The long read: Many Poles remember Soviet soldiers saving them from Nazi occupation. But a growing number are rejecting that narrative, and the monuments that come with it
In September 2013, the Polish city of Legnica was preparing to host a reunion of former Soviet officers who had served in the city and left after the Soviet Union fell. The centrepiece of the celebrations would be a monument in the main square showing two soldiers, a Pole and a Russian, locked in a handshake; on their shoulders sat a small girl, her gaze fixed on the Russian. When it was unveiled in 1951, the monument had been described in the local press as an expression of the Polish peoples limitless gratitude to their liberators, of inseparability and eternal friendship with the Soviet Union.
In the middle of the night before the reunion event, Piotr Borodacz, a 25-year-old Polish nationalist, gathered with several friends on the square and doused the monument of gratitude in red paint. On its base, they scrawled the symbol of the National Radical Camp, a Polish prewar fascist movement that was resurrected after the fall of communism. Red was the colour of the communism Borodacz despised, and of the blood of Poles persecuted by the communist regime.
Hours later, Borodacz stood beside the defaced monument to address a nationalist rally. They told us that the Soviets are a brother nation, he said to about 100 supporters. And today, in the name of unity, they tell us to play with the butchers at a feast, to call our occupiers friends. Waving Polish flags and banners of the far-right All-Polish Youth, the protestors marched through town, congregating before a stage on which a folk band was performing songs for the reunion event. From trees, instead of leaves, communists will be hanging, they chanted, drowning out the music.
At 6am the following day, police officers stormed into Borodaczs apartment. He was handcuffed and driven to the police station, held for 48 hours and ordered to pay for the monument to be cleaned. His laptop, camera and mobile phone were confiscated. For the next four days, as festivities continued and Russian pop bands were welcomed into town, police stood watch beside the vandalised statue.
That was a different time in Poland. Two years later, in 2015, Law and Justice (PiS) was elected with the first outright parliamentary majority in the countrys post-communist history. Since then, the nationalist party has seized control of state media and portrayed Poland as a country assailed by malign outside forces. It has announced a political revolution aimed at wiping out the corrosive influence of the venal communist collaborators it accuses of seizing power when Poland regained independence in 1989. And it has mounted a campaign to erase the communist legacy entirely, ridding Polands streets of the names of former communists, and its squares and roundabouts of the hundreds of monuments of gratitude put up for the 600,000 Soviet soldiers estimated to have died fighting the Nazis on Polish territory. In communist times, these soldiers were seen as liberators. Today, the totalitarian regime whose uniforms they wore is being equated with Nazi occupation.
That narrative has helped revive a story of Polish defiance and heroism at a time when many see their national identity threatened by the forces of globalisation. But it also taps into a well of historical pain and animosity, reigniting conflicts that have lain dormant for years. The Soviet Union liberated Poland from the Nazis, opening the gates of concentration camps and freeing thousands of Jews. But it brought with it a communist system that crushed all domestic opposition, executed leaders of the wartime resistance and imposed a totalitarian order aimed at indoctrinating successive generations with unquestioning gratitude towards the USSR. For millions of Poles, 1945 brought a new occupation under a different name; for others, it brought salvation and social advancement.