Prof. Serhy YEKELCZYK: Homage to Poland

Homage to Poland

Photo of Prof. Serhy YEKELCHYK


Lecturer in history and Slavic studies at the University of Victoria (Canada). Author of 'Ukraine: What Everyone Needs to Know' (Oxford University Press).


other articles by this author

Poland’s standing with Ukraine in the darkest hour of the Russian invasion shifted Ukrainian-Polish relations to an entirely new level, that of people’s diplomacy.

.When I was growing up in Soviet Ukraine, Poland appeared enigmatic to me—it was both attractive and dangerous, a place from which Ukrainian visitors brought magazines that seemed glamorous by our standards, music LPs, and chewing gum. There were also felt-tipped pens of various colors, twenty or so in a single package. It did not make any difference whether these items were made in socialist Poland or were Western products available there—it was something new from Europe! I remember my mother copying the sewing patterns from the monthly Kobieta i zycie onto large sheets of semi-transparent paper. I also remember my joy upon realizing that words in the Latin alphabet suddenly made sense, as did Polish pop music.

Yet Poland, even a socialist one, was also dangerous. Was it even socialist? My school history textbook said that a complete collectivization of agriculture was necessary to build socialism, but the teacher said that Poland still had private farmers. Then there was Catholicism and the Polish pope. And, in my senior grades at school, Solidarity. We were expected to criticize it at political-information meetings, but we also eagerly listened to Western shortwave broadcasts. So people could rebel and get organized against the government? I wondered. Poles could also use pan and pani as forms of address, something that would be a political transgression in Ukrainian, an anti-Soviet statement.

In retrospect, Poland was so dangerous precisely because it was so close in terms of language and history. It has always been Ukraine’s implicit alter ego, something we could have been, something we were not allowed to become. It was fitting that western Ukrainians, considered politically unreliable in Soviet times, had better access to Poland. Many travelled there, and many more could speak Polish fluently. But even in Russified Kyiv of the 1970s and early 1980s, Poland was often the topic of quiet conversations in kitchens. If Wałęsa could do it, maybe people’s power was more than an empty slogan?

As a graduate student in 1989–1991, I saw the Polish example as something Ukraine would not be able to emulate any time soon. Poles won their freedom precisely because they were so un-Soviet, so certain of their national identity. This conviction produced a strong civil society that could rebuild Poland after the fall of communism. In contrast, Ukrainians were too Soviet, they lacked the Polish sense of solidarity stemming from history, religion, and patriotism. Russian-speaking Ukrainians could not decide whether they were different from the Russians, whether they wanted the communists back in power. Many people of my generation understood instinctively that this ambivalence of post-Soviet Ukraine also produced immense corruption. There was no civil society to check on the state, and the politicians could enrich themselves the way they wanted. Surely this was connected to a weak national identity, but did this mean Ukraine was hopeless?

It was only in the early 2000s that Ukraine began developing what Poland already had, because Poles had never surrendered their past and culture. The protests against the corrupt rule of President Kuchma brought together a mass opposition movement. It did not focus on the rights of the Ukrainian language, yet the language was becoming a democratic cultural choice. The notion of being culturally Ukrainian and being European became connected. The Orange Revolution of 2004–5 and the Revolution of Dignity in 2013–14 only confirmed this new meaning of Ukrainian identity. The Russian attack in 2014 helped articulate another crucial dimension: The new Ukraine was also an anti-Russia, both because of Putin’s oppressive dictatorship and Russian cultural colonialism that existed for centuries before Putin. Culture was political and politics was national. Ukraine was finally becoming like Poland, but in its own unique and very modern way. Then came the Russian invasion of 2022.

The two revolutions and the war highlighted Poland’s new role for Ukraine. Strategically, beginning with the Soviet collapse, Poland has always been Ukraine’s advocate in Europe. Economic ties also developed, with large numbers of Ukrainians going to Poland as seasonal workers. Yet, this did not quite feel like joining Europe. But when millions of Poles accepted displaced Ukrainians into their homes, volunteered at train stations, and donated every spare zloty for Ukraine, this grand response truly made Ukrainians feel that they were back in the European family. That Polish support of Ukraine seemed boundless also mattered. Ukrainian social media circulated a drawing of President Duda as a medieval knight with a blue-and-yellow armband.

This also gave hope to Ukraine itself. Could it finally follow Poland’s path towards building a mighty economy? Could it establish the rule of law and defeat corruption? Ukrainian social media celebrated the decision that Polish and Ukrainian customs officers would work at the border as a team; they trusted the Poles much more than their own corrupt officials. If only there were a way to merge Ukrainian ministries with Polish ones as well! Your readers might say that I am idealizing Polish civil servants, but Ukraine so badly needs a relatable example.

Ukraine’s becoming the political opposite of Russia also meant searching for historical heroes among those most hated by Stalin and Putin—the radical Ukrainian nationalists. While the new Ukrainian identity is both national and democratic, Ukraine’s historical heroes weren’t always like that. This is not unusual among European nations, but Europe knows the ways of overcoming the old traumas and building mutual trust. The first steps towards the acknowledgement of historical wrongs, reconciliation, and mutual forgiveness seemed so promising during the early 2000s, when the European formula “We forgive and ask for forgiveness” unblocked the long-standing conflict around the Eaglets Memorial in Lviv.

.Poland’s standing with Ukraine in the darkest hour of the Russian invasion shifted Ukrainian-Polish relations to an entirely new level, that of people’s diplomacy. Giving shelter also means acceptance into the family, no matter what happened in the past. Millions of Polish and Ukrainian families have formed a strong bond that can enable the two nation’s leaders to cut the Gordian knot of history. Indeed, something remarkable happened in January 2023. For the first time in eighteen years the presidents of Poland and Ukraine together brought flowers to the Eaglets’ Cemetery—and to the nearby graves of the Ukrainians who fell in the current war with Russia.

Serhy Yekelczyk

This content is protected by copyright. Any further distribution without the authors permission is forbidden. 25/02/2023