Still occupying their thoughts


Another anniversary I missed yesterday, in addition to the Che Execution Day (OK, I didn’t miss it; just was too busy tidying up the yard to blog about it on the day) was 407 years since the Polish troops entered the Moscow Kremlin, to stay there just over two years.

In fact, the Poles are the only nationality to have the distinction of having occupied Moscow not once but twice; first on their own in 1610-12 and then again two hundred years later in 1812 as a numerically significant contingent of Napoleon’s Grand Armee. Neither occupation was successful in the longer term for the Poles, but hey, unlike the Wehrmacht and many others we managed to actually get there and stay there; so there.

This is something that Russia has never forgotten and never forgiven. As a result and in return, the Russians have stayed in Warsaw with only minor interruptions for the three hundred years until 1989. For Poland it was a high price to pay for a couple of moments of fleeting martial glory. As Kamil Tchorek wrote in “Time” a few years ago:

1612 means little to the Anglophone world. But during the last time Vladimir Putin was president, it became enshrined in an annual Russian ritual. Few of us noticed. Now, after a constitutional feint in which he served as Prime Minister, Putin has returned as president, by remarkable coincidence, on the year’s 400th anniversary. We need to know why he thinks 1612 is sacred.

According to Kremlin mythology, 1612 is the year that the Russian people — rich and poor, town and country — united under a strong leader to rise up against foreign, heathen oppressors. The bad guys, the story goes, were an army of Poles that had occupied Moscow for two years. They had been sent by their fanatical king, who was intent on conquering and converting the entire space of Orthodox Russia to western culture, in the form of Roman Catholicism. A prince named Dmitri Pozharsky and a merchant named Kuzma Minin emerged as national heroes and chased off the Poles. A gentle, pious teenage boy named Mikhail Romanov was elected Tsar. His dynasty lasted 305 glorious years. Throughout this time, Russia celebrated 1612, the year of salvation from outsiders, each Nov. 4 as “Unity Day.” A suitable motto could have been: “Defeating outsiders together.”

Celebrating the rise of the Romanovs might have been a no-no under the communism (Lenin, after all, had the last tsar and his family exterminated to make a point), but Stalin’s anti-Polish animus is well attested historically (a Georgian, he has spent his entire political career trying to out-Russian the Russians). His favourite opera was Mikhail Glinka’s “Ivan Susanin” or “A Life for the Tsar”, a legendary story of a peasant who saves the first Romanov’s life by leading his Polish pursuers astray deep into the forest where they freeze to death. Curiously, the usually not very squeamish Stalin would always leave his box at the opera before the fateful scene, which after all he himself has reenacted in real life in 1940 in the Katyn Forest.

The Unity Day, however, has been back with a vengeance since 2005 as the main national holiday under Putin, whose one of the main hobbies is Pole-biting. In 1605, the Russian patriots accused a Polish-backed tsar “false Dimitri” of “homosexuality, spreading Roman Catholicism and Polish customs, and selling Russia to Jesuits and the Pope”. I have a feeling that four centuries on, and Russia’s current rulers would endorse the sentiment wholeheartedly.