Are Russians and Poles poles apart?

Poland and Russia are looking across their borders and asking - what's wrong with this relationship? Every now and then new tensions occur: like the beating up of Russian teenagers in Warsaw, followed by similar attacks on Polish citizens in Moscow, or the recent ban on Polish exports of agricultural products to Russia. Radio Polonia asks whether official propaganda and political decisions are pushing Poles and Russians apart.

It is not a rule, but two or three times a year, some kind of diplomatic spat occurs between Poland and Russia. Last summer, Russian teenagers, children of Russian diplomats, were beaten up and robbed in Warsaw. What was described by this country as an act of hooliganism became headline news interpreted by all media in Russia as an example of anti-Russian prejudice. Russia's president Vladimir Putin even made a statement about the incident. Yet, a public opinion poll conducted in Russia soon after the attack, and similar assaults on Polish citizens residing in Moscow, showed that Russians did not believe the Poles are anti-Russian, and that their general attitude is more positive than the official stance might suggest. Dmitrij Polikanov, sociologist of the institute that carried out the research.

"The attitude of Russia towards Poland is mostly neutral. Positive assessments are higher than negative assessments. What we see also is that people now perceive Poland as a normal European country. So, for them when they look into the past they see again more positive events, like Poland was our ally during World War Two or Poland was within the Warsaw Pact. They mostly gave us the names of Anna German and Edyta Piecha. These are two singers very popular in the Soviet times. Some people remembered President Kwasniewski, others, I think, even the Romantic poet Adam Mickiewicz."

It cannot be denied that Poles' attitude towards Russia - as a state - is less positive than the Russians' attitude towards Poland. This can, at least partially, be attributed to a stormy, but distant history as well as the post-war domination of the Soviet Union over Poland. Yet it is true, too, that both nations know relatively little about each other. Journalist for the Russia Profile monthly Dmitrij Babicz:

"Both people and authorities know about Poland very little. There was very little contact in the last 15 years. There is not much Russian business in Poland. And in Russia in the Nineties there was almost no information about Poland. When we meet in private there is always absolute understanding. It should not be Russians against Poles, or Poles against Russians. It should be Russians and Poles against, for example, incompetent politicians, who tried to use anti-Polish or anti-Russian card."

Middle-aged and older Poles will naturally know more about Russia than their Russian counterparts, as in their youth they were forced to learn about it at schools. But to check how much contemporary Russians know about Poland, and whether the findings of the opinion poll mentioned earlier are indeed true, I spoke to this gentleman in a canteen in Moscow.

We asked this ordinary citizen in a canteen in Moscow what springs to mind when he hears the name Poland or Polish people:

"I'd say neutral. It's just one of the many countries surrounding Russia."

...and if you compare Poland with other neighbours?

"We used to say that there are these countries where they like us, like it was Bulgaria, it was Czechoslovakia. And people often said: well, the Poles don't like us. Poland, of course, has suffered a great deal from Russia, just like Russia also suffered from Poland. Yet, at the same time, I think, there's plenty in common between the two countries. In Ivan Susanin, Glinka's opera, the best places are the Polish dances and people go to watch it. And a lot of Polish actors, Polish singers - Maryla Rodowicz and think of Anna German - she's ours."

Do you think we really know not much about each other?

"No, I don't think so. I would say it's all politicians. I would blame them all for that."

But political closeness is what countries, and especially neighbours, need to develop. And Polish and Russian politicians are now trying to normalize relations. Moscow has promised to negotiate with Warsaw about the recent import ban on Polish agricultural products. Russia introduced the ban claiming that imports from Poland do not meet necessary health and safety standards. Both countries' foreign ministers agreed in Moscow last week that talks will be ongoing. And dialogue is definitely what both Poland and Russia need.