Russia and Poland--the long sweep of history: Malcolm McKinnon reviews Russo-Polish relations and expresses the hope for a fruitful and enduring rapprochement in future.

AuthorMcKinnon, Malcolm
PositionViewpoint essay

Recent issues of this journal have seen contributions from the ambassadors of Poland and the Russian Federation, bearing on the history of relations between the two countries and in particular relations between the Soviet Union (to which the Russian Federation is the recognised successor) and Poland during the Second World War.

In November 2019 the NZIR (vol 44, no 6) reproduced the address of Polish Ambassador Zbigniew Gniatkowski to a colloquium commemorating the 80th anniversary of the outbreak of the Second World War (with the invasion of Poland by Nazi Germany on 1 September 1939). In the article, titled 'Remembering Poland's agony and sacrifice', the ambassador discussed not just the destruction wrought by Germany's brutal invasion, occupation and destruction of Poland, 1939-1945, but the Soviet Union's own invasion and occupation of eastern Poland (in agreement with Nazi Germany) from 17 September 1939 and many subsequent harsh actions by Soviet forces, including the massacre of 22,000 Polish army officers at Katyn in mid-1940.

Last March the NZIR (vol 45, no 2) published correspondence from the ambassador of the Russian Federation, Georgy Zouev, and a response from the Polish ambassador. In his letter the Russian ambassador explained Soviet actions in September 1939 in the context of the failure to establish a Europe-wide anti-Nazi alliance, necessitating the Soviet invasion and occupation of eastern Poland once it became clear that Poland would be defeated by Germany. The Polish ambassador was 'astonished and concerned' at this contribution and argument. He instanced examples of Soviet collaboration with Germany during the currency of the two countries' non-aggression pact (signed 25 August 1939), which lasted until Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union on 22 June 1941.

Attentive readers will be aware that this NZIR exchange is part of a larger debate over the role of both countries in events leading up to the outbreak of the Second World War which has produced sharply worded statements from Russia's President Vladimir Putin and unanimous resolutions of protest in response from the Polish Sejm (Parliament). President Putin further addressed these matters in a lengthy statement on 19 June 2020.

Visionary angle

It is not the purpose of this article to adjudicate on Second World War history and it will in any case be obvious that, while the statements disagree on many specifics, the profound difference lies in the 'angle of vision'. The Russian contribution is focused on the imperatives of Soviet foreign and security policy leading up to the Second World...

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