July 7th 2012

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EUROPE: Thuggish Russian banner angers Poles

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Thuggish Russian banner angers Poles

by Hal G.P. Colebatch

News Weekly, July 7, 2012

Reports of the rioting that broke out in Poland during and after the Euro Football Championship 2012 match between Russia and Poland in Warsaw, followed by a march of about 5,000 Russians through the Polish capital, have largely omitted to mention some of its most significant features.

The match was, either through stupidity or design, scheduled on Russia’s national day. An enormous banner, hundreds of square feet in area, was displayed over the Russian part of the crowd in the stadium.

This is Russia Banner

It depicted a savage-faced, snarling blonde barbarian wielding a sword, with the huge legend (very interestingly in English — so it was for the benefit of international television audiences), THIS IS RUSSIA.

Now, in any international sporting contest, such a banner would be deemed grossly ill-mannered, and contrary to any ideal of international sport as a contest in friendly rivalry.

However, “THIS IS RUSSIA” could be read in two ways — the snarling warrior could be captioned as the spirit of Russia, or it could be seen as a claim that Warsaw was part of Russia — either interpretation being highly and gratuitously provocative.

Some of the Russian marchers through Warsaw waved Soviet flags. Some 6,400 Polish police with water-cannons were needed to quell the riot.

That such a banner should be exhibited in Poland, of all places, the country Russia has historically oppressed and subjugated, the country whose intelligentsia Russia murdered in thousands at Katyn and elsewhere, the country whose culture and national existence Russia, in collaboration with Nazi Germany, attempted to destroy — all within living memory before we even begin to consider ancient times — makes it more than an exercise in bad taste.

Polish-Russian relations are fraught in any event, and a responsible government in Russia should see they are handled with extraordinary care.

Fans painting their faces in Polish and Russian colours respectively might be taken as no worse than the squalid displays of underclass aggression that have become common at English-Scottish and other international matches. Except that this is Poland and Russia, and what is between them is special.

To display such a banner, on Polish soil, in Warsaw, and on the Russian national day, can only be seen as a threat. It would be judged over-the-top if it had been displayed during the depths of the Cold War as an anti-Russian cartoon sending up Russian barbarism and aggression.

Warsaw is the very city which first underwent a barbarous siege by the Nazis when they invaded as a consequence of the Hitler-Stalin pact, and was later levelled in 1944 when the Russians encouraged the Polish Home Army to revolt against the Germans and then deliberately halted outside the city while the Germans destroyed the Poles, the Russians refusing even to let the Western Allies send in supplies by air.

The Jewish Holocaust and the Ukrainian terror-famine are comparable to what Poland underwent at Russia’s and Germany’s hands, but little else in Europe is. By the end of World War II, virtually every single family in Poland had dead to mourn.

Everyone knows that most international sport, despite the high ideals mouthed about it, attracts thugs and hooligans. Its defenders are quick to claim such people are a deplorable and unrepresentative minority.

This banner, however, could not have been the work merely of a few hooligans. A good deal of thought has gone into its design. Making it, transporting it to Poland, and then displaying it, would have required the co-ordinated efforts of hundreds of people, and almost certainly it would have needed the support and co-ordination of the Russian Government.

It would have been a grossly irresponsible act as well as bad taste if international relations on Europe in general were perfect at present. However, the continent is in deepening crisis and at present needs all the international goodwill it can get.

The British Daily Mail quoted one Russian spectator: “The march, it wasn’t right. It was a provocation. It shouldn’t happen like this. But there are also aggressive Poles and we are scared here.”

It is hard to know which side was responsible for the rioting — pictures taken indicate there were hooligans on both sides, and it is apparently mainly Poles who have been arrested. It would certainly be wrong to blame all the Russian spectators for the behaviour of a minority, or for historical wrongs.

Many of those Russians present were probably not born during the time of the Soviet empire. But, given the whole history leading up to the match, it is the Russian Government that needs to apologise.

The match, if anybody cares, was a draw.

Hal G.P. Colebatch, PhD, is a Perth author and lawyer. 

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