Author: Jacek Kucharczyk (National Endowment for Democracy)

Russian Narratives in Poland

The first is the reactionary narrative, which stresses the need to reassert so-called traditional values and morality in the face of the perceived moral decline of Western liberal democracies. Political Capital, a Hungarian think tank, found in a 2016 study of the Kremlin’s crusade to defend what it refers to as traditional values, that Polish society could be receptive “to the traditionalist, anti-gender and ultra-conservative messages” promoted by Russian propaganda. The report posits that “[c]onservative values are not evidence of Russian influence in Poland, but these are tools that might be used by the Kremlin to achieve its political goals.” The Russian-sponsored narrative that Europe (and the West) are morally bankrupt is designed to appeal to some elements of the current traditionalist agenda supported by the Polish Catholic Church—an agenda which has also been adopted as a political program by PiS and other right-wing parties in Poland

Another Russian propaganda tool is the narrative concerning the so-called refugee crisis, and migration from predominantly Muslim countries in general. While anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim rhetoric used to be relatively marginal in Polish public discourse, it entered the mainstream in the fall of 2015, when the PO government agreed to accept more than seven thousand Syrian refugees under the EU quota system. This decision was strongly criticized by the then opposition PiS, and backlash against the deal helped the PiS win the forthcoming parliamentary elections. Amid the political debate and media reports that accompanied the PiS’s opposition to the quota deal, the stance of the Polish public towards the refugees toughened, and the percentage of people opposed to accepting refugees grew from 21 percent in May 2015 to 53 percent by December of that year. The current government is adamant in its refusal to accept what it sees as EU diktats regarding asylum policy, but this issue is also raised by all anti-EU forces in Poland, especially on the far-right, with the intent to undermine society’s support for EU membership. This makes anti-immigrant and anti-Muslim narratives an attractive topic for Russian propaganda in Poland. While traditional values and migration are typical themes for Russian propaganda to leverage in Europe, the area of Polish-Ukrainian relations is specific to Russian efforts in Poland. The aim of Russian propaganda in this field is to weaken Polish support for pro-Western, democratic changes in Ukraine. This narrative attempts to take advantage of the long history of ethnic and political conflict between Poles and Ukrainians, with a particular focus on the World War II-era Volhynia massacre of ethnic Poles in Nazi-occupied parts of eastern Poland (now part of Ukraine) by Ukrainian nationalists. These attempts fall on fertile ground. According to an IPA survey conducted in Poland and Ukraine in 2013, more than one in five Polish respondents asked for their first associations with the words “Ukraine” and “Ukrainian” mentioned Volhynia and other historical conflicts. In a subsequent question, 73 percent of Polish respondents agreed that Ukrainians have historical guilt vis-à-vis Poland, and should apologize. The study concluded that, “The analysis of free associations indicates that Poles pay much more attention to shared history than Ukrainians. Polish-Ukrainian history, and especially conflicts during and after [World War II], including the Volhynia massacre are an important element of the image of Ukraine and Ukrainians in the eyes of Poles.” Finally, and perhaps most controversially, the previously mentioned Smolensk conspiracy theories should also be included in the list of Kremlin-sponsored narratives. While it may at first seem odd to believe that Russia fuels the narrative about its own involvement in the death of the Polish president and other prominent Poles, this narrative has a devastating effect on the state of Polish democracy, as it has become a source of deep political polarization. Moreover, it systematically undermined the credibility of then-key Polish leaders—former president Komorowski, former foreign minister Sikorski, and former prime minister Tusk—who represented the idea of a pro-EU, pro-NATO foreign policy, and accompanying support for a free and democratic Ukraine. Their international credibility helped them make the case to their Western partners for the necessity of a strong response to Putin’s aggression in Ukraine. While the Smolensk conspiracy theories most likely originated in Poland rather than Russia, they have all the features of Russian propaganda narratives and should be included in any discussion of Russian influence in Poland. Indeed, it is quite compatible with our existing knowledge of the workings of Russian propaganda to think that the Kremlin fuels anti-Russian propaganda in order to make Poland look blinded with Russophobia, and hence not credible in discussions on Russian-European relations. Edward Lucas and Peter Pomerantsev in a report by the Center for European Policy Analysis (CEPA) reached a similar conclusion when they argued that: “Kremlin narratives also seek, paradoxically, to promote extreme Polish nationalism—even anti-Russian nationalism—with the goal of making Poland seem unreliable and “hysterical” to its Western allies. It is important to note that official Russian policy—for example Russia’s refusal to return the wreckage to Poland—has helped to feed speculation over the Smolensk air disaster.

Thus, all four propaganda narratives—the reactionary, the anti-immigrant, the anti-Ukraine, and the Smolensk conspiracy theories—ultimately aim to undermine the key goals of Poland’s foreign policy and Poles’ self-identification with Western values and institutions. These narratives are deeply embedded in the ideologies of Polish far-right organizations (and to a lesser degree, their far-left counterparts) that are the primary consumers of Russian propaganda, but there is also the strong potential that they may be picked up by more mainstream media and political actors. The choice of such narratives shows the opportunistic and extremely flexible character of Russian information warfare, which explores the vulnerabilities of a given public and identifies the areas of least resistance. The authors of one report on Kremlin information warfare concluded “the main danger is that Russian influence will grow in Poland as a consequence of social objection, historical issues and national animosities.”


Polish mainstream media are typically critical of Russia and President Putin’s foreign policy, reflecting the existing consensus among the political classes and in public opinion. A notable exception to this rule was the interview with controversial Russian philosopher Alexander Dugin in the conservative Do Rzeczy, a popular weekly that supports the current PiS government. Do Rzeczy’s publication of the interview, titled “Globalism and Liberalism Represent the Civilization of the Antichrist,” reflects the fact that the Kremlin’s conservative crusade in defense of “traditional values” appeals to Polish ultraconservatives.

Russian state-sponsored media such as the television channel RT and the news agency Sputnik are available in Poland. RT can be accessed through most cable operators, as can one or two channels of Russian public television, but their viewership seems to be minuscule. Sputnik has a Polish-language outfit and its Facebook page has some 12,500 likes, which is relatively small compared to 450,000 likes for Gazeta Wyborcza, Poland’s most important liberal daily.

The general public views sources of opinion and information backed by the Russian state with deep suspicion. For this reason alone, such media outlets should not be seen as primary tools of Russian propaganda. The very fact that someone has agreed to talk to these media outlets can be used to discredit that person, so very few recognizable opinion makers or politicians appear there. They are mainly important as sources of (dis)information, which finds its way to other websites that do not reveal their connections to Russia or the Russian government. Those “independent” internet-based media outlets should be seen as the key instrument of Russian information warfare in Poland.

The most successful of such websites is Kresy, ostensibly devoted to Polish cultural heritage in the territories east of Poland, which are known as Kresy and in the past were part of the Polish state, but are now integral parts of Belarus, Latvia, Lithuania, and Ukraine. Since it was established in 2008, the portal has grown in popularity, particularly after it started to regularly publish information about developments on the 2013–2014 Euromaidan protests in Kiev, and later the Russian annexation of Crimea and the war in Donbas. The website has evolved into a news site with considerable readership and almost 100,000 followers on Facebook, and provides news and information on international affairs consistent with the kind of information found on RT and in other Russian media. Kresy is financed by Marek Jakubiak, owner of a network of breweries and a member of parliament elected on the Kukiz’15 antiestablishment platform. The party includes a number of extreme-right-wing politicians known for pro-Russian and anti-Ukrainian views

Similar, if less successful, websites to Kresy include Konserwatyzm and Antykapitalizm. They cater to the hard right and hard left, respectively, without many explicit references to Russia but promoting anti-Western and anti-liberal narratives that are very close to content originating from the Kremlin.

Xportal is an openly pro-Russian website established by Bartosz Bekier, a leader of Falanga, a Polish ultranationalist organization linked with the Global Revolutionary Alliance. Bekier has visited the occupied territories of Donbas to work as a journalist for Xportal, and actively supports the separatists fighting the Ukrainian army. Other examples of fringe media sources fueled by Russian propaganda include the Novorossiya Today and Tragedia Donbasu (Tragedy of Donbas) websites, and the Facebook page Noworosja Walczaca, or Fighting Novorossiya.

A different type of pro-Russian, internet-based media is Obserwator polityczny, or Political Observer, which is supported by the Russkiy Mir Foundation, a Russian soft-power project. It is relatively little-known in Poland, but its articles are often presented in Russia as an “alternative” Polish point of view, which seems to be a secondary function of a number of pro-Russian websites.

Individuals sometimes called “lone wolves” also play an important role in Russian propaganda and disinformation activities, and in building pro-Russian influence. Like some “independent” pro-Russian websites, they are not formally tied to any movement, but are very active on behalf of the Kremlin, often disseminating their views to followers via social media. As the Hungarian think tank Political Capital put it: “Their role is to impose a certain point of view on recipients, create discussions, [and] ideologically inspire trolls who will then . . . sell these ideas to mainstream forums on their own, strengthening a belief among Poles that such views are common.”

Trolling is a tool of Russian propaganda that appears in Polish internet-based media and social media. Comments consistent with Russian narratives invariably appear under articles on sensitive topics like the war in Ukraine or, more recently, the destruction of Aleppo. Trolls also post links with information originating from RT or similar sources that contradicts the main article or Facebook entry. The same comments or links appear under many articles, indicating a concerted effort. Some comments contain threats against the author of the article. Sometimes the authors of sensitive articles face even further harassment. In one case, blogger activist Marcin Rey, well-known for his investigations into Russian propaganda, and who maintains a Facebook page called “The Russian Fifth Column in Poland,” became the victim of a smear campaign: leaflets with his sketched portrait, warning of a ‘dangerous pedophile’ were distributed in the village where he and his family live.

The Russian penetration of Polish media reveals a number of general characteristics. Firstly, most direct influence can be traced to internet-based alternative media, which regularly use materials supplied by official Russian outlets such as RT or Sputnik. Secondly, these alternative media create a dense network of disinformation; they share not just the same narratives, but specific contents often written by the same handful of pro-Russian journalists and commentators.

Together with the “lone wolves” and trolls, they create a vast ecosystem of influence (also encompassing think tanks and other organizations). Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, mainstream media outlets in Poland are not immune to influence from these “alternative” and official Russian sources. The reasons for this vulnerability are often ideological, such as with the Dugin interview in Do Rzeczy. More likely, they result from weak professional standards and an accompanying failure to scrutinize and verify the sources of information.


An enduring aspect of Polish-Russian relations is the intensity of people-to-people contacts. In particular, Russian dissidents and, later, critics of Putin’s authoritarian turn, have been welcome, and even celebrated in circles of Polish intelligentsia, artists, and opinion makers. In a similar vein, appreciation of Russian culture has traditionally been distinguished from support for Russian government policies. Adam Michnik, a leading dissident during the communist era and the editor-in-chief of Gazeta Wyborcza, used to call himself an “anti-Soviet Russophile,” and later updated this to an “anti-Putin Russophile.” However, some pro-Russian figures are far-right ultranationalists with contempt for Russian culture, who claim to base their political ideas on purely “realist” assessments of Russia. One should keep this distinction in mind while trying to assess the current extent of Russian influence in the cultural field.

Given this history of people-to-people ties, many initiatives promoting Russian culture in Poland, such as exchanges between Polish and Russian artists, do reflect genuine expressions of independent arts and culture. Initiatives such as the annual Russian film festival, although sponsored by both the Polish and Russian ministries of culture, can rightly be viewed as a normal type of soft power initiative that any country might engage in. Furthermore, for interested Poles, many contemporary Russian films and books provide a window into “the other Russia,” with all its problems and complexities, beyond Kremlin propaganda.

However, such cultural activities carried out with support from Russian state-sponsored organizations also can serve at the same time as a venue for promoting certain narratives and propaganda. This overlap between genuine cultural expression and propaganda can make it difficult for Polish audiences to distinguish the difference, leaving them potentially vulnerable to the influence of the latter. For example, the scope of the Russian-government–sponsored Russian Center for Science and Culture (RCSC), located in the Russian embassy in Warsaw, includes Russian language courses and various theater, film, music, and art shows that are generally free of direct propaganda. However, historical memory events related mostly to what is referred to in Russia as the “Great Patriotic War” are also part of the center’s repertoire. So too is the case with the Russkiy Mir Foundation, which is one of the key actors of the Kremlin’s soft power and supports many institutions and organizations whose ostensible aim is to teach the Russian language to Poles. Its programs popularize not only the Russian language, but also the Kremlin-vetted version of Russian culture, history, and art.

In some cases, seemingly innocuous cultural exchanges can be used as venues for Russian influence in that they provide a platform for contacts between persons who might be described as Russian lobbyists, and mainstream Polish politicians and opinion makers. One example is the Anna German Festival, named after a Polish singer who was popular throughout the Soviet Union in 1960s and 1970s. The festival’s main organizer is the League of Polish Women, whose current president, Aldona Michalak, was previously a lawmaker with the Self-Defense of the Republic of Poland (SRP) party. Currently, she is a board member of the Association for Cooperation Poland-East, a pro-Russian lobbying group that has co-organized the event, along with the Center for Russian Science and Culture in Warsaw, and the Association for Cooperation Poland-Russia. The festival’s honorary committee has included a deputy prime minister, and the mayors of six Polish cities.

While these more typical venues of soft power, such as cultural exchanges and language teaching programs should not be neglected, the key area of the Kremlin’s “weaponization of culture” is its self-proclaimed crusade against Western and liberal values through the promotion of an ultraconservative social agenda.

Needless to say, conservative values within Polish society have not been imported or imposed by Russia. These values are actively promoted by the Catholic Church and a plethora of socially conservative organizations and media, as well as a number of right-wing political parties. Nonetheless, these “traditional values,” as well as Polish nationalism, are tools that Russian propaganda may successfully employ, and has employed, in Poland.

One gets insight into how Russia can seize upon Polish culture in order to promote messages that are advantageous to it by reviewing a joint statement by the hierarchs of the Russian Orthodox Church and the Polish Catholic Church after their historic first meeting in September 2012, and events surrounding it. Many liberals in Poland welcomed the meeting as an opening of a long-needed dialogue between the two denominations, and as a milestone for Polish-Russian dialogue. However, calls for rapprochement and dialogue in the statement gave way to an indictment of the contemporary liberal consensus in Western society, with the hierarchs warning of new challenges by which unnamed forces hiding behind secular ideology worked to dismantle “traditional values,” and promote abortion, euthanasia, samesex marriage, and consumerism. The statement was published on the same day a Moscow court announced the high-profile convictions of three members of the Pussy Riot group on charges of hooliganism and inciting religious hatred; the women earlier in the year had performed a raucous “punk prayer” inside a landmark Moscow cathedral in which they called for Putin’s removal from power. Columnist Mirosław Czech of Gazeta Wyborcza declared in the announcement’s aftermath that while their sentences of two years in a labor camp were too harsh, in principle the state has an obligation to protect the religious feelings of society, and praised the joint statement of the two churches for its declared aim of fighting secularization. This example demonstrates that the Kremlin’s conservative crusade can appeal not just to Polish ultra-conservatives, but also to people who declare themselves to be in the political center.

Ultraconservative groups from Poland and other Central and Eastern European countries have also backed some of the “conservative values” legislation adopted by the Russian Duma that have drawn international criticism. Russia’s infamous law against “homosexual propaganda” won the support of a number of well-known conservative Polish organizations, for example.

Another Russian propaganda strategy in the cultural field is to drive a wedge between Poland and Ukraine by supporting demonstrations that amplify anti-Ukrainian propaganda regarding ethnic conflicts between Poles and Ukrainians in Eastern Ukraine, especially during World War II. Polish and Ukrainian media reported that anti-Ukrainian protests in Poland (as well as in the Czech Republic, Hungary, and Slovakia) were supported by Russian funds, channeled through Belarusian businessman Aleksandr Usovski and supplied by the Orthodox Christian oligarch Konstantin Malofeev, who also sponsored anti-Ukrainian activities in Donbas.

To counterbalance these state-sponsored initiatives, a group of recent Russian immigrants has started the For a Free Russia association in Warsaw. The foundation aims at uniting the Russian community, sharing democratic values, and promoting informed and unbiased public debate on current events in Russia and relations between Poland and Russia. Their weekend club, Zavarka, hosts Russian language and culture lessons for children as well as other cultural events.

Think Tanks

Like other Central European countries, most of Poland’s think tank community is strongly rooted in the ethos of democratic transformation, and has consistently supported liberal-democratic values and Poland’s membership in NATO and the EU. However, there are some Polish think tanks that serve as instruments of Russian influence. One such organization is the European Center for Geopolitical Analysis (ECAG), which was established in 2007 by Mateusz Piskorski, a leader of the pro-Russian Zmiana political party. The body presents a controversial pro-Russian narrative known as Eurasianism, which advocates for a conservative Eurasian society with Russia at its center, and which counts Dugin as its most prominent backer. Piskorski and the organization’s staff have traveled frequently to Russia and the post-Soviet areas, including Crimea, presenting pro-Russian and anti-Western views. ECAG has also organized election-monitoring missions in the unrecognized, Russian-backed republics of Abkhazia and Transdniestria, as well as in Nagorno-Karabakh, in an apparent move aimed at conferring legitimacy to the territories, and has undertaken research and other projects backed by authoritarian regimes in Belarus, Libya, and Syria. ECAG staffers until recently have been regularly invited to mainstream Polish media to comment on international affairs.

However, in May 2016, Piskorski was detained by Polish prosecutors on suspicions of spying for Russia, and possibly for China. More recently, investigative journalists revealed that ECAG in May 2013 had received a payment of almost €21,000 originating in Russia, but which was laundered through a British company; the payment was for “consulting services,” even though ECAG is barred by Polish law from engaging in for-profit activities. The revelations marked one of few cases in which financial support for pro-Kremlin organizations in Poland has been firmly established.

Perhaps more troubling and controversial is the case of the National Center for Security Studies (NCSS), a think tank close to Poland’s current defense minister, Antoni Macierewicz. NCSS developed the Territorial Defense (TO) concept, which envisions voluntary military units that support the Polish army in case of a military or terrorist threat. It was revealed that the President of NCSS, Jacek Kotas, a former politician of Law and Justice, had previously worked for a Russian-owned real estate company Radius, controlled by a Swiss citizen, Robert Szustowski, who has been doing business with Russia for 20 years. In Poland, Radius has been active in the real estate market, and the name of the company has come to public attention in relation to a scandal concerning real estate restitution in Warsaw. Other NCSS experts Grzegorz Kwaśniak and Krzysztof Gaj, who were directly involved in the preparation of the Territorial Defense concept, have in the past made anti-NATO and pro-Putin statements, with Gaj offering explicit approval of the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The Territorial Defense has already begun recruiting members from paramilitary groups. It has been reported that some of these members are skeptical of NATO and other Polish alliances with its liberal Western allies, and could easily be infiltrated by Russian special services.

Ordo Iuris is an ultraconservative think tank closely associated with the current Polish government. Its president, Aleksander Stępkowski, a law professor at Warsaw University, served as undersecretary of state in the current government between November 2015 and August 2016, where his duties included leading the dialogue with the Venice Commission, an expert body of the Council of Europe, that investigated controversial, PiS-backed legislation on Poland’s Constitutional Tribunal. He was allegedly fired for mismanaging this portfolio, after the Commission issued a very critical assessment of the new legislation. Ordo Iuris came to the attention of the general public when it proposed a law that aimed to radically restrict access to abortions in Poland, and which included jail sentences for women who have abortions and for doctors who perform them. The legislation was ultimately withdrawn in the aftermath of huge protests across Poland

This defeat notwithstanding, Ordo Iuris remains at the forefront of Poland’s conservative revolution. The institute is part of an impressive international network of like-minded organizations, and among other controversial positions has indicated support for the Russian law on so-called homosexual propaganda. Tomasz Piątek of Gazeta Wyborcza, who regularly writes about Russian influence in Poland, has described Russian connections of Ordo Iuris, and has revealed that the Peter Skarga Institute, the institutional founder of Ordo Iuris, is an official Polish patron of the World Congress of Families in Moscow, one of the key instruments of Kremlin efforts to promote conservative ideas globally.


Polish academics specializing in Russian affairs are generally very critical of Putin’s policies and contribute to the broader consensus on this topic in Polish society. However, there are a number of notable exceptions. The Polish Geopolitics Society (PTG) unites a group of academics who either openly propagate Dugin’s Eurasianism, or who stage themselves as “realists” that understand the true significance of geopolitical location. They claim that because of its geographical proximity to Russia, Ukraine and other post-Soviet states should remain part of the Russian sphere of influence, and thus they should not seek closer links with the West. Many of them also are closely associated with the far-right Geopolityka webportal, which is associated with ECAG, and belong to a closed Facebook group—Geopolityka i Geostrategia, or Geopolitics and Geostrategy—that counts more than 900 members.The group of administrators includes a number of high-profile academics including Dr. Andrzej Zapałowski of Rzeszów University, Dr. Michał Siudak of Jagiellonian University, and Dr. Leszek Sykulski. The latter initiated graduate studies in geopolitics at the Higher School of Business and Enterpreneurship in Ostrowiec Świętokrzyski. More importantly, Zapałowski has been a regular lecturer in Polish military academies around the country, not without the permission of the Ministry of Defense

The previously mentioned Russkiy Mir Foundation, an influential Russian soft-power organization that propagates Kremlin-approved views on history and culture in its Russian-language classes and other programs, has a presence at several Polish universities. It also gives grants to other Russian language centers including the Polish Association of Russian Language Teachers, and organizes various public events as well as visits to Russia for students, academic lecturers, and scientists.

In addition, many Polish universities have bilateral cooperation agreements with Russian universities—many of which facilitate independent academic cooperation in the spirit of international exchange. However, these programs, which include language and culture summer schools and study visits to Russia for Polish students and lecturers, are often exploited as a vehicle for state-sponsored propaganda, in particular regarding historical memory and current political affairs, including the annexation of Crimea and the Russian-sponsored war in Donbas. In some cases, the language centers in Poland organize celebrations of Russian national holidays that provide opportunities to present participants with the official Russian version of historical events that serve to justify current Russian policy in Ukraine and the post-Soviet areas, amongst other places.

According to one expert formerly involved in Polish-Russian dialogue programs, academic cooperation had provided a platform for relatively free exchanges on important Polish-Russian issues at a time when the Russian government was closing down other venues of dialogue, such as independent think tanks and foundations. He posits that in recent years, space that had been created through academic exchanges has too been shrinking, leaving in place only the types of exchanges that are in line with official Kremlin narratives

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