The Corner

The Inconvenience of History

The illicit placement of statues in public places is not behavior to be encouraged, but the reaction of both the Russian and Polish authorities described in this story is worth noting.

Der Spiegel reports:

The brief appearance of a concrete sculpture in Gdansk last Saturday depicting a Red Army soldier raping a pregnant woman has sparked ire on both the Polish and Russian sides. Now the artist could be facing two years in prison. He wanted to depict the tragedy and “the whole suffering” of rape victims. But now Jerzy Bohdan Szumczyk is facing up to two years in prison. Prosecutors have launched an investigation into a possible charge of inciting racial or national hatred against the 26-year-old artist, even though his concrete sculpture was only in place for one night. It was erected without permission in the northern port city of Gdansk next to a Soviet tank, a communist-era memorial to Red Army soldiers who liberated the city from Nazi forces in 1945. The reason for the heated reaction is the theme of Szumczyk’s life-sized sculpture: It shows a soldier — identifiable as Russian by his helmet — kneeling between the legs of a heavily pregnant woman lying on the ground. He is holding her hair in his left hand as he puts a pistol into her mouth with his right. The title of the piece, “Komm, Frau,” is a German phrase meaning “Come, woman.”

Police removed the sculpture just a few hours later — but the deed had already been done. According to the English-language Moscow Times, Russia’s ambassador in Warsaw, Alexander Alexeyev, said he was “deeply outraged” and that Szumczyk had “defiled by his pseudo-art the memory of 600,000 Soviet servicemen who gave their lives in the fight for the freedom and the independence of Poland.” Alexeyev also called for an “appropriate reaction” from Polish authorities.

Let’s start with Ambassador Alexeyev and his comment that the Soviet dead “gave their lives in the fight for the freedom and the independence of Poland”. Notwithstanding the bravery and the sacrifice of so many Soviet soldiers, this is an interpretation of the past  that would have surprised many Poles at the time, not least the members of the awkwardly independent-minded Home Army (Armia Krajowa), left by the Soviets to battle the Germans alone—and to die— in Warsaw in 1944. And the tragedy of that army—quite a few of whose members ended up in the Gulag—did not end there.

The Soviets eventually rid Poland of the Germans, and redrew the country’s borders (adding formerly German territory to Poland’s west and north-east, but keeping for themselves the slices of eastern Poland that they had taken—with Hitler’s support— in 1939).  To be sure, Poles in the communist republic lived far, far better they would have done under continued Nazi rule, but this is a horrifically low bar: to suggest that postwar Poland had regained “freedom and independence” is nonsense.

The behavior by the Polish authorities also seems, to say the least, heavy-handed. There is no serious doubt that the Red Army’s push west was accompanied by a great wave of atrocity, including mass rape (tellingly, the Russian parliament has recently considered making it a crime to point out such inconvenient truths) and that fact deserves to be remembered, so why talk of a possible two years in jail? Could it be that a significant part of the sculptor’s offense was, so far as Polish prosecutors are concerned, naming the statue ‘Komm, Frau’, an unavoidable reminder of the fact that today’s Polish Gdansk was then the predominantly German Danzig.

History is difficult. It should not be criminal. 

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