Can grassroots historical initiatives bridge the gap between Poland and Ukraine?

With politicians in both countries unwilling to back down over worrying historical legislation, it’s up to historians, activists and journalists to reshape Polish-Ukrainian relations.

Svitlana Oslavska
1 May 2018

2011: Exhumation of victims of the 1943 Ostrówki massacre, in which at least 474 Poles were murdered by Ukrainian nationalists. Photo CC BY-SA 3.0: Leon Popek / Wikimedia Commons.Today, the main difficulty of relations between Poland and Ukraine lies in the field of history. To be more precise, in the events of 1943 in north-west Ukraine, when Ukrainian nationalist formations massacred tens of thousands of Poles near the border with Poland in the Volhynia/Volyn massacre.

While Polish and Ukrainian historians are not able to agree on numbers and the basic facts of these events, the topic is increasingly manipulated by politicians and far-right groups on both sides. In this context, long-term grassroots initiatives aimed at mutual understanding are one way to keep reconciliation going.

Working for Ukrainian-Polish dialogue in Ukraine

When Walenty Wakoluk from Lutsk, the centre of Volyn region today, had enough of listening to statements like “there are no Poles in Volyn today”, he launched a Polish-Ukrainian newspaper. For almost a decade, Wakoluk, an architect by profession, has worked as editor-in-chief of Monitor Wolynski, a bilingual publication that serves as the main source of news about the region’s Polish community.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Volyn’s Polish community was far from numerous, Wakoluk tells me, but it existed. It was made up of Poles who remained after the Volhynia massacre or who returned from Soviet deportation, as well as Polish women who had married into the Soviet military. Monitor Wolynski thus became the voice of the several thousand Poles who live in Ukraine’s north-west.

Monitor, financed by the Polish Senate, pays a lot of attention to history, publishing memoirs of Poles who used to live in the region or stories about Poles repressed when the Soviet Union occupied this territory in 1939. “All our texts aim to show this was a human tragedy, beyond ideologies,” says Natalia Denysiuk, who is deputy editor-in-chief of Monitor. For Denisyuk, finding the descendants of individuals who were repressed is the greatest reward for her job.


Walenty Wakoluk. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.“We want knowledge to dominate in the newspaper,” Wakoluk tells me. At the same time, many topics have to remain without commentary as the newspaper cannot afford to involve historians too often. When amendments were made to the Polish Institute of National Remembrance in January 2018, Denysiuk just translated parts of the bill into Ukrainian, without commentary.

“Breaking the stereotypes”, one of Monitor’s goals as a newspaper, sounds like a cliche. But in a situation where history is used for politicians’ needs, this mission is far from abstract. “What are those stereotypes today?” I ask as we drink tea at Monitor’s small office in the centre of Lutsk, the region’s administrative centre. “That’s easy. The Ukrainians aren’t butchers, nor Banderites, nor villains. The Poles are not lords who drink blood from the villains,” Wakoluk, 62, explains. “What annoys me the most is the Ukrainian stereotype of a Pole who wants to take back the territories, the Kresy,” he adds, using the Polish term that designates formerly Polish territory in what is Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania today.

For Wakoluk, the events of the 1940s are also his family’s story – in 1943, three members of Wakoluk’s family were killed by Ukrainian nationalists. The rest of the family, Wakoluk adds, was rescued by Ukrainians.


“Monitor Wolynski”, the bilingual publication that serves as the main source of news about the region’s Polish community. Photo courtesy of the author. All rights reserved.The newspaper’s attention to history hasn’t gone without conflicts. In 2009, a local branch of the Ukrainian nationalist Svoboda political party demanded a public apology from Wakoluk for mentioning the Volhynia massacre. “I wrote about Volhynia not for the sake of revenge. We want this dialogue for truth and remembrance,” Wakoluk explains.

Wakoluk mentions the possibility of dialogue about the past, although he is quite skeptical about it. Public knowledge of the 1943 Volhynia massacre is scarce in Ukraine, while in Poland it has become one of the pivotal points of the national narrative.

Working for Ukrainian-Polish dialogue in Poland

For the past eight years in Lublin, some 200km from Lutsk, Aleksandra Zińczuk has been trying to build bridges between Ukrainians and Poles. In 2010, Zińczuk initiated a project to collect stories of people who helped each other in 1943-1947 in Volhynia and Galicja regions. Based on the idea of the “Righteous Among Nations”, people who rescued Jews during the Second World War, this project tells about Ukrainians who rescued Poles during the conflict. For this project, “reconciliation through difficult remembrance” (the project’s title) is one of the steps to reach a common standpoint for the painful history.

In the first expedition to Volhynia in 2012, a team of students from Ukraine and Poland collected around 150 interviews. In 2013, a book was published in Polish, Ukrainian and English, combining witnesses’ testimonies with articles by Polish and Ukrainian historians.

Aleksandra Zińczuk during an expedition to Volyn in 2012, by Beata Wydra.As with many other initiatives connected to Volhynia, this project originated in Poland. However, Zińczuk wants to stress the support from the Ukrainian side, paying tribute to Yuriy Matushchak, a young historian from Donetsk who died in 2014 at the Battle of Ilovaisk. The support of such people, Zińczuk is convinced, shows that attempts at reconciliation aren’t one-sided. At first, people in Poland were afraid of participating. “Some of them told it is too late to talk about these topics, others – it is too early,” Zińczuk remembers.

Aleksandra Zińczuk returns to her initiative. “It is aimed first of all at getting to the last witnesses of history to ennoble them as witnesses and encourage telling what has not been described yet,” she says, “It was also about finding some threads of reconciliation. What happened in 1943 is evil, but we cannot build future only on negative things.”

Aleksandra, who is now 36, says nobody taught people from her generation about what happened in Volhynia. She got to know about it from TV and media. Only after Zińczuk started traveling to Ukraine did she understand: this remote (or still alive) history generates problems between Poles and Ukrainians even nowadays.

In both Ukraine and Poland (albeit to a different extent), state education systems didn’t give the full facts of what happened in Volhynia in the post-war period. This story was told in families, perhaps contributing to the establishment of good relations between Poland and Ukraine after the collapse of the Soviet Union. As Yaroslav Hrytsak, a Ukrainian historian, said at the presentation of a book written together with Polish journalist Izabella Chruślińska in Lviv in March this year: “Reconciliation happens when a new generation grows up, for whom those events emotionally do not matter.”

Another step backward

New additions to the law about the Polish Institute of National Remembrance are the latest challenge for the “true revolution” in Polish-Ukrainian relations – Yaroslav Hrytsak’s term for the post-1989 positive turn between the two countries.

While the world has reacted to the introduction of legislating against “falsely accusing Poles of complicity in the Holocaust”, other points of this legislation have caught the public’s eye in Ukraine. It mentions “crimes perpetrated by the Ukrainian nationalists and members of the Ukrainian formations which collaborated with the Third Reich.” The Ukrainian Foreign Ministry was displeased with this decision, calling the bill an attempt at a one-sided interpretation of historical events that “portrays Ukrainians only as evil nationalists and collaborators of the Third Reich”.

“This situation looks different nowadays. It is connected with the shift of the foreign and memory policy, and with the change of the government”

In retaliation, the Ukrainian Institute of National Remembrance cancelled the participation of Ukrainian historians in the regular meeting of the Polish-Ukrainian historians’ forum. “Until the law has changed, we cannot ensure safety for Ukrainian historians, and thus we propose to continue meetings in Ukraine, where researchers can enjoy freedom of discussion,” says Volodymyr Viatrovych, who heads the institute. On the official level, historians’ dialogue has thus been frozen.

Aleksandra Zińczuk explains that this new law was an effort by Polish politicians – in the form of far-right Kukiz’15, Law and Justice and the Polish People’s Party – to reach their electorate. She recalls different reconciliation gestures from both Ukrainian and Polish sides prior to 2015: meetings between presidents, paying tribute to victims, articles in the media etc. “This situation looks different nowadays. It is connected with the shift of the foreign and memory policy, and with the change of the government”, Aleksandra concludes, referring to the right-wing Law and Justice political party that took the majority in the Sejm in 2015.

Aleksandra Zinczuk, by Piotr Łucjan.Walenty Wakoluk thinks that this new legislation requires “more precise definition”, and was surprised by the fact they were passed in the circumstances of Russian aggression in Ukraine. For Wakoluk, this is Poland’s answer to Ukraine’s 2015 decommunisation legislation. This legislation glorified the “fighters for the independence of Ukraine in the 20th century”, including members of the Organisation of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN) and Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). But regardless of the new legislation, Walenty has no doubts that calling both Poles and Ukrainians to account for the dark sides of their past is crucial.

Lukasz Adamski from the Centre for Polish-Russian Dialogue and Understanding mentions there are traces showing this new legislation was inspired by Polish nationalists’ circles, who are “sometimes under the influence, often unconsciously, of the Kremlin”. Adamski refers to an article published by Gazeta Wyborcza, which argues the dating used in the bill (“The Polish Institute of National Remembrance will investigate the crimes committed by the Ukrainian nationalists in 1925-1950”) comes from the documents of the Soviet security services.

Moreover, according to Adamski, the legislative amendments are odd, as the crimes of Ukrainian nationalists’ formations were covered by the definitions of war crimes and crimes against humanity that have already been mentioned in the older version of the law.

Even if the new legislation is changed by Poland’s Constitutional Court, the problem is that every step ignites hysteria in the media, affecting the thousands of Ukrainians who work, study and live in Poland. According to the Association of Ukrainians in Poland, almost half of the negative mentions of Ukrainians in social networks in Poland in the year of 2017 are connected with history, mostly with the Volhynian events of 1940s.

What do Poland and Ukraine need for reconciliation

Steps towards reconciliation have been made on political and civil society level between Poland and Ukraine since the 1990s. However, politicians’ declarations did not touch on controversial issues, resulting in a “declarations fatigue”, as Karolina Wigura, editor-in-chief of Polish weekly Kultura Liberalna, puts it.


Piotr Tyma. Source: Youtube.Piotr Tyma, chairman of the Association of Ukrainians in Poland, argues that politicians on both sides have played a negative role in the reconciliation process, painting the events in black and white and taking decisions without understanding the context across the border. At the same time, Tyma is optimistic: although the reconciliation process has stopped on a state level, on the level of society, the dialogue continues.

As emphasised by historians in Poland, there are precise steps needed for the reconciliation process to continue. “We need to set up a common register of victims from both sides,” says Jaroslaw Syrnyk, a historian from Wroclaw University and a fellow at the Polish Institute of National Remembrance. Another issue underlined by Syrnyk is that both sides need to look after memory sites and graves.

Poland, it seems, will not be satisfied until Ukraine refuses to glorify members of OUN and UPA. However, Ukraine’s decommunisation laws are designed to create an anti-Soviet narrative of the past that is based on an interpretation of the OUN and UPA’s contribution to Ukrainian statehood, rather than an anti-Polish narrative. The way to break this impasse could lie in paying less attention to the memory politics of neighbouring states.

“Keeping mutual respect to the difference in our attitudes to some history periods and figures is a condition of friendly relations,” Volodymyr Viatrovych comments. But the question of the historical truth is still here, Walenty Wakoluk is sure: “We need to organise a joint commission on the European level to investigate Volhynian events.”

“Our responsibility is showing stories of human solidarity and bridges of dialogue”

“We have to honour those people who were murdered, survivors and rescuers, explain nationalist mechanisms that in extreme forms lead to a dangerous solution as ethnic cleansing,” says Aleksandra Zińczuk, adding that her dream is for a common history textbook and a Polish-Ukrainian centre for dialogue. “Our responsibility is showing stories of human solidarity and bridges of dialogue.”

Polish and Ukrainian societies need to prepare for a long process of reconciling with their shared, but difficult past. And this is the case not only for Polish-Ukrainian, but also Polish-Ukrainian-Jewish relations. As the Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak often says, quoting Madeleine Albright, reconciliation is like cycling: the moment you stop spinning the pedals, you fall down.


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