Poland-Russia match carries burden of history
Chance has determined that Poland and Russia, nations with a
bitter and bloody history, are to confront each other at the
European Football Championship on Tuesday evening in Warsaw.
It’s clearly more than just a football game for the Slavic
neighbors, with Poles in particular mindful of the occupations,
massacres and dominance their nation has suffered at Russian
By chance the match also falls on Russia Day, a national holiday
that marks the end of the Soviet Union, and that timing has helped
inspire a plan by the Russian fans to march ahead of the game from
central Warsaw to the stadium.
The Russians say the march is not political and is also aimed at
cheering on their team, but many Poles nonetheless see it as an
unnecessary provocation. Police plan huge security when an
estimated 5,000 Russians walk Tuesday afternoon through a city that
Russian czars ruled in the 19th century.
The history of bad blood between the two nations goes back
POLISH-RUSSIAN WAR OF 17TH CENTURY:
A royal alliance of Poland and Lithuania exploited internal
weakness during Russia’s so-called ”Time of Troubles” to invade
their bigger neighbor. Polish troops entered Moscow in 1610 and the
Polish king briefly seized the Russian throne. The Polish occupiers
were expelled from the Kremlin in 1612, an event that is still
celebrated in Russia as a national holiday. Since the 17th century
the Russians have largely been the dominant power.
PARTITION AND OCCUPATION:
Poland was carved up in the late 18th century between imperial
Russia, Prussia and the Austro-Hungarian Empire, effectively wiped
off the map for 123 years until it regained independence at the end
of World War I. Russia controlled territory in Poland’s east,
including Warsaw, and is remembered as the most oppressive of the
three ruling powers. Poles rose up in two uprisings that Russia put
down with ferocious brutality. The 1863 January Uprising triggered
harsh punishment, with an estimated 1,000 executions and about
38,000 deportations to Siberia.
RUSSO-POLISH WAR OF 1919-1921:
After World War I, with Poland again a sovereign state, leader
Jozef Pilsudski saw the chance to expand Polish borders eastward
and moved into Ukraine. That provoked a counterattack by the
Bolshevik army, which made its way to the outskirts of Warsaw. In
1920, the Poles defeated the Russians in a battle known as ”The
Miracle on the Vistula,” a victory they credit with halting the
spread of communism into Europe. The Russians, in their
recollections, focus instead on Polish brutality, particularly the
alleged mistreatment of Russian prisoners of war.
WORLD WAR II:
In the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact of 1939, Nazi Germany and the
Soviet Union agreed to divide Poland up. The Germans soon invaded
from the West on Sept. 1, 1939, sparking World War II, and less
than three weeks later the Red Army moved in from the East. Thus
began years of agony that left 6 million Polish citizens dead.
Among those massacred were about 22,000 Polish officers who were
shot by the Soviet secret police in the Katyn Forest and elsewhere,
an attempt by Josef Stalin to eliminate the Polish elite.
Bitterness over the so-called Katyn massacres was deepened by a
decades-long attempt by Moscow to falsely blame Germans for the
killings. In recent years Russian authorities have acknowledged
Soviet guilt, a step that has initiated reconciliation.
Poland was a Soviet satellite country during the four decades of
the cold war – but against its will. Poles fought with the Allies
during World War II but were consigned to Moscow’s orbit at the
Yalta Conference of 1945, a fact seen as a huge injustice by Poles.
Some Poles welcomed communism early on, seeing in it a hope for
social equality and peace after the brutality of Nazi German rule.
But show trials, executions and other forms of oppression soon
turned many against it. Decades of economic hardship that came with
a command economy inspired many to support Lech Walesa’s Solidarity
movement, which was born in the 1980s and which played a key role
in toppling communism in 1989.
After Poland threw off communism, tensions remained. Russia made
it clear that it disapproved of Poland’s new and ardent pro-Western
course, including its decision to join NATO and willingness to
allow planned U.S. missile defense systems. Poland resents Russia’s
energy dominance in the region, prompting Warsaw to plan to build
nuclear power plants. Relations were just starting to warm when a
plane carrying Polish President Lech Kaczynski crashed in 2010 in
heavy fog near Smolensk, Russia, en route to a memorial ceremony
for the Katyn victims. The tragedy has brought new bitterness.
Poles are upset that Russia has not allowed them to take the
wreckage back to Poland. They also are unhappy about autopsies on
the dead that are riddled with mistakes. Some fringe groups in
Poland hold to conspiracies claiming Kaczynski’s plane was brought
down by Russian authorities.