Report from Poland: Ukrainian Refugees and a Tangled History

Walking through the streets of the larger cities in Poland, cities like Warsaw, Krakow and Gdansk, the untrained ear will hear not just Polish spoken, but also Russian and Ukrainian. The untrained ear will not really be able to tell the difference between these two languages, indeed many younger Poles can’t either (the older Poles were taught Russian in school). But the two languages are different and this difference is a very wide gulf.

While Poland has had large numbers of Ukrainian and Russian workers come into the country in the past twenty-five years, the explosion in the last seven months has been almost exclusively because of refugees from the Russian invasion. Prior to the war, it was estimated that around 1 million Ukrainians lived in Poland as both legal and illegal migrants. Traditionally, Ukraine has been a well of low-wage and unskilled workers keeping the Polish economy running. However, since February this year there have been about three million border crossings. While many people have returned to Ukraine, and others have dispersed through Europe, it is estimated that between one and a half and two million refugees are still here. Most are women, children and older people. Men over the age of sixteen and under sixty-five cannot leave Ukraine under martial law conditions, although it is clear that many have illegally crossed out of Ukraine.

The Polish government immediately granted temporary rights to the refugees, giving them employment, health and education support for eighteen months. In the first couple of months the Polish population opened up their homes and pockets. Seven months on, some of this initial generosity has dissipated, but it has not disappeared.

The mix of Ukrainian and Russian languages being spoken illustrates one of the confounding elements of the conflict. Many refugees are not Ukrainian speakers, but rather are Russian speakers who have lived for generations in Ukraine. While the separatist movements in eastern Ukraine base their revolt on the intransigence of the Ukrainian government’s insistence on Ukrainian being the national language, many Russian speakers do not want to be part of Russia.

There are few Poles who consider that the Russian invasion of Ukraine is in any way justified. The history of this part of the world going back almost a thousand years is so complicated and convoluted that it is hard to imagine a way to succinctly outline how it has come to this. Consider this: for 300 or so years, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth stretched from Lithuania in the west to much of what is now Ukraine in the east and took in Belorussia as well as parts of western Russia. It was a multi-ethnic and multi-religious commonwealth, constituted by a system of collective decision making (of the aristocracy, I need to say), and drew up the very first codified constitution in Europe, second only in the world to the United States. The commonwealth fell to pieces in the eighteenth century when Poland was partitioned by Russia, Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, so effectively Poland ceased to exist until being resurrected in 1919. The reason I have given you this rather poor, potted history is to point out that Poland could easily claim historical rights to great parts of central Europe, but obviously does not. Thus the argument that Russia makes in claiming an historical right to certain areas such as Ukraine or even some parts of the Russian federation is hollow indeed.

The Ukrainian republic of post 1991 counts the famines of 1932 to 1933 as part of its national identity. Whether a deliberate act of genocide on the part of Stalin or a result of natural disaster, poor policy and incompetence, millions of Ukrainians, and others, died. Notions of deliberate genocide were fuelled by Soviet denial of the event at all. On-the-ground reporting by Western journalists such as Gareth Jones (the 2019 film by Agnieszka Holland, Mr Jones, is a moving and distressing account of Jones’ work and times in Ukraine) were denied by Soviet and Western authorities and it was not until the 1960s that it was seriously taken up by historians in the West (while being denied in the Soviet Union). Just as in the case of the Irish famine, regardless of the causes the famine changed the ethnic identity of that part of the world, and spreading Ukrainian migration across the globe. Hundreds of thousands of ethnic Russians from far-flung parts of the empire were moved into Ukraine. Some of the Russians calling for a return to the bosom of Mother Russia are their descendants.

Ukrainian ultra-nationalists were not a pleasant lot towards Poles, or Jews, or others; the Nazi invasion helped their murderous intentions along. Ukrainian guards were eagerly used by Nazis in the concentration and extermination camps; ethnic cleansing in the border regions was made easier by Ukrainian nationalist fervour. The end of the Second World War saw huge changes in borders and populations. While the generation that experienced this has virtually disappeared, countries like Poland are still profoundly affected, and their historical memory is stamped by these disasters, as well as by postwar Soviet domination. These cannot be lightly dismissed as of only historical interest; these legacies are still being actively experienced, as the invasion of Ukraine shows us.

Poland is one of Ukraine’s champions, but this also involves a fair amount of politicking from the various political parties. An election is due next year and the current government is making as much hay as possible from the supposed closeness that the opposition leader, Donald Tusk, had with Vladimir Putin. As in countries such as Italy, the government actually gets to control the public broadcaster, so night after night scenes of Tusk exchanging greetings and smiles with Putin are shown, even though most of these meetings happened almost ten years ago. While Poland is a vocal member of NATO, the current ultra-conservative party is playing a very anti-Europe game, its membership of the EU notwithstanding. It was Donald Tusk who supported the Nordstream gas pipelines from Russia rather than the competing Baltic pipe from Norway. Now Russia is threatening Nordstream and possibly (though not definitely) sabotaging the pipelines themselves. Tusk has been portrayed as a puppet of both Russia and Germany by the leaders of the Law and Justice Party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość, or PiS in Polish) but it is unclear how far they will be able to successfully play this card. The Baltic pipe came onstream this week, which does help the current government as it will certainly ease the gas crisis as Europe moves into winter. The war in Ukraine has helped the government here in its stated aim of doubling its defence budget. Few Poles these days feel able to sustain an argument against this move. Since the 1990s, Polish identity has been reinforced by the explosion of interest in its historical place in European history as the butt of imperial intentions from the West and the East, and this is just a contemporary manifestation of this trend.

All of this is a confusing mess. It is all but impossible to work out who the good guys are in this fight; it is much easier to see who the bad ones are. Whatever the arguments about NATO and the United States and its allies playing a duplicitous game, the Russians invaded a sovereign state with the stated ambitions of reliving the glories of the Czarist empire. Just as the United States and its allies invaded Iraq for totally fictitious reasons, so Russia has invaded Ukraine, and it looks like it won’t stop its aggression until Kyiv looks like Grozny (though this seems increasingly unlikely). As John Pilger pointed out, the Azov Battalion are a bunch of anti-Semitic fascists, but the ultra-nationalists in Russia are not too far behind in the fascist stakes. The Polish government are using the crisis to cement their hold on power, but Poland is also the recipient of millions of refugees whom it has welcomed with surprising generosity. The final outcomes are really yet to be clearly seen.

About the author

Grazyna Zajdow

Grazyna Zajdow is Associate Professor of Sociology at Deakin University where she has taught for many years. Her research interests have been the experience and social effects of drugs and alcohol and feminist sociology. She was a co-editor of Arena Magazine and is Associate Editor of Arena (third series).

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