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?

Russia’s 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.

This 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 “..in 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 journalists.

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 massacre.

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 time.

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.

How 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, RI:

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.

The 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.

But 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 Russia.

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 suffered.”

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

“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 relations.

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.

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

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.

However, 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 this.

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.

However, 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.

Not 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.”

Will 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.

In 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.”

However, 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 community.

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 relationship.

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.

As 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.