Ukraine and Poland: Time to Shed Myths

12 July 2011, 16:41

In the past two decades we have all become accustomed to viewing Poland as perhaps our sincerest friend and ally, a kind of advocate in the EU, a promoter of numerous joint cultural programs, etc. Poland is translating and publishing Ukrainian writers; our scholars and teachers are working there, while parliamentarians and intellectuals in both countries are solving the past problems step by step and increasing mutual understanding between our elites and societies.


On July 15, 2009, Poland’s Sejm passed a resolution accusing the OUN and the UPA of “mass murder that has the character of ethnic cleansing and the marks of genocide.” Moreover, it says that the Polish parliament “honors the memory of the fighters of the Home Army, Self-Defense of East Lands and Peasants’ Battalions who rose to wage dramatic struggle in defense of the Polish civilian population and remembers with pain victims among the Ukrainian civilian population.” 

Thus, it de facto and de jure denounced the 2003 documents on mutual reconciliation and forgiveness and, moreover, cynically distorted historical facts. The truth is that during the Second World War the Polish government in exile and its local representatives firmly insisted on keeping all pre-war Polish territories, including Volyn whose population consisted of 80% ethnic Ukrainians and a mere 15% Poles. They pursued a patently colonist and imperialist policy in a bid to keep Volyn and Galicia to themselves at any price. This led Ukrainians to a full-fledged anti-colonial war essentially similar to most other wars of this kind, for example, in Africa and Asia which were painted in rose colors only in Soviet propaganda. 

In this war, waged under Nazi occupation, the Armia Krajowa or the Home Army soldiers in Volyn, Galicia, Chełm, and the region beyond the San River were exploited as a tool by mad émigré politicos. (They dreamed after the war: “One atomic bomb and we’ll get all the way to Lviv.”) This is a shameful page in the otherwise heroic history of the Home Army, just like participation in the Volyn massacre was a stain in UPA’s history. This conclusion is corroborated by published documents dating from the time which describe methods used by the Home Army to cleanse Ukrainian villages – there were plenty of genocidal elements there as well.

However, Poland’s ruling elite has decided to ignore this uncomfortable historical truth. To make things worse and in addition to the Sejm’s resolution, the “Volynian monument” was erected in Warsaw with a provocative inscription. Fortunately, no one in Ukraine – not even radical nationalists – came up with an idea of building a monument with a similar message which could read: “In memory of Ukrainians tortured to death by Polish chauvinists from among ND and AK [Armia Krajowa, or Home Army] members in Volyn and West Ukrainian borderlands of Ukrainian ethnic territory in 1939-47.”

The unwillingness of Polish intellectuals to see the evident seems to have turned into a habit, and a dangerous one at that, both for Ukraine-Poland relations and, above all, for Poland itself. Here is what Jagienka Wilczak wrote in her otherwise to-the-point and incisive travel notes in The Ukrainian Week (Is. 23): “Lviv’s atmosphere? It is almost not there if you mean the climate of multiculturalism when everyone feels at home. Instead, you notice some kind of fumes – do they come from the Kryivka restaurant, an apotheosis of the UPA’s ideology, or from the reverberations of the May 9 events this year? There is this stifling nationalism which, it seemed, would have had to fade. But it is growing. What’s going on? I have the impression that Lviv has taken a step back and that someone has dispelled its atmosphere since the time of John Paul II’s visit here.”

I am curious to know whether the author has found equally poignant words to describe “AK’s ideology”? Does she, in fact, know anything about the ideology she undertakes to judge? Have contemporary Polish journalists lost a sense of humor and hence an ability to judge Kryivka for what it is? Finally, can an educated Polish woman, as she looks for a mysterious “someone,” fail to grasp that the current Ukrainian government would not a priori let John Paul II, if he lived to this day, visit Ukraine and it would be Lviv’s fault?

But then even President Bronisław Komorowski of Poland, who is a noted intellectual, said in his June 10 opening address at Wrocław Global Forum: “After the change of power in 2010, Ukraine has shown progress in developing democracy in the country.” Was he perhaps referring to the statement Viktor Yanukovych made in late May at a forum of Central European leaders in Warsaw about the Ukrainian government being prepared to develop democracy and integrate in the Western world? 

In the words of the Polish president, of the East European countries that are not members of the EU, the situation with democracy has deteriorated only in Belarus. The only thing that offers some comfort is that the Sejm eventually scrapped the vote on establishing Memorial Day for Kresy Martyrs who died on the hands of the OUN and the UPA (the vote was scheduled for May 27). But the ruling Civic Platform party had submitted a draft resolution renouncing “a crime with the marks of genocide committed by the so-called UPA” and calling Galicia “East Lesser Poland.”


Based on my prolonged study of Polish media, I came to the conclusion that the above attitude of the larger part of Polish intellectual and political elite rests on a real foundation and does not boil down merely to someone’s personal whims or preferences.

The first element of this foundation is, unfortunately, the practical and ideological inaptitude of large groups of the Ukrainian political elites and intelligentsia which is a motley crew of jingoistic Polonophobes, refined Polonophiles and simply uncaring functionaries who are busy fighting for power, wealth and office. Is there a need for a detailed account of the past six years which revived Polish notions of “sincere Ukrainians” as provincials incapable of constructive political and economic activity? Is there a need to recount the stories of “grant-based Polonophiles” who promote the ideas of multiculturalism and unbounded tolerance, while taking a side view of political and cultural events in Ukraine? Is there a need to explain why the no-nonsense Donetsk elite appear more pragmatic and sensible against this background?

Another component is directly linked to what I have spoken above: Volyn, the OUN, the UPA, the Galicia Division, Ukrainian nationalism, targets for our country’s development, and so on. Wide circles of Polish citizens have long held a series of sincere beliefs: the Ukrainian Insurgent Army consisted of butchers, arsonists, rapists, scoundrels, Nazi henchmen, etc.; Ukrainian nationalists are scum; Division Galicia was Fascist; Ukrainians are 99% (well, maybe 98%) guilty of the Volynian events.

The same convictions with certain variations are widespread in intellectual circles, including those that eagerly make contacts with the Ukrainian side. The thing is that Ukrainian partners here are those who hold either patently Polonophilic or immanently post-modernist views. Post-modernism, which perceives national problems as something mythological and even dangerous to contemporary society, easily finds acceptance in the Polish intellectual environment, especially Ukrainian post-modernism in its territorial and oftentimes linguistic dimension. It is inherently indifferent to Ukraine’s sociopolitical problems. For example, a Kyiv-based theoretician of this trend identified his position as strongly as an I-couldn’t-care-less attitude to all things national, while another one noted that it is only “sometimes that he remembers that his language is Ukrainian.” Certain groups of Polish and Ukrainian intellectuals easily find understanding within this discourse, but not outside it.

Thus, Poland’s elites, middle class and even plebeians, i.e., people who see the world through TV screens instead of applying their own reasoning faculties, largely agree that Poland needs to have by its side the kind of non-nationalistic, mild Ukraine that will be prepared to admit considerable Polish impact on its historical progress (or at least keep conveniently silent in response to claims to this effect). 

It is a kind of Ukraine which will not feel the pains of the past and will dismiss as irrelevant tragic historical events that can shape future strategic partnership. And this is, of course, a Ukraine in whose capital there will never be monuments to Bandera, Shukhevych and Konovalets, while Piłsudski (and Petliura as his younger companion) will be revered. So it turns out that Poland’s ideal partners were Leonid Kuchma, Viktor Medvedchuk and Dmytro Tabachnyk in the past and now Yanukovych, Mykola Azarov and, again, Tabachnyk as a dyed-in-the-wool, tried and tested fighter against Ukrainian nationalism and its main representatives, the OUN and the UPA.
Therefore, it is no wonder that Poland applauded Yanukovych and his lieutenants when they said that Hero of Ukraine titles earlier awarded to Bandera and Shukhevych would be revoked. (Was it the thing that Komorowski perceived and referred to as “democratization”?) The Polish mass media commented on the May 9 events in Lviv along the line “a riot of neo-fascists from Tiahnybok’s Freedom party.” In this, they viewed the situation in exactly the same way as Ukrainian and Russian communists did and, just like them, preferred to overlook the openly provocative actions on the part of Yanukovych’s administration and the actions of visiting Russian neo-Nazis from the Crimea and Odesa.


However, all of the above combined with the Polish society’s sincere sympathy and its political elite’s somewhat concealed support (due to the diplomatic restrictions) extended to the Ukraine Without Kuchma campaign participants. Add to this Poland’s true admiration for Ukrainians during the Orange Revolution. Clearly, the romanticism of fighting for freedom played its part. (Is there a true Pole who would not give it its due?) But there is more to it than that. What happened was that false historical memory receded into the background. This history has been imposed on Poles by both their past communist government (which encouraged exposés of “killer Banderites”) and the current “fighters against Ukrainian nationalism” some of whom, no doubt, are working in close cooperation with Russia’s FSB. 

The history of Ukrainian-Polish relations in the 20th century knew not only tragedies and conflicts but also self-sacrificing heroism of hundreds of thousands of Galicians and Volynians in both factions of the Polish Army during the Second World War from September 1, 1939, through May 9, 1945. There were also joint actions by imprisoned Polish fighters and Ukrainian insurgents in the late 1940s in GULAG camps where former enemies quickly found a common language and had the upper hand over criminals who used to rule the camps with the connivance of the administration. Later, they were the most active participants in camp rebellions.

Most importantly, however, the normal development of an independent, strong Poland largely depends on the establishment of an independent, strong Ukraine – today just like in Piłsudski’s time. The problem is not only about the “cold wind blowing from Moscow” which perhaps only graduates of Soviet universities can fail to perceive. (Today they are found in all Polish and Ukrainian government structures). If Ukraine joins the EU with Poland’s support, great opportunities will open up before Warsaw – its weight in the EU will de facto increase proportionately to the 46-million-strong Ukrainian population.

In general, the Polish elite have to understand that only a developed nation-state is capable of partnership relations, i.e., a state that puts strategic national interests (and ambition, if you will) before short-lived advantages and the comfort of its oligarchs. Today, a nation-state is impossible without a reliable foundation, traditions and valuing the past. 

Poland will have a reliable partner in Ukraine only if it turns into a country in which UPA fighters will be recognized as national heroes; the majority of the population will treat Ukrainian nationalism as being the same as patriotism; and the national-cultural ghetto will be no more. True, it will not be easy for Poland to find understanding and common ground with this kind of Ukraine, but once found, this foundation will become a stable reality in the relations between our states and nations. This Ukraine will be totally different from the despotic element of the “Russian world” which Yanukovych’s administration is trying to turn this country into.

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