For more than 250 years, Central Europe has been struggling with the same problem. One hundred and sixty years ago, an uprising sparked off in which Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Belarusians stood together against the despotism of the Russian tsar and Russian imperialism. Today, those nations are uniting to support Ukraine.
I live in Warsaw, the capital of Poland, situated 150km from Brest, the city located on the border with Belarus, now under Vladimir Putin’s boot.
In the span of 250 years, the Russians had been walking the Brest-Warsaw route every several dozen years, marching on Warsaw with an imperial punitive expedition, each time with the aim to destroy Poland “once and for all”; to wipe out the Poles.
The scenario was always the same: they arrived in horse carts or, in the 20th century, in tanks, to burn, kill and rape. They murdered the Polish intelligentsia, deporting the rest to Siberia or to the lime pits in Katyn, Starobilsk and Ostashkov. They took away children, machines and whatever they could carry.
It is a wonder that Poland managed to recover after each of the dozen or so imperialist forays from the east; that we were able to rebuild our country, demography, education, culture and even our language after all of that had been deliberately destroyed.
The imperial expeditions Russia carried out against my country in the past 250 years usually involved an agreement with Germany. Four times, Russians and Germans divided Poland between themselves. They partitioned my country and ruled its territories for a long 123 years, from 1795 to 1918. In 1939, before World War II broke out, Hitler and Stalin signed a treaty distributing Poland among themselves yet again.
Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Belarusians fought arm-in-arm against Russia and not for the first time- Eryk Mistewicz
The Russians stopped the advance on Berlin so that the Germans could quietly slaughter the survivors of the Warsaw Uprising and turn my capital city into dust. Few people know that the entire, now beautiful centre of Warsaw, including the Old Town and the Royal Castle, had to be rebuilt after the war. And the Russians waited for the Germans to raze it to the ground.
Those 150 kilometres separating Warsaw from Putin’s Belarus keep a certain question still vibrating in the air, a question similar to the one asked by my great-grandparents and grandparents alike: to fight and forge a resistance against imperialism or to surrender, give up one’s land, accept murder and rape and form some sort of collaboration – as between 1945 and 1989 when Poland, as part of the Soviet bloc, had to surrender its wealth to Soviet Russia – that would allow for a good business in exchange for humiliation? To rebel and raise our heads high, to defend ourselves and revolt – or give in?
Similar questions have been posed over the last 250 years not only by Poles but also by Lithuanians, Latvians, Estonians, Belarusians, Ukrainians, Czechs and other nations. One hundred and sixty years ago, in January 1863, one of the many uprisings broke out.
Poles, Ukrainians, Lithuanians and Belarusians fought arm-in-arm against Russia, and not for the first time. After a year and a half of fighting that claimed thousands of lives, the Russians exiled the surviving insurgents to Siberia.
Still, the uprising would be followed by others. Such is the fate of our countries.
That’s why we stand together today. That’s why we help Ukrainians as much as we can: they were accepted into Polish homes, there was no need to build refugee camps, the Polish state kind of automatically gave them the same rights as Poles, to receive social support, education, healthcare, etc. That’s why we are helping Ukraine by giving up our weapons and forcing other countries to provide military support.
Today, helping Ukraine under attack is the duty of the entire civilised world.
Erik Mistewicz is president of the New Media Institute, publisher of the monthly journal of opinion and commentary Wszystko Co Najważniejsze and winner of the Polish Pulitzer prize.
The text is simultaneously published in the Polish monthly Wszystko Co Najważniejsze as part of a project carried out with the Institute of National Remembrance and the Polish National Foundation.
Independent journalism costs money. Support Times of Malta for the price of a coffee.Support Us