Ukrainian-Polish Relations in the Context of the Memory War: A Game of Lose-Lose
Relations between Ukraine and Poland today are cooling, disturbingly. The growing differences between the two neighbors do not add to the stability of the region.
After the breakup of the Eastern Bloc, democratic Poland adhered to the so-called Giedroyc doctrine as a guiding principle for Warsaw’s relations with its eastern neighbors. A brilliant Polish intellectual and writer of the mid-twentieth century, Jerzy Giedroyc insisted that Polish freedom depended on the country’s rejecting any kind of imperial pretensions and putting an end to historical disputes with its eastern neighbors, first and foremost Ukraine.
While Giedroyc was developing his ideas about the peaceful settlement of Poland’s eastern borders during his exile in France, many intellectuals in socialist Poland and the West regarded his proposal not only as completely divorced from reality but preeminently as a betrayal of Poland’s national interest. However, after 1989 Giedroyc’s ideas were taken up by Solidarity’s intellectual leaders Adam Michnik and Jacek Kuroń, who defined the foreign policy of democratic Poland with Ukraine and the country’s other eastern neighbors. Giedroyc’s call for peaceful relations with neighbors also prompted Warsaw to create the EU’s Eastern Partnership initiative.
By 2000, the Giedroyc doctrine appeared to have become the foundation of Poland’s culture, politics, and diplomacy. The post-communist elites acknowledged that to create a strong, independent Poland and to reduce Russia’s influence would require the existence of an independent and pro-European (or at least anti-Russian) Eastern European neighborhood. Polish society started perceiving Ukrainians in a much more positive light than it had before. After success in building good relations with Ukraine, it seemed unthinkable to reject the Giedroyc doctrine.
A series of bloody conflicts between Poles and Ukrainians during the twentieth century, especially the ethnic cleansing of Poles and Ukrainians in Volhynia during World War II, left deep, unhealed wounds, which have recently contributed to an uptick in animosity between the two nations.
Yet in twenty-first-century Poland, the Giedroyc doctrine began losing its status as an obvious choice for the Polish power elites. With the rise of identity- and memory-based politics in Warsaw and Kyiv, the shadow of the past has started eroding the friendship between the two neighbors. A series of bloody conflicts between Poles and Ukrainians during the twentieth century, especially the ethnic cleansing of Poles and Ukrainians in Volhynia during World War II, left deep, unhealed wounds, which have recently contributed to an uptick in animosity between the two nations.
A rapid change in the Polish government’s attitudes toward Ukraine emerged when the nationalist and populist Law and Justice (PiS) party took the reins of power in 2015. Poland’s Ukraine policy was contaminated by the radical right’s nostalgia for Polish dominance in the region in the 1920s and 1930s. These ideas are popular today, not only among radical right groups but also among the leadership of the PiS. According to the former PiS politician Paweł Kowal, the party “has always been divided into two factions, with the majority favoring the nationalistic tradition.… But the final say belongs to [party chairman] Jaroslaw Kaczyński, who still adheres to the Giedroyc doctrine and Solidarity’s policies.” However, Kaczynski wants to place a condition on Polish support for Ukraine: Kyiv should refrain from promoting the mid-twentieth-century nationalist leader Stepan Bandera, the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), and the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) as a basis for identity building. The OUN and UPA are seen as major perpetrators of genocidal actions against the Poles in Volhynia in 1943. That year Ukrainian and Polish paramilitary groups fought not only Nazi Germany but also each other and ethnic communities in western Ukraine and eastern Poland. Many thousands of people in both communities were killed, raped, and humiliated.
Indeed, the recent deterioration in Polish-Ukrainian relations is not the fault of the PiS alone. The issue of the Volhynia massacres was raised by many political groups, and in 2016 all factions in the Polish Sejm declared these killings to have been acts of genocide against Poles. But since the PiS came to power in 2015, rhetoric toward Ukraine has radically changed from friendly and supportive to the tough language of ultimatums. During their meeting at the end of 2016, Kaczyński told Ukraine’s president Petro Poroshenko that maintaining good relations between the countries would be possible only if Ukraine abandoned Bandera and the UPA as national symbols. No less striking was a recent declaration by Polish foreign minister Witold Waszczykowski that “Ukraine will not enter Europe with Bandera.”
However, as the Ukrainian historian Yaroslav Hrytsak has argued, neither Bandera nor the UPA has ever really been a basis for identity building in Ukraine; rather, they have served only as symbols of the struggle for independence in western Ukraine. According to him, the active use of Bandera during and after the Euromaidan has been symbolically directed against Russia, not Poland.
Notably, Poland was the most positively perceived country in post-Maidan Ukraine, and despite recent negative developments in Polish-Ukrainian relations (which many Ukrainians are simply unaware of), that is still the case. Many Ukrainians do not know about the Volhynia massacres, which were not mentioned in Soviet-era and most post-Soviet Ukrainian textbooks. Ukrainians also often lack a deeper understanding of the history of the OUN-UPA and those groups’ leaders, who have been mythologized but still not meaningfully investigated by many.
As Ola Hnatiuk puts it, Ukrainians are much less ethnocentric and less focused on history than Poles.
As Hnatiuk observes, many Ukrainian citizens consider themselves Ukrainians even though they do not speak Ukrainian or know much about Ukrainian culture and history. This is a slightly different type of identity than in Poland, being based on loyalty to the state.
There is a certain aspect of Ukrainian identity that is not based on historical roots or cultural tropes. As Hnatiuk observes, many Ukrainian citizens consider themselves Ukrainians even though they do not speak Ukrainian or know much about Ukrainian culture and history. This is a slightly different type of identity than in Poland, being based on loyalty to the state.
At the same time, it is impossible to overlook the fact that Ukrainian ruling elites have often been guilty of omissions, faux pas, and rash and inconsiderate acts that looked like slaps in the face of Polish high officials and the wider public. Ukrainian MPs adopted a law enshrining UPA fighters’ status as freedom fighters during Polish president Komarowski’s official visit to Ukraine. The Ukrainian Institute of National Memory claims to have stopped issuing permits for Poles to repair monuments and search for burials in Ukraine in response to the destruction of the monument to UPA soldiers in the Polish village of Hruszowice. A major Kyiv avenue was renamed after Stepan Bandera during Poroshenko’s attendance at the NATO summit in Warsaw. As the historian Andriy Portnov puts it, Ukraine may want Bandera to be a purely internal matter, but city council decisions on renaming streets and the claims of the Institute of National Memory inevitably contribute to the shaping of Ukrainian foreign policy.
Memory politics have also moved into mass culture. Soon after the Polish parliament adopted a resolution characterizing the Volhynia massacres as genocide, the film Wolyń (Hatred) came out. A planned premiere in Ukraine was canceled, and the film was never released for public viewing.
Meanwhile, the number of attacks on Ukrainians in Poland as a result of negative attitudes toward Ukrainians has significantly increased. In many cases, Polish authorities have demonstrated a clear reluctance to punish the offenders, in keeping with their flirtation with the radical right’s strategy. This seems likely to cause more violence and diplomatic scandals between the two countries in the future, especially since the Ukrainian government is also flirting with the radical right—hence the continuation of the Ukrainian Institute of National Memory’s pro-Bandera policy. And Moscow benefits from the growing distrust and hostility between Polish and Ukrainian elites.
In my opinion, Poland and Ukraine do not have time to play a game of who stands to lose more from deteriorating Polish-Ukrainian relations and keep waiting for the other side to make an even worse move. I agree with Yaroslav Hrytsak, who likes to say that reconciliation is like a bicycle: you have to keep pedaling all the time. Through thick and thin, there are still many opportunities for both sides to learn from their mistakes and return to cooperation and trust.
Oleksandra Iwaniuk is a PhD student at Maria Curie-Skłodowska University specializing in studies of elites.
 See Przemysław Żurawski vel Grajewski, Polska Polityka Wschodnia 1989–2015 (Polish Eastern Policy 1989-2015) (Kraków: Ośrodek Myśli Politycznej, 2016), 2ff.
 Yaroslav Hrytsak, “Experiences of Reconciliation in Polish-Ukrainian-Russian Relations,” lecture (Frankfurt/Oder: Viadrina University, September 5, 2017).
About the Author
The Kennan Institute is the premier U.S. center for advanced research on Russia and Eurasia and the oldest and largest regional program at the Woodrow Wilson International Center for Scholars. The Kennan Institute is committed to improving American understanding of Russia, Ukraine, and the region through research and exchange. Read more