Where Eaglets Lie

POZNAN, Poland -- After 87 years, thousands of young Polish soldiers may finally be truly able to rest in peace following a ceremony in which the Polish and Ukrainian presidents tried to bury a controversy that says much about the two nations’ tortured and deeply entwined histories.

The hope is that the ceremony in Lviv’s Lychakivske cemetery will transform the soldiers’ graveyard from a symbol of national heroism for some Poles and a symbol of subjugation for some Ukrainians into a symbol of reconciliation.

At the heart of the controversy is the complex history of Lviv itself. Before World War I, Lviv was a Polish town surrounded by Ukrainian villages, ruled from Vienna by the Habsburg emperor. In November 1918, the same month that Poland re-emerged as an independent state, the Ukrainian National Council declared Ukraine an independent country and laid claim to Lviv. Nearly 3,000 Poles died successfully defending the city in a brief but fierce battle. Lviv remained part of Poland through the interwar years and the burial site of the Lviv’s Polish defenders – the grandly designed Eaglets Cemetery, so named because many of the dead were teenagers – became one of Poland’s most prominent symbols of patriotism. For Ukrainians, it became a symbol too, though of a lost cause and of Polish supremacy.

After World War II, Lwow became Lviv (or, in Russian, Lvov) after the Soviet Union extended its borders far to the west. The Soviet authorities – who had no time for nationalism in Poland, a key satellite state, or in Ukraine, a key republic – deliberately neglected and in 1971 bulldozers flattened much of the cemetery. But for Poles, the graveyard remained a symbol and in 1989, in the era of glasnost introduced by the Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, the Soviet authorities began to protect the site from further ravages.

After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Poland swiftly recognized Ukraine as an independent state. An opportunity for reconciliation seemed to open up and, in 1994, the Ukrainian and Polish governments agreed to rebuild the cemetery. However, as the years passed, the disputes seemed to increase, rather than decrease. The problem – in essence, how to commemorate Polish fighters who fought Ukrainians and ultimately helped foil the idea of an independent Ukrainian state – centered on the inscription on the cemetery’s main monument. In 1997, Ukrainian officials halted renovation work on the cemetery, arguing that the Polish-only inscriptions on the graves glorified the Polish past by saying the Polish soldiers died heroically. In 2000, the city council suggested alternative wording, reading simply (in Ukrainian as well as Polish): "For the unknown Polish soldiers who died for Poland in 1918-1920." Polish officials refused to step down, demanding the word "heroically" be re-inserted, as the Polish and Ukrainian governments had agreed. However, Lviv’s city council stood firm, forcing Poland’s President Aleksander Kwasniewski to cancel the re-opening of the cemetery.

His Ukrainian counterpart, Leonid Kuchma, blamed the impasse on local officials, apologizing to Kwasniewski for the delay.


Despite Kuchma’s stance, many commentators believe it was the defeat of Kuchma’s supporters in Ukraine’s Orange Revolution, in December 2004, that ultimately made reconciliation possible. In an interview for the Polish daily Gazeta Wyborcza, the Ukrainian historian Bohdan Osadczuk argued that “without the Orange Revolution … the controversies [about history] would still be dragging on. Since then, new values and new possibilities have emerged.”

Echoes of past disputes emerged just days before the ceremony, when a nationalist member of the Ukrainian parliament, Oleh Tiahnybok, managed to persuade fellow MPs to pass a resolution calling for the ceremony to be cancelled until the Polish words on the monument were removed. Yushchenko and his prime minister, Yulia Tymoshenko, persuaded parliament to annul the resolution on 23 June.

After years of debates in which single words could often cause nationwide controversies, the final inscription says straightforwardly (in Ukrainian as well as Polish): “Here lie Polish soldiers who fell for their homeland.”

In another corner of the cemetery lie the bodies of some of the Ukrainians whom they killed during the struggle for Lviv, a point highlighted in his speech by President Yushchenko. "This cemetery holds the remains of former fellow students, schoolchildren, neighbors and relatives,” he said. “Some of them [fought under] the Ukrainian trident, others under the Polish eagle. One people's defeat never was another people's victory.”

The opening ceremony itself attracted thousands, most of them Poles, and was broadcast live on Radio Polonia, Poland’s national broadcaster. The local press in Lviv, though it described the event as a crowning moment in efforts to bring the two nations together, also indicated that it was more of a Polish ceremony than a Ukrainian or joint Polish-Ukrainian event. Still, Ukrainian papers welcomed the official stance of the Polish government, that the event could not be seen as anyone’s victory. “Peace, not truce” was one Lviv daily’s summary of the importance of the occasion. Polls revealed 75 percent of Lviv inhabitants welcomed the ceremony.

Though the ceremony marks the symbolic start of a new partnership between Poland and Ukraine, in Ukraine as a whole the response was muted. That may partly be because the start of the real partnership came late last year, when Poland was in the vanguard of international efforts to mediate in the revolution that brought Yushchenko to power. The rationale for Poland’s engagement during the Orange Revolution was echoed in Lviv by Yushchenko, who said that "there can be no free Poland without a free Ukraine, and there can be no free Ukraine without a free Poland."

Warsaw swiftly dubbed 2005 the Year of Ukraine, arranging a range of events to bring the two countries together. But Poland’s most important, self-appointed role since December has been to act as Ukraine’s main advocate as it seeks to gain membership of the European Union.

Poland’s own admission to the EU in May 2004 has affected day-to-day contacts between Poles and Ukrainians, obliging Ukrainians to apply for visas to enter Poland. However, both countries are anxious to prevent the border from becoming too sealed. Ukrainians can get Polish visas free of charge, while Poles can travel to Ukraine without visas. Lviv is a particularly popular destination.

Accession to the EU has also posed obstacles to cross-border trade, but economic ties between the countries are gaining rapidly in strength. In 2003, trade was greater than in any year since 1990, and in 2004 trade rose by another third, to $3 billion. Major new investments are also pending, with Ukrainians set to take over the Polish carmaker FSO and the steelmaker Huta Czestochowa. Alongside the United States, Poland is the biggest foreign investor in western Ukraine. There is plenty of scope for further investment. In total, Poland is estimated to have invested roughly $200 million in Ukraine, a fraction of the accumulated $8.8 billion in foreign direct investment that Ukraine has attracted. The volume of foreign investment in Ukraine is low by the standards of the region.


The cause of healing historical rifts has also recently been taken up by the institution with perhaps the greatest single cross-border influence, the Catholic Church. On 19 June, the leaders of the Polish Roman Catholic and Ukrainian Greek Catholic churches called for reconciliation. "Let us go beyond politics and history, beyond our religious denominations, even beyond our Polish and Ukrainian nationalities, and remember that, first of all, we are children of God,” Polish and Ukrainian bishops wrote in a letter read out to an audience of roughly 500 priests and chiefly intended to encourage parishioners to lay aside any animosity. The letter was expressly designed to echo a similar call for mutual forgiveness made by German and Polish bishops in the 1960s.

The Ukrainian Greek Catholic Church – also known as the Uniate Church – follows the rites of the Eastern Orthodox Church but recognizes the Catholic pope in Rome as its head.

For historian Bohdan Osadczuk, settling the controversy about the Eaglets Cemetery is a watershed. “The question of the cemetery is the last unresolved problem of our historic disputes and the whole issue is now coming to an end,” he told Gazeta Wyborcza. In recent years, there have been similar acts of reconciliation on a number of thorny issues. In 2002, Poland expressed “regret” over a post-war resettlement program, known as Operation Vistula, in which Poland’s communist government uprooted roughly 150,000 Ukrainians and Lemkos from southeastern Poland and settled them in northern and western areas formerly populated by Germans. In 2003, Kwasniewski and Kuchma commemorated the killing in the Volhynia region of many thousands of Poles by Ukrainian forces fighting for an independent Ukraine during World War II.

A number of sore points in the 20th-century history of Poland and Ukraine remain outstanding. The hope now, though, is that these issues will now become a focus of attention for historians rather than politicians. First, however, Poland may need to live up to its promise to help renovate and reopen graveyards of Ukrainian soldiers in Poland. There are many of them, though none as controversial as the Eaglets Cemetery, and efforts to improve their condition have only really begun to make headway in recent years.

Source: Transitions on Line


Rob said…
During Cold War polish patriots, intelectuals discussed the border issues of future free Poland. With time it was recognized and generally accepted that Poland should agree with its new Stalin imposed borders and not to strugle to get back to the pre II WW map. The support for free Ukraine was thus declared and hence "There is no free Poland withut free Ukraine" slogan. When opposition to communists took the power in 1989 this logic was adopted as valid for Poland foreign policy.
Poland was the first country to recognize Ukraine's independence.
Nicholas said…
The issue of the Polish cemetery has been a thorn in both countries sides for the last 14 years.

I am glad to see that President Yushchenko took the initiative and settled this matter.

Poland is one of the best friends Ukraine has and can also act as a buffer between Kiev and Moscow.