Why the relations between Ukraine and Poland are that sophisticated: interview with historian Andriy Portnov

What caused the complication of Ukrainian-Polish relations: political games or drastically different interpretation of the same actions in Ukraine and in Poland? What passed unnoticed because of Ukraine’s rigid logic and what the way out of the situation is? UCMC presents an abbreviated translation of the interview with Ukrainian historian Andriy Portnov, researcher of Polish-Ukrainian-Russian relations and of the problematics of memory in Europe, guest professor at the Humboldt University in Berlin.

UCMC: How can you define what is going on now between Ukraine and Poland? Does it arise from objective problems, or does it come as a result of manipulations with historical issues?

Andriy Portnov: I would say that it is a very bad phase of mutual misunderstanding. This misunderstanding is not a problem stemming from the lack of historical knowledge. It appeared because history became a subject of political manipulations both in Ukraine and in Poland. […] Unfortunately, Ukraine has to get ready for the situation when the relations with its closest western neighbor will be deteriorating.

Why did it happen? There is a popular thought and some circles in Poland share it, that everything started when the “Law and Justice” (“PiS”) party won the parliamentary elections, and should it not had happened, everything would be wonderful. I think it’s an illusion. Both sides – the Polish and the Ukrainian ones are guilty. Guilty because of a series of ill-advised moves that were not taking into consideration the reaction of the other side as well as because of the lack of understanding of the context the other side has.

UCMC: Do you mean street renaming?

AP: Yes, in particular. In Ukraine, the renaming is usually considered in the context of the Russian aggression, Maidan, the search of historic symbols that would have a clear, say, independence-anti-Russian connotation. From the Ukrainian perspective, as seen by both the sympathizers of Bandera and Skukhevych, and by the opponents of Bandera and Shukhevych, this discussion is usually lacking the argument that it is an anti-Polish step. Instead, from the Polish perspective – and all the Polish media were writing about it on their front pages for weeks – the prospects named after Bandera and Shukhevych that emerged in Kyiv are first of all an anti-Polish move. […]

Similarly, one may sense the lack of understanding on the Polish side that in the Ukrainian discussion about the nationalistic resistance movement the narrative of its anti-Polish actions is not the primary one, the primary ones are anti-Soviet actions and cooperation with Germans.

Moreover, on the Polish side, the theme of the Volhynian massacre of 1943 as of the genocide against Poles comes as a significant symbolic and ideological confirmation to the strong historic stereotype of Polish suffering and of a Polish victim. Over the recent years the case of Jedwabne was being actively discussed in Poland (Jedwabne is a town in eastern Poland where in 1941 the Poles burned alive their Jewish neighbors) as well as that the Poles are responsible for this crime. However, the argument that is being spread now is “first of all Poles themselves are innocent victims, hundreds of thousands of innocent victims in Volyn and Halychyna”. What seems most alarming and subject to the strongest regret is that such argumentation often comes as justification for, say, disdainful attitude to Ukrainians who are currently working or studying in Poland. The ещзшс of Volyn and Halychyna actually concerns not only Polish-Ukrainian relations but is also a theme of domestic politics in Poland.

UCMC: Is it fair to say that “Law and Justice” – the party in power, plays the leading role in that?

AP: One thing is important. When the Sejm and the Senate were voting for the resolution recognizing the Volyn massacre a genocide and establishing the Day for the commemoration of its victims, the decision was supported by all parties. All, without exception. That’s why it would be too simplified to think that only “PiS” supports this position. […]

If we look at the Polish media, not only the far-right Polish media write about the events in Volyn in 1943 as about the genocide. Almost all the most important actors of Polish political and intellectual scene agree that it was a genocide and agree with the fact that the canonization of Bandera is unacceptable.

In the contemporary Polish discourse, there are too few voices are warning that by playing with the victim complex and turning Volyn into the “Holocaust of the Poles” a very dangerous situation is being created in Poland that may provoke growth of xenophobia. It’s high time Ukraine realized that the situation is very serious. Both Polish and Ukrainian elites have lost time to try and politically resolve this issue in a more or less peaceful way.

UCMC: When should have they done this?

AP: Ideally – whatever awkward it may sound – during the Yanukovych presidency. At that time the dialogue was more or less calm. […] And at that moment the then Ukrainian authorities – and we do know what they were like back then – made several crucial mistakes. You probably remember, there was an episode when the Polish President Bronisław Komorowski came to Ukraine’s Volyn region for the anniversary of the Volyn massacre. It was back in July 2013. Yanukovych was supposed to come as well but later he said: “well, no, I’m off for a vacation in Crimea”. For the Polish public opinion, it came as a slap in the face. Фдерщгпр I’m sure Yanukovych did not have a clue what it all was about.

The next “slap” – after the Maidan this time already – became the adoption of the so-called decommunization laws, that also recognize the veterans of UPA (Ukrainian Insurgent Army) as fighters for Ukraine’s independence. To remind, respective voting at the Verkhovna Rada [Ukraine’s Parliament – UCMC] took place immediately after Komorowski delivered a speech there. Many in Poland interpreted this situation in the following way: the law on acknowledging the UPA was consciously adopted right after the speech of the Polish President in order to humiliate him and Poland. […]

Another important thing: unfortunately, some Polish circles have recently started voicing the ideas that were not there before (or they used to be absolutely marginal) and that sometimes sound similar to the Putin’s propaganda. It is visible, for example, in the rhetoric ways used to describe the Maidan. Some people are using Volyn as an argument that Poland should not be helping contemporary Ukraine in some strategic aspects like fighting the war and resolving the issues of Donetsk and Luhansk regions. […]

UCMC: The possibility of Russia’s involvement in introducing and distributing fake information on the Polish-Ukrainian relations and on monuments destruction has long been discussed. In the end of February Informnapalm [a Ukrainian OSINT group – UCMC] released an investigation containing the proof that at least part of the anti-Ukrainian actions was indeed organized by the Kremlin. How seriously are taken the threats of the Russian intervention in Poland and do they intend to respond to them?

AP: I think smart people do see it. Basic logic suggests Putin would benefit a lot if Ukraine and Poland were enemies so that there would be no regional cooperation projects, it would be ideal for the Kremlin if Poland stopped supporting Ukraine’s European integration. However, unfortunately, many people in Poland even understanding this keep saying what we mentioned earlier because apart from the Russian influence, there’s a very strong domestic need for this theme.

Undoubtedly, the Russian security service will work on this, and after all, have been working for long. […] But, at the same time, one needs to understand that this destructive potential of the actual phase of the Polish-Ukrainian relations has emerged and is developing with no connection to the attempts of the Russian security service to influence it. […] Despite the external Russian factor the problem remains between Ukrainians and Poles, between the two societies, the two political elites. In this case, you should not attribute everything to the Russian Federal Security Service (FSB) only.

UCMC: Is there a way to contrast this rise of the tension with a constructive discourse?

AP: If we speak about the Ukrainian side (let’s leave the Polish one to the Poles), first of all, we need to figure out how the situation we are facing today emerged. We do not fully realize how painful the Volyn theme is for the Polish society. The worst thing one may use is to stick to the merely reactive logic: someone from the outside said or did something and we are justifying ourselves. It is a dead end. We need to think up a whole new agenda, be looking for creative moves, cultural events in particular that would send a very simple message: Poland is important for Ukraine, we respect Poland, we are not saying: “we have our own situation, we have to fight with Putin”.

It is of utmost importance to think up a positive program around an obvious statement that Poland for Ukraine is a “gateway to the West”. It is an EU member state to which the highest number of Ukrainian emigrate. Its language is close. It is the common history that can be summarized neither as confrontation nor as eternal love. The richness of historic relations as well as of political and economic perspectives is much more important than the logic of confrontation like “you are talking about genocide – so do we”, it is not going to bring any good results. If the final goal, and I hope it is like that, is to develop good relations with Poland, expand the margins of Ukraine’s cooperation and integration with the EU, one should not use the logic of searching for “their own genocides” but instead the logic that Poland is important, close and needed for us. […]

UCMC: You mentioned that it would be good to move the discussion on the Volyn events into the international context of ethnic cleansings and genocides and involve the people like Timothy Snyder and experts on the Balkan wars…  

AP: Yes, it is important not to give an impression that such things were happening only here. It would be good to invite well-known experts from different countries – these could be the experts from Germany, Israel, and Canada, it would be also good to have the experts from Japan and China where the cases of mass killings also took place. We need a competent international commission. I think it’s not only Poland that needs it, Ukraine needs it as well because it happened in the territory of today’s Ukraine, it is what directly concerns the Ukrainian experience of the war that is very much confusing and controversial. And after all, those who start talking about their historic guilt have a stronger political position. […]

Moreover, Ukraine’s initiatives on the Volyn issue could demonstrate to the international community that Ukraine has a responsible approach to its complicated past. It is by the way what is expected from all potential EU member states.