Soviet soldiers raped hundreds of thousands of women and girls, as their armies advanced toward Berlin in the closing years of the Second World War. Polish artist Jerzy Bohdan Szumczyk made a sculpture depicting one such incident and, in doing so, has ignited fury in Moscow.
Szumczyk’s sculpture, titled Komm, Frau (Come, woman), shows a soldier, identified as Soviet by his helmet, kneeling between the legs of a pregnant woman while holding a gun in her mouth. Earlier this month, the life-sized piece was placed, without official permission, in the Polish city of Gdansk, next to a Soviet tank commemorating the Soviet liberation of the city from the Nazis in 1945. It was on display for only a few hours before police removed it.
Russia’s ambassador to Poland, Alexander Alexeyev, said he was outraged by the “stunt” that “defiled the memory of 600,000 Soviet servicemen who gave their lives in the fight for the freedom and the independence of Poland.” Polish prosecutors investigated a possible charge against Szumczyk for inciting racial or national hatred, but announced last week they had found no evidence to justify doing so. Szumczyk may still face a fine for erecting the statue without permission.
The incident touches still-raw nerves in Poland and Russia about the war and how it is remembered. Poland’s suffering during the conflict was enormous and multi-faceted. The Germans murdered millions, including some three million Polish Jews. Soviet crimes were of a smaller scale, but still amounted to tens of thousands of victims killed, forcibly relocated, or imprisoned in the gulag. When Poles in Warsaw rose up against the Germans as the Soviet army approached their capital, the Soviets held back and watched while the city and its inhabitants were destroyed.
Poles could not openly discuss Soviet war crimes during the 45-year Communist era that followed the war. They can now, and do, but for Russians, the subject remains taboo.