Wołyń: towards memory dialogue between Poland and Ukraine

A new film opens up the horrors of the Second World War, but will it enable reconciliation?

Simon Lewis
27 October 2016

Detail from a promotional poster of Wojciech Smarzowski’s 2016 film Wołyń. Image courtesy of repetuary.pl. Some rights reserved.Across Europe and North America, open versus closed is the new political divide, declared The Economist in July. And in eastern Europe, debates are raging about figurative walls as well as physical ones. Can the region’s history be parcelled up and divided between nation states? Is memory a fortress, or a forum for dialogue? 

At the official level, authoritative truths are in the ascendant. In July, the Polish parliament approved a government-sponsored bill to recognise the wartime mass murders of Polish civilians by Ukrainian nationalists in 1943 as “genocide”, a move condemned by Ukraine’s parliament as well as opposition figures in Poland. Meanwhile, September saw the release of Smoleńsk, a film which has been widely criticised for its crude popularising of a Russophobic conspiracy theory about the 2010 Smoleńsk airplane tragedy, in which 96 people, including then-president Lech Kaczyński, were killed. 

Indeed, there is a perceptible move in Poland towards official adoption of an essentially martyrological narrative which foregrounds and valorises loss in national terms. The Law and Justice party have overseen the revival of the martyrdom myth of the so-called “condemned soldiers”, anti-communist insurgents in the 1940s and early 1950s, while downplaying the role of ethnic Poles in wartime and postwar pogroms against Jewish citizens. 

Ukraine’s “decommunisation” laws, introduced in 2015, have had a similar nationalising effect on public memory in Ukraine. In their attempts to “de-Sovietise” (and therefore de-Russify) the country’s commemorative landscape, the Ukrainian authorities have elevated the status of, amongst others, Stepan Bandera and Roman Shukhevych, radical right-wing nationalist leaders responsible for wartime atrocities against Jews and Poles in occupied Ukraine. 

These films tell stories that bring nations and cultures into contact, and can therefore act as catalysts for transnational reckoning

Against this background, the recent release of Wojciech Smarzowski’s new film Wołyń is a significant event in transnational memory politics as well as Polish cinema. The film is the latest in a long line of Polish historical dramas that focus on violent episodes of the wartime past. Importantly and inevitably, these films tell stories that bring nations and cultures into contact, and can therefore act as catalysts for transnational reckoning, although they may also trigger wars of words. Andrzej Wajda’s 2007 film Katyń, for example, was instrumental in triggering the Russian parliament’s decision to recognise the mass murder of Polish officers in 1940 as a Stalinist crime. 

Smarzowski’s film is another big-budget, highly anticipated production and it tackles one of the thorniest questions in Polish-Ukrainian relations — the Volhynian tragedy of 1943, in which up to 60,000 Poles were murdered by Ukrainian nationalists under German occupation, and up to 20,000 Ukrainians were killed in revenge attacks. Smarzowski has claimed that the film is supposed to “force people to reflect and provoke a broader discussion” between the two nations. So can we expect a memory thaw?

Colonial stereotypes

If Wolyń were really to be able to act as any sort of bridge between national memory cultures, it would need to abandon competitive martyrdom as a narrative framework and embody a dual (at least) perspective on the historical events it represents.

To do so would be to overcome decades of erasure and cross-border antagonism. Under the internationalist ideology of state socialism, inter-ethnic strife was a taboo subject, and it was only from the 1990s that the subject could be researched by historians. Although in the early 2000s, joint steps were taken towards cooperation and accord, more recently the discussions have come increasingly to resemble separate, sealed-off echo chambers rather than countries with a shared but contentious wartime history.


Bullet holes from the tragedy of 1943 can still be seen on the tower of Pidkamin Monastery, Volhynia region (today in Ukraine). CC 3.0: Serhiy Krynytsya / Wikimedia Commons. All rights reserved.To a limited extent, Wolyń succeeds in portraying the complexities of the wartime years, and thereby contextualise and arguably demythologise the Volhynian tragedy. At the same time, the film also reproduces some age-old Polish tropes of Ukrainian cultural inferiority. With a few exceptions, it plays up to a myth of Polish innocence, while giving a blanket portrayal of Ukrainians as drunk and bloodthirsty fanatics. 

The first impression is an epigraph: “The inhabitants of the Kresy were killed twice over – first by hatchet blows, then by silence”. The labelling of the Volhynia region as Kresy, an untranslatable term used to designate formerly Polish-administered territory in today’s Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania, signals from the outset that the story is likely to reproduce a conservative and Poland-centred perspective. 

A term already saturated with a sense of restorative nostalgia and colonialist exclusion, Kresy has more recently been reinvigorated with a sense of collective trauma

The mythology of Kresy, which has connotations of the “limits” or “frontiers” of Polishness, emerged in the mid-19th century as a response to Russian imperial rule. Poets, painters and novelists depicted valiant Poles defending national interests in the wild east. This image of Polish dignity also relied upon a contrast: the Cossacks and Tatars of Ukraine, who were stereotypically represented as sublime savages. Wild and free, dangerous but beautiful, the Cossacks of the nineteenth-century Polish imagination were the enemy within.

A term already saturated with a sense of restorative nostalgia and colonialist exclusion, the Kresy have more recently been reinvigorated with a sense of collective trauma. The Volhynia and Katyń massacres, Stalinist terror and mass deportations, Nazi atrocities and the now seemingly irrevocable “loss” of the territories to post-Soviet nation states have conditioned a popular myth of the Kresy as a zone of historical purity, forever destroyed by the hostile forces of historical contingency. In explicitly referencing this heritage, Smarzowski’s Wołyń places itself firmly within a dominant discourse of Polish mythmaking.


Reburial of victims of the 1943 Ostrówki massacre, in which 438 Poles were murdered by Ukrainian nationalists. CC 3.0: Leon Popek / Wikimedia Commons. Some rights reserved.Thus, the film employs a fairly crude dichotomisation into innocent, heroic and individualised Poles versus inherently violent, hate-filled Ukrainian masses. The majority of the story is told through the perspective of a young woman named Zosia and her Polish-speaking family, who endure multiple hardships in the course of the war, culminating in the horrific violence of the Ukrainian nationalists’ attack on their village. Whereas the principal protagonists have different personalities and biographies, the Ukrainians almost always appear as a collective — marching and chanting political slogans in unison, being agitated by the hate-filled sermons of their priests, or carrying out brutal acts of murder. 

There is also a gender aspect to this collective characterisation: all of the film’s prominent Ukrainian-speakers are men, dripping in nationalist machismo, whereas the enduring symbol of Polish stoic victimhood is the young mother protecting her children. The gruesome scenes of the massacre feature a merciless spearing of a pregnant Polish woman, reinforcing the ethnicised contrast between Polish life and Ukrainian death. The linear narrative and the straightforward characterisation belie any claim to the film possessing a dialogic approach to the sensitive past. 

This is undoubtedly a Polish perspective, not a treatment that treads carefully over the eggshells of contentious bilateral relations.

Cosmopolitan outreach

In its details, though, Wołyń does avoid some of the pitfalls of black-and-white dramatisation. The majority of Ukrainian characters are irrational and bestial, but not all. And likewise, the film is far from sympathetic in its portrayal of Poles in general. 

An important thread of the story is the love between Zosia and Petro, a Ukrainian-speaker. This is mirrored by the marriage between Zosia’s sister Helena and another Ukrainian, Oleksandr, which opens the film. The wedding scenes serve simultaneously to showcase an alternative politics of everyday life in pre-war Volhynia, where neighbours could live happily side by side and intermarry, but also to foreshadow the darker events that follow. 

Early fragments of dialogue introduce the emerging Ukrainian nationalist conspiracy, but these exchanges also make it clear that Poland’s Ukrainian-speaking minority had real grievances concerning land allocation and access to education. Towards the end of the film, Polish fighters carry out revenge murders against the Ukrainian-speaking population, killing Helena and her mixed-heritage daughter. In this way, the fervour of ethnic hatred affects all linguistic and confessional groups. 


Up to 60,000 Poles were massacred by Ukrainian nationalists in Volhynia (Polish: Wołyn, Ukrainian: Волинь) between 1943 and 1944. Image still from the film via ForumFilm Poland / YouTube. Some rights reserved.More subtly, Wołyń can be seen to resist categorisation into national groups altogether and, in doing so, it makes an important statement about the convergence of memory and collective identity.

All of the positive characters are fully bilingual in Polish and Ukrainian, and at no point do they profess a clear-cut national identity. The open, symbolic ending has Zosia, her infant son and his deceased father Petro (who was killed by the Soviets), riding into the Volhynian countryside on a carriage, having seemingly reached some form of peace as a reunited family. The story thus suggests the possibility of multinational togetherness that transcends death and the divisions of language and faith.

While Poland and Ukraine can seemingly unite against a common enemy, the historical issues that divide the two countries remain contentious

A powerful message of the film, therefore, is that integral nationalism stokes hatred and violence, whereas refusal of nationalism in all forms was and remains possible. Wołyń depicts the borderlands as a colourful canvas of mixed and hybrid ethnicities, where in-betweens and hyphenated identities are the norm, and the onset of totalising ideologies a moral aberration. 

By narrativising this local cosmopolitanism, the film achieves an aesthetics of memory that may, perhaps, be conducive to dialogue between the two nations. 

The eye of the beholder 

The prospects of such dialogue, however, depend on the film’s reception. Wołyń has received mixed reviews in Poland, reflecting both the polarisation of opinions within society and the contradictions of the film itself. 

Some, mostly conservative, critics have hailed it as a work that will enable some form of catharsis through the revelation of historical truth. Others have denounced its hackneyed portrayal of national stereotypes and its political insensitivity at a time when Ukraine is facing more pressing problems on the eastern front. In Kyiv, a closed pre-screening of the film was cancelled on the recommendation of Ukraine’s Foreign Ministry, sparking concerns of a reactionary shutdown before any plans can be made to release it.

Wołyń bears many of the hallmarks of Polish culture’s historically ambivalent stance towards the so-called Kresy. The film embodies both pseudo-colonial essentialisation and self-critical reflection, both a nationalist perspective on the past and an anti-nationalist message. Most likely, it will continue to trigger different reactions by different viewers, reinforcing preconceived notions and politicised interpretations of the past.

Whether its release in Ukraine would be beneficial to dialogue is difficult to say. Just days after the Wołyń screening was shut down in Kyiv, the Polish and Ukrainian parliaments jointly adopted a “Declaration of Remembrance and Solidarity”, officially laying blame for the Second World War on the Soviet Union. The clear aim of this legislation, in which Lithuania is also participating, is to discredit the dominant Russian narrative of the Great Patriotic War. So while Poland and Ukraine can seemingly unite against a common enemy, the historical issues that divide the two countries remain contentious. 

To add fuel to the fire, Moscow’s response to Wołyń is likely to be positive — the film can be seen to support the Kremlin’s assertion that Ukrainian nationalism is by nature “fascist” and filled with ethnic hatred. In any case, Smarzowski’s film is certain to reinvigorate debates about the Polish-Ukrainian past, highlighting, once again, the cleavage between open and closed approaches to history.


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