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Komm, Frau. Vergessen, Polen.

Komm, Frau. Vergessen, Polen.
October 19
02:30 2013


Gdansk officials were shocked and irritated last weekend to find a concrete sculpture erected next to a communist-era memorial, depicting a Russian soldier raping a clearly pregnant woman at gunpoint. Though only up for a short period, in an age of instant communication photos quickly circulated online.

Ever the sensitive one, Russia was officially quick to respond, as reported in Der Spiegel:

“According to the English-language Moscow Times, Russia’s ambassador in Warsaw, Alexander Alexeyev, said he was ‘deeply outraged’ and that Szumczyk had ‘defiled by his pseudo-art the memory of 600,000 Soviet servicemen who gave their lives in the fight for the freedom and the independence of Poland.'”

Leaving aside for the moment questions of good taste and tact as they should apply to artistic expression, or the legal technicalities that sculptor Jerzy Szumczyk transgressed in posting his art at a public place without the proper permission – historically speaking, to what end did those Soviet soldiers sacrifice themselves?

Historically speaking, it wasn’t for Poland’s liberation. At the resumption of war in Europe, with fires from the First World War smouldering only twenty years, the Germans did not invade Poland alone. As a show of tenuous goodwill, German foreign minister Joachim von Ribbentrop reached an accord with his Soviet counterpart, Vyacheslav Molotov. In addition to giving the Russians carte blanche in the upper Baltic, the resulting eponymous pact of non-aggression surreptitiously arranged for the two powers to split Poland between them, which was duly done little more than a week later during the month of September 1939.

Of the 300,000 or so Polish prisoners of war (estimates vary between 250,000 and 400,000) were captured by the Soviets during their part of the invasion, officials with the NKVD selected around 25,700 of these for execution, which took place at the now-infamous Katyn Forest the next March. Thousands more were executed in fits, or died in labour camps. In all, 150,000 Poles were estimated killed during the Soviet occupation.

While it could be said that this figure pales in comparison to the 5.6-5.8 million murdered by the Germans, it is nonetheless laughable to suggest that the Soviets were in any form friends to the Poles, with mass arrests and the intentional stirring of ethnic tensions and class-based reprisals not just common, but an official policy. And whether one called them freedom fighters or insurgents, guerillas and partisans aligned with Poland’s government-in-exile were routinely executed.

In a war remarkable for the depth of its atrocities, the concluding sweep of World War II was a wave of looting, assault, murder, and – as portrayed in Szumczyk’s statue – rape, committed by conquering liberators on all sides, yet notable in theRed Army’s sweep across Poland.

Bearing some of these things in mind then, it is up for interpretation whether those Soviet troops died in order to rescue Poland or to kick Germany’s teeth in. Considering the nature of Soviet actions before, during, and after the war, I’d think it fair to say the latter was the case, with the war’s passage over Polish lands an inconvenience of geography.

Which is not to say that Poland in its various incarnations has not committed atrocities of its own, and among those, some against Russian soldiers during the country’s own periods of political vulnerability. But the past two centuries have seen Poles bear the brunt of the Bear’s claws, with acknowledgement of what transpired during the last great war largely blotted from view by state-dictated censorship.

A censorship which apparently continues, as Polish officials weigh whether or not to charge the artist with crimes that could land him in prison for up to two years.

“I wanted to show the tragedy of women and the horrors of war,” Szumczyk has said in defence of the piece. If nothing else, the official reaction to his display shows that Russia and Poland (like Japan and China, like Turkey and Armenia, like these United States and its wartime foes) still have a lot to talk about.


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