We discussed the Polish-Ukrainian relations, the „deputinisation” of Russia, the ongoing war, and the rapid changes in world politics and history with the Polish historian Jan Malicki. Strong statements, possible solutions, and bold conclusions in the exclusive interview he gave to Hype&Hyper. Part I.
Jan Malicki is a Polish historian. He was involved in the democratic opposition movement during the communist period, and he was a co-founder, then head of the Centre for East European Studies at the University of Warsaw. The Centre for East European Studies is one of Poland’s most prominent centers for learning in Eastern European politics.
Poland’s Eastern policy was based on the guidelines of the Paris-based periodical Kultura and Jerzy Giedroyc’s doctrines until recently. I would like to start with a quote from him from the 1990s: „Our goal should be to normalize Polish-Russian and Polish-German relations while working closely with them to defend the independence of Ukraine, Belarus, and the Baltic states; we must realize that the stronger our position in the East, the more we will count in Western Europe”. When Giedroyc said this, he obviously did not take into account that a war could break out between Russia and Ukraine. What is Poland’s position now on this question?
It is not true that contemporary Polish eastern policy was based on Giedroyc’s ideas. I think that in recent years Giedroyc’s policy has been questioned and even rejected. For example, if Poland had stuck to Giedroyc’s doctrines, there would not have been such sharp Polish-Ukrainian or Polish-Lithuanian debates over the last five years. Giedroyc assumed that Poland’s main interest was to keep silent about certain things. Do not forget them but put them aside for the country’s interests. However, there have been several conflicts in Polish-Ukrainian and Polish-Lithuanian relations in the last few years since we have rejected Giedroyc’s idea of ignoring issues. I can mention the Polish minority’s problems in neighboring countries, especially Lithuania, or the Volhynia massacre.
For Polish-Ukrainian relations, it is even more typical that the two nations’ development paths have crossed each other, with one being an obstacle to the other. Today the main topic is Ukraine. What about the shadows of the past in Polish-Ukrainian relations?
Now, in wartime, none of these matters. There are incomparably more pressing problems on the agenda. Nonetheless, I do not want to skirt this issue. Before the war, Ukrainians had a certain fear of the Poles. They were worried that their western neighbor had not abandoned the plan to restore the First Polish Republic. That Poles have not yet let go of the Polish “Trianon myth.”
Obviously, it was no coincidence that Vladimir Zhirinovsky, the leader of the Liberal Democratic Party of Russia, came up with Ukraine’s partition.
This was in his mind exactly. To make the Zbruch river the border or draw it even further east. So, there were such fears in the Ukrainians. But there is the unresolved issue of the Volhynia massacre on the Polish side. Since the war broke out, nobody has been talking about this topic. But your question was whether we will return to these issues or will we deem them settled.
I am more interested in whether the current situation will contribute to the final settlement… Will it?
It will, definitely. Even if certain Ukrainian groups feared that the Poles would come to capture Lviv – which we, Poles, of course, love and cherish in our hearts – now that we have welcomed millions of their compatriots in Poland, they can see that there is no chance of Poland attacking Ukraine for Lviv A few weeks ago some officials came here from Brussels. They were looking for the refugee camps that they wanted to visit. It was a real shock to them when they found out there were no refugee camps because we had taken millions of people into our homes. In my opinion, the problems above in Polish-Ukrainian relations will evaporate. Likely, the Poles’ strong expectation for Ukrainians, that they should immediately kneel on the floor in Częstochowa and apologize for their sins, will also disappear.
There would still be a need for this from the political right though…
Yes, but I think this political slogan cannot work anymore because of the simple reason that millions of Poles have seen the devastated, ruined people with their own eyes. After this, it will not be possible to play the hardball and make strong appeals to Ukrainians. Since we are not seeing nationalist UPA fighters but refugees, primarily women and children; furthermore, we see the soldiers on the front line fighting not just for their country but also for the entire European Union. You do not need to be a genius to see this. Let me tell you a good example. The leading ideologue of anti-Ukrainianism in Poland is Tadeusz Isakowicz-Zaleski, a priest who bases Ukrainophobia on the Volhynia massacre. I know him well from the underground resistance movement; he is a very talented man. His anti-Ukrainian sentiment derives from the fact that Ukrainians murdered a part of his family. He is from an Armenian-Polish family of Lviv origin, and, as we know, many Armenians were killed in the East. Well, now he is also taking Ukrainian mothers and children to his convent. Anyone who believed he was bloodthirsty was wrong. He is doing what a good Christian shall do, namely helping the people whom someone beats. When the war is over, gestures and agreements between the two heads of state or prime ministers will be needed regarding the issues we share. Fortunately, everyone can see now that it is in Moscow’s interest to inflame the Polish-Ukrainian conflict.
But what about the Polish minority in Ukraine? Because their lives have not been easy in Ukraine… I am referring to the language law, which aimed to be against the Russians, but it is also disadvantageous for the Polish and Hungarian minorities.
These are the childhood illnesses of nationalism. You should not forget that Ukrainians are forming their nation now. If you look at the Feszty Panorama with Árpád standing on top of the hill, you can surely feel that Hungarians have a state with a thousand-year history. I feel the same when I see Bolesław I the Brave in paintings. But Ukrainians have no such things; their nation is being formed now; the ongoing war creates it. In any case, I am hopeful that the new Ukrainian state built on the ruins of the old one after their victory will be different. I hope it will be free from the teething troubles of nationalism because the Ukrainian nation will be born.
If we recall the Maidan Upspring, the Poles already at that time tried to play a leading role in global politics regarding the Ukrainian question. Nonetheless, they were quickly tossed aside by the Ukrainians, Americans, and Germans. What has happened now?
I want to start a little further back. We had problems with the European Commission’s and the European Parliament’s leaders and not with the European Union per se. Nonetheless, we became the black sheep in Brussels. Then Russia invaded Ukraine, and our government and President behaved as they should, and our opposition also mainly behaved as they should. The world is absolutely behind Poland now. Suddenly we found ourselves in the limelight despite the countless mistakes made by the PiS government. There are several reasons behind this. Firstly, our geographical location, secondly, the astonishing level of support the Poles provide to Ukrainians. Western politicians simply could not cope with these developments. They must accept that they cannot harass Poles and the Polish government anymore since Poland is on the front line now. We became a hub, and the US military is also being redeployed here. So, the bureaucrats in Brussels may still think that our government is terrible, but they must also acknowledge that the attitude of the Polish people towards Ukrainians is excellent. Oprah Winfrey’s behavior is a good example of this shift. She speaks live on television to hundreds of millions of Americans with tears in her eyes about how moving the Polish nation’s solidarity is. And it immediately goes viral. Can you imagine how much it would have cost if the Polish government had wanted to deliver the same message in a paid advertisement? We are getting this attention now for free, just because the Polish nation has behaved in a good Christian way. It is a bit similar to the Romanian history of the 19th and 20th centuries; they came out of every crisis well. We have always lost so far; this is the first time we have profited something.
Indeed, for Poles, the current situation in foreign politics seems to be a chance to win the lottery.
And let me add one more aspect. Without American commitment, NATO would be completely useless. Only the American commitment forced the Germans to reduce their resistance. Poland has made progress, and if we continue along this path, and the two bases will be indeed opened here, then a bit paradoxically, we can thank Putin for making Poland a regional power center. This is very important from a strategic political perspective. But it requires that Ukraine defends itself since we do not want Russia as our neighbor, even if we have a strong defense system. The first aim is to restore Ukraine’s freedom, and the second is to liberate Belarus from Lukashenko. These are the long-term objectives. However, Lukashenko can last only one day longer than Putin.
You just mentioned Putin; allow me one more quote, please. Back in the communist era, a foreign policy adviser of Jaruzelski described Gaddafi in a report: “In order to understand the leader of Libya, we must distinguish between two basic psychological disorders, namely paranoia, and schizophrenia; in the speech of the paranoid nothing is right, in the speech of the schizophrenic everything is right, except the starting point of the argument; well, the leader of the Arab socialist revolution suffers from both”. Do you think this could also be true for the President of Russia?
No, I do not think Putin is insane. He may have schizophrenic symptoms because of his isolation due to Covid, but only in the sense that he does not really talk to anyone because of his fear of assassinations and the virus. Thus, he makes his decisions only based on the papers he receives. This is a problem since if you talk to flesh and blood people, you can filter out whether they are lying or hiding something. That is probably why he is still convinced that the Russian army is the second strongest in the world and that they can defeat anyone. Moreover, closely relatedly to the misbeliefs above, he is also convinced that what he stated in his long speech on the day before the invasion is true, namely, that he can rebuild the „Soviet” Russia. For me, it sounds as absurd as if Poland, with its current GDP and the small Polish army of 200.000 personnel, would want to take back its territory until the Dnieper just because Ukraine is weak. I know that this is impossible. We could also create an ideology, of course, about how many things the Poles have created in the East, how long they have been there, how many cathedrals they have built, etc. It would even sound quite good, and there would certainly be many true elements. Among other things, the Poles built the cathedral and the opera in Lemberg (Lviv), and I could bring several other examples, even from Kyiv; even the Presidential Office Building was built there by a Polish person. But the world simply cannot work like this. A hundred years have passed, and we live in a different era. Nonetheless, Putin does not care; he wants to undo everything. Yet, he does not have schizophrenia, and he is undoubtedly not paranoid. He started the invasion because of logical assumptions. In 2015 Ukraine was shamefully handing over a chunk of its territory to Russia without firing a single shot. Putin concluded from this disgrace that his time to restore the Soviet empire had arrived. The fall of Kabul and the shameful US withdrawal gave the final push. It was perfectly logical to assess the situation in a way that the US is being led by a demented old man who just humiliates his country. Kabul is a real shame for the United States. After the Afghan tragedy, Putin thought the US would continue to back down and go into a „splendid isolation” regarding Europe. He believed that if America left Europe, he would have so many agents here, so much room for maneuver, that no one could stand in his way. That was the time when he decided about the invasion of Ukraine. The plans and scenarios were prepared; they are always worked out beforehand. Putin just had to decide when he wanted to implement them.
Author: Gáspár Keresztes | Hype&Hyper | Warsaw
Graphic: Roland Molnár | Hype&Hyper