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Memory on Volhynia still divides. A recent Polish survey leaves no doubts

July 11th 2018 marks the 75th anniversary of the mass killing of Poles in Volhynia by Ukrainian nationalists. In anticipation of the anniversary and the ongoing public debate, the Polish research centre CBOS has surveyed Poles on their memory of the massacre and their perception of Ukraine today. The survey “Volhynia 1943 – memory being recovered” gives clear, but not very optimistic answers.

July 11, 2018 - Monika Szafrańska - Articles and Commentary

A monument to the victims of the Volhynia massacres Photo: Apilek (cc) wikimedia.org

The Volhynia Massacre has been a lively issue in Polish discourse for quite some time now. After a monument devoted to the victims was unveiled in the district of Żoliborz in Warsaw in 2013, it reached its highest peak in 2016 when July 11th was established a National Remembrance Day of the Genocide. Discussions around the events from 1943 became even more heated with the release of the film Volhynia directed by the well-known Polish director Wojciech Smarzowski. The film offered a visual testimony to the atrocities. The final stages of the film were co-produced by Polish Television, which premiered on prime-time TV this year.

A symbol of the division

This year’s commemoration, as is tradition, included the Polish president, Andrzej Duda, who took part in a mass for the victims in Lutsk, in western Ukraine. Duda also visited a cemetery in Olyka. However not only did he pay the tribute by laying the wreath but also in his speech he emphasised some sore points like the blatant disproportion between the numbers of Polish and Ukrainian victims and the need to appraise the past. No Ukrainian representative took part in the events.

Ukrainian commemorations of the events were also without the other side. On Sunday July 8th the Ukrainian president, Petro Poroshenko, took part in the unveiling of a memorial to the Ukrainians killed by Polish “peasant battalions” in the village of Sahryn in eastern Poland. The heads of both states did not meet. It appears as though the Polish and Ukrainian authorities only delved into the conflict well knowing where it leads. No side is willing to fully admit guilt and mistakes and as a result the commemorations were organised separately and focused too heavily on blaming the other side. Thus Polish-Ukrainian relations not only came to a standstill, but have even worsened.

Characteristically, while in Ukraine the Volhynia Massacre is treated as the same kind of mass killing as the one performed by the Poles on the Ukrainian population in Poland, the attitude to the scale of the atrocity is different. The Polish authorities and many historians argue that the proportion of crime is incomparable, demanding from the Ukrainian side to “stand on the side of truth” and admit their guilt.

However, there are also those in Poland who promote the idea of dialogue and forgiveness and these voices are regularly raised, especially by the so-called Giedroyc adherers (named after Jerzy Giedroyc, the editor in chief of the 20th century Polish émigré journal Kultura). Despite their efforts, the past remains a bone of contention, which – as the CBOS survey shows – influences Polish-Ukrainian relations, also on the people-to-people level. 

A descriptive survey

Based on the results of the survey it can be said that Polish-Ukrainian relations are neither good nor bad. Almost half (44 per cent) of those surveyed claimed that they are neutral in the memory conflict. However, among the 13 per cent of those who evaluate the relations as bad, nearly half blame the Ukrainian side for the situation. Almost a third (29 per cent) of the interviewees said that relations with Ukraine are good. Among this group are usually young people who, as the survey revealed, are generally more positive about Ukraine and Ukrainians than the elderly.

Most people perceive the past and common history as elements dividing both nations. This, however, does not stop them from believing in the possibility of at least a half-way reconciliation. This attitude has not changed much since 2013, which can be seen as a positive thing.

Most importantly, the CBOS survey shows that knowledge about Volhynia is expanding in Poland. To be more precise: while in 2013 nearly 30 per cent of the surveyed claimed they have knowledge about Volhynia and 41 per cent have heard something about it, this year both of these numbers reached up to 37 and 44 per cent respectively. About seven per cent cannot clarify what the Volhynia Massacre really is or confuse it with other events. However, it is difficult to judge based on the survey how deeply grounded in historical facts is the knowledge about the massacre. Thus, it is justified to assume that a great part of this knowledge comes from unverified and manipulated sources as well as official state rhetoric.

Therefore, it is not surprising that most of the interviewees claim that the only victims of the massacre were Poles and guilt lies on the Ukrainian side. This conviction has spread much since 2013. As a result, according to the 2018 survey, only seven per cent believe that victims were on both sides. Such Boolean division into those who are good and those who are bad has unfortunately become a characteristic of the discourse in recent years.

Unproductive comparisons

Polish citizens – in one way or another – give in to this negative influence of anti-Ukrainian discourse. Evidence of their aversion might be seen for example in the comments below the news about Ukrainian plans to commemorate Ukrainian victims during the 1943 burning of the village Rudka Kozinska and which took place during the Volhynia massacre. On a social networking site called wykop.pl, for example, one could read the comment: “17 executed, what a massacre! So many victims. The 130,000 Poles is a no-brainer compared with 17 Ukrainians.” And this is not the worst comment one could read. On Facebook there is a plethora of anti-Ukrainian sites run by Poles. One popular page is called “A Ukrainian is NOT my brother” (“Ukrainiec NIE jest moim bratem”). The profile has already over 67,000 likes. It is often blocked for vulgar and hateful content but it still exists and has an increasing number of followers.

Internet discussions reveal that the current tendency in Poland is not only to blame Ukrainians for the Volhynia tragedy but also, for example, poor economic conditions. One can more and more often read that Ukrainians take jobs from Poles or block their places at universities. At times in these comments there are references to Volhynia.

Path to reconciliation 

The ongoing Volhynia commemoration events show that the current historical narrative both in Poland and Ukraine has an increasing negative effect on the perception of the neighbour in both states and is destructive to good neighbourly relations. While mistakes have been made on both sides, the future would certainly benefit from reconciliation and more co-operation than deepening isolation.

Monika Szafrańska is a student of European Studies and Journalism and Social Communication at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow. She is an editorial assistent with New Eastern Europe.

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