Poland's old anti-Russian prejudices are preventing it from finding its true place in Europe
The Russian writer Dmitry Merezhkovsky once told a Polish interviewer that "Russia is feminine, but she's never had a husband. She's only been raped – by the Tatars, the tsars and the Bolsheviks. Only Poland could have been Russia's husband, but Poland was too weak." Merezhkovsky's sober reflection remains relevant today as it was at the turn of the 19th to the 20th century: Russia has never stopped being raped (the oligarchs have taken over from the Bolsheviks), and Poland is still too weak to be her husband.
Merezhkovsky says nothing about Europe but his remark can only be understood in the context of both countries' European ambitions. When Russians get interested in Poland – in the communist period, for instance, when Joseph Brodsky learned Polish and ordinary Russians read Polish magazines – it is because they want to be part of European culture. But for Poles, the empire – Russian or Soviet – remains the antithesis of European values. Indeed, Poland's desire to join the EU and Nato was primarily an attempt to find a haven from Russia's clutches.
The attitude of Poles towards the Russians is a mix of fear and Slavic sentimentality, combined with a sense of superiority. This makes it difficult to talk politics with Russia, and sometimes even to talk politics within Poland.
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Ever since the Smolensk air disaster, which took the life of the Polish president, his wife, and a hundred high-ranking state and military officials, the Polish right has manipulated the public's emotional response to Russia for its own benefit. Undefeated in five successive elections, the Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, experienced his first decline in popularity, and the hostility of an otherwise sympathetic media, when he adopted a calm and rational approach towards Russia. To his credit, he explained at every available opportunity that stirring up anti-Russian feeling would do no one any good. When problems with Russia were compounded by the controversial reform of the pensions system, which for the first time since 1989 had caused a rupture within the "moderniser's camp" in Poland, Tusk decided to "escape to Europe". He announced a "third wave of modernity" that would accelerate the country's drive towards "European normality".
But where does this approach to Europe leave Poland's relations with Russia? For decades Poland's thinking has been dominated by the "ULB doctrine" created by the great émigré writer Jerzy Giedroy (1906-2000)c. He linked the chances for Polish independence to those of Ukraine, Lithuania and Belarus. But he always added that Poland should strive for the best possible relationship with Russia, provided this was not at the cost of her smaller neighbours.
A modern version of this doctrine should assume that a prerequisite for democratic change in Russia is not only an independent Ukraine, Lithuania and Belarus, but also the integration of those countries with Europe. For the history of the region shows that whenever Russia colonises Ukraine, imperialistic and authoritarian tendencies come to the fore. Poland should not cease in its efforts to help Ukraine, and at the same time attempt to abandon its own anti-Russian prejudice.
Understanding from Europe is also needed. Instead of a bulwark separating east from west, Poland could become a bridge. And if Poland does not, China might do so. Russia, with its huge territory, declining population and an economy dependent on selling raw materials, lies next to the most populous nation on earth, which is desperately in need of raw materials. It is no surprise that there are already more Chinese than Russians living in the border town of Chabarowsk.
Merezhkovsky's vision of the "endlessly raped Russians" may prove prescient. And – oh, the irony! – so too might Dostoevsky's double warning in The Possessed about the nihilist (communist) threat and the "Asiatic cholera". Dostoevsky was apt to be spiteful about the Poles. Let us spite him, then, by finding a husband for Russia in a strong and united Europe.