Battles on the streets of Warsaw another sad chapter in 1000 years of Poland-Russia bitterness

Tuesday's game was overshadowed by shocking violent scenes. But what are the deep-rooted causes of this conflict?
 Max de Haldevang
 Russia Expert Follow on

Those with some knowledge about the history of conflict between Russia and Poland began to worry as soon as the draw for the Euro 2012 finals was announced. With at least seven fans hospitalised and over 100 arrests it is now clear why.

But these scuffles are a drop in the ocean in the centuries of warfare and oppression shared by Poles and Russians, which dates back to 1018.

While the Polish fans appear the main aggressors today, that has certainly not been the case over the last few hundred years, as Russia has occupied Poland and its territory on and off since 1792, when they defeated Poland in a bloody, drawn-out war.

The Russians then consolidated their power two years later by brutally putting down the Kosciuszko uprising, one of the most painfully unsuccessful peasant rebellions in history.

Russia were briefly ejected from the country by Napoleon and the Poles fought back momentarily alongside the French Emperor, as he invaded Russia, reaching the gates of Moscow. But they were eventually beaten back and Russia was again handed parts of Poland after the Grand Alliance defeated Napoleon in 1815.

They stayed put for a century, exercising a deeply unpopular, undemocratic and uncaring rule and crushing another uprising in the meantime.

The First World War gave Poland their first scent of freedom in over a century, as they became independent in 1918 and even took advantage of Russia’s strife in their own civil war by attacking their old foes to expand their borders.

But in 1919, the victorious Bolsheviks stormed into Poland and Belarus in an attempt to gain lost ground. They eventually retaliated, though, and Poland celebrated an identity-defining victory, which gave birth to the Polish nationalism of which we have seen elements today.

Poland’s freedom did not last long, as they suffered an attack from both sides in 1939, when Germany entered from the west and the USSR from the east.

In 1940 in the Katyn forest, the Russians committed an atrocity that is so embedded in Polish consciousness that the hooligans themselves cited it as a reason for their violent disruption of the Russia Day march this afternoon, as they massacred 22,000 prisoners of war who were believed to be threats to Russia’s occupation.

Russia was once again rebuffed in 1941, as the Nazis rampaged through Europe but regained control of Poland when the Germans were defeated and Stalin set up Poland as a buffer state, controlled by various communist puppets.

Fans of Russia and Poland clashed on the streets before their Euro 2012 fixture
The secular principles of communism were in sheer contrast with those of the strongly Catholic population of Poland and the fear of the Soviet army was a constant for Poles, as they were present in large numbers on Polish territory until Poland finally gained freedom from Russian influence in 1989.

These painful conflicts against their richer, more powerful and often bullying neighbour were instrumental in shaping Polish identity. Both the glory of the victory in the Battle of Warsaw in 1920 and the outrage of the massacre at Katyn are deeply entrenched in their national consciousness and it is not a coincidence that their national poet Adam Mickiewicz argued passionately for Polish independence from Russian rule.

As such, it is no surprise that Poles, amongst many of whom nationalist sentiments are very much brewing, reacted as they did to the sight of Russians marching through their capital, celebrating their own national day.

Indeed, it is astonishing that Polish authorities allowed such an event to take place.

The wounds caused by the dominance of the Russian army are too fresh and the cries of “Forward Russia” have too deep a resonance amongst many nationals for the Poles on the extreme right not to react. The fact that many of the most vocal nationalists also happen to be football supporters does not help matters.

As is always the case at times such as these, though, this was the case of a small minority causing havoc for all.

There are stories abound today of Poles asking Russians to reconcile their history with a shared bottle of vodka, and Russian fans from Smolensk deciding not to bring their traditional Russian flag with the name of their hometown written on it, so as not to offend Poles with memories of their president’s recent death in a plane crash over that city.

Russians and Poles have fought over many issues over the last thousand years, including ideology, religion and basic human freedom, but we can only hope that they will never again need to do so over something as trivial as a game of football.