Poland and Russia: a relationship damaged beyond repair? It does not have to be

Contemporary Poland is a fine and pleasant place, a country that has found again its place in the realm of European culture and tradition where it always belonged. A less fine and pleasant thing about today’s Poland is, however, the omnipresence of hostility towards Russia. One does not have to love Russia, of course, and historically Poland may have serious grounds to feel animosity towards her Eastern neighbour. But more than 30 years have passed since the fall of Communist regimes in Central Europe though, and Poland still has trouble getting over the wounds of the past. Today Poles are divided about many things, from the relation of Poland towards the EU to abortion and LBGT rights, but most people agree on one thing: “The Russians are evil”.

In an article recently published on the web portal “Jagiellonia.org”, connected to the Polish Senate and the Freedom and Democracy Foundation (“Fundacji Wolność i Demokracja”), the Polish journalist Włodzimierz Iszczuk writes:

“After the annexation of Crimea, Putin said that Crimea has religious significance for Russia. This argument can also be used by Russian creators of myths in relation to the cradle of European culture and civilization – Rome. After all, Moscow has positive experience in stealing someone else’s history and fame. All of Europe remembers well how Tsar Peter I brazenly stole the name and fame of Kiev: he renamed Moscow to Russia. […] the word “Etruscan” in Russian sounds like “Etrusky”, ‘et Russian’, or ‘this is Russian’.”

The author goes on: “Central television broadcasts, films, books and pseudoscientific research devoted to the Russian origin of the Etruscans fill the information space of Russia. Readers and viewers deliberately incline to the conclusion that the Romans took the Etruscan heritage from the Russians. And these stories are transmitted through all media channels. The young generation of Russians is growing up in the belief that the Russians founded a highly developed Roman civilization. Existing scientific evidence does not impress these young people. They want the justification of “imperial majesty” and Russia’s claims to the historical and cultural heritage of the entire European civilization. The mass consciousness of Russians is prepared to accept more declarations by Russian politicians. No longer about Crimea, but about the sacred “Russian” Rome – the cradle of European civilization”.

This is what passes as information about Russia and the Russians in Poland – paid for by the Polish government. As proof for his story, written only a few days ago, the author offers a link to a short 2 minute video from 2014. Young Russians, like many other millenials across the world, I fear, are infinitely more likely not to know at all who these Etruscans were rather than to think that Rome was founded by the Russians. Russia is not planning to take Rome because it desires to annex the whole of Europe. And this is just the latest example of a cascade of articles, videos and other messages which every day educate Poles about the crazy, dangerous and malign neighbour.

It has become a trope of Polish mediatic and political discourse that propaganda is a very Russian prerogative: “The Russians stole the internet”, was just one of the titles that comes to mind, carried by one of the most respectable magazines in the country. Did Russia really steal the whole of the internet? This kind of analyses and communication methods, however, do not raise Polish discourse very much above the crudest form of Russian propaganda. People across the Western world, from the United States to Germany, from Italy to Ukraine, have been conditioned to associate “fake news” with “Russia” and “Kremlin trolls”. The story about hordes of uncouth Russians believing that Rome was founded by their Russian ancestors is no less fake than the most brazen of fakes of Russian propaganda.

In the Europe of 2020, Poland may be one of the most dynamic and interesting places where to be. Its young and energetic population give the country a fresh vibe that other more prosperous and senile countries have lost long ago. But if it aspires to a more decisive role and a more meaningful voice in the concert of European nations, which it will deserve, it needs to find a more mature and sensible tone towards Russia.

There was much outcry in Poland some weeks ago when Putin remembered the Polish Ambassador to Nazi Germany, Józef Lipski, who in 1938, one year before the Third Reich invaded the Second Polish Republic, promised to erect a monument to Hitler in Warsaw, if the Führer could fulfil his plan to deport Jews, including Polish Jews, to Madagascar. Poland, however, was playing the offended innocent virgin, when in reality it had long been aggressively promoting a ruthless war of words with Russia. To make this clear one more time: one does not have to love Russia. But if one adopts a pose that excludes any dialogue a priori then it’s short-sighted to pose as the victim when others fight back. Poland of course as one of the most trusted US allies has only a limited space for manoeuvre. Any hint of a more considerate attitude towards Russia would be seen by some as a dangerous reapproachment. However, that’s what a skilful diplomatic policy should have to do if Poland really desires peaceful coexistence and dialogue with Russia, as would be in Poland’s best interest.

Stefano Di Lorenzo

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