Poland’s rediscovered East Europeanness
Updated: May 31
The Russian invasion of Ukraine has caused a remarkable shift in Poles’ mental maps. The line dividing the East from the West is defined by callous comments, the unwillingness to stop buying Russian oil, or preposterous comparisons between the war and Brexit. After over three decades of miraculous economic growth and integration with the West, Russia’s genocidal intensification of the war has put Poland firmly in the East.
I started noticing these changes during my time volunteering in Poland: the rediscovered likeness between the Poles and Ukrainians and the emergence of new invisible borders. What also became clear is that the government’s warm reception of refugees was largely rhetorical.
Poland and Ukraine
Poland and Ukraine share a complex and often tragic history. Its vicissitudes can reveal themselves in rather uncomfortable interactions. When I got to know a few people from Odessa at a shelter in Warsaw and told them that I was Polish, one of them jokingly asked: ‘So do you also believe that L’viv is Polish?’ I felt the need to explain that although there are some irredentists on the Polish far right, L’viv is commonly perceived as a symbolic site of memory, rather than a target to be recovered. After all, for hundreds of years the city was central to Polish culture: first as part of the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, then as a centre of national development in the nineteenth-century (especially after 1867), and finally as an important city in the Polish interwar state. Some of the greatest Polish cultural figures were born and lived in L’viv, including the writer, poet and translator Tadeusz Boy-Żeleński, as well the globally recognised science-fiction writer, Stanisław Lem, to name only two of my favourites. It is really sad that what reaches the refugees are the irredentist voices.
Historically motivated fears and anxieties are present among the Poles too, if mainly among the elderly. My grandfather’s older sister refused to be taken care of by a Ukrainian nurse. In 1944, when she was still a child, she had to run away from Volhynia to escape Ukrainian Insurgent Army’s (UPA) pogroms of the Polish inhabitants. It was a policy adopted by sections of the organisation in 1943 in a quest to make the region truly Ukrainian after the destruction of the Polish state by the Third Reich and the Soviet Union. Memories of those events are perpetuated by the national politics of history. Whenever I went to the mall in Przemyśl to buy blankets, suitcases and power banks, I would pass a roundabout dedicated to the victims of the Volhynia massacre.
Most of these historical issues, however, seem to fade in the face of the war. What prevails, is a strong sense of similarity and familiarity. At train stations one can frequently hear the impatient vse ponyala (‘I got it all’ in Russian, the language that I and many other volunteers use to communicate with the refugees). Poles and Ukrainians share a lot of words: the Polish pociąg (train) is potyah in Ukrainian, rozumieć (to understand) is rozumity, and pracować (to work) is simply praciuvaty. My Ukrainian friend explained that in some dialects those similarities can be even greater. We share tender customs too: black tea, drank from a brown glass, with the teabag still in. The mugs at the shelter in Warsaw were hardly ever used, but it was not uncommon for people to get accused of hoarding those brown glasses. This is also how tea was served in my primary school in Warsaw, and at my grandparents’ flat (so similar to the ones being obliterated in Kyiv). I think that the staggering civic mobilization in Poland to help Ukrainian refugees has in part been caused by a strong sense that these people are ‘just like us’.
An apartment block in Warsaw. Photograph by Tosia Chrzanowska
It seems that our likeness is felt even when walking around Polish cities. When Dasha, who escaped from Brovary, saw the imposing Palace of Culture and Science on the horizon, she told me that it was just like Stalin’s ‘seven sisters’ in Moscow. I replied that it indeed was his ‘gift’ to the Polish people and thought how peculiar it is that somehow a building that was meant to symbolise Soviet domination over the country, now serves as a reminder about the common enemy in the east.
Warsaw's Palace of Culture and Science
Source: Wikimedia Commons
Alienation from the West
The flipside of this sudden reminder how close (both literally and figuratively) Poland and Ukraine are, is the common experience of alienation from (or in) the West. A war in a faraway country feels different to one at one’s doorstep. Only the creeping anxiety of ‘we could be next’ can explain the sudden popular rush to acquire pet passports, take out cash, and make sure that the essentials are easy to pack. Ironically, the past few months have been difficult especially in Polish diasporas. Suddenly, it feels easier to have a conversation about the war with an unknown person from Eastern Europe than with one’s best friend from a Western country.
The scepticism about the efficacy of Western humanitarian and military support among Poles has become very strong. It certainly is reinforced by nationalist sentiments, but far from confined to the political right. Every promise by a Western country is carefully examined, and the spurious American declaration that it will accept 100 000 refugees is a good example why. When Lesia, a guest at my parents’ house, went to the US embassy to apply for her family visa, she was told that it would be weeks before she could even get an appointment. Similar problems are created by the British homes for Ukraine scheme. I know of cases of refugees being persuaded by British volunteers to stay in a Covid-ridden and overcrowded refugee camp in Przemyśl for weeks, as they wait for their visa applications to be processed.
Some of the most outrageous responses to the war have come from sections of the Western left, including prominent figures such as Noam Chomsky and Yannis Varoufakis. To make sense of their de facto support for Russian imperialism, East European intellectuals developed the concept of Westplaining. As David Ost argues, the European left should fight its usual tendency to be contrarian and stop excusing Russian imperialism in the name of condemning the American. But academic or rather pseudo-academic conversations are just the tip of the iceberg. Many Poles abroad have probably found in their friendship group a Putin-apologist arguing that it was NATO that provoked the war, or a ‘pacifist’ calling for Ukrainian surrender. A friend living in Italy also described an alternative attitude: a complete refusal to talk about Ukraine whatsoever.
In the end it is not surprising that people mainly worry about their own country and its immediate vicinity. But the consequences of such parochialism are frankly infuriating. An especially frustrating event occurred during a rally that I attended in Cambridge. After a few Ukrainians spoke about harrowing conditions in which some of their friends and family members have found themselves in, the organisers invited people from the audience to speak. A certain Steve decided to stand on the ad hoc podium and started to talk about the apparent ‘elephant in the room’, which he deemed to have been the Russian funding of the Tory party. And although nobody in the audience would disagree that this indeed is a problem, Steve’s comment felt utterly out of touch.
The Western insularity is responsible for the Risk-like approach to the war. Ukrainian lives take second stage in pundits’ sober Realpolitik, in which a peace summit between Russia, the USA, and maybe the EU, will decide the fate of Ukraine. The flag-waving and handshakes aside, it frequently feels that East Europeans stand alone.
The limits of solidarity
While the civic mobilization to support the refugees in Poland has been remarkable, one can observe some concerning trends. The Polish state has largely relied on good social will, unpaid volunteers, and local charities to manage the crisis. Some of its policies have been truly harmful, for instance the decision to stop giving free tickets to all people with Ukrainian passports, and instead requiring a proof that one had crossed the border after the beginning of the war. But stamps are only given to people with international passports that the less affluent rarely have. The introduction of this policy created complete chaos at the Przemyśl train station and its management had no other choice but to start ignoring the new law. All the same, every day, hundreds of refugees arriving to other Polish cities struggle to obtain access transportation and other essential services.
The government has also been negligent in its treatment of non-Ukrainians with Ukrainian residence permits who arrive in Poland. Just like Ukrainian citizens they had been forced out of their homes, and yet are not eligible for any form of support unless they are married to a Ukrainian. Kamar, whom I met in a shelter in Warsaw, was told to simply go back to Sierra Leone by a representative of the Polish Home Office, even though he had lived in Ukraine for 20 years.
Perhaps most worryingly, the Ministry of Education is not making a concerted effort to support thousands of Ukrainian children beyond admitting them to Polish schools. The curriculum has not been changed, and children are being asked to take standard Polish exams that conclude primary school, which had not been adjusted beyond question-translation. To illustrate the absurdity of the situation, Ukrainians are expected to write essays about the classics of Polish literature. The inevitably bad results will prevent young Ukrainians from being admitted to high schools. There is a real danger that unable to get good grades, they will be pushed into vocational schools or the so-called low-skill jobs. In the long run, this will lead to the ethnicization of class in Poland, a new phenomenon in the country’s post-war history.
To address those issues, the remarkable solidarity needs to find its reflection in state policy. One can only hope that it will extend to the Polish-Belarussian border, where refugees from outside of Europe, including Syria, Afghanistan and Eritrea, have been subject to illegal pushbacks, backed into the forest, beaten by the border guard, and refused access to medical care or food for months. Whiteness and passports continue to determine whom we help, and whom we don’t.
How you can help
Among the initiatives that you can support to help with the humanitarian crisis in Poland it is worth mentioning Grupa Granica, Fundacja Ocalenie, and the Kharkiv & Przemyśl Project. The last initiative is especially close to my heart, as it was founded by my friends Ada and Alex, who came to Przemyśl at the very start of the war. Having volunteered in the area for weeks and frustrated by the apparent lack of action by major NGOs, they decided to start their own organisation. Their work is especially valuable because they offer refugees personalised support, temporary accommodation, and an opportunity to make informed decisions regarding their future. Recently, my family and Ada helped a Lesia, her son and their four (!) chihuahuas get to Ireland. The entire rather costly operation was paid for by KHARPP.
Lesia's four chihuahuas in Ireland
Antoni Porayski-Pomsta is a PhD candidate at Clare College, Cambridge, supervised by Hubertus Jahn. He researches the relationship between social and spatial marginality in late Russian Empire, with a particular focus on the urban outskirts of Russian Poland.