Prime ministers Vladimir Putin (Russia) and Donald Tusk (Poland)
Several recent occurrences, in conjunction with each other, have been contributing factors to the increased commentary about the history between Russia and Poland. The recent instances include: this past August's OSCE resolution on (among other things) the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement, along with last month's 70th anniversary of World War II's beginning (on September 1, 1939), the Obama administration's scrapping of the missile defense shield program in Poland and the Czech Republic and a Polish parliament resolution stating that the World War II Soviet massacre of thousands of Poles at Katyn had genocidal traits.
Russia: Other Points of View (ROPV) features two articles on the subject of Russo-Polish history, which together, provide a more complete overview than has been generally (if not exclusively) evident in mass media. The two ROPV articles are Gordon Hahn's "NY Times Paints Problematic Portrait of Putin in Poland" (September 15) and Rodric Braithwaite's "Russia, Poland and 'History'" (September 25). Some additional points relate to the topic of what these articles discuss.
Besides the earlier Polish subjugation of Russia (pointedly mentioned in Hahn's article) are the tens of thousands of Poles who joined Napoleon in his attack on Russia in 1812. This instance can be countered with Russia's dominating position over Poland for a period prior to the 1812 invasion. That point relates back to the previous Polish subjugation of Russia.
The saying of two wrongs not making a right comes to mind. In fairness, this thought should not whitewash the faulty scenario of highlighting only one of the two wrongs. On a related note, "whataboutism" is not so illegitimate when it underscores an incomplete and/or inconsistently applied standard.
Polish leader Jozef Pilsudski's military and political maneuvers in 1919 (referenced in Braithwaite's article) were essentially a Machiavellian land grab. The Russian Whites (Volunteer Army) queried Pilsudski about an alliance against the Reds (Bolsheviks). The White Russian leadership favored the recognition of Polish independence, based on land where Poles were the most populous group. This contrasted with Pilsudski's view, which contributed to his refusal of the Whites' proposal.
On this matter, Red commander Mikhail Tukhachevsky made the following observation:
"If only the Polish government had succeeded in coming to an agreement with Denikin before his defeat. Denikin's offensive on Moscow, upheld by a Polish offensive from the west, could have had a much worse ending for us; and it is even difficult to guess its final results. The complex combination of capitalistic and nationalistic interests did not allow this coalition to be formed, as the Red Army was able to face its foes one by one, which considerably lightened its task."
The preceding is cited on page 322 of Dimitry Lehovich's "White Against Red: The Life and Times of General Anton Denikin," (W.W. Norton & Company, New York, 1974) with reference to page 114 of a 1964 released Ministertsva Oborony (Defense Ministry) volume one book "Izbrannye Proizvedennia" (Chosen Works), which was published in Moscow by Voennoe Izdatelvstvo (Army Publishing House).
Bolshevik leader Karl Radek said that Pilsudski "shamefully treated Denikin and the Entente." Radek's comment is cited on page 208 of George Brinkley's "The Volunteer Army and Allied Intervention in South Russia, 1917-1921," (University of Notre Dame Press, 1966) with reference to page 86 of Radek's 1923 book "Vneshniaia Politika Sovetskoi Rossi," (Foreign Policy of Soviet Russia) published in Moscow by Gosizdat (State Publishing House). In his book, Brinkley notes that Pilsudski was not obligated to support the Whites.
Tukhachevsky and Radek are referring to a period (in 1919) during the Russian Civil War, when the Reds and Poles agreed to a then secret truce in their conflict. Radek's mention of the Entente refers to the World War I Allied side, which included the Whites. (The non-Russians of that Entente were not so involved in the Russian Civil War, as some have suggested. Concerning outside involvement with the warring Russian Civil War factions, the Bolsheviks received support in varying forms from some Western based sources.)
The White commander Anton Denikin was born and raised in the Polish part of the Russian Empire to an observant Polish Catholic mother and observant Russian Orthodox Christian father. He hoped that a successful White-Polish strategic alliance would lead to an improvement in Russo-Polish relations.
Pilsudski appeared to be keen on establishing a geo-political structure of pro-Polish states, to serve as a buffer against what he seemed to view as an inherently threatening Russia, regardless of its form of government. He also sought a Poland with borders that included areas where Poles were a small but sizeable minority.
Pilsudski chose to back Symon Petliura, who supported an independent Ukrainian state. Petliura faced several obstacles. Although having gained momentum, the idea of a separate Ukrainian national identity was not at the level that it was to achieve in more recent times.
The rival Reds and Whites supported some form of togetherness between Russia and Ukraine. Within the former Russian Empire territory of Ukraine, there was support for this view (which still exists to a degree).
Relations between the Russian Empire born Petliura and the Austro-Hungarian born Galician Ukrainian leadership became strained. The sudden coming together of people (Habsburg and Romanov ruled Ukrainians), who lived under different empires over an extended period was not so easy to piece together. Politically, the pro-Petliura Ukrainians were more left of center than the Galician Ukrainians.
The demise of European empires after World War I, saw Poland's reestablished clout and Pilsudski seeking to once again have all of Galicia as a part of Poland. (Galicia had been under Hungarian allied Polish and later direct Polish rule from about the middle 1300s to late 1700s). Eastern Galicia had (and still has as a part of Ukraine) an overall Ukrainian majority, with its largest city Lviv (Ukrainian)/Lwow (Polish), having (at the time, but no longer) a Polish majority. (As a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop agreement and with the exception of a period under Nazi occupation thereafter, eastern Galicia has been a part of Ukraine since 1939.)
Petliura's difficult predicament made him the significantly lessor of partners with Pilsudski. Petliura agreed to recognize eastern Galicia as a part of Poland; in exchange for Polish support of a geo-politically Polish allied Ukrainian state headed by him.
The Galician Ukrainians became allied with the White Russians. Somewhat analogous to the Galician Ukrainian-former Russian Empire Ukrainian nationalist relationship of that period, the Galician Ukrainian-White Russian alliance involved two groups, who did not live with each other in the same country. The historical reality reveals that the eastern Galician based Ukrainians staunchly opposed Polish, Nazi and Soviet attempts at being the dominant power over eastern Galicia. (The degree of Galician Ukrainian support for the Nazis lessened, due to the latter's harsh rule.) In a hypothetical Bolshevik defeat, it would appear that the Galician Ukrainian-White Russian alliance had a good potential for breaking down. On the other hand, the White Russians did not set eastern Galicia being a part of Russia, as a condition to their alliance with the Galician Ukrainians. In Ukrainian Galicia today, whatever misgivings towards Petliura, Poland and the Soviet Union do not seem to counter with a fond recollection of the White Russians.
Pilsudski's objective had mixed results. All of Galicia became part of Poland between two world wars, with the Bolsheviks establishing control over the land desired by the Polish supported Petliura.
Towards the end of the Russian Civil War, there was some limited cooperation between the Poles and Whites. This happened after the Bolsheviks had noticeably strengthened their position.
The discrimination that non-ethnic Poles faced under Polish rule between two world wars and the greater flaws of Hitler and Stalin are academically viable subjects. It is inaccurate to equate the Soviet domination of Poland with what the Nazis did. Ethically, the last point should not be used to sugar coat the described Soviet manner. A complete accounting of this subject notes that in Poland, (as well as in some other countries) there existed indigenous non-Soviet Communists, who supported Soviet policies.
It can be counterproductive to live too much in the past. Taken to its extreme, historical one-upmanship nurtures a faulty and divisive imagery, which leads to the greater likelihood of misunderstanding. Russia at large should fully understand the mood in Poland and vice-versa. Russia itself experienced depravation during the Soviet period. At times, there is a seeming impatience with the perception of how Russia en masse treats certain actions of the Soviet Union. In terms of getting a complete picture, one should not overlook that Russians are not so monolithic on a number of historical issues.
The annual May 9 Victory Day holiday in Russia and some other parts of the former Soviet Union does not honor the "genius" of a dictator (Stalin). Rather, that day commemorates the World War II suffering and heroic defense of a people. Victory Day does not focus on the post-World War II Soviet treatment of the countries it dominated. One can provide other comparative examples, relative to what is and is not highlighted in other countries. Offhand, it appears difficult to find examples of countries observing a holiday which highlight their past aggression and/or subjugation over other nations.
Russia has shown an openness on the past. The Russian government recently announced that Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn's Gulag Archipelago will be required reading in state schools. A recent Russian Orthodox Church Outside Russia (ROCOR) statement on Andrei Vlasov was carried in Russian media. The ROCOR release favors a more open review of Andrei Vlasov. Vlasov was a Soviet general, who in Nazi captivity became a non-Nazi/nominally allied with the Nazis opponent of Stalin. His forces ended up opposing the Nazis towards the end of World War II. In 1946, he was hung by the Soviet government. Whether one agrees with the ROCOR's sympathetic opinion of Vlasov or not, its call for a more open appraisal of him serves to delve further into critically discussing the Soviet period. The ROCOR is affiliated with the Russian Orthodox Church of the Moscow Patriarchate, which has been critical of the Soviet past.
The pessimists on contemporary Russia can emphasize the background of some Russians' and Russian institutes' prior roles. A constructive criticism of that country includes the recognition of how people and organizations the world over can change, while encouraging the younger generation to pursue a better path. It is not only Russia which can benefit with some change. In Russia, the continued existence of positive and negative trends reflect an ongoing process.
Michael Averko is a New York based independent foreign policy analyst and media critic.