Dr. Marek Jan Chodakiewicz gave a lecture on February 27 at The Institute of World Politics on false World War II narratives circulated by Russian propaganda. Dr. Chodakiewicz serves as The Kosciuszko Chair in Polish Studies at The Institute of World Politics and teaches courses on Geography and Strategy, Contemporary Politics and Diplomacy, Russian Politics and Foreign Policy, and Mass Murder Prevention in Failed and Failing States. He holds a Ph.D. from Columbia University and is the author of Intermarium: The Land Between the Black and Baltic Seas along with numerous other books and articles.
Dr. Chodakiewicz began his lecture by claiming that Russian propaganda is nothing new and that disinformation is a common practice in Russia. He told the story of an alleged interview with a German general that was published on a website run by a frequent contributor to Russia Today. Pieces from that interview began to reappear on other websites blaming Poland for causing WWII. However, the general who gave the supposed interview did not exist. Dr. Chodakiewicz stated that the Russian government and Vladimir Putin have an image of themselves that they want others to believe, so they use the truth as a springboard to further lies in their various propaganda campaigns. Most recently, in December of 2019, Putin suggested that Poland colluded with the Nazis during WWII to kill Jews and Soviets. U.S. Ambassador to Poland, Georgette Mosbacher, responded to these claims in a tweet clarifying that Hitler and Stalin colluded to start WWII and that Poland was a victim of the horrible conflict, not the initiator of WWII.
In his lecture, Dr. Chodakiewicz described the ongoing historical feud between Poland and post-Soviet Russia that has to do with the fundamentals of history. According to the Kremlin’s narrative, WWII started when Germany attacked innocent and neutral mother Russia on June 22, 1941. Russian citizens were wronged and victimized, and they suffered staggering losses. However, they rebounded and defeated fascism, saving the world from its menace, and liberated countries under Nazi control.
Poland refused to fall in line with this narrative and thus triggered Russian ire because the legacy of the post-Soviet empire rests on the Soviet victory in WWII. Moscow has been running on the fumes of that triumph since the implosion of the USSR in 1992. Dr. Chodakiewicz explained that Poland is thus threatening the grip that the Kremlin has on its own citizens. Putin is in denial about Stalin’s pact with Hitler and pretends not to know that the USSR invaded Poland jointly with Germany, initiating mass arrests, deportations, and executions. According to Dr. Chodakiewicz, Stalin did not liberate anyone as he claims because to liberate means to make free, and Stalin did not free those enslaved by Hitler but instead re-enslaved them.
Dr. Chodakiewicz suggested that this narrative has been perpetrated so strongly by Russia because it is the one moment of hope in an otherwise depressing history, and Putin wants to take advantage of that hope. According to Dr. Chodakiewicz, this narrative has duped Westerners and the domestic population of Russia for nearly seventy years and has fed into an anti-Polish prejudice. Dr. Chodakiewicz suggested that Westerners accept the Kremlin’s narrative because of their own shame of abandoning Poland to fight Hitler and Stalin and then selling them out to Stalin during the Tehran Conference. To reconcile this problem, Dr. Chodakiewicz believes that the West must admit that, before and during WWII, humanity had two enemies: Hitler and Stalin. One of those was destroyed, while the other was overlooked. Until that is accepted, Dr. Chodakiewicz believes that Putin will continue to feed off of the West’s neglect and spread the Kremlin’s disinformation.
Dr. Chodakiewicz then answered a series of questions from audience members about the topic of Russian propaganda. In response to a question on what Russia is trying to accomplish by spreading disinformation, Dr. Chodakiewicz responded that they are trying to create chaos because they see it as a game. Perhaps they are hoping for the disintegration of the United States, but, more importantly, disinformation is simply how they operate.
Following a question on how influential Russian influence is on Polish politics, Dr. Chodakiewicz explained that Poland is extremely cautious of Russia and that perhaps Poland’s move toward populism is a response to communism as well as cultural imperialism by the EU. Dr. Chodakiewicz suggested that if the Bolshevik legacy is overcome in Russia, then there is hope. He believes that Russia needs to figure out how to operate in a post-Soviet world for there to be peace. Dr. Chodakiewicz acknowledged that Russia did perhaps suffer the most deaths in the 20th century but explained that it is difficult to tally because of the multiplicity of ethnicities that make it difficult to decide to which countries to attribute deaths. However, many of those deaths were caused by Stalin, so it is much easier for Russia to blame Poland than look at its own checkered past.
In response to a question about with whom Poland should engage, Dr. Chodakiewicz explained that Poland has not had a very successful or cohesive policy toward Russia, but that they also have had trouble with Germany and France, which are not as traditionalist as Poland.
In a final question about the Three Seas Initiative, Dr. Chodakiewicz suggested that the Polish government has done a relatively good job and that it makes sense for countries like Poland from the Baltic to the Adriatic seas to work together on this.