Search for Closure or Blame? Reflections on the Smolensk Tragedy
Yesterday (10 April 2012) marked the two year anniversary of the Smolensk air crash which killed Polish President Lech Kaczyński and 95 other members of the Polish political and military elite. Two years on from the tragedy, guest author Adam Reichardt shares some of his personal reflections on the disaster with us, while also considering the extent to which past tragedies and political posturing continue to colour the contemporary discourse surrounding Smolensk.
Search for Closure or Blame?
Reflections on the Smolensk Tragedy
by Adam Reichardt.
It is hard to imagine that it has already been two years since the tragic airplane crash that killed the Polish President, Lech Kaczyński, his wife and 94 others including many top Polish government and military officials. For those of us living in Poland, it was one of those events that you will never forget where you were when you heard the news. Just like 9/11, as I was in the US at that time. With national tragedies like these, the images and feelings stay with you forever. I can recall, even 12 years later, the emotions I felt and above all the feeling of fear and helplessness following the terrorist attacks on the world trade center in New York City. The same goes for April 10th 2010.
On April 10 2010, I was outside Krakow in a small village doing some work outside when the call came in – turn on the TV. We went inside to be greeted by the familiar image of the slightly confused news reporters on Polish TV reporting only what they knew. The Presidential plane had crashed outside Smolensk in Russia. THE presidential plane, with the President, his wife, and countless other officials including heads of military branches 15 members of Parliament, members of the clergy, and Polish citizens whose families had perished at Katyń 70 years previously. How could this have happened? The speculation began shortly after, with aviation experts weighing in and public officials visibly in tears.
The initial reactions, while fear was ubiquitous, were unifying. The Polish people came together. Their President and several other national figures had died, tragically. Even if President Kaczyński had not been a unifying figure, in death he brought the Polish people together, as they mourned publicly. No matter how divisive politics had been in the last few years, through this tragedy Poles were united.
Initially, the Smolensk disaster also brought Poles and Russians together. For some time, there was a glimmer of hope in the relationship between Poland and Russia, as Russia showed gestures of solidarity in the tragedy. I remember the strong images of Donald Tusk and Vladimir Putin together listening to updates from the investigators and responders on the scene. It was extremely symbolic and many Poles voiced their gratitude to Russian authorities for their openness and aid.
On a personal level, the hardest part was to explain to my kids what had just happened. The images and sense of fear that persisted was everywhere. Poles were glued to their TVs and the reports and commentaries focused on death, conspiracy and questions of who and why. Polish flags were flying everywhere and the mourning period was an entire week long. As an American living in Poland, it was not nearly as difficult as it must have been for Polish families who still live with haunts of history, either as victims of the Second World War, or the communist system, and the history between the Polish and Russian people. The fact that the Smolensk tragedy took place on the 70th anniversary of the Katyń Massacre, an event denied by Russia for several decades and over which questions still remain to this day, did not help. The old wounds of history that had been passed down through the generations were suddenly reopened, at least for many. It didn’t take much time before the conspiracy theories emerged.
The mixed images of tragedy past and present which pulled at the emotions of the Poles quickly found their way to the political arena. No doubt, this had a lot to do with the fact that a large number of politicians (mostly from the far right Law and Justice – PiS – political party) were killed in the accident. Historical comparisons were made and conspiracy theories perpetuated. It was, of course, impossible to ignore the comparison with Katyń, a place where a large number of the Polish intellectual elite were murdered at the hands of the Soviets during the Second World War 70 years prior and the whole reason for the recent delegation to Smolensk [see the previous blog post HERE for more details]. But others were also quick to note the eerie similarities with the plane crash that had killed Władysław Sikorski, Prime Minister of the Polish government in exile, in 1943. His death, while officially explained as an accident, had also fuelled conspiracy theories. Was it possible that within the matter of 67 years, Poland had lost two leaders (both anti-Russian) in a ‘plane crash’? For some this was more than coincidental.
The politicians from Law and Justice, namely the late-President’s twin brother Jarosław Kaczyński, would not accept any official explanation that this was an accident made up of many factors. The majority of Polish society, however, disagreed. After some time, it became apparent that Smolensk was not a conspiracy and those trying to make more out of it than it was began losing sympathy and support. The Poles had their mourning. They publicly felt their pain. But the institutions survived. Society moved on. And when the media’s coverage of the Smolensk tragedy got to the point where no one in the mainstream could stomach the constant coverage, the media too, moved on.
A recent poll (from April 5 2012) showed that only 18 per cent of Polish people now believe the Smolensk tragedy was an ‘attack’. 32 per cent in the same poll, however, believe that it was a result of error on the side of the Russians while 28 per cent believe the crash was due to pilot error. The same poll showed that most (82 per cent) Polish people still believe that the death of Pope John Paul II was the most important event in Polish recent history followed by Poland’s entry to the European Union (57 per cent) and the fall of the Communist system (47 per cent). 40 per cent of responses indicated the Smolensk tragedy (of course it is important to note here that respondents were able to choose more than one answer).
One of the most shocking images to recently emerge has been a controversial painting “depicting” the tragedy on the Tupolev aircraft. The painting shows the victims midst-crash, the plane engulfed in flames and the hearts of these victims bursting out their chests. The painting, titled “Smolensk” was hung in a church in Bielany in Warsaw.
Two years on all official investigations have pointed to the same conclusion: The Smolensk crash was a freak, tragic accident as a result of multiple factors. Yes, it’s true – some questions remain, but clearly this was not an assassination at the hands of the Russians. Nevertheless, the conspiracies surrounding the Smolensk tragedy have not fully disappeared. They survive because they serve a political purpose and can evoke a very emotional response. Those who stand to gain the most politically have tried to continue to take advantage of the fear surrounding Smolensk. Jarosław Kaczyński, who has always suggested that the crash was not an accident, has started to use more direct language. Most importantly the word ‘assassination’ has entered the discourse.
The daughter of the late President, Marta Kaczńyska, also continues to also be one of the most vocal perpetuators of the Smolensk issue. In March of this year, she stood in front of a hearing at the European Parliament in Brussels calling for a new international investigation into the tragedy. Her calls may carry some justification, in light of some recent revelations into the (at the very least) sloppiness on the side of the Russian authorities in some autopsy procedures. However, others have speculated that Kaczyńska has political ambitions of her own and is using Smolensk as a political springboard. Just two days ago, she not only blamed the government for fudging up the investigation and being too soft on Russia; she also went so far as to suggest that the government and the media are actively covering up any information about Smolensk by distracting Poland with a “soap-opera” style story about a mother who’s six month-old died in very suspicious circumstances in Sosnowiec (indeed, Polish media has over sensationalised the story of ” baby Magda” and a public obsession has grown around the strange plot twists and turns since February – but that’s a topic for a different post!). To fuel the speculation of her political ambitions, a new film called “Córka” (“Daughter”) is being released this week in Poland. It is the first film which focuses on Marta Kaczyńska – mostly on how she handled the Smolensk tragedy and the death of her parents.
As we are now passing the two-year anniversary of the Smolensk tragedy, it is necessary to ask – will there ever be closure? Probably not for everyone. Some are just not satisfied with the answers, and in some ways they may be right (and have a right to be sceptical of Russian intent). And when we lose a loved one in such a tragic way, we need closure, and so does a nation. But unfortunately, unlike 9/11 when we had a clear enemy, reason, and even response which we could take, the case of 4/10 is not so simple.
The best thing that can be done is to honour the memory of the victims, not cast blame where it doesn’t belong or try to divide those suffering from this tragedy. Poland must try to move on and, as a nation, learn from the tragedy with the hope that something like this will never happen again.
As I reflect on the way Poland handled this tragedy, I am reminded how impressed I was when this strong nation came together, openly mourning the death of their president (and other public figures) and ultimately overcoming this national tragedy. It is a shame that those who are interested in political gain over collective closure continue to try to evoke the emotions of history, insecurity and fear. In the end, their actions divide Polish society more so than the tragedy ever united it.
About the Author:
Adam Reichardt is is the Managing Editor of New Eastern Europe, a quarterly journal focusing on Central/Eastern European affairs. Adam has an MPA in public and nonprofit management from George Mason University in Fairfax, Virginia, USA. He lives in Krakow. You can find out more about New Eastern Europe at their website.