‘Warsaw feels like a mini Soviet Union’: how Russian is gaining ground in Poland’s capital

Many from Ukraine, Belarus and other ex-Soviet states mostly get by in Russian – but its prevalence is starting to cause a problem

For Russian citizens, it is extremely difficult to get into Poland these days. Even those with visas for the Schengen zone can be turned away, and the national airline LOT regularly bars Russians from boarding its flights.

Many Poles have a long-standing wariness of Russia seeded by centuries of Russian imperial designs on Poland and the more recent experience of Moscow-backed communist rule, and the feelings have only been hardened by last year’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine.

But even as most Russian citizens are unwelcome in Poland, the Russian language is heard ever more frequently in the country. By now, Warsaw has become probably the most Russian-speaking city outside the countries formerly part of the Soviet Union.

Ukrainian and Polish flags hang in the city centre of Warsaw.
Ukrainian and Polish flags hang in the city centre of Warsaw. Photograph: Kasia Strek/The Observer

“My friend from Belarus was here last weekend, we walked along the street and counted the languages we could hear and it felt like Polish was in the minority. We heard a lot of Russian and some Ukrainian,” said Yahor Perakhod, a Belarusian who runs GiGi, a central Warsaw bar where the clientele is mostly Belarusian exiles.

Polish speakers still make up the overwhelming majority of Warsaw’s population, but Russian speakers are by far the most noticeable linguistic minority, and their increasing prevalence over recent years has come incrementally, and for different reasons.

The most significant factor was last year’s full-scale invasion of Ukraine by Russia, which saw millions of Ukrainians leave for Poland. Around a million have stayed, adding to a large Ukrainian population already in the country. Statistics suggest there are currently more than 3 million Ukrainians living in Poland, meaning around 8% of the Polish population are Ukrainian citizens.

The majority of war refugees still in Poland are from eastern Ukraine, where Russian is the predominant language, and where the fighting is more intense, meaning many have nowhere safe to return.

Even before the full-scale war in Ukraine, the 2020 protests in Belarus led to tens of thousands of Belarusians, mostly Russian-speaking, fleeing their homeland and taking advantage of Poland’s relatively liberal residency laws for Belarusians.

At GiGi bar, where the guests sip on gin and tonics and take photographs of caviar dishes for their Instagram stories, all the staff and the majority of guests are Belarusian, though owner Perakhod said he hoped in future that the bar would function as “a normal bar in Warsaw” and attract a more varied clientele.

Yahor Perakhod, from Belarus, co owner of Warsaw’s GiGi bar.
Yahor Perakhod, from Belarus, co owner of Warsaw’s GiGi bar. Photograph: Kasia Strek/The Observer

Across town at Backdoor Bar, another Belarusian establishment, friendly staff hand out menus written in Belarusian but greet guests in Russian.

Transplanted Minsk residents pointed out the different people at the tables: an opposition politician eating a burger, a youth activist drinking a beer, Minsk’s best-known society photographer snapping pictures with one hand while holding a glass of white wine in the other.

Levon Halatrian, one of the bar’s owners, ran a bar in Minsk before the 2020 elections, when he joined the campaign team of opposition leader Viktor Babariko, who was jailed and barred from running in the August vote.

Levon Halatrian from Belarus opened the Backdoor Bar in Warsaw in March.
Levon Halatrian from Belarus opened the Backdoor Bar in Warsaw in March. Photograph: Kasia Strek/The Observer

Halatrian was also jailed after the protests, and spent some months in prison before being transferred to a labour camp. He arrived in Warsaw in January and opened Backdoor Bar in March, together with two others who ran a bar of the same name back in Minsk.

“About 80% of our guests are Belarusians, most of the rest are Ukrainians. Occasionally a lost British tourist will wander in, or sometimes even a Pole,” he said.

“We’d like it to be more like 50/50 - somewhere Poles want to come, but also a safe space for Belarusians, as we understand that we’re probably here for a long time,” he added.

Many Russian-speaking Ukrainians in Poland are learning Polish, and some are switching to speaking Ukrainian at home, a process also going on inside Ukraine since the outbreak of full-scale war. But for others, it’s not easy to switch languages overnight.

“Nobody has ever said anything aggressive to me, but of course it feels a bit uncomfortable to be speaking Russian given the history here,” said Maryna, a 37-year-old refugee from Zaporizhzhia, who arrived in Warsaw last spring and is now working as a manicurist in a salon that caters mainly for Ukrainian clients.

“I try to speak basic Polish in shops, and at work I often speak Ukrainian, but most of my conversations with family and the friends I have here are in Russian, I’m not suddenly going to change my mother tongue,” she said.

While few Poles have any problems with hearing Russian spoken on the street, for some the presence of Russian-speaking Ukrainians prompts negative reactions.

“The war has killed the Russian language as a neutral language of communication,” said Mirosław Skórka, president of the Union of Ukrainians in Poland.

Skórka said his organisation, which has helped coordinate support for Ukrainian refugees, had fielded numerous calls from Poles who had wanted to help but had been disturbed to find out the Ukrainians they were assisting continued to speak Russian.

He pointed to an opinion poll in spring that showed attitudes among Poles towards Ukrainians in the country were gradually becoming less positive. One of the reasons given was that the majority of Ukrainians in Poland were speaking Russian, he said.

“Nobody has a problem with Belarusians speaking Russian, but when it comes to Ukrainians, people wonder if it indicates a political preference. After some time passed, many people had a hard time understanding why they hadn’t learned either Ukrainian or Polish,” said Skórka.

Adding to the mix of Russian speakers in Warsaw is a new cohort of immigrants from former Soviet countries in Central Asia, who receive Polish work permits to fill jobs such as taxi drivers or delivery couriers.

Sulimjon, from Tajikistan, arrived in Warsaw in March and is working as an Uber driver in the city.

“I spent three years in Moscow working in a kebab shop, but when I heard there was a possibility to come to Europe, I thought it’s going to be much better than being in Russia,” he said.

Sulimjon described how a web of contacts from post-Soviet countries helped him arrive and adapt in Warsaw: he flew to Russia’s exclave of Kaliningrad, where he paid a middleman from Ukraine €500 for advice on how to submit documents to the Polish consulate and receive a work visa.

After arriving, he found a space in a hostel on the outskirts of Warsaw, where he shares a room with other Tajiks, as well as taxi drivers and couriers from Uzbekistan, Armenia and Georgia. The lingua franca among them is Russian. So far, he cannot speak more than a few words of Polish, but many of his clients are Ukrainians or Belarusians, with whom he can also speak in Russian.

“Warsaw feels a bit like Moscow used to. It’s like a mini Soviet Union, with all the different nationalities speaking to each other in Russian,” he said.


Shaun Walker in Warsaw

The GuardianTramp

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