Warsaw in winter is raw, dingy, and unattractive. Like an aging movie star caught unawares -- without makeup, the expert lighting, the airbrush -- winter shows the city not as it would wish to be, but as it is.
Slush and traffic clog the streets. A hard gray rime coats automobiles and streetcars. Peddlers hawking everything from dowdy-looking brassieres to pirated cassette tapes line the sidewalks. In city parks, the trees are gnarled skeletons, the snow dirty and stained with urine. Frowzy-looking buildings of recent vintage, parodies of the architectural schlock of the '60s and '70s, besmirch the city center. Dignified older structures quietly crumble -- tourist attractions and downtown Warsaw's impeccably maintained churches excepted.
History reinforces the overall sense of gloom. Throughout Warsaw, the scars of a tawdry and barbarous century are much in evidence. Innumerable small plaques commemorate incidents or heroes of the valiant uprising of 1944, crushed by the Nazis. Although few obvious signs of communism remain, the massive, bullying examples of Stalinist architecture that deface the city's commercial precincts are inescapable reminders of that era.
Today, Warsaw, like all of Poland -- indeed, like all of Central Europe -- is embarked upon a monumental effort to escape its past. Glitzy symbols of that effort assault the eye. Billboards everywhere tout Western goods: Parisian perfumes, German cars and movies direct from Hollywood. Fast-food franchises such as McDonald's, Burger King and Pizza Hut have established thriving lodgments. Despite such evidence of commercial interest, one senses that the operative dynamic is less one of shrewd capitalists penetrating a promising new market than of Poles grasping frantically at the emblems of consumer culture.
Yet the delights of an occasional Big Mac notwithstanding, Western-style affluence in Poland at this stage reflects aspirations rather than everyday reality. Although a local General Motors dealer offers new Buicks and Pontiacs for sale, the cars in evidence on Warsaw's crowded streets are battered Volkswagens, Opels and Peugeots, along with the puny Fiat knock-off manufactured in Poland itself. Apartment blocks are drab and seedy. Likewise, the goods available in the average store and affordable to the average Pole -- clothing, food, housewares -- are uniformly poor in quality.
Prospects for economic development seem linked inextricably to questions of security, something that modern Poland has known only sporadically.
Indeed, the tragedy of modern Poland lies in the frequency with which it has found itself enmeshed in the rivalry of nations vastly more powerful than itself. Poland's allocated role has been that of pawn: never acquiring the stature to be valued for its own sake, but moderately useful if traded or sacrificed.
Perhaps understandably, Poles today are preoccupied with the fear that the past may repeat itself yet again: that a Poland left dangling between East and West risks once again being devoured or overrun.
At a recent gathering of Central European security experts convened on the outskirts of Warsaw, this sense of vulnerability was acute. As evidenced by the concerns of these experts -- drawn from Hungary, the Czech Republic, Romania, Latvia, Estonia and Ukraine as well as Poland -- the threat posed by Russia remains ominous, palpable and immediate.
The bloodletting in Chechnya, in this view, serves as the latest reminder of Moscow's insatiable imperial ambitions and penchant for brutality. The battering administered to Grozny is proof positive that the very idea of a benign, democratic Russia is a preposterous illusion.
Thus, to Poles and other Central Europeans, the willingness of some in the West -- and especially of the United States -- to consign Chechnya to the status of "internal" problem is not only baffling but worrisome in the extreme. How, they wonder, can we be so blind?
If a Russia once again on the march is the problem, then the North Atlantic Treaty Organization is the solution.
Indeed, for Poland and its neighbors, joining NATO has become an obsession. NATO is the means by which nations such as Poland will anchor themselves in the West, ending once and for all the dilemma of being at the mercy of more powerful antagonists. Above all, NATO signifies permanent alignment with the United States. Thus, gaining admission to the alliance would provide at long last the assurance of security, thereby permitting post-Communist Poland's pursuit of material well-being and its embrace of Western culture to proceed without interruption.
There is in all of this an element of touching naivete. At a time when -- as evidenced principally by Bosnia -- NATO stands in unprecedented disarray, Poland and the other nations of Central Europe are clamoring to join a partnership that in their eyes continues to epitomize strength, solidarity, and clarity of purpose.