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Wednesday 8 February 2023 Dublin: 5°C
PA A girl wrapped in a Ukrainian flag takes part in a rally outside the Russian embassy last week in Warsaw, Poland.
# Anna Sochanska
Polish ambassador: Russian atrocities in Ukraine 'made me want to take up a gun and go fight'
Anna Sochańska has been the diplomatic representative in Ireland for the government of Poland since 2019.

THE POLISH AMBASSADOR to Ireland has said that Russian atrocities and war crimes in towns such as Bucha provoked her to consider taking up a gun “to go fight”.

Anna Sochańska has been the diplomatic representative in Ireland for the government of Poland since 2019.

She recently sat down with The Journal to discuss the war in Ukraine and its impact on the Polish people, the Polish community in Ireland and about the international dispute between the European Union and her right-wing Government at home.  

The career civil servant has a long history in Polish ministries, having started in Health before moving to Foreign Affairs where she focused on her country’s integration with the EU. 

We met the ambassador at her residence on Ailsbury Road in Dublin’s affluent leafy suburbs. 

At the gate the Polish flag flew at half mast to remember the 10 victims of the Creeslough tragedy – a Ukrainian flag was draped across the entrance gate.

In a wide-ranging discussion Sochańska recalled her college years in Warsaw where she wrote a thesis on life inside Auschwitz. In her answers she talks of World War Two and the national trauma suffered by her people at the hands of both Germany and Russia. 

“When I see the war in Ukraine, when I see women that are raped, children killed, I would like to take my gun and go and fight,” she declared.

Sochańska said her Government views the Russian invasion of Ukraine with the same seriousness as an invasion of Poland – and this view is informed by the behaviour of Russia during World War Two. 

“I think we see this war as our war as well, because we think that Ukrainians are also fighting for us, and for other people in Europe. 

“We have such a bad experience, in terms of the Soviet Union. In September of 1939, it was not only Germany who attacked Poland on the first of September, but also on the 17 September, it was the Soviet Union and they totally split the country.

“This is a bad experience for us, it’s a repetition of the Second World War.

“From my perspective it is like a movie that I’ve been watching, and I don’t believe I can see that movie again.

“I can see the outrageous behaviour of Russia. I don’t know if I should call them soldiers or Russian terrorists, torturers, rapists.

This has happened before in Poland, back in 1939, and later on, this kind of barbaric approach, meaning that you kill the people, but also you destroy everything you find on your way.

IMG_2672 Niall O'Connor / The Journal Polish Ambassador Anna Sochańska at the embassy residence in Dublin. Niall O'Connor / The Journal / The Journal

Sochańska said that the atmosphere in Poland towards the invasion has seen 70% of the population volunteer to provide assistance to Ukrainian refugees.  

The Journal saw this first hand on the Eastern Polish border at Przemysl and Medyka in March as a mammoth response was mounted by Government, charities and ordinary Polish people. 

Not surprised

The ambassador believes that the Polish people had predicted that Vladimir Putin could invade their neighbour. 

“On 24 February, we were shocked and devastated but we were not surprised. We were not surprised because we knew what we could expect from from Russia, because they have not changed, unfortunately.”

Sochańska said that the national trauma suffered during the occupation by Germany’s Nazis and the Soviet Union has left an indelible mark in how Poland now conducts international relationships.

She references the invasion of Germany and the treatment of the Polish Jewish community by the Nazis but also references the activities of Russia including the Katyn Forrest Massacre of military leaders and intellectuals.  

“I would rather say that we forgive you, but we do not forget. We cannot forget, forgive our past because it’s us. It’s our DNA.

Some people say, ‘Oh, you speak so much about history’. But then how can you forget that your grandfather died in Auschwitz or in Katyn or somebody killed your family or took your possessions away? You cannot forget it. So simple as that.

Sochańska said her country is ready to fight if the Russian conquest of Ukraine spills over into Poland.

Diplomatic relations 

When asked about Russian Ambassador Yury Filatov and the Russia Embassy in Ireland she was dismissive and said that there is little point engaging with him.

In a moment of insight she gave her opinion on meeting one of Putin’s most well-known acolytes – she met Putin’s spokesperson Dmitry Peskov during a conference for junior diplomats in the late 1990s. 

“I have met in my life, not many, but some Russian diplomats, including Dmitry Peskov. “It was back in 1997 and he was a general diplomat just like me and already then, when I spoke to him, he was so brainwashed.

“I met Russian diplomats, including Yury Filatov, before the war. So I spoke to him sometimes, but they are so brainwashed.”

It is not just Russia that Poland is in dispute with. The ambassador doesn’t spare her judgements when it comes to Germany. She said that it is not acceptable that the German Government refuses to pay her country reparations for World War Two. 

“The German context, it’s critically important. We were the only country that was not paid reparations whatsoever by Germany and these are very huge numbers it is 1.5 trillion US dollars.

“It’s not only about the loss of five million people, but also about the loss of artworks, GDP because we were occupied.

“The Polish Government compiled a report which we sent a diplomatic note to the Germans.

“They said that the chapter is closed, and we say, it is not closed, it’s not enough for us that you say that you are very sorry and you apologised. It’s not closed, we need to talk about it like to neighbours, because it’s also about reconciliation,” she explained.

Sochańska said that she pays particular attention to the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation and believes that there could be a model for Poland and Germany using the Irish experience as a way to solve the diplomatic dispute. 

“I think this is about the honest conversation between two neighbours, like in case of Poland and Germany, two members of the European Union, two members of NATO, two countries that have such a great economic output.

“I think it’s about proper dialogue with with partners, especially when it comes to the Second World War.”

we-annex-russian-embassy-rally-in-warsaw Aleksander Kalka A woman, draped in a Polish flag with a Ukrainian headdress, holds a drawing depicting Russian President Vladimir Putin during a rally outside the Russian embassy in Warsaw. Aleksander Kalka

Rule of Law

Poland is currently engaged in a dispute with the European Union over concerns that the Law and Justice Party has reduced the independence of courts and judges.

The country’s top court said some EU treaty articles were “incompatible” with the Polish constitution and warned EU institutions not to “act beyond the scope of their competencies” by interfering with Poland’s judiciary – a major bone of contention with Brussels.

The European Union took action against Poland and has since linked the fines to funding from the EU for infrastructure projects. 

Sochańska claims Poland will enter into dialogue with the European Commission to solve the impasse.

“I think it will be solved soon. Our government wanted to introduce judicial reforms, because that was expected by the electorate, and we did it,” she said. 

The biggest problem from an EU perspective was that Poland had introduced laws that it was claimed would control the judiciary. 

The problem from Poland’s perspective was that they believe they should have control over their own laws and not be guided by the principles and policies as laid out in EU treaties. 

A key principle of EU membership is the primacy of EU laws and that national laws made by States cannot be at variance to those treaties.  

LGBT rights have also become a flashpoint issue in Poland in recent years under the populist Law and Justice (PiS) party government, which campaigns against what it calls “LGBT ideology”.

Several regions have declared themselves free from “LGBT ideology” in a protest against support for gay rights from Warsaw Mayor Rafal Trzaskowski, an opposition leader.

The ambassador dismissed concerns and said that Poland was a welcoming place for the LGBTQ community and said that she found the use of the phrase “LGBT free zones” as offensive. 

She said that as the ruling Government is conservative it is unlikely to support same-sex marriage but added that the free-zone idea was spread by councillors, many of whom are members of the ruling party, in conservative areas and not by the Government. 

“It is a matter for the Polish people and one day when they elect a majority in the Parliament, which will be composed of liberal parties, and they have enough voices they can change the constitution,” she added. 

The situation on the ground in Poland in recent months has seen councils row back on their LGBTQ bans while a court in the Eastern city of Rzeszow threw out a case taken by a town council against an activist who had led a campaign against the move. 

Human Rights watch has reported that there has been a number of court hearings in which the LGBTQ rights have been honoured by judgements since the claimed free-zone issue arose. 

The issue is centred around ultra-conservative rural areas – in a 2020 report the European Commission said that the move had a “chilling effect” on LGBTQ community members living in those areas.

“Far from being merely words on paper, these declarations and charters directly impact the lives of LGBTI people in Poland. The Commissioner has heard testimonies about the chilling effect of these documents on residents and institutions, who are increasingly reluctant to be associated with any activity related to the human rights of LGBTI people for fear of reprisals or loss of funds.

“The Commissioner was told that some media outlets which have reported on these documents have been targeted by legal action, leading some of them to exercise self-censorship.

“She has also been told about cases of LGBTI residents being refused services by local businesses (e.g. a pharmacy) or organisations being denied the opportunity to hold LGBTI awareness-raising events,” the report found. 

The report also said that activists “working to denounce such declarations” have also been subjected to “specious lawsuits filed by local governments or conservative organisations”.

The report added: “The Commissioner has received reports of many LGBTI people being shunned by fellow residents.”

The ambassador is currently touring the country and visiting the 120,000 Polish people who call Ireland home. She is campaigning to erect a statue to a Polish humanitarian, Paul Strzelecki, who assisted in saving the lives of 200,000 Irish people during the Great Famine in the 1800s. 

Part of her strategy is to normalise the presence of Polish culture in Irish communities and said she is anxious to give Polish people a connection with home. 

Throughout the interview Sochańska speaks of the complexities of Poland’s relationship with Russia and their European partners. 

But it is the relationship with the Irish people she speaks of with positivity – noting this is the case particularly after the 2004 arrival of Polish migrants. 

As war rages near the Polish border, she says it is the relationship with Ireland she will count on in the years to come.