Katyn: a Polish tragedy in two acts?

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.

Three days later, on the 10th of April, a notable delegation set out to attend further commemoration ceremonies: Kaczyński, his wife, significant members of the current political, military, clerical and intellectual elite were all on board – and died in the crash. Ryszard Kaczorowski, the last president of the Polish exiled in London, and Anna Walentynowicz, one of the founding members of Solidarność, were among the passengers, as were historians, including Janusz Kurtyka, the director of the Polish Institute for National Remembrance, and dependants of the victims of the Katyń massacre in 1940. The composition of the victims aggravated the loss for Poland, even more so because it happened so close to Katyń. The parallels of once again losing a significant part of the political and military elite called for all kinds of conspiracy theories, mostly hinting at – individual or even political – Russian responsibility for the tragedy. References to Katyń were expressed – far too easily – in many comments and articles on the topic. Rumours were enforced by the fact that Kaczyński had been very critical of Russia, and was allegedly about to give an anti-Russian speech at Katyń.

The situation seemed bound to lead to disaster, and eventually to a severe deterioration in Polish-Russian foreign relations.

The way that Russia managed the crisis was even more surprising. The Russian government responded to the catastrophe on the same levels the Polish discussion focused on: immediate grief, and the larger looming implication of the Katyń parallel.  Russia’s president, Medvedev, declared the Smolensk crash ‘not only a Polish, but a Russian tragedy’, flags were at half-mast. Immediate investigation was promised, the commission headed by Putin himself. Dependants of victims were offered travel to Smolensk at the expense of the Russian government.  On a more symbolic level, Russia’s gestures might have turned out to be even more important for the détente of the crisis.  Apparently understanding the Polish emotional and historical importance of Katyń better than ever before, Russia at once acted upon it. Andrzej Wajda’s film “Katyń” (2007), so far banned from Russian cinemas because it depicts the massacre and Russian responsibilities not only in committing the murder and covering it up, was screened on state television on prime time. Thereby, Katyń, omnipresent in Poland, and so far almost absent in Russia, was introduced to a broad Russian audience. Medvedev decided to publish the most important historical documents regarding Katyń online, thus making them available to everybody (anybody who can read Russian that is), not only to historians. Furthermore, previously unknown documents shall be released soon.

Judging from comments by mourning Polish people, these efforts have been highly appreciated in Poland.  While displaying the potential to seriously challenge already difficult Polish-Russian relations, the positive side effect of the otherwise tragic plane crash might now even be an amelioration of the same.

Julia Eichenberg is a postdoctoral fellow in the Centre for War Studies, Trinity College Dublin, where her research examines paramilitary violence after the First World War in Poland and Ireland.

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