August 15 marks the Feast of the Assumption as well as the centenary of the Battle of Warsaw, during which the Polish Army defeated the Red Army, which sought to not only to conquer Poland but to export revolution much farther west. The convergence of the Polish victory and the feast marking Mary’s ascent into heaven is not a Trivial Pursuit sort of coincidence, such as the fact that Abraham Lincoln and Charles Darwin were born on the same day. The victory of a Christian army over the eastern Bolshevik hordes had a strongly religious, even mystical, dimension.

Not just about borders

Poland regained her independence in 1918, after more than a century of suffering the yoke of Russian, Prussian, and Austrian rule. The resurrected nation was, however, embroiled in border conflicts with many of its neighbors: Germany, Czechoslovakia, Lithuania, and the Soviet Union. In the last of these, however, the dispute was ideological as well as geographical. In White Eagle, Red Star, his classic English-language study of the Polish-Bolshevik War, Norman Davies, the doyen of Polish history, writes: “Unlike all the other post-war squabbles with which it is frequently equated, the Polish-Soviet War raised wider issues: the clash of ideologies, the export of revolution, the future of Europe itself.”

As the Russo-Polish border was in flux due to the Russian Civil War, Józef Piłsudski, the first chief of the resurrected Polish state, decided to invade Soviet Ukraine and bring historically Polish lands back under Polish rule. In April 1920, Piłsudski entered into an alliance with the Ukrainian patriot Symon Petliura, president of the ephemeral Ukrainian People’s Republic. The Poles would recognize Ukraine’s independence while the Ukrainians would allow Polish rule over Galicia, a region of formerly Austrian-ruled Poland whose population had a Ukrainian majority. By May 7, the combined Polish-Ukrainian armies had reached Kyiv, although the mass Ukrainian revolt against the Soviets envisioned by Piłsudski and Petliura did not materialize, while a Bolshevik counter-offensive led by Mikhail Tukhachevsky reached the Polish border by late July and the suburbs of Warsaw in early August.

The Soviets’ aim was not only to push back the Poles’ gains but to overrun Poland, which would be a springboard for a general communist conquest of Europe. On July 23, 1920, Lenin cabled Stalin, then Commissar of Nationalities: “The situation in the Comintern is superb. Zinoviev, Bukharin, and I, too, think that the revolution should be immediately exacerbated in Italy. My own view is that to this end one should Sovietize Hungary and perhaps also Czechoslovakia and Romania.”

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