When the Kingdom of Savoy created the modern Italian state in 1861, it also began the work of creating an Italian identity. Not since the fall of the Roman Empire had the whole peninsula been ruled as a single state -- and its inhabitants saw themselves as Milanese, Neapolitans, Romans, Tuscans and so forth. It took a world war and Mussolini to solidify an Italian identity.
National identity has not been a problem East of the Danube. A Pole has long identified himself as a Pole. While there may be regional dialects and traditional customs, a Pole knew what he was not -- a German or Ukrainian or Lithuanian or Russian or a Jew.
The 20th Century was not kind to this corner of the world crushed between Hitler and Stalin. The Jews are gone -- killed by the Nazis. The Germans are gone -- driven West at the close of the Second World War -- and the borderlands emptied of Poles, pushed West into former German lands by the Russians. This bloody history returned to center stage this weekend when Polish and Ukrainian church leaders issued a joint statement of apology and forgiveness commemorating the 1943-47 massacres in Volhynia and Eastern Galicia.
A comparison of the reporting from Warsaw and Kiev on this issue indicates the passions of the past remain alive. Religion and nationalism remain intertwined in the conscience of Eastern Europe. And, like the dog in the night, this story is all the more significant because of who is not barking -- Moscow.
On 28 June 2013 the front page of Warsaw's Gazeta Wyborcza reported that the head of the Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church, Archbishop Sviatoslav Shevchuk, had traveled to Warsaw to seek forgiveness from:
every Polish family who lost relatives from the hands of my compatriots.
Archbishop Józef Michalik of Przemysl, the President of the Polish Episcopal Conference, was quoted by the Warsaw daily as saying in response, the Ukrainian statement was a:
a sign of sound and brave patriotism, free of nationalist or backward thinking.
Radio Poland provided some background:
The appeal accompanies the 70th anniversary of the Volhynia massacres, which took place in a Nazi-occupied region that had been divided between Poland and the Soviet Union prior to the Second World War. After sporadic killings, a concerted action was launched on 11 July 1943, and from 1943 to 1945, it is estimated that 100,000 ethnic Poles were killed in the Volhynia area. Units of the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA), a guerilla force of Ukrainian nationalists, carried out the actions.
“We are aware that only the truth can set us free, the truth, which does not beautify and does not omit, which does not pass over in silence, but leads to forgiveness,” today's statement reads.
Besides citing “the evil” that was done against ethnic Poles, the resolution also refers to Polish counter-attacks, and the partisan war that unfolded. It is estimated that about 2000-3000 Ukrainians were killed in Volhynia, and about 20,000 more when the fighting spread to other areas of south east Poland (1944-1947).
The agreed statement from the church leaders follows upon motion adopted last week by the Polish Senate calling the Volhynia massacres an “ethnic cleansing bearing the hallmarks of genocide," Radio Poland reported.
Peering at this issue through a Polish lens, the story is one of Ukrainian contrition. Yet if you look at the Russian and Ukrainian newspapers we see a slightly different story -- moral equivalence and inter-Orthodox rivalries. Ukrainska Pravda provides details about the agreement which was endorsed by the Roman Catholic and Greek Catholic Churches in Poland and the Ukraine remembers the events of 1943-1947 to be a
mutual ethnic cleansing of the Ukrainian and Polish population carried out by peasant self-defense units ...
Ukrainska Pravda further noted the agreed statement had to be re-written after the head of the Roman Catholic Church said the first Greek Catholic draft that called on each side to forgive and ask forgiveness, implying a degree of moral equivalence between the two sides, was "nonsense".
The Russian-language Ukrainian news portal Polemika headlined its story: "The Catholics of two countries have urged reconciliation between the people of the Ukraine and Poland".
But while the agreement was between the Ukrainian uniate and Polish Catholic Churches this was not an all-Catholic affair as:
The request for forgiveness, [Archbishop Shevchuk] said, had been joined by the head of the Orthodox Church-Kiev Patriarchate, Philaret, and the Volhynian Council of Christian Churches.
"What of it?", you might ask. Poland and the Ukraine are very far away and Volhynia is the back of beyond of the back of beyond. I have not seen this story reported in the Western or English-language media, save for the Radio Poland English-language broadcast. Those unfamiliar with the intricacies of Orthodox-Catholic relations or with the players in this story may well pass this by as being a bit of religion news exotica.
Yet as the Balkan wars of the 1990s demonstrated religio-ethnic wars can return to Europe. I am not suggesting that will happen in this case, but a rapprochement between Kiev and Warsaw is not in the interests of Moscow. While Polemika reports Metropolitan Philaret backed the agreement, nothing was said about Metropolitan Vladimir. Philaret leads the Ukrainian Orthodox Church- Kiev Patriarchate, which broke away from the Ukrainian Orthodox Church under the oversight of the Moscow Patriarchate of the Russian Orthodox Church for nationalistic reasons. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church- Moscow Patriarchate led by Metropolitan Vladimir (the larger of the two) issued its own statement commemorating the 70th anniversary of the massacres.
For Metropolitan Vladimir the causes of the "interethnic conflict" remain the subject of historical debate. However the Ukrainian Orthodox Church (MP) has
... always supported the motherland and always cherished Christian patriotism. ... Our love for our native land takes form "in protecting the homeland from the enemy, working for the good of the Fatherland, and caring for for people's lives"
But Vladimir noted the church had
denounced the "sinful phenomena of aggressive nationalism, xenophobia, national exclusiveness, ethnic hatred" ... The Volhynia tragedy was a sad example of just such a sinful distortion of national feeling. Christian patriotism is incompatible with violence against other people. Because the Orthodox Church unequivocally condemns ethnic hatred, as being contrary to Christian ethics.
Unfortunately, today we see how the different political forces try to use the sad anniversary of the Volhynia tragedy for social manipulation. The Ukrainian Orthodox Church unequivocally condemns any attempt to use the tragedy, which claimed many Polish and Ukrainian lives, for political speculation.
Is he talking about Ukrainian nationalists or the Polish Senate? As Vladimir follows the Moscow line, my assumption is that this will be heard in Warsaw as a rebuke of Poland.
He closes with the statement that:
Our peoples are neighbors. We have to build fraternal relations, overcoming the heavy burden of historical confrontations and conflicts. ... The Orthodox Church has always tried to carry out the mission of reconciliation between nations involved in the feud. Today, we call on the Ukrainian and Polish nations to seek mutual forgiveness and reconciliation.
For Vladimir the terms of reference are those rejected already by the Catholic Church. I expect Moscow to weigh in at some point, but the grounds of dispute seem pretty clear. Religion, ethnicity and history still have a hold on the politics of the East.