Babiracki on Rotfeld and Torkunov, 'White Spots--Black Spots: Difficult Matters in Polish-Russian Relations, 1918-2008.'

Adam Daniel Rotfeld, Anatoly V. Torkunov, eds.
Patryk Babiracki

Adam Daniel Rotfeld, Anatoly V. Torkunov, eds. White Spots--Black Spots: Difficult Matters in Polish-Russian Relations, 1918-2008. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 2015. 682 pp. $65.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-8229-4440-9.

Reviewed by Patryk Babiracki (University of Texas-Arlington) Published on H-Diplo (May, 2016) Commissioned by Seth Offenbach

Much of the carnage and contestation in the twentieth century involved Russia/the USSR and Poland, states and societies that have inherited mutual animosity and distrust from earlier centuries of great-power rivalry and imperial strife. It may not be surprising that publicists, politicians, and historians from the two countries rarely see the past eye-to-eye. Remarkably, a group of eminent Russian and Polish historians and members of the tellingly named Polish-Russian Group for Difficult Matters embarked on a common project that aims to examine the sorest spots in Polish-Russian relations in the twentieth century. The result of that effort is a pioneering volume of collected essays edited by two scholars and former diplomats, Adam Rotfeld and Anatoly Torkunov, titled White Spots--Black Spots. Difficult Matters in Polish-Russian Relations, 1918-2008 (it was published simultaneously in Polish and in Russian in 2010). "White spots" refer to those moments in the Russian-Polish past that were taboo under communism; much like a terra incognita marked as a white blotch on a map, these issues did not exist as a subject of conversation or debate. "Black spots" are the dark historical events which have been, and in some cases are, spoiling Polish-Russian relations. The book's title is brilliant: it captures the contradictory relationship between national cultures and historiographies, but it expresses it in the language of metaphors that Poles and Russians very much share.

Yet divisions between Poles and Russians also shaped the very process that led to the publication of this book. The twists and turns of politics in each country impeded the work of the Polish-Russian Group for Difficult Matters: the group was established in 2002, dissolved shortly thereafter, reactivated in 2008 only to face new challenges caused by the Russian aggression on Ukraine in 2014-215, a crisis that resulted in the resignation of Adam Rotfeld, the group's co-chair on the Polish side in December 2015. Another hurdle was the conflicting sensibilities among historians. Within the group of Russian and Polish scholars who embarked on the project, "there were not so many contradictions or major differences over facts. There was more emotion, which stemmed from a lack of desire or willingness to listen to or to hear what the other party had to say" (p. 4). The group's chief goal was to "support state institutions," largely by drawing "recommendations," in addressing problems that prevent a development of Polish-Russian "partnerlike relations based on truth and mutual respect" (p. 5). References to "truth" and "the truth" come up often in the book--especially the latter may surprise some readers, or even make them smile. It might be worth noting, therefore, that unlike in the West, where post-World War II philosophy and historiography actively sought to challenge all epistemological certitudes by emphasizing the "constructedness" of social realities and by relentlessly "deconstructing" narratives and myths, the term retained its lease on life in countries where totalitarian governments distorted and denied history to its peoples. 

The volume is organized in fifteen parts, and each part features two chapter-length contributions, one from a Polish and one from a Russian author. The parts proceed largely chronologically and cover Poland's relations with revolutionary Russia in 1917-21 (part 1), "The Interwar Period" (part 2), "The Causes of World War II" (part 3), "Poland between the Soviet Union and Germany, 1939-1941" (part 4), "The Katyn Massacre" (part 5), "World War II, 1941-45" (part 6), "The Postwar Decade, 1945-1955" (part 7), "The Thaw," that is, the changes in Polish-Soviet relations that followed the death of Joseph Stalin (part 8), "The Dissident Movement" (part 9), and "The Soviets and the Polish Crisis," that is, the Solidarity movement that led to the imposition of martial law  in December, 1981 (part 10). Parts 11, 13, and 14 examine the way that postcommunist transformations shaped Polish-Russian relations in the economy, politics ,and culture. Part 12, "Assistance or Exploitation?" is a thematic section devoted to Polish-Soviet economic relations. Part 15 ("Heritage in Archives") examines problems related to archival access in Poland and Russia today. The volume also includes two appendices, one featuring "Reports on Sessions of the Group on Difficult Matters," and the other, "The Letter of the Co-Chairs of the Group on Difficult Matters to the Foreign ministers of Poland and Russia."

The book breaks new ground in departing from the forms of scholarly collaboration that characterized much of the twentieth century.  Between the two world wars, scientific contacts among humanists and social scientists from the two countries were sparse, reflecting tensions between the newly independent Poland and the nascent Soviet Union. And after World War II, scholars who chose to work on Soviet-Polish relations had to publish vapid accounts and sterile document collections that supported the state-sanctioned narrative about "brotherly Soviet assistance" to Poland and "friendship and cooperation" between the two states and peoples. Historians in both countries who wanted to be truthful to their craft often worked on more remote periods of the past or on histories of distant locations; working on the nature of monarchy in medieval Poland, religious dissent in early modern Europe, or the economy of Southeast Asia also enabled them to speak to present-day concerns through analogies, and thus avoid direct conflict with the censors. Anyone wishing to engage in genuine exploration of contemporary history had to publish abroad or underground.

Against that historiographic backdrop, the first thing that stands out in White Spots--Black Spots is the openly voiced Polish and Russian differences of perspective on particular issues. Many historians in both countries have ostensibly been invested in the pursuit of long-obscured factual information (as opposed to Western-style narrative history); it is interesting to see, therefore, that in juxtaposing the Russian and Polish accounts the volume brings out the contrasting narratives. Polish authors tend to focus on Poland's struggle to maintain independence or autonomy, sometimes against the odds, and often against the Russian/Soviet efforts to dominate Poland. Several Russian accounts stress the strategic significance of Poland to Russian/Soviet national interests and Poland's relatively privileged position within the historical Russian empire and the Soviet sphere of influence, as well as the inability of Polish political elites to respond to the admittedly complex international circumstances and especially to the constructive initiatives from the Bolshevik/Soviet leaders. 

The opening part, titled "The Beginnings: Polish-Soviet Relations, 1917-1921," illustrates the contrasting choices of framing. The Polish authors, Daria and Tomasz Nałęcz (both historians and leftist politicians), depict a precarious rebirth of an independent Poland amidst the turmoil of World War I, the Russian revolutions, and the Russian civil war. They argue that despite some appearances, notably statements of the Bolsheviks, independent Poland had no substantial support among any significant Russian political grouping. That forced Józef Piłsudski, Poland's chief of state, to carry out a pre-emptive strike against Bolshevik Russia, which led to the Polish-Bolshevik war of 1919-20 and to Poland's acquisition of new territories to the east--lands that had once belonged to the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, and that would now form a buffer zone against communist Russia. 

Compare this to the account of these events by Gennady F. Matveyev, a senior historian at the Moscow State University. Unlike the Nałęcz duo, he spends considerable time discussing the dilemmas of the imperial Russian government concerning the "Polish question." On the one hand, the Russian elites understood that nothing short of granting the Poles full independence would satisfy the Poles; on the other hand, they feared provoking Germany into war and also setting a precedent for other nationalities within the empire, which would then lead to the break-up of the imperial state. Whereas the Polish historians see the Bolshevik declarations of support for Polish autonomy as mere lip service, belied by the Bolsheviks' exclusive cooperation with the Polish radical Left, Matveyev has no doubts that the Bolsheviks were serious. He cites vague proclamations of the Bolsheviks and the Petrograd division of the Social Democratic Party of the Kingdom of Poland and Lithuania (a radical leftist party closely tied to the Bolsheviks) as "indirect" proof that the Bolsheviks did not regard the Kingdom of Poland as an integral part of the new Russia (p. 37).

The facts presented and the narratives themselves, for the most part, complement each other well. What sets them apart is the authors' relationship to the historical actors: the historians' different levels of trust in Piłsudski's or the Bolsheviks' good intentions, and the scholars' willingness to explain, at greater or lesser length, what each of these players had to contend with to achieve their goals.

Part 2, titled "The Interwar Period: Poland and the Soviet Union in the Late 1920s and early 1930s," involves even more divergent evaluations of this tense period in Polish-Soviet relations. The essay by Wojciech Materski (Warsaw's Institute for Political Studies of the Polish Academy of Sciences) shows Polish diplomats bending over backwards to avoid direct confrontation with either of the two neighboring states--the increasingly militant Nazi Germany and the interchangeably deceitful, divisive, and unresponsive USSR. In his essay, Aleksandr V. Revyakin (Moscow State Institute for International Relations, or MGIMO) does the opposite, showing the obstructionist Polish leaders as ultimately responsible for the failure to work out a long-lasting modus operandi.

One of the most contentious issues in Soviet-Polish relations is the history of World War II, and as many as four sections of the book are devoted to the subject. In part 6, "World War II, 1941-1945: Politics and Its Consequences," the distance between the Polish and the Russian scholars' understanding of the war is the greatest. In his contribution to that section Wojciech Materski tells a story of Soviet exploitation of Polish weaknesses through deception and force to expand territory and gain influence over the country--starting with the Soviet-German Nonaggression Pact of August, 199 and Soviet invasion of Poland in September, 1939, to the Soviet use of its strategic advantages vis-a-vis the Allies to impose a puppet government in Poland after the war. 

A very different story emerges from the essay by Valentina Parsadanova, a veteran scholar of Soviet-Polish relations based at the Institute for Slavic Studies at the Russian Academy of Sciences. Parsadanova puts forth a number of other theses that question that account (and much Western historiography). As is well known, shortly after Adolf Hitler's attack on the USSR in June, 1941, Stalin allowed the formation of a Polish army in the USSR, which was subordinate to the anti-Soviet Polish Government-in-Exile and headed by Gen. Władysław Anders. While Materski emphasizes that General Anders withdrew the Polish army from the USSR via Iran due to the harsh conditions in which it was forced to form (heavily underequipped, and lacking leadership, since most of the Polish officer corps had been murdered by the Soviets in Katyn), Parsadanova mentions no such problems and instead, characterizes General Anders's withdrawal from the USSR as "the largest mistake the Polish government made during the war" (p. 234). Stalin's formation of Soviet-sponsored military units in the USSR are presented not as part of his consistent effort to gain control over this strategically important country, an uncontroversial explanation both in Polish and in Western historiography, but rather as a logical outcome of that Polish mistake. Parsadanova's piece includes statements and equivocations that echo the Soviet era. Consider the thesis that "the break in relations between the Soviet Union and the Polish government [in-exile] severely limited the Soviet Union's ability to support the ‘underground state’ with diplomatic instruments, while maintaining its own interpretation of the national and state interests of Poland" (p. 297). Key in that affair was, of course, the discovery of the Katyn murder in April 1943. Acting insulted, Stalin broke off diplomatic relations with the Polish government after the latter requested the International Red Cross to investigate that Soviet crime; however, Parsadanova suggests that "both parties" were responsible for the break, because both "escalated" the situation (p. 295). The resulting statement fails to spell out the fact that the the Soviets were constrained by the very crime they committed. In this account, Stalin then kindly accedes to the requests of the Polish communist emigrés to the USSR, who, boosted by recent Red Army victories "started their activities in 1943 by establishing a patriotic nongovernmental organization, the Union of Polish Patriots (Związek Patriotów Polskich, or ZPP)" (p. 297). Characteristically, Materski downplays the significance of ZPP's founding date by noting that it "merely marked the crowning of a process initiated in 1942. It was then that the conviction had started growing in the Soviet Union that the Red Army was likely to enter Central Europe first and be able to dictate its future" (p. 277).

Perhaps the subject of the Warsaw Uprising of August, 1944 brings out the starkest contrasts between the two accounts. Here, too, despite different emphasis, the two authors would agree on several key facts. The crux of the difference, however, is moral responsibility for the 200,000 dead. Stalin should not be held responsible for the human losses of the Warsaw Uprising: "Was it he who had planned and organized the uprising?" Parsadanova asks. Her response: the responsibility for the "deaths of two hundred thousand people in Warsaw rests on those Polish politicians who masterminded the uprising and urged Poles to fight without coordination with the Soviet command" (p. 304). The Warsaw Uprising has been a major black spot in Soviet-Polish relations from the outset. It has also been a near-sacred event in Polish culture; most Poles would not doubt Stalin's complicity in the affair; historians or public figures who dared to question the decision to stage the uprising in August 1944 have been few (among them was the notoriously outspoken former minister of foreign affairs Radosław Sikorski, who in 2011 criticized the leaders of the Home Army for lack of "political imagination and irresponsibility"[1]). Parsadanova's criticism it is not without merit, for it is certainly debatable whether the uprising, undertaken, as Materski reminds us, suddenly "and based on assumptions that had not been fully verified" (p. 282), was worth the sacrifice of so many people, particularly the civilians. But Parsadanova's point feels clumsy, too, in its effort to exculpate Stalin altogether, as though responsibility for the bloodbath could not be--and was not--shared. Certainly, too, her argument does little to convey the agonizing dilemma of the Polish leaders whose choice was either to wait to be liberated by the Soviets, an option tantamount to political and military neutralization, or to risk being decimated by the Germans. 

Finally, Parsadanova quickly dismisses Stalin's unresponsiveness to the Allies' offers to support the rebels with air drops, on the grounds that the proposal was pure propaganda. But although the Russian scholar describes Stalin at one point understatedly as "a controversial and notorious person" (p. 303), she also appears to trust and somehow understand him the most: Stalin, she writes, "who changed his opinion about the airdrops, believed that the best and most effective way to help the anti-Nazi Poles would be to crush the Germans at Warsaw and liberate it for the Poles" (p. 304). That uncritical approach to Stalin is a serious flaw of Parsadanova's essay. Similar benefit of the doubt is also detectable in the contributions by Mikhail M. Narinsky (MGIMO) and Albina F. Noskova (Russian Academy of Sciences), which portray the Soviet leader as a well-wishing rational statesman largely responsive to Polish and Western actions. It is worth noting that this view contrasts with orthodox and postrevisionist Western historiography of the Cold War, which sees Stalin, with his suspicious personality, flexible yet deep commitment to Marxist ideology, and identification of security with territory as a sine qua non of international conflict. Most historians in the West would also be less likely to take Stalin's word as a reliable barometer of his thinking.

Yet, despite such interpretive chasms, the volume offers surprises to those who expect only a Polish-Russian blame game and a war of words. Natalia S. Lebedeva (Institute of History, Russian Academy of Sciences) discusses the Katyn murder without mincing words. She carefully examines the decisions that led to the crime, showing also "how the Soviet leaders (for a half of century) tried to deny their responsibility for Katyn's execution and instead incriminate Nazi Germany" (p. 246). She also highlights the importance of the Polish communist state in suppressing the memory of Katyn, and the key role of various Soviet and Russian citizens in the process of revealing the truth--thus reminding us that the division into veracity and falsehood did not always overlap neatly with the Curzon line. Aleksandr V. Revyakin, although emphatically critical of interwar Polish diplomats, also finds that "the perception of Poland was influenced by some stable phobias of Soviet diplomacy in the 1920s and 1930s" (p. 81). One would wish that Polish historians recognized more often another important nuance of Soviet-Polish relationship. It is up to the Russian historian to bring it into the discussion, though: quoting the Hungarian writer Sándor Márai, Noskova reminds us that the Red Army soldiers could not bring freedom to Eastern Europe, because they themselves did not have any.

My favorite part of the book is part 9 because it reminds us that sectors of Polish and Soviet societies shared commitment to certain universal values such as beauty and freedom--and that they pursued them together. Polish writer Jerzy Pomianowski and Russian diplomat Andrei V. Vorobyov together with historian and leftist political activist Aleksandr V. Shubin (one of the younger contributors to the volume, born in 1965) trace the mutual cultural influences between the two countries in the postwar era. They show just how aware sections of elites in both countries were of each other, how they felt inspired by each others' cultures and histories, particularly in the struggles to challenge the status quo. Pomianowski recalls how, "at a time when Soviet advisors--the likes of Dmitry Wozniesienski and Antoni Skulbaszewski--reigned supreme in the Polish secret service, Russian literary classics saved Poles from sinking into russophobia" (p. 410). Vorobyov and Shubin tell a story of how Polish opposition movements provided models for Soviet dissidents. These gestures of empathy and common explorations of a shared but little-known past are significant because they show that underneath the white spots and the black spots in Russian-Polish relations lay complicated narratives that fit uneasily into a misleadingly natural antinomy between the hokey communist narratives about friendship of the peoples, and those that center on eternal struggle and irreconcilable differences between Poles and Russians. 

But a question remains: what about those tenacious differences? The question must not be dismissed, because it cuts to the raison d'etre of this book and many others that have been (and will be) written about complicated issues in international relations. Though they refer without discomfort to "the truth" in the context of state-society relations in communist Eastern Europe, the editors of White Spots--Black Spots are hardly naive: they also know that in the context of Polish-Russian relations no such thing as "the truth" really exists. How can it? Scholars who write history of the subject often do not share "national memories" or "mentalities and cultures," and are heirs to "different schools of methodology in historical research;" moreover, they sometimes belong to different generations, and have different levels of access to archival documents (p. ix). By giving the authors "full freedom to present their points of view" (p. ix), Rotfeld and Torkunov recognized that truth here is more about confronting one's "other" with an open mind than about combing through factual data in the expectation that one kind of indubitable truth might eventually emerge.

This wonderful book is a must for scholars and graduate students of Russian and East European history, who will, no doubt, also consult the fully annotated Polish or Russian version. Those in the English-speaking world outside the field will appreciate this book as a research resource and an extended introduction to the intertwined histories of the two states and societies, and a relationship of key importance to modern European past. Anyone interested in methodology of history will appreciate the book's polyphonic cadences, which provoke questions about the links between past and present, writing and truth, as well as history and politics. That such a collaborative book appeared with the support of Polish and Russian governments is certainly a great achievement. Alas, it is a pity that state patronage for similar projects is unlikely to be found in Jarosław Kaczyński's Poland or in Vladimir Putin's Russia. That is because in both countries the ruling elites ever more frequently derive strength from the new divisions they create, and not from the dialogue they open up; because they use history to political ends and not as an instrument of reconciliation; and because they claim monopoly on historical truth while stigmatizing alternative points of view.


[1]. Newseek Polska, July 31, 2011,,80....


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Citation: Patryk Babiracki. Review of Rotfeld, Adam Daniel; Torkunov, Anatoly V., eds., White Spots--Black Spots: Difficult Matters in Polish-Russian Relations, 1918-2008.. H-Diplo, H-Net Reviews. May, 2016. URL:

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