For Poles, Russia remains an unpredictable power

20th August 2008, Comments 0 comments

For Poles who grew up under communism, it may be too late to see their former overlord differently. But can Poland's young generation can ever look objectively at the Kremlin?

Warsaw -- Tensions between Poland and Russia recently reached new highs but for Poland's older generation, the suspicion of Moscow goes beyond contemporary politics.

For Poles who grew up under communism, it may be too late to see their former overlord differently. But it's also uncertain whether Poland's young generation can ever look objectively at the Kremlin.

Poland drew Russian wrath recently by agreeing to host part of a US missile defense system in return for military aid. While the US says the system is meant to defend against missile threats from "rogue states," Russia says it's aimed straight at Moscow's arsenal of strategic nuclear missiles.

Meanwhile, Russian's invasion of Georgia was for some proof of Kremlin's imperial ambitions and provided an argument for strengthening Polish defenses.

Georgia also triggered memories among older Poles of past interventions and Soviet aggression. Whether they remember brutal communist crackdowns, long lines at grocery stores or the invasion of the Red Army after World War II, the elderly can rarely look at Russia without historical baggage.

"It's seen as a former imperialist power which still has dreams of regaining that imperial power," said Lena Kolarska-Bobinska, head of the Warsaw-based Institute of Public Affairs, a think tank. "There is a very large distrust toward Russia and a view that this is a very unpredictable country still prone to imperialist ambitions."


Post-communist Poland joined NATO in 1999 and the European Union five years later. With a booming economy, it has shed the image of a struggling former Soviet-bloc nation to become part of modern Europe.

But many haven't forgotten their country's uncomfortable history with Russia: Grandmothers may joke with their nieces about disowning them if they marry a Russian, while middle-aged Poles might watch sports matches rooting for "anybody but Russia."

"Poles hate Russians," said one traveler at Warsaw's central train station, declining to give his name. "When there was still the Soviet Union, the Soviets raped Polish women."

His younger friend cut in: "The years pass and things change but let's say this -- I listen to my grandmother tell stories from the war and I have to believe her."

The past is over

Polish President Lech Kaczynski, during a recent trip to Georgia, evoked a troubled history by saying the days of Russian empire were over. He told a crowd that, "those times have ended once and for all," while in Georgia, "our neighbors have shown the face we've known for hundreds of years."

And while young people might not remember the USSR and in general have a more tolerant view of Russia, they still don't look toward Moscow as they do toward, say, London.

"Young people don't have anything against Russians," said Piotr Konrad. "We have no hidden hatred. But we don't like the use of force, like in Georgia or Chechnya."

Being afraid

Yet Poland's friendly relations with Germany show history can be forgiven. Poles may remember the Nazi invasion but they have a far less negative view of Germans today.

Research shows that in the early 1990s, most Poles were "afraid" of Germany but in the past two decades, the perceived threat has diminished with a simultaneous rise in fear of Russia, Kolarska-Bobinska said in an interview.

Poles changed their minds when Germany helped their country with EU membership and made gestures of reconciliation. Yet tensions with Russia remained, coupled with a "history of Russia's unpredictability" to form the Poles' negative view, she said.

Officials and politicians have failed to bring the two sides together, she added,, and even young people who don't remember the Soviet Union still view Russia negatively because of the conflict in Georgia and Russia's recent threats toward Poland.

"It's because of geographic locations and history, and because Poles simply don't know Russia's future intentions," she said.

Others, however, see hope in Poland's future generations, who they say are shedding their negative image of Russia with the passing years.

"My son's generation has a different mindset," said elderly Warsaw resident Zbigniew Kaminski. "My nephews don't have any negativity over Russia at all. If you live historically, you end up hating everyone."

-- Dominika Maslikowski/Expatica

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