Poland-Russia match carries burden of history

Poland-Russia match carries burden of history

Published Jun. 12, 2012 12:20 p.m. ET

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 hands.

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 Tchaikovsky.

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 Union.

Still, the animosities have not been forgotten and go back centuries:


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 Germans.


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.