May 2017

Ogólnopolskie Obchody Narodowego Dnia Pamięci Ofiar ludobójstwa, 9 lipca 2017. Zdjęcie: Ksenija Marczenko

Ogólnopolskie Obchody Narodowego Dnia Pamięci Ofiar ludobójstwa, 9 lipca 2017. Zdjęcie: Ksenija Marczenko

Ogólnopolskie Obchody Narodowego Dnia Pamięci Ofiar ludobójstwa, 9 lipca 2017. Zdjęcie: Ksenija Marczenko

Ogólnopolskie Obchody Narodowego Dnia Pamięci Ofiar ludobójstwa, 9 lipca 2017. Zdjęcie: Ksenija Marczenko

Ogólnopolskie Obchody Narodowego Dnia Pamięci Ofiar ludobójstwa, 9 lipca 2017. Zdjęcie: Ksenija Marczenko

Marsz pamięci. Warszawskie obchody 74 rocznicy ludobójstwa, 11 lipca 2017. Zdjęcie: Ksenija Marczenko

Ogólnopolskie Obchody Narodowego Dnia Pamięci Ofiar ludobójstwa, 9 lipca 2017. Zdjęcie: Ksenija Marczenko

Marsz pamięci. Warszawskie obchody 74 rocznicy ludobójstwa, 11 lipca 2017. Zdjęcie: Ksenija Marczenko

Ogólnopolskie Obchody Narodowego Dnia Pamięci Ofiar ludobójstwa, 9 lipca 2017. Zdjęcie: Ksenija Marczenko

Ogólnopolskie Obchody Narodowego Dnia Pamięci Ofiar ludobójstwa, 9 lipca 2017. Zdjęcie: Ksenija Marczenko

Marsz pamięci. Warszawskie obchody 74 rocznicy ludobójstwa, 11 lipca 2017. Zdjęcie: Ksenija Marczenko

Marsz pamięci. Warszawskie obchody 74 rocznicy ludobójstwa, 11 lipca 2017. Zdjęcie: Ksenija Marczenko

Ogólnopolskie Obchody Narodowego Dnia Pamięci Ofiar ludobójstwa, 9 lipca 2017. Zdjęcie: Ksenija Marczenko

Marsz pamięci. Warszawskie obchody 74 rocznicy ludobójstwa, 11 lipca 2017. Zdjęcie: Ksenija Marczenko

Marsz pamięci. Warszawskie obchody 74 rocznicy ludobójstwa, 11 lipca 2017. Zdjęcie: Ksenija Marczenko

Ogólnopolskie Obchody Narodowego Dnia Pamięci Ofiar ludobójstwa, 9 lipca 2017. Zdjęcie: Ksenija Marczenko

Marsz pamięci. Warszawskie obchody 74 rocznicy ludobójstwa, 11 lipca 2017. Zdjęcie: Ksenija Marczenko

Ogólnopolskie Obchody Narodowego Dnia Pamięci Ofiar ludobójstwa, 9 lipca 2017. Zdjęcie: Ksenija Marczenko

Ogólnopolskie Obchody Narodowego Dnia Pamięci Ofiar ludobójstwa, 9 lipca 2017. Zdjęcie: Ksenija Marczenko

Ksenija Marchenko: I have been living in Warsaw for over six months. I’ve noticed that during that time the Volhynia question has become radicalized and the stakes have been upped in order to use it as a bargaining chip in Polish-Ukrainian relations. A high proportion of Ukrainians believe that Poland is a friendly country, which it proved during the Maidan events and the armed conflict that ensued. I have been working on the problem of Polish citizens of Ukrainian extraction, evacuated from the ATO (anti-terrorist operations) zone to Poland. What they often say to me is that they have been blamed for the Volhynia events, in spite of the fact that they hail from the east of the country. What does today’s Volhynia represent; is it really part and parcel of Polish nationalism? Has our society forgotten the essence of that tragedy?

Ola Hnatiuk: Volhynia is like a festering wound that has never healed; of late there has been some deliberate picking of old scabs going on – with the result that the problem has become much more painful than it used to be. I’m not sure, however, whether the Volhynia problem is as fundamental as the impression given by the mass media that imply that it is an indispensable part of the Polish identity.

As you have remarked, negative responses to Ukrainians have multiplied. I had already pointed this out last year, before the film Volhynia; came out; I wrote about it in my text I Am Returning Home from Poland, published in “Kultura Liberalna.” I suspect, although I cannot be sure, that after the film Volhynia the situation is likely to have worsened further.

Many of those who comment on the crimes that were committed in Volhynia claim that they had never before been referred to. This is patently untrue: since the 1990s the topic has been much discussed and written about. It had already been taken on board not only by historians but also already in the 1990s by social workers, when Polish-Ukrainian seminars were first organized. Apart from whether those seminars were or were not a good idea, suffice it to say that they have been quite fruitful, even though, to my mind, right from the start the concept was doomed to failure as – with all due respect to all the veterans of the AK [Polish Home Army] and the activists from the UA, the Ukrainian Association in Poland – it is, for one thing, hard to be the judge in one’s own case, and secondly, the recognition of the UA has had an adverse impact on the Ukrainian population in Poland. I think that reconciliation is one thing, and source research, analysis, and interpretation are quite a different matter. In that area, there should be no taking of sides – Polish or Ukrainian, and the outcome of the research must not be a record of the discrepancies. This is aconfusion in terms of engagement: whether this is about historical research or negotiations. I am well aware that the majority of colleagues who took part in those seminars will not agree with me. An undoubted success of the seminars is that they have involved researchers on both sides of the border and that they have resulted in eleven volumes of writing. To what extent has this outcome percolated beyond a very narrow, specialist community? Naturally, a publication of historical sources cannot equal a film by Hoffman or Smarzowski. There were, however, some actions intended to reach out to a wider audience: already in the 1990s there had been a series of publications in “Gazeta Wyborcza.” This approach was less applicable when it came to Ukraine; nevertheless, following in the footsteps of “Wyborcza,” the Ukrainian newspaper “The Day” published an academic book aimed at the general public, on the topic of Polish and Ukrainian relations. Over the last quarter of a century a number of films have been made about this issue as well as many radio programs. In the Borderlands, there has been quite a focus on Volhynia. In no way can one say that this is a topic that has not been discussed. Anyone who claims otherwise is either incompetent or acting out of malice.

KM: Would you agree though, that this topic has not featured too prominently in the mainstream Ukrainian media?

OH: Yes, of course. Nevertheless, one must bear in mind that in Ukraine there has been a problem with the media. As long as such channels as Inter exist, setting the tone as a means of informing the public, there isn’t much one can do. So what that “The Day” newspaper will publish stuff or that there is the program “Declassified History” on the first channel of Ukrainian TV, or “The Historical Truth” on the ZIK channel, if these programs have very limited watchability or numbers of readers. Not to mention the fact that up to and including 2014, the average Ukrainian viewer watched mainly Russian media.

KM: Why is Volhynia so important in the public debate in Poland?

OH: Volhynia has become so significant due to deliberate political moves. Of course, one cannot claim that the problem had no earlier presence in the public awareness. However, the present position has been imposed politically. I’ve no idea whether this situation can be controlled in any way, because too many negative emotions have already been stirred up. It is possible that, on the Ukrainian side, we shall lose the capital of trust, which has taken so much effort to build over the last twenty-five years. Opinion polls show that Ukrainians out of all European nations like the Poles the most. Polish, after English, is the most frequently learnt foreign language in Ukraine. Amongst the foreigners studying in Poland, Ukrainians are the largest cohort – currently numbering well over 30 000 people. I won’t even mention the seasonal as well as permanent Ukrainian workers, especially as this matter has been raised in embarrassing statements by politicians and become subject to political manipulation.

Anyway, let’s get back to the problem that we started off with: the crimes committed in Volhynia. If we look at it as an historical issue, which – judging by what is being said about the matter – the average Polish man or woman doesn’t know enough about, I have a question both for historians and for the authors of today’s historical policy: what do Poles know about the at least 200 000 Poles murdered in the Soviet Union on Stalin’s orders? The anti-Polish campaign organized by the NKVD began in 1937. The Poles were the most endangered ethnic group, ahead of Jews or Ukrainians. This is more than just an absent subject. This is a subject that is not being raised by historians today, although already ten years ago the sources had been published in Polish. For almost ten years, I’ve been fighting to highlight the story of the unknown numbers of victims – Poles from Silesia – who after the war found themselves in the Donbas as German prisoners. This is another fragment of history that is passed over in silence, that is not wanted, rejected, and seen solely through the prism of a heroic nationalist narrative in which there is no place for any other story. Instead of a nuanced narrative, a monolithic image has been created of a heroic nation that was exclusively the victim. More and more frequently, it is maintained that Polish citizens suffered the most not at the hands of the Nazis or the Soviets, but at the hands of Ukrainians. By stealth, the clichés of communist propaganda regarding the Ukrainians during World War II are being rehashed; they are being perceived as German collaborators – which is borne out by neither the facts nor the figures.

KM: We can see how old traumas that have not been worked through are now giving rise to new, very dangerous stereotypes and emotions…

OH: Indeed. Nevertheless, one must add that the most recent history and its role in contemporary reality has been perceived differently in Poland and in Ukraine. And this is not a problem solely due to how it is being taught in school. The Polish tradition, founded on an identification with history, is in fact the modern-day Polish identity. In their thinking, Poles have to a large extent been formed by nineteenth-century literature, mainly Adam Mickiewicz and Henryk Sienkiewicz. It was their works (and, to a lesser degree, those of Słowacki and Kraszewski) that created a purely emotional attitude to the trauma of losing independence.

Until recently, the approach in Ukraine has been quite different – there has been a stance that could be described as a flight from history. The story of Ukraine in the 20th century has been sufficiently traumatic that we prefer to remain silent about it. Between 1914 and 1954, tens of millions died in Ukraine, mostly the indigenous population. We don’t even know where most of them are buried; the majority of the victims remain anonymous and their suffering has not been commemorated. What we do know is that – sooner or later – that trauma will return, God forbid, as a powerfully destructive force. In 1991, the Ukrainian nation made a great effort to get away from this terrible past. This is nothing like the Polish policy of “drawing a big line” under the past. This is flight from trauma. In the state policy of the independent Ukrainian nation, the tradition of statehood from the 1918–1920s has not been evoked to any great degree, as the Soviet authorities decided first to totally denigrate this tradition and then to wipe it out completely.

KM: All the same, is it at all possible to identify any common elements of Polish and Ukrainian identity?

OH: Polish and Ukrainian identity are completely different; they are based on quite different things, although at the time when the modern Ukrainian nation was being born, so, at the end of the 19th century, Ukrainians from Galicia (but also, to some extent, those from the Ukraine along the Dnieper) took their cue from the Polish tradition of independence. Whereas the Polish identity continues to be largely defined by ethnicity, albeit with a clear reference to the tradition of Polish statehood, the Ukrainian identity is not an ethnic but rather civic, although as late as the 19th century the Ukrainian identity was defined exclusively in ethnic terms and in opposition to state structures – both those existing at the time and those in the past, thus the Republic. In the case of Poland, we have three components: first, the language – Polish, naturally, secondly – the Catholic faith, and thirdly – cultural traditions, in which I include identification with the tradition of Polish statehood. During the partitions, the historical references became particularly important – the myth of splendor in eras gone by, tolerance, a country with no-one burnt at the stake (even though “rebels” were impaled). For this reason, the great literature of the 19th century is the fundamental element of Polish identity. Without Sienkiewicz and Mickiewicz, there would have been no Poles – not as they are today. In the 19th and at the beginning of the 20th century, it was the historical and cultural elements that were the decisive factors for Polish identity. Without a doubt, this has made it difficult for anyone defining themselves differently to enter the Polish community. To a large extent, Polishness is based on its 19th century notion. If someone is of a faith other than Catholic, that is acceptable, but it does cause discord. During communism, for the first time ever, an ethnically homogenous Polish society came into being. Over 98% of Polish citizens are ethnic Poles, the rest are insignificant minorities. The Jews were killed in the Holocaust, the Germans were expelled, what remained of the Ukrainians were resettled. All other groups that defined themselves as in some way different, such as the Masurians, Silesians or even Kashubians, were treated by the communist state in such a way that they preferred to emigrate, not always for economic reasons. Thus, after the war, a homogenization of Polish society took place, with a very unambiguous identity – the like of which had never been known before. This mainly occurred through religion. The conjunction “Pole and Catholic” became very strong. Let’s note that in communist Poland, over 90% of the population were Catholic. As for the language, it was obviously Polish – it would not have occurred to any of the Polish communists to russify the Poles (yet, this was precisely the fate of Ukrainians, and to an even greater degree – of Belorussians). As regards history, there did of course exist the officially imposed narrative, in which certain components of the old tradition were forbidden by the communist censorship. Nevertheless, the most important texts on which Poles had built their modern identity remained accessible: they could talk Mickiewicz and think Sienkiewicz. It is not by accident that the greatest Polish blockbusters of the 1960s and 1970s were film versions of Sienkiewicz’s Trilogy. At the same time, all this accounted for the fact that the national narrative lacked nuance and was reluctant to succumb to any deeper analysis. Of course, there had been debates, both before and after 1989, but they had never questioned the fundamentals of the Polish national identity. A different narrative was also being created, concerning the post-war history, different from the one served up in communist days.

KM: There is much discussion now about the first Solidarność and about Solidarność Walcząca, mostly about its decay and those who followed in its path. It does seem that the time of Solidarność was a watershed for modern Polishness, wasn’t it?

OH: Without a doubt. For me, the experience of Solidarność was crucial – it made me who I am. Without it, I would have been quite a different person, with quite a different identity, not inclined to reveal myself. Living history is part of our identity. Someone who at that time had a different attitude to Solidarność, not only has a different worldview but also reacts differently to certain stimuli. Those who identified with Solidarność and for whom this was a meaningful experience, tend to be more open to others than those who were hardcore communists and who to this day operate on the communist left-wing. One such symbolic figure is Leszek Miller with his anti-Ukrainian statements, or the PSL activists. This, however, is a generational matter, which doesn’t necessarily concern young people in Poland, who have been shaped more by their family influence, education, new technologies and the environment in which they have circulated. Polish society has changed a lot during my lifetime. Social space has also changed.

KM: When did this social change take place in Poland?

OH: I noticed it very clearly towards the end of the 1980s, when people began to take care of public space. Let me give you one example from my own life. I was living on a housing estate in Warsaw’s Ursynów, a kind of “Alternatywy 4” – the well-known TV series from the time of late communism. My neighbors decided that the staircase did not look nice, so they had a whip round for paint and beer and first they painted it and then they sat down there – in that communal space – and drank the beer together. This is a key moment: when I cease to be indifferent to what our staircase, children’s playground or any other communal space looks like. At that time, thanks to an campaign that the few thousand people living on the estate had contributed to financially – we succeeded in having a telephone cable installed, which in 1980 had seemed totally unfeasible. For many years we had all lived without the telephone, with the nearest public telephone box almost two kilometers away. No telephone cable had been laid. So, in the Wyżyny Estate, a dozen or so thousand people have a collection, all put in some money and they buy and lay the cable. Can this be done? Yes, it can. People began to trust one another. Otherwise nobody would have forked out any money for the cable. They would have thought that someone would just pilfer the money and disappear, and that would have been that. The capital of social trust is essential. If people look after their communal space that means that they have this capital. I can see that in Kyiv, which is an agglomeration twice the size of Warsaw, this has been changing. It began to change after the revolution. There are even more initiatives of this sort in Lviv, but if in such a large agglomeration as Kyiv, in a place that has lost out so much to communism, this is also taking place... let’s wait another twenty years, and the results are bound to be obvious. The level of trust is going up and indifference is disappearing. I don’t mean just indifference to social space but also to people’s lives.

KM: The revolution in Ukraine showed that people are capable of suspending, for a time, differences between themselves and stand together on the barricades for a concrete goal – in this case, to bring down a corrupt government. Do you think that it would be possible for such a movement to take place in Poland, a movement that would transcend the code of the Polish identity?

OH: It’s not that simple. I think that on the one hand, the years 2013–2014 in Ukraine really were a watershed, but that was a watershed that enabled us to see the changes that had been taking place for a long time. Not only did they become visible but people began to verbalize them. Let’s imagine this situation: in Poland, a man called Mustafa Nayem calls for mass protests against, let’s say, faked election results, a change of the Constitution or a change in the functioning of the Constitutional Tribunal. This is totally out of the question. For one thing, it would not occur to anybody to do this and, for another, nobody would respond to such a call – precisely because the initiator was not a Pole. And he could not be a Pole, because he does not speak Polish, and he does not know Polish history. Whereas in Ukraine, this was possible and still is. Until recently, Mustafa Nayem did not speak Ukrainian. That was the beginning. I do not intend to glorify Nayem, the point isn’t to make him into some kind of hero. For me, this is a clear-cut example of the difference in how Polish and Ukrainian society define their identity.

KM: Can you see any changes today in the Ukrainian identity?

OH: The changes that have been taking place in recent years are very important and they are going in the direction of citizenship, in every sense of the word. I don’t want to exaggerate by saying that the entire Ukrainian society is civic and that it consists exclusively of volunteers who want to sacrifice themselves for the common good. But let’s not forget that no fewer than one and a half million internal refugees have received help thanks to the commitment of volunteers. The children who have suffered in the war also receive support, to the extent that volunteers can provide it. They haven’t been left to themselves. The Ukrainian state has not done much, although it has introduced certain facilities to help internal refugees take up education, work or getting a bank account. The vast numbers of displaced people who have been resettled or had to flee the war zone would have been a challenge even for a rich country, and today’s Ukraine is the poorest country in Europe. The refugees that the rest of Europe is dealing with are numbered in hundreds of thousands – whereas Ukraine has had to cope with the problem of a million and a half refugees without a roof over their heads as well as a continuing war.

Going back to identity, I can see the tensions related to internal refugees, how they are perceived and how an average Ukrainian relates to someone from Donetsk. It is common for people from Donetsk to be met with hostility, but it is rare that they are treated with contempt. I am afraid that nobody is keeping any statistics or register of crimes committed with the participation of the refugees or against them, [monitoring] how the present pathologies arise. Of course, there are cases where someone rents a flat, completely clears it out and then disappears. This is possible, because the legislation on rentals is very poor and this is mainly a black-market activity. These are probably isolated cases, but the lack of means of identifying such crimes, the lack of any statistics or publications about this problem leads to people spreading rumors about such behavior and thus a negative stereotype is being created of the “Donetsk kind.”

KM: What could be the fallout from the prevailing ignorance about the scale of such occurrences?

OH: Above all, hostile attitudes will intensify. If these problems are not aired in open discussions or in writing – demonstrating a genuine understanding of the wrongs inflicted – then, of course, people will speculate. This will translate into rumors that the public is quick to believe in. Especially, as the social media make it very easy to spread such unverified information. It is not only Russian propaganda that creates fake news. Rumors travel on many tongues. And in due course, people will begin to believe that the refugees from Donetsk are dangerous, beyond the pale of society and hell-bent on ripping them off.

Of course, we have to face the crisis of trust, both in Polish and Ukrainian society. In his research, Jarosław Hrycak has shown that this lack of trust is much less evident in Poland than in Ukraine, but nevertheless, compared to Sweden, it is still high in Poland. And if there is no capital of social trust, it is hard to carry through any social change – people do not trust one another.

KM: In many interviews, you have commented on the issue of a lack of identification with one’s own country, which applies to both Poles and Ukrainians. Could you elaborate?

OH: I don’t so much mean lack of identification with one’s own country as distancing oneself from the institutions of the state. Even in Poland, on the linguistic level, a government that we don’t identify with or consider hostile we refer to as “they.” So it’s not about a Ukrainian being ashamed of his Ukrainian passport, although ten or so years ago this was more common. Current research indicates that the Pole does not identify with Polishness and does not take pride in it. The real problem is a lack of trust in state institutions and thinking in terms of “entitlement” fostered in the post-Soviet welfare states: it is “they” who should do whatever it is, “they” should make sure that we have heating, “they” should ensure the reforms – it is “they” whose fault it all is. This long-term effect of a lack of one’s own state and treating the state as something external was very marked in Poland during communism and this attitude has not been completely eradicated post-1989. This process is even more complex in Ukraine. Many of the so-called homo sovieticus used to and continue to identify with the USSR but an overwhelming majority see themselves as Ukrainian citizens – not necessarily as Ukrainians in terms of their national identity but as precisely that: Ukrainian citizens, although the state institutions do not inspire much confidence, either.

KM: Jarosław Hrycak commented that the annexation of Crimea, the blood spilt in the Maidan and the flight of Yanukovich meant the end of any development prospects for Ukraine carried on a wave of positive energy. Is it really the case that the currently diminishing interest in Ukraine by European and world public opinion, preoccupied with the refugee crisis and the war in Syria, negates the significance of the Maidan? What is Ukraine’s significance today for the European Union and in what way does this have an impact on Polish and Ukrainian relations?

OH: I don’t have the impression that the war in Ukraine plays any significant part for societies outside Ukraine, which are quite indifferent to it. This is the case even in Poland, although Poles became very much involved in the Euromaidan revolution. This can be partly explained by saturation, because how long can one keep listening to frontline reports? Partly, however, this is due to the situation in Poland itself, as the country is moving towards isolationism. It remains a member of the European Union but, on a verbal, rhetorical level – the country has been closing itself off. This is a very dangerous process that will keep producing negative outcomes for many years to come and it will take us a long time to improve things after this attempt to shut out other countries. What I am referring to here is our attitude to refugees and the manipulation of public opinion. I am not saying this in order to criticize the Polish government but in order to reflect on what is happening to us and our country. The war in Ukraine is relevant to the politics of the Polish state. The Polish state has taken a number of steps to strengthen our national defenses. I cannot comment on defense, because I am not an expert. Anyway, all the familiar elements of the hybrid war in Ukraine have been analyzed in Poland. Perhaps this is not a very in-depth analysis but this matter has certainly been considered and resulted in practical steps being taken. This does not so much concern identity as the country’s defenses.

KM: How great is the impact of ultra nationalist groups on public opinion in Poland and Ukraine? We remember the incidents that took place in Przemyśl during the march of the Ukrainian minority or the burning of Ukrainian flags during the Polish Marches of Independence, the protests against Ukrainian economic immigrants and on the other hand the destruction of the Polish commemoration sites and the attacks on the consulates in Lutsk or Lviv.

OH: Obviously, it is not possible to deny that bad things are happening in Ukraine, and the attack on the consulate can hardly be classified as an incident. Nevertheless, attacks on monuments and other acts of vandalism are met with social disapproval and the monuments are restored. Unfortunately, the same cannot be said about the monuments destroyed in Poland. Such events have bad associations for Ukrainians. In the Chelm district in 1938, the authorities also found excuses for destroying Orthodox churches and the Catholic church hierarchy was not inclined to prevent it. One could carry on with this list, but journalists cover these events as they occur and there is no point in dwelling on the feeling of having been wronged – that is a road to nowhere. What, I think, could change the situation and rebuild trust would be to set up a joint Polish and Ukrainian anti-crisis authority that would be capable of responding to such incidents. After all, we know very well that this will not come to an end all by itself – there is somebody out there constantly stirring things up.

Zniszczony pomnik w Hucie Pieniackiej, 2017. Zdjęcie: Ksenija Marczenko

Zniszczenia na Polskim Cmentarzu Wojennym w Bykowni, 2017. Zdjęcie: Kseniya Marchenko

Zniszczenia na Polskim Cmentarzu Wojennym w Bykowni, 2017. Zdjęcie Ksenija Marczenko

Zniszczenia na Polskim Cmentarzu Wojennym w Bykowni, 2017. Zdjęcie: Ksenija Marczenko

Zniszczenia na Polskim Cmentarzu Wojennym w Bykowni, 2017. Zdjęcie: Ksenija Marczenko

Zniszczony pomnik w Hucie Pieniackiej, 2017. Zdjęcie: Ksenija Marczenko

KM: How can we defeat stereotypes? Is this a task for politicians or for culture?

OH: It is not possible to defeat stereotypes; all we can do is to replace them with other, positive associations. Just ten years ago, Ukrainians were mainly thought of as black-market workers on building sites or working as home helps. Today, the Ukrainians come second, after Germans, as buyers of property in Poland. More and more often, they are employed as salaried workers, such as IT specialists. The largest social group is students.

The perception of Ukrainians will change – on the condition that neither politicians nor the media stir things up, which is today, to my mind, the most significant cause of the resurrection of anti-Ukrainian feelings. At the same time, Poles are still viewed in Ukraine with great sympathy, greater than for other European nations. It is obvious that it is possible to destroy this capital of trust, arrived at so painstakingly, by incitement to hatred. Yes, of course I can see radicalization taking place in Ukraine and I am not playing it down. I am convinced that in the case of Poland, it is very obvious that the government is interested in strengthening nationalist elements, including the ultra- right such as the ONR. On the other hand, one cannot say that in Ukraine, it is the government that is interested in supporting the radicals. But what is worrying is that some of the nationalist rhetoric has been taken up by the governing parties, whether Poroshenko’s or Yulia Tymoshenko’s. This was illustrated very well by the vote on whether to name a street after Roman Shukchevych or after the Year of Bandera. In fact, I think that what we are dealing with here is not radicalization but manipulation. President Poroshenko goes to Warsaw at a time when the Polish-Ukrainian relationship is already quite tense and decides to depart from diplomatic protocol and lay flowers at the monument in Warsaw commemorating the Volhynia Massacre. At that point, the Kyiv City Council makes the decision to change the name of Moscow Prospect to Bandera Prospect. How do the Polish media respond? Of course, they big up just the second of these events, instead of talking about the President’s important and profound gesture. All this effort was annihilated because of a decision deliberately made at the time. President Komorowski comes to Kyiv and visits the High Council, and on the very same day the Ukrainian Parliament decides to pass the decommunization law – which in Warsaw is interpreted as anti-Polish and glorifying Ukrainian nationalism. Is this proof of radicalization? Not at all. It is proof of infiltration, even at the highest echelons of power. Some people may think that this is some conspiracy theory. However, if something happens just once, you could put it down to chance. If twice – coincidence. But if a similar sequence of events takes place...

KM: Can Ukraine benefit from the Polish experience of becoming independent from Russia?

OH: I don’t think that getting away from Russianness was a big deal for Poland. The cut-off came quite suddenly in 1920, frequently compared to 2014 in Ukraine. Of course, the Polish struggle for independence and a string of insurrections built up into a tradition of fighting for national liberation. It was this tradition that put a cloak of silence over all those who collaborated with the Russian regime. I remember that during the political demonstrations that I attended in the 1980s, those considered traitors were decried with the label “Targowica” – a clear reference to the treacherous Polish noblemen who in the 18th century sided with Russia. However, throughout the 19th century, there were many functionaries and militaries, including generals, who were loyal to the Tsar of Russia – there was even a monument to them in Warsaw. We prefer to sweep under the rug the fact that a section of the Polish élites collaborated with Russia and benefited from it. Many had posts in the administration of the Russian Empire, mainly in charge of russification. There were also Polish generals who had served in the Russian army and later defended Warsaw from the Bolsheviks, talking amongst themselves in Russian. For me, there are parallels to what is happening in Ukraine today. Ukrainian generals talk in Russian, which is also the native tongue of many soldiers. Clearly, it’s not the language, then, which is a marker of nationality, is it? Thus, we are back to square one: what is it? After all, it wasn’t the nationality of Mustafa Najem that influenced his stance!

KM: And most certainly, it’s not religion, either.

OH: Exactly. It’s something quite different: loyalty towards one’s country. A modern civic identity is being born as we speak. Totally contemporary, open to others – this is for me what makes Ukrainian society different from Polish; Ukrainian society is more contemporary.

KM: Can one say that Poland, as a nation, shares European values? And what about Ukraine?

OH: The sense of belonging to Western Europe in Poland was prevalent even under communism. I recall a cartoon by Mleczko: a guy is walking through a dilapidated housing estate, wading through puddles on a broken pavement, the surrounding buildings in a pitiful state of neglect, with smashed up entryphones, and he keeps muttering to himself, “I belong to the territory of European culture, I belong to the territory of European culture!” This reflected perfectly how Poles felt about belonging to Western Europe. Here, we are back to Milan Kundera’s essay A Kidnapped West, in which he attempts to prove that it is us, the Central-Eastern Europe that are the real Europe. That, by some strange quirk of fate, we found ourselves in the Soviet zone, but in reality we remain loyal to European values and we are the heart of Europe. Yuri Andruchovych employed a similar stance in his essays, and a text by Andrzej Stasiuk, written along similar lines, appeared during the Orange Revolution.

To what extent are such devices genuine? Clearly, these are verbal constructs. But it is precisely with a discourse about being European that the quality of being European begins and as long as the distinction persists in Ukraine between “things here” and “things in Europe,” as long as this linguistic matrix prevails, we will not feel European. On the other hand, some facts are obvious: borders are opening and many more people travel to the West. Some of the European values that have now become forgotten elsewhere have become important here, such as human dignity and civil liberties.

KM: For a few weeks now, Ukrainians have been able to travel within the European Union without a visa. The window has opened, but some can do no more than look in…

OH: This opening is very significant and symbolic. The abolition of visas is important, even for the penniless. It was very important for me. As I recall very well, in Poland it was possible to travel to the West without a visa in the 1990s – at long last. I couldn’t go anywhere because I had no money but this fact was very important for me psychologically. When, finally, the reforms proved successful and my financial position improved, I travelled quite a lot and this was a very important experience for me. Towards the end of the 1990s and throughout the next decade, I would spend at least a couple of weeks abroad with my family. I soon felt that sunbathing on a beach was not my cup of tea and I managed to persuade my husband to go camping with a tent so as to sightsee as much as possible. This shows that our appetite for Europe grew. Of course, we could not afford the hotels but we could travel unhindered across borders. I remember a fantastic moment when, travelling by car, we got to the far end of Portugal. A local man in a tiny village asked where we were from and we told him that we were from Poland. “Wonderful,” he said. “Congratulations on your recent joining the EU!” And this was a simple man. I also remember a banquet organized by a friend of mine from Solidarność days to celebrate the accession of Poland to the EU. Today, when Ukraine has no chance of becoming a member, it is very difficult to make the EU a point of reference. Nevertheless, there are a number of countries in Europe that are not EU members, but they do not feel any less “European” because of that.

KM: I occasionally see European Union flags hanging here and there in Ukraine, even in little villages.

OH: Do you know what one of the first things was that Yanukovich did when he came to power? In February 2010, he had all the EU flags taken down. After this explicit gesture, it was obvious what path he was going to pursue. Another, equally symbolic gesture, was to remove the banner related to Holodomor on his presidential web page. Operations carried out on symbols are very important and I think that we don’t pay enough attention to them, busy as we are analyzing current political events.

KM: Symbols create rituals and new meanings and extend memory. That is why they lend themselves the most to abuse and political aggression.

OH: Although it is difficult to imagine that it would have been possible to prevent the destruction of the monument in Huta Pieniacka, since it stood in the middle of nowhere – or the empty space that was left after the destruction of the Polish village, it is not that easy to destroy a monument or a memorial site in a small village where people look after it. I am therefore convinced that above all we must bring back collective memory in public space. It does not matter whose graves these are; what matters is that they are there – we must remember our history. It is vital that we care for our history rather than being indifferent to it.

KM: How can we get rid of the burden of the past?

OH: I think that under no circumstances should we look to history to find solutions. It is much better to look for them in communal action, communal tidying up of our different spaces. What counts are collective actions that bring quite a different value – positive value. It would be an excellent idea to set up a fund that would subsidize collective innovative projects, such as for example IT ventures. After all, there are so many talented people in Ukraine who come here to Poland and work. We could carry out a collaborative project that would involve more people and show that we are here and that we can do something useful. We may have different opinions but, after all, all people have varying opinions.


Ola (Aleksandra) Hnatiuk (b. 1961 in Warsaw) – graduate of Ukrainian literature, translator, social activist, professor at the University of Warsaw and the Kyiv–Mohyla Academy. Author of the books Odwaga i strach (KEW Wojnowice, 2015, link:; Ukrainian edition Kyiv 2015), nominated for a number of prestigious history awards; Między literaturą a polityką. Eseje i intermedia (Ukrainian edition Kyiv 2012); Pożegnanie z imperium. Ukraińskie dyskusje o tożsamości (Lublin, UMCS 2003; Ukrainian edition Kyiv, 2005), Bunt pokolenia. Rozmowy z intelektualistami ukraińskimi (Lublin, UMCS 2000 – written with Bogumiła Berdychowska; Ukrainian edition 2003; Czech edition 2010), Ukraińska barokowa pieśń religijna (Warsaw–Kyiv 1994), as well as numerous academic publications, including source research and essays, published in Poland and Ukraine.

She has edited and translated dozens of books in Polish and Ukrainian. During 1998–2005 she ran a translation seminar for translators from Polish, Ukrainian, Belarus and Russian. During 2002–2005 she organized open lectures at the University of Warsaw on Polish–Ukrainian relations. Since 2007, she has run open lectures at the Kyiv–Mohyla Academy. Since 2006, she has chaired the jury for the Jerzy Giedroyć award for the best Masters and PhD theses, sponsored by the Embassy of the Polish Republic in Kyiv.

Member of the Polish and Ukrainian PEN-Club, member of the editorial board of the academic publications “Ukrainskyj humanitarnyj ohlad,” “Ukraina moderna” and “Ukrainica-Judaica.” Editor-in-chief of “Polski studii,” an annual magazine published in Kyiv.

She has received a number of prestigious academic and social awards, including that of the Polcul Foundation, 1999; the Przegląd Wschodni award 2003; the Jerzy Giedroyć academic prize awarded by the UMCS, 2004; the Antonovych Prize for academic activity and activity for Polish and Ukrainian reconciliation, Washington 2010; the Ji magazine award for intellectual courage, 2010) and the state order Knight's Cross of the Order of Polonia Restituta, 2012).

Kseniya Marchenko is a Ukranian journalist and documentarian, currently based in Warsaw on a Gaude Polonia stipend from the Ministry of Culture and National Heritage of Poland. She has created a documentary about Ukrainian evacuees with Polish roots from the Ukrainian war zone to Poland. She graduated with a Masters in journalism from the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy (2012). Before and during the Revolution of Dignity she spent three years working as a correspondent for TV news Channel 1+1. She also made and edited documentaries at She is the author of a short documentary about the Kyiv Metro. Kseniya is interested in the national transformation of Ukraine as a country, following the Revolution of Dignity, exploring how street marches and public spaces are used for political purposes.

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