“Glory to the heroes who fell in battle with the German invaders for the freedom and independence of our motherland!”
For more than 70 years, those words greeted visitors to the Polish town of Trzcianka. Emblazoned across the facade of an imposing mausoleum on its central square, they commemorated the Soviet Red Army soldiers who liberated the country from the Nazis — the 56 who were buried on that spot, and the 600,000 who died fighting on the territory of modern Poland during World War II.
But this September, the structure was torn down. Officials had concluded that the soldiers’ bodies had been moved decades earlier, and so gave the green light for its demolition under the Polish government’s nationwide “decommunization” program. TV cameras captured the scene as the mausoleum was bulldozed flat. Ambivalent residents looked on.
“I’m glad I lived to see this,” said one man, echoing the disgust some Poles feel about the decades of communist rule they endured after being liberated by the Red Army. “The final bastion of communism has fallen flat on its face.”
Yet as the Polish government has stepped up its campaign to remove communist-era monuments and names, it has fueled a bitter struggle over the country’s past, with Moscow loudly joining in. As it seeks to preserve and enhance Russia’s role in what it calls the Great Patriotic War, the Kremlin is warning that it won’t “tolerate” efforts to erase this legacy in former communist states. In this battle over myth and memory, the so-called “monuments of gratitude” to the Red Army have become one of the main flashpoints.
Three months earlier, a strikingly different scene played out in the village of Mikolin, 200 miles south of Trzcianka. The Polish and Russian flags swayed in a light breeze, as Soviet war songs played. Russian diplomats were the guests of honor at a ceremony organized by a Kremlin-backed Polish NGO. They were there to unveil a monument to the Red Army that the NGO — called “Kursk” — had spent six months restoring. Russian state TV broadcast the event live.
It was June 22. In Russia, millions were gathering for candlelit vigils to mark the annual “Day of Remembrance and Sorrow,” when Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union began in 1941. Kursk has made it its mission to renovate and protect Soviet-era monuments across Poland, and they decided this was a fitting occasion to mark their biggest project to date.
Led by a former Polish policeman called Jerzy Tyc, the group is named after the Russian city that saw the largest tank battle of World War II. The Mikolin memorial is the 26th such monument that Kursk has restored so far, much of the work paid for with Russian funds.
“You know, dear Russian friends,” said Tyc, as he addressed the gathering in Russian. “We will never forget what your people did for our nation.” But even as he spoke, Tyc knew his mission had just got a lot tougher. That morning, the Polish parliament had passed its decommunization law, paving the way for the removal of some 200 Soviet-era monuments. The memorial in Mikolin may not stand much longer.
But far from giving up, Tyc and his supporters have vowed to halt the government’s plans — backed by the full force of the Kremlin’s media machine. When the Russian foreign ministry heard about the demolition of the Trzcianka mausoleum, it called it “blasphemous,” warning in a statement: “We will not tolerate this.”
There is no shortage of such flashpoints across the former communist states of Eastern Europe. Hundreds of “monuments of gratitude” to the Red Army were erected in Bulgaria, Hungary and the Baltic States, as well as in Poland. Each country has struggled to confront that legacy in its own way.
In Poland, an initial decommunization campaign in the 1990s petered out as the government focused on accession to the European Union, which it joined in 2004.
In the meantime, the country’s Law and Justice party, or PiS, kept up a refrain for the removal of the “monuments of gratitude” that dominated the country’s roundabouts and squares. But only when it won power two years ago was it able to put this into practice. Local authorities and landowners now have just a year to comply with the new law.
Jerzy Tyc regards decommunization as an insult, after his family’s experience during World War II. Nazi troops occupied his family village, and shot his uncle, Stanisław, just 18 years old at the time. It was the Red Army who came to their aid, he says, ejecting the Germans and then giving Tyc’s family sustenance until they could return home. Those stories left a lasting impression.
Growing up close to the border with Russia’s Baltic province of Kaliningrad, Tyc and his friends would dress up as Red Army soldiers and play war. They were the good guys, and the Germans the villains. Those feelings have softened a little with age and time, but not much.
Tyc is nostalgic for the communist past, and Poland’s membership in the Soviet-led military bloc. He trained with Soviet troops during his military service in the 1980s. And he’s suspicious of his country’s new alliance with NATO and the West. “Tanks with German crosses drive across our land again, which is shocking to me,” he says. “How could an army that trampled on our land now drive tanks across it, while those who drove that fascist army out are being spat on?”
Officially, Kursk has just three members. But since he launched the group in 2008, Tyc says he has built up a network of hundreds of volunteers who help with gas, accommodation and manual labour. The group is also active on Facebook and its Russian counterpart VKontakte — through which relatives of Soviet soldiers killed in Poland often contact Tyc for help in working out where they are buried.
The former policeman says he receives help from individual Poles, but the bulk of his funding comes from non-profits in Russia. These include “Vozrozhdeniye” (Rebirth), a foundation linked to a Russian heavyweight boxer, and another organization close to the Russian Orthodox Church. Kursk does not publish a list of donors.
Tyc denies getting direct support from the Russian state. But the Kremlin has done plenty to help. The state news agency Sputnik gives Kursk regular coverage on both its Polish and English language services, as does the Kremlin-backed television network RT. They portray it as an example of ordinary Poles standing up to a Russophobic government intent on wiping the Soviet liberation from Poland’s history. And Tyc has reciprocated on his regular visits to Russia, denouncing his government’s actions on pro-Kremlin talk-shows, and even in the State Duma.
Poland’s decommunization process is overseen by the Institute of National Remembrance, a government-run commission that documents Nazi- and Soviet-era crimes. Adam Siwek, one of its board members, is adamant that the monuments have to go, saying that they represent “the total subjugation of Poland by the Soviet Union.” And he says they’ve been keeping an eye on Tyc’s activities. But he stresses that the new legislation distinguishes between free-standing monuments and Soviet burial grounds, with the latter protected under the new law.
Both Kursk and the Kremlin have accused the Polish government of violating those rules by demolishing the Trzcianka site. Officials say they had proof — via an archeological dig — that the remains of the 56 Red Army soldiers interred there had been dug up and moved to a local cemetery in the early 1950s. But the Kremlin asked why they had not provided any supporting documents.
Tyc admits that the currents are against him, with even municipalities once sympathetic to the group’s cause now stalling in providing support for his restoration efforts. But he is keeping up the pressure, with regular public events and plans to take legal action against the local authorities in Trzcianka. Russian diplomats in Poland have added their voice, hosting a Kursk conference in Warsaw and signing an open letter to the Polish president demanding an end to the monument removal program.
“Eventually the world will have to react to what’s happening in Poland,” Tyc says. “We are doing all we can.”
In the meantime, Poland’s decommunization continues apace. A 57-foot-high obelisk honoring the Soviet army was pulled down in Szczecin last month, taking a prominent landmark off the city skyline. The Victory column in Stargard followed soon after.
One idea the government is considering is to deposit the dismantled monuments in a former Soviet nuclear weapons bunker whose location was a closely-kept state secret in communist times. For Siwek, it is a way of exposing the mendacity of those who try to portray the Soviet Union as Poland’s friend.