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A War on Monuments: There Will Be no Victors

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A War on Monuments: There Will Be no Victors


Svetlana Alekseeva


The latest round in the Polish war on monuments has provoked sharp condemnation, not only in Russia, but in other countries as well. The ruling Polish authorities are conducting a war not so much on the Soviet legacy, as on their own history, depriving citizens of the ability to pay respects to the memory of their ancestors who saved the country from fascist aggression. Such a war against memory threatens to become a serious loss for Poland itself.

In mid-July, Polish president Andrzej Duda signed amendments to a law banning communist propaganda, which made provision for demolishing Soviet monuments in the country. By the calculations of the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, this de-communization law would affect 230 monuments to Red Army soldiers. By taking such a step, the Polish government has provoked sharp condemnation, and not only in Russia: the parliaments of Belarus and Israel have expressed their opposition to this action, as have the Ministries of Foreign Affairs in the countries belonging to the Collective Security Treaty Organization.

These actions by the Polish leadership are nothing new: this country went on the “warpath” against monuments back in the ’90s, asserted the assistant director of the Institute of CIS Countries, Igor Shishkin, at the War Against Historical Memory roundtable, which took place on 2 August. According to him, Russia has for too long kept silent about such actions, perceiving them to be the excesses of a young democracy, which would return to its senses after entering the EU.

As it turns out, nothing could return them to their senses. Around ten monuments were demolished in Poland in 2015, and in 2016 it was several times this—including a monument to General Chernyakhovsky. And then they ratified a program called ‘Purging Poland of Signs of Soviet Domination, which has as its primary task the removal of all monuments from the Soviet period, observed Shishkin.

In particular, not long ago in the town of Sanok a monument of gratitude to the Red Army was taken down on the direct order of the Polish Institute of National Remembrance. In the town of Cybinka, at the cemetery for Soviet officers, they demolished a memorial plaque with a copy from one side of the Soviet medal issued to soldiers participating in the victory over Germany and a text describing the Red Army soldiers heroic victory. Plans have been announced to replace the monument on the communal grave of Red Army soldiers in the city of Piekary Śląnskie with a regular plaque.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs has declared, this action contradicts the intergovernmental Accord on Burials and Memorial Sites of Victims of Wars and Repressions of 22 February 1994.

Such policies have long brought certain dividends to the Polish government. Poland is one of the first countries in Eastern Europe to turn historical politics into a chief instrument for solving internal and external problems, emphasized Igor Shishkin. The image of a country victimized by a totalitarian regime has allowed them to rally the people around a platform of Russophobia. Though, according to Igor Shishkin, Germanophobia is also on the rise in Poland right now. And on the foreign market, this expert avers, Poles have received certain preferential treatment as a resulton the parts of both Germany and Russia.

But it appears that concessions and patience have reached their limit. As is well known, the 17th article in the Russo-Polish treaty of neighborliness and cooperation makes provision for the preservation of military memorials. An action on the Polish side to demolish monuments could be interpreted by Russia as a violation of this treaty, observed Igor Shishkin. And this treaty certainly benefits Poland as it includes a provision for the recognition of borders.

If Poland is declaring a readiness to escape their totalitarian Soviet past, let them also give up their western territories, which were a gift from Stalin, suggests Shishkin.

The war against monuments in Poland has struck out against the countrys own history first. Such is the conviction of the head of the research division of the Russian Military History Society, Yuri Nikiforov. He cited a mass of documents declassified by the Russian Ministry of Defense, dedicated to events in Poland during the Second World War. As an example, it contains directives such as an order forbidding tank units from traveling down asphalted roads in Poland, so as not to destroy them. There is quite a lot of evidence that the Poles themselves took the initiative in raising monuments to the Red Armyfor them this was a kind of sign of their memory of, and gratitude to, the Russo-Polish comradeship-in-arms, concludes the expert.

In contemporary Poland, silence also reigns regarding the factual record of the Poles own contribution to the war against fascismspecifically, about how they stormed Berlin alongside Soviet forces. The Polish leadership is at war with its own history, depriving the grandchildren of victorious soldiers the right to honor the memory of their ancestors, emphasized Nikiforov.

Russia must actively develop historical policies, asserting its own interests, asserts Igor Shishkin. This means specifically that Russia should stop keeping silent about historical facts out of a fear of insulting or compromising another party. Recently, a story ran in the media about a museum on the site of the Polish concentration camp Sobibór: Polish authorities decided not to include Russia in the designs for renovating this museum. As is well known, this particular camp, built for the mass extermination of Jews, was the site of the only successful prisoners escape, which was organized by Red Army officer Alexander Pechersky. Why shouldnt we remind people of the fact that the escaped prisoners were given over to the Germans by none other than the Poles, and Banderites served as camp guards? he observed.

Of course, nowhere near all Poles agree with such actions by their leadership. A participant in the roundtable from Moldavia, the director of the Russian Historical Patriotic Club and chairman of the Victory national coordinating committee, Alexei Petrovich, spoke about the Memory Watch event that recently took place in Chișinău, the participants in which included search parties from Poland working to preserve the memory of perished Soviet soldiers.

The civil societies of Poland and Rusia are tasked with preserving this historical memory of their united battle against fascism. While this war against monuments is being conducted in Poland, Igor Shishkin has made the counterproposal of establishing a memorial in Russia in honor of the comradeship-in-arms between Soviet and Polish soldiers.

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