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, fearing small groups of

hooligans could start trouble.

To be sure, there have also been moments of friendship between

Poles and Russians. Regular people often feel huge sympathy for

each other, sometimes bonding over the vodka loved in both nations.

Poles also admire Russian cultural greats like Tolstoy and


In a show of hospitality, Polish authorities refused to ban the

march, with Prime Minister Donald Tusk even calling on Poles to

join the Russian fans in celebrating the end of the Soviet


Still, the animosities have not been forgotten and go back



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 celebrated in

Russia as a national holiday. Since the 17th century the Russians

have largely been the dominant power.


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.


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.


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. Still,

Poles remain grateful to the Soviet troops who fell defeating

Hitler. And a Soviet commander, Ivan Konev, has been credited with

saving Krakow from Nazi destruction with a quick attack on the



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 played a key role in

toppling communism in 1989.

AFTER 1989:

After Poland threw off communism, the relationship has been

mixed, with moments of resentment but also goodwill. In the 1990s

the leading intellectual Adam Michnik used his Gazeta Wyborcza

daily to call on Poles to put aside their animosities toward Russia

and support its post-Soviet reforms. But Poles chafed when 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 first brought

the two countries together thanks to a huge outpouring of sympathy

in Russia for the Polish tragedy. But later Poles became

disillusioned with Moscow’s handling of the aftermath of the

disaster. They 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.