Russia Threatens Poland Over Decommunization

Just days after the Russian government accused the United States Congress of violating international law by imposing sanctions on Russia, the Kremlin is threatening Poland with sanctions if it pulls down Soviet World War II memorials. Vladimir Putin ought to be grateful that the Poles have let them stand as long as they have. Moscow built them to glorify and whitewash its brutal conquest in the ashes of the Third Reich, yet Warsaw has been free of Russian domination since 1989, more than a whole generation.  

Even after all these years, though, Poland is still in the process of decommunization—eradication of the political, psychological and physical detritus left behind by a totalitarian regime that rivaled only Nazi Germany in its brutality. Yet Russia’s foreign ministry, cribbing the language of political liberalism that it so despises, is accusing Poland of “Russophobia” and of belittling the Soviet Union’s role as a “liberator.”

Russians might even believe that they liberated Poland, but that’s only half true at best. Yes, they drove the Nazis from Poland, but only after first signing on to the Molotov–Ribbentrop Pact (also known as the Hitler-Stalin Pact) that guaranteed Adolf Hitler’s annexation of the western half of the country. Soviet tyrant Josef Stalin turned on Hitler only in 1941 after the Wehrmacht blitzkrieged through Soviet-occupied Poland all the way to the outskirts of Leningrad. After defeating the Nazis, Stalin imposed his own ghastly Russian-made totalitarian system on Poland in its place, complete with secret police, the persecution of dissidents, show trials, the execution of political prisoners, the nationalization of private industry, a botched collectivization of agriculture and all the rest of it.

Imagine if, after the United States invaded Iraq, George W. Bush replaced Saddam Hussein’s mass-murdering regime with a mass-murdering Washington puppet and erected statues of himself in Baghdad. Imagine also that the brutal Bush-installed tyranny lasted half a century before the Iraqis finally squirmed out from beneath it. How do you think the Iraqis would feel about the United States, and about Bush in particular, had this happened? And how do you suppose the Iraqis would feel if the United States then threatened them with sanctions for toppling a hated statue of W?

At least the Russians had enough sense not to put up statues of Stalin himself. Instead they installed a statue of his predeccesor Vladimir Lenin in Krakow.

Poland doesn’t have to tear down the Soviet monuments to effectively decommunize its own landscape. Hungary, for instance, moved some of its own Soviet-era garbage scuptures into a place called Memento Park in Budapest and turned it into a tourist attraction. "This park is about dictatorship,” architect Ákos Eleőd said. “And at the same time, because it can be talked about, described, built, this park is about democracy. After all, only democracy is able to give the opportunity to let us think freely about dictatorship.”

This isn’t the first Soviet statue controversy in Poland. The Warsaw government temporarily took down the Monument to Brothers in Arms (pictured above) in 2010 to make way for a construction project, and its removal was made permanent when residents who live nearby complained that it constantly reminded them of the communist era. The Russian government complained, of course, but they really howled in 2013 when Jerzy Bohdan Szumczyk erected a statue in Gdansk showing a Russian Red Army soldier raping a Polish woman. He did it without permission, and the police removed it just a few hours later. Even many Poles found that statue outrageous. The Kremlin’s response, though, tells us everything we need to know about how Russia views its former vassals. Russia’s then-ambassador said Szumczyk “defiled by his pseudo-art the memory of 600,000 Soviet servicemen who gave their lives in the fight for the freedom and the independence of Poland.”

The freedom and independence of Poland? In 1945? Poland wasn’t free and independent until nearly a half-century later, until the regime in Moscow that “liberated” Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe finally began to circle the drain.  

The ambassador might be able to fool Russian schoolchildren who don’t know any better into believing this kind of ahistorical absurdity, but nobody in Poland is going to buy it. Vladimir Putin’s Russia is as committed to lies as was Soviet Russia when George Orwell masterfully exposed it in his allegorical novel, 1984. Soviet troops died for freedom in Poland? Sure, and war is peace, freedom is slavery, and ignorance is strength, like Big Brother insisted.

The Russian propaganda organ Pravda, which operates under the same name and from the same office as it did during the Soviet era—and whose name, in classic Orwellian style, means “truth”— says Poland, with its slated removal of Soviet monumnets, is trying to “prove its devotion to Western masters.” As if anyone in Washington or Brussels cares a whit what Warsaw does with its own urban landscape.  

With Denazification, the West all but forced Germans to acknowledge the unspeakable crimes the Nazi regime commited in the 20th century. Germans internalized that critique and directed it back at themselves to an astonishing—some would even say excessive—degree. Within a historical instant, Germany was transformed from the world’s most belligerent nation into one of its most pacifist.

Nothing comparable ever happened in Russia. The West never even asked Russians, let alone attempted to force them, to atone for the crimes they committed in the 20th century, probably, at least partly, because so many victims of the Soviet system were Russian. Most of us assumed Russia would move on from its communist past as enthusiastically as the people of Poland, the Czech Republic and Estonia have.

We were wrong, and we should have known better. Because the Soviet Union was more than just a totalitarian state. It was also an empire, and that empire was Russian. Hardly anybody in Warsaw, Prague or even Moscow wants to bring back the slave labor camps, but Russians are still chafing at the loss of their vassals in Warsaw and Prague. They’re still smarting from the loss of their empire. They won’t be good neighbors unless and until they get over it.

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