The Soviet Military Cemetery in Warsaw
The day after Christmas I happened to be in Warsaw on my way to Ukraine and didn’t have much time. But I decided to visit a place that has haunted me since my first time there in March 2022. A place as cold and uncheery as I’ve ever witnessed. Soviet Realism is the manner of architecture and the monuments are reminders of Russia’s idealized history. It was meant to keep its former bloc in line including Poland and Ukraine. A place designed to mythologize the term: “Invincible Red Army”. Over two years Ukraine has certainly punctured that fairy tale.
I’m talking about the Soviet Military Cemetery in Warsaw; final resting place to the ashes of 21,000 Soviet soldiers from the battle for Warsaw as the Red Army marched to Berlin. I went back to see if there was any more love for the place at Christmas, which might also reflect a bit of love for Russia.
It was no different. Not a single wreath. No poinsettias. Not a single string of lights. Just a forlorn miserable place with an occasional straggler taking a shortcut home. I suppose the twilight added to the miserableness; it made the towering red starred obelisk doubly dark. This to me seems like a pretty good metaphor for how the former Soviet satellites – like Poland - are reacting to Russia’s war in Ukraine. They get what’s at stake.
A short video of the cemetery in March 2022. It looked identical at Christmas 2023.
Germany’s blitzkrieg through Poland in 1939 was the real beginning of WWII. It included a devastating siege and bombing of Warsaw – with the acquiescence of Stalin and his infamously dirty deal with Hitler to partition Poland with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. Russia invaded from the east in September 1939, two weeks after Nazi Germany invaded from the west.
Which gets to the heart of why there is no love for the Russians…or their graveyard. Because the only reason the Red Army had to retake Warsaw in the first place was because Stalin gave it away. Of course, Hitler invaded Russia less than two years later after marching through the rest of Poland.
Let’s face it, when you make deals with autocrats, dictators, and tyrants, be ready for them to turn on you. Something we need to be cognizant of in this election cycle.
Zelensky recognizes this “Stalinesque” core in Putin. So does the West.
None more so than the former Warsaw Pact countries that the Iron Curtain fell on at the end of the war giving rise to NATO and the Cold War. Czechoslovakia, East Germany, Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia, Hungary, and Poland are all former Soviet bloc countries that regained their independence with the fall of the Soviet Union some 30 plus years ago. None were forced to join. All of them have citizenries that wanted to be part of a free Europe, like Ukraine does. All of them had the choice to stick with Russia; none did.
Poland is at the heart of NATO’s shield against Putin and Russia’s expansionist nightmare. They have a vibrant economy, a welcoming people, and are a primary conduit for arms and ammunition to Ukraine. They are a shining example right next door for Ukrainians and have much shared history over a millennium, not always on the same side. They are making sacrifices without whom Ukraine would have little chance to win.
The Poles see it as an existential cause since a defeated Ukraine would mean a reconstituting, belligerent Soviet Union next door with a new Stalin in the form of Putin. This lays bare the possibility of millions more dead in Poland and Ukraine.
What would prevent it?