Exclusive interview with Professor Andrzej Nowak: “In 1920, Poland defeated the Evil Empire”
On the occasion of the centenary of the Battle of Warsaw and the victory of Poland over the Soviet Union in 1920, we met Andrzej Nowak, Polish historian, Sovietologist and professor at the Jagiellonian University of Cracow for an exclusive S4C interview. We discussed his latest book: “The defeat of the Evil Empire: the year 1920”, published in Polish by the Biały Kruk editions.
S4C: In the aftermath of the First World War, Poland reappeared on the map of Europe after more than a century of foreign occupation by the Russian Empire, Prussia and Austria. In Moscow, the 1917 October Revolution brought the Bolsheviks into power. They were preparing to sweep across the European continent to propagate the revolution. In early August 1920, the Red Army was at the gates of the Polish capital. Then on the 15th of August, one of the most important events of the millennial history of Poland happened: the “Miracle of the Vistula”. The troops of Marshal Józef Piłsudski repelled the invader against all the odds and (temporarily) spared Central Europe from the experience of the communist dictatorship.
Professor, why did you choose “The defeat of the Evil Empire” as a title for you book?
Andrzej Nowak: The term “Evil Empire” was first used by US President Ronald Reagan in a speech from 1983 referring to the Soviet Union. His choice of describing the USSR in this way aroused the indignation of many Western intellectual circles at the time, mainly for two reasons.
First of all, the USSR was obviously not an empire, legally speaking. At that time, it was considered by a large part of the western elites as nothing more than a federation, without any imperial structure. From this point of view, we can consider that Ronald Reagan anticipated the direction taken by many political scientists of the late 1980s for whom the Soviet Union was, in fact, the “last of empires” because of its aggressive policies towards its periphery.
But it was mainly for associating the Soviet Union with evil that the American President was strongly criticised. It should be noted that Reagan did not just designate the USSR as being bad. In his conception of evil, he quotes the excellent British writer C.S. Lewis and his famous book “Screwtape Letters”. It is a classic of literature in which the author adopts a humoristic tone in order to describe the various strategies that evil forces use to divert men from the right path.
However, there is no mention of evil in its visible or palpable version like in the Katyń pits, the gulags, the concentration camps or even the gas chambers of Auschwitz. He explains that evil most often originates in the cabinets of power, namely “in heated and sanitised offices, in which it is not even necessary to raise your voice.”
It is on the basis of this conception of evil that Ronald Reagan refers to the USSR and its communist ideology which openly aims to create a new world on the remains of the old one. Following this logic, men are only instruments that should be used for this aim. Communism considers that it is good to eliminate a part of society in order to create a “new man”.
Did the repelling of the Red Army save Europe from the Soviet dictatorship? How can we be sure that Lenin intended to continue his victorious advancement further to the West of the continent?
One only has to take a look at archival documents dating from the start of the Soviet era to realise how ambitious were the plans of Vladimir Lenin as well as his close associates. As a Sovietologist, I am specialised in the history of Russia and its relations with Poland, especially during the first half of the 20th century. In the early 1990’s, I was fortunate enough to learn about a whole series of Soviet archives because they were still available.
When one reads what Lenin was writing to his men in 1917, it is difficult not to agree with Ronald Reagan’s analysis. For example, in one of his letters to comrade Stalin dating from 1920, Lenin lays the foundations of what is today called “hybrid warfare.” He explains that it is necessary to disguise soldiers of the Red Army so that they carry out terrorist attacks (shootings, explosions, public hangings) in foreign territories, in this case in Latvia and Estonia. The aim was to provoke a feeling of generalised fear among people in order to facilitate their Sovietisation.
From the correspondences between Lenin and Stalin, it appears that the objective pursued by the Red Army could not have been more clear. First of all, Lenin wanted to pass “over the corpse of white Poland”. This was the main obstacle separating the USSR from Germany, in which revolutionary movements were also gaining momentum. The Bolsheviks wanted to unite the Soviet and German proletariat under the banner of the revolution.
Many Western intellectuals refuse to admit a significant historical fact, namely the real plans of Lenin. Once Poland was liquidated, the Red Army was to rapidly proceed to the Sovietisation of Germany, Czechoslovakia, Hungary, Austria and even carry the revolution of the proletariat to Italy. Some are questioning this today. However, it is clearly written in various letters between Lenin and Stalin. The other undeniable historical fact is that these ambitious plans were halted outright by Poland in 1920.
How would you explain the ease with which the Bolsheviks took power in Moscow as well as the speed with which they dominated first the Russians themselves and then their western Belarusian and Ukrainian neighbours? Did they believe in the slogans promising equality and prosperity? And how to explain the very contrasted reaction of the Poles, who put up a categorical resistance to the efforts of Sovietisation of their country?
This phenomenon has been well described by the great American historian Richard Pipes. Pipes explains that the Red Army has been confronted for the first time to what he calls “European patriotism.” Not in the sense of Europe as a nation but by a strong patriotic conscience of one of the European nations.
In other words, it is the attachment of ordinary people to an imagined community that is other than belonging to a certain class. Soviet propaganda failed to convince Polish farmers and peasants to massacre their bourgeois fellow citizens and aristocrats as encouraged by Lenin’s propagandists.
This is due in particular to the efforts of many Polish intellectuals and artists who, throughout the 19th century, managed to maintain a strong sense of belonging to the Polish national heritage. Polish language and history lessons were often given illegally since the Polish state as such no longer existed. This socio-cultural elite managed to convince the common people that the heritage of their homeland carries a form of dignity and that it is therefore necessary to maintain and defend it if necessary. The vast majority of the Polish population at the beginning of the 20th century felt honored to belong to this rich culture and tradition.
With regard to the countries of Eastern Europe which, unfortunately, bowed fairly quickly in the face of Bolshevism, it should be kept in mind that there were also resistance movements within them. In the case of Russia, it is mainly time that was lacking in order to consolidate a modern patriotism that could have effectively countered the revolutionaries.
In addition to the lack of time, the opponents of Bolshevism could only count on a relatively weak mobilisation of their fellow citizens; perhaps because a possible return to order was grasped to be a return to tsarism, which the majority of Russians did not want. It is, moreover, on this basis of liberation from the oppression represented by the tsar that Lenin and his people built their narrative promising a better future.
As for the lack of resistance of Belarusians and Ukrainians against the Soviets, we should remember that these nations have not managed to develop this patriotic feeling so present in Poland. This is particularly noticeable in the case of Ukraine, which for centuries has been denied any form of creation of a state by its Russian neighbour. Thus, the Polish army, under the command of Marshal Piłsudski, did not enjoy as much support among the Ukrainian population as he would have hoped in order to counter the Communist offensive.
This year, we commemorate another event of major importance in the recent history of Polish-Russian relations, namely the eightieth anniversary of the Katyń massacres. As a reminder to our readers, Katyń is the name given to the massacre ordered by Stalin in the spring of 1940 by which nearly 22,000 Polish officers were shot in the back of the head by the NKVD. Some historians interpret this event as a personal revenge of Stalin following the collapse of his army twenty years before? What is your opinion on this?
Indeed, Stalin was very optimistic about the turn of events at the beginning of the summer of 1920. He was in charge of the southern front at the time of the Bolshevik advance on Poland. He was sure he would reach Rome in a matter of weeks. The theory that the Katyń massacre represents a revenge for Stalin is based on the fact that a large number of the Polish officers who have been shot had taken part in the Polish victory over the Red Army in 1920.
In your book, you write about what is commonly known as the “Polish Operation”. Could you please explain to our readers what it is about?
If there is an event that undermined Polish-Russian relations, it is probably this crime in the first place. On the one hand because it is one of the greatest crimes perpetrated by the USSR and on the other hand because it has been completely forgotten.
Following order 00485 from the 11th of August 1937 (signed by the head of the NKVD Nikolai Yezhov), a series of massacres started targeting the Polish minority residing in the USSR which lasted until November 1938. Based on this directive, more than 110,000 people (111,091 – editor’s note) have been sentenced to death. In September 1937, Stalin wrote to Yezhov to “liquidate this filth from Polish spies for the good of the Soviet Union.”
Harvard University professor Terry Martin conducted a study showing that during this ethnic purge, a man with Polish nationality residing in the USSR was thirty one times more likely to be shot than a representative of a any other ethnic group during this murderous period of the Stalin era.
Well, the Poles were systematically murdered in the USSR precisely because they were Polish, in the same way that Jews were exterminated by the Germans during the Second World War – because of their ethnicity.
In total, more than 200,000 people died in just over a year. It is ten times more than the number of victims of the Katyń massacres! More than one in two Polish adult men living in the USSR was killed between 1937 and 1938…
We know today that tens of millions of people have died around the world in the name of the communist utopia. How to explain that even today, some people identify themselves openly and sometimes even proudly as communists?
The development of evil in all its forms is made possible by the proliferation of lies. As for the Soviet Union, one of the lies repeated over and over since 1945 is the claim that the USSR represented a liberator for the countries of Central and Eastern Europe. However, this so-called liberation from the German occupier – I insist on the use of the term “German” rather than the very politically correct and vague term “Nazi” – was actually a new occupation.
As you know, national-socialism is unanimously considered as bad, and of course rightly so. However, a considerable part of the public opinion in Western Europe refuses to acknowledge the fact that communism is just as bad and even more deadly.
Professor, thank you for this discussion.
Interviewer: Sébastien Meuwissen