Lublin and Kostrogaj, Poland
A few days ago, eastern Poland was basking in unseasonably warm weather. But the winters here are long and harsh, and they can arrive with little warning.
It’s Friday night in Lublin, and the weather has changed. The city’s youth are out, en masse, huddled in jackets and beanies that had hibernated in wardrobes for months. They’re cold, but they’re amped up, tapping their feet in impatience. And they’re angry.
Plenty of topics draw the ire of Poland’s resurgent far right. “I’m here because I’m anti-LGBT, I’m anti-European Union, I’m anti-abortion,” a 15-year-old boy who helped organize tonight’s event in Lublin’s central square tells CNN.
But the political weather is shifting, too. For the first time since Russia launched a brutal war across the border last year, some corners of Polish society are turning on a new target: Ukraine.
“Some Ukrainians here feel too much like they’re at home,” says Przemysław Chinek, 28, who has brought his wife and two daughters – aged five and three months – to a rally for Confederation, a far-right party that has surged in support before Poland’s election on Sunday.
“They threaten Poles,” he adds. “Culturally, these are similar countries. But the morality is different.”
Confederation rails against state spending, lambasting the funds Poland – Ukraine’s nearest and most important European ally – has provided its neighbor since Russia invaded.
“President Zelensky is a puppet!” yells the opening speaker at the rally, riling up a swelling crowd. “I’m very tolerant. But remember you are not a guest, you are a visitor,” Mateusz Rybaczek, a 31-year-old content creator in the crowd, says of the vast population of Ukrainian refugees in Poland. “You must give me respect. It’s my country.”
Poland’s relationship with Russia is uncomplicated: To most Poles, Moscow has always been, and will always be, a global predator whose threat must be resisted. That stance, baked in generations worth of animosity, has only hardened over the past 18 months.
But Ukraine, the enemy of Poland’s enemy, has not always been its friend. Historical trauma and neighborly competition, postponed last February, are returning, and Confederation has given voice to Poles who look at the country’s 1.4 million resettled Ukrainian refugees with suspicion.
The party is not a major player in Polish politics, but it has exerted growing influence in recent weeks. And its role could swell this weekend; opinion polls suggest Sunday’s parliamentary elections could result in a hung parliament, offering Confederation a path to power if they strike a deal with Law and Justice, the populist ruling party known by its Polish acronym, PiS.
Such an outcome is a worst-case scenario in Kyiv and the West. There is sentiment everywhere at this rally – just over a hundred miles from Ukraine – that will delight a Kremlin desperate to force cracks in Western solidarity.
“We drove girls from Ukraine from the border to Warsaw,” says Tomasz Piotr, 33, recounting his efforts in the early days of the invasion. He and his wife, Katarzyna, say they donated groceries to a refugee hub too, eager to help after seeing brutal scenes from Ukraine.
But like many of his peers at the rally, he says Ukrainians have not shown “gratitude” for their efforts. “They want more than they should have,” he says. “We must know when to say stop… the Pole comes first, and we have to remember it.”
‘Everybody is tired’
Like millions of Ukrainians, Anna Martyrenko remembers with fondness the help she received as her country plunged into conflict. “Polish people gave us food. There were places where we could stay, where it was warmer,” she says in Warsaw, where she now lives with her two sons. “They asked how I feel – they were so friendly.”
Poland’s support has been essential to Ukraine’s war effort; since February 2022, several million displaced people have hurried out of Ukraine and into Poland, while several billions’ worth of NATO military equipment has been rushed in through Polish territory.
That support is now eroding on two fronts. While hostility fills some public squares and airwaves through an election campaign, even among those more sympathetic, fatigue is creeping in.
“Intellectually, Ukrainians still have my support,” says Gianmarco Ercolani, who hosted a refugee in his flat in Lodz last year. “But I feel like I’ve done a lot already,” he says. “Now that there is not this urgency, it makes you shift your mentality… you just get used to it.”
Last year, a Pew Research Center survey found 80% of Poles supported their country taking in refugees fleeing war. When Pew asked the same question last month, support had dropped to 52%.
Martyrenko speaks highly of her host country; she recalls one incident, on the subway, when a Pole told her to “go back to Ukraine,” but it’s nothing she isn’t used to. “People can be rude anywhere,” she says.
But the conflict has been long, and urgency has drifted. “Everybody is tired,” she notes. “This war could come to Poland… (but) not everybody understands this.”
Back in Lublin, the rally begins, and it’s raucous. Pyrotechnics rip through the frigid evening air; fake bills, depicting Poland’s prime minister in a wig, are pumped from canons and dance down to the ground, sending teenagers and parents lapping at the ground to claim one.
The event is aimed squarely at eastern Poland’s young voters, among whom Confederation has made inroads. During their summer peak, surveys showed the party in the lead among 18-21-year-old male voters.
The group’s charismatic, 36-year-old co-leader Sławomir Mentzen – who boasts 800,000 followers on TikTok – flicks through a series of political memes, projected onto a giant screen behind him. At times, it sounds like a stand-up routine.
Everyone here is sick of the populist government’s social welfare program, which supports parents, the elderly, and now Ukrainian refugees. Martyrenko says the money she receives – 500 zloty ($116) every month, for each of her children – is “not enough” to support a family. But for Confederation supporters, it is 500 zloty too much.
“It’s 50:50 for me – (half of Ukrainians) are coming here with good intentions, and (the other half) are coming here because they can. Maybe for the money,” says spectator Filip Gajos, 23. Last week, Mentzen wrote on Twitter that in a few years, “Ukraine will gain significant influence on Polish politics. This cannot be allowed to happen.”
As anger increased, painful trauma has been dug up from the past. “Polish-Ukrainian relations were not good for a very long time,” Chinek says. “Everybody remembers Volhynia, and the people who died there.”
He is referring to a World War II-era massacre – Poles call it a genocide – by Ukrainian nationalists just east of Lublin, mostly in what is now western Ukraine.
Memory of that tragedy became an essential pillar of Polish identity-building after its independence from the Soviet Union. “It was a part of the reclaiming of the past in the post-Communist period; the filling of the blank spots in the Polish history textbooks,” says Dariusz Stola, a historian of Poland at the Polish Academy of Sciences.
Discussion of those events “almost completely disappeared with the Russian attacks last year,” Stola says. “Anyone who was raising these arguments about the past was quickly labeled as a pro-Russian voice.”
Now, those loaded memories have returned, entangling in trauma the country’s efforts to integrate Ukrainian refugees. This summer, on the 80th anniversary of the tragedy, Poland’s government reissued calls for the exhumations of graves. “There’s still people that we can’t identify. There’s living generations that can’t find their grandfathers,” says Simon Oshinski, a 21-year-old Confederation supporter.
Fearful of losing their rural strongholds to Confederation, ruling PiS officials have toughened their stance on Kyiv during the election campaign, issuing combative shots at President Volodymyr Zelensky and his government on Volhynia, on grain imports, and even – very briefly – on the delivery of weapons.
“(Ukrainian refugees) have complete access to the labor market and the welfare system, very much like Polish citizens,” Stola says. “That has been exploited by this far-right party – and clearly, (PiS) in recent weeks have realized this, and tried to play the same strings.”
Those shifts reflect the political currency Confederation has built up during the election – even as, for now, they remain a relatively minor party in outright influence. And they have stoked concerns that, should Confederation be required to prop up the next PiS government, anti-Ukraine sentiment will seep further into Polish decision-making.
Anger builds in Poland’s countryside
On Adam Zaleski’s farm, outside the village of Kostrogaj in central Poland, it has been a difficult year.
“It was dry since the spring,” he says in a stoic tone, speaking deliberately and slowly about the myriad problems affecting Polish agriculture. “I’m spending a lot of money, and we’re not sure at what price we’ll be selling.”
Farms like Zaleski’s – which was first operated by his great-great-grandfather, in the 1890s – were facing difficulties before Russia made its full-scale invasion of Ukraine last year. But since the war started, Zaleski’s anxiety has increased.
Earlier this year, a tense and occasionally furious spat between Poland and Ukraine erupted over a glut of cheap Ukrainian grain, which would normally be shipped from the country’s now-occupied Black Sea ports, but instead flowed into Poland and through Europe.
The influx of product undercut Polish farmers like Zaleski, leading to a temporary EU ban that lapsed last month, causing another geopolitical dust-up as Poland – alongside Hungary and Slovakia – said they would maintain it.
“The result is here, in the numbers,” he says, wearily prodding at a handwritten page littered with downward arrows and subtraction marks. “There are no profits at all,” Zaleski says, as another difficult season concludes.
Zaleski and his wife, Justyna, remain resolutely determined that Russia is defeated on the battlefield. But the conflict between their government and Kyiv has led to exasperation in rural communities such as theirs.
A turning point for them and many Poles came when Zelensky suggested that Poland was making “political theater” of the grain dispute, telling the United Nations General Assembly that “some of our friends in Europe” were “making a thriller from the grain,” and “helping set the stage for a Moscow actor.”
“It was scandalous,” Zaleski says. “People are outraged,” his wife adds. “We didn’t say that we’re going to block (the passage of) the grains. But we don’t want this grain in Poland.”
Now, second thoughts are creeping in. “Ukrainians have access to healthcare, to universities, to high schools. There are fewer chances for Poles, in our own country,” says Justyna – an increasingly common if ambiguous refrain among some Poles.
Zaleski himself is less animated. “In our relationship, between Poland and Ukraine, there were many things that were not solved – for years,” he adds, with some weariness. He mentions the Volhynia massacre repeatedly, an open wound for many Poles generations later.
“A friendship is good when it’s based on honesty,” he says. “Without solving these problems from the past, we can’t build a new relationship based on respect.”
Zaleski, a socially conservative farmer who has voted for PiS in the past but is determined not to again, is precisely the kind of Pole whose support Confederation is desperate to claim.
He is suspicious of the group, but understands their appeal. “They have offered shortcuts,” he says. “This is a party showing voters how to solve in simple ways some very complicated issues. Probably, many people will vote for them.”
He will vote, though he can’t say yet for whom. But whoever enters power next week, displaced Ukrainian Martyrenko believes – and hopes – that Poland’s support will not waver further.
When Poles welcomed her last spring after she fled Ukraine, “I knew that everything is OK,” she said.
“A lot of people came here from Ukraine to save their children,” she adds. “It’s very difficult to stay alone without support.”