Polish ambassador Arkady Józef Rzegocki talks to the Journal about cultural exchange, undermining stereotypes, and the importance of remaining friends after Brexit
Words: Viel Richardson
Images: Orlando Gili
‘Plenipotentiary’ is not a word most of us will hear in our professional lives. In fact, it is not a word that many of us will ever hear at all. It is derived from the Latin words ‘plenus’, meaning full, and ‘potentia’, meaning power. It means that the person to whom it is applied has been granted full power of independent action on behalf of their government while abroad. It was coined in the mid-17th century when information could take weeks to travel between capital cities, and political decisions were sometimes necessary in days or even hours.
Amid all the pomp and ritual, it is the word plenipotentiary that makes an ambassador an ambassador—and it was a word that Arkady Józef Rzegocki became deeply familiar with in 2016, when he was appointed the seventh Republic of Poland ambassador to the Court of St James’s.
“The epoch is different of course,” says Arkady, with a smile, refering to his early modern predecessors. “But the core idea of their job and mine is exactly the same. We are here to spread knowledge and to increase the closeness of the relationship between our two countries.”
Prior to entering the world of diplomacy, Arkady had built a distinguished academic career. He is an associate professor at the Jagiellonian University, the oldest university in Poland, and a visiting professor at Cambridge University on Polish affairs. His main fields of interest are English and Polish political thought and the uses of soft power. He has been involved in projects designed to promote knowledge of his home country in Britain. He has organised a postgraduate study course entitled ‘the Polish-British strategic partnership’, which was taught in both Poland and London. It would, quite frankly, be difficult to think of anyone better suited to his job.
A lifelong interest
“In many ways this position is simply a continuation of a lifelong interest,” he says, sitting in a grand reception room in the Portland Place townhouse that houses the Polish embassy. “In the past, I focussed on a theoretical analysis of the relationship, whereas this job had added the practical side of that relationship. It means that I can be here in this country putting my knowledge to use, and in a very real sense helping to build connections between us and our British friends.”
This is an activity that has been going on in one form or another for a great deal longer than people might realise. Arkady explains that the first tentative contacts between the two nations took place between King Ethelred the Unready and Bolesław the Brave in the 11th century, when the world and both of these countries were very different places.
In 1597, Paweł Działynski was dispatched by King Zygmunt III, supposedly to be part of peace negotiations between England and Spain, but mainly to complain to Queen Elizabeth I about Drake, Frobisher and England’s free-wheeling privateers attacking Polish ships that were trading with the Spanish. Działynski’s forthright and very undiplomatic manners enraged the English court, but he did manage to undertake negotiations on the issue with some success.
Luckily, today there are no such Rabelaisian Englishmen menacing Polish merchantmen on the high seas, so the ambassador has time to turn to the significantly more pleasant task of arranging the celebrations to mark the centenary of Poland’s independence from the Russian, German and Austrian empires.
Polish Heritage Day
“We regained independence on 11th November 1918 at the end of the First World War, and at the moment we are engaged with helping to organise a Polish Heritage Day to celebrate that,” the ambassador explains. “Events will be taking place in towns and cities around the UK. There will be concerts, exhibitions, conferences, meetings, artistic events and historical events organised by the Polish diaspora. We are having a concert in the Guildhall, because that is where Chopin gave the last concert of his life, and there is also a major concert in the Royal Albert Hall.”
According to Arkady this kind of cultural exchange is perhaps the most important part of his job, as it fosters greater understanding of his native land among the British. People tend to think of ambassadors frantically playing the geopolitical game of treaty negotiations and alliances, but while these are clearly vital areas of the role, Arkady’s function is far wider than that. He believes that there is a great deal of misunderstanding of his native land in the UK, and he wants us to look at it again with fresh eyes.
Arkady points to recent history as the cause of many people’s misconceptions. For almost 50 years after World War II, Poland was cut off from western Europe, in the grip of Soviet control. This meant that for five decades, while strong cultural links were being forged between Britain and the rest of Europe, Poland, along with the other Warsaw Pact countries, was excluded.
“Even though it has been more than 30 years since we regained our freedom, it takes many years to get over that gap in time, for people to stop thinking about us as an Eastern Bloc country,” Arkady explains. “This is why building cultural links is so important. For example, if you visit a country, you create memories, make friends, and it becomes part of your life. Many people in the UK retire to parts of Europe, but at the moment Poland is not in their thoughts. There are beautiful places in Poland, so it is part of my job to change stereotypes about it and try to get it in the same place in British minds as France or Spain.”
Dynamic and fast-growing
The benefits, he says, can be economic as well as cultural—the ambassador is certain that after gaining a deeper knowledge of his country, British people will be more likely to do business there. He points out that few people here realise that Poland is one of the biggest countries in the European Union, with a dynamic and fast-growing economy.
“Even some Poles living in other countries do not quite realise the improvements at home,” he adds ruefully. “Things like the condition of the roads, the location and number of airports, the railways, the facilities available in cities, many of the things that make living and doing business much easier—all of these have improved hugely. This is what I mean when I say there is not enough knowledge. I am sure if British businessmen knew more about what life was like and what the environment was like in Poland there would be more business done between the two countries.”
While the relationship goes back a long way, the 20th century saw a defining moment in Anglo-Polish relations with the coming of World War II. It was, after all, the Germans’ refusal to withdraw from Poland that led Neville Chamberlain to declare war. The contribution of Polish pilots to the Battle of Britain is increasingly well known. The commander-in-chief of Fighter Command, Air Chief Marshal Sir Hugh Dowding once said: “Had it not been for the magnificent work of the Polish squadrons and their unsurpassed gallantry, I hesitate to say that the outcome of battle would have been the same.” They truly were a fundamental part of Britain’s ‘finest hour’.
“I believe there were 20,000 Polish pilots in the United Kingdom during the Second World War and they were second only to the British in the Battle of Britain,” says Arkady. “Poland had a lot of flying experience, much more so than many of the British pilots who were being newly trained.”
The Iron Curtain
One of the biggest migrations of the 20th century was that of Poles fleeing first the Nazis, then the Soviets. More than 200,000 came to the UK during the war. However, once the war ended, Poland found itself on the wrong side of the Iron Curtain and for many Poles who were committed to a democratic way of life, returning home was no longer safe. Those in Britain, as elsewhere, stayed in their adopted country, putting down roots and becoming part of local communities. They started Saturday schools, Scout troupes, parish churches, libraries and other institutions as they began to settle and integrate.
A further wave of Polish migrants arrived here following Poland’s accession to the European Union in 2004. “There are now more than a million Polish citizens in the UK, which makes it the largest group of foreign nationals in the country,” Arkady reveals. “Dealing with them and representing them is an important part of our task. First and foremost, we are here to help them at a consular level, if needed, dealing with problems with passports or other identification papers. If they find themselves in some difficulty which requires official assistance, perhaps if family problems arise back in Poland, they may ask us for assistance.
“But beyond that, I believe the Polish community in Britain offers huge potential for furthering the work of the embassy. They are married to British citizens, are involved in British institutions and have many British friends. They are deeply embedded into British life and in many ways are representing Poland just by living their lives. Sometimes part of my job is simply to celebrate this and to help them continue to do so.”
Of course, in any discussion involving Britain’s relationship with Europe, it is hard to escape the British vote to leave the EU, a decision Arkady regrets but says he must respect. “We are really good friends with Britain and from my perspective it is obvious that both the European Union and the British need to work hard to maintain the best aspects of the relationship,” the ambassador tells me. “The thing to remember is it is very difficult to build something special, but very easy to destroy it. We have some very close and hugely beneficial links between our two countries, and between Britain and the European Union as a whole. It would be a tragedy to see them broken.”
Arkady believes it to be crucial that both sides work very hard to ensure that cultural, historical, economic, political, scientific and personal ties are not thrown out with the economic and legal ones, as that would be to the great detriment of both sides. “From my perspective, it is obvious there should be some special relationship between the European Union and the United Kingdom,” the ambassador tells me. “We share so many common values, and cooperation on issues like defence, security and our economies should be very close.”
These are interesting times for Anglo-European relationships and Arkady Józef Rzegocki is not the only ambassador having to navigate uncertain waters, but for him this in an era filled with opportunities as well as significant risks. “The vote to leave the EU and subsequent negotiations have put the relationship between our two countries under greater scrutiny,” Arkady says with a smile. “But talking to people around the country, it has been a pleasure to see how much warmth there is towards my homeland. It is a real privilege to be the ambassador at this time. The opportunity to meet so many of my British friends and exchange knowledge about our cultures is always a pleasure.
“One of the necessities for being an ambassador is to love both your homeland and the country you are in. I am a proud citizen of Poland with a long affection for Britain and the British way of life. The ability to be intimately involved with both in my working life makes being my country’s ambassador a real joy.”