Under shadow of war, Russians confront uncertain future in Poland

In Poland’s capital Warsaw, Russians are a small community compared to their Ukrainian and Belarusian neighbors, and theirs is a voice rarely heard.

Elena, who moved from Moscow in 2016, said most Russians she knows in Poland oppose President Vladimir Putin and his policies.

“The group here is much more anti-Putin than elsewhere. This is a very white-collar community and people want to see real change in Russia,” she told Anadolu.

“This is unlike in Germany, where I worked, where many Russians are pro-Putin,” added Elena, who is a Ukrainian with a Russian passport.

According to official data, a total of 15,307 Russians – 8,045 women and 7,262 men – had valid residence permits for Poland in 2022, most of them living in Warsaw.

For Elena, life in Poland started smoothly and she has settled in well.

“When I came here, I was always surrounded by friendly people: Polish people, Russian people, also Ukrainian people. It took some time to get integrated into society, but as time went by, I felt more and more at home and comfortable over here,” she said.

Elena, though, has sensed a certain shift since Russia launched its war on Ukraine last February.

“Personally, I haven’t noticed any change in the attitude of the people around me. There was no change for the worse, let’s put it this way,” she explained.

“But quite a few of my Russian acquaintances and friends said they felt more insecure and had a few more complications when looking for a new job because of the resistance to everything that was to do with Russia or Russians after the outburst of the war.”

One of the consequences of the war has been Poland’s decision to limit the entry of Russian nationals, with a regulation that came into effect last September applying to entry by rail, air, and sea.

In 2022, approximately 137,300 Russians sought entry into Poland and some 62,000 were allowed in on the basis of residence permits of other EU countries, official data shows.

A long history

Anti-Russia sentiments are nothing new in Poland.

It stretches back to before the partitions of Poland in the late 18th century, which saw eastern parts of the country taken over by Russia, and was exacerbated by more than 40 years of Soviet-style rule after 1945.

Since the Smolensk air crash in 2010, it has been common for government ministers to blame the Kremlin for the disaster and Polish President Lech Kaczynski’s fiery death.

Maria Janion, once Poland’s preeminent cultural anthropologist, spoke about how Poland, after 1989, created a form of “Orientalism” about Russia, projecting the West in a far better light.

Janion, who died in August 2020, argued in her writings that Poland is suspended between a sense of superiority over the “Barbarian East” and an inferiority to the cultural and technological might of the West.

“On the one hand, we are characterized by our postcolonial mentality – we feel worse, poorer, and more backward than the magnificent West, and call ourselves the peripheries,” she wrote.

“On the other hand, we are not averse to a messianic pride and sense of superiority over the Barbarian East. Our exceptional merits and suffering empower us to admonish the rotten West – we are the ones who are the stronghold of tradition and ancient values.”

In a rhetorical battle accompanying the fighting in Ukraine, Russia and Poland have reignited their long tradition of mutual mistrust and abuse.

“The constant confrontation with Russia has led Warsaw to a dead end,” former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev wrote in an article for Russian daily Rossiyskaya Gazeta in December.

“Sooner or later the alliances of large and strong Western countries will cease to exist,” he said, warning that there will be “social explosions in Poland, which in the near future will lead to an inevitable change of power in the country.”

Battle of narratives

Poland is already contending with rising energy costs fueling 16% inflation and an ongoing spat with the EU about rule of law issues that has led to a freeze on billions of euros in post-pandemic payments.

The Kremlin seems intent on driving wedges wherever it can between Warsaw and the West, playing on local antagonism on its borders with Belarus and Ukraine, as well as wider concerns regarding the West.

Moscow has repeatedly claimed that Poland is preparing to annex territories in western Ukraine, a narrative repeated at all levels of the Russian leadership, including Putin and foreign intelligence spy chief Sergey Naryshkin.

In a November interview with Russian RIA Novosti news agency, Naryshkin went as far as to claim that Polish President Andrzej Duda had directed officials to come up with an official justification for laying claim to parts of western Ukraine.

The decision is grounded in Warsaw’s fear that its NATO partners will try to negotiate with Moscow, while disregarding the interests of Ukraine and Poland, said Naryshkin, who heads the Russian Foreign Intelligence Service (SVR).

Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki recently slammed claims by former Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski that the government considered agreeing to a partition of Ukraine in the first days of the war.

In comments that were quickly picked up by Russian media, Sikorski said the ruling Law and Justice (PiS) party had a “moment of hesitation” soon after the war began last February.

Previously, in an October 2014 interview with Politico, Sikorski had said that Putin hinted at the idea of jointly partitioning Ukraine at meetings with then-Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.

Fake news in the mix

With the Russian invasion of Ukraine, the content of fake news circulating on social media changed almost overnight.

Anti-Ukrainian propaganda has replaced anti-vaccine propaganda, although the sources are often the same and tend to work in the interests of the Kremlin, according to an analysis by Fakehunter, a Polish group that tracks Russian misinformation about Poland.

Ilona Dabrowska, a media science professor at the Maria Curie-Sklodowska University in Lublin, confirmed the observation.

“From the SARS-CoV-2 virus pandemic … the majority of the content generated on the internet shfited to disinformation in areas such as the scale of the attack (in Ukraine), the number and equipment of troops, the use of biological weapons, and others,” she said.

While it may have become harder to be Russian in Poland since the Ukraine war erupted, those living in the country seem far from willing to pack up and move.

When asked how long he intends to stay in Poland, one Russian in exile in Warsaw replied: “DPZ,” using an acronym for the phrase “as long as Putin is alive.”

Source: Anadolu Agency