History and the present… how to build relations in the present based on the common history of the Poles and the Ukrainians?

We encourage you to read view of Professor Roszkowski who discusses the Polish-Ukrainian relations at great length, referring to history and the current situation in the context of current events.

In January of this year we had a long interview with Professor Wojciech Roszkowski concerning Polish-Ukrainian cooperation.


The interview was started off with the following question:


“Today, during the struggle, we talk a lot about the brotherhood of our peoples, and we feel this brotherhood. But the difficult issues in our history will not disappear on their own, and there will be many people who are eager to reinforce divisions. How to extract from our history what unites us and build on that, and how to deal with divisions among us so that we can build solid foundations for future cooperation for?”


Below we provide the interview transcription:


The second part of the book on the Three Seas Initiative is being published under the title: ”Eagle, Lion and Cross, the History and Culture of the Three Seas countries”. The efforts on the first volume of the book were launched before the war in Ukraine and took into account the history, traditions and identity of almost twelve Three Seas countries. With the outbreak of the war I immediately realized, and Ukraine was associated with the Three Seas Initiative. We will not avoid, and it would even be flippant not to think in the same terms about the Polish-Belarusian, the Polish-Ukrainian and the Polish-Moldovan future relations.


In the second volume of the book, an entire extensive chapter is devoted to the legacy of the First Republic of Poland and all that followed with the crisis of the Republic, the partitions, the rebirth or birth of the Belarusian and Ukrainian nations anew, or in general from scratch, because they are mainly peasant nations, and all those problems that arise from the disappearance of the phenomenon that in the Republic of Poland was called “gente Ruthenus or Lithuanus, natione Polonus” and the birth of something completely new. Social phenomena such as Adam Mickiewicz, for instance, are here to be addressed, because Mickiewicz wrote his books in Polish, but was Lithuanian, and had a Belarusian surname. The question arises whether we have to quarrel so terribly with the Belarusians about Mickiewicz? We don’t have to – his books belong to common culture that can be shared.


With the Ukrainians it is a little worse, for the reason that, however, with Belarusians there were not such sharp conflicts, even bloody ones. It basically started with the assassination of Governor Potocki, and then the whole twentieth century was actually bad, although there were some positive aspects in our Polish-Ukrainian history, such as the Pilsudski-Petlura Pact. In the last part of the book an attempt is made to find something that could unite us, but starting with what we should really understand. In my opinion, if one talks about the Ukrainians in Poland today, two completely contradictory visions come to mind. First – Bandera, and second – we love them and hope for a great future with them. However, there is a whole, huge history along the way, which was painful, as described in the book “The Lviv Eaglets”. It was a great episode of Polish history, the heroism of the children. Then Lviv was sovietised, handed over to Ukraine and today it is Ukrainian.


So we ask what to build upon – what fundamental reflexes. These reflexes – Bandera and dreams of a great future – are what Poles think about today. It seems to me that we should both on the Polish side and on the Ukrainian side reach a little deeper into the identity of one and the other.  I immediately reached back to the history of the Zaporozhian Sich and the Cossacks. Looking at Ukrainian soldiers today, the Cossacks immediately come to our minds, because Cossacks were just that – “Beat, kill. I will die, but I will fulfil my task.” The Cossack ethos was a bit alien to us, because the Cossacks made different choices, but it was according to their ethos. We should look for some positive aspects in the history of the Cossacks and the Polish-Cossack relations. For instance, the fact that the Cossacks were based on democracy. Sich was a rally, the chairman (“ataman”) was elected and listened to. And this should be appreciated, because Ukrainians here seem to have been willing to listen to the fact that Poles noticed, appreciated and admired it. Our tradition, on the other hand, is a bit of nobility attitude, of the “My Lords and Gentlemen” type, but nothing stems from it. If someone is a leader, they immediately criticize him. It is a somewhat anarchic approach to the power, to collective decisions and to the common good, and the Cossacks were something different, except for the fact that these chairmen (atamans), these leaders sometimes took wrong decisions . And you can say along these lines: You in the Borderlands were in a tragic situation between the Polish Crown, Turkey, the Tatars and Russia, taking better and worse decisions: The tradition of Poland-oriented Cossacks – Sahaidachny, Hetman of Zaporizhian Cossacks and the tradition of making bad choices – Khmelnytsky, who ultimately chose Russia. The Cossacks – it was history. The Wiśniowiecki and other magnates sometimes misbehaved. Let us take a closer look at this and see what the values are: both the Polish noble democracy and in the Cossacks had their values, though different, but we can reach out and we can begin to communicate at this level. In addition, we had common enemy.


Meanwhile in Poland, in my opinion, we underestimate the fact that if Ukraine is reborn, it is reborn, as we see it, at the frontline against the Russian tradition, and here we need to reach even deeper, to reach the tradition of Kiev. – What is Russia in essence? Russia is an usurper that thinks it has the right to speak on behalf of Slavdom, Orthodoxy, and it is the Third Rome. The truth is entirely different, well, Kievan Rus was founded by the Normans. Rus adopted Christianity in 988 A.D. and this is the cradle of Orthodoxy in the Rus lands, not Moscow.

The Ukrainians have the right to reach back to that tradition, which should be noted by all means. Speaking in the Norwegian parliament, Volodymyr Zelenski addressed the Norwegians: “We have common roots.  So it seems to me that knowing our historical roots, this tradition, this pride – is crucial. Kiev is Ukrainian, it is not post-Soviet.


Kiev should be a metro4polis, a patriarchate, because it is the source of Orthodoxy or Eastern Christianity, instead of Moscow. The spiritual, political heritage of Kiev, because Kievan Rus was a strong state, which was later divided in the early 12th century. Just like in the time of the Polish king Boleslaus III Krzywousty (Wrymouth) – they divided, only they never reunited again, due to the invasion of the Tatars. Another example, the Tatars. The Tatars are Moscow, Kiev is Christianity. These kinds of stereotypes need to be perpetuated, because at this level we will look for a strong agreement. For the Poles, Orthodoxy has always been identified with the East, Russia. Excuse me, and Greece? And Bulgaria? What is that? Is that Asia?


Orthodoxy can and should be regarded as part of the European Christian tradition. And the Kievan Rus can play a fundamental role here. I wrote about this in my outline of the identity of Russia, the identity of Ukraine. And modern history divided us, that’s why we were under foreign rule in the 19th century, and there was a huge problem of this heritage of Poles, Ruthenians of Polish nationality, all the Sheptytskyites and non-Sheptytskyites families and the Polish nobility who had Rus roots. Some came from Poland – the big owners, but many of them grew up from there, only they became polonised. And in short, it seems to me that today we Poles should say to ourselves directly: the border is where it is, the Ruthenian nationality, the Polish nationality and the Polish nationality with Khrushtsky roots are not there, the Poles lived there and should be respected as a minority, because they were harmed by history and now the Ukrainian state is there. Lviv is Ukrainian. This hurts, especially those who came from there, but it seems to me that the Poles should say this to themselves. And on the other hand, we should exert pressure on the Ukrainians, however, to beat their breasts as well, for the various atrocities that went beyond by far the causes for which we could be blamed. That oppression of the peasants – that’s all true. Those pre-war pacifications of Galicia – this is also true. Also the Polish side, just as Shevchenko said: the Poles did not understand the Cossack spirit, did not appreciate their aspiration for freedom. I think that Shevchenko could be read again in Poland, because he was not anti-Polish. He praised the Haydamaks, which is horrible for the Poles, but one can say no one is perfect. On the other hand, he expressed some grievances of the Ukrainian peasantry against the Polish nobility.


I am not such a populist and socialist to explore deeply this topic, but if we want to get along with the Ukrainians, it seems to me, we should here let them complain about the Poles. Which doesn’t mean to accept the murders in Volhynia, of course, because that should be pointed out to them as well. To say, “Oh, dear, but here you (to put it in very ugly and colloquial terms): exaggerated a little.” I’m using a colloquial language, but it seems to me that in order to build future, it is also possible to avoid all these incitements.

The Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation. Building a common future on the grounds of Jagiellonian memories. The Jagiellonian memories are not the best, because basically the First Republic of Poland failed in one thing, because it should have turned into a tripartite state, so that there was a Grand Duchy of Rus. This is what the Polish nobility did not understand and did not do. And this is also what many historians say about it.


The Treaty of Hadiach. To our Ukrainian brothers: Do we choose the Treaty of Hadiach or Pereyaslav Agreement? Symbols. And if we reject the Pereyaslav Agreement, well, maybe change the name of the town of Khmelnitsky to something better.


On both sides, however, we should take some gestures back a bit. I think that today’s Ukrainians may feel that they have to go back a lot, because for them Bandera is a hero of the fight against the Soviets, and they should, however, accept that it was not quite like that, that those thousands of people murdered in cold blood cannot be completely forgotten or erased in the Polish memory. One thing seems very important to me, however, the Ukrainian President Zelenski is a very intelligent man, I noticed this when he laid flowers together with the Polish President Andrzej Duda at the Cemetery of the Eaglets of Lviv. Such gestures need to be noticed and emphasized and explained to the Ukrainians themselves: Your hero, your leader, who rose to the occasion in the hour of trial, one may resent his earlier actions, etc., but at this moment he is leading you to victory, God willing. If he understands that this Polish-Ukrainian future requires just a step back, appreciating what those kids did for Lviv, they fought along with the Ukrainians after all, then this is a very important gesture. These lions in the cemetery, this gesture by the Eaglets. And let’s wait for the next ones, let’s not push them too much. But the Poles have shown great generosity, and there is a very high level of gratitude on the Ukrainian side. Poland is ranked very high there at the moment, so on that basis, it seems to me, that is what should be worked on now, not just who is going to rebuild. If in Poland the media will be stomping their feet, saying that we will go there right away and make money on the reconstruction, then it is necessary to speak well, but only in  terms of providing assistance. It is the Ukrainians who will rebuild their country, we can help, but not make money outright. This must not be emphasized. On the other hand, at the same time, I immediately joined this war, for this additional chapter of the Polish-Ukrainian history, which is painful, difficult, terrible, but it seems to me that it is not hopeless, because in every hopeless situation you can find something positive.


Understanding anew – Moscow is a legacy of Mongol invasions, while Kiev and Ukraine is a legacy of Orthodoxy, which also creates common understanding between Ukraine and countries such as Bulgaria, Greece. And thus draws them into the Three Seas area.


A lot of bad things can be said about contemporary Europe, but the attempt to resolve historic Franco-German hostilities. Until recently, until World War II, the German and French posters in the Alsace region were so controversial that the two nations hated each other. And here the conversation with the Ukrainians can be a little bit like that. We really have a great common interest. What was – we have to remember, we have to get over – we get over Lviv, you get over Bandera, and let’s build common future on the grounds of ancient roots . Russia, Moscow it was barbarism then, and in Ukraine Greek missionaries had already appeared and there was Christianity. And secondly, we have almost the same situation, this barbarism wants to finish you, just as it finished us. And if we are to build common future at all, then together – by overcoming evil things.


One more aspect addressed both to the Poles and to the Ukrainians, what is actually an opportunity for what we think and talk about – community, reconciliation, building a common Polish-Ukrainian future. Without the United States there will be none of this, this is being forgotten. The United States is a power that has a certain approach, based not only on global strategy. The US President Joe Biden, in the first year of his presidency, basically bet on cooperation with Germany, supported the Nordstream gas pipeline project, almost expected a new reset with Russia, and suddenly (I don’t know whether he or his advisors, the Pentagon, etc., because the president governs not necessarily personally) changes options and adopts optics such as Henry Sienkiewicz told well, in very simple words. For the United States, which are getting ready for a global confrontation with China, it is better for China’s Russian ally to be weak, not strong, and if the Ukrainians are working towards this end, then the Ukrainians must be supported. Quite a simple diagnosis, but this is where this willingness of the Americans to assist Ukraine comes from, and we can also benefit from this in a strategic sense and for some foreseeable metric, only we have to play it really smart. But with the Ukrainians, it seems to me indeed, at the moment political relations “on top” are good. At the level of public emotion, it’s good, but this all needs to be strengthened now at the level of think tanks, at the level of universities, at the level of historical and political science publications, at the level of information for the broader elites of both countries.


“For our freedom and yours” is a one of the clichés that is worn out, so to speak, terribly. But it is worth referring to, because again in the history of nationalism it is very often said that the first stage of nationalism was that of romantic nationalism, it was called “Risorgimento Nationalism”, that is, the one that unites, shows solidarity one another. This started to break down somewhere during the Spring of Nations, but in any case, some Romantic poets, including also German poets, who wanted unification appealed to certain national feelings. Meanwhile the Poles and the Hungarian uprising, the Spring of Nations – it was such an outbreak of certain emotions that were a little beyond the borders of empires, there were two types of nationalism: “unifying” – Germany and Italy and “liberating” – Poland and Hungary, as well as, the Balkans, the Serbs, the Croats.  So it seems to me that if we are looking for common roots again, this era is suitable for that. Except that this romantic Ukrainian nationalism was in its infancy phase then, and it was partly anti-Russian, because Shevchenko was imprisoned by the Russians, but also partly anti-Polish, because of developments in Galicia. And in Galicia, the Ukrainian elites, those new Ukrainian elites being born, were as much anti-Austrian as they were anti-Polish.


Well, it’s hard, because it was such a country. On the other hand, it is rather worth looking at Shevchenko, whom the Poles did not harm, but the Russians did. First they helped him – bought him out of serfdom slavery, and then other Russians imprisoned him. I think this is a very difficult topic in general, there are many, various threads here, but not hopeless. It just seems to me that to address this issue you need a certain kind of organic work.


It’s a pleasure to talk to someone who first of all thinks in similar terms, and secondly acts. In Poland, sometimes people talk a lot and then sit and do nothing. I wish you good luck in your future endeavours!

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