Managing Historical Memory In Ukraine And Poland
13 November, 2017

Competing historical narratives have long been a source of conflict between Poland and Ukraine. However, after independence, the two countries’ academics and intellectuals put forth significant efforts to overcome these divides. To a large degree, it appeared that they succeeded.

But since the nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party came to power in Poland in 2015, relations have again soured over historical memory.

Reconciling with the past is especially difficult in Central and Eastern Europe because memories of conflicts between different nations were “frozen” during the Communist period, says Miriam Lexmann, EU Office Director at the International Republican Institute.  Today, she explains, many political leaders exploit these “frozen” memories for political capital.

However, Lexmann also emphasizes that there are important benefits when civil society pushes for reconciliation in the region. “I think what is important is that the people will learn and respect that the other nation has a different opinion on a certain part of history and move on,” she says.

In the case of Poland and Ukraine, she encourages the two nations to focus on positive moments when it comes to their shared history, such as Polish support for Ukraine’s 2013-2014 Euromaidan Revolution.

Lexmann also acknowledges that the narrative divide between the two countries could leave them vulnerable to disinformation campaigns coming from abroad, particularly from Russia. Unlike Soviet-era propaganda that aimed to “bring other nations towards international socialist feelings,” Russian disinformation now focuses on dividing citizens along different ideological and political lines, she says.

“The complex narrative between Ukraine and Poland can also be used in terms of disinformation to bring these nations further away from each other,” Lexmann warns.  

Hromadske spoke with Miriam Lexmann, EU Office Director at the International Republican Institute, about the effect of competing historical narratives on relations between Ukraine and Poland and what can be done to overcome them.

My first question will be a simple one, what we see and what we observe is a kind of tension between Ukrainian authorities and Polish authorities, an exchange of critical remarks. And the fact is that the object of these critical remarks is historical facts and historical personalities like [Stepan] Bandera. How can you explain that? How can we explain that politicians today are conflicting because of the past?

I think one of the reasons why it’s very difficult for, especially Central Europe, to reconcile with its difficult past is because the past, the difficult conflicts and difficult memories between different nations were frozen during the communist times. For Central European countries for forty years, in terms of Ukraine and Poland longer because when Poland became part of the [Soviet sphere] it extended the time where these nations were practically preserved in such a way that there wasn’t any kind of reconciliation. And unfortunately, many political leaders from the Central-Eastern European sphere are using these conflicts in the past for gaining political capital. And we see this in many countries, we observe this between Slovakia, Hungary, and I can name many other examples. I think what is important is that civil society is trying to address it and find how to reconcile these conflicts, how to bring discussion about what actually happened, how to understand the different narratives between different nations, because sometimes it’s impossible to end up with the same narrative between two nations that have been in conflict for centuries, but I think what is important is that the people will learn and respect that the other nation has a different opinion on a certain part of history and move on.

Do you think that this story between Ukraine and Poland, between two political classes, has a real impact on what citizens from both societies think and feel about this collective memory?

Since I am neither Ukrainian nor Polish it’s very difficult for me to measure. I meet many Ukrainians and many Poles but those are maybe those people who are more active in society, who are more critically thinking about what is happening around them, so obviously they’re not buying this narrative very easily and they see a danger in this narrative. On the other hand, I have no idea what impact this has on the general population of Poland and Ukraine. Of course, one meeting between ministers and one word can’t really do enormous damage, but the question is what is going to happen now? How the society is going to address the fact that this has happened and if this is going to be brought [up] in such a way among the citizens, in media and on social media especially, that it will turn these two nations against each other and reinvigorate the past memories or [if] people will understand that we don’t want to be divided on these issues and we should move on. Now, we also have many positive examples of support of Poland for Ukraine during Maidan and I think people should remember this part of their history.

Russia was mentioned many times during these debates about Poland and Ukraine. What is, according to you, the exact role of Russian disinformation in this story of conflict between Ukraine and Poland?

Of course, it comes back to the Soviet times but I don’t want to talk about this, your audience knows [it] very well. But today, I think the strategy, when we compare Soviet propaganda and Russian disinformation of Kremlin origin, the difference is that the Soviet propaganda was trying to promote or portray the Soviet Union, or [rather] the Communist Soviet Union, as an ideology and a state which provides the best possible way of living standard for its citizens. And this was in terms of the Soviet Union but also in the rest world because it was an attempt to bring other nations towards international socialist feelings and a union. But what is happening now, is what we see through the ways that different disinformation narratives are entering different languages and nation fields is that it’s not focusing on portraying Russia in a positive way but it’s kind of dividing citizens along different ideological, historical or in [other] possible ways and lines. And also this narrative and the complex narrative between Ukraine and Poland can also be used in terms of disinformation to bring these nations further away from each other.

/Interview by Tetyana Ogarkov

/Text by Eilish Hart