War minus the shooting: Russia vs Poland at Euro 2012


‘War minus the shooting’ was George Orwell’s definition of sport, unpleasantly brought once more to mind during the recent battles between Russian and Polish football fans. There is a long history of animosity over sporting events between the two countries, but there could be a way forward, says Zygmunt Dzieciolowski

Zygmunt Dzieciolowski
15 June 2012

The streets of Warsaw turned into a battlefield on Tuesday night, as Russian and Polish football fans clashed before, during and after a Euro 2012 group stage match. The scale of the violence was such that Vladimir Putin took the unusual step of phoning Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to appeal to his sense of responsibility, and to remind him that, as host country, Poland was under an obligation to guarantee the safety of all football fans who came to watch the championship. Putin also sent his special envoy, Mikhail Fedotov, to Poland to help Polish authorities investigate the clashes.

No other match at Euro 2012 has produced such tensions and emotions as this clash between Poland and Russia. But that perhaps is of little surprise, given the often unhappy history between the countries and the fact that for weeks before the game the Polish media had been so full of speculation about it.

After the match, Poles had many questions. Why were Russian fans allowed to use old Soviet symbols on their flags and t-shirts? Should the hammer and sickle motifs not be read as incendiary communist propaganda? And should the Russian fans be allowed to organize a patriotic march on their way to the Warsaw National stadium to celebrate Russia’s Independence Day (the anniversary of the Russian Supreme Soviet declaration of Independence passed on 12 June 1991), which unfortunately coincided with the match day?


Polish riot police had a lot to do before and after the Euro 2012 tie between Poland and Russia. Nearly 200 people were arrested following violent clashes between rival fans (photo: Vladimir Pesnya/Ria Novosti)

The wrong hotel 

But the biggest issue for Polish public opinion was the fact the Russian Football Association had chosen Warsaw’s Hotel Bristol as the base for its players. The hotel stands next to the Presidential Palace, the official residence of the Polish head of state and the home of former president Lech Kaczynski, who died in the Smolensk air crash of 2010. For the radical activists of his brother Jarosław Kaczyński ‘s PiS (Law and Justice) party the palace has become a sacred place.

‘No other match at Euro 2012 has so far produced such tensions and emotions as the one between Poland and Russia on Tuesday 12 June’

For the last two years, on the 10th day of each month (the crash happened on 10 April), they have come here with flowers and candles to pay tribute to their late hero and to accuse Donald Tusk’s government of national betrayal.

Most of them believe that the Smolensk crash was not caused by pilot error, but was organized by the Kremlin’s Special Services. They regard the Russian government’s failure to return the wreck of the aircraft to Poland as prime evidence of its involvement. They also believe Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski and Prime Minister Donald Tusk should share the blame, as they allowed the Russian government to conduct an official investigation into the crash without involving Polish or international experts. The Polish ‘patriotic’ camp maintains that, in supporting the official Russian version of the disaster, Tusk and Komorowski have become Russia’s co-conspirators in its attempt to cover up the truth. This conspiracy theory has unfortunately gained popularity in the last few months and more and more Poles believe that the truth about the crash is still to be uncovered.

Aware of the potential risks, the Russian team attempted to disarm Poland’s ‘patriotic’ camp. A delegation of Russian players, together with their coach Dick Advocaat, laid flowers at the Presidential Palace and issued a statement expressing their deepest sympathy with the Poles for the tragic loss of their president.

Even though it seemed for a while that some of the pre-match tension had been defused, all the security precautions around the Russian team presence in Poland remained in force. Polish police and army special units continued heavy patrolling of Sulejowek, the little town south of Warsaw where the Russian team has its training base.


Many Poles were upset at Russia's choice of Hotel Bristol in Central Warsaw as a team base. The hotel stands in the old town next to the residence of former president Lech Kaczynski, who died in the Smolensk air crash of 2010 (photo: www.flickr.com /banasy)

Russians marching to the stadium for the match at the newly built Warsaw National Stadium were accompanied by heavily armed Polish riot police. The Polish prime minister confessed that after the match he and the Internal Affairs Minister Marek Cichocki monitored the security situation in Warsaw at the government’s Emergency Centre until 2am the following morning.

Sport and politics

And indeed, as might have been expected, the Poland-Russia match was much more than a football game. For Poland it was one more occasion to show its former colonial masters that the old historical wounds have still not healed. The cover of the Polish edition of Newsweek showed the Polish team coach Franciszek Smuda dressed in the uniform of Marshall Józef Piłsudski, who commanded the Polish army at the 1920 Battle of Warsaw in which it defeated the Red Army and thus saved Europe from Bolshevik invasion.

Meanwhile the Russian media resorted to similar tactics, printing cartoons showing Russian forces defending the Kremlin against Polish invasion in the early XVII century.

For the nations of Eastern Europe, sporting events involving the Soviets and Russians have long been inseparable from politics and history. At the 1956 Olympic Games in Melbourne, the pool was filled with blood when the Hungarian and Soviet water polo teams settled some scores after the Hungarian revolution, which had been brutally suppressed by the Soviet army only weeks before.

'For the nations of Eastern Europe, sporting events involving the Soviets and Russians have long been inseparable from politics and history.'

In 1969 a hockey match between Czechoslovakia and the Soviet Union led to mass riots in Prague and the burning of the Soviet airline Aeroflot’s office, which resulted in an intensification of repressions against former Prague Spring activists by the pro-Kremlin Czechoslovak puppet regime.

At the 1982 Mundial in Spain, the Polish football team played against the Soviet Union only a few months after General Jaruzelski’s regime had crushed the Solidarność trade union and introduced martial law in December 1981. Solidarność supporters living in the West travelled to Barcelona to use the match as an opportunity for anti-Jaruzelski and anti-communist protest. They discovered where the TV cameras at the stadium were located and set up their banners in key positions, knowing that Polish TV, using live Spanish TV coverage, could do little to censure them. The whole of Poland was thrilled to see anti-Soviet and anti-regime banners on show at the Barcelona stadium. The match ended in a draw, which helped Poland to qualify for the next round of the tournament.

One of the most popular annual sporting events in communist Poland was a bicycle Peace Race which toured Poland, GDR and Czechoslovakia each May. Every third year it ended in Warsaw at the city’s main stadium, and the nearly 100 000 audience would whistle if the expected winner was to be the Soviet team or a Soviet cyclist.

However, perhaps the best remembered ‘anti-Soviet sports moment’ in the history of communist Poland was the Moscow 1980 Olympic Games, where Wladislaw Kozakiewicz won gold in the pole vault and his victorious jump was met with angry whistles at the Moscow Luzhniki stadium. The TV cameras and censors were too slow in their reactions and the whole world saw the happy Polish athlete responding to his Russian audience with an obscene gesture.  The term ‘a Kozakiewicz gesture’ has since entered the Polish language and is still often used as a euphemistic insult.

The future

But in 2012? Twenty years after the collapse of communism? Do sports arenas still need to be used for political demonstrations? Immediately after the clashes in Warsaw I was flooded with phone calls and e-mails from Russian friends and the Russian media. Their main question was: how long will we be still haunted by the memory of the past? For how many years will the stereotypes formed in the past continue to shape our reactions?

Poland and Russia still have a lot of work to do to heal their historical wounds.  Russia, unlike Poland, is ruled by an autocratic and corrupt regime trying to restore its influence in the world arena. Poles need to maintain constructive and friendly relations with Russia. Unfortunately, the russophobic attitudes promoted by Polish nationalist groups preserve old stereotypes and make it more difficult for Poles to understand the political and social processes taking place over their Eastern border. Radical anti-Russian slogans create fertile soil for hooligans, hotheads and fundamentalists who continue to see Russia as the Empire of Evil and who believe that attacking Russian football fans will pave the way for restoring historical justice. 

‘Radical anti-Russian slogans create fertile soil for hooligans, hotheads and fundamentalists who continue to see Russia as the Empire of Evil and who believe that attacking Russian football fans will pave the way for restoring historical justice’

The legendary Polish dissident Adam Michnik likes to describe himself as an Anti-Soviet Russophile. That is even the Russian title of a collection of his essays published in Russia. This kind of approach to Polish-Russian relations seems to be much more constructive.


A large section of the Polish public was embarrassed by the Polish hooligans' attacks on Russian fans on June 12. The eminent Polish journalist Daniel Passent appealed to Warsavians to invite Russian fans to their homes. photo: www.flickr.com,  MassafelliPhotography.com 

Even those Poles who do not remember communist times are great admirers of the late Russian democratic poet and bard Bulat Okudzhava. A recently resumed annual festival of Russian films in Warsaw attracts large audiences. Michnik’s formula encourages Poles to become better acquainted with Russia’s democratic face, with the present anti-Putin protest movement, with Russia’s cultural achievements, with the heritage of academician Sakharov. This democratic and educated Russia has never questioned its country’s responsibility for centuries of Polish suffering.

But the ‘anti-Soviet’ component of Michnik’s formula means that Poles (together with their Russian friends) should remain highly sensitive to violations of human rights in Russia and to the Russian government’s neo-imperialist games.

An Anti-Soviet Russophile Poland would feel no need to use violence against Russian fans who come to visit Poland for the Europe Football championship.

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