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Kazimierz Wóycicki

Remembering World War II: Russia, Poland and Ukrainian Factor

Russia, in the words of its Minister of Foreign Affairs Sergey Lavrov, has no intentions to hand over the title of the victor in the World War Two. It was a reply to Grzegorz Schetyna, Polish Foreign Minister, recently underlining participations of Ukrainians – Red Army soldiers of the 1s Ukrainian Front – in liberation of Auschwitz-Birkenau, German Nazi concentration and extermination camps, in 1945. According to Moscow, words of the Polish Minister may be perceived as “taking away Russia’s victory” and should be followed by an apology from Warsaw.

There is no reason, however, for offering such an apology and the Kremlin’s hysterical reaction shows that seemingly the casually mentioned facts touched a raw nerve in the context of Russia’s historical policy and propaganda.

By Kazimierz Wóycicki | Read in Polish

Soviet propaganda poster, World War two. Author: Pesell. Source:: Wikimedia Commons

Soviet propaganda poster, World War two. Author: Pesell. Source:: Wikimedia Commons

Moscow has been laying an exclusive claim to the glory of being the main victorious power of the World War Two. The manipulated version of Russia’s – then the Soviet Union – history of the Great Patriotic War stays one of fundamental myths of imperial Russia. For a long time, “The Patriotic War 1941-1945″ has been treated as a source of national pride and glory for the Soviet Union as well as contemporary Russia. According to this concept, Russia is allegedly the main winner of World War Two and liberator of half of Europe. Huge sacrifices and losses of the Soviet population are invoked by contemporary Russian propaganda to justify political demands and morally blackmail political opponents. Therefore, “victory”, “liberation” and “20 million victims” are repeated again and again, in order to block out all other interpretations of the history of this period. Minister Lavrov seems forgetting that the emergence of independent states such as Ukraine no longer allows to talk about 20 million victims of World War Two as only Russians, and to claim an exclusive right to speak in their name. For example – among those 20 million people, 8 million were at least Ukrainians and 3 million – Belarusians.

Moreover, we cannot talk about the Red Army liberating anyone outside Russia. Liberation is supposed to bring freedom, while the Red Army brought the communist power and a new occupation. So instead of talking about liberation, the debate should be rather about the delivery from the hands of the Third Reich. Unfortunately, sometimes a rescue from the hands of one oppressor comes from another violator. That was the case back in 1945 if we take into account the terror introduced by the Soviet security apparatus (NKVD, NKGB, SMERSH) on conquered territories.

Another important question concerns the nature of the Red Army. When Minister Lavrov complains about being deprived of the victor’s glory, he implicitly admits that it was an army of a colonial empire, with its center in Russian Moscow. According to the Kremlin’s minister, the victory should belong to Russians even though all the peoples of the empire, including, among others, Kazakhs, Tajiks, Buriats as well as Ukrainians and Belarusians, were serving in the Red Army. Although detailed statistics and research are lacking, we may assume that Russians constituted about 50-60% of the Red Army personnel. On the other hand, if we are to believe available memoirs, Russians were an absolute majority among political officers as well as the staff of institutions charged with supervision and repression of potential and actual political opponents.

Another important question is whether Soviet Russia was “one of the Allies”. We may claim that the Western Allies were forced to recognize Russia as a partner in order to gain its support. However, the objectives of the Western Allies – those who started the war with Hitler in 1939 – and the objectives of the Soviet Union were completely different. In years 1939-41 Stalin was an ally not of the West but of Adolf Hitler and the Third Reich. In 1939-1940 the Hitler-Stalin pact allowed Germans to conquer Poland and Western Europe. Stalin was also preparing for war with Hitler, however not in order to restore the freedom of France, Belgium and the Netherlands, but to conquer and dominate the entire continent. In 1940 the Kremlin Dictator watched the War in the West with satisfaction as a conflict between two of his enemies – the “capitalist” West was treated by him as the opponent on par with the Third Reich.
It must also be remembered how Stalin treated his own Red Army. In his eyes soldiers were “cannon fodder”. His cynical adage referring to the losses in his own ranks – “u nas ludey mnogo” (there are plenty of people in our lands) – is well known. He waged a war in a bandit-like manner, with absolute disregard for the lives and sacrifices of the soldiers of his own army. He did not care for the lives of Russians, and even less for the lives of the non-Russian soldiers drafted into the imperial army on the colonized territories.

Ukrainians, Belarusians and other nations have a right to their own history. This tragic period had a deep impact in various spheres on everyone. Poles understand it perfectly. Russia can’t have a monopoly for interpretations, especially as they are inspired by the Soviet totalitarian ideology, designed according to its political and imperial goals.
The fact the first liberator of the Nazi German camp was Ihor Pobirchenko, later professor of law, could be a pure coincidence – it could be anyone else of a different nationality or ethnicity. Yet it remains a fact of symbolic value, mentioned by the Polish Minister. It is an opening for celebrating the 70th anniversary of ending the war, the anniversary instrumentally treated by the Kremlin as a triumph of Russian imperialism, which for the rest of Europe was a tragedy instead of a victory – the beginning of enslaving half of the continent and its people, and the Cold War .


About the Author: Kazimierz Wóycickiborn in 1949 in Warsaw, studied philosophy at Katolicki Uniwersytet Lubelski in Poland. Interned during the period of martial law in Poland in the 1980s. BBC journalist (1986-1987). Head of  the Polish Institute in Düsseldorf (1996-1999) and Lipsk (2000-2004). Head of Szczecin section of Institute of National Remembrance (2004-2008). Ministry advisor to Polish Office for War Veterans and Victims of Oppression. Senior Fellow at Centrum Stosunków Międzynarodowych in Warsaw; lecturer at Uniwersytet Warszawski. Co-founder of the Polish-German Kopernik group (awarded by Viadrina University in 2008).  Memeber of Polish PEN-Club.

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Kazimierz Wóycicki, ur.1949 w Warszawie, studia filozoficzne na Katolickim Uniwersytecie Lubelskim. Więziony w stanie wojennym. Dziennikarz BBC (1986-1987). Dyrektor Instytutu Polskiego w Düsseldorfie (1996-1999) i Lipsku (2000-2004). dyrektor oddziału szczecińskiego Instytutu Pamięci Narodowej (2004-2008) doradca ministra w Urzędzie ds. Kombatantów i Osób Represjonowanych, Senior Fellow w Centrum Stosunków Międzynarodowych w Warszawie, wykładowca Uniwersytetu Warszawskiego. Współinicjator „grupy Kopernika” – polsko-niemieckiego kręgu dyskusyjnego (nagroda Uniwersytetu Viadrina w roku 2008). Kierujący zespołem doradców społecznych przy Sejmowej Komisji Spraw Zagranicznych i red.nacz. „Debaty” – materiałów komisji (2009-2011), prezes Stowarzyszenia Przyjaciół Muzeum Historii Polski, członek polskiego PEN-Clubu.

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