White Spots—Black Spots: Difficult Matters in Polish-Russian Relations, 1918-2008 confirms, much to the chagrin of its editors, that the countries’ disagreements are quasi-perennial.
Every country has had a complicated neighbor at one point in its history. France and Germany waged three large-scale wars on opposite sides just in the past 150 years. The United States and Mexico have quarreled over borders multiple times. Even Brazil, considered today to be a peaceful giant – a “diplomatic dwarf,” in the words of an Israeli official – fought, together with Argentina and Uruguay, a bloody war against Paraguay in the 1870s. Poland, on the other hand, has always had been encircled by trouble.
A thriving medieval kingdom, the Republic of Poland saw its territory dwindle and finally disappear in 1795 through three partitions signed and effectuated without its sovereign consent. The nation, with its singular culture – both Slavic and Catholic – saw its citizens become the vassals of Austria, Prussia, and Russia. It was not an independent state again until the end of the First World War in 1918.
This is where White Spots—Black Spots begins its historical exposé, focusing on Poland’s difficult relation with only one of its long-time bullies. The book is a product of the work of the Polish-Russian Group on Difficult Matters, a group of scholars, lawyers, and diplomats from both countries seeking to heal the wounds that history left in foreign relations between Poland and Russia through dialogue and joint cultural ventures. According to its editors – former Polish Minister of Foreign Affairs Adam D. Rotfeld and Moscow MGIMO University Rector Anatoly V. Torkunov – it is supposed to “ensure that memory is not subject to manipulation and deliberate falsification, that it resists attempts to obliterate the traces of what was shameful and deserves to be condemned.”
Through its lofty conciliatory aims, the book shows that the rifts between Poland and Russia are not only historical but also ideological, and that there must be a radical change in national mindsets to bridge the chasm between the nations. Poland’s conception of itself and of Russia – as well as Russia’s conception of itself and of Poland – guarantee key disagreements over historical events and policies that become intransigent tenets of national strategy.
Poland, for instance, sees itself as a historical victim of great-power diplomacy. Its 18th century partition was seen as a triumph by its perpetrators, which avoided war with each other at the expense of their weaker common neighbor. Since then, the fate of the Polish people was always decided in peace conferences by non-Polish delegates. After the Great War, the country regained its independence and was willing to defend it at all costs, but its neighbor to the east saw matters differently.
Russia sees itself as an eternal outsider in European diplomacy. Considered backward and savage by its Western brethren for most of its history, it always sought to assert itself by force and create a sphere of influence in Eastern Europe to protect itself from attacks coming from the opposite tip of the continent. For this plan to function, Poland was crucial, and Russia forsook its sovereignty to guarantee its own safety at least twice in the 20th century.
The principal premise of White Spots—Black Spots – the juxtaposition between Polish and Russian accounts of the same events – reveals these two different conceptions of self and their inevitable clash. From the very first chapter, which outlines the Russian invasion of Poland during the Russian Civil War of the late 1910s and early 1920s, the Polish defend their actions as a historical settling of accounts between their oppressed nation and their complicated neighborhood. Under this light, the 1917-1921 struggles become a brave people’s war for an independence that had been curtailed for hundreds of years.
Russia, on the other hand, has a very different perception of the conflict. Professor G.F. Matveyev illustrates Poland as an aggressive polity itself, perverting Woodrow Wilson’s doctrine of self-determination to expand its territory at the expense of the fundamental rights of minority groups inhabiting its land. These dual images of Poland as both the oppressor and the oppressed permeate the pre-Second World War chapters of the book.
At the same time, readers must understand that, for most of the twentieth century, Russia was actually the RSFSR, a constituent republic of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics. The Soviet Union is regarded universally as one of the most inhumane nations in human history, and that fact by itself undermines any Russian defense of the state’s actions toward Poland. That is frustrating for the audience, who sees itself obligated to be biased and side with Polish views throughout the tract. As Russian scholar Aleksandr V. Revyakin acknowledges, “Soviet policy merits reproach, to put it mildly.” Readers feel discouraged to make an attempt to understand the policies of a state that, according to him, was “obsessive” and “paranoid.”
Reader anger toward Russia reaches its peak when the country’s scholars blame Poland for the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which secretly split Poland between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia one week before the outbreak of the Second World War and caused the fourth partition on September 1939. While Polish historian Sławomir Dębski recognizes that Poland participated negatively in the Munich Crisis, Britain and France’s attempt at appeasing Hitler by submitting to his territorial demands in Central Europe, Russian specialist Mikhail Narinsky is quick to point fingers at a Poland that was interfering in Lithuania, a territory historically associated to it, and that annexed the territory of Cieszyn from Czechoslovakia – whereas the USSR was allegedly committed to the self-determination of Eastern European countries. At the end of his exposé, he admits that the Pact “was contrary to the norms of morality and international law” and that a “cynical grab for power was made,” but his previous defense of the Soviet Union and the sheer fact that the Soviets made a conscious alliance with the Nazis, no matter how misguided they were about Hitler’s motives, makes any attempt at further Russian redemption fruitless.
After that unfortunate tract, Russian scholarship becomes more sensible and in touch with modern humanitarian considerations. Both of Natalia S. Lebedeva’s essays – one on the Soviet occupation of Poland from 1939 to 1941 and one on the Katyn Massacre, the book’s main focus – are notable for their criticism of the Soviet Union and their acknowledgement of its Machiavellian practices. The Russian postwar essays are, with a few exceptions, also very cognizant of Russia’s shortcomings, especially its inability to establish a democracy after the dissolution of the Soviet Union. Particularly interesting and informative are three topical chapters that come toward the end of the book, which deal with economic relations between the Soviet Union and Poland; social and cultural considerations regarding both countries; and archival research in Poland and Russia.
White Spots—Black Spots is fascinating on historiographical and sociological levels, but the Polish-Russian Group on Difficult Matters’ goal of reconciliation is still far off. Clearly, there is still much that Poland and Russia need to resolve regarding their common past, but the unwillingness to account for diplomatic errors and violations of international law and human rights is mostly Russian. In an ethnocentric society that has always looked more inward than outward, a protectionist view of history is to be expected, but a degree of revisionism is necessary to expurgate the ghosts of the past. To change its lawless bully reputation, Russia needs to change its outlook on the world; revising its historical conception of itself is an excellent place to start.