Russian-Polish tension: Anger at bitter truths

Dmitry Babich
Dmitry Babich was born in Moscow, in 1970. He has worked for various media outlets for 25 years, including The Moscow News and RIA Novosti news agency. He is currently working as a political analyst at Sputnik International, and is a frequent guest on BBC, Al Jazeera, CNN commenting on international affairs and history.
562 rifle regiment during a march. February 1945. Soviet troops in liberated Poland. World War II (1939-1945). Reproduction. © Vitaliy Saveliev
Poland’s media has recently been indignant about Moscow’s ambassador to Warsaw “putting a part of the responsibility for unleashing the war in 1939 upon Poland.” But what did the Ambassador really say and what was the context?

Jaroslaw Gowin, formerly the number two in the ruling Civic Platform party, echoed the phobias of many of his colleagues, when he saw in the ambassador’s words “Moscow’s strategy aimed at having a free hand from the West in its actions against Ukraine, Poland and the Baltic countries.”

Ambassador Sergey Andreyev was summoned to the Polish Foreign Ministry in a sign of Warsaw’s anger over his comments in a TV interview on Friday.

But what was the full text of the Russian ambassador’s phrase that made the Polish politicians so angry? And what was its context?

Speaking to the Polish television channel TVN24, the Russian ambassador described the feelings stirred in Russia by the recent desecration of tombs of Red Army soldiers fallen in the fight with the Nazis in 1944-1945, in the town of Milejczyce in north eastern Poland. The indignation of Russians is easy to explain: over fifty tombstones were damaged or simply cut to pieces; the attackers took special aim at Soviet symbols like the red stars.

Communist symbols are banned in Poland by law, but in the case of many monuments to the Red Army’s soldiers in Poland, the red stars, hammers and sickles are simply a part of historic reality – they were carried on the uniforms of more than 600,000 Soviet soldiers who died driving the Nazis out of Poland in 1944-1945. Quite naturally, such actions anger Russians, including communists and anti-communists.

So, commenting on the situation, the Russian ambassador Sergei Andreyev said Russo-Polish relations were at their worst since 1945. He added that, despite the condemnation of the events in Milejczyce by a short tweet from a Polish spokesman on social networks, Russia would never forget the Polish “war on monuments,” especially the recent removal from Poland of the monument to Soviet General Ivan Chernyakhovsky – the commander of a group of Soviet armies in what was East Prussia in 1945 (now thanks to him it is Polish territory).

The Army General died in 1945, after being wounded in combat. Chernyakhovsky is accused by today’s Polish authorities of armed actions against the Home Army – the most revered Polish armed force of World War II in today’s Poland. In 1945, the Home Army was often at odds with the Red Army since the Home Army was steered by the anti-Soviet government of pre-war Poland, which then found itself in exile in London. Countering the usual Polish arguments about the “stab in the back” from Stalin in 1939 (to which Chernyakhovsky had no relation), ambassador Andreyev said:

“It was among other things, the foreign policy of pre-war Poland that led to the disaster in September 1939, because during the 1930s Poland by its actions on many occasions blocked the creation of an anti-Hitler coalition not only with the Soviet Union, but also with other countries.”

Andreyev did not say anything about the “partial responsibility” of Poland for the war, so widely reported in the Polish media. His words are a bitter truth about the actions of the pre-war Polish government, which in no way diminishes the heroism of the Polish fight against the Nazi occupiers in 1939-1945.

As for Poland’s foreign policy BEFORE World War II, Sergeyev’s words can be backed up by some of the admissions of modern Polish politicians and historians. For example, in the early 2000s Poland excused itself from participating in 1938 in the division of Czechoslovakia – then the first victim of Nazi aggression in Europe. Poland then used the destruction of an independent Czechoslovak state for its own advantage, chipping off the region of Zaolzie, populated by many ethnic Poles.

All of that does not excuse Stalin for signing the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of 1939 and the secret protocols to it, which divided East European territories pretty much in the same way Czechoslovakia had been divided between Germany, Poland and Hungary in 1938 (in both cases, these divisions were made along ethnic lines and were left intact after 1945). That is why the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and its secret protocols were condemned by a special resolution of the Soviet parliament in 1939 for their immoral character.

This character, it should be added, reflected the terrible spirit of the times – safeguarding one’s own security at the expense of others. However, since the late 1980s the Soviet Union and Russia never presented their historic record as spotless and never adopted a “holier than thou” attitude, so typical of the Polish “historic policy” now. "Even children in Poland know that neither Ribbentrop nor Molotov were Polish,” Poland’s Prime Minister Ewa Kopacz said, criticizing the Russian ambassador for “not fulfilling his role of promoting bilateral relations” by his interview.

But then again, what is the big deal about the ethnic origin of the signatories of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact (whose real driving forces were in fact a native-born Austrian and an ethnic Georgian)? And also, what exactly did the Russian ambassador say? Here is the full text of Sergei Andreyev’s interview:

In 1939 the Soviet troops entered the territory of Western Belarus and Western Ukraine, when the outcome of the war between Germany and Poland was already apparent. Before the deployment of Soviet troops [on September 17, 1939] it became clear that Britain and France would not send their troops to help Poland. In that situation, all the Soviet Union could do was to guarantee its own security.

What is there in the words of the Russian ambassador but a bitter truth? The anti-Soviet Poland, which had been created in its 1939 shape by the then already dead Marshal Josef Pilsudski (whom Hitler openly praised), turned down Soviet offers of military aid in the 1930s, but proved unable to defend itself in 1939, with British and French allies staying on the sidelines. This is a fact that all serious Polish historians do not dispute: on the Western front, the Polish defenses cracked long before the Soviet troops entered Polish territory from the east, which were then populated mostly by ethnic Ukrainians and Byelorussians.

In 1944-1945 these territories, together with all of Poland, had to be wrestled from the hands of Nazi Germany – with a lot of Polish, Russian, Ukrainian, Byelorussian, Jewish (add here all the nations of the former Soviet Union) blood spilled for this holy cause. In fact, American, British, French and a lot more noble blood was spilled for that same cause on the other side of Europe – at that very moment. So, destructive actions against the monuments to Soviet soldiers in Poland – these are blows to the memory of the American, British, French, Indian, Chinese and many other allies too.

READ MORE: Reuters twists Russian envoy’s words, saying he 'withdrew his WWII remarks on Poland'

In recent years, "revisionist" voices in the Polish media went to the lengths which make Andreyev's statement sound very innocent.

For example, a young "historian" Piotr Zychowicz published a book "Ribbentrop-Beck Pact," which was a fantasy about the happy life Poland could have had if it allied itself with Nazi Germany in 1939 and if the Polish army attacked the Soviet Union together with the German Wehrmacht the same year. This book, which is a lot more insulting to Poland's anti-fascist spirit than Andreyev's interview, was declared "the book of the year" in Warsaw in 2012.

In 2010, Slawomir Debski, the then director of the Polish Institute of International Affairs, wrote that until the middle of 1939, "Hitler planned to attack Russia after his victory in the west of Europe." And in this attack, Debski wrote, "Hitler did not exclude cooperation with Warsaw." So, the terrible fantasies of the young Zychowicz could become a reality in 1939 and were probably thwarted only by the much-maligned Molotov-Ribbentrop plan in August 1939.

Unfortunately, decades of anti-Russian propaganda in the style of Zychowicz's book had their impact not only on Polish politics, but also on Polish public opinion. When Russia expressed its indignation over the removal of the monument to Chernyakhovsky, the forums of Polish newspapers, including the one of the nominally liberal (but not to Russia) Gazeta Wyborcza, became filled with insults not just to the Russian state or its president, but to Russians in general. Several readers even asked the moderators of Wyborcza why they usually delete the anti-Semitic comments, but give a free hand to the Russophobic ones. The question remained unanswered.

In fact, the modern Russophobia has a lot in common with the old East European anti-Semitism – it is equally inclined to conspiracy theories, irrational, aggressive, quite apt at finding enemies even in their complete absence. And just like anti-Semitism in the 1930s, Russophobia often enjoys complete impunity now.

A Polish visitor to TVN24’s forum nicknamed Delta121e hit the nail on the head commenting on the news about Andreyev's possible expulsion from Poland: “I have been asking myself for the past two days: who is twisting the minds of the young Polish people? Who is teaching them hatred, Russophobia, anti-Semitism, etc.? Who is doing that? The school, the family, the media? Or do they all share in this? The majority of Polish youth has not seen in their lives a single Russian, Jew or Arab in flesh and blood. But they are already prepared to hate… They start from destroying monuments and tombstones, then they pass to the next stage with arsons. What will be the following step? Suicide bombings? This is truly scary.”

One could not agree more. After the mass beatings of Russian soccer fans in Warsaw 2012, after the pogrom of the Russian embassy in 2013, after the calls to dispatch “volunteers” to fight Russians in Ukraine in 2014, what will be the next stage? Not only hooligans and extremists involved in all the three above mentioned “actions”. There were always “decent” politicians in tailor-made suits and ties, with nicely trimmed beards and “European” credentials, who supported the aggressive actions or at least expressed their “understanding.” These politicians carry the greatest responsibility.

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The statements, views and opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the author and do not necessarily represent those of RT.