Once upon a time – long, long ago – there existed a kingdom, a nation which has now disappeared off the map without a trace. By many it was regarded as a beautiful, romantic land, with castles, palaces, a place of fairy-tales. Words like honour and romance were held in deep regard. In a word, Ruritania was an idyllic land.
However, by others it was believed to be a place of dread, of small-minded pettiness, a country ruled by despotic, nationalistic leaders who often use the word ‘honour’ but have no real concept of it. In this country, racial strife and ethnic tension are a daily occurrence. In a word, this Ruritania was an oppressive state.
Although the concept of Ruritania was invented by the writer Anthony Hope and sold to the world most famously in The Prisoner of Zenda, there is a great possibility that this concept – the idea of such a region – existed in the minds of Europeans for a long period of time. The idea probably still exists. Commentators often talk of Europe 1 and Europe 2 – those who joined before and those who joined after.
What the above two descriptions of Ruritania tell us is that this place was/is a fantasy, or rather a place of extremes, intense emotions and vivid occurrences. Ruritania is often posited somewhere in Eastern or Central Europe. In the map (right) I have given two suggestions of where it could be, although I could have just as easily added several more.
The first (Western) Ruritania encompasses German Saxony, part of Brandenburg (importantly including the lands of the Sorbians – themselves a possible Ruritanian microcosm), part of Polish Wielkopolska and Śląsk as well as a large part of Czech Bohemia.
The second (Eastern) Ruritania (pictured left) encompasses a great part of what the Poles fondly refer to as the Kresy, ‘Borderlands’, as well as parts of Eastern Poland, Western Ukraine and Western Belarus.
The common denominator in both Ruritanias is Poland. Why? For many Poland is a place of great natural beauty, hospitable people, marvellous food, good Christian values and homely warmth. For others, the land of the Poles is a sad, grey cityscape punctured by islands of parochial dimwittedness, nationalistic fervour, bigotry, sexism, ultra-Catholic misogynists.
Which is it? As always the truth probably lies somewhere in between. Poland is undoubtedly one of the most fascinating and paradoxical places I have ever come across and one often needs to grit one’s teeth to get through the day. However, there are many things about the place which are utterly surprisingly and amazing. It keeps us on our toes.
When I think of Ruritania I like to think of something I read by Hermann Hesse:
Beautiful at least is that eastern half of Europe which is travelling drunk after the Holy Grail on the road to Chaos, singing like Dmitri Karamazov.