Lord Hannan of Kingsclere is a Conservative peer, writer and columnist. He was a Conservative MEP from 1999 to 2020, and is now President of the Initiative for Free Trade.
Fyodor Dostoyevsky set parts of his magnum opus, The Brothers Karamazov, in the Optina monastery near the small town of Kozelsk. Here, his characters debated the book’s fundamental questions.
How can a benevolent God have created a world full of horrors? Then again, in what sense – other than by religious criteria – can they definitively be said to be horrors? How, in short, is any morality possible without God?
In April 1940, in the same monastery, Dostoyevsky’s questions found a grisly non-fictional answer. Optina was used as a base by Stalin’s security agency, the NKVD. Being Communists, they had been taught that leaving behind the superstition and flummery of Christianity would allow them to make rational judgments – not least about the value of human life.
This reasoning led them to condemn 21,892 army officers, priests and intellectuals who had been arrested following the USSR’s invasion of Poland the previous year.
The captured Poles, many of whom were held at Kozelsk, had proved unwilling to adopt a properly Soviet outlook. They kept their uniforms too tidy, and continued to observe military rank in captivity. Local peasants recalled that their very bearing made them stand out.
They had insisted on celebrating Christmas in their prison camps. Early in 1940, Lavrentiy Beria, Stalin’s gruesome security chief, decided to eliminate them and, as was his way, decreed a target number to be shot.
When the time came, the Poles climbed trustingly into their buses, thinking they were being sent home. It simply did not occur to them that they might be murdered without judicial process. One officer, Adam Solski, kept a diary which ended abruptly: “They asked about my wedding ring, which I…”
He and his comrades were driven into the Katyn forest and shot in batches.
The annihilation of Poland’s military, civil and ecclesiastical leaders was hushed up by the Soviet authorities. By the time evidence reached the West, Hitler had invaded the USSR, and no one wanted to hear about abominations committed by their new allies.
For years, the crime went unacknowledged. But on the seventieth anniversary, 10 April 2010, Vladimir Putin invited Poland’s leaders to a commemoration at the site of the massacre.
They never made it. In heavy fog, their plane crashed in the forest outside the nearby town of Smolensk, killing Lech Kaczyński, the President, his wife Maria, the Chief of General Staff, the President of the National Bank, the leadership of the governing PiS party, including several ministers, and various senior army officers and clergymen.
Once again, in the same place and on the same date, Poland lost its military, civil and ecclesiastical leaders.
Last Sunday, the twelfth anniversary of the Smolensk catastrophe, I led a delegation of Conservative MPs and peers to place wreaths at memorials for the victims and attend a commemorative Mass in Warsaw, along with Poland’s President and Prime Minister and the Ukrainian ambassador.
Afterwards, we walked with the congregation, joined by a huge throng outside the church, to hear a speech by the slain president’s identical twin, Jarosław, who is technically Deputy Prime Minister but who, as leader of the PiS, is the chief force in Poland’s government.
I can only imagine what it must be like to lose a twin. Norris McWhirter, whose twin brother Ross was murdered by the IRA, once told me: “It’s not bereavement; it’s amputation”.
From his chilly outdoor podium, Kaczyński repeated his charge that the Smolensk disaster had been a planned Russian assassination. He told the crowd that only force would contain the bandit regime in the Kremlin and that, if Ukraine fell, Latvia and Lithuania would follow.
I tell you all this because I think it puts Poland’s response to the Ukrainian calamity in context. I hope Polish readers will forgive me if I observe that, by and large, Poles are not a light-hearted people; but, by Heaven, they know how to rise to a challenge.
We Tory parliamentarians were there as part of a five-day visit, distributing aid to Ukrainian refugees and building a playground for orphans who had been moved en masse to a new facility in Pomerania when the war began. The work was organised through Project Maja, which runs Conservative social action initiatives overseas.
It was our tenth project, and I want to thank the parliamentarians who gave up a slice of their recess: Amanda Solloway, Tom Randall, Natalie Elphicke, James Wild and Baronesses Evans of Bowes Park and Hodgson of Abinger.
We were awe-struck at the unfussy professionalism with which Poland has taken in 2.6 million refugees. Schools have expanded and laid on Polish-language lessons. Newspapers are printing Ukrainian editions. Mobile phone operators are giving away data. Owners of Airbnbs are opening their premises, business consortiums offering free hotel rooms.
More than once, I found myself wondering whether Britain would have coped in the same way. It’s not that I doubt the generosity of our people, who are queuing up to open their homes.
Rather, I doubt the capacity of our bureaucracy. Refugee centres would be closed because they were not Covid-compliant, hosts rejected on grounds that they hadn’t completed their DBS checks, foster parents required to do diversity training. If that sounds far-fetched, look at the spectacular failure of the Home Office to process visas.
Poles have little time for such niceties. History has taught them the value of self-reliance, which is why they sympathise so deeply with their Ukrainian neighbours.
We remember Poland as the only European ally that was on our side from the beginning of the Second World War to the end. But, from Poland’s point of view, that alliance worked only one way. Polish servicemen fought at our side in Norway, at Dunkirk, in North Africa, at Monte Casino, in the Normandy landings, at Arnhem and on the high seas.
But we were in no position to return the favour when their homeland was twice overrun.
Unsurprisingly, Poles see the Ukrainian cause as their own; indeed, as the cause of everyone who believes in national independence. In pursuit of that same cause, they recently declared that Polish law was supreme over EU law on their own soil – a dispute that has resulted in Brussels fining them a million euros a day even as they accommodate the displaced Ukrainians.
I am not trying to make a point-scoring Eurosceptic argument. Ukraine, after all, has asked to join the EU, albeit in very particular circumstances.
No, my point is a wider one. The war began because Ukraine insisted on being a fully sovereign state. Poles recognise that sentiment. Nationhood, for so long treated as a swear-word in European circles, is again proving its worth as the chief antidote to tyranny.
We declared war in 1939, not because we had been attacked, but in order to defend the sovereignty of a friendly state. We failed. Poland was occupied by the Red Army for 45 years – though we continued, at least, to host the government in exile.
Patriotism was the force that inspired us to defend the cause of all nations, that led to the defeat of Nazism and, eventually, of Soviet communism, too. The nation-state remains the most secure container for liberty. Poles know it. So, I think, do we.