Robert Mickiewicz: Poland launched its kin-state policies in Lithuania only after democratic transition

Robert Mickiewicz: Poland launched its kin-state policies in Lithuania only after democratic transition

An autochthonous Polish community of Lithuania is concentrated in the Vilnius (Polish: Wilno) region. In the interwar period, this region was effectively controlled by Poland and claimed by independent Lithuania. The current borders in the region were finalized after the end of World War II. The postwar Soviet Lithuania was the center of ethnic Polish life in the USSR, being virtually the only place in the Soviet Union where the public manifestations of Polishness were allowed. Robert Mickiewicz, historian and editor-in-chief of the Kurier Wileński, the oldest Polish newspaper in Lithuania, in his interview describes the life of the Polish community in the Lithuanian SSR.

ICELDS: Lithuania was an exception in the post-war USSR, where the Soviet authorities allowed public manifestations of Polishness. What was the logic behind this approach of the Soviet authorities?

Robert Mickiewicz: The “divide and rule” policy was not invented by the communists. However, the authorities of the Russian Empire and later the Soviet Union were quite effective in applying these tactics. The policy aimed at causing conflicts between Poles and Lithuanians was introduced in this territory by the imperial authorities. Starting from 1918, the Bolsheviks continued to play this card to further escalate the conflict. In 1944, the Soviet power finally gained control over the territory of Lithuania. However, the conflict between several ethnic groups in the region of Vilnius was to hamper the effectiveness of the Soviet rule in the newly-acquired territories. Some scholars argue that Moscow did fear the nationalist wing of the Lithuanian communists. Hence, the re-establishment of public Polishness in Soviet Lithuania was a tool to counterbalance these influences. I believe that it was rather an attempt to Sovietize the Polish community of the Vilnius area. After the war, the local Polish intellectuals were eliminated. They either were subjects to repressions or had to flee to Poland or even further to the Western countries. Soviet authorities lacked instruments to approach the local Polish community. The nationalist wing of the Lithuanian communists wanted to promote the Lithuanization of the Vilnius area. Lithuanian nationalist sentiments posed a bigger threat to Moscow than the local Polish community. As a result, the public manifestations of Polishness were allowed in Soviet Lithuania, and these measures found a positive response among the local Poles.

ICELDS: What forms of social and cultural life did ethnic Poles have in Soviet Lithuania?

RM: First of all, one should mention a network of about 30 schools. As a result, several thousand pupils were annually enrolled in the secondary education process conducted in the Polish language. The Czerwony Sztandar (English: Red Banner) was the only Polish-language daily in the Soviet Union. It was one of the official newspapers of the Communist Party of the Lithuanian SSR. There were also ensembles of folk singing and dancing (including the oldest one Wilia, created in 1955), and theatres. The Polish cultural life in Soviet Lithuania functioned legally in contrast to the religious domain, which was subjected to numerous restrictions. However, it is not possible to say that the cultural life of the Polish community flourished because it was also heavily controlled by the Soviet officials.

ICELDS: Were there any social or cultural ties between Poles in Soviet Lithuania and the Polish People’s Republic? Did the authorities of communist Poland express any interest in the life of their ethnic kin in the Lithuanian SSR?

RM: This interest was rather marginal and very much formalized. For instance, the editorial office of the Czerwony Sztandar maintained official contacts with similar structures in Poland. However, this cooperation was subjected to strict control. At the same time, it is more important to stress the role of people-to-people contacts. The generation of those, who was born in Vilnius and its environs and moved to Poland, was still active at those times. These “unofficial” contacts had more significance for the population. During the perestroika period, the situation somewhat changed. In 1986, Wojciech Jaruzelski, the then leader of the People’s Republic of Poland, was brought to Vilnius, where he met with the members of the local Polish community. However, this fact was not particularly advertised. The real kin-state policy towards its co-ethnics in Lithuania was fully launched by Poland only after the democratic transitions in Poland and the simultaneous weakening of the Soviet regime in Lithuania.

ICELDSDid the Lithuanian Poles actively participate in the political life of the Lithuanian SSR?

RM: In comparison with other major ethnic groups of Soviet Lithuania, the involvement of ethnic Poles in the key administrative positions in the Lithuanian SSR was clearly below the average. The Soviet authorities questioned the loyalty of the ethnic Polish element, primarily due to the fact that Poles were typically much less responsive to the Sovietization efforts.

ICELDS: How did the experience of the decade-long experience of struggle for own rights during the Soviet era affect the political mobilization of the Polish minority in independent Lithuania?

RM: The formation of an independent social life of the Polish community coincided in time with the Lithuanian national movement aimed at the restoration of independent Lithuania. The existence of a network of schools with the Polish language of instruction was a significant advantage of the Polish community. A significant number of school teachers, as well as the Pedagogical Institute in Vilnius, contributed to the education of the intellectual class of the Polish community in Lithuania. The Polish community resides within rather a small territory, and many people simply know each other. This networking contributed to the rapid development of civil society structures in the Vilnius area. Another factor is enormous support of the Polish state and civil society, which became possible after the democratic changes in Poland. In many cases, the representatives of the Polish civil society had their family roots here in the Vilnius area. Moreover, democratic Poland was a consequent supporter of Lithuania’s independence.

Interview conducted by Witold Janczys and Dr. Kiryl Kascian

Image: a fragment of the front page of the Kurier Wileński special issue (July 2014) dedicated to the 70th anniversary of the Operation Ostra Brama (July 1944).

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