Plane tragedy prolongs Polish-Russian curse

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Metro, Polish plane disaster

The Devil himself could not have better orchestrated Sunday's air tragedy at Smolensk Airport, in Western Russia.

According to reports, a Polish Air Force Tupolev-154 government VIP aircraft crashed in heavy fog on its fourth landing attempt, after being advised by Russian ground traffic controllers not to try to land, killing all 96 persons on board.

Those killed include Polish President Lech Kaczynski, senior Polish armed forces general staff, Polish politicians representing major parties, leading Polish media intellectuals, and select family members representing the estimated 22,000 Polish army officers who were murdered by the Soviet secret police at nearby Katyn Forest under Stalin's orders in 1940.

The symbolism of this disaster could not be worse. This was a national delegation on its way to a solemn 70th anniversary remembrance ceremony at Katyn, hosted by the Russian government. It was to be a symbolic moment of reconciliation between two neighbouring countries that have been separated by war, religion, language and conflicted senses of national identity and historical destiny. The Polish-Russian relationship has for centuries been deeply troubled, almost as if cursed.

The Katyn massacre had been a culminating horror. After the bloody Nazi-Soviet military occupation and partition of Poland, and the subsequent Nazi invasion of Russia, what was left of the invasion-decimated Polish officer corps was encamped under Soviet guard at Katyn Forest, now close to the front line as Wehrmacht armies, already deep inside Russia, rapidly advanced towards Moscow. Stalin ordered that the Polish officers be killed, and that the murders be blamed on the invading Nazis.

After World War Two, this lie came into increasing doubt, but it was not until Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev released hitherto secret Soviet records that Soviet responsibility for the Katyn massacre was finally acknowledged.

Now, this — a horrible event, overshadowing a moment that was to have conveyed a positive symbolic message of the deepest historical significance for all Poles. 

Regardless of politics, all Poles are now mourning the loss of lives here. We will have to wait for what the black box flight recorder (already recovered) says. Former Polish President and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa has hinted at the possibility that the presidential party might have had a hand in overruling pilot advice that it was unsafe to try to land in the thick fog.

The pilots were highly experienced Polish air force pilots, well used to the region's adverse winter flying weather, and one could understand the human temptation for those on board to proceed with the landing, with a Russian welcoming delegation waiting at the airport and in view of the huge symbolic weight of the occasion.

President Lech Kaczynski, along with his twin brother Jaroslaw, were polarising figures in Poland's complex multi-party democratic politics. Their right-wing Law and Justice Party has represented a political viewpoint that is socially conservative, pro-clerical, strongly nationalist, pro-NATO, and generally suspicious of Russia.

Their party does not form part of the present centrist Polish governing coalition, headed by liberal Prime Minister Donald Tusk. Jaroslaw Kacynski now would seem the most likely politician to be elected to replace his brother in the largely symbolic role of President.

Russian leaders President Medvedev and Prime Minister Putin have responded to the tragedy with appropriate and sensitive words and actions, expressing the Russian people's grief at Poland's tragedy. Putin has taken personal charge of the official Russian crash investigation.

At this stage, it seems reasonable to anticipate that, though the plane was old, some form of pilot error will be found to have been the main cause. But inevitably, the tragedy casts a further deep shadow on Polish-Russian relations. The stars lined up very badly for the two countries on this sad day.

I end on a personal note of sadness. When I was Australia's ambassador to Poland in 1991–94, the head of my domestic staff establishment was a gracious and dignified lady in her 50s, of impeccable breeding and manners, called Zosia. She was the daughter of a Polish Army officer who was killed at Katyn. She had grown up fatherless and poor in Communist Poland after World War Two. If Zosia is still alive, I feel deeply for her today; and I just hope that she was not on the plane.


Tony KevinTony Kevin served as Australian Ambassador in Poland from 1991-1994. He is author of Crunch Time: using and abusing Keynes to fight the twin crises of our era.

Topic tags: tony kevin, poland, president, plane crash, Lech Kaczynski

 

 

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Beautiful sentiments and beautifully written
Jim Molan | 13 April 2010


Indeed beautifully written but Tony got his facts wrong in the following paragraph:

"The Katyn massacre had been a culminating horror. After the bloody Nazi-Soviet military occupation and partition of Poland, and the subsequent Nazi invasion of Russia, what was left of the invasion-decimated Polish officer corps was encamped under Soviet guard at Katyn Forest, now close to the front line as Wehrmacht armies, already deep inside Russia, rapidly advanced towards Moscow. Stalin ordered that the Polish officers be killed, and that the murders be blamed on the invading Nazis."

These officers (including my father) were not camped at Katyn Forest at the time of German invasion o USSR because the were already dead for more than a year. They were interned in USSR at Kozielsk and transported by rail to Katyn to be executed by the soviet NKVD in March and April 1040. Germany invaded USSR in June 1941
Christopher Lancucki | 13 April 2010


Thanks, Christopher Lancucki, and sincere apologies for having got this important chronological fact wrong. In my haste to write the piece, I failed to check my general recollections about the Katyn Massacre more carefully. I wrongly conflated the date of the crime (April, 1940) with the 1941 German invasion of Russia. I have now looked at an excellent and very detailed Wikipedia article on Kstyn, http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Katyn_massacre,
which confirms the correct chronology as you give it here. Beria (NKVD head) and Stalin ordered the massacre long before the Nazi invasion of Russia, indeed while the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact was still functioning. The massacre included many of Poland's leading intellectuals, as well as the officer corps. The Nazis uncovered the secret burial sites when they occupied the Katyn area in 1941, and correctly ascribed the crime to the Soviets. When the Soviets recaptured the area, they blamed the crime back on the Nazis. The Western allies pretended to accept this lie, for the sake of sustaining wartime alliance solidarity - a cause of further great bitterness among Poles.
tony kevin | 13 April 2010


I would recommend viewing the film "Katyun", that does get it pretty well right. It is very VERY imporatnt to know that the crime was NOT done in haste under the threat of imminent German invasion as Tony suggests (and admits his error). It was cold-blooded murder for political reasons.It is also worth noting that the behaviour and actions of the Germans in their occupied part of Poland were even more barbarous and they did essentially the same thing to the officers they had captured...as well as to very many more ordinary citizens.

I suggest that one reads Richard Evan`s excellent account of these monstrosities, and many others, in his three volune work on the Third Reich.His description of our Church`s responses is also salutary.
eugene | 14 April 2010


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