Every Tuesday and Thursday, about sixty of us would file in to Professor Lukes’ Changing Face of Eastern Europe seminar. My decrepit laptop never endured the length of the lecture, and I needed to sit near the electrical sockets–which were located either at the very front or the very back of the lecture hall. I preferred to sit in the front or middle to hear better, but from the back I could observe the other students–and frankly, I was damn curious to figure out why they had all signed up for the class. Having grown up a Polish person in America, I had personal attachment to the subject, but very little knowledge of it. Sadly, Eastern European history falls on the back burner in middle school Social Studies; United States curriculum prefers the Italian Renaissance, bloody Tudor England, and the French Baroque period while skimming over anything east of the future Berlin Wall. Central and Eastern Europe, then, remain relatively obscure in academia and popular knowledge. So my investment was personal, but I wondered about my sixty-odd classmates.
Within that first week of class, it turned out to be a fairly even mix of Slavs, Americans, foreign exchange students, non-humanities majors and a handful of know-it-alls–so, your standard advanced course demographics. However, people’s motives for joining the class weren’t so interesting as the reasons they stayed. For the most people, I think it was Professor Lukes and the environment he created twice a week for 90 minutes at a time.
The first interaction I ever had with Lukes was during one of the first days of class. While I normally sat at the back to plug in my computer, this day all those seats were occupied so I went to the front. I took out my laptop and cable, plugging them in. While I fumbled around my table space organising myself, my laptop charger unplugged itself from my computer and fell on the floor. Professor happened to be standing nearby, so he picked up the loose end and handed it over to me. As I reached for it, Professor glanced at the blue LED indicator light on the end of my charger cable. He sort of half-smiled at it curiously before he handed it back to me and said, “Isn’t technology amazing?” He said it in such an earnest way that it jarred me a little bit, but I had been thinking the same thing somehow. “It really is,” I agreed, having nothing more intelligent to say.
Five minutes later, the class quieted down enough for Lukes to start his lecture and the vast majority of the class remained transfixed for the next 80 minutes. I’m not here to argue the universal popularity of Professor Lukes or the Central and Eastern European History field as inherently fascinating. He was opinionated like most of professors of Poli Sci, and opinionated is mutually exclusive with universal popularity. Oftentimes, it can mean no popular support at all. But if I have to hand one thing to Lukes, it’s that the man could create an environment.
Tall, well-dressed and pleasant-looking, Lukes cuts a pretty standard image of an academic. His classes weren’t transfixing because the subject material was so exciting; and it wasn’t because he was so obviously a great orator. It was because coming to class, at least for me, felt like sitting around the coffee table or the fireplace and listening to the stories of an older relative. Lukes’ history lessons followed an anecdotal structure; when it came to the chronology of historical events, we were left to our own devices with the reading list. In class, the professor zoomed in on details: historical personalities, or seemingly insignificant events that dictated centuries of political developments. Lukes taught us how the casual defenestration of two Catholic dignitaries by Calvinists in Prague led to the 1618 Battle of the White Mountain– a defining moment in the Thirty Years War. He talked about Marie Antoinette for two entire lectures as a segway to the downfall of the Prussian and Austrian empires.
He narrated like Nabokov–colourfully, wryly, altogether adding up to some greater story. The off-beat way of teaching worked, at least for me. Most importantly, it was in my first course with this professor that he accidentally taught a great lesson about politics: when he introduced us to Adam Wazyk’s “Poem for Adults”.
It’s a political work written in 1955, by this Polish man–and it describes the difficulty of life in communist Poland, as well as alluding to the false promises of Soviet politicians. Within this poem, I found a sort-of definition of politics-in-practise that really stuck with me. In my first class with Lukes, he read us one verse of the poem and it struck me so immediately, I was tempted to get the verse tattoed:
“All this is not new. Old is the Cerberus of socialist
Fourier, the dreamer, charmingly foretold
that lemonade would flow in seas.
Does it flow?
They drink sea water,
returning home secretly
The poem deals with false promises made by crooked politicians. Soviet politicians promised (not literally) that lemonade would flow in the seas. To demonstrate to the Polish people they hadn’t been lying, the Soviets drank from the sea. But obviously, guzzling sea water and pretending it’s delicious cold lemonade would make you sick. So the Soviets held it back and vomitted in secret, so their lies wouldn’t be discovered.
Ideally, this would be nobody’s definition of politics and government. But it’s a working definition–and it’s an explanation of this site’s title and theme.