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Poland and Ukraine’s shared history: how dreams of nationhood endure

In 1795, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, once a major power governing territory that extended from modern Lithuania to Ukraine, disappeared from the map. Journalist and author Misha Glenny tells Jonathan Wright how this history helps us understand events today

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Published: April 8, 2022 at 11:05 am

In 1795, following decades of decline, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth finally ceased to exist. Prussia, Russia and Austria had divided the vast territory of one of Europe’s great powers, which had once extended from the Baltic to the Black Sea. It’s a history that resonates into the present day when Vladimir Putin invaded Ukraine.

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Misha Glenny, formerly the BBC’s central Europe correspondent and author of, among other books, McMafia (2008), which inspired the BBC drama of the same name, has much experience of reporting on the region.

In BBC Radio 4's The Invention Of Poland, recorded shortly before Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Misha Glenny and his producer, Miles Warde, trace Poland’s history, a story that also takes in Ukraine because of the countries’ shared histories.

Here, in conversation with Jonathan Wright, Misha offers his thoughts on how the past feeds present relations between Poland and Ukraine.


Can you introduce us to Poland’s history?

It’s fascinating that Poland is today a large European country and yet it disappeared for a while.

There’s a pivotal moment when Poland ceases to exist in 1795. The Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth had been whittled down for 22 years prior to that, in particular by Russia and Prussia, and then Austria decided to join in as well. Austria took southern Poland, including Kraków, and what is now Lviv in modern Ukraine, which we know from recent news reports. Poland then disappeared until the end of the First World War.

But until the middle of the 18th century, Poland, or the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth as it was known, was one of the biggest territories in Europe. And it was politically anomalous in that it was liberal. There was limited democracy and the nobility the szlachta – were able to vote for their monarch.

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Russian civil war, 1919

This was a powerful and militarily successful territory, which went from the Baltic Sea right down to the Black Sea, including almost all of present-day Ukraine. One thing that means is, when we hear from Vladimir Putin that essentially Russians and Ukrainians are the same people, that’s at the very least arguable because Ukrainians have lived under a variety of tutelages, whether Turkish or Russian or Polish. Ukraine means ‘on the edge’, and it’s on the edge of several empires, not just one.

How did Polish aspirations to nationhood survive post-1795?

Although there were several rebellions in territories where Polish was spoken, there was no state associated with Polish nationalism if you discount the Napoleonic satellite, the Grand Duchy of Warsaw.

What Poland did have was a significant émigré community, in places as diverse as Istanbul (or Constantinople, as it was then), Chicago, Paris and London. A lot of them were wealthy and well educated, and they kept the flame of Polish identity alive.

Poland and Ukraine: from the First World War to the present day

1917 | Establishment of the short-lived Ukrainian People’s Republic

1918 | Establishment of the Second Polish Republic

1918–1919 | The Polish-Ukrainian War results in the Second Polish Republic controlling territory in western Ukraine

1919 | Establishment of the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic, from 1922 one of the constituent republics of the Soviet Union

1939 | Nazi Germany and the USSR invade Poland and divide the country, including territory that’s now part of Ukraine

1941 | Germany invades the USSR. Total losses suffered by the Ukrainian population are estimated at 6six million, including 1.4 million troops, at least 40% of all Soviet losses.

1947 | Establishment of the Polish People’s Republic, part of the Eastern Bloc

1989 | Establishment of the Third Polish Republic

1991 | Ukraine declares its independence from the Soviet Union

2014 | The Revolution of Dignity in Ukraine ousts the government of Viktor Yanukovych, who had pursued closer ties with Russia

2022 | Following earlier incursions, including the annexation of the Crimea, Russia invades Ukraine

Is there a sense that all this means Poland thinks of itself as a big country, yet the rest of the world doesn’t to the same degree?

When I first visited Warsaw in 1973, one thing that struck me was that there was a self-confidence about Polish national identity. If you were to talk to Czechs in the 1970s or 1980s about eastern Europe, they would look at what was going on in East Germany, Poland or Hungary and how it was relevant to the wider picture, and how it impacted on Czechs. But if you talked to Poles, they were only interested in Poland.

This was partly because it’s a large country and partly because, from the Second World War onwards, they had this intense tradition, which had echoes of earlier traditions, of resistance to the Soviets. They had understood for a long time that they were in the middle of what the historian Timothy Snyder calls the ‘bloodlands’, the flat territory of eastern Europe that Russia and Germany have contested at many points.

Poles resisted the Soviet-backed communist regime in 1956, in 1970–71 and then, most spectacularly, in 1980 with the rise of [Polish trade union] Solidarity, which mainly protested against Poland’s own communist government.

It was the Poles who fired the starting gun for the revolutions of 1989.

What are the contrasts and similarities between Ukrainian history and Polish history?

There’s a close linguistic connection between the countries, so that mutual intelligibility is very rapid. Since Poland joined the European Union and Poles have left to work in western Europe, the country’s labour market has been filled up largely by Ukrainians, particularly in south-eastern Poland where you will see things written in Ukrainian Cyrillic script.

There is a clear division between the west of Ukraine and the east and centre of Ukraine. For part of the early 20th century, what is now Lviv and the west was still part of either the Austro-Hungarian Empire or Poland. And the centre and the east was part of the Soviet Union, although Ukraine gained its own identity as the Ukrainian Socialist Soviet Republic and had elements of statehood.

One of the most important events in the 1930s was the Holodomor, which is a state-engineered famine that killed millions in one of the world’s greatest bread baskets when food production was requisitioned by Josef Stalin in order to pay for industrial goods imported from the US and Europe. A sense of being sacrificed on the altar of imperial aspirations, be it German, Polish or Russian, is something that’s all too familiar for Ukrainians.

Have we sometimes been too accepting of a particular Russian view of eastern European history in, for example, the idea of a Russian sphere of influence? This arguably has a big impact on Ukraine’s history.

Yes, it does. And not just Ukraine. Of course, there are some people who argue that spheres of influence really emerge during the 19th century. The US, with the Monroe Doctrine of 1823, is one of the first to carve out a sphere of influence. This idea becomes a sort of codification of the imperial interests of European powers as well, both outside of Europe, but also within territories inside Europe, such as Poland.

What I think is quite interesting is that western Europe and the United States were ultimately as content with the Yalta agreement of 1945, which divided Europe, as Russia was. What it does is to eliminate those ‘bloodlands’ by putting Soviet tanks in them and stopping the Germans from expanding eastward. And what that enabled the United States to do was to pour capital into western Europe under the Marshall Plan, and to create mature, sophisticated and lucrative markets.

That is why, whenever there was a revolutionary movement in eastern Europe, whether it was Hungary in 1956 or Czechoslovakia in 1968, the Soviets would always do the courtesy of calling the White House before they intervened, and to say, “Do you continue to stick by the Yalta agreement,” to which American presidents successively said, “Yes, we do.”

Commentators have been talking a lot about the idea of a new world order being partly defined by the war in Ukraine. What are your thoughts on this?

We’ve been seeing the meandering development of a new world order since 1989, which has been replete with many illusions, many false dawns and many misunderstandings. In truth, it’s too early to begin to talk of with any confidence about what the impact of the Russian invasion of Ukraine is going to be. I mean, you can do it, but it’s speculative and that’s all.

BBC Radio 4's The Invention Of Poland

Between 1795 and 1918 there was no Poland, but the idea of Poland remained extremely strong. Travelling by bus and train around the south east, Misha Glenny and producer Miles Warde go in search of what kept Poland alive | Catch up on the series
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Misha Glenny is a journalist, broadcaster and author. His books include McMafia, an account of the global criminal underworld that inspired a BBC drama of the same name, as well as several titles about Central and Eastern Europe. He is former Central Europe correspondent for the BBC, and he is due to take up the post of Rector of the Institute for Human Sciences, IWM, in Vienna

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