken within the community, but Russian is generally used in situations of contact with other ethnic groups and for official purposes, except in Lithuania, where Lithuanian is used. As Russian has displaced Polish as the contact and administrative language in these areas over the past two centuries, Polish has become an ethnic marker of a minority community. Today there are only a few small-circulation Polish newspapers, based in Vilnius.

History and Cultural Relations

Possession of the territories that constitute Lithuania, western Belarus, and the western Ukraine, where most Poles of the former Soviet Union live, has been contested for centuries between the Polish and Russian states. This region, along with a substantial portion of eastern Poland, came under Russian rule in the various partitions of the Polish Commonwealth in the eighteenth century. When the Polish republic was restored following World War I, much of this territory was returned to Poland. At the conclusion of World War II, a large portion of eastern Poland was again transferred to the Soviet Union.

The history of Poles in the former USSR included periods of cultural autonomy and repression. In the 1920s, under Lenin's policy of cultural toleration, two Polish autonomous regions were established, one in Byelorussia and one in the Ukraine. Polish was the official administrative language in these areas and education and publishing in the Polish language proliferated throughout the western republics. There was considerable official toleration of the Catholic church.

In the 1930s the mostly rural Polish population was highly resistant to the collectivization of farms, and this brought them into direct conflict with the Soviet leadership. The autonomous regions were liquidated, hundreds of thousands of Poles were deported to Siberia and Kazakhstan, and cultural expression was severely limited. The use of the Polish language in schools and in the press was restricted, and churches were closed. During World War II the eastern half of Poland also came under Soviet occupation, in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Many Poles in the occupied lands, particularly intellectuals and business leaders, were deported to Siberia. Thousands of Polish army officers were massacred in the Katyn forest by their Soviet captors/allies.

After World War II the Soviet Union gained additional territory from Poland. Some of the Poles in the USSR, particularly those in the newly acquired areas and those who had been exiled to Siberia, were repatriated to Poland, but the overall population of Poles in the Soviet Union did not decrease.

From the end of the war, the Soviet authorities generally suppressed Polish cultural expression, although forcible population transfers ceased. Visiting across the Polish-Soviet border was strictly limited until the latter 1980s. There is evidence that Poles are becoming assimilated into local populations; the percentage of the population speaking Polish as a first language is declining.

As a result of the long history of conflict between Russians and Poles, ethnic relations between the two peoples are rather tense. Poles associate Russians with the atheist Soviet state. Although there is some intermarriage between these two groups, the practice is strongly discouraged.

In the western republics, the relationship between Poles and the majority ethnic groups is more complex. There are strong economic and cultural pressures for assimilation. In these regions, however, which were formally parts of the Polish state, the Soviet central government at times encouraged Polish cultural expression and efforts to gain local autonomy in order to counter the nationalist aspirations of these republics. This had been particularly true in Lithuania and the Ukraine. Currently, in Lithuania, the Polish minority has proposed the addition of Polish language, history, and culture to the school curriculum as a means of making the Poles an equal partner in the new Lithuanian state.

Economy and Settlements

The Soviet Polish population, like the population of Poland, was overwhelmingly rural in the past and, strongly attached to the land, has been slow to urbanize. Soviet Poles were primarily landowning farmers until the 1930s, when the Soviet state began collectivization. These farms were mostly small (many only a few hectares), and generally consisted of scattered plots rather than consolidated holdings. The farms were usually nonspecialized peasant farms on which tenants grew vegetables and grains and raised some livestock; labor was provided by family members, who used horses for plowing.

In spite of the deportations of the 1930s, the attachment of many Poles to their land and to their particular locality remains powerful. Many Poles have remained in their native regions, where they continue to work the land.

Kinship, Marriage, and Family

Kinship. Polish kinship is reckoned bilaterally. Most kin terms have both formal and informal forms. The informal forms are becoming more commonly used, which is one indication of a shift in the power structure of the family. Whereas the familiar term babcia for "grandmother" has been historically common, there has been a shift in the term used to address the father, from the formal ojciec to the informal ojca.

There is reciprocity in affinal kin terms, which can also be extended to more distant affines. The terms for mother's brother (wujek ) and for father's sister (ciotka ) can also be used to refer to any aunt or uncle. Terms like bratniec (brother's son) can also be extended to refer to the brother's son's child.

With the exception of cousins, kinship terminology distinguishes kin related through women from those related through men in the case of lateral relatives (i.e., mother's brother), but not in the case of strictly lineal relatives (i.e., grandparents). The terms for various lateral (but not lineal) affines also distinguish between those related by the marriage of a woman and those related by the marriage of a man.

Marriage. Soviet Poles do not form an endogamous marriage community. There is evidence, however, that marriage with other Poles is preferred to marriage with members of other ethnic groups, particularly Russians. There is a widespread belief that marriages to Russians are certain to end in divorce. If children marry members of another ethnic group, it is preferred that they marry other Catholics, for example Germans or Lithuanians.

Domestic Unit. Polish households often consist of a three-generation family: parents, children, and grandparents. The alternative household structure is that of a nuclear family. Both types were found throughout history among Poles, although the three-generation family was the more common until the twentieth century. In the past thirty years three-generation family households have become more common, as housing is in short supply. The power structure of the modern family differs from the traditional patriarchal family, however. Women generally work outside the household. Relations among family members are more informal. The emotional functions of the family have been intensified. Furthermore, the authority of the family is no longer vested in the grandparental generation, although grandparents may make significant contributions to the running of the household. Grandmothers often play an important role in the socialization of children, caring for them while the parents work. Statistics suggest that the older generations are more likely to use Polish as their major or exclusive means of communication; grandparents, therefore, may help to preserve the status of Polish as a primary language.

Socialization. Other significant sources of socialization are the church and the school. The Catholic church is an institution that teaches national as well as religious identity. (Religious instruction also occurs at home, especially in times of increased repression.) The state-run schools, in which Russian was spoken, were sources for the assimilation of Polish children into Soviet society. Of even greater concern to the Polish community, these schools were run on atheistic principles. Polish children attended these schools along with children of other ethnic groups. Until recently, the use of Polish was rigorously suppressed, and Polish children suffered discrimination in discipline.

Sociopolitical Organization

Poles have a long political tradition of aristocratic democracy. The Polish nobility (szlachta ), one of the most numerous and diversified in Europe, developed from a warrior caste rather than from a landed nobility. The szlachta valued their military role as well as the democratic nature of the Polish state. These are Polish political values that have endured to the present.

Since the dissolution of the Polish autonomous regions, Soviet Poles have had no formal ethnic political representation. The focus of Polish independent political organization is the Catholic church. From the 1950s, political conflict with Soviet authorities centered on freedom to practice the Catholic religion as the epitome of Polish cultural expression. The struggle was for cultural autonomy within the confines of the Soviet Union.

Religion and Expressive Culture

Religious Beliefs. The Catholic church is both an important element of Soviet Polish identity and a point of sociopolitical conflict in the former Soviet republics. Polish Catholicism strongly emphasizes the cult of Mary, who is venerated as a suffering, worrying, and bereaved mother rather than as a virgin. Devotion to Mary has significant political implications in this context. The most important icon in the Polish church, that of the Black Madonna of Czestochowa, is a primary symbol of Polish sovereignty. According to legend, this icon saved the Polish kingdom from the invading Swedish army in the Middle Ages.

Polish Catholicism is also linked to a romantic nationalist philosophical tradition exemplified by the works of the nineteenth-century poet Adam Mickiewicz. In this philosophy, the suffering of the Polish state will bring restoration of sovereignty, and Poland, as a figure of Christ, will play a messianic role among nations. In this manner, Catholicism continues to play an important role in Polish nationalism.

Most homes have corners in which religious material is displayed. The most common examples are icons of the Black Madonna and portraits of Pope John Paul II, which are hung on the wall. Icons of saints may also be displayed. In general, Polish Catholic practice has a strong orientation toward icons. Icons are displayed not only in homes and churches but in religious processions as well.

Religious Practitioners. The Catholic church in the former USSR suffers from a severe shortage of priests, which influences the nature of religious practice. Most priests serving Catholic Poles are either Lithuanians or elderly Poles who remained in the former USSR after the territorial shifts. The shortage is particularly acute in Belarus and Kazakhstan, where the Catholic church has suffered more persecution. Because of religious repression, Mass is often celebrated in parishioners' homes (even when it is possible to register legal churches), rotating through the homes of the congregation. Some priests allow lay Catholics in remote areas to administer the sacrament when they are unable to do so themselves. The practice of lay baptism is quite common; the baptism is often administered by old women, who form an important local religious authority in the absence of a priest. The lack of priests is perceived as a serious problem by practicing Catholics. Some of the Catholic congregations are multiethnic. This is particularly true in Lithuania, which is a largely Catholic republic, and Kazakhstan, where congregations are often mixed German and Polish.

Ceremonies. Religious weddings, funerals, and baptisms are important ceremonies to Polish Catholics. Infant baptism is strongly emphasized. In regions where a priest is available, Mass is usually celebrated at least once a week. Many Polish Catholics, however, cannot partake of Holy Communion more than once a year.

Christmas, Easter, and All Saints' Day are important holidays. In addition to holy days associated with the Virgin Mary, saints' days and name days are celebrated. Christmas is an important holiday, celebrated with religious ceremonies and feasting. One important ritual of Christmas is the oplatek (wafer) ceremony, which takes place on Christmas Eve. This ancient ceremony (dating from the tenth century) is based on the model of the Last Supper. As soon as the first star becomes visible after dusk on Christmas Eve, the oldest person present or the head of the family begins the ritual, in which unleavened bread blessed by a priest is passed around the gathered company, along with hugs and best wishes for the fulfillment of one's personal dreams.

Polish Catholic religious holidays often include pre-Christian Slavic folk practices. For example, Easter is celebrated by attending Mass, and the ritual dinner includes bread blessed by a priest, but the holiday also includes the elaborate and colorful decoration of eggs. Egg decoration is a widespread Slavic practice that Poles claim to have originated.

Arts. There are numerous Polish arts, including painting, prose, poetry, and theater (the Polish tradition is particularly rich in historical and absurdist theater). Two of the most significant arts are poetry and folk sculpture. Poets, like Mickiewicz, are national heroes. Like poetry, folk sculpture is often religiously based. Two of the most popular figures depicted in art (both sculpture and icon reproduction) are the Black Madonna and Christ, particularly the worrying Christ and the crucified Christ. These arts are intimately connected with notions of Poland's special position as an "outpost" of Western Christianity.


Armstrong, John (1990). "Policy toward the Polish Minority in the Soviet Union, 1923-1989." Polish Review 35(1): 51-65.

Bukowski, Wladyslaw (1984). "The Life of a Polish Priest in Kazakhstan." Translated by Janet Curtis. Religion in Communist Lands 12.

Kadziewicz, Stanislaw (1989). "The Lost Tribe: Poles in the Soviet Union." Studium Papers 12(1): 13-15.

Kurzowa, Zofia (1983). "Jezyk Polski w ZSRR: Historia, dtan obecny, potrzeby badawcze" (Polish language in the USSR: History of research, present status of research, and needs for future research). Przeglad Polonijny 1(27): 19-38.

Kurzowa, Zofia (1985). "Sytuacja językowa Polskiej ludnosci Wiejskiej w Litewskiej i Bialoruskiej SSR" (The situation of the language of the Polish peasants in Lithuania and the Byelorussian SSR). Przeglad Polonijny 6(3): 5-20.

Lossawski, Piotr (1989). "Sajudis a Polacy" (Sajudis and Poles). Tygodnik Powszechny 43(6): 4.

Lysakowski, Richard (1990). Siberian Odyssey. New York: Vantage Press.

Mirski, Jozef (1988). "Polacy w Kazachstanie" (Poles in Kazakhstan). Kultura 6(489): 30-37.

"Polonia Sowiecka" (Soviet Poles) (1983). Kultura 1-2:496.

"The Situation of a Roman Catholic Church in Byelorussia" (1982). Religion in Communist Lands 10 (Autumn).

Thomas, W., and F. Zaniecki (1984). The Polish Peasant in Europe and America. Edited by E. Zaretzky. Urbana: University Illinois Press.

Walicki, Andrzej (1982). Philosophy and Romantic Nationalism: The Case of Poland. Oxford: Clarendon Press.


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POPULATION: 38.5 million


RELIGION: Roman Catholicism (90 percent)


In ad 966, the Poles converted to Christianity and formed their first state. During the first seven centuries of its history, Poland expanded to become one of Europe's largest countries. After uniting with Lithuania in the fourteenth century, Poland was the center of a huge multi-ethnic empire. The sixteenth and seventeenth centuries are considered the Golden Age of Polish history. This was when the nation pushed eastward to take over its Slavic neighbors, dreaming of a kingdom that stretched from the Baltic to the Black Sea.

By the end of the eighteenth century, neighboring countries destroyed Poland. Over time, its territories were divided among the Austrian, Prussian, and Russian empires. By 1795, Poland no longer existed as a separate government. This sitution continued for more than a century.

Reunited and restored to independence after World War I (191418), the country was able to sustain a parliamentary democracy for only a few years. It was overwhelmed by invasions from both Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union in 1939. The country then entered into the darkest period of its long history. More than 6 million of its people died during World War II (193945). After the war, a communist government was imposed by the Soviet Union. It lasted almost fifty years.

In 1990 Lech Walesa (b.1943), a former labor leader and the hero of Polish independence, was elected president. Today Poland is a parliamentary democracy. In 1997 it was picked to be one of the first countries of Eastern Europe to join the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO).


Poland is bordered on the east and southeast by Ukraine and Belarus, on the northeast by Lithuania and Russia, on the south by the Czech Republic and Slovakia, on the west by Germany, and on the northwest by the Baltic Sea. The capital city is Warsaw.

Poland consists almost entirely of lowlands that are part of the North European Plain. The climate varies, with cold, snowy winters and warm summers. Forests occupy more than one-fourth of the total land area.

Poland's population of 38.5 million is highly homogenous, meaning most people are of the same ethnic group. The country does have minority groups, including Ukrainians, Germans, and Belorussians.


Polish is a Slavic language that uses the Roman alphabet. When pronouncing words, the stress is usually on the second-to-last syllable.

Some common everyday words are: tak (yes), nie (no), jak (how), dobrze (OK), dzien dobry (good morning), czesc (hello), and prosze (please).


There are many legends associated with Easter and Christmas, which are very important holidays in Poland. For example, a legend of the Christmas spiders tells of when Jesus was a little boy and came upon a poor farmhouse. He heard a family of spiders crying because there was not enough money to buy decorations for the Christmas tree. The spiders let him in and he blessed the tree. Within minutes it was decorated in silver and gold webs. This is why tinsel is used to decorate Christmas trees.


The Poles are deeply religious. Roman Catholicism is the religion of some 90 percent of the population. It has an important influence on many aspects of Polish life. In 1978, a Pole, Cardinal Karol Wojtyla (b.1920), was chosen to become Pope (John Paul II), the first Polish person to be so honored.

Poland has 2,500 convents with 28,000 nuns, and over 500 monasteries. The Catholic University in Lublin and the Academy of Catholic Theology in Warsaw are the leading church-controlled institutions. The city of Czestochowa, with its Black Madonna, is one of the most important pilgrimage centers in Europe. Other Christian denominations besides Catholicism include Russian Orthodox and the Uniate faith, which combines aspects of Catholicism and Russian Orthodoxy. There are also a variety of Protestant churches.


There is a famous Polish saying, "Every day is good for celebration." Important public holidays include New Year's Day (January 1), Good Friday (in March or April), All Saints' Day (November 1), Corpus Christi Day (in June), and Worker's Day (May 1). Constitution Day (May 3) is also an important holiday in Poland.

Polish Catholics have an interesting annual tradition of pledging their vows to the Blessed Virgin Mary. The Mother of God, or Bogurodzica, is the patron of Poland. People often visit Czestochowa, where the shrine of the Black Madonna is located, to renew their vows to her.

The church calendar is based on two cycles, which end in the two biggest religious celebrations: Christmas (Boze Narodzenie ) and Easter (Wielkanoc ). There are also many saints' feast days, which are especially numerous for the Virgin Mary.

Although it is not an official holiday (banks and government offices remain open), St. John's Eve in June is a popular day of festivities. Originally a pagan celebration designed to drive out devils, it is now celebrated with great bonfires around which young people dance and over which boys try to leap. They carry buckets of water to douse the girls.


Occasions such as baptism, first communion, and marriage are cause for festive celebrations.

A Polish wedding always promises a good time. Some traditional rituals associated with a Polish wedding include long blessings by the parents before the actual ceremony, and greenery on the bride's head-piece symbolizing her virginity. These customs are not always practiced today. Many Poles have adopted Western-style wedding traditions. Wedding anniversaries are very special among Polish couples. The tenth wedding anniversary is the occasion for a major celebration.

Lively wakes are held after Polish funerals, with toasts and tributes to the deceased. In the past, Poles wore black for a year following the death of a family member. Today, a black armband is worn instead.


Poles greet each other by shaking hands. Men and women often shake hands. Usually the man waits until the woman has extended her hand first. In general, Poles are more conservative and formal than Westerners, but they are known for their hospitality. When responding to a dinner invitation, it is considered polite to bring a bouquet of flowers for the lady of the house.

Common Polish polite expressions include przepraszam (excuse me), Jest pan/pani bardzo uprzejmy (Sir/madam you are very kind), and dziekuje (thank you).


The average life expectancy for Poles is about seventy years. The infant mortality rate is fourteen per one thousand live births. Government-funded medical care is available to all Poles. However, facilities do not measure up to Western standards, and there are not enough doctors to care for patients (1 doctor for every 480 patients and 1 hospital bed for every 144 people). Alcoholism is a major health problem in Poland.

Poland faces a serious housing shortage, and young couples often live with parents for the first years after they marry. In addition to being scarce, housing is also very expensive. In the villages, brick and stone structures with fireproof roofs have replaced the traditional wooden houses with thatched roofs.

Most families do not own cars, although car ownership is on the rise. Hitchhiking is both legal and encouraged. Hitchhikers can buy books of coupons, which they give to any driver who picks them up. At the end of every year, the drivers then use these coupons to enter contests and win prizes. Most cities have efficient bus and streetcar systems, and there are air and rail links to major cities.


Families in urban areas typically have one or two children, while rural families often have three or four. Traditionally, the Polish father is a stern authority figure, with the mother mediating between him and the children. The nuclear family (father, mother, and children) is usual. Aged parents or unmarried brothers and sisters may be part of the household. Single-parent households are becoming more common.

In most families, both parents work. Children assume considerable responsibility for themselves at an early age, helping cook, clean, and care for younger brothers and sisters. Grandparents also play a significant role in childrearing. Mother's Day is a big occasion for Polish children. They often put on performances for their mothers at school.


Poles wear modern Western-style clothing and generally dress conservatively. As a rule, women do not wear pants. Clothing is very expensive, so wardrobes tend to be small. It is still common to wear handmade clothing. Young people like jeans and sweatshirts with American slogans or logos. Jeans are also popular among people in the arts and around universities. In rural areas, older women can still be seen wearing full skirts, thick stockings, and headscarfs.


Meat is integral to Polish cuisine. Beef, pork, ham, and sausage make up many national dishes, such as bigos (sauerkraut with spicy meat and mushrooms), flaki (tripe, or sheep's stomach, boiled or fried), golonka (pig's leg), and pierogi (dough filled with cheese, meat, or fruit). Common fish include pike, carp, cod, crayfish, and herring. The Poles are known for their thick, hearty soups, including borscht (beet soup), botwinka, chlodnik, or krupnik.

Sour cream and bacon bits are condiments necessary for almost every dish. Typical desserts include stewed fruit, fruit dumplings, pancakes with fruit or cheese, and jam donuts called paczki (POONCH-key).

Poland has several varieties of vodka. It is a favorite drink, which Poland claims to have discovered. Bottled beers made locally area are popular, as are soft drinks made of strawberry and apple. Pepsi and Coke are also commonly drunk. Tea is consumed with everything.


Poland has a 98 percent literacy rate (ability to read and write) and a 97 percent attendance level in its schools. In 1773 a national education commission was established. The system still operates today. Education is compulsory from age seven through age fifteen and is free through high school. Polish children spend many hours in school.

In addition to the traditional focus on Polish history and culture, there is a strong emphasis on foreign languages and computer skills. Students who pass an entrance exam may attend one of Poland's ten universities or a technical institute or other type of institution. Higher education is also free. Poland has ninety institutions of higher education. The Jagiellonian University in Cracow, founded in 1364, is the second-oldest university in Central Europe.


During the repressive communist era, art and theater were used to protest against the government.

Poland's musical heritage includes such greats as Frederic Chopin (181049), Ignacy Jan Paderewski (18601941), and Artur Rubinstein (18871982).

Poland has ten symphony orchestras, seventeen conservatories, over one hundred music schools, and almost one thousand music centers. In Warsaw, nightly operas, ballets, chamber concerts, and recitals are a popular recreational activity. Warsaw is also the home of the Jazz Jamboree festivalthe oldest and biggest jazz performance in Eastern Europe.

Village musicians often play at weddings and festivals. Their sound is a combination of the fiddle, pan pipes, accordion, and a single-reed bagpipe.

Writers are considered important people in Poland. Adam Mickiewicz, a nineteenth-century poet, is the national poet. Many streets and squares are named after him. The following Polish-born writers have won Nobel Prizes for literature: Henryk Sienkiewicz, Wladyslaw Reymont, and the poet Czeslaw Milosz. Twentieth-century poets such as Julian Przybos and Julian Tuwim have celebrated Polish uprisings and written verse opposing the communist regime.


In the days of communist bureaucracy, the policy was to create jobs even where there was no need for them. Over half the urban population used to work in state offices.

Today, about a quarter of the labor force is employed in agriculture and over a third in industry. It is anticipated that foreign trade problems could cause the loss of around 70,000 jobs, as the steel mills adjust to decreased production targets.


Some popular sports include swimming, gymnastics, hockey, volleyball, and soccer. On some Saturday mornings part of a street may be closed off for a soccer game. Soccer, which is played at every school, is also the biggest spectator sport. "Streetball," similar to basketball, is played by children in the parks.

Skiing is Poland's most popular winter sport. The beautiful ski resort of Zakopane (which means "a place buried in the ground") is the most popular ski getaway for Poles. A popular saying goes "when life gets unbearable, there is always Zakopane."


Popular family activities include watching television and listening to American pop music. Poland's cities are famous for theater and cinemas, opera houses, jazz and classical concerts, and discos. Outdoor activities include hiking, motorcycle racing, horseback riding, and hunting. Poland's spas are also popular leisure-time areas. The largest is Ciechocinek.


Among folk art specialties from particular regions are paintings on glass by the Zako-pane mountain folk, red-sequined Cracow folk costumes, the black pottery of Kielce, lacework from Koniakow, rainbow-colored cloth from Lowicz, and paper cutouts from Kurpie. The small village of Zalipie is famous for the flower paintings on its wooden houses, wells, wagons, and chairs.


Social tensions are caused by the disparity in income between the poor and the wealthy. Other problems include housing shortages and inadequacies in the national health care system.


Curtis, Glenn E. Poland: A Country Study. 3rd ed. Washington, D.C.: Federal Research Division, Library of Congress, 1994.

Heale, Jay. Cultures of the World. Poland. New York: Marshall Cavendish, 1994.

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Embassy of Poland, Washington, D.C. [Online] Available, 1998.

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The Poles represent the northwestern branch of the Slavonic race. They speak Polish, a member of the Western Slavic branch of the Indo-European language family. It is most closely related to Belorussian, Czech, Slovak, and Ukrainian. From the very earliest times the Poles have resided on the territory between the Carpathians, Oder River, and North Sea. Bolesl-aw I "Chrobny" or the Brave (9671025) united all the Slavonic tribes in this region into a Polish kingdom, which reached its zenith at the close of the Middle Ages and slowly declined during the mid to late eighteenth century. Hostility to Polish nationalism formed a common bond between the Russian, Prussian, and Austrian governments. Thus, Poland was partitioned four times. The first partition (August 1772) divided one-third of Poland between the three above-named countries. The second partition (January 1793) was mostly to the advantage of Russia; Austria did not acquire land. In the third partition (October 1795), the rest of Poland was divided up between the three autocracies. After the defeat of Napoleon and collapse of his puppet state, the Grand Duchy of Warsaw (18071814), a fourth partition occurred (1815), by which the Russians pushed westward and incorporated Warsaw. Until then Warsaw had been situated in Prussian Poland from 1795 to 1807. Potent anti-Russian sentiment has long prevailed among the Poles who are predominantly Catholic, especially during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, as evidenced by four popular uprisings against the Slavic colossus to the east: 1768, 1794, 18301831, and 1863. According to the 1890 census about 8,400,000 Poles resided in the Russian Empire.

Finally in 1918, an independent Poland was reconstituted. Later in August 1939 a pact was signed between Adolf Hitler's Germany and Josef Stalin's Soviet Union, which contained a secret protocol authorizing yet a fifth partition of Poland: "In the event of a territorial and political rearrangement of the areas belonging to the Polish state the spheres of influence of Germany and the USSR shall be bounded approximately by the line of the rivers Narew, Vistula, and San." The next month Hitler's Germany invaded Poland; the Red Army did not interfere.

After more than four decades of the Cold War, during which Poland was a Soviet "satellite" and belonged to the Soviet-led Warsaw Pact, partially free elections were held in 1989. The Solidarity movement won sweeping victories; Lech Walłęsa became Poland's first popularly elected post-Communist president in December 1990. In 1999 Poland joined the North Atlantic Treaty Organization, along with Hungary and the Czech Republic. It is scheduled to enter the European Union in 2004.

See also: nationalities policies, soviet; nationalities policies, tsarist; poland


Connor, Walter D., and Ploszajski, Piotr. (1992). The Polish Road from Socialism: The Economics, Sociology, and Politics of Transition. Armonk, NY: M. E. Sharpe.

Hunter, Richard J., and Ryan, Leo. (1998). From Autarchy to Market: Polish Economics and Politics, 19451995. Westport, CT: Praeger.

Lukowski, Jerzy, and Zawadzki, Hubert. (2002). A Concise History of Poland. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Michta, Andrew A. (1990). Red Eagle: The Army in Polish Politics, 19441988. Stanford, CA: Hoover Institution Press.

Snyder, Timothy. (2003). The Reconstruction of Nations: Poland, Ukraine, Lithuania, Belarus, 15691999. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

Johanna Granville

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