The history of love and hate within the triangle Russia-Poland-Ukraine was always difficult to untangle even for Russians, Ukrainians, and Poles, let alone for uninitiated Western bystanders.
Poles and Russians almost incessantly fought each other, and Poles hated Russians even when both nations were officially allies. Poles and Ukrainians sometimes fought each other, sometimes they were friends. Before 2014, Ukrainians and Russians almost never fought each other (with an exception of two key episodes in the first half of the twentieth century).
Once Poland got rid of the Soviet yoke, it turned into the staunchest supporter of independent Ukraine, and, regardless of the circumstances in Kiev, Warsaw was the best lawyer representing Ukraine’s interests in the West. Poland was doing so not only out altruistic motives: after five centuries of confrontations with Russia, it would rather have an independent and pro-Western Ukraine on its eastern borders than an aggressive Russia, unable to give up its imperial dreams.
In early 2014, when Ukrainians (including Russian-speaking Ukrainians, and ethnic Russian citizens of Ukraine) provided fierce resistance to the pro-Russian separatists and Russian military forces in Eastern Ukraine, Russia was taken aback. They could not fathom how their ethnic brethren, the Ukrainians, would fire back at Russians. Surely, these were not real Ukrainians, but Poles, sworn enemies of Russia, ubiquitous Americans, and Western Ukrainians, whose ancestors fought a bloody guerilla war against the Soviets at the end of World War II and its aftermath. This was the time when the conspiracy-loaded meme “Poles, Americans, and fascists killing civilian population (of Donetsk)” was born. Following this logic, the Kremlin propaganda machine started to look for the way to breed bad blood between Ukrainians and Poles.
One of the most convenient subject for these purposes was the horrible 1943-44 Polish-Ukrainian massacre in Volyn and Galicia, which took place on the fringes of the World War II, far away from the frontlines. According to a predominant Ukrainian point of view, it was a regrettable ethnic conflict between Poles and Ukrainians in which both sides share fault. The Polish side claims that it was a planned action of ethnic cleansing carried out by the Ukrainian nationalist military organization UPA, while Polish AK fighters merely provided resistance.
Neither Russian nor Soviet historians had any special interest in this story; however, the war in Ukraine has suddenly changed their attitude. A flood of publications on this topic flooded Russian-speaking Internet and bookstores once the Russian-Ukrainian relations went sour. It was particularly striking that at the same time the Polish government, though run by leaders known for their nationalistic views, demonstrated a great deal of restraint while commemorating the seventieth anniversary of the Volyn tragedy, preventing any inflammatory anti-Ukrainian narrative from taking over the nation’s mood.
In response, the Kremlin has doubled its efforts, turning to its so-called troll factories to distort the truth and inflame sentiment. Polish editor Mateusz Bajek has noticed a sudden increase of troll activity in Polish-language sites in November 2013, shortly after the Maidan protests began in Kyiv. The internet trolls were aggressively exploiting the Volyn tragedy.
Strangely enough, the Ukrainian government was not helpful in this fight. In 2015, President Petro Poroshenko signed the “Bill on Honoring 20th Century Fighters for Ukrainian Independence,” which not only covered the UPA fighters involved in the Volyn massacre, but the law made it a criminal offense to deny their legitimacy not only for Ukrainians but for foreign nationals as well. According to Vice-Director of the Center for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding Łukasz Adamski, this law became a turning point in Polish-Ukrainian relations. “What divides Poles and Ukrainians today is not history itself: there are few people left, who remember Volyn tragedy, but the perception of it,” Adamski said.
It would be unfair to say that the Ukrainian side completely ignored this problem. Actually, Poroshenko laid flowers and knelt in front of the monument of the Volyn massacre victims on his last Warsaw trip.
This act might have mitigated the impact of the Kyiv authorities decision to rename Kyiv’s Moscow Avenue after Stepan Bandera, who, among other things, was known for inciting anti-Polish hatred among ethnic Ukrainian citizens in inter-war Poland and was indirectly responsible for the Volyn tragedy. The timing of this decision was highly inappropriate: in coincided with the massacre’s anniversary and the NATO Summit in Warsaw, where Poland tried hard to convince the allies not to abandon Ukraine in its war against Russia.
Some observers believe that Kyiv’s decision to rename the street after a controversial nationalist triggered decision of the Polish Senate (the Sejm) to introduce the harsh language legislation defining Volyn tragedy as genocide.
On July 22, 2016, the lower house of the Polish Parliament endorsed the genocide language proposed by the Sejm, and the initiative was signed into law.
It seems that both sides clearly missed an opportunity to channel this debate on obscure historical events which took place more than seven decades ago in a constructive way, providing the Kremlin with ammunition in its ideological war against Ukraine.