In a Word


Vladimir Putin’s savage war has had us all scrolling through our online maps (or scouring old-fashioned atlases if we’re less tech-savvy) and thrust not just Ukraine but its neighbours into the spotlight. More than five million refugees – mostly women and children – have now fled the conflict. Although some have crossed into Romania, Moldova, Hungary and Slovakia, the vast majority have exited through the western Ukrainian city of Lviv into Poland, which also shares its eastern border with Belarussia – effectively a captive state of Russia – and Lithuania, a fellow member of NATO.  

The exodus has made the small Polish border town of Medyka and its mayor, Marek Iwasieczko, into almost household names, and solidified the shape of eastern and central Europe in many minds. So some will be surprised to discover that as recently as 1939, Poland’s borders were radically different to what they are today. Back then, the country extended much further east, into Lithuania, Belarussia, and Ukraine (Lviv was known by its Polish name of Lwów) while much of its current western territory was part of Germany. It’s almost as if Atlas himself picked Poland up after the end of World War II and moved the whole country a few giant steps westward. But it wasn’t Atlas who made the decision, of course, but the victorious Allies. Ultimately, the US and Britain’s acceptance of Soviet territorial demands resulted in the population transfer of millions of people. 

But it wasn’t the first time Polish borders had shifted. The national boundaries of 1939 had emerged from the Treaty of Versailles, and subsequent wars with what was briefly West Ukraine and newly Soviet Russia. This followed more than 120 years of Poland’s absence from the map, having been partitioned between the Hapsburg, Prussian and Russian empires at the end of the eighteenth century.  It’s a fascinating if confusing history, a testament to a region with diverse cultures, religions and languages. What’s clear is that the continuing tragedy in Ukraine is felt so deeply in Poland not just because of its proximity, but also because of its shared kinship and history. 

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