The 11th of November is commemorated worldwide to mark the end of the First World War. It has a special significance for Poles as it marks their independence. Poland had not existed as a nation for 123 years, having been partitioned between the powers of Austro-Hungary, Prussia, and Russia. Not that Poland had taken it lying down, those years where it didn’t exist as a nation were marked by rebellions, protests, and resistance.
Vodka in Politics and War
Naturally it should come as no surprise that vodka is intertwined with the struggle for independence. One of the most famous brands of Polish vodka is Soplica. First produced in 1891, it has the distinction of being the oldest industrially produced vodka in Poland. Its creator, Bolesław Kasprowicz, was also involved in the Polish independence movement. He served as the president of Gniezno and was also involved in the Wielkopolska Uprising of 1918-1919. This Uprising would have a significant effect on the Treaty of Versailles and the territory that the Second Polish Republic would receive.
In Russia (including the regions of Poland it controlled), vodka remained a state monopoly until 1863. For Poles making it at home it was a subtle act of resistance much like the Irish poitín makers in the 19th and 20th centuries. Russian defeat in the Russo-Japanese war of 1905 resulted in a Tsarist ban of vodka in a move that stunned the empire. The ban in 1914 provoked riots and mass violence as drinking dens were burnt out and police fired on rioters. It drove the industry underground.
It’s no surprise that both the Polish and Bolshevik governments recognised the power of vodka. The Bolsheviks would remove the ban but in Poland the new government would make the production of clear vodka a monopoly in 1925. In many ways it can be considered to be the lifeblood of a nation.
Poland has changed much. Once it was the largest nation in Europe but it also didn’t exist on a map for more than a century. Its borders have shifted incredibly, no other country has moved around so much. In the 17th century Poland’s borders stretched from the Baltic to the Black sea. The close of the Second World War saw its borders move over 100km to the west at the behest of Stalin. It can be hard for outsiders to appreciate the significance of 11th November but for Poles it is a tribute to their resilience and tenacity in the face of adversity.
Check out the video below for a great visualisation of how Poland’s borders have changed, died and been reborn over the ages. (Tip: Best watched with x2 playspeed. You can speed up Youtube videos by clicking on the settings (cog) icon and selecting playspeed)