The View from Warsaw
On the morning of February 27, my husband and I signed up to host refugees from Ukraine. The first call came that evening, around 6 p.m. The voice over the phone said that a man named Ruslan had just arrived at the bus station, and could he come over now? We made up a bed on the couch. A few minutes later, Ruslan was at the door.
Three days earlier, when Russia launched a full-scale invasion, it was “fat Thursday” in Poland—a holiday before Lent when everyone eats doughnuts stuffed with jam. The pastry sat uneasily in my stomach as we walked to join thousands of protesters outside Warsaw’s Russian embassy. Most of those present had tears in their eyes. Someone hurried out of the embassy’s front door. “You fuck!” a man in the crowd screamed, raising his middle finger.
At the time of writing, over two million people have fled from Ukraine to Poland. Lawmakers from Poland’s right-wing, ruling Law and Justice party joined forces with the opposition to pass an emergency bill granting refugees access to education, health care, and social benefits, as well as the right to stay in the country for up to eighteen months without a visa (and with the possibility of extension for up to three years). Blue and yellow flags fly from every mode of public transportation, which Ukrainians ride for free. According to a survey published in the Polish daily Rzeczpospolita, over 90 percent of Poles support accepting Ukrainian refugees, and 64 percent are willing to help personally. Hundreds of thousands of people have joined Facebook groups coordinating support and offering donations.
So far, the main signs of the nightmare across the border are the rising Russian and Ukrainian voices heard in the street and the crowds of exhausted arrivals seen at the city’s bus and train stations. An empty storefront near our apartment has been converted into an aid center with clothing, hygienic supplies, and food for Ukrainians, who line up outside from morning until dusk. But no one knows what will happen next, and a couple of our friends have signed up for military training. Foreign criticism of NATO expansion into Eastern Europe tends to imagine a geopolitical order divided between American and Russian spheres of influence. In Poland, where centuries of partition and occupation have left an abiding fear of invasion—above all by Russia—NATO membership is supported across political lines as a basic guarantee of sovereignty.
The lands of present-day Poland, Lithuania, Belarus, and most of Ukraine were once united under the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth (1569-1795). This political community encompassed diverse confessions and tongues, with Latin or Polish as lingua franca. In the late eighteenth century, it was partitioned by Russia, Austria, and Prussia. When these empires fell at the end of World War I, local patriots took their chance to establish national communities within the borders of independent states. Fighting between Poles and Ukrainians over what is now western Ukraine, a region formerly ruled by the Habsburgs whose largest city is L’viv, ended with its incorporation by independent Poland.
After the rest of Ukraine became a Soviet republic in 1922, veterans of the war with Poland founded the Organization of Ukrainian Nationalists (OUN), which sought an ethnically homogenous future Ukrainian state. The OUN orchestrated assassinations of Polish officials and the Ukrainians who worked with them. The Polish state targeted Ukrainian organizations in brutal reprisals, including public beatings and church burnings, that led to increased support for OUN. Yet ethnic nationalism was one of many ideologies competing for popular allegiance in the borderlands. Locals continued to speak Polish and Yiddish (especially in towns) as well as Ukrainian and Ruthenian dialects (in villages).
Exclusionary visions of national identity would triumph with World War II, which brought mass deportations, the near-total annihilation of the region’s Jews, and civil war between Poles and Ukrainians. The Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) massacred tens of thousands of Polish civilians in the Volhynia region of Ukraine. (My husband’s grandmother and great-grandmother survived because a Czech family alerted them that Poles in the area were about to be exterminated). Poles, in turn, carried out scattered retaliatory attacks on Ukrainian villages. The final end to centuries of mixed settlement came with the Soviet Union’s deportation of Poles from Ukraine to Poland in 1944-1946, followed by the forced removal of Ukrainians and Lemkos—a minority group in the Beskidy mountains—from southeastern Poland to villages in western Ukraine and elsewhere in Poland. The postwar borders confirmed at Yalta gave almost all of western Ukraine to the Soviet Union, while granting Poland, now a Soviet satellite, a significant portion of German territory in exchange.
As historian Timothy Snyder recounts in The Reconstruction of Nations (2003), the key turning point in Polish-Ukrainian relations came with the Solidarity trade union movement, founded in 1980. Solidarity’s leaders declared that there could be no Polish independence without freedom for Ukraine. The architect of this policy was Jerzy Giedroyc, a Polish writer of Lithuanian ancestry born in 1906 in Minsk (then part of the Russian empire) who studied Ukrainian history and literature at the University of Warsaw. After the war, Giedroyc ended up in Paris, where he founded the influential émigré publication Kultura. His support for Ukrainian independence caught on among intellectuals who became key figures in Solidarity and gradually entered the mainstream. Roman Catholic bishops, including Karol Wojtyła, who in 1978 was named Pope John Paul II, emphasized mutual responsibility for past conflict and the need for reconciliation between Poland and Ukraine.
However, tensions persisted after the Soviet collapse. In the Polish town of Przemyśl—the site of horrific violence between Poles and Ukrainians in the 1940s—locals occupied a church that John Paul II wished to return to Ukrainian Greek Catholics. The Roman Catholic Carmelite monks who assumed control of the building claimed that it was too “Eastern” in appearance—though in fact the basilica had been modeled on St. Peter’s—and proceeded to destroy its dome. But Poland’s main priority in the early ’90s was joining the EU and NATO, and both countries ultimately chose cooperation. In contrast to Russian leaders, who continued to view Ukraine as their historic and cultural property, Warsaw relinquished its irredentist ambitions and recognized the current borders of independent Ukraine in May 1992.
From 1995, the presidents of Ukraine and Poland engaged in a formal reconciliation process. A declaration signed in Kyiv listed wrongs committed by each nation against the other and called for mutual forgiveness. Today, at Warsaw anti-war demonstrations, massive crowds chant in Ukrainian “Glory to Ukraine! Glory to the heroes!” This slogan, once shouted by UPA partisans committing violence against Poles, has gained a new life as an expression of transnational friendship.
As Stephen Holmes and Ivan Krastev describe in The Light that Failed (2019), in the wake of the 2008 financial crisis, right-wing populists in Central and Eastern Europe turned resentment over the post-1989 imperative to adopt Western models of liberal democracy and free markets into a national chauvinism that rejects multiculturalism and violates the rule of law. Poland’s Law and Justice government rode to power in 2015 by railing against the one million refugees then arriving in Europe, mostly from Syria; its leaders joined Hungary and the Czech Republic in refusing to accept refugee quotas assigned by the EU. For all their tirades against Brussels, however, membership in the union remains highly popular in Poland, which is the largest recipient of European funds.
The enormous gap in development between Poland and Ukraine since 1989 has made the former a poster child for the advantages of joining the club of the West. According to data from the World Bank, Polish GDP per capita in 2020 was over four times higher than it was in Ukraine ($15,721 versus $3,724). Since the Russian occupation of 2014, Ukraine has become the poorest country in Europe. Before the recent invasion, an estimated two million Ukrainians were already working in Poland, often in seasonal, low-wage positions. One of them was Ruslan, who has been laboring on Polish construction sites for eight years. At the end of February, he was finishing up a job building a grocery store. His wife and young children were back home in the town of Cherkasy, where Russian forces began bombing civilian targets in the first days of the invasion. Rather than returning and facing conscription, he decided to remain in Poland and try to bring his family here.
While Ruslan said that his experiences have largely been positive, groups such as the Lublin-based NGO Homo Faber have reported widespread exploitation and abuse of Ukrainian workers. After years of xenophobic rhetoric, Law and Justice now presides over a bare-bones immigration system in which underfunded NGOs are tasked with supporting an unprecedented number of newcomers. While the party’s leaders are basking in positive foreign press coverage, volunteer groups and the mayor of Warsaw—a member of the liberal opposition—complain that the central government has failed to provide sufficient help or coordination.
Polish president Andrzej Duda has been praised by Ukraine’s Volodymyr Zelensky for supporting the country’s expedited admission to NATO and the EU. But Law and Justice’s embrace of Ukrainians is easily compatible with its narrative of protecting the so-called traditional Christian world. Warsaw hosts the headquarters of Frontex, the EU border agency which has engaged in illegally pushing back migrants and refugees trying to enter the continent by sea and land. Last fall, Polish guards kept out refugees from countries in Africa and the Middle East who were lured to Poland’s forested border with Belarus by dictator Aleksandr Lukashenko. Some of those who managed to cross remain in hiding, and activists are transporting them to Germany in secret.
As Holmes and Krastev note, fear of mass migration by Muslims is in part a misdirected expression of anxiety about economic migration from Central and Eastern Europe to the West. Polish workers in the UK, who often live in the same neighborhoods as Muslim immigrants and compete with them for jobs, sometimes bring racist sentiments back home. In the town of Przemyśl, while volunteers made extraordinary efforts to welcome those escaping Ukraine, extremists carried out a spate of attacks against people of color. False rumors have circulated in the area that people of African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian descent coming from Ukraine are not “refugees,” but “migrants.” Meanwhile, the situation of people like Ruslan is a reminder of just how arbitrary that distinction can be.
Ruslan departed after five days. He found a job at a construction site that is also providing him with a place to sleep. So far, his family has been unable to join him. Not all of those who make it to Poland are sure they want to stay. Friends of ours hosted a woman in her seventies from a village in western Ukraine who was supposed to join her son in Canada. But she fled back in the other direction after a few days, claiming to feel like a bird in a cage.
Every night, volunteers call asking if we can host someone else. Our most recent guest was a woman named Iulia from Kharkiv, a city of 1.4 million that is under relentless bombardment. Iulia used to organize tours of Ukrainian dancers and circus performers in China. Now she has accepted an offer from a recruiter at the train station to work at an auto parts factory in southern Poland. She texts me that she is sharing a room with four other Ukrainian women and is unsure if she will be able to make ends meet.
During World War II, the poet Julian Tuwim, who came from an assimilated Polish Jewish family, was tormented by the guilt of living safely in New York. In 1944, on the first anniversary of the Warsaw ghetto uprising, he wrote an essay that grieved for the dead and dreamed of their redemption. Tuwim envisioned a future Poland in which the highest decoration would be the star of David that Jews were forced to wear by the Nazis: “Therefore with mournful pride we shall wear that order which eclipses all others—the order of the Polish Jew; we, who by a miracle and a coincidence, remained alive.” Today, the Ukrainian colors flying on Polish streets are a remarkable testament to the triumph of respect over hatred and present solidarity over past divides. Perhaps they are a form of apology by a former ruler and fellow sufferer who found safety and prosperity in Europe while its neighbors to the East were left behind as easy prey for a revanchist autocrat. Yet they are also a shameful indication of how Poland’s current government and the EU have championed some groups over others. Street demonstrations and volunteer activism raise hopes for a future European identity that is no longer based on exclusion. For now, as long lines of people wait to pass through the border, the fractures remain all too real.