TELOSscope: The Telos Press Blog

This is No Second Katyn

Saturday’s airplane crash killing Poland’s president, Lech Kaczyński, alongside more than ninety other Polish senior civilian (and military) figures happened in Smolensk, near Katyn—the same site where more than 20,000 Polish prisoners of war were murdered by the Soviet secret police NKVD in 1940 on Stalin’s orders, as Victor Zaslavsky’s Class Cleansing: The Massacre at Katyn, published by Telos Press, vividly documents. But last week’s tragedy is no “second Katyn”—contrary to what liberal commentators such as Timothy Garton-Ash would have us believe.

The death of the top echelon of Poland’s elite who were traveling to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the mass killings is truly traumatic. It will forever evoke a sense of deep dread in the Polish soul and reinforce the perception that Katyn is haunted—a symbol of fraught relations with Russia and a seemingly inescapable fate for Poland. Every accidental death is senseless, but the aftermath of last week’s events offers hope and good reason that the two countries can bring some sense to past and present tragedy, and also craft a different future.

For the last 70 years, the name of Katyn has been associated with some of the worst aspects of twentieth-century European history: Soviet denial of Stalinist horrors, Western complicity in Moscow’s decade-long denial and unwillingness to challenge propaganda blaming the Nazis for the massacre, Russophobia on the part of many Poles, and a general failure to overcome East-West divisions. Reactions to Saturday’s tragic deaths suggest that all sides are now beginning to learn from their past mistakes.

Unsurprisingly, the internet is rife with conspiratorial stories about Russian involvement in the crash, apparently motivated by powerful economic interest linked to energy—what else? But leaving aside the usual suspects, it is becoming clear to everyone just how far Russians and Poles have come and how much closer they are to authentic reconciliation.

Poland has shown great dignity and refrained from blaming Russian air traffic control or others for the accident. Instead of self-pity or Russophobia, Poles have calmly come to terms with their loss and have begun to replace the vacant post in accordance with the constitution. This sense of national unity has been overshadowed by a row over whether to bury the late president in the Wawel cathedral crypt in Cracow amongst the nation’s kings and poets. But Poles at home and abroad have acknowledged with immense gratitude the assistance and cooperation of the Russian authorities at all levels, especially helping the families of the victims.

Across Russia there was widespread shock and a genuine outpouring of grief and solidarity with grief-stricken Poland, illustrated by a sea of flowers at the Polish embassy in Moscow and prayers for the victims during Sunday’s Orthodox Church services. The hawkish prime minister, Vladimir Putin—a former KGB officer who owes his political ascendency in large part to its successor organization, the FSB—traveled to crash site, paid a moving farewell to the coffin of Poland’s president, and embraced his Polish counterpart Donald Tusk in a moment of spontaneous sympathy.

Meanwhile Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev, spoke to the Polish people to express his condolences and declared Monday, April 12, a day of national mourning in Russia. Moreover, Russian State television aired Andrzej Wajda’s movie Katyn in prime time—confronting Russians with the history of Stalinism and Soviet propaganda. All this follows Putin’s visit to the Katyn memorial, where he bowed his head for the victims alongside Polish Prime Minister Tusk a few days before the crash—declaring that “This crime cannot be justified in any way. . . . Forgetting would be duplicitous; we are committed to preserving the memory.”

Of course this could all come to very little if, after the mourning, leaders on both sides revert to the status quo ante. Much more than President Medvedev’s attendance at the state funeral is required to transform decades and centuries of mutual suspicion into a new era of trust and cooperation. Most of all, the Russian authorities would be well-advised to open all of their secret archives and grant the remaining relatives of Katyn’s victims access to the files. Knowing what happened to their loved ones is of course only the first step on the long road toward reconciliation between the peoples—as the moving account by the great-grandson of one of the fallen shows. This would also help the work of historians and political theorists like Victor Zaslavsky in uncovering the whole truth.

As the Prime Minister Tusk remarked at the ceremony attended by Putin: “We still have a way to go on the road to reconciliation. A word of truth can mobilize two peoples looking for the road to reconciliation. Are we capable of transforming a lie into reconciliation? We must believe we can.”

United in grief, Poland and Russia can move beyond the latest tragedy in their long, torturous history. The prospect of reconciliation between these two Slavic nations could defeat cynicism and help bring the greater Europe more closely together.

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