On June 4, about half a million people marched into central Warsaw to protest against Poland’s governing Law and Justice party. The date marked 34 years of sustained Polish democracy.
Since coming to power in 2015, the conservative-nationalist Law and Justice party has been accused of subverting democracy by stacking the courts with sympathetic judges, seizing control of state media and targeting women’s reproductive rights. But what brought Polish people out to the streets — in the largest demonstration since the 1980s — was a new law that will set up a government commission to investigate alleged Russian influence in Poland between 2007 and 2022.
The proposed nine-member commission will have the power to investigate individuals suspected of being unduly influenced by the Kremlin, and hold open hearings into their conduct.
Opponents of the legislation argue that it is intended to punish opposition politicians ahead of pivotal parliamentary elections this fall. The legislation has been compared to McCarthyism, a purge of individuals suspected to be under socialist and communist influence in the U.S. in the 1940s and 1950s.
It’s not just Poles who are infuriated by the Russian influence law. It has also rattled allies in the United States and the European Union who have relied on Poland, a NATO member, to act as a key transit hub for military aid to Ukraine since early 2022. In a statement, the U.S. State Department said that the law “could be used to block the candidacy of opposition politicians without due process.” The EU, which was already in a bitter feud with Law and Justice over Poland’s democratic backsliding, took legal action against the Polish government, saying the commission violated EU law.
Perhaps in response to such criticism, Polish President Andrzej Duda proposed significant amendments to the law just days after signing the bill. Following parliamentary approval, current members of parliament will no longer be able to sit on the commission, and the commission will no longer be given the power to ban people from holding public office. An appeal process against the commission’s decisions will also be instituted. Still, opposition politicians argue that while the worst effects of the law have been mitigated, its undemocratic spirit remains intact, with opposition politicians being smeared as Putin’s puppets.
The proposed commission is an example of how the Polish government has used the fallout from the war in Ukraine to mask its undemocratic maneuverings at home. “We’re seeing two Polands, the good Poland, which is supporting Ukraine, and the bad Poland, which continues to demolish the rule of law,” said Jakub Jaraczewski, a research coordinator at Democracy Reporting International, a think tank in Berlin. “The war in Ukraine has allowed the Polish government to cast themselves as the good guys.”
Since Russia invaded Ukraine in 2022, the Law and Justice party has increased its standing on the world stage and cemented Poland as a European power. In February, U.S. President Joe Biden visited Warsaw, where he praised Poland for its staunch support for Ukraine and its commitment to democratic values. “Thank you, Poland,” he said, “Thank you, thank you, thank you for what you’re doing.”
One reason why Law and Justice continues to appeal to swaths of the Polish electorate is its successful redrafting of history to justify its illiberal agenda. By using the memory of malign Russian influence in Poland, the Polish government is casting itself as the country’s protector.
While the party evokes history and Russia’s war in Ukraine to justify controversial anti-democratic legislation, it has to tread carefully around another historical memory seared in the national psyche.
On July 11, Law and Justice will commemorate the 80th anniversary of the bloodiest day of the Volhynian massacres. Located in northwest Ukraine, Volhynia was once a part of Poland. Between 1943 and 1945, armed Ukrainian nationalists slaughtered whole villages full of Polish people in a bid to prevent a post-war Poland from asserting sovereignty over Ukrainian-majority regions. Over 50,000 Poles were murdered. In retaliation, Poles killed an estimated 10,000 Ukrainians.
The Volhynian massacres have hung over Polish-Ukrainian relations since the end of communist rule. While Poland declared Volhynia a genocide in 2016, consecutive Ukrainian governments have stood firm on their position that there is a need for reconciliation and forgiveness on both sides. Ukraine has always rejected the claim that the events in Volhynia were a genocide.
In March 2023, the head of the Ukrainian parliament, Ruslan Stefanchuk, said during a visit to Warsaw that Ukraine would work with Poland to accept “the truth, no matter how painful it may be.” It appeared to be a way forward for Poland and Ukraine. But, aware of national sensitivities, particularly in an election year, a spokesperson for Poland’s foreign ministry chastised the Ukrainian government soon after for failing to understand “that the issue of Volhynia is very important for Poles.” He went on to demand that Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy “should take more responsibility” and apologize for the massacres. Ukraine’s ambassador to Poland described the comments as “unacceptable” in tweets that were later deleted.
“There is a problem between Polish historical memory and Ukrainian historical memory about Volhynia,” Jan Pisulinski, a professor of history at Rzeszow University in eastern Poland, told me, referencing Ukrainian historians who claim that the massacres were not perpetrated by Ukrainian nationals but were instead peasant killings. “But,” he added, “the Law and Justice party’s so-called historical policy is disappointing because it is manipulative in how it serves the contemporary interests of the government.”
It is unlikely that the Polish government will soften its position as the anniversary approaches. It’s an occasion that will be watched by Russian propagandists who have previously used Volhynia to try to drive a wedge between Poland and Ukraine. Earlier this month, I met Marta, who was standing outside the Ukrainian embassy in central Warsaw to express solidarity following the June 6 blast that destroyed the Kakhovka Dam. She told me that in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, she didn’t believe the Volhynia massacres needed to be commemorated in the same way this year. “My grandfather,” she told me, “hated Ukrainian people because of Volhynia, but now we need to stand against Russia and leave the past in the past.”
The need to stand up to Russia, argue the Polish protestors who gathered in Warsaw in early June, cannot come at the cost of Poland’s hard-won democracy. At the protests, the people I spoke to expressed no fear of Russian influence, only anger toward the Polish government.
Grzegorz Schetyna, a former leader of Civic Platform, Poland’s main opposition party, told me that it was “key to stand together with other democratic opposition parties at this march.” He was confident that the momentum of the protests could be bottled and used to unify Poland’s traditionally chaotic opposition before the general election, which is expected to be held in October.
“We are going to these elections to win and to right human wrongs,” former Prime Minister Donald Tusk shouted into the loudspeaker under the searing sun that day. Tusk, critics say, is the primary target of the government’s urgent efforts to investigate “Russian influence” because he is the biggest threat to Law and Justice retaining power.
Despite the impressive turnout on June 4, not all the demonstrators were convinced it would be enough. “Poland is here,” Tusk said. “No one will silence us!” But Paul, a 71-year-old from Warsaw, told me he wasn’t so sure. “Support for the other side is too big,” he said with a shake of his head before disappearing into the crowd.