This is a translated and slightly adapted version of an article originally published in Romanian on February 24.

The Poles are grateful to the Russians for liberating them from the Nazis in the Second World War. It’s not a bad joke, it’s yet another narrative that the Kremlin and its faithful Sputnik are trying to push wherever they can.

The Moldovan branch of Sputnik has published a comment by Boris Shapovalov in connection with an opinion poll, incidentally commissioned also by Sputnik, which allegedly shows that most Poles are full of gratitude for the Red Army.[1] A member of the Civil Society Council advising President Igor Dodon, Boris Shapovalov is a fierce critic of the West and a staunch defender of Russia.[2]

Why now?

The poll comes amid a renewed Russian-Polish row over the causes and course of the Second World War.[3] Poland’s prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki published an opinion piece in The Politico where he accuses Russia of rewriting history.[4] He notes in particular that the Russians were complicit in starting the war, invading and sharing Poland with the Germans. Morawiecki insists that, for Eastern Europe, the defeat of Nazi Germany didn’t mean liberation, but the beginning of a new occupation.

Obviously, such statements were met with righteous anger in Moscow. Vladimir Putin responded in kind, accusing the Poles of collaborating with the Nazis then[5] and of rewriting history today.[6]

What actually happened

Except for Russia and a few countries influenced by its propaganda, there is clear consensus on the matter: Poland is right. Like pretty much elsewhere in occupied territories during WWII, Poland did have its share of collaborationists, but many Poles risked their lives sheltering and otherwise aiding Jews, while Polish pilots made up the biggest non-British contribution in the crucial Battle of Britain.

When the Nazis invaded Poland on 1 September 1939, the Soviets attacked it from the east on September 17, occupying the other half of the country. The Soviet police and the Red Army went on to deport hundreds of thousands of Poles and execute tens of thousands others. The most infamous was the Katyn Massacre.[7]

When the war ended, Stalin promised to Churchill that the Soviets would accept a government of national unity to include members of the Polish government-in-exile besides communists. Its leaders and representatives were invited to the talks, only to be arrested and eventually condemned on false charges.[8] Poland went on to become a communist state.

It’s true though, on the other extreme, that in recent years some Polish historians have faced pressure and threats of criminal charges from the nationalist ruling party PiS.[9] Its representatives insist that it’s a “national insult” to research the role of some Polish forerunners in the Holocaust. Actually, any attempt to write about history in only black and white is what should be condemned instead.

How do Poles feel?

Sputnik didn’t publish the poll, so we looked at other surveys to see how much gratitude the Poles have for the Russians. In 2019, when asked how they feel about other nationalities, 43% said they had a negative attitude towards the Russians and only 28% thought positive about the descendants of their “liberators.”[10]

In a 2017 poll, 55% of respondents said they had heard of the anti-communist resistance in Poland. Of them, 75% think the resistance fighters were heroes and their activity was needed to check the Sovietization of the country, 73% say the resistance was an expression of patriotism and 67% think the anti-communist fighters can be a model for younger generations to follow. Again, this reflects the attitudes of those who said they had heard of the resistance (55%), and not of all respondents.[11]

There is also an older poll, from 2009, where respondents were asked specifically about the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939. 60% said this was a partition of Poland between the Nazis and the Soviets, 58% said Nazism and communism were equally bad, and 67% said they believed in the German government’s intentions to reconcile, while only 24% believed the same about the Russian government.[12]

Why should it matter for the Moldovans?

Like Moldova, Poland suffered the consequences of both Nazi and Soviet occupation and today is on the frontline of the Russian information warfare. Unlike Moldova’s President Igor Dodon, the Polish authorities preserve the memory of both tragedies. This is not to say they forgot the crimes of Nazi Germany; on the contrary, they seek reparations.[13] But that doesn’t impede them from remembering the crimes of the Soviets as well. Poles’ attitudes towards the Germans are better today because they have repented.

Russia, on the other side, doesn’t want to hear about anything else other than how they defeated fascism and liberated nations. Mass deportations and executions, the forced displacement of millions of people and the partition of Poland,[14] the ensuing socialist dictatorship, are all downplayed, while the very rare excuses invariably come with some kind of disclaimer. Just like in Moldova’s case. In Moscow’s narratives, only the Romanian military dictator Ion Antonescu and the Germans committed war crimes. The mass deportations, the famine and the Soviet repressions never happened and are mere “fascist propaganda.”

Whereas some Moldovans and Moldovan politicians have accepted Moscow’s version, the Poles are steadfast in combating it on every occasion. It’s hard to assume the role of a liberator when the “liberated” contradict you and call you an occupant. This explains this tinkering of the narrative by Sputnik: look, the Polish leaders don’t speak for the entire nation; ordinary Poles are thankful to the USSR. We couldn’t find the poll commissioned by Sputnik, but other available surveys of public opinion demonstrate quite the opposite: the Poles consider that the Soviets occupied them in the 1939 and they are bitter about it to the present day.

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  1. Шаповалов: поляки благодарны советским воинам за освобождение от фашизма, ru.sputnik.md ↩︎

  2. Новости по теме Борис Шаповалов, ru.sputnik.md ↩︎

  3. Statement of Polish MFA on false narratives presented by the Russian Federation, gov.pl ↩︎

  4. Moscow’s Holocaust revisionism, politico.eu ↩︎

  5. Путин назвал сволочью поддержавшего Гитлера посла Польши, ria.ru ↩︎

  6. Путин: некоторые страны Европы были в сговоре с фашистской Германией, ria.ru ↩︎

  7. Katyń Massacre, ro.wikipedia.org ↩︎

  8. Trial of the Sixteen, ro.wikipedia.org ↩︎

  9. Poland backs down on divisive Holocaust law after anger from Israel and US, independent.co.uk ↩︎

  10. Polish Public Opinion, 2/2019, cbos.pl ↩︎

  11. Polish Public Opinion, 2/2017, cbos.pl ↩︎

  12. Polish Public Opinion, September 2009, cbos.pl ↩︎

  13. Germany must pay Poland up to $1 trillion in reparations, minister says, independent.co.uk ↩︎

  14. Polish population transfers (1944–1946), wikipedia.org ↩︎