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Where there is no law, but every man does what is right in his own eyes, there is the least of real liberty
Henry M. Robert

Warsaw melody

28 October, 2008 - 00:00

Petro Kulakov, an employee of the Branch State Archive of the Security Service of Ukraine (HDA SBU), and this author recently went on a working trip to Warsaw. It was not a ceremonial visit, and its general tone was mournful rather than optimistic. We traveled to the Polish capital to coordinate the text of the foreword and read the galleys of another thick volume of the joint Polish-Ukrainian series of documents entitled Poland and Ukraine in the 1930s-1940s: Unknown Do­cu­ments from Secret Police Archives. This, seventh, volume will be entitled The Holodomor of 1932-33 in Ukraine. We were invited to Warsaw by the Polish Institute of National Remembrance (IPN), the co-author and sponsor of this book, which numbers over a thousand pages.


This is a truly unusual book. There is a great deal of public interest in the Holodomor in Ukraine. Poland is also interested in this subject. Polish literature on the subject is considerably smaller in scope than Ukraine’s. Although Polish studies dealing with the period of collectivization in Ukraine were published even before the Second World War, owing to well-known circumstances researchers in Poland were able to begin studying the Holodomor only after 1989.

Today, we are working together on a volume of unique documents. Key among them are documents and materials written by Polish diplomats, intelligence officers, and officials in charge of voivodeships that were adjacent to Ukraine. We are also publishing interesting documents from the HDA SBU on the GPU of the Ukrainian SSR. These include various instructions and data prepared by the Chekists during the tragic events of 1932-33, as well as documents relating to foreign diplomatic missions in the USSR and the Ukrainian SSR. The supplement will include entries from journals kept by several Holodomor eyewitnesses.

Every day we worked with our colleagues at the Polish Institute of National Remembrance, primarily with the historian, Dr. Jerzy Bednarek, the head of the IPN’s department of archival studies and sources, and Marcin Majewski of the Bureau of Provision and Archivization of Documents. All of us read the texts. This was a task easier said than done, as these documents paint a horrific picture of a heinous and — what is even more terrible — well-thought-out and implemented concept for the annihilation of Ukraine.

For example, a letter slipped into the Polish consulate’s mailbox in Kharkiv reads: “Reigning in the country of freedom and inviolability of the individual are executions, penal servitude, and incredible exploitation...Robbery is rife. Peasants are robbing peasants, workers are robbing workers. If a peasant has a chicken or a piglet, he has to sleep next to it at night, so that someone who is not blessed with this ‘fortune’ will not steal it during the night and eat it together with his starving family by morning. The peasants (80 percent of the population) do not have any stimulus to work on the land because they know that everything will be taken away from them anyway.”

The Polish consul accredited to Kyiv writes on May 11, 1932: “I am reporting that with every passing day I am receiving increasingly more news about the famine in Right-Bank Ukraine, which is felt particularly acutely in the province. According to the latest information, cases of people who are fainting from weakness and exhaustion being collected from the streets are being recorded in such cities as Vinnytsia and Uman. The situation is supposed to be worse in the countryside, where, according to information from a reliable source, banditry and murders resulting from the famine occur every day.”

Rural areas were not the only ones that were affected. A document from the Consul General in Kharkiv on March 16, 1933, states: “We have witnessed various city workers, who bring wood, coal, ice, etc., for the Consulate General in Kharkiv, pouncing on potato peelings and other food scraps found in the consulate’s garbage, while in the last few days the workers who remove this garbage have eaten the food prepared for our dogs ...” If this was happening in the capital city of Ukraine, what must the realities have been like in the countryside!

Our Polish colleagues are occasionally surprised by certain things and request more detailed explanations. We provide these, engage in dialog, and offer clarifications, and all the while we and the Poles encounter the same accursed question: Why did the world keep quiet, knowing what was really happening in Ukraine?

Some Polish diplomats stressed the particularly catastrophic situation in Ukraine, which was significantly different from that in Russia’s southern regions. The following is an excerpt from a report prepared by Poland’s Consul General after a journey that he made from Kharkiv to Moscow in May 1933: “What struck me throughout the entire trip was the difference between Ukraine’s villages and fields and those in the neighboring TsChO [Central Chernozem Oblast of Russia], and even the unfertile vicinities of Moscow. The Ukrainian villages are in a significant state of decline, emptiness, decay, and misery waft from them, houses are half-collapsed, often with their thatched roofs torn off; no new farmsteads are visible; children and old men resemble skeletons... Later, when I arrived in the TsChO (first of all, the outskirts of Kursk and Orel), I had the impression that I had just arrived in Western Europe from the Country of Soviets ...”

Aware that the secret of Bolsheviks’ successes was their total disregard of means and sacrifices, a Polish intelligence officer writes, “The realization of all this has been made possible by engaging huge numbers of freshly trained communists, who, first of all, have no connection to the local populace, or those who have been brainwashed to such a degree that they have become almost fanatics, who carry out all sorts of instructions, shutting their eyes to all consequences that will affect the population.”

A female intelligence officer, who worked as a typist at the Polish consulate, left extraordinary realistic accounts of her conversations with people with whom she was in contact, as well as an analysis of the current situation. We see a similar analysis in the reports prepared by heads of voivodeships adjacent to Soviet Ukraine. People were fleeing there to escape the famine in the “socialist paradise,” and they recounted what they had experienced.

Together with our Polish colleagues, we are publishing mainly materials that are meant for administrative use, not for the general public. This fact alone provides grounds for stating that together we are taking another step toward the establishment of a realistic, unbiased view of the Holodomor, what it really was.

In addition, our visit to Warsaw was another step toward understanding that political life is flourishing in both Ukraine and Poland. The only question is how to place it within a certain framework so as not to drown in its violent current. And all of a sudden we heard the “melody” of Lech Walesa, the ex-president of Poland, who won the Nobel Prize in 1983.


On TV we watched the official tribute to Lech Walesa, which was held at the Royal Castle in the oldest part of Warsaw, marking his 65th birthday and the 25th anniversary of his receipt of the Nobel Prize. Walesa, as people commonly say, is a remarkable figure, so I will briefly recap his biography.

He was the fourth child born into a peasant family in 1943. At a vocational school specializing in training mechanics for rural areas, he was known for his bad behavior and marked lack of talent. After finishing school, he worked as an electrical mechanic at an enterprise similar to a Soviet Machine and Tractor Station (MTS). He later served in the army and then returned to his native village. He did not obtain a higher education, and did not try to get one.

In 1966 he decided to move to Gdynia, but en route he stepped off the train in Gdansk to buy some beer, missed his train, and ended up staying in Gdansk, where he soon found a job as an electrical mechanic at the Lenin Shipyard. It is anyone’s guess what course Polish history would have taken had he not gone to buy beer.

Poland is not Ukraine, so when the Polish government boosted food prices in December 1970, the shipyard went on strike. The next 10 years marked the period of Walesa’s greatest activism. In August 1980, he headed the shipyard’s strike committee and soon became the leader of Solidarity, a federation of workers’ trade unions that was established in place of the government-controlled labor unions.

Walesa became the informal leader of the entire country, a person whose views had to be reckoned with in party-state, labor, and intellectual circles.

Solidarity provided support to strikes and protest actions until December 1981, when its activities were banned, and Walesa and other opposition activists were arrested. It was during this stormy period that Walesa was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize.

A new wave of strikes engulfed Poland in 1988, forcing the government to start talks with Solidarity and set the date for free parliamentary elections. In June 1989 Solidarity won the elections, and then Walesa showed his character. He refused to form a cabinet together with the communists. The government was headed by his comrade in arms Tadeusz Mazowiecki.

In October 1990 President Wojciech Jaruzelski resigned, and in December Walesa won the early presidential elections, the ultimate result of his love of electricity. As the head of state, Walesa maintained a political course aimed at market reforms and the creation of a strong presidential republic. The new president was an authoritarian leader. At the same time, he followed a conspicuously pro-Western political course.

Walesa sought to consolidate his country because a rift had appeared in Polish society. In September 1993 he helped the coalition of leftist parties gain a majority of seats in parliament and form the cabinet. He wanted to unite the left— and right-wing forces under his “patronage.” This was a fatal mistake. Walesa started being criticized by both rightists and leftists. The presidential campaign in November 1995 resulted in the election of Alexander Kwasniewski as the new head of state.

The West, however, remembered Walesa. During the Olympics in Salt Lake City he was asked to raise the flag of the Winter Games. He is also remembered in Poland, as evidenced by the official ceremony at the Royal Castle and the gala concert that was held in the evening. The next day Walesa once again found himself in the limelight when a collection of documents reflecting Wa­lesa’s special relations with the secret police of communist Poland started being discussed on television. Once again people were seeing Walesa, Kwasniewski, IPN’s new head Janusz Kurtyka, and other public figures.

I watched it all and realized that the Poles remain Poles. They are not afraid to engage in public discussions of the acutest topics. As for Walesa, there is no doubt that he will not be thrown to the wolves because he was too important a figure during the toppling of the Polish communist state. However, this does not mean that people will ignore what Walesa did or keep silent even about certain unpleasant things.

Unfortunately, we don’t know how to do this yet, nor are we eager to learn how. Although we may hit out at politicians, we love them as though they are a priori devoid of any shortcomings. But they have them in spades. So, let’s not create any political idols for ourselves — no idols whatsoever — just like the Poles are not turning Walesa into one.

As always, the city of Warsaw impressed us. We have been traveling there every year since 1996, and sometimes a few times a year. We saw how life has begun to change, not without difficulty, but the main thing is that laws are working. The conviction that everyone is equal under the law has become stronger.

Do you know what struck us about Warsaw this time? It was the cleanliness and neatness. We so want there to be less dirt in our country, both political dirt and the other kind.

By Yuri SHAPOVAL, is a historian living in Kyiv