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20 December 2015

Russia’s ‘monumental’ anti-diplomacy

By putting the dismantling of ‘monuments of gratitude’ to the Red Army on par with the actions of terrorists from the Middle East, several of Russia’s problems with its relations with Central Europe are simultaneously exposed

‘Mayhem, which contradicts all conceivable concepts of modern civilization.’ ‘The war on monuments is fraught with the most negative consequences.’ ‘Abuse of the memory of those who fell fighting for the freedom and independence of the Polish people is incompatible with the fundamental principles of a civilized society.’ These are but a few fragments taken from the communiques and official statements of Russian diplomats about Poland. These statements have been reiterated time and again over the past year. Admittedly, the verbal athleticism of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) is by no means limited to the above. Just the other day, the head of the Information and Press Department of the MFA of the Russian Federation Maria Zakharova deigned to equate the dismantling of the Soviet monuments in Poland to acts of terrorism in the Middle East. Back in September, the Russian ambassador to Poland shared his view that civilized societies do not wage war on Soviet monuments or on the symbol of the hammer and sickle. On December 18th, the Russian Duma adopted a special resolution on the issue, using language similar to the rhetoric of the Russian MFA.

What is the reason behind such angry reactions of Russian diplomats, and of the extreme emotionality and audacity of the language used? In order to answer this question, to begin with, a number of facts, little known both in Russia and the West, must be cited. As history has it, Polish soil has become the final resting place for millions of Russian and Soviet soldiers. More than 600 thousand Red Army soldiers who died between 1944 and 1945 and over 700 thousand Soviet soldiers tortured to death in Nazi prisoners of war ‘camps’ and during death marches (the same soldiers condemned to oblivion in the USSR and later forgotten in Russia) are buried in more than 630 military cemeteries and sites which are kept and maintained at the expense of the Polish state. Additionally, almost a thousand cemeteries of Russian soldiers who died in World War I as well as cemeteries of soldiers of the Soviet Army stationed in Poland until 1993 are situated here. New exhumations and reburials of the remains of the deceased from unmarked burial sites, inadvertently discovered during excavation works, are carried out every year. It is difficult to criticize Poland when it comes to this issue. 

However, apart from cemeteries, in Poland there are almost 500 monuments of a different type – the symbolic monuments ‘of gratitude for the liberation from German occupation’ or of ‘Polish-Soviet brotherhood in arms’ and sculptures of commanders such as General Cherniakhovsky. In recent years, local governments in Poland have increasingly opted to dismantle or relocate them. Cases of vandalism have also been reported. This issue should be paid more careful attention since Russian diplomacy has purposely and consistently confused this issue with that of the cemeteries.

Let us start with the misunderstanding regarding the difference in historical memory of both nations, or its manipulation. It is clear that for various reasons, the cult of the Red Army plays the role of a secular religion in Russia which acts as alternative to Christianity, which was systematically destroyed by bolshevism. However, it is also clear that over the course of the last 25 years, Poland and other former Socialist countries, including, in recent time, also Ukraine, have declared in unison that the events of 1944-1945 could not be described as ‘liberation’ nor the Red Army soldiers as ‘liberators’. Russian elites and diplomats in particular should have realized that in Poland, there is an unwavering social consensus that the campaign of the Red Army  put an end to the German occupation of the country, but it did not bring freedom. Instead of freedom, Poland was saddled with a puppet government wholly subordinate to the Kremlin which bears responsibility for the initially totalitarian, and later authoritarian regime, the Sovietization of public life, entirely inefficient economic system, as well as the mass arrests and deportations to the depths of the USSR of Polish soldiers and officials who recognized the rule of the Polish government-in-exile in London in 1944-1945 (the United States and the United Kingdom also recognized this government). The new order can be symbolized by the deployment of hundreds of thousands of Soviet soldiers on the territory of Poland who were stationed there till 1993, and until 1956 even in the absence of any legal grounds. It can also be symbolized by the death penalty executed in 1948 based on the shameful sentence of the court of ‘liberated Poland’ handed down to a true hero – Polish officer Witold Pilecki who voluntarily entered the Auschwitz concentration camp in order to organize a resistance movement there and to inform the world about the Holocaust.

The Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) has never stated that it is unaware of the Polish viewpoint on these events. It is also no mystery to the MFA that monuments ‘in gratitude to’ the Red Army or to the ‘Polish-Soviet brotherhood in arms’, located not in cemeteries but other public places, were erected not on the initiative of local residents at all but upon the orders of the Soviet military commandants’ offices or local committees of the Communist Party. It would be easier to grasp the crux of the matter were we to imagine that the Napoleonic wars had different outcomes and that Napoleon had ordered a monument to himself and his army be erected ‘in gratitude for liberation’ on Trafalgar Square along with a corresponding triumphal arch in the Red Square and that the days of French hegemony had subsequently come an end. 

The very fact that 25 years after the recovery of real sovereignty, there still remains a multitude of ‘monuments of gratitude’ which are often ugly in appearance, should rather be considered a testament to the high level of tolerance of Poles. This tolerance may well have persisted had Russia’s behavior been different. Thus, the Poles’ perception of Russia could be more favorable had it not been for Russia’s aggression against Ukraine; had the Russian authorities and society continued a real dialogue with Poland on historical topics (as in the early days of Yeltsin); had Russian archives not withheld documents related to the Polish history of World War II including materials on Soviet crimes such as Katyn or the Augustów roundup classified as ‘top secret’ upon the order of the Kremlin to this day; had they not refused to return works of art and documents of the Polish state stolen by the Red Army in 1939 and post-1944 as well as the wreckage of the Polish plane carrying President Kaczyński which crashed in April 2010 in Smolensk.

Since things stand as they do, and there are no prospects of change in the historical consciousness of Poles or their sentiments regarding Putin’s Russia, why should Russian diplomacy constantly urge, require and solicit changes in Poland’s stance? Perhaps, the Russian MFA values virtue and the obligation to respect international law (here we speak of the Polish-Russian agreement as of 1994; the one which settles issues ‘related to the establishment, registration, installation, preservation and proper maintenance of places of memorial and grave sites’) and believes that Poland does not fulfill its obligations while ignoring the arguments of the Polish counterparty that the above agreement refers not to ‘symbolic monuments’ such as ‘monuments of gratitude’ but only to cemeteries. If this is so, then the attention of the Russian MFA should be drawn to the fact that as a result of the carelessness of negotiators of both countries, or else deliberate manipulation, the two authentic versions of the agreement differ in their wording. The Russian version is, indeed, imprecise, and, if desired, can be interpreted as providing protection to ‘monuments of gratitude’, too. The Polish version speaks not of ‘places of memory and grave(s) (sites)’ but of ‘places of memorial and rest’, therefore unambiguously defining that the agreement refers to the territories of cemeteries. The Polish authorities have the right to interpret the agreement based on the Polish version. And this is what they indeed do. 

However, the Russian authorities prefer to remain silent on the issue. The only feasible explanation of this historical dimension of Russian policy regarding Poland can be reasons internal to Russian. In accordance with the ideological policy of the Kremlin, a view of World War II other than one imbued by the Soviet spirit is sacrilege. Russian diplomats hardly desire to be reproached and accused of being blasphemers. In fact, many of them truly believe the official version of history for obvious reasons. In addition, analysis of the situation often induces them to use the harsh rhetoric of ‘Russo-phobia’, ‘oppression in Poland’ and so on. They understand that they will not successfully bring about changes to the image of the USSR and Putin’s Russia in Poland. This is not meant to be since due to their history, Poles understand the essence of Russian authoritarianism ‘only too well’. And one cannot find reputable circles in Poland that wish for at least some rapprochement with Putin’s Russia: in this respect, the situation is different even from other countries in Central and Eastern Europe. What are Russian diplomats left with? They can only put all their efforts into proving their loyalty and explaining that nothing can be achieved in Poland because of the flagrant Russo-phobia amongst Poles. The issue of Soviet monuments is the best evidence of this.

This leads us to the following conclusion: the burden on the agenda of Polish-Russian relations on the issue of ‘monuments in gratitude to the Red Army’ can be stricken off in two ways. The first is if significant changes will occur in Russia itself - in its authorities and its society - which will bring about differences in attitudes towards Soviet totalitarianism. Both countries will then reach an agreement as to what should be done about these unfortunate monuments in an amicable manner. The alternative is if Polish local communities lawfully undertake decisions about the removal or relocation of these structures. When the last ‘monument of gratitude’ disappears from Polish land, the problem itself will disappear along with it.

The former option is more favorable to Russia itself whereas the latter is far more realistic. And should this come to pass, the Russian Ministry of Foreign Affairs will equate Poland with the Talibs or the Red Guards – in line with its inherent logic. 

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