Ukrainians in Poland. Who is who?

It would be in the interest of the Ukrainian national minority to “place” its representatives in all major Polish political parties.

The Ukrainian minority in Poland had played a rather modest role until recently. Now, that first there has been an influx of economic migrants, then, since February – also of refuges, the situation may change dramatically.

Until a few years ago, according to the 2011 census, Poland was home to ca. 39 thousand Ukrainians or, better to say, Polish citizens of Ukrainian origin. But soon afterwards hundreds of thousands of migrants began to arrive in our country looking for jobs. According to an Office for Foreigners report from December 2021, the number of Ukrainian citizens with valid resident permits in Poland exceeded 300 thousand. Others would go to and fro, but the group of those willing to stay was growing. And, in recent years, a few thousand of them obtained Polish citizenship. These people want to be active, also in the social and political sphere.

Most probably there are about 2 million migrants. Most of whom express their willingness to return home. How many will stay in Poland for good? Estimations vary; in May, a National Bank of Poland report said that 16% percent, i.e. over 300 hundred thousand wish to stay. It means that that the number of Ukrainians living in Poland will increase to over half a million, for sure there will be more Polish passport holders.

Operation “Vistula” and its consequences

Before WW II Ukrainians constituted more than 15% of Polish citizens. But the war changed everything. The Polish-Soviet border was drawn on the rivers: Bug and San, thus dividing territories inhabited by both Ukrainians and Poles.

SIGN UP TO OUR PAGE Under the so-called repatriation many of our compatriots were resettled to Poland within its new, post-war boundaries. Likewise, numerous Ukrainians were displaced to USSR. There were several phases of “repatriation”. Over the first one, in the second half of 1944, Poland had been left by nearly 20 thousand Ukrainians, i.e. over 5 thousand families. Further three stages were held until 1946. Some of the “stubborn” inhabitants of south-eastern Poland were displaced with the forces of the “Rzeszów” Operational Group combined of 4 infantry divisions, Border Protection Troops, Internal Security Corps, militiamen as well as security service officers. All together during this operation 480 thousand people (122 thousand families) were subject to displacement.

However, in the Bieszczady Mountains there still were Ukrainians as well as Lemkos and Boykos (some of whom auto-defining as Ukrainians, others – as members of other nations). And the Ukrainian Insurgent Army (UPA) was active at that time. Hence the 1947 decision of the Central Committee of the Polish Workers’ Party to carry out forced resettlement to the so-called “Recovered Territories”. Besides, it is not impossible that it was the Kremlin leadership to have pulled the strings here. Of course, the then Polish Army could easily eliminate the UPA, which numbered 2.5 thousand men in the Bieszczady without resorting to resettlement but, let us repeat, the political decision had already been made. In total, ca. 140 thousand people were displaced.

As a result, Ukrainians may be encountered in Masuria, Western Pomerania and Lower Silesia. And that is why in Górowo Iławieckie (Warmińsko-Mazurskie Voivodship) there operate a bilingual, Polish-Ukrainian, complex of schools (including an upper-high school) as well a Greek Catholic church; Ukrainians constitute a significant group in town. Likewise in Biały Bór in the Zachodniopomorskie Voivodship – there too is a similar complex of schools, a Greek Catholic church as well as a huge monument – in form of a Taras Shevchenko head. There are also Polish-Ukrainian schools in Legnica, Bartoszyce (Warmińsko-Mazurskie Voivodship) as well as in Przemyśl. It shows the dispersion of the Ukrainian population.

In dispersion

Such dispersion resulted in the Ukrainian minority having had difficulty to self-organize and engage in political activity. In contrast to that the Belarusians in Podlaskie Voivodship constitute a cohesive group and maybe that’s why it is easier for them to elect their MPs – their representatives, as a rule, ran on left-wing lists (e.g. Edward Czykwin or Jan Syczewski) even if they were Orthodox activists.
1991 elections to the Sejm and Senate of the Republic of Poland. In the photo: Szczecin activists of the Association of Ukrainians in Poland at voting. Photo: PAP / Jerzy Undro
As for Ukrainians, on the other hand, to a large extent, the candidacy of their representatives to the Sejm and even provincial assemblies depended on the decision of a particular political party that was willing to accept them on its lists – with the awarness that first and foremost they had to win the votes of Poles. The best known of this group was Mirosław Czech (Freedom Union).

A good example of the Ukrainian minority’s involvement was the results of the local elections in 2010. 13 of its representatives were elected to powiat councils in the Pomorskie, Warmińsko-Mazurskie and Zachodniopomorskie voivodships, and 30 to commune councils. Six persons were elected to the office of the commune head or mayor, and moreover, Ukrainians served as starostas and deputy starostas in powiats inhabited by their dense communities.

All that shows the real strength of the Ukrainian minority in our country. Not more than one deputy to the Sejm, single councilors of voivodship assemblies and over forty powiat and commune councilors. However, if the number of Ukrainians with Polish citizenship increases, the situation may change dramatically.

History being most important?

Until 1956, nobody would say a word that there were any Ukrainians in Poland whatsoever. They were traumatized, scattered all over Poland, under surveillance of the secret police. Only then did the communist authorities allow them to establish the Ukrainian Socio-Cultural Society (Ukraińskie Towarzystwo Społeczno-Kulturalne – UTSK), and turned a blind eye to the actual functioning of the Greek Catholic Church (although without its own hierarchy). At the turn of the 1960s and 1970s, the Secret Service was hearing the “Ortodox” case, during which, among others, information was collected about the activities of the Greek Catholic clergy and the mood of the faithful. Nevertheless, between 1957 and 1980, 21 Greek Catholic priests were ordained.

In 1990, UTSK was transformed into the Association of Ukrainians in Poland (Związek Ukraińców w Polsce – ZuwP), headed by Mirosław Skórka (since 2021, previously it was Piotr Tyma). In fact, the only city in which Ukrainians lived also in a more distant past is Przemyśl – but for various reasons this city had also been a place of Polish-Ukrainian disputes for years, and on the Ukrainian side the Association acted as a party. Its efforts to take over the Ukrainian House (Narodnyy Dim), built with the contributions of Ukrainians in 1904, took a long time. It happened only in 2011.

The union’s activities (apart from Ukrainian minority’s living issues, matters of culture and education) largely concerned the most dramatic events in the history of Polish-Ukrainian relations. In 1995, the organization submitted to the Sejm a bill granting veteran rights to members of the UPA who were imprisoned during the Stalinist era. It also postulated that the Polish state should pay compensation to the victims of “Operation Vistula”. Apparently – Jan Żaryn wrote about it in “Rzeczpospolita” – ZUwP also asked the Institute of National Remembrance to recognize “Polish crimes committed by Poles against the Ukrainian nation for years”.

In 1995, an agreement was reached on the commemoration of Ukrainians who died in Poland – including members of the UPA. It was agreed that the memorial sites should be linked to the actual burial place, and the inscriptions on the slabs and monuments must be bilingual and not hurt Poles’ feelings. But in recent years, such places have been destroyed by unknown perpetrators. The union fought hard to restore them. All this meant that – perhaps unjustly – the Union of Ukrainians in Poland was associated primarily with the most difficult problems in our recent history.

Of course, ZUwP was not the only one. The Union of Podlasie Ukrainians, formed from a branch of the ZUwP, was active too; its emergence was the result of an internal conflict, but now both organizations are cooperating. Ukrainian magazines were published, inter alia the ZUwP’s organ “Our Word”. There was a Greek Catholic Church headed by Archbishop Eugeniusz Popowicz, but it had only over eighty clergymen, with the number of believers estimated at 55,000. However, it can be argued that all these organizations and structures were not prepared for the influx of thousands of migrants, let alone the war refugees.

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Migrants and refugees

Newcomers from Ukraine who wanted to work in Poland certainly did not think about getting involved in any activity other than earning money. Moreover, many of them came and went, then came back again. So it was difficult to talk about any permanent presence in Poland.

But it soon turned out that they would like to go to church on Sunday. The Orthodox had two churches at their disposal in Warsaw; a third has recently been established. Greek Catholics could go to the Basilians’ in Miodowa St. – or go to Przemyśl or other cities where there were churches of this rite. But instead of 55 thousand several hundred thousand people wanted to attend Greek Catholic masses... But there was support from the Roman Catholic Church and the creation of parishes by Catholic churches, also in Warsaw. And there is need to “import” clergymen from Ukraine.

The newcomers from across the eastern border also needed support and care. The Association of Ukrainians in Poland was not prepared for this – both in terms of the number of activists, as well as in terms of housing or financial resources. A legitimate question arose whether the ZUwP – an organization of a national minority - will also become a representative of economic migrants? Will it also “manage” those who decide to stay in Poland permanently?

If so, it is only partially. Yes, Ukrainians began to join the Association – visitors from across the eastern border, they were even entrusted with various functions. ZUwP began to open up to people other than its members: those born and raised east of the Bug and San, for whom Operation Vistula was not a personal experience of their parents and grandparents, but a story known only from books.

At the same time, however, completely new organizations began to emerge – usually it was foundations. The “Our Choice” Foundation was established in 2009, as it informs – “by Ukrainians and their Polish friends to work for the benefit of Ukrainian migrants in Poland, to help them integrate into the Polish society and Polish culture, and to familiarize Poles with the Ukrainian culture”. Its aim is “to help integrate Ukrainian migrants into Polish society, to support the development of cultural, educational, economic and political contacts between Poland and Ukraine, and to promote democratic values and civil society”. The president of the foundation is Myrosława Keryk, a historian and sociologist by profession, project coordinator at the Institute of Philosophy and Sociology of the Polish Academy of Science, editor-in-chief of the “Nash Wybir” monthly.

Another large organization is “Foundation Ukraine” based in Wrocław, presenting itself as an “open platform for education and integration”, operating since 2013 “with people and for people in the authentic multicultural atmosphere of Wrocław”. The president of the board is Artem Zozulya, economist, in 2014-22 head of the Honorary Consulate of Ukraine in Wrocław. “Foundation Ukraine” has the largest number of employees: at the office but also at the Institute of Migrant Rights and the Center for Ukrainian Culture and Development.
In turn, the “Zustrich Foundation” (“zustrich” meaning “encounter”) operates in Krakow. Its president is Anna Petiurenko, IT lecturer. These organizations do not compete with the Association of Ukrainians in Poland - their offer is simply different.

Ukrainians in politics

The symbol of changes in the Ukrainian environment in Poland was the appearance of Myrosława Keryk's candidacy in the elections to the Sejm in 2019. Although she was given only the 38th place on the list of the Civic Coalition in the Warsaw district No. 19, it was a kind of demonstration showing that a person born in Ukraine can also participate in Polish politics.

It is worth saying as an aside that although people of Ukrainian nationality were and are also present on the right, the reluctance of some activists to Ukraine and Ukrainians (let us add – in the period before the Russian aggression on Ukraine) directed Ukrainians rather towards other sides of the political scene. These, in turn, took advantage of it.

Objectively speaking, it would be in the interest of the Ukrainian national minority (and people of Ukrainian origin in general) to “place” its representatives in all major Polish political parties. This is the case, for example, among Poles in Ukraine. Those few who engaged in politics chose to cooperate with groups very much differing one from another, obviously with the exception of extremely nationalist ones.

The ongoing war in Ukraine may but doesn’t have to change the political sympathies of Polish Ukrainians. However, as there are more Polish citizens of Ukrainian nationality, there will also be people of Ukrainian origin who are interested in Polish politics. And this is what our political parties should prepare for. Because in a few years it may turn out that on a national scale it’s “worth” not over a dozen, but several hundred thousand votes.

– Piotr Kościński
–translated by Dominik Szczęsny-Kostanecki

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and jornalists

Main photo: Celebrations on the occasion of the Independence Day of Ukraine on August 24, 2022 at Castle Square in Warsaw. Photo: PAP / Piotr Nowak
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