Erica Glenn: People in Poland know that Putin’s aggression may not stop with Ukraine

There is still a memory of how Russia claimed to ‘free’ Poland from the Nazis.

Warsaw • “I just bought my first gun,” she told me. “I’m trained in the use of firearms, too. Many of us in Poland are now. If a Russian soldier breaks into my home, ready to kill me, I will be the one to survive.”

I had this unsettling conversation on a sunny day in Warsaw with a Polish friend near my own age. She is one of the most intelligent, level-headed people I know. She works as a software engineer. She also understands the history of her country and is grappling with a very justified fear of Russian aggression.

When my friend saw images and read accounts of Ukrainian women being raped and killed she, like many Poles, experienced a kind of PTSD. No, her generation didn’t live through World War II, but they heard first-hand stories from their grandparents. They didn’t witness the Warsaw Uprising, but they know Russians provoked violence and then stood on one side of the Vistula River while 166,000 Poles were slaughtered on the opposite bank.

In Poland, a countrywide fear of abandonment seems to have developed in response to World War II. Poles walks through cities like Gdansk, which rose from the ashes of obliteration, and they remember how the Red Army came to “free” Poland from the Nazis but instead razed entire cities to the ground.

“We don’t have the luxury of ignoring what is happening in Ukraine,” my friend told me. “We know the Russian narrative — total destruction disguised as liberation from ‘Nazis.’”

The reception of Ukrainian refugees in Poland has been remarkable. Four days after war broke out, Polish laws were revised to allow Ukrainians to enter without a passport, a visa or even a COVID test. Almost everywhere the Polish flag flies, a Ukrainian flag flies next to it. Many stores still offer discounts to Ukrainians.

Our city guide in Warsaw told me, “We are trying to do for Ukraine what no one did for us during World War II.”

“When the war broke out, I was glued to the news for two weeks,” my friend said. “I had to take time off work. Those people could be us at any moment.”

“Really?” I asked. “But Poland is protected by the EU and NATO.”

“Is it?”

The question was genuine.

“The west has never forcefully challenged Russian expansionism — not in Abkhazia, not in Chechnya, not in South Ossetia, not in Crimea or Donetsk.”

Meanwhile, Russian cyberhackers and trolls continue to sow the seeds of political discontent throughout the western world.

“That’s their greatest tool — distorting information,” my friend told me.

She noticed Russian bots at work on social media during the earliest days of the war, and she decided to do something about it. During her free time, my friend now works as an anti-troll in a kind of unofficial Polish underground, trolling the Russian trolls. She flags posts, fights disinformation and pushes truthful information about the war to Russian civilians as best she can.

A man who escaped to Poland from Kyiv with his wife and children recently told me how terrifying it was to encounter Russian soldiers in Ukraine.

“They’ve been reduced to an animal state — dirty, angry, desperate for food. They’re eating dogs and cats. That’s what Putin has done to his own people.” His eyes filled with tears. “They’re destroying homes, stealing from the elderly — including my parents.”

His wife spoke of her concern for their daughters. “They clutch me in fear every time they hear a plane overhead. But they are grateful to be here in Poland. Everyone is so kind.”

I asked, “What’s next?”

They don’t know. I don’t know either. Even political experts and world leaders don’t know. Based on the many conversations I’ve had, many Poles think that Putin will allow the conflict to simmer for years — decades, maybe — while Russian forces regroup. At some point, they say, he’ll attack more viciously, invading countries like Poland, Belarus, or the Baltics.

Now that our newsfeeds are no longer flooded with war updates from Ukraine, it’s easy to forget that the course of nations is still being charted. But Poland doesn’t have the luxury of apathy, and phantoms of World War II have never really disappeared. As Americans, we could learn something from Poland’s response to the refugee crisis and its sober-minded view of the future.

If we think Putin’s aggression will end with Ukraine, we are deluding ourselves.

Erica Glenn

Erica Glenn, a graduate of Pleasant Grove (Utah) High School, has degrees from Longy Conservatory, Harvard and a doctor of musical arts degree from Arizona State University. A professor of music at BYU-Hawaii, she is a Fulbright Scholar to Ukraine and has lived there for extended periods since 2008. She was reassigned to Poland, where she volunteers in refugee centers. In March, she published a commentary in USA Today recounting her friend Anya’s miraculous escape from Mariupol.