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Mateusz Parkasiewicz  28 grudnia 2020

Volhynia and Uman vs serfdom and Operation “Vistula”. Can Poles and Ukrainians surpass the martyrological perspective?

Mateusz Parkasiewicz  28 grudnia 2020
przeczytanie zajmie 10 min
Volhynia and Uman vs serfdom and Operation “Vistula”. Can Poles and Ukrainians surpass the martyrological perspective? Ilya Repin / Wikimedia Commons

What do we associate with Polish-Ukrainian relations today? A Pole will probably say: Volhynia, Uman, massacres, peasant uprisings, the Haidamaka rebellion… And a Ukrainian will respond: serfdom exploitation, the impaling of Cossacks, pacification, Operation Vistula… Each of these events was reflected in culture, forming a collective picture of the Pole in Ukrainian consciousness and vice versa – the Ukrainian in Polish consciousness. Just think how difficult for the flawed human mind, which loves binary categories and has been always leaning towards primitive fatalism, it will be to convince itself that this image is not so unambigously grim.

What is more – together with bloody conflicts, there were and still are people who try at all costs to save the historical and cultural ties that bind us. So let us start our story in a point that is in a way the moment of emergence of the mutual cultural images – the Uprising of Bohdan Khmelnytsky, the prelude to the fall of the Commonwealth.

With Fire and Sword and the Polish-Ukrainian relations

However, have we not changed completely since the 17th century; have the concept of the nation not changed, and hence also its reception? Yes, because, at that time, it was only beginning to form, and then our mutual images had the strongest impact on our cultures.

It was the news about the massacres carried out by the Cossacks in the properties and domains of the Polish and Russian baronage that shaped the image of the Ruthenian-Ukrainian as a crazed, bloodthirsty murderer with a „black palate” in the eyes of the Polish public. In this respect, particular attention should be paid to the fact that all these events took place not so much „between Poles and Ukrainians” as between the court and the province, which were additionally divided by religion: it is one of those things which today’s readers, who are entangled in contemporary, flattening identity categories, often fail to understand. It is doubtful whether anyone in the 17th century predicted that these peasant rebellions would become a founding myth for the modern nation that would demand separation from the Commonwealth.

The 19th century and the Spring of Nations revealed the true significance of these events for our national identities. After all, the greatest works of our literatures concern nothing other than our common history. Sienkiewicz writes the novel With Fire and Sword, and Taras Shevchenko, referring on many occasions to the myth of the Cossacks and, de facto, reconstructing the Ukrainian identity based on it, writes Haydamaky (a poem in which a young Cossack, to revenge the murder of the father of his beloved by members of the Bar Confederation, joins the Haydamaky and takes part in Koliyivshchyna). The publication of these two great works caused a rather negative stir in most Polish and Ukrainian communities.

Immediately after Haydamaky appeared, Zenon Fisz wrote in the Gazeta Warszawska newspaper: „We admire the gifts and works of Little Russia writers, but we frankly regret the direction of this young literature, which is written so tactlessly and hastily with a pen dipped in blood. With such principles Haydamaky could not go any further than to Uman, and if literatureis so short-sighted, it is indeed a waste of effort!.” This is how much of the Polish intelligentsia at the time classified this literature, which was, after all, the founding literature for the modern Ukrainian identity.

And similarly, what did With Fire and Sword mean for our neighbors? Before making this diagnosis, let us quote the words of Olena Czemodanowa from the Kyiv-Mohyla Academy, who, in her work titled From the history of the Ukrainian reception of With Fire and Sword by Henryk Sienkiewicz, provides an accurate interpretation of the difference in the reception of this work on both sides:

“The Polish intellectual elite of the second half of the 19th century saw the Polish–Lithuanian Commonwealth as a country of ethnic and religious tolerance, destroyed by the storm of the Cossacks uprisings. And for Ukrainians, the era of Khmelnytsky became the cornerstone of national consciousness and an object of pride.” With Fire and Sword was caught up in the conflict between these different visions of history.

Later Czemodanowa also refers to Volodymyr Antonovych, a Ukrainian historian: “Antonovych has found two indignities directed toward his nation in the novel. The first one is the insult of Ukrainians affronted by the negative image of the Cossacks. The second is contempt for simple Ukrainian people who appeared in the novel by Sienkiewicz as greedy, predatory rabble. Antonovych stressed that Sienkiewicz included in this rabble also farmers, shepherds, carriers, beekeepers, khutor farmers and fishermen without distinction. For a historian-nationalist who saw in rural people the main force of development and the source of all good, this was simply a blasphemy.” That was the reception of the first mutual opinions on these events. The misunderstanding between the court and the province is clear as day.

Polish sentiment to the Ukrainian „Eastern”

So, is calling each other “masters” and “murderers” all that we can do? Instead of burying ourselves in the fatalism of a direction once taken, it is better to give the floor to people who are not involved in the main fight. Then we would hear that Sienkiewicz, so many times cursed by Ukrainians, was a teacher of „sensitivity to Ukraine”, for such people like, for example, the brilliant Tadeusz Konwicki. In With Fire and Sword, so vehemently criticized by Ukrainian intellectuals, one can see not only the dumb, greedy part, but also, for example, the ardent and essentially beautiful, truly Cossack passion of Bohun’s heart. Suffice to say, it is impossible to count the number of Polish women who were in love with Bohun. The “ferocity” of the Ukrainian man in Polish cultural awareness is therefore not only slaughters and peasant rebellions. It is also a great romantic load, contained in the archetypicalcharacter of a Cossack.

After all, Ukraine itself is, in our culture, something dangerous, romantic, or even mystical in some sense. Moreover, in our collective imagination, its space seems to be a land that is, in an analogy to American culture, a kind of „Eastern.” We go to Ukraine in search of adventures that the sterile world of the West, in which everything is based on the logic of ever-present rationality, cannot offer us.

In an era of globalization, more and more people prefer to get on a rickety bus from Kiev to Irpin than on the ultra-modern Deutsche Bahn train from Vienna to Berlin. It is certainly easy to guess what will attention of a family at Saturday dinner: a train which moves almost with no sound, where out of boredom you listen to a new track of ASAP Rocky on the headphones, or a broken bus that hits the ruts over and over again, where you have to hold on to the handrail, or else you will run into one of the many colorful characters, crowded under a meter-tall icon of the Virgin of Vladimir.

Add to this the Cossack-Zaporizhzhia myth, which is embedded in the collective unconscious, and we have a story that the „progressive” and „better” world of the West can in no way give us. A story which, as can be seen, for example, from the number and quality of Polish reportages devoted to that side of the world, we seem to long for as a community and a nation.

However, the Polish sentiment to Ukraine is not limited to a longing for a story. Although it may sound somewhat paradoxical, it also has a practical, tangible dimension. It is also a longing for a common reality, which still remains preserved in various traces, scattered throughout culture. An extremely important, though still underestimated contribution has been made in this area by Józef Łobodowski, a poet and publicist, often called a „late romanticist”, who professed himself to be a „Lendian, who gave his word to Ukraine.”

However, the sentimental poetry of Łobodowski was accompanied by journalism, in which he addressed the current problems of Polish-Ukrainian relations. In last years before the war, he was a valuable support for the Volhynia voivode, Henryk Józewski, in his quest for reaching consensus and implementation of the Promethean concepts, and protested against the destruction of Orthodox churches.

Justice demands noting that the cultural roots of the image of Ukraine in our culture are much more complex than its vulgar-martyrological reception.

Poles in the eyes of Ukrainian culture

And what do Poles look like in Ukrainian culture? It is hardly surprising that the nation, for which the cornerstone was the rebellion against the oppression of the Polish nobility, has retained the image of the Polish master in its culture, and the word „master” contains here all that is the worst in the „mastership” and that is necessary in the martyrdom narrative.

In Haydamaky by Shevchenko, the representation of the Bar Confederation, which many of us often still view as something positive, is bleak – similarly to the behavior of its participants in Ukraine. In the poem, the confederates are the cause of the tragedy of the main character (they brutally murder the father of a girl, with whom the hero is in love), which causes him to join the titular haidamakas, where his madness culminates in the massacre of Uman.

The theme of the Pole-master was particularly emphasized, not surprisingly, in the propaganda of the Soviet era. And, if one notes that the Ukrainian state is unfortunately, to a large extent, an heir of the various pathologies of the USSR, from corruption to political class mentality, traces of such narratives, dressed, of course, in new, blue-yellow (or black-red) garments, can be found to this day. These are remnants of a certain propaganda strategy, which can be described with the slogan from Vladimir Mayakovsky’s poster, on which two bayonets are stabbing the back of a comical Polish nobleman: Ukraincew i Russkich klicz odin – da nie budiet pan nad raboczym gospodin! (The cry of Ukrainians and Russians is one cry – there will be no master over the worker).

Ironically, today, many nationalist politicians, especially from Western Ukraine, are toying with the same anti-Polish feelings straight from the USSR during disputes over historical politics, thus creating an impression of a besieged fortress, and Ukrainian nationalists are now the next player after the Soviet Union in the relay of playing with the complexes of their own people (a great example is the march Lviv not for Polish masters, organized by nationalist communities around the resolution of the Polish Sejm on the Ukrainian Insurgent Army).

Another important figure is Taras Shevchenko, one of the creators of modern national consciousness of our eastern neighbors. It seems that neither those Poles who criticize Shevchenko for his descriptions of the “murdering of Poles” in Haydamaky, nor those Ukrainians who recognize anti-Polonism as a holy commandment of their patriotism looked close at his legacy. Perhaps, if this happened, the poem To Poles would be a little more popular. It contains probably the fullest view of Shevchenko on the participation of Poland in the history of Ukraine.

The Ukrainian poet writes that, before the union, „we fraternized with the free Poles, we enjoyed the free steppes” until Jesuit priests appeared, so hated by the Zaporozhians for various humiliation and for tearing the Orthodox faith away from them. „It is so, oh Pole, companion-brother,/ The greedy princes and magnates/ started a feud between us,/ And the time of peace has passed./ So shake hands with the Cossack/ And give your pure heart!/ And together, in the name of Christ/ We will restore the quiet paradise.”

Do we need to add anything more to prove that the image of Poles in Ukrainian culture is not reduced to the figure of a master-exploiter? If only the Ukrainian state had created good conditions for the development of intelligentsia, if this intelligentsia had not been forced to go to Warsaw, Berlin or Paris, perhaps the refreshment of the reception of Shevchenko, its removal from the Soviet shape – because he is this poet who is the most bright and lively potential in the collective consciousness, who could lead us back to a common path – would have been salutary for the way we think about ourselves. In Poland, perhaps we would understand these processes a little better if not for our endless fascination with the West.


Yet, too often, we prefer to limit ourselves to martyrology. We prefer to believe that we are seen by Ukrainians only in terms of „always deceitful”, and see them in the same way. That is if we are willing to devote some more attention to our common issues at all. Following Łobodowski, Polish-Ukrainian reconciliation is an intellectual challenge, and it is not enough to say „I love Poland” or „I love Ukraine” to achieve anything in this field.

The publicist in the Article Against the ghosts of the past, published in Paris “Culture” in 1952, described this probably the most explicitly: “The Polish-Ukrainian dispute on emigration seems to me to be an argument of two men sitting in a cannibal cauldron, under which the fire is already burning. And instead of trying to jump out of the cauldron by joint efforts, they argue bitterly …, threaten each other to the great joy of the cannibals, who are performing their ritual dance around the cauldron. … We, Poles and Ukrainians, have few friends. Who knows, perhaps in fact, we do not have them at all. … Where to find allies in the wide world?”

The point at which our cultures come together and the love-hate relationship reflected in it show clearly – there are grounds for common perspectives. Moving towards them, this intellectual challenge, which was given to us by such great figures, is a message so powerful that, when reaching us, it rises above the most difficult conflicts over our mutual history. And it will be a real sin, if, having any opportunities to create and participate in culture, we leave it unanswered.

Polish version is available here.

Publication (excluding figures and illustrations) is available under Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 InternationalAny use of the work is allowed, provided that the licensing information, about rights holders and about the contest "Public Diplomacy 2020 – new dimension" (below) is mentioned.

The publication co-financed by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland as part of the public project "Public Diplomacy 2020 – new dimension" („Dyplomacja Publiczna 2020 – nowy wymiar”). This publication reflects the views of the author and is not an official stance of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.