What do you think of Russians

Why the Poles distrust the Russians

In the relationship of the Poles to Russia and the Russians, feelings of superiority and fear are mixed. Only the former can easily be classified as unfounded. If, on the other hand, the Western European elites and parts of the local public do not understand the reasons for the Polish fear of Russia, the Poles see this as an expression of ignorance and naivety, which can have disastrous consequences and thus trigger further fears.

Opinion-forming intellectuals in Poland remind their compatriots how inappropriate it is to feel culturally superior to a nation that can boast a Dostoevsky or a Tchaikovsky, famous for its excellent ballet, and one of the largest art collections in the St. Petersburg Hermitage owns. The size and diversity of the achievements of Russian artists and scientists - everyone at school has heard of Mendeleev and Pavlov - is the reason for the recognition and esteem that Russia enjoys among Western Europeans, and at the same time their difficulties, the dislike of Poles and others East-Central European nations such as the Baltic in particular against their eastern neighbors.

These differences stem from the fact that Western admiration for some creations of Russian culture is based on a selective understanding of culture and equates this with the high points of literature, art and science. On the other hand, the Poles, who got to know Russian culture in all its facets too closely, refer to another concept of culture that, incidentally, comes closer to that of science. Understood in this way, culture also includes the way of life, the respective dominant types of mentalities and personalities, the level of civilization, the state of the infrastructure and the political system. In the Russian case, all of this does not impress the Poles very much, in fact it is downright deterrent for them.

Influences from the west, threats from the east 

It is an objective law of history that Poland was under the cultural and civilizational influence of the West, whereas influences from the East played a subordinate role for centuries. (These should not be confused with the variety of orientalization which originated from the Ottoman Empire and which went into the special form of the Polish Baroque, Sarmatism). In the phases of Polish cultural history, the western development was reflected through Romanesque, Gothic, Renaissance, etc., which had no parallel in the area of ​​Orthodoxy.

It is not only about the differences between Western Catholic and Eastern Orthodox Christianity, but also about the rhythm and speed of development. This took place in Poland as in Western Europe, but had no equivalent in the East. The German-Polish dispute over the ethnic and cultural affiliation of Johannes Copernicus can only be regarded as grotesque, because this probably the most outstanding scholar of the Renaissance graduated from Cracow University and spent his entire adult life in the service of the Polish state and the Polish church. The oldest Polish university was founded in 1364, earlier than the German one (Heidelberg 1386, Vienna 1365). The first Russian universities, on the other hand, did not emerge until the 18th century. During the communist era, educated Poles mockingly whispered behind closed doors that the two oldest universities on the territory of the Soviet Union had been founded by Poland, namely Vilnius in Lithuania and Lviv in the Ukraine. The fact that these cultural and civilizational influences, apart from the aforementioned oriental interlude of the 17th and 18th centuries, came so exclusively from Western Europe was due, on the one hand, to the fact that Russian material culture lacked innovative potential and attractiveness for a long time, and, on the other, to that the strangeness of Russian symbolic culture, rooted in the aesthetics and ritual of orthodoxy.

Deeper Russian influences first had to be forced upon Poland by force and resulted in a civilizational and cultural decline. In the 18th century, the Russian political influence exerted by an expansionist tsarist empire could no longer be overlooked or contained - it is still associated with their national tragedy by the Poles to this day. This historical antagonism arose not only from the conflict of interests between the two states or their monarchies, but also from the fundamental difference between the two political systems. In the 16th century Poland developed a peculiar model of democracy, which included an electoral king and the equality of all citizens (at that time limited to the nobility, who, at around ten percent, had a higher proportion of the population than in any other European country). The ruthless, brutal and aggressive autocracy of the Russian tsars aroused fear, even more disgust, which was accompanied by a feeling of superiority that came from the extensively celebrated "golden freedom". This feeling extended to the subjects of the tsar, who devotedly and even approvingly endured political tyranny. It lives on in the Poles to this day, and it cannot simply be dismissed as unfounded.

The attempts made in Yeltsin's time to build democracy in Russia ended in fiasco, and in retrospect the Russians regard this period as one of state decline and chaos, while Putin, who put an end to it with the restoration of autocracy, became an idol and became a folk hero. Today's Poles therefore have reason to believe that autocracy is an integral part of Russian political culture. The contrast with Polish democracy, which tends towards anarchy, is very clear and speaks for itself.

An astonishing detail is that Putin's Russia celebrates its national holiday on November 4th in memory of the expulsion of the Polish occupiers from the Kremlin in 1612. The decisive factor for this was that this day is close to November 7th (according to the Gregorian calendar), which was celebrated in the USSR as the largest communist holiday in honor of the Bolshevik revolution, a date that was simply given a new meaning during the The bombast of the celebrations remained the same. The dismayed Poles were reminded in a reproachful tone that a Polish occupation force at the beginning of the 17th century, during Poland's interference in the succession struggles at the court of the tsars, had lodged itself in the Kremlin for many months and was only driven out of it by a national uprising. In today's Russia, the Polish rule of that time is portrayed as extremely vile and cruel without precedent. This can of course be seen as martyrological-nationalist propaganda, but to make the Poles aware that they once took possession of the Kremlin and held it for a long time, which later even the most powerful opponents of Russia would no longer succeed, had to be mixed Arouse feelings.

Orientation towards the West and autocracy 

The Polish attitude towards Russia and the Russians, however, emerged as a result of recent history, which has been a constant, aggressive expansion of Russia at Poland's expense.
When Russia annexed a large part of Ukraine in the second half of the 17th century, this became a warning that is still valid today as a guideline of Polish Ostpolitik: Russia must not be allowed to submit to Ukraine, because this would make it one a great power threatening Poland. An independent Ukraine guarantees the independence of Poland. For this reason, Poland today pursues a benevolent policy towards Ukraine, despite the painful events in mutual relations, especially during the Second World War, and despite the depressing events in current Ukrainian domestic politics.

One of the paradoxes of Russian history is that the decision of Tsar Peter I to end the backwardness and civilizational underdevelopment of his country through a determined and comprehensive Westernization was implemented in the combination of Tsar autocracy and Western European enlightened absolutism. It was then that the European enlighteners succumbed for the first time to the Russian enchantment, which would later become so characteristic of the European elites and so astonishing for the Poles. Intellectuals of the rank of Voltaire or Diderot were carried away by the vision that the enlightened Russian rulers were reshaping their state according to their own ideals of political rationality, without realizing that behind these measures there was brutal, unvarnished and ruthless violence, even of the reforms in the Basically was triggered. Later, the same uncritical fascination of Western intellectuals for large modernization enterprises would arise again when Lenin and Stalin brought communism to power in Russia.

Poland stood in the way of a westernization of Russia, which was understood to mean pushing its own borders in a western direction, thus expanding territorially towards the west. Therefore, since the 18th century, Russia's goal has been to rule, subdue, and submit to Poland. But just as the subjugation of Ukraine makes Russia dangerous for Poland, so the submission of Poland makes it dangerous for Europe, at least for the leading European states such as Germany in particular. That is why, in the 18th century, Germany, at that time Prussia and Austria, did not allow Russia to take Poland alone, but demanded part of it for itself. The agreements that Russia, Prussia and Austria concluded on the partitioning at the end of the 18th century are a trauma in their history for the Poles to this day, as they meant the annihilation of their state. This explains the knee-jerk unrest that seizes the Poles as soon as Russians and Germans come to an understanding with one another, when this happens over their heads and without regard to their interests. It is not enough to reassure you that today's Germany has no bad intentions against Poland, because Russia is currently not hiding how it is playing off the particular interests of the EU and NATO member states in order to divide them. "Russia's European policy is clear. Moscow wants a Europe of individual countries with which it comes to an agreement one after the other. For Germany, this pays off through lucrative energy and trade agreements. France will still find out ..." etc. This is not what wrote an obsessive Russophobic Pole but Denis MacShane, a British politician. In Poland, failing to perceive this truism is held up to some of the elites and the public in Western Europe and Germany as political blindness and naivete.

Russian rule, Russian backwardness 

The more than one hundred years of Russian rule meant for the Poles not only a civilizational but also a political regression, while German, i.e. Prussian and Austrian rule in their respective areas of division is seen as more ambivalent in its consequences. Official historiography and, above all, school history teaching treat all three dividing powers equally negatively, but apart from official historiography, this is seen in a more differentiated manner.

The most favorable verdict is on Austrian rule, which since the middle of the 19th century has granted political autonomy and the free development of Polish culture in its area of ​​division. Today the memory of this era and its way of life in that area is even accompanied by nostalgia. It is very significant that the western areas of today's Ukraine, which then belonged to the Habsburg Monarchy, differ significantly from the rest of the Ukraine, which was under Russian rule.

Prussia made significant civilizational progress in its partition, its rule of law and solidity were given respect, the German culture was innovative and attractive. But an aggressive policy of Germanization deterred the Poles and provoked their resistance. Nevertheless, the western areas of Poland are still at a higher level of development and their inhabitants are more pro-European.

Russia, on the other hand, was and is considered a country that has nothing to offer except its raw materials, from which it is currently trying to make political gains and by means of which it carries out its imperial intrigues. That only brings it into disrepute and is repulsive.

Cultural similarities and opposites 

All of this is true despite the outward resemblance of the Russian and Polish nations, which is based on their common affiliation with Slavicism. However, this never played an essential role in Poland, unlike those Slavic peoples who were either under German rule like the Czechs or under Ottoman rule like the Bulgarians and Serbs and who saw Russia as a protecting power, a guardian or even a liberator. It took the uninhibited Germanization policy at the time of Bismarck and the empire founded under his aegis to move some of the Polish elite to draw closer to Russia as the less threatening enemy. After the Second World War, the Soviet Union renewed this dependency in its propaganda, pointing out that its hegemony over Poland granted protection against the claims of the German revisionists.

Of course, educated Poles know and appreciate the outstanding works of Russian culture. However, they see them as autonomous and not entirely representative productions of this culture. However, they do not relate their appreciation of the works of Tolstoy or Prokofiev to the whole of Russian culture. This distinguishes them from the elites of the West, who like to transfer their admiration for Chekhov or the Russian ballet to the Russian socio-political institutions and political leaders, thus offering Russia a leap of faith that the Poles cannot understand. The Poles made a similar mistake with regard to the institutions, leaders and functionaries of the "Third Reich" when they persuaded themselves that a people who had produced a Goethe or a Beethoven could not behave without culture after all, and then for a long time the reports did not believe about the Nazi crimes that could not possibly have been committed by the compatriots of Kant and Schiller.

One difference is that the Germans have been grappling with the inglorious aspects of their past in relation to the Poles for several decades (although again some older Poles still do not believe that Hitler's and Eichmann's compatriots can be decent people), while the Russians for the time being see no reason at all and feel no need. In Germany it is unthinkable to glorify the achievements of the Nazi era, to praise Hitler's leadership qualities, to justify the measures of the SS or Gestapo and to deny or even excuse the Nazi crimes in the extermination camps. On the other hand, there is a general nostalgia for the USSR in Russia, if Stalin is still regarded as one of the greatest politicians, the NKVD and KGB enjoy general respect - Putin is the prime example of a KGB pupil and functionary - and the communist crimes including those against Poland are questioned or justified. As a result, today's Russians - surveys show the widespread prevalence of such attitudes - attract all the aversion to communism and make it difficult for Poles to draw a line between Russian society and culture and the Soviet regime and its crimes.

Since the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact is generally not well remembered in Poland, through which the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany sealed their joint resolution to eliminate the Polish state and the extermination of the Polish people, in today's Russia there are unexpected justifications ... for Hitler's policy upset against Poland. In order to mitigate the shame of Stalin's cooperation with Hitler in 1939-1941, some Russian historians and ideologues venture into the assertion that the Germans then behaved completely correctly and that their actions were a reaction to the provocations and intransigence of the Poles have been. So today some Russians, albeit with official positions, are repeating the assertions of Hitlerist propaganda. It is easy to imagine how the Poles will react to this.

There are undoubtedly similarities between Poles and Russians, which are expressed in their characteristic temperament, in their communicability and inclination to drink, their melancholy and sentimentality, and which are clearly different from the cool and reserved emotions of the Germans, Scandinavians or Dutch. But it was only an external, not an internal, similarity of temperament and emotionality.Very different experiences and feelings are expressed here in similar forms.

Once upon a time there was a circumstance that made Poles and Russians alike and brought closer to one another - their common preference for vodka. In the past twenty years, however, the Poles have given up on this preference and turned into a people of beer drinkers. However, this happened less under German influence than under Czech influence, but above all thanks to a good range and skillful marketing by the Polish breweries, which are among the most modern and dynamic in all of Europe.

Translated from the Polish by Andreas R. Hofmann
Janusz A. Majcherek
Publicist, professor of philosophy at the Pedagogical University in Cracow.