Putin's letter to the Poles

An apology that comes too late is likely to exacerbate rather than end a quarrel. Thus Vladimir Putin's letter to the Poles – in which he appears to unreservedly apologise for the fact that in September 1939 the Soviet Union was allied with Nazi Germany – has not been received with either gratitude or appreciation. On the contrary, by suggesting that the Soviet Union had made its full contribution to the ultimate defeat of the common enemy, the Russian PM's remarks have been interpreted as an underhand excuse. Even his admission that Polish officers were massacred at Katyn has not satisfied the Polish public.

This is not the first time that a Russian politician has referred to controversial historic events of the second world war. Back in the 80s, former president Mikhail Gorbachev broke with the previous Soviet policy of refusing to make any reference to the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and made a commitment that the "blank spaces" in Soviet history would be investigated. Why is it though that the Poles feel that not enough had been done and why has Putin's letter been greeted with bewilderment rather than being seen as an act of reconciliation?

The first reason for the Polish response lies in the fact that Putin had implied that the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact was the final act on the road to war. He has skillfully raised the issue of the Munich agreement and the fact that at that time Poland collaborated with Nazi Germany in destroying Czechoslovakia. He then equated the Katyn crime to the fate of the Soviet prisoners of war captured by the Poles in 1920. Neither fact is incorrect, but it is debatable that historic events can be cancelled out by presenting a balance sheet.

The second and more important reason is that 1 September is seen in Poland as a beginning of its enslavement, first under Nazi domination and then, after the war, to Soviet domination. 1 September is a time of grieving. One can't really expect Poles to see this as a date for reflection on the shortcomings of their own governments' policies in 1939 and subsequently. Thus Putin has on the one hand accepted that the Soviet Union was wrong, but he has also publicly reminded the Poles that they too have to address some unsavoury moments in Poland's history. The fact that he spoke of the Russian people being victims of both Stalinism and of Nazism has done little to soothe Polish anger.

Polish-Russian relations might improve in due course, in particular because most politicians agree that the letter contains positive suggestions for the opening of a dialogue on the basis of a partnership, something Poles have been trying to do since the fall of communism.

If the thaw is slow that will be because victimhood is a role the Poles have liked to play and no one does it better than President Lech Kaczyński, who needs to improve his standing if he is to win the forthcoming election. He will win votes by playing the strong patriotic card to an audience bewildered by Putin's suggestion that Poles might also investigate their recent past. This is not a president known for his oratorical finesse, nor for his skills in the conduct of foreign policy. True to form, Kaczynski opened with a speech at the Westerplatte commemorations this morning, declaring that Poland has no reason to apologise.

If any lesson can be drawn from this interesting exchange it is that foreign policy cannot be played out in public. Since both the Soviet Union and Poland were victims of the second world war further exchanges are of little use. Both sides are referring to historic facts, but they are interpreting them in their own way and with an eye on their own constituencies.

Anita Prazmowska, professor in international history at the London School of Economics.