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16 July, 2013 18:15   ▪  

The Economist: Volyn remains one the darkest chapters in the Polish-Ukrainian history, and one of the most misunderstood

On July 14 Poland’s President Bronisław Komorowski visited Ukraine for a memorial service for the victims of the Volyn tragedy in 1943-44. He was joined by Ukraine’s Vice Premier Kostiantyn Hryshchenko.

“It remains one of the darkest chapters in the two nations' histories, and one of the most misunderstood,” the article says. “Between February 1943 and February 1944, units of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army killed up to 100,000 Poles in Volyn and eastern Galicia, former Polish territories now in western Ukraine. The butchery reached its apogee in July, with as many as 20,000, including women, children and the elderly, murdered. Around 20,000 Ukrainians also died at the hands of Poles or Ukrainians who saw them as too close to the hated occupiers.”

“Many Poles have an idealistic view of their Kresy, the eastern borderlands to which Volyn belonged, as a collection of quaint, provincial towns and villages where Poles, Jews and Ukrainians lived in harmony,” comments Andrzej Szeptycki, an expert in bilateral relations from the Warsaw University. “The axes and pitchforks of Ukrainian nationalists, they believe, brought an end to that idyll.” 

However, reality was more complex, the article continues. “Throughout the interwar period, Poland practiced a harsh policy of assimilation of its national minorities, particularly Belarusian and Ukrainians, fearing they would become a fifth column. In addition to trampling cultural and religious rights, land was seized and redistributed to Polish military veterans, in hopes of reigning in the east,” writes The Economist.

According to Yaroslav Hrytsak, a Lviv-based historian quoted by the publication, Volyn stood out among those regions as Henryk Józewski, a former Polish spy it in Soviet Ukraine, was picked by Poland's interwar strongman Józef Piłsudski to build a Ukrainian nation there that is loyal to Poland, notably by supporting cultural initiatives and creating a loyalist Ukrainian party. The programme was reversed after Piłsudski's death in 1935. Ukrainians were barred from government jobs, workers' protests suppressed; Orthodox churches were destroyed and their adherents forcibly converted to Catholicism. As a result, both communist and nationalist elements among the Ukrainians called for ethnic cleansing of Poles from Volyn, the article writes. “It was worse than a crime, it was a stupidity,” Hrytsak comments.

READ ALSO: Should the Volyn Crime Be Condemned?

Overcoming historical problems will require years of sustained efforts, the publication writes, especially with the right-wing on the rise in both countries and relations between the two neighbors having grown edgy because of the frustration of Poland, Ukraine's principal advocate in Europe, with Kyiv. This does not bode well for Ukraine. 

“Ukraine still hopes to sign an Association Agreement with the EU in Vilnius this November. Mr. Sikorski (Radoslaw Sikorski, Poland’s Foreign Minister – Ed.) has said it has not yet met the necessary criteria; an initial May deadline for improvement was pushed back to June and then September. With the European Parliament facing elections in 2014, and Ukraine in 2015, failure now concludes.

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