Russian politics of memory towards Poland

The bones of contention between Poland and Russia

Out of the many countries in Europe with which Russia has had conflicts over historical interpretation, Poland occupies a special place. It belongs to those countries – alongside Ukraine, Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia – which have been criticized by Russian authorities and Kremlin-friendly commentators the most frequently and vehemently. One can also claim, without exaggeration, that Poland is one of the favorite targets of a historical hate campaign carried out by the Kremlin-controlled popular media.

by Łukasz Adamski


There are certainly many purely political reasons for such policy by the Kremlin, its diplomatic branch and other structures. It is enough to mention that Poland and Russia have a different view on security architecture in Central and Eastern Europe, a different vision of the desirable political development of common neighboring countries, particularly Ukraine and Belarus. Moreover, Poland belongs to those countries which advocate value-based foreign policy and as such, have been engaged in the promotion of sanctions against Russia as a response for the latter’s breach of international law with the occupation of Ukrainian Crimea and the Donbass.

Vladimir Putin, the President of Russia (photo by CC BY 4.0)

However, no conflicts of political nature alone can explain the undisguised emotions accompanying the comments of many Russian officials, including President Vladimir Putin, on the issues of the Polish-Russian past. They cannot provide convincing answers as to why Russia has been using manipulation and, sometimes, even open lies, so intensely in 2019, in order to discredit Poland and its history. Nor can they explain the whitewashing of Soviet crimes against Central and Eastern European nations. Thus, aiming at understanding the reasons, goals and methods of Russia’s politics of memory with regard to Poland, one has to discern that the vision of Polish history promoted by Kremlin is deeply anchored in many historiographic myths or, in the best case, in controversial interpretations coined in the times of tsarist Russia or the Soviet Union. Even many professional historians are not free from these myths, let alone amateur ones…

The bones of contention between Poland and Russia

There are at least six bones of contention between Polish historiography and national memory, on the one hand, and opinions on the same subject that prevail in Russia, on the other. They may be briefly summarized as follows:

  1. How long have Poland and Russia been neighbors? 450 years as Polish historians usually argue, or more than a thousand years, as is customarily held by their Russian colleagues. This difference of opinion reflects various views on the problem of when the Russian state emerged. Can it be identified with the early medieval conglomerate of the Eastern Slavic principalities ruled by the Rurik dynasty with the dominant symbolic – and periodically also political – position of Kiev and called ‘Rus’ (in Latin ‘Ruthenia’ or ‘Russia’)? Or should maybe one set the principality of Moscow, which emerged in the 13-14th centuries from the north-eastern parts of Ruthenia after its disintegration, as the beginning of the Russian statehood? Is Russian statehood, called Muscovy by the old-Polish diplomacy, only one of the several successors of Ruthenia, along with the Great Duchy of Lithuania and the Kingdom of Poland which subsequently merged into a Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth. Or is Russia is, let us say, the only legitimate heir of Ruthenia ruled by members of the dynasty established by the Viking warrior Rurik?

    Capitulation of Russian garrison of Smolensk before Władysław IV of Poland in 1634 (CC BY 3.0)
  2. How to assess the many-centuries long presence of Polish statehood and culture on the territories of contemporary Ukraine and Belarus? Depending on how one answers the above mentioned question, the two competing grand narratives of Ukrainian and Belarussian history appear. When one sees Russian statehood as the only legitimate continuation of the medieval Ruthenia, then the incorporation of its western part – today’s Ukraine and Belarus – into a Polish or Polish-Lithuanian state may be viewed as foreign rule or, in a more radical interpretation, even as a ‘yoke of the Polish nobility’ imposed over a Russian people. Consequently, the emergence of the Ukrainian and Belarusian nations appeared as a result of the Polonization of Russian people. Yet, when one rejects the above mentioned assumption and treats Ruthenia as rather short-lived conglomeration of Slavic tribes, then it is the Russian rule, installed in Ukraine and Belarus in the late 18th century, which appeared as a conquest. Thus also the Polish presence on those territories emerged as a neutral, if not a positive, phenomenon.
  3. How to assess the emergence of the “Uniate Church” in the lands of today’s Ukraine, Belarus and Eastern Poland in 1595? Was the establishment of the union of the orthodox eparchies in Poland-Lithuania with the Holy See and creation of the Catholic Church of Eastern Rite a natural return to church unity or an attempt by Polish elites to compulsory convert to Catholicism, and afterwards polonise, an Orthodox people?
  4. How to assess the Soviet Union? Was it a totalitarian rogue state which cannot be compared to any other European countries such as, for example, pre-war Poland, which neither sought to destroy the European peace, nor attempted to topple the basic norms and values of European civilization. Or was it, irrespective of its totalitarian nature, a legitimate participant in international relations behaving in the same way as other great powers, or even middle-sized states such as Poland, did. The first view dominates absolutely in Poland, but it is also represented by some democratic and anti-totalitarian inclined Russian intellectuals or historians. The other view is widely held by Russian officials and many representatives of Russian public opinion.

    Hands tied on the victim’s back (public domain)
  5. How to assess the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the invasion of Poland by the Red Army on 17 September 1939 and the subsequent installment of Soviet rule over 52% of Polish territory? Was it an act of aggression against Poland, resulting from collusion of two totalitarian states as symbolised by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and, for sure, the occupation of Polish territory, as it is commonly accepted in Poland and in most of the European historiography? Or did the pact not differ from other such agreements with Hitler signed by European states, including Poland, as the Kremlin asserts. Proponents of this interpretation in Russia usually also claim that the incorporation of the Eastern part of the Polish state was in no way an illegal annexation, but rather a legal action resulting from the ‘de facto’ collapse of Polish statehood and embracing only ‘non-Polish’ territories, lost by Soviet Russia in a result of the ‘Polish aggression’ of 1920.
  6. How to assess the events of 1944-1945 and post-war history? An interpretation significantly prevailing in Poland says that the country was not liberated by the Red Army – the latter merely terminated the German occupation. The Polish people did not become free [at this point], but rather received a puppet pro-Soviet government, terror, persecution of the supporters of legal government (residing in exile since 1939), and an inefficient economic system. In Russia, it is emphasized that the Polish people were saved by Red Army soldiers from Germany’s realized genocide, and the inclusion of Poland into the Soviet camp was a result of the outbreak of the Cold War.

    Polish troops in Warsaw, 19 January 1945, public domain

Development of Russia’s historical politics towards Poland

Looking into those six sets of problems, one can clearly realize that all of them are of vivid importance for Russian public opinion since they refer either to historiographic beliefs deeply anchored in national culture, sometimes even constituting its basis, or they touch on the assessment of the Russian Empire and Soviet Union, particularly its foreign policy. The latter has been so far often appraised not because it was Soviet, but because it was imperial and accorded the Russian people a high status among the most influential nations in the world.

It is, no wonder that after the Russian state had abandoned attempts to condemn the Soviet past and decommunize the nation’s memory – a tendency observed even in the late 1990s with growing intensity under Putin – it increasingly rehabilitated Russia’s imperial narrative. That ultimately contributed to the deterioration of any historical dialogue with Poland, which had been developing quite well under Boris Yeltsin early on, and led to the decision to prevent the westernization Ukraine by any means necessary, even a war. Poland, with its politics of memory opposing both 19th-century imperial and Soviet visions of the Russian identity, appeared not only as a neighboring heavyweight and historical rival provoking emotions from Russian public opinion, but also as a generator of measurable threats to the goals of Russian politics towards post-Soviet Eastern Europe . In the Kremlin’s view, Russia and the ‘near-abroad countries’ should retain a feeling of a common history and culture, and to some extent, also of the common Russian language.

Lenin’s mausoleum in Moscow (photo:; CC BY-SA 2.0)

This explains partly why Russia did not declassify many documents related to problems of vital importance for Poland, e.g. some documents on Katyń massacre or about the Augustów Roundup – a killing of at least 592 peasants along Polish-Soviet border lands in July 1945 for their alleged support of ‘anti-Soviet bandits’, i.e. an anti-communist resistance movement. This also explains why another attempt to foster a historical dialogue and promote reconciliation with Poland, made under President Dmitry Medvedev in the years 2008-2012 and supported by the Russian Orthodox Church, was hobbled after it had achieved some successes, such as the establishment of special institutions in Poland (by the act of the Polish parliament) and Russia (by the decree of the president) dedicated to dialogue between both nations, or the publication of valuable books on difficult issues on a common past with parallel essays by both Polish and Russian authors or displaying Andrzej Wajda’s film about Katyń in the Russian media. Despite many efforts, also undertaken by the above mentioned bodies, significant portions of information about the Soviet crimes against Poland or Polish people continued to be treated as a state secret and held under seven seals in the Russian archives.

Moreover, Russian decision-makers were conscious that Poland contributed significantly to a shift in the approach of the Western European states towards the interpretation of communism and Soviet foreign policy. The efforts of Poland and other nations, who, having been deprived of their freedom by the Soviet Union, have been pushing for the moral equivalence of both totalitarian systems: Nazism and Communism. The most recent and vivid example of that tendency, highly undesirable from the point of view of Russian political elites, was the resolution of the European Parliament on the 80th anniversary of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact which recalled that this agreement divided “Europe and the territories of independent states between the two totalitarian regimes, (…) grouping them into spheres of interest, which paved the way for the outbreak of the Second World War”.

The secret appendix to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact naming the German and Soviet spheres of interest (public domain)

This resolution, alongside with the removal of the Red Army’s monuments in Poland – an action carried out under the new decommunization law adopted in 2016 – provoked several statements, issued by the highest Russian authorities, including Putin himself, bearing the hallmarks of historical revisionism and manipulations and commonly viewed as offensive to Poles. The most remarkable were, undoubtedly, Putin’s remarks about Józef Lipski, Poland’s pre-war ambassador to Germany. On 19 and 24 December 2019, the Russian president called Mr Lipski a “swine”, contrary to historical knowledge and based solely on a reprehensibly unprofessional reading of one of the diplomat’s reports. He and the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs suggested simultaneously, that pre-war Poland was an anti-Semitic country, that collaborated with Hitler and thus bore a partial responsibility for the Second World War and the Holocaust. The Russian-Polish memory war, which Putin’s comments triggered, ended several weeks later. The Kremlin probably realized that its attempts had backfired. It did not manage to sway public opinion in other countries that pre-war Poland had been co-responsible for the outbreak of World War II and that contemporary Poland had not overcome its allegedly anti-Semitic history and co-operation with Hitler. These accusations definitely did not fall on fertile soil in the West. Yet, also in Russia itself, they did not meet approval of reputable historians or journalists – a claim that that might be derived from their silence.

Altogether the narratives promoted either by the Russian authorities, president, diplomats, semi-official historical “societies” headed by the highest member of the Russian nomenclature such as Sergey Naryshkin, the head of Russian foreign intelligence service, and last but not least – by the popular media during this campaign reveal the most common sophisms – manipulative techniques or fallacious arguments, used to discredit Poland.


Monument to Brotherhood in Arms in Warsaw. In 2011, it was temporarily taken down (photo from 1970s; public domain)

The Kremlin’s fallacies

There are many manipulative techniques and fallacies in Russian statements and comments. Let us analyze some of those which seem to be used most frequently:

False analogies, complemented sometimes by open lies. One compares what is incomparable, e.g. the Soviet-German Non-aggression Pact of 1939 – which, despite its name, was a de facto agreement on aggression and the division of Central and Eastern Europe – with the Polish-German Non-aggression Pact, concluded in 1934, being a genuine non-aggression pact. Readers of articles published e.g. by the above mentioned Naryshkin can read instead that Poland signed a secret protocol against the USSR to its non-aggression pact with Germany, although such a protocol never existed. The readers also have not been informed that Poland signed the non-aggression pact also with the Soviet Union, namely in 1932, i.e. two years before the one with Germany.

Another example of applying false analogy is Putin’s speech in Gdańsk on the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War. Russia’s president juxtaposed the Katyn massacre, i.e. a murder by NKVD of almost 22,000 the Polish prisoners-of-war and representatives of Polish elites, arrested by Soviet occupation authorities, with the fate of the Red Army’s soldiers in Poland’s prisoners-of-war camps between 1920-1921. Many of the latter did indeed die, but this was die to the Spanish flu pandemic or other diseases resulting partly from the poor conditions reigning in these camps (Polish soldiers in Soviet camps of that time died of similar causes).

A mass grave at Katyn, 1943 (public domain)

False alternative. This eristic trick is used to convince the audience that Poland during 1944-1945 – like other Central European countries – was faced with two alternatives: either the continuation of Germany’s genocide or inclusion into a Soviet “zone of influence” This deliberately hides the third option – liberation by the Red Army and the restoration of sovereignty to these countries.

Etymological manipulations. A good example is the term “concentration camps”  applied to the prisoners-of-war camps or internment camps of pre-war Poland – while the latter might have been indeed called “concentration camps”, at that time the meaning of that term differed from the current one, which now applies to resembling the Nazi German death camps.

Reverse causation and retroactive determinism. This trick seeks to convince readers that the fall of Poland was the reason for the Soviet incursion on 17 September 1939, and that it was not the consequence of the latter. Sometimes even lies from Soviet propaganda are repeated that the government had escaped and the state had ceased to exist. In a softer variant there are arguments that since Poland fell in 1939 it was destined to fall.

Argumentum ad populum, when the Kremlin repeats certain biased views on Poland that exist in Western Europe, and, even more so, in Israel, e.g. about the country’s vivid and ubiquitous anti-semitism, allegedly characteristic for Poland and other countries of the region, presenting them as if they were the product of a scholarly consensus and not requiring further proof.

Soviet Red Army entering the Polish city of Wilno (Vilnius) after the joint German-Russian aggression against Poland (public domain)

Reductio ad Norimbergam – in which certain Polish assertions with regards to Soviet crimes are dismissed as not having been proved before the Nuremberg tribunal (or other international courts). It stands to reason that the propaganda does not mention whether those courts were legally entitled or politically capable to deal with those crimes or not.

Irrespectively of how irritating all those approaches and sophistic tricks might be, smarter individuals can easily expose the manipulative goals behind them. However, in parallel with those tricks another much cunning argument appeared – namely that both Poland and Russia manipulate history and that the truth would lie probably in the middle. This approach may also refer to a general form of equating Poland – a democratic country with a well-developed tradition of critical history – to Putin’s authoritarian Russia, which neither has overcome the narrative about its imperial and totalitarian past, nor drawn obvious conclusions from it for the future.

It is, however, difficult to assess, whether promoters of that view act on behalf of Russian state structures. The connections to the Kremlin may not exist at all, since the above presented false equivalence may well be an expression of the genuine beliefs of a non-competent commentator, and not necessarily an insidious method of manipulation.

Allegory of communist censorship, Poland, 1989. Newspapers visible are from all Eastern Bloc countries including East Germany, the Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia (artist: Jacek Halicki; CC BY-SA 3.0)

In general, Russian politics of memory towards Poland remains one of the main obstacles standing between better relations between both states. And it will continue to be so as long as the goals of Russian leadership with regards to the politics of memory – the promotion of imperial Russian and Soviet glory, the protection of the good image of the Red Army in World War II, the denial of Soviet war crimes and crimes against peace, humanity or crime of aggression, the downplaying of the totalitarian character of the Soviet Union, using a chimera of all-Russian identity as a determinant for Russian politics towards Ukraine and Belarus – contradict international law and normative assessments widely accepted by other European nations and the goals of Poland’s foreign policy.


Author: Łukasz Adamski. The author is a historian (PhD) and Deputy Director of the Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding