The crash on 10 April of an airliner carrying Poland’s president, Lech Kaczynski, his wife and 94 of the nation’s political, military and economic leaders, was a heart-rending tragedy.
But for Poles, tragedy is a constant. Poland’s epic, thousand-year history has always alternated between extremes of tragedy and triumph.
The accident was especially bitter because President Kaczynski and his delegation were flying into the Russian city of Smolensk to attend the 70th anniversary of the notorious Katyn massacre.
Why so many senior officials were all on the same, elderly, Soviet-built TU-154 airliner remains a question. On a previous trip, Kaczynski had ordered his reluctant pilot to land in dangerous conditions. Smolensk was blanketed by fog.
Russian air traffic control reportedly ordered the aircraft not to land but divert to another airport.
Kaczynski may have been determined not to miss memorial ceremonies at Katyn Forest.
Russia’s prime minister, Vladimir Putin, was waiting there to pay his nation’s respects – and atone – for the terrible Soviet crime at Katyn.
In 1939, Stalin and Hitler invaded and partitioned Poland. Stalin sought to wipe out Poland’s national identity. The Soviet dictator ordered the NKVD secret police to murder 22,000 Polish officers, intellectuals and political figures at Katyn.
Soviets propaganda blamed this crime on the Nazis. The truth was only revealed in 1989 by Russia’s late president, Boris Yeltsin. One wonders how many other Nazi `crimes’ were committed by the Soviets.
Poland, a land without natural borders, has suffered endlessly at the hands of its neighbors. In 1795, the Polish-Lithuanian state was partitioned by Russia and Prussia. In spite of many valiant uprisings, Poles did not regain independence until 1918.
A year later, Soviet Bolshevik armies advanced into Poland with the objective of returning Poland to Moscow’s rule, then occupying strife-torn Germany and Austria.
In August, 1920, Poland’s Marshall Jozef Pilsudski met and decisively defeated the advancing Red armies on the Vistula. He drove them from Poland, and saved western Europe from a Soviet takeover. This epic victory has been totally forgotten.
Poland suffered frightful losses in World War II: six million dead out of a population of 35 million, one of the war’s heaviest per capita tolls. Polish Jews may have made up half the dead. Warsaw was razed.
However, some critics claim that a large part of Poland’s supposed human losses actually came from the annexation of its eastern regions to the Soviet Union. The German lands in Silesia and Pomerania that Poland was given by Moscow in exchange had been largely denuded of their population.
Given centuries of Polish-Russian hostility, it was not easy for Vladimir Putin, a former colonel in KGB’s elite First Directorate (foreign intelligence), to go to Katyn and face up to Stalin’s crime.
Putin has championed restoration of Stalin’s memory and is an ardent authoritarian-nationalist. Two thirds of Russians still regard Stalin as a hero, and Putin as a worthy, though less draconian, successor.
Equally important, many senior positions in Russia’s government, media, banking and industry are held by KGB
(today FSB) men. As Putin reportedly asserted, `no one ever retires from KGB.’
The Smolensk crash, and Russia’s genuinely heartfelt shock and mourning, went far to repair tense, mistrustful Polish-Russian relations. Putin deserves kudos for his deft, sincere handling of this disaster.
So, too, Russia’s president, Dimitri Medvedev, one of the few foreign leaders who managed to avoid clouds of volcanic dust and fly to Warsaw for the state funeral. His presence had a major emotional effect on Poles. It was what the French call, `un beau geste.’
Admitting a nation’s crimes is a tough, risky business. Russia has yet to come clean about millions murdered by Stalin, including 6-7 million Ukrainians. Britain has never owned up to its imperial crimes in Asia or Africa. Neither have France and Belgium about their rule in Africa. Nor, sufficiently, the United States regarding its genocide of native peoples and era of slavery. China still owes the truth on the 70 million who died as a result of Chairman Mao’s demented policies.
During my visits to Poland, senior officials invariably whispered to me, `the KGB is still here.’ Poles harbor deep fears of a Russian return. Russians see Poland as a dangerous US forward base filed with Russia-haters, a dagger pointed at western Russia and the Baltic.
The Katyn tragedy will smooth these troubled waters, at least for a while. Poles will hopefully not make a saint of the late, Kaczynski, a far right, anti-European, anti-German populist, who was disliked by many of his countrymen. He should not have been buried with Poland’s great kings, but shock and emotion carried the day. Decisions made at times of mourning or crises are almost always poor ones.
Poland will recover, and quickly. Once dismissed as hopeless in business, Poles rode out the 2008 world recession, and emerged as one of Europe’s strongest economies –a major achievement for a post-Communist state.