Contributed by Julia Eichenberg
On April 10th a Polish plane crashed at the small airport in Smolensk in Russia. No one on board survived the crash, the most famous victim being the then Polish president, Lech Kaczyński. A month after the crash the causes are still being investigated, but the discussion mainly focuses on history. The crash proved to be cataclysmic for the Polish nation because of the plane’s destination, because of the composition of the passenger list, and the political impact of the tragedy. Surprisingly, the tragic event might have had at least some positive side effects.
The plane was heading for Smolensk but the real destination of its passengers was the nearby town of Katyń, to commemorate a horrendous massacre committed during World War II. In 1940, the Soviet Army executed about 20,000 Polish Officers in the area, aiming to extinguish the Polish elite and facilitate Soviet rule over Poland. When the mass graves were discovered in 1943, Soviet Russia blamed Nazi Germany for the massacre. The official Soviet narrative of Katyń as a German war crime was held up, in Russia as well as by the Soviet-influenced Polish historiography, until the downfall of the Soviet Union. Gorbachev was the first to admit Stalin’s orders to commit the massacre of Polish officers; Yeltsin opened Soviet archives containing historical sources proving Soviet guilt. But still in 2009, Polish victims of Katyń were denied the status of victims of Stalinist terror. Only this year did Putin agree to a binational commemoration ceremony in Katyń on 7th April 2010. While refusing to accept Katyń as a Russian responsibility, Putin now supported the recognition of its victims as Stalinist victims. Read more