Prof. Marek KORNAT: The truth about Volhynia is important for both Poland and Ukraine

The truth about Volhynia is important for both Poland and Ukraine

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Prof. Marek KORNAT

Historian, Sovietologist, essayist, professor of human sciences


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‘How can we discuss the Volhynian Slaughter today without supporting Russian propaganda and still preserving the truth and honouring the victims?’ asks Professor Marek KORNAT

.Before delving into the Volhynia tragedy, we should first examine the circumstances that led to this genocide. In my opinion, there were three decisive factors. The first was the Ukrainian integral nationalism of the time, uncompromisingly proclaiming the theory of a nation-state without foreigners, who – according to this concept – should be driven out of the country or killed. This nationalism was clearly inspired by fascism, an ideology popular in the inter-war period. Many nations tried to create their own variant of it, believing that they could use it to create a strong state, free of internal divisions. The second factor was the Soviet aggression against Poland’s eastern territories in September 1939. The Soviet presence in these lands (after the partition of Poland) exacerbated Polish-Ukrainian antagonism. The third contributing factor was the German occupation that followed the Third Reich’s attack on the USSR in June 1941, and the emergence of Ukrainian armed formations that collaborated with the Germans. These formations were used in the fight against the Poles. Thus, in 1943, the opportunity arose to carry out the ‘ethnic cleansing’ in Volhynia. Massacres aimed at exterminating the Polish population occurred. They were not spontaneous but carried out as part of a political plan and resulted from an ideological project. The attackers aimed to ‘cleanse’ the Ukrainian lands of Poles. The idea of the ‘peasant war,’ promoted also by some Polish historians, should be dismissed. 80 years ago in Volhynia, uniformed armed formations attacked the civilian population on the grounds that these persons were a burden to be disposed of.

Since the issue of the Volhynian crime in Polish-Ukrainian relations has not been properly resolved to this day, it is being cynically exploited by Russia, which has a vested interest in the discord between Poles and Ukrainians. Vladimir Putin’s perception of Volhynia differs from that of the USSR authorities in the past. The general assumption in Soviet propaganda was that ‘socialist nations’ should live in harmony and that any conflicts should be concealed. The Volhynian Slaughter was only ‘revealed’ as a historical event and brought to light through the propaganda of Russia, the country that emerged following the dissolution of the USSR in 1991. Certainly, atrocities such as those in Volhynia or eastern Galicia provide an ideal backdrop for a narrative about ‘evil’ fascism and the merit of those who defeated it, namely the Soviet Union. This theme has remained a constant in Russia’s fights with Ukraine, which has been striving for definitive independence from the Federation for years. After all, formally declaring independence, as Ukraine did in 1991, is very different from actually gaining it. As independent Ukraine is an enemy of Russia, their propaganda aims to discredit it. Referring to the past – in particular to the Second World War – serves this purpose. Russian propaganda will likely exploit the upcoming 80th anniversary of the Volhynian Slaughter, and neither Poland nor Ukraine can prevent it. Moscow has been doing this consistently for years, but importantly, now it has nothing new to add. The prepared narrative suggests that Ukrainians, whose heirs supposedly hold power in Kyiv today, killed not only Poles but also Soviet citizens. Russia will not give up its story, at least not under the rule of its current dictator. Despite all that, skilful historical policy could bring Poland and Ukraine closer and prevent conflict. Russia’s unprovoked attack on Ukraine serves to strengthen the bond between our two nations like nothing else. But how can we discuss the Volhynian Slaughter today without supporting Russian propaganda and still preserving the truth and honouring the victims?

I think that the Polish position must stem from historical facts. Particularly the loss of 100,000 lives, which includes the inhabitants of eastern Galicia. We cannot avoid introducing the issue of crimes against humanity into the discourse. From a historical point of view, there is no other way to describe the events. Poland’s efforts to support Ukraine in its ongoing struggle against Russia must not be done at the expense of the historical truth. We cannot support the narrative that Volhynia was a Ukrainian retaliation for the harm they suffered at the hands of the Poles in the Second Polish Republic. To put it that way would be to justify the criminals. Poland cannot do this, even if it were to serve the seeming improvement of Polish-Ukrainian relations. I use the term ‘seeming improvement’ because a lasting normalisation of relations between our nations, let alone friendship, cannot be built on lies.

So far, the Ukrainian state has not done enough to help resolve the dispute over the memory of the Volhynia massacre. According to the historiography I know, the extermination activities in the area are often minimised as a local civil war. It is not good for Polish-Ukrainian relations. The right course of action in this case would be to allow the Polish side to exhume the remains of Volhynian crime victims, which Poland has been requesting for some time. One could say that this is the bare minimum. It is noteworthy that a number of Ukrainian historians publicly acknowledge the Volhynian genocide as a crime against humanity. The problem lies in the Ukrainian historical policy towards the legacy of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA). According to the general view of this policy, the Ukrainian government and its leader cannot openly condemn the UPA as it fought for an independent Ukraine, mainly against the Soviets. And that certainly has value. The ongoing war appears to have intensified the Ukrainian authorities’ hesitation to issue a definitive statement regarding the atrocities in Volhynia, given that the UPA soldiers – who fought Russia in the 20th century – could be seen as a model for those who are now fighting for a free homeland against the same enemy. However, such reasoning entails that a lasting consensus between Ukraine and Poland on the matter of historical memory is unattainable. Ukrainian leaders need to ask themselves with whom they want to build future alliances. Successfully defending their country against an invader would be a momentous historical event. But following that, it will be necessary to rebuild the country and lay the foundations for its security for years to come. There is simply no alternative to archiving this than close cooperation between Ukraine and Poland. Turkey’s separation from Ukraine by sea limits its effectiveness as an ally. Germany has so far opted to work with Russia instead of Ukraine, and the stability of the German-Ukrainian rapprochement in the aftermath of the Russian aggression in February 2022 is uncertain. Poland, on the other hand, is a country with a vested interest in a Ukraine that is independent of Russia and therefore strong enough to resist it.

Certain opinion makers in Poland have a different approach to Ukraine from mine. The government supports Ukraine, and that is the right thing to do. There is no doubt about it. But some voices – invoking political realism – argue that Poland’s support for our eastern neighbour goes too far. I believe that this reasoning is mistaken because Poland has no other choice. The conquest of Ukraine by Russia means a mortal threat to our country, and anyone who does not understand this should not comment on politics. During the diplomatic crisis before the war in Ukraine, Russia made explicit demands also to Poland. There were no territorial claims involved, but the demand was to effectively freeze our country’s NATO membership. Poland was and is another target on the Russian list. But the Ukrainians, who were not expected to put up such a brave and effective defence, thwarted the enemy’s plans. It would be most unfortunate if the dispute over the memory of Volhynia’s crimes were to be successfully used as a pretext by those seeking to detach Poland from the Russian-Ukrainian conflict. Weaving between Russia and Ukraine is not an option. The purported political realism of such a choice is illusory. It has nothing to do with the Polish reason of state. ‘We are not Ukrainophiles,’ wrote political columnist Włodzimierz Bączkowski before the Second World War. These words could be echoed today, as it is not a matter of emotions, but rather of interests. Poland needs Ukraine to survive.

Supporting Ukraine does not imply, however, that the Volhynian crime cannot be discussed today and that Poland should stop its intense efforts to remove this issue from the agenda of Polish-Ukrainian relations. Should we adopt such a remembrance policy, undermining it in the future would become extremely easy – and not only regarding Volhynia. I do not support the notion that history should be left to historians. Let us not forget that public authorities shape social identity with their remembrance policies. Those in upper echelons of the government must therefore preserve their nation’s culture of remembrance and not allow themselves to be silenced. At the same time, they should make every effort to prevent the Polish-Ukrainian conflict over history from reigniting during a war that is of existential significance for both states. The crucial step, however, falls on Ukraine. Its authorities should not reproach Poland for demanding recognition of the truth and wishing to commemorate the victims of the Volhynian Slaughter on its 80th anniversary. President Zelenski has risked his life to prove that he is a patriot who cares about the welfare of his country. Here, too, he should see what benefits his homeland.


Above all, Volhynia demands recognition of the truth from both parties. And, according to the classical definition, truth reflects reality. Only on the basis of the truth should we build relations between Poland and Ukraine. Considering that the history of our nations has both glorious and incriminating pages, let us be careful not to lose a single drop from the river of history.

Marek Kornat

This content is protected by copyright. Any further distribution without the authors permission is forbidden. 07/07/2023