It is difficult to estimate how far the anti-Polish political and media campaign will go, inspired and instigated by actions from the Kremlin. It may have far-reaching consequences for Russian citizens' relationship with Poland and the Poles.
At the end of 2019, Russian President Vladimir Putin made several addresses on the causes and consequences of the Soviet-German treaty of August 1939, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. He did so in various forums – from a live annual press conference to the Community of Independent States Summit in St. Petersburg, to the Russian Defence Ministry College.
This unusual activity by the head of the Russian state was framed by several pro-Kremlin media outlets as part of the preparations for the 75th anniversary of the victory over Nazism, and that Putin was responding to attempts by “certain forces” in the West to manipulate the history of the Second World War and the pre-war politics of some European states.
Putin the Historian
It is very likely that Putin’s reaction was provoked by the European Parliament’s resolution on the importance of historical memory in Europe, approved in September 2019, which underlined the co-responsibility of Nazi Germany and the Communist Soviet Union for the start of the Second World War.
This resolution outraged the Russian President. Yet the secret protocol (now widely known and repeatedly published) of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact is a document that unequivocally confirms the shared responsibility of German Nazis and Soviet Bolsheviks. It contains an agreement concerning the division of influence in Europe between these two totalitarian regimes.
The whole development of events in Europe from September 1939 to June 1941 proceeded exactly according to this protocol jointly written by Hitler and Stalin: first the German and Soviet invasion of Poland and its occupation and division (the fourth consecutive instance, since the 18th century), then Germany’s campaign against Western European states and Soviet military operations in Eastern Europe (the war against Finland, occupation and annexation of the Baltic states, and the occupation and annexation of the formerly Romanian Northern Bukovina and Bessarabia).
Putin condemned the European Parliament’s resolution, reiterating the cliché Soviet propaganda that aims to place the greatest blame upon Western countries for their failure to prevent Hitler from carrying out his plans for war. Whitewashing the USSR’s responsibility for the consequences of their pact with the Nazis, and justifying Stalin’s policy, is part of a known Soviet narrative that has been increasingly echoed in recent years from the top echelons of Russian politics (a remarkable revision of the previous official position of Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin).
But this time Putin came up with something that had not yet been heard from the highest representatives of the Russian state: accusing Poland, a state that itself became the first victim of Nazi war expansion in 1939, of being directly responsible for starting a war in Europe. According to Putin’s diction, the Second World War was actually unleashed by Germany and Poland.
Why is that?
Why has Poland become the object of this incredible defamation, which until recently had been difficult to imagine?
The causes are both historical and contemporary. The historical reasons relate to the rivalry between the Polish and Russian states, going back to the Middle Ages; the fact that part of Poland (after three divisions and the disappearance of the Polish state) was incorporated into the Russian Empire, and that following the communist coup in Russia in 1917 Poland gained independent status and became an important player in Europe.
The current causes seem to be more important. Poland is – unlike Russia – a successful example of post-communist transformation (its various existing problems notwithstanding). It is a Member State of the European Union and NATO, which takes a critical stance on the policy of contemporary Russia.
In these forums, Poland points out the dangers of Russian policy, insists on maintaining sanctions imposed on Moscow for its aggression against Ukraine and annexation of Crimea, and reinforces its defence capabilities in cooperation with NATO, including ensuring the presence of military personnel and infrastructure from other Alliance member countries on its territory.
To accuse Poland of co-responsibility for unleashing the Second World War is to serve the current Russian leadership in its aim to politically weaken the international position of the Polish state, deteriorating its relations with other democratic countries in the world – especially its allies in the Union, NATO, as well as with Ukraine and Israel. It aims to neutralise the practical consequences of Poland’s firm position towards Russia at EU and NATO level.
An image of an external enemy for domestic purposes
However, the accusation of Poland of its alleged active role in causing the Second World War, which Vladimir Putin sought to propagate at the end of 2019, also serves to fulfil an important propaganda function within Russia itself. It is an intrinsic part of the internal Russian power corporation’s effort to reproduce and diversify perceptions of Russia’s external enemy.
This is the depiction of Poland in Russian government-controlled media: Poland is a co-initiator of the Second World War, an ancient enemy who forges aggressive plans against Russia, who serves and has always served as a tool of the West to weaken Moscow, and who today consciously builds on anti-Semitic traditions from the pre-war period.
The Russian President’s speeches in December imbued this unfavourable image with a new impetus, and it was further developed by pro-Kremlin propaganda; both in hysterical political talk shows on federal television channels and in “serious” articles and commentaries in the print media.
For example, the pro-Kremlin daily Vzgliad (trans. View) has recently repeatedly published articles on Poland, in which it portrayed it exclusively in a negative light. In order to rouse disgust against Poland, many texts describe Poland as the “hyena of Europe”, a term taken from the pre-war period.
“Poland is a war aggressor”
A few months before the speeches made by Vladimir Putin, the newspaper published an article by an associate professor of political science at the Financial University of the Russian Federation, in which Poland was depicted as the initiator of the Second World War and “responsible for tens of millions of victims.” According to the author of the paper, “Warsaw actively helped Hitler to split Czechoslovakia.”
According to another author, a member of the regional Duma in Kaliningrad and a former officer of the Russian naval special forces, Poland is now a country that is “under Washington´s control.” The Polish government is said to be serving the Anglo Saxons and has forgotten all about the “famous Polish pride”.
In January 2020, this Kaliningrad representative promptly responded to a resolution by the Polish Sejm that rejected Putin’s accusations and emphasised that it was Nazi Germany and the USSR that had triggered the Second World War. An article under the title Poland dreams of robbing Russia portrayed Poland as a state in sharp conflict with many other states because of the interpretation of the history of the Second World War.
According to the article, “Poland is conducting a grand historical battle on several fronts at the same time. Against Germany, where it demands new reparations for itself after the Second World War, claiming that the old are no longer considered. Against Ukraine in connection with the fact that Kyiv emphasises the “heroism” of OUN – UPA fighters who ruthlessly killed many Poles. Against Israel, where there is an agreement that the pre-war Polish authorities helped carry out the Holocaust. Finally, against Russia as the direct successor of the USSR. The main object of the historic attack here is the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and its secret protocols.”
According to the author of this breakneck and largely misleading construction, Poland’s true intention in defining the USSR as a state responsible for the start of the Second World War is, besides trying to humiliate Russia as a successor state of USSR, to rob Russia through the demands of post-war reparations.
Poland wants to subdue Russia
An example of creating an “alternative” reality can be found in an interview in Vzgliad which features a “military expert” who often appears on federal television channels. He explained to readers that the reason for the current Polish government’s decision to deploy NATO military personnel in Poland is as follows: “Poland wants to have a permanent American base in case it needs to use force against its own protesting population. Many Poles are unhappy that their country has turned into a puppet state. This is a way to stay in power.”
The “expert” goes much further – calling Poland “a consistent and rule-breaking enemy of Russian statehood”. He outlines a possible scenario in which, in the event of the disorganisation of Russian armed forces or its territorial fragmentation, Polish “historical hatred will finally be able to reach our peaceful population.” However, the “expert” reminds everyone that Russia possesses nuclear weapons and that there is a risk that “if Poland goes too far, it can be destroyed”.
This narrative about a dangerous Poland threatening Russia was developed by another author in the Vzgliad, in an article under the magnanimous headline Lithuania and Poland reconciling over a shared hatred of Russia. He writes: “Another anti-Russian inter-alliance is forming in front of our eyes. Its main weapon is not military but psychological.
The main aim is to contribute, by all available means, to fostering a schism in Russian society, to bring Russia to the ‘Moscow Maydan’ scenario and to bring the new pretender to the Imperial throne in the Kremlin. To this end, Warsaw and Vilnius are even prepared to forget the insults they have caused each other over the centuries of sharing common neighbourhood”.
The author insists that Poles and Lithuanians are preparing joint history textbooks to twist history and manipulate Russian youth among whom these textbooks will be distributed. This brainwashed youth will then “form units of the future Moscow Maydan”, assisted by “Ukrainian experience and led by Polish and Ukrainian instructors”.
It is difficult to estimate how far the anti-Polish political and media campaign will go, inspired and instigated by actions from the Kremlin. Given the dominant influence of state and pro-governmental electronic and printed media on the majority of the population of the Russian Federation, this campaign can have far-reaching consequences for Russian citizens’ relationship with Poland and the Poles.
This will certainly not contribute to good neighbourly relations between the two states in the future.
Unfortunately, this will not be the first time that hatred and hysteria deliberately propagated by the propaganda apparatus have irreparably affected the relationship of Russian citizens with other nations. A few years ago, Georgians and Ukrainians experienced it themselves.
This article is the first of a monthly series called “Central Europe in the mirror of Russian media“ run by the Institute for Public Affairs (IVO) and the supported by the Open Information Partnership. It is also available in Slovak on Denník N.