Russia, Poland and the history wars

Rodric Braithwaite
16 September 2009

A senior Russian official once asked me why Poland needed to join NATO: after all, Russia wasn't about to invade the place. I agreed that he was probably right. But the Poles didn't know that: three partitions in the eighteenth century; two risings in the nineteenth century and two in the twentieth; the carve-up in 1939; and more. "Why do you bring up all that old stuff?" my friend responded.

History is an essential part of a nation's self-image. It is rewritten by every generation. Even the settled democracies can find it hard to come to terms with their past. The British have barely brought their relationship with Ireland into an objective historical focus. The Irish, with good reason, find it even harder.

History is politics in all countries. But in countries which have been through the traumas suffered by Russia and Eastern Europe in the past century, it is unrealistic to hope that they will soon be able to write what the rest of us would regard as "objective" history.

The Poles have every historical reason to fear their Eastern neighbour. Even in the Communist period they talked openly about the stab in the back when the Russians invaded Poland in September 1939, about the massacre of Polish officers at Katyn in 1940, and about the Soviet failure to support the insurgents during the Warsaw Rising of 1944. Few Poles were ignorant of the facts then or now, and their view of the facts is on the whole correct. That does not mean that their interpretation of the facts is not, from time to time, over emotional and over political: witness the recent row in the Polish parliament about whether the killings at Katyn were  reprehensible mass murder, which they certainly were; or genocide, which they certainly were not by any reasonable interpretation of the word.

The Poles are not quick to give the Russians credit for occasionally getting things right.  That may be understandable, but it too is a distortion of history. In all the recent talk about the fall of the Wall and the collapse of Communism in Eastern Europe in 1989, not only the Poles sometimes forget that It was after all Gorbachev who, with characteristic good sense, gave the Eastern Europeans the opportunity to throw off the Communist regime in an orderly manner. Without him, it might have been very hard to manage change without bloodshed. Ironically it was the two European Communist countries which had successfully defied Moscow for decades, Yugoslavia and Romania, which failed to make a bloodless transition.

The Russian attitude is more complex. Two of the greatest Russian operas, Boris Godunov and A Life for the Tsar, are set against the background of the Polish invasion of Russia in the seventeenth century. Pushkin wrote a vicious poem attacking Western support for the Polish rising of 1831. The works of Tolstoy and Dostoevsky are littered with disparaging references to Polish arrogance, Polish superficiality, and Polish Catholicism. For them Poland is a Western Trojan horse, a code word for all that they dislike about the West, and a threat to Russia's own unique civilisation. There is here another whiff of the inferiority complex camouflaged by a noisy and feverish nationalism, which pervades so much of Russia's attitude to the outside world.

It is not surprising that the Russians find it difficult to come to terms with the history of the twentieth century, which saw their greatest triumphs, their greatest humiliations, and their greatest crimes. But one should do them justice. In the 1980s and 1990s they made a real effort to establish an objective record. They documented Stalin's crimes with an exhaustive wealth of detail. They published the secret annexes to the 1939 pact between Hitler and Stalin which carved up Eastern Europe. They accepted that it was the NKVD, not the Gestapo, who shot the Polish officers in Katyn, and not only in Katyn: there is an excellent memorial museum North of Moscow about the Poles who were shot there. They recognised all the injustices that were done when the Baltic States were incorporated into the Soviet Union.

This record is still easily available in Russia today. It cannot be obscured by Russian nationalists who attempt to deny or reinterpret it. The Russian government's attempt to produce a less distressing version of modern Russian history for students plays down, but does not disavow, the dark side of Stalin's rule. If the Russians settle down in the next decades and generations and start - if they and we are lucky - to feel less defensive and more comfortable in their skins, they too may eventually come to write a more "objective" history of their country.

Which brings me to the debates about the origins of the Second World War and Putin's recent remarks in Poland about what happened in 1939.

None of us has much to be proud of. During the Spanish civil war, senior British figures backed Franco and his Nazi and Fascist supporters as a bulwark against Bolshevism. Even today some people justify the betrayal of Czechoslovakia at Munich as a way for Britain to buy time to prepare for war. The Polish government of Colonel Beck - authoritarian and undemocratic - manoeuvred between its German and Soviet enemies with blithe disregard for the realities of power. Many Russians, including Putin, argue that Stalin's pact with Hitler and the carve up of Eastern Europe were no worse than Munich. and at least as necessary to buy the time needed to prepare for the German attack Stalin knew would eventually come.

Especially with the benefit of hindsight, it is obvious that all these dubious calculations and manoeuvres were vain. After Munich, Hitler concluded that the democracies were happy to give him a free hand in the East. Both the Western powers and Stalin frittered away the time they had hoped to buy with their cynical deals. Neither prepared effectively to meet the full fury of the German assaults in 1940 and 1941. Stalin lost his new territories - what Russian apologists now argue were a necessary defensive belt - in a matter of weeks as the Soviet armies reeled back in disarray.

But at the end of the day neither Chamberlain, nor Beck, nor even Stalin, can be blamed for the outbreak of war in 1939. The man responsible was Adolf Hitler, who had always intended to get revenge for the German humiliation at Versailles, to wipe Poland off the map, and to carve a German living space out of Russia. It is perhaps a further irony that of all the warring nations, it is the defeated Germans who have made the most determined attempt to establish the extent of their own responsibility for what happened. The victors - British, American, Russian - write the history which suits themselves.

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