How east Europe can step over history's long shadow
Edward Lucas, Europe.view column, Sep 10th 2009, from Economist.com
Two of the five most-commented-on articles on The Economist's website last week were about east European history. One concerned the icy relations between Slovakia and Hungary. The other was about Russia's failure (in some eyes) to apologise properly for the Soviet past.
In each case the tone of the comments was often strikingly unpleasant, with sweeping accusations of anti-Semitism, genocide, imperialism, treachery and mendacity. It would be easy for outsiders to conclude that the ex-communist countries are prisoners of their past, tediously fighting the same old battles with the same old stereotypes.
All the more reason, therefore, to highlight the happy state of Polish-Ukrainian relations, which is especially remarkable given the two countries' miserable common history.
Take just a few events from (nearly) living memory. In interwar Poland, Ukrainians suffered savage repression; seen from another viewpoint, they behaved disloyally and ungratefully towards their country. During the war, the Ukrainian Insurrectionary Army murdered some 60,000 Poles in Volhynia. Were they vicious Nazi stooges or fighters for their country's stolen independence?
In 1945 Polish anti-communist soldiers shot hundreds of Ukrainians in the village of Pawlokoma. That was either an understandable retaliatory action for previous anti-Polish atrocities in the region, or a brutal and unprovoked massacre. In 1947 the country's new Communist rulers deported 200,000 Ukrainian-speakers from south-eastern Poland. That could be seen as Bolshevik barbarity, or evidence of Polish ethnic nationalism. The town known as Lwow in interwar Poland is now in Ukraine. Some think that is where it should be, others think it tragically stranded. And so on.
These are true controversies, about which even the best historians disagree. Evidence for what exactly happened and why is scanty and needs careful weighing. Just as it would be lazy and wrong simply to apportion equal blame to both sides, it would also be wrong to paint the history as a one-dimensional story of vicious Ukrainian attacks on Poles (or vice versa). The Wikipedia discussion pages for these events give a good flavour of the passions aroused and the scope of the disagreements.
What is commendable, though, is the way in which politicians have behaved. For 20 years Polish and Ukrainian leaders have worked hard to accentuate their countries' shared history and common tragedy, rather than stoke disagreements for political ends. In 2006, for example, presidents Lech Kaczynski and Viktor Yushchenko (pictured above) jointly unveiled a memorial in Pawlokoma. Previously, the Ukrainian authorities had supported the restoration of a war memorial in what is now Lviv, for Polish soldiers who died in the 1918-1920 war. This week Mr Yushchenko visited Poland, laying yet more wreaths jointly with his host.
That is not just good business for florists. It could be a template for other countries seeking to step over the shadow of history. Neither Poland nor Ukraine tries to rub each other's nose in its wrongdoing, nor does either insist on seeing their own soldiers as untainted heroes. Neither side expects the other to see history exactly its own way. Much more important is to focus on the common factors: the conflicts between Poles and Ukrainians were made immeasurably worse by the activities of outside powers, Nazis and communists alike. Disagreements remain, but are eased by practical cooperation. The planned Polish-Ukrainian-Baltic military brigade is a good example of this. Only 65 years ago, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Poles were killing each other.
A joint Polish-Belarusian-Russian peacekeeping force serving in some troubled and faraway corner of the world may seem unimaginable now. But it is not impossible. Poland and Ukraine have shown readiness to overcome some of their most painful historical traumas. Can Russia do the same?
Wreath by wreath