Polish-Ukrainian relations and work on history

Polish-Ukrainian relations and work on history

Jan Tombinsky: “The situation between Poland and Ukraine or between the Poles and Ukrainians has overgrown with a lot of things that have aggravated our relations over the centuries.” It is reported by Upmp.news with reference to Polish Radio.

Historical issues have become, in recent years, a neuralgical point in Polish-Ukrainian relations, which causes mutual accusations of politicians and the antagonization of both societies. There are many examples of that: the resolution of the Polish Sejm adopted in 2016 concerning the Volyn tragedy, the prohibition of the Ukrainian National Remembrance Institute for the exhumation of Polish burial grounds in Ukraine, and recently – an updated law on the Polish National Memory Institute.

Attempts to conduct interethnic dialogue, however, continue. And this, in fact, will be discussed today. I asked the Ambassador of the European Union to the Vatican, and in 2012-2016, the EU Ambassador to Ukraine Yan Tombinsky, about the possible ways out of the situation that recently developed in the Polish-Ukrainian relations.

– I will not comment on the current events, my role is not in this. I prefer to focus on a wider perspective in connection with this situation. The situation between Poland and Ukraine or between the Poles and Ukrainians has overgrown with a lot of things that, we can say, encumbered our relations during the past centuries. Neglecting the solution of these problems in previous years leads to an increase in emotions and the impossibility of creating an atmosphere of mutual trust. My experience of working in Ukraine for four years has shown me that the Volyn problem in the Ukrainian-Ukrainian perspective is unknown in Ukrainian society. This is a known local problem on the part of Volyn and in Western Ukraine. Instead, in other areas of Ukraine, this topic is either unknown, or known only in Soviet historiography, Soviet novation.

So, the first steps that must be taken is work with own history. Ukraine is a country made up of territories that have different histories. And without such internal clarification and combination of stories in different Ukrainian regions, it will be difficult to find consensus and Ukrainian support, so that the dialogue with other partners – I’m not talking here exclusively about Poland – is openly and, therefore, in order to be self-confident in their arguments. My experience of some small participation in Polish-Germanic and Czech-German reconciliation and discussions shows to me that at first, as a first step towards reconciliation with other peoples, neighbors, it is necessary to carry out their own work. Without reconciliation, it is difficult for them to reach out to partners and to have such a dialogue. Therefore, this work needs to be done. This work was performed much more with the Polish side, in the case of Polish historiography, that in Poland it was in the 1920s, and in the 1940s, after the end of the Second World War. There is a very rich literature – both memories, and historical, which creates the grounds for the many things to be able to speak the language. There are also a lot of very critical works on Polish pre-war politics. The task of paying off his own sins was fulfilled. I say this in order to show that there is a significant asymmetry in the approaches between both sides, which appeared due to many reasons, which I do not want to go deeper. But this asymmetry leads to the fact that it is often difficult to find a common platform for conversation.

– Mr. ambassador, in this regard, can we say that in Ukraine the mechanism of transferring the results of the work of historians to the political, social sphere, etc. was not sufficiently developed? And also, is it somehow connected with the slogan, first proposed by politicians from the Ukrainian side: let’s leave the history to the historians, and take up what is happening now, look not into the past, but in the future?

– This way of thinking is found in many countries, but it is actually running away from the problem. These things can not be separated from each other, since historical narrative and historical consciousness are elements of the daily thinking of new and future generations. Without understanding of their own history, the history of neighboring countries, it is difficult to formulate policies, since the pitfalls of the past will always occur. The corpses hidden in cabinets, skeletons lying in different corners, will sooner or later be opened. Therefore, it is better to make such calculations and to dominate the discussion, rather than to go forward under the slogans “Let’s Go to the Future, And Let the Historians Stay the Past”. Something unexpected will always occur. And if we do it ourselves – between Poles and Ukrainians – then others will play these themes, throwing them all the time. We will always be in reactive, not in a proactive situation. Therefore, such work should be carried out by historians with the full support of politicians. And without such a fundamental work on the consciousness of people it will be difficult to formulate a policy.

– You gave examples of Polish-German and Czech-German reconciliation. Can we compare these situations by looking for ways out of the situation in the Polish-Ukrainian relations?

  • It is always good to learn from the experience of others and draw conclusions that may be suitable for the Polish-Ukrainian dialogue. My experience and knowledge of the processes I observed, that is, Polish-German and Czech-German, where the first prerequisite for dialogue wass the dialogue within the national community, that is, the internal solvating their own problems. The second thing that needs to be addressed is the preparation of leaders who will be able to conduct such a discussion publicly and will be prepared for it in such a way as to be able to accept the burden of often very heavy, unpleasant, emotional accusations, and will be able to rely on own knowledge, facts, to advise with it. Thirdly, we must support this dialogue by political will. It should help ensure that even the difficulties that arise are overcome with the conviction that the goal is not exploitation of guilt, some kind of transfer of the faults of the past, but, in fact, overcoming this diverse and very painful experience of what has happened. Politicians should be careful to use in the political language such formulations that would hinder such a dialogue. Fourthly, relying on political will, it is necessary to form the institutes that would be institutes of dialogue. All this can not rely on individuals. Without a daily work that would help in clarifying, collecting, documenting and educating people, it is impossible to achieve the purpose we are speaking about. The word “reconciliation” is pronounced too often, but too little thought of what it is composed of. Therefore, I avoid it, rather, I am talking about how to achieve what we would like it would be through reconciliation.

  • Turning specifically to the Polish-Ukrainian relations, I have the following question: for almost 23 years after the proclamation of Ukraine’s independence, the Polish-Ukrainian relations have not faced such a crisis that we can observe today. All this has changed over the past four years. Was this, in particular, related to the changes that took place in Ukraine, with the Maidan, the acquisition of some new subjectity by Ukraine, for example, with which Poland, had to raise such issues with someone? How do you see it?

  • I can only say what I have watched while I was working in Kyiv, Ukraine. The municipality was perceived in Poland with great euphoria, with the support of changes taking place in Ukraine. No other country supported Ukraine like Poland. Such kindness, I think, is deep enough rooted among the Poles. Hundreds of thousands of people today who are in contact with one another, who in this direct communication with each other build mutual trust, is also one of the ways to overcome prejudices, myths stemming from stories and experiences, often very dramatic from older generations. And I would not be a pessimist, believing that all of this suddenly may change. I think that in Poland many people continue to look at what is happening in Ukraine with a very high euphoria, realizing that the processes taking place there are very similar to those that took place in Poland about 30 years ago.

  • In this connection, if you agree, I would like to ask you to tell about your own expectations about how the Polish-Ukrainian relations will develop in the future. Will the countries be able to create some fundamentals of truly productive dialogue and fix the most dramatic issues in this regard?

  • Dialogue between different actors takes place daily. I would say what I would expect – and I think that this corresponds to the interests of both Poland and Ukraine – it is to depart from the language of the collective charge, and focus on clarifying individual responsibility, on what can be accurately documented. In the Polish-German relations, as well as in the various large crimes, one of the important elements was the determination of the individual responsibility of those who committed crimes and allowed himself brutal violence. This process of individual responsibility goes hand in hand with the study of political mechanisms that led to the war and all those sufferings. Therefore, I would expect that in the Polish-Ukrainian relations, we will follow on from both sides, but at the same time, both countries will have systematic work on researching their own past. Once in conversations with the Ukrainian hierarchs of different churches – Orthodox and Greek Catholics, politicians and local government officials, I said that they can contribute very easily to this process through very simple methods. For example, with such programs in schools as “Talk to the older generations” – with their grandfather, grandmother. Who were their neighbors when they were children? Who were they playing with? What songs do they remember from those times? And what happened to those they remember from childhood? It is necessary to begin demythologizing these relationships, reducing them to more personal relationships. Such a narrated history, collected on a large territory and from many people, allows us to depart from various labels, stereotypes, generalizations, and to reduce these relations to individual, concrete, somehow documented events. There is no need to invent any very complicated processes here. It really can be done at the level of self-government, schools, if there is an appropriate will. If it there is not, then it’s a much worse diagnosis that demonstrates that we are not interested in dialogue. However, I think that there is political will on this and I do not see here another alternative.

Anton Marchinsky