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    Polish Army soldiers stand to attention during a wreath laying ceremony marking the 62nd anniversary of the end of WWII in Europe, at the Soviet Army cemetery in Warsaw, Poland, Wednesday, May 9, 2007

    Monumental Error: Poland Risks Sanctions Nightmare by Razing Soviet War Shrines

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    The Russian Foreign Ministry has outlined a series of "asymmetric measures" which may be taken against Warsaw in response to Polish authorities' decision to destroy monuments dedicated to the Soviet troops who liberated the country during WWII. Observers told Sputnik why Moscow isn't ready to let Warsaw off the hook for their "deplorable" decision.

    Russia is prepared to take asymmetric measures against Poland in response to the government's decision to dismantle hundreds of monuments dedicated to the Soviet and Soviet-allied Polish forces who fought to free the country from Nazi occupation during the Second World War.

    A source in the Russian Foreign Ministry told the Izvestia newspaper that "Polish authorities must understand that their unfriendly actions in the memorial sphere will not be left without consequences. Adequate, asymmetrical retaliatory measures will be taken against Poland."

    Other sources in Russian diplomatic circles told the newspaper that several options for retaliation are being discussed, including sanctions against the individual Polish politicians behind the law, as well as restrictions on Russian-Polish economic contacts, including at the region-to-region level. 

    Experts say that any new economic restrictions could have a significant impact on the Polish economy. According to Russia's Federal Customs Service, Poland accounted for about $13 billion US, or 2.8% of Russia's total trade turnover, in 2016. Polish agricultural producers have already faced difficulties following the loss of the Russian market in 2014, when Moscow introduced countersanctions measures against US and its European allies over the crisis in Ukraine.

    According to Izvestia's source, Moscow is also considering other tools, including "economic measures of influence, and active work at a variety of international venues to draw attention to the issue."

    A man rides a bike in front of the monument of the Gratitude for the Soviet Army Soldiers in Warsaw, Poland May 23, 2016
    © REUTERS / Kacper Pempel/File Photo
    A man rides a bike in front of the monument of the Gratitude for the Soviet Army Soldiers in Warsaw, Poland May 23, 2016

    Russia and Poland were drawn into a diplomatic scandal earlier this month, after Polish authorities passed amendments to a law on decommunization which allowed for the destruction of hundreds of monuments and shrines to the Soviet and Soviet-allied Polish troops who fought to free the country from the Nazis during World War II.

    Russian sensitivities are associated largely with the fact that over 600,000 Red Army troops died in the operation to liberate Poland. Officials and commentators have also complained about attempts by Warsaw and other Eastern European countries to rewrite the history of the Second World War, to downplay the crimes of the Nazis and their allies, or to present the Soviet Union and the Red Army as moral equivalents to the Nazis.

    Speaking to Radio Sputnik, political scientist Yuri Svetov said that his biggest gripe was that Poland's current authorities seek to deprive the Polish people of the memory of what Soviet soldiers did for them.

    "The situation is deplorable," Svetov said. "It's deplorable in the sense that the history of the Second World War does more to unite us with Poland than to divide us. In spite of the complexities of the situation in 1939 [when the USSR signed a non-aggression treaty with Germany], between 1941 and 1945, we were allies. It was the USSR that insisted that Poland be included among the victor nations. It seemed that Soviet-Polish cooperation in the fight against fascism was a part of history that would bring our people together."

    "But the authorities in Poland changed," the observer said. "A different view was taken on Soviet-Polish and Russian-Polish relations. An emphasis was placed on the tragic pages – on what divides our peoples, and not what unites us…The decision of the Polish parliament is a continuation on that theme."

    A war memorial in Poland, dedicated to the Soviet and Soviet-allied Polish troops who fought to free Poland from Nazi occupation between 1944 and 1945. The vast majority of Poland's war monuments were created by famous local sculptors.
    A war memorial in Poland, dedicated to the Soviet and Soviet-allied Polish troops who fought to free Poland from Nazi occupation between 1944 and 1945. The vast majority of Poland's war monuments were created by famous local sculptors.

    At the same time, Svetov stressed that he was convinced that "among the Polish people, the memory of what Soviet soldiers did to free them from the Nazis lives on. The visible manifestations of this memory are the monuments to Soviet soldiers. According to the current logic in Warsaw, these monuments must be removed, out of sight and out of mind. For me, there is also a personal aspect to this story: my father fought to liberate Poland, and was in Warsaw during the war years."

    According to Svetlov, Moscow must now think very carefully about Russia's official response. "Our response is a very delicate thing," he said. "After all, we're not going to participate in a 'war of monuments' and destroy the monuments in our country which remind us of our ties with Poland." 

    Russia has memorial complexes in Katyn and Mednoye, dedicated to the Polish officers killed by Soviet security forces in 1940, as well as a monument outside Smolensk at the site where the Polish president was killed in an air catastrophe in 2010.

    The Katyn memorial in the Smolensk Region, Russia
    © Sputnik / Iliya Pitalev
    The Katyn memorial in the Smolensk Region, Russia

    Ultimately, in Svetlov's view, Russia "must do everything to develop relations between our two countries. For some time we slackened our attention to these relations due to hostile behavior from Polish authorities. But Poland should not leave our field of vision, and we must support relations in the spheres of culture, science, education and what we call people's diplomacy. Accordingly, we should weigh our response a hundred times before making a decision," the observer concluded.

    For his part, Vladimir Simindey, a senior researcher at the Russian Historical Foundation, told Sputnik that Poland's authorities' efforts are concentrated not so much at rewriting history, as on reinterpreting it to cast the Red Army in a negative light. 

    "Poland was liberated entirely by Soviet troops, so it's difficult to try to belittle this feat," the expert said. "Rather, it's a matter of reinterpretation, i.e. approving those interpretations in which the Soviet army is presented in a negative light."

    Czestochowa (Poland) residents meet Soviet soldiers. January 1945. The Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945
    © Sputnik /
    Czestochowa (Poland) residents meet Soviet soldiers. January 1945. The Great Patriotic War of 1941-1945

    Furthermore, the scholar noted that unfortunately, "there is a certain dissonance in the understanding of the word 'liberation'. The Poles want to interpret it as liberation from everything bad and the creation of everything good. We, by the word liberation, mean freedom from the most terrible evil of the 20th century – liberation from Nazism. In this sense, the ingratitude which exists today at the state level in Poland with respect to the memory, heroism and losses of the Soviet soldiers is frankly disgusting."

    Ultimately Simindey suggested that Russia must support those few in Poland "who dare to oppose the official interpretation of history, in which, unfortunately, there is no place for genuine, human memory of how the Soviet army liberated Poland from the Nazis and allowed many Poles to survive, not to mention the rescue of prisoners from concentration camps, and others who faced mortal danger."

    The amendments to the law on decommunization will come into force in October. According to Poland's Institute of National Memory – the state-supported institute which promoted the monuments' destruction, the law will affect an estimated 230 monuments.

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