A recent survey from Poland showing history as the biggest cause of discord with Russia may seem like a ray of hope for future relations. It isn’t. The gap is fundamental in nature and cannot be easily bridged, if ever.
Three out of four Poles consider “historical issues” as the main grounds for disputes with Russia, according to the report by the Warsaw-based Center for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding (CPRDiP) published earlier this week. Just 37 percent are concerned with economic issues, one in four cited current affairs, and a mere one in ten brought up cultural issues.
While that may sound like there is much common ground to be found, delving deeper into the report shows otherwise. For example, the most controversial “current issue” is not the situation in Ukraine, or the Nord Stream gas pipeline – the link between Russia and Germany bypassing Poland. Those only rank in single digits, while 44 percent of Poles polled point to the 2010 airplane crash outside Smolensk, Russia, that killed President Lech Kaczyński and 95 others.
That’s interesting, because the CPRDiP report is titled “Information war and historical propaganda,” and basically tries to argue that Poles are being subjected to both, coming from Russia – yet the Smolensk obsession suggests the effects of an internal infowar at work.
Namely, Kaczyński’s twin brother Jarosław, who currently heads the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party, has claimed ever since that the crash was really due to some Russian perfidy, rather than an accident due to bad weather and poor training, as Polish investigators determined.
Ironically, Kaczynski’s trip to Smolensk was supposed to bridge one of the other intractable issues between Warsaw and Moscow, the WWII-era killing of some 22,000 Polish officers that became known as the Katyn Massacre. First accused of the deed by Nazi Germany, the USSR long denied it – until Russia opened the archives after the Soviet Union ceased to exist and officially acknowledged and condemned it as a crime.
It is, however, the way both countries have chosen to deal with WWII after 1990 that has placed them intractably in conflict. The Russian Federation has rejected and condemned much of the legacy of the Soviet Union, but continues to revere its overwhelming role in defeating Nazi Germany, commemorating almost 27 million Soviet dead in the war and organizing military and civilian parades on Victory Day every year.
Poland, meanwhile, chose to cast itself as a victim of not just Nazi Germany, but the Soviet Union as well – asserting moral equivalence between the two and accusing them of jointly starting the war in September 1939. In this revised narrative, the Soviet defeat of the Nazis was nothing more than the beginning of four decades of “occupation” of Poland. In its crusade to demolish or remove any trace of Soviet presence, the current Polish authorities have also erased the contributions of Poles who fought alongside the Red Army to defeat Hitler – and there were many – and even openly disrespected those who liberated Auschwitz, the most infamous Nazi death camp.
What is particularly interesting about the current Polish rancor is that it doesn’t bring up historical grievances from long ago – the the 1612 attempt by the Polish nobles to take over Moscow; the 18th century partition of Poland by Russia, Austria and Prussia; or the 1920 war with the USSR. It is almost entirely focused on WWII.
It also fits perfectly into the Cold War-era revisionism by the US, which had quickly pivoted from being allies against Hitler to denouncing “Communist aggression” against “captive nations” in Eastern Europe. After the Cold War ended, almost all of those countries – including former Axis members – hastened to join NATO and replace their Soviet overlords with new American ones. Poland was no exception, becoming a member in 1999.
Today, Warsaw clamors for permanent US bases on its soil and Poles cheer when the US ambassador proposes they host US nuclear bombs, which Germany is now having doubts about.
None of this is so egregious it cannot be overcome through dialogue, but for this: while Russia has chosen to regard its WWII experience in the traditional terms of heroism and sacrifice, Poland has opted for a very postmodern angle of victimhood. Those two approaches reflect two entirely different ways of viewing the world, and are completely irreconcilable on a fundamental level.
This is why, even though Poles and Russians are neighbors with many cultural and societal values in common, there is a divide between them greater than any physical wall, and much harder to cross.
By Nebojsa Malic