Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel: Russian – Polish Strategic Reconciliation?
Russia Profile
Vladimir Frolov

The tragic death of
Polish President Lech Kaczynski and nearly 100 others as they flew to a
commemoration of the Katyn massacre could not have been more loaded
with overtures from Russia and Poland’s troubled past. But an outpouring
of sympathy from Russian politicians, media and the general public has
prompted talk that the two countries might finally bury the hatchet.
Will the Polish president’s tragic death lead to a strategic
Russian-Polish reconciliation? Will the Russian response be noticed and
appreciated by the Polish people and the Polish elites? Were such a
reconciliation to take place, what kind of geopolitical consequences
might it have, particularly for Russia’s relations with the EU and NATO?

President Dmitry Medvedev flew to Krakow last Sunday to participate in
the state funeral of the late Polish President Lech Kaczynski, who died
last week when his plane crashed near the village of Katyn, Russia,
killing all 96 people onboard.

Russia and its leaders reacted
with great respect and genuine sorrow for Poland and the Polish people
following the tragedy. Medvedev announced a day of official morning in
Russia and recorded a televised address to the Polish people. “All
Russians share your grief and mourning,” Medvedev told the Polish
people. His speech went up on the Kremlin Web site in Polish. Prime
Minister Vladimir Putin took charge of the investigation, comforting a
sobbing Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk at the site of the crash. Both
Russian leaders looked genuinely shaken.

The Kremlin chose to
show Andrzej Wajda’s harrowing film “Katyn” about the massacre of Polish
officers in 1940 by the Soviet secret police in primetime on the main
state television channel. Thousands of Muscovites, including Medvedev,
brought flowers to the Polish embassy in Moscow. Moscow city authorities
provided free accommodation and medical care to Polish relatives who
flew to Moscow to identify their loved ones who died in the crash.

Russian reaction, obviously genuine and uncalculated, appears to have
created an opening for a historic reconciliation between Russia and
Poland. Zbigniew Brzezinski, the former national security adviser to
President Jimmy Carter between 1977 and 1981, believes that “ this
tragic situation there are positive possibilities. The president died
during a great pilgrimage for truth, independence and reconciliation.
The reaction of Russia following this tragic accident creates a
situation favorable for reconciliation.”

“I do not think that
this is a game on the part of Russians, this is something sincere. And
very new. That is why there exist new, unforeseen possibilities of
deeper Polish-Russian reconciliation,” Brzezinski told Polish

Prime minister Putin has done a lot to improve
relations with Poland, including his visit to Gdansk on September 1, the
70th anniversary of the start of World War II. On April 7, two days
before the Polish president’s plane went down, he joined prime minister
Tusk in a ceremony at Katyn to commemorate the Polish victims of the

The Kremlin appears to realize that without good
relations with Poland, Russia will not have normal relations with the
European Union and the West as a whole. As Dmitry Trenin of the Carnegie
Moscow Center put it, “it is in Russia’s interest to make Warsaw a true
economic and political partner on the same level as Moscow’s relations
with Berlin, Paris and other European capitals. Poland will hardly
become an outspoken advocate of Russia within the European Union or NATO
anytime soon, but if Warsaw adopts a more positive policy toward
Russia, this could play a significant role in improving overall
relations between Russia and the West.”

This view is shared by
Brzezinski: “If this takes place, it will be geopolitically potentially
equal to the importance of Polish-German reconciliation and earlier to
Polish-French reconciliation. This would change the map of Europe and
offer greater security, not only to Poland but also, for example, to
Estonia or Ukraine and even Georgia.”

Will the Polish president’s
tragic death lead to a strategic Russian-Polish reconciliation? Will
the Russian response be noticed and appreciated by the Polish people and
the Polish elites? Were such a reconciliation to take place, what kind
of geopolitical consequences might it have, particularly for Russia’s
relations with the EU and NATO? What kind of impact will it have on
Russia’s policy in Eastern Europe and the former Soviet Union? Could
relations between Moscow and Warsaw be raised to the same level as those
between Berlin and Paris? Will Medvedev and Putin be able to turn
around the ship of Russian-Polish relations?

Ethan S. Burger, Adjunct Professor,
Georgetown University Law Center, Washington, DC :

Polish –
Russian relations have been “problematic” for centuries and it would be
unrealistic to expect Russian president Medvedev’s, prime minister
Putin’s and the Russian people’s humane and dignified response to the
tragedy of the Polish air crash to transform the situation in a short

Still it was significant that Russian state television
showed Andrzej Wajda’s film about the Katyn massacre. Although the
percentage of Russian citizens who viewed the movie was apparently not
large, the importance of this gesture cannot be ignored.

For too
long, the Soviet and Russian leadership did not frankly acknowledge
what had taken place at Katyn, not to mention numerous other chapters of
its country’s history. Mutual understanding and reconciliation with the
past is a precondition for successful bilateral relations.

important is Polish national consciousness today, and what is the impact
of history on it?  Russia looms large in Polish history – mostly
unfavorably. But we should also ask, does the legacy of the
Polish-Lithuanian state affect Russia’s perception of the threat from
the West?

In more recent times, Russian schools and popular
culture should accurately deal with the three partitions of Poland
during the 19th century (which explains the Poles’ willingness to
contribute many soldiers to the French invasion of Russia in 1812);
Poland’s fight for independence from Russia from 1919 to 1922; the
Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 pursuant to the Molotov-Ribbentrop
Pact; Stalin’s cynical decision to not come to the aid of the Polish
Home Army during the Warsaw Rising in 1944; the Soviet inspired move of
Poland’s borders eastward at the conclusion of World War II; and the
Soviet establishment and maintenance of friendly governments in Warsaw
for more than 40 years.  

All that being said, do Poles consider
that Soviet citizens were Stalin’s greatest victims? Let us not forget
that after more than 80 years of on-and-off wars, Germany and France
were able to accept one another as partners in both the European Union
and NATO. Perhaps it requires the total defeat of a country at war to
allow a new beginning to take place.

I think the future of
Russian-Polish relationships depends on the political transformation of
Russia into a “real” European country where the Russian citizens can
freely exercise their civil and human rights, and the Russian government
shows real respect for the sovereignty of its neighbors and seeks to
play a constructive role in dealing with global problems. If this were
to occur, then perhaps Brzezinski will be proven right. I hope he lives
to see this happen, but I doubt that it will occur in such little time.

Professor Nicolai N. Petro, Department of
Political Science, Washburn Hall, University of Rhode Island, Kingston,

One of my favorite historians, Sir Herbert
Butterfield, wrote of historical judgment that “here is the great
opportunity for Christian charity in history – here is why the Christian
has to go over the past making no end of allowances for people – no end
of explanations – we might almost say that he cannot read history
without being a little sorry for everybody.”

The death of
Poland’s leadership as it was on its way to commemorate the massacres in
the Katyn forest, near Smolensk, seems only to senselessly pile more
sorrow onto this tragedy. But out of this latest calamity has come an
opportunity for just the sort of charity Butterfield wrote about.

Polish people were deeply moved by the depth and sincerity of the
condolences shared by the Russian government, and by the fact that many
Russians reached out to Poles personally to express their grief. How can
this goodwill now be sustained and not be drowned out by the ghosts of
the past?

Polish officials have focused on the need for “full
disclosure” regarding the Katyn massacres. Indeed, history must be made
whole. Reinstating the July 13, 1994 finding of Anatoly Yablokov, the
head of the Military Prosecutor’s investigative group on Katyn, that
names top Soviet leaders responsible for crimes against humanity, would
be a step in this direction. Moreover, the classification of the 116
volumes of secret materials collected by that office ought to be
reviewed. Prime minister Putin is on record as saying this can be done
on the basis of reciprocity with Polish archives, but it should be a
matter of principle for Russia to do it unilaterally.

dwelling on the past alone cannot lead to a better future. As valuable
as the work of historians is, they do not determine the value to society
of what they uncover. That moral assessment properly falls to another
very important societal actor — the church.

Back in September
2009 the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) sent a
delegation of seven priests to initiate a dialog with the Roman Catholic
Church of Poland. They were warmly received, and this past February
another delegation, headed by the Deputy Head of Foreign Affairs for the
ROC Abbot Phillip (Ryabykh), met with Archbishop Henryk Muszyński, the
primate of Poland.

As a result of those meetings, both sides
declared their intention to compose a document of reconciliation between
the peoples of Russia and Poland, modeled on the 1965 letter of German
and Polish bishops (“We forgive and ask forgiveness”). In a particularly
poignant gesture, both sides decided that the working group would also
include members of the Polish Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church in

One does not have to be a believer to see the hand of
Providence at work here. After all, the current Patriarch of Moscow,
Kirill, was prior to his elevation the reigning bishop of Smolensk—the
very region where the martyrs of Katyn lie buried. As primate there in
the early 1990s he not only authorized prayers for the victims, back
when the details of the massacres were still hotly contested, but
blessed further investigation into the fate of all the victims found
there. The day can surely not be far off when the patriarch travels to
Poland to cement what will be a truly historic reconciliation between
Russians and Poles.

Katyn is a place where tragedy has struck
both Poles and Russians repeatedly. Upon his return from Warsaw earlier
this year, however, Abbot Phillip reflected on the blessings that can
sometimes flow from shared tragedy. “Katyn,” he said, “is a sort of
Gordian Knot of all the problems in Russia’s relations with the
countries of Eastern Europe. This knot, however, can be severed through
simple human compassion, a common respect for the memory of those who

Igor Torbakov, Ph.D.,
Senior Researcher, Finnish Institute of International Affairs,

“We are afraid of the Russians.” This is the
opening sentence of the outstanding Polish political thinker Juliusz
Mieroszewski’s seminal 1974 article discussing what he called Russia’s
“Polish complex.” Mieroszewski continued his argument specifying that
the Poles didn’t fear the Russians as foes on a battlefield – as in many
of the battles that dot the history of Polish-Russian relations the
Poles actually were the winners – but that it is rather Russia’s
nefarious political designs, or to be more precise Russia’s imperial
ambitions, that make the Poles wary.

The particular value of
Mieroszewski’s unparalleled political insights is that he had clearly
seen the uneasy relationship and the mutual perceptions of the two
peoples as being the mirror images of one another. He forcefully argued
that the bulk of his compatriots were absolutely ignorant of the fact
that for the Russians, too, the notion of Polish imperialism – or if you
will, Poland’s foreign policy activism in the parts of Eastern Europe
which Russia believed were strategically vital for its own security –
has long been a perennial source of strategic concern. This leads to
Mieroszewski’s most important conclusion on the crucial role of the East
European territories geographically and historically sandwiched between
Poland and Russia – Ukraine, Belarus and Lithuania – in Russian-Polish
relations. In his view, these lands are not just a mere geopolitical
“apple of discord” – their significance is of a much higher order, as
the situation there defines the very nature of Russian-Polish relations.
Only by forgoing “imperial claims” on these territories, Mieroszewski
contended, could both Poland and Russia finally normalize their

This, I believe, is a conceptual backdrop against
which the current state of play between Moscow and Warsaw should be
analyzed. Yes, the attempts to reach reconciliation on the basis of the
truth about Katyn that both Polish and Russian leaderships have
undertaken, the tragic death of the Polish president in the air crash
near Smolensk and Russia’s humane reaction to the tragedy did create an
“emotional breakthrough” in bilateral relations.

Yet the larger
issues – those going beyond the “politics of memory” – will remain, and
these are potentially divisive issues. Yes, Poland is not the East
European “empire” it used to be in the 16th and 17th centuries and it
doesn’t entertain the “imperial” dreams it used to have in much later
times – if we recall, say, the Pilsudski federalist fantasies based on
the Jagellonian idea. But Poland has become a part of what some
political thinkers in Russia and in Europe would call an imperial entity
– the European Union. Russia views the EU’s behavior as that of an
“empire of a new type,” – a normative or bureaucratic empire that
resolves its strategic problems through extending its internal
bureaucratic norms and regulations. Remarkably, even the EU Commission’s
President Manuel Barroso once said that the EU has “the dimensions of
empire” and that this is “the first non-imperial empire.” The
well-respected European theorist Jan Zielonka went further and in his
book provocatively titled “Europe as an Empire” advanced the notion of a
“neo-medieval empire.” Zielonka persuasively argues that double (EU and
NATO) enlargement involved more than technical assimilation of
standards and procedures. He points directly to the interrelationship
between politics and territory, suggesting that the enlargement was
underpinned by larger strategic considerations – it was power politics, a
matter of filling the unprecedented power vacuum in the wake of the
Soviet Union’s collapse.

Poland’s special role in spearheading an
EU Eastern policy specifically designed for the lands “in between” –
suffice it to mention Warsaw’s sponsorship of EU’s Eastern Partnership –
is likely to remain a constant source of tension in Russian-Polish (and
Russian-EU) relations.

Strokanov, Professor of History, Director of Institute of Russian
Language, History and Culture, Lyndon State College, Lyndonville,

The tragic airplane crash near Katyn certainly
should be used for a strategic Russian-Polish reconciliation. There is
no and should be no doubt about it. This is a unique opportunity and to
waste it would be a serious mistake for the elites of both countries.

it seems that the ball is now on the Polish side and it is the Polish
government, elite and the people who should show that they really want
such reconciliation and are ready for it.

The unprecedented
openness that was shown by the Russian government in the investigation
of the crash, a wave of sincere condolences from regular Russian people
and finally the arrival of the Russian president Medvedev to the funeral
of Kaczynski are all serious arguments in favor of Russian readiness
and welcoming the change in Russian-Polish relations. The latter is very
important because of the decisions of U.S. President Barack Obama and
Western European leaders not to attend the funeral due to the volcanic
ash cloud – which certainly did not prevent Western European leaders
from using helicopters, trains and cars to get to Krakow, which is for
example only a four-hour drive from Vienna. I hope Poland took notice of

I also hope it will be understood that confrontation with
Russia is unproductive and absolutely fruitless for Polish national
interests. Nor does it win Poland a better reputation in the West. I am
glad that many representatives of the Polish elite living both in Poland
and abroad, including the United States, have recently begun to
understand this and are actually encouraging the Polish government to
make steps in the right direction.

Reconciliation between Russia
and Poland is first of all in the interests of regular Polish and
Russian people, who actually have much more in common than not (whether
they like it or not). I have personal experience of this – my daughter
is married to a Polish American, and that allows me to judge many
aspects of Polish culture. The reconciliation will be greatly beneficial
to the business community in both countries; it may eventually
stimulate even closer relations between Russia and the European Union.

relations between Poland and Russia have a long way to go, and will
need to have a firm business foundation to reach the level that exists
today in relations between Moscow and Berlin, Rome or Paris. Today the
main task is to allow business communities to develop these relations
and stop the political quarreling that has so far only prevented such
cooperation and stolen many opportunities from the current generations.

Edward Lozansky, President, American
University in Moscow:

Looking back at the history of
humankind, one can see that chances for peace and reconciliation that
are sometimes presented to quarrelling nations and states are rarely
realized. Current geopolitical interests, historical baggage, bad
memories and traditional suspicion of each other’s intentions –
especially among neighbors – make such reconciliation pretty unlikely.
The probability that Poland and Russia will use this opportunity wisely
is not too high, but we all hope that they will at least try – and it
looks like Russia has made several important steps in this direction.

only have Putin and Medvedev admitted in no uncertain terms the
horrible crimes of the Soviet Union, but also everyone could observe the
most sincere outpouring of goodwill among ordinary Russians toward
Poland that we have never witnessed before.

Vladimir Putin’s
embrace of Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk at the site of the crash
was very touching, and Medvedev’s description of the Katyn massacre was
very impressive indeed. “The Katyn tragedy was a crime committed by
Stalin and several of his henchmen,” he said.

Tens of millions of
Russians watched Andrzej Wajda’s film “Katyn” on the main Russian state
television channel. This masterpiece undoubtedly made a very powerful
impression on the viewers, especially on the young generation who may
have never heard about this horrific crime.

But what about the
other side? Is Poland prepared to respond in kind? One of the most
prominent Polish Americans Zbigniew Brzezinski stated that in this
tragic situation there are positive possibilities of deeper
Polish-Russian reconciliation. According to Brzezinski, “if this takes
place, it will be geopolitically potentially equal to the importance of
Polish-German reconciliation and earlier to the German-French one. This
would change the map of Europe and offer greater security, not only to
Poland but also, for example, to Estonia or Ukraine and even Georgia.”

Polish elites listen to Brzezinski? Frankly, so far, at least judging
from the Polish media, there have not been too many voices calling for
such reconciliation. Instead, there is more expression of the same old
suspicion of Russia, mistrust and even accusations of conspiracy.
Besides, so far we have not heard any statements admitting Poland’s own
sins, but, if you will forgive the banality, it takes two to tango.

the speech prepared by President Lech Kaczyński for the memorial
service on April 10, 2010 one could find all the right words about
Soviet crimes. We could also read a more problematic statement: “it was
we Poles who first opposed Hitler by force of arms. It was we who fought
Nazi Germany from the beginning of the war until its end.”

speaking about reconciliation, wouldn’t it also be appropriate to
mention, at least in passing, that at that time Poland did some shameful
things as well, like, for example, occupying a part of Czech territory
or mistreating its Jewish population?

On October 1, 1938, a year
before the German invasion, a Polish army commanded by General Władysław
Bortnowski annexed the Zaolzie region – some 800 square kilometers with
a population of more than 200,000 people. Poland thus became an
accomplice of Nazi Germany – a charge that Warsaw cannot deny.

Vladimir Belaeff, President, Global Society
Institute, Inc., San Francisco, CA:

As we know by this
time, the response from the Russian government and general citizens to
the tragic death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his companions
was genuine, sincere and extensive. An official day of mourning was
declared in Russia; religious memorial services were conducted
throughout the country; Russian posthumous honors to the Polish head of
state, his spouse and their companions in death were impeccable. The
collaboration between Polish and Russian investigators of the air
catastrophe is as close as if they were members of the same national

Beyond the symbolic and practical demonstrations of
condolence, the honest grief expressed by Russians from all walks of
life – from Medvedev and Putin onward – is having a profoundly positive
moral effect on the grieving Polish nation.

Poland and Russia
have 1,000 years of complicated historical interaction. Polish
grievances are rather better known in the West. However, the Russians
can also point to many episodes of history when Russia was the aggrieved
party in the relationship.

And yet not everything was always
dark in the relations of Poles with Russians. On an individual level
many Poles were quite successful and integrated with Russian society.
One example is the Polish military leader Jozef Dowbor-Musnicki, who by
mid-1917 had reached the rank of Lieutenant General in the Russian Army
and was the commander of an Army Corps on the Russian side of the front
against the Central Powers. One of his daughters was murdered at Katyn
by the Soviet NKVD.

One important and not fully realized aspect
is that in the 20th century both countries suffered horribly from the
depredations of the two murderous totalitarian regimes that emerged from
the disaster of the Great War. At present, the Russians are still
coming to grips with the extent of their own suffering under
totalitarianism and the recognition of the Katyn crime is of enormous
positive importance. Because the Katyn executions were a crime against
both Poles and Russians.

Both Poles and Russians must look toward
the future. The past is important as a source of lessons, as a warning,
as a memorial to the fallen. The past is immutable. The future on the
other hand is always open-ended and can be shaped by the will of present
generations. Geography is fate – so the Poles and the Russians need to
learn to live next to each other, respecting each other’s interests and
working together toward shared goals.

It is rather fortunate that
in fact Warsaw is not essential to Russia’s role vis-а-vis the EU and
the world. In this situation, Polish-Russian reconciliation can be
independent of practical calculations and more focused on the aspect
that matters the most at this time, which is the moral aspect of their

It is notable that the late president Kaczynski,
who earlier had been quite vocal in his criticism of Russia, was flying
to Smolensk to deliver a speech of reconciliation, a positive response
to earlier statements by prime minister Putin. This aspect confirms that
both countries are ready to seek an honorable path in future relations.

we know from other relatively recent examples, international
reconciliation is possible and is productive. It is of course very
regrettable that this particular reconciliation involves the tragic
deaths of 96 people – but perhaps this cruel drama is exactly what can
provide the moral force for the process.

The healing of the Katyn
wound will definitely have a positive effect on the moral-political
climate of Europe at large. The rapprochement must be sustained and
encouraged by everybody.