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The Bloody History Between Poland and Ukraine Led to Their Unlikely Solidarity


On 20 February, the young Ukrainian activist Aleksandra Kovaleva posted an open letter to European politicians on Facebook. "Yanukovych fucks you all this time, he fucks us also, but we at least trying to resist," she wrote. "You’re too old, you’re blind to see what is happening, you are deaf and can not hear the screams." The letter was a cri de coeur, evoking the anger, hurt, and disappointment of thousands on the Maidan. “Sorry for my English,” Kovaleva ended her letter. Then she added, "And yes, thank you, Poland. We hear you and we love you." 

Polish-Ukrainian mutual affection is not necessarily self-evident. What is now Western Ukraine, including its cultural capital of Lviv, was once eastern Poland. It was not a friendly territorial exchange between neighbors. In November 1918, as World War I drew to a close, forces belonging to a Polish state that had not yet quite come into being fought a war against the West Ukrainian People's Republic, which had just moments earlier declared itself. As a result of that Polish-Ukrainian war, eastern Galicia and much of Volhynia was incorporated into a new Polish state; after the Bolshevik Civil War, the remainder of what is now Ukraine became a Soviet Republic.

Two decades later, in September 1939, the Wehrmacht invaded Poland from the west, and the Red Army invaded from the east. The Polish state ceased to exist, and eastern Galicia and Volhynia became Soviet Ukraine. In 1943, with the Ukrainian lands now under Nazi occupation, Ukrainian nationalist extremists embarked on a campaign of ethnic cleansing: They herded Poles into churches and set them on fire. They shot Poles with bullets and beat them to death with farm tools. There were hangings and decapitations. Poles responded, sometimes in kind. After the war, the Polish government, finding concentrations of ethnic Ukrainians inside Polish territory undesirable, "resettled" thousands of Ukrainians in western Poland, murdering some in the process.

And yet despite that bloody history—or perhaps in part because of it—no one in Europe cares more about Ukraine now than the Poles. The Polish press has used the word "powstańcy" to describe the protestors on the Maidan. "Powstańcy"—those who rise up, resistance fighters—is a special word in Polish; it is reserved for the courageous, for those who fight “for our freedom and yours.” 

What are the sources of this affinity? Poland and Ukraine have certain obvious things in common. They are neighbors, of course, and share a common border. Their languages are mutually intelligible. They have both experienced the Russian threat in their own skin. They have both experienced, too, the difficulties of transition, the birth pains of democracy, the incompleteness of 1989. Yet all of this is still not quite enough of an explanation. 

Ukraine is not entirely real to most Europeans. Relatively few in Western Europe have ever traveled there, or know more than that it was once a part of the Soviet Union.  Many assume—even if subliminally—that if the protestors speak Ukrainian, then they are likely right-wing nationalists who do not deserve support. And if the protestors speak Russian, then they are in essence Russians who deserve the same fate as other Russians. After all, with respect to Russia, Europeans and Americans alike tend to throw up our arms: There has never been anything like secure human rights in that country, and there is unlikely ever to be. (This, of course, is not a morally sustainable position: We either believe in human rights and the rule of law—or we don't.) In fact, Ukrainian speakers and Russian speakers (often the same people—most Ukrainians are bilingual) and speakers of various other languages came to the Maidan because they could no longer stand being ruled, in any language, by a gangster. Viktor Yanukovych is a curious historical phenomenon: He is neither charismatic nor charming. He offers no grand narrative and no transcendent meaning. He is just nakedly, unapologetically, a gangster. 

Yanukovych's regime, together with the Kremlin, have been telling us that the protestors are anti-Semites and Nazis—while simultaneously telling their riot police that the protestors are gays and Jews. This is bewildering to most Europeans. It is much less bewildering to Poles. They have experience with just this kind of shameless—and absurdist—mendacity. After all, they remember the Stalinist regime promising to protect Jews from the anti-Semitism of the anti-communists, while conducting an anti-Semitic campaign of its own. And they remember March 1968, when the communist regime justified its suppression of demonstrators against censorship by accusing protestors of engaging in a Nazi-Zionist conspiracy against Poland.

In fact, Ukrainian Jews have played an active role on the Maidan. During a recent lecture in Vienna, the Ukrainian scholar Mykola Riabchuk told the story of a Jewish artist on the Maidan who was asked whether he believed there were also anti-Semites there, protesting alongside him.  And the Jewish artist responded: Yes, he believed there were probably some anti-Semites among them.  Yet in calmer times he went to the Philharmonic, and he supposed that among his fellow audience members there were perhaps also some anti-Semites. But that was not why they were there. 

The diversity on the Maidan is not only ethnic, religious, and linguistic, but also socio-economic, generational, and ideological. The dynamism (and riskiness) of such a variegated constellation of forces is not unreminiscent of the Home Army, the Polish underground who fought the Nazis, or of Solidarity, the anti-communist opposition of the 1980s. These two great Polish resistance movements also included a broad spectrum of participants from Right to Left, people who would not otherwise have found themselves on the same side. Poles are in a position to grasp the temporary overcoming of political-ideological divisions in the interest of rising up against what is felt to be a greater evil.

They know, too, that if and when victory does come, those divisions will return—perhaps with a vengeance. Yet something magical remains: the coming together of carpenters and physicians, electricians and novelists, construction workers and computer engineers, students and grandmothers, pregnant women and veterans of the war in Afghanistan, Ukrainian nationalists and orthodox Jews, priests and gay rights activists. That last group turned their LGBT hotline into a resource for the Maidan as a whole. This is civil society in heightened form. The Maidan has become a true "parallel polis," organizing meals, clothing, music, lectures, medical care, film screenings, and civil disobedience training. 

Kateryna Mishchenko, a young Kievan translator of Theodor Adorno and Walter Benjamin, initially came to the Maidan interested in writing about Ukrainians’ dreams of Europe. Yet, as she told me and others during a recent conversation at the Institute for Human Sciences in Vienna, once she was there, her question became rather, "how can I take part?" She went to a hospital, where she saw injured protestors being kidnapped just meters away from her, taken away by thugs hired by Yankovych to be tortured. She began to organize people to guard the patients at the hospitals. The moment when the intellectuals and the workers, the fathers and the sons unite is necessarily ephemeral—yet it is extraordinary nonetheless. This was the miracle of Solidarity in Poland. And it is something that most people will never experience in their lifetimes. 

But there is something still more that is familiar, perhaps intuitive, to many Poles: that Augenblick, the existential moment of making a decision on which everything is staked. At some point one could feel, as if palpably, that on the Maidan people had a made a decision: If necessary, they would die there. The capital city burning, the best of the youth ready to give their lives, the women making Molotov cocktails (a Polish friend wrote to me that among his young colleagues in Kiev there are “very many girls, who of course are a hundred times more inclined to take risks than the guys”)—it all conjured up an image of Warsaw in 1944.

It was this depth of Polish history that allowed Polish Foreign Minister Radosław Sikorski to go to Kiev and help negotiate the agreement that put an end to the worst violence so far. This was not a task for those who have little experience with extremity, with what German-speakers call "border situations" (Grenzerfahrungen): After all, it involved sitting down with a gangster, trying to convince him to stop murdering people and to shorten his own term in office, with the knowledge that just a hundred meters or so away people are being killed on the streets and that each additional minute meant additional deaths.  

In these circumstances it was not easy to convince the survivors that they were not betraying their dead friends if they agreed to a compromise. The leaders of the Maidan were understandably suspicious. In Sikorski's words, "the mood was not conducive" to signing an agreement. He tried to persuade them using all possible arguments, including the emotional ones from his own—Polish—history, the history of failed and successful uprisings on behalf of freedom. "If you don't support this, you will have martial law, the army, you will all be dead," he finally told the Maidan's representatives.  In the end, 34 voted to accept the agreement; two were opposed. 

In the years leading to the creation of Solidarity, the Czech philosopher Jan Patočka was among the most important voices of dissent in communist Eastern Europe. Patočka spent the last years of his life (before he himself became a victim of the secret police) at the center of a dissident milieu composed of both former Stalinists and former victims of Stalin. In one of his late essays, written in the mid-1970s, Patočka wrote of war, of the front line, as an encounter with mortality that shakes to the core those who experience it. He wrote of “the transformation of the meaning of life which here trips on nothingness, on a boundary over which it cannot step, along which everything is transformed.” This confrontation with darkness, with struggle and death can bind together even those on opposite sides. This is not the solidarity of those who have forgotten or forgiven. “The solidarity of the shaken,” Patočka wrote, “is the solidarity of those who understand.” 

Sikorski was able to convince the Ukrainians he understood them—because he did. In Warsaw, on August 1, 1944, the Polish Home Army rose up against the German occupiers. Three days later, the Polish command appealed to London: “Request categorically immediately assistance.” The reply came: "In general, while His Majesty’s Government are, of course, anxious to give every assistance in their power to Polish forces fighting against the common enemy, they cannot overcome the serious geographical and other operational difficulties which unfortunately hamper the provision of such assistance." During all of August and September 1944, Western Europe watched as Warsaw burned to the ground.

The Polish essayist Michał Sutowski, describing the passivity of Europe, warned that we had no right to expect Ukrainians to forgive us our indifference.

In October 1944, after the Poles were defeated, the survivors were taken to German camps. A few months later, the Soviet Red Army crossed the river and took the empty city. Afterwards, the Stalinist regime built large buildings on top of Warsaw’s ashes. The largest was the Palace of Culture, Stalin’s monumental gift to the Poles, towering in the center of the Warsaw. Since February 20, it has been lit up every night in yellow and blue—a gesture of the solidarity of the shaken. 

Marci Shore is associate professor of history at Yale University and a visiting fellow at the Institut für die Wissenschaften vom Menschen in Vienna. Her most recent book is The Taste of Ashes: The Afterlife of Totalitarianism in Eastern Europe.