The View East

Central and Eastern Europe, Past and Present.

The Smolensk Air Crash & The Fateful Legacy of Katyn.

This week heralded two significant dates in the history of modern Poland. 10 April saw the first anniversary of the 2010 Smolensk air crash, widely regarded as the worst national disaster to befall Poland since World War Two and resulting in the death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 other victims, including many members of the Polish political and military elite. Today (13 April) also marks 68 years since German radio announced the discovery of mass graves in the nearby Katyn forest in 1943, the result of a brutal cull of almost 22,000 Polish army officers carried out by the Soviet NKVD in April-May 1940. One year on from the Smolensk crash, Poland is still grieving, but attempts to commemorate Poland’s most recent tragedy have been overshadowed by political tensions and rising anti-Russian sentiment, which also threatens to re-open older historical wounds.


Wreckage from the plane crash outside Smolensk in April 2010. The crash claimed the lives of 96 people, including Polish President Lech Kaczynski.


The Fateful Legacy of Katyn

Despite occurring 70 years apart, the two tragedies are indelibly connected in the minds of most Polish people. On 10 April 2010, when his plane crashed after hitting trees while attempting to land in thick fog just outside the Russian city of Smolensk, Lech Kaczynski was leading a Polish delegation on their way to a memorial service to mark the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre. Even placed into a much longer historical tradition of antagonistic Polish-Russian relations dating back at least as far as the Middle Ages, Katyn remains a particularly painful episode in Polish history due to the subsequent level of Soviet disinformation about the tragedy. As Anna Berezowska recently surmised, even today, ‘For Poles, a single image is conjoured when we visualise Katyn: lies’ .


The exhumation of mass graves in the Katyn forest after their discovery in 1943. The graves contain the bodies of around 22,000 Polish Officers, shot by the Soviet NKVD in April-May 1940.


Throughout the post-war period, the Soviets continued to deny any responsibility for the Katyn massacre, claiming instead that it had been carried out by the German army, who had subsequently occupied the area and then used by Hitler as propaganda in an attempt to discredit the USSR. In Poland, the communist authorities forbade any public discussion of Katyn and while many Poles remained convinced of Soviet culpability, to openly express such beliefs was a punishable offence. It was only in 1990 that the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev finally admitted Soviet responsibility for the massacre. In recent years more comprehensive evidence has emerged from the Soviet archives, finally resulting in the online publication in April 2010 of documentation dated 5 March 1940, confirming that the massacre had been carried out by the NKVD on the direct orders of Soviet leader Josef Stalin. In November 2010 the Russian State Duma also formally recognised the massacre as a ‘crime of the Stalin regime’, and since the Smolensk disaster last April, Moscow has made more than 137 volumes of documents relating to the Katyn massacre available to Warsaw, although over 40 other volumes have yet to be sent, a process which Russian President Dmitry Medvedev recently promised to complete.


Memo written by Lavrentiy Beria, head of the NKVD, dated 5 March 1940. The memo recommends the execution of the Polish Army Officers held at Katyn and is authorised by Josef Stalin's signature, plus the signature of other Politburo members.


Despite the development of a more open dialogue between the two states in the post-communist period, neither side has been willing or able to fully face up to the legacy of Katyn, which continues to cast a long shadow over Polish-Russian relations. Only a few days before the fateful crash in August 2010, the first joint Polish-Russian memorial took place at the Katyn cemetery, attended by Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk. Transcripts of the speech Lech Kaczynski was due to give in Smolensk also acknowledged that Katyn had ‘poisoned relations between Russians and Poles for many decades’.


After Smolensk

In the aftermath of the Smolensk crash, hopes were raised about the potential for further rapprochement and the possibility of healing old wounds. Current Polish President Bronoslaw Komorowski has urged ‘healing rather than recrimination’ in response to the tragedy, and earlier this week, in a ceremony to mark the first anniversary of the disaster, Komorowski and Medvedev laid wreaths at the crash site before bowing their heads to observe a minute of silence as a solo bugle mournfully sounded. This was followed by a visit to Katyn itself, to commemorate the victims of the 1940 massacre. This display of togetherness was swiftly followed by an announcement about the formation of a new ‘Centre for Dialogue and Understanding’, to be based at twin sites in Moscow and Warsaw, with the aim of ‘promoting projects conducive to a dialogue in Polish-Russian relations’. According to a statement on President Komorowski’s website, the Centre aims to help overcome ‘barriers and stereotypes [and] help to counter the dangerous attempts to falsify history’, which continue to threaten relations between the two countries.


Polish President Bronoslaw Komorowski and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev commemorate the first anniversary of the Smolensk air disaster together.


Despite conciliatory gestures from both sides however, some wounds are proving hard to heal. A Russian investigation into the Smolensk crash concluded in January 2011 by blaming the crew for attempting to land the plane in adverse weather conditions despite warnings from Russian air traffic controllers on the ground in Smolensk, claiming they may have come under pressure to land from Lech Kaczynski himself. This verdict has proved controversial however, and many Poles have refused to accept the investigative findings, criticising Russian handing of the disaster and blaming bad communication and lack of support from ground controllers for the crash. Questions have been asked about why the airport remained open, if landing conditions were so bad. Some even subscribe to more extreme conspiracy theories: it has been alleged that the Russians artificially created the fog and gave the pilots misleading information in order to deliberately bring the plane down, a theory that has also been publicised by the Polish media. While only a small minority really believe that the crash was not accidental – 8% according to one recent poll – the same poll indicated that 78% of respondents did not consider the circumstances around the crash to have been adequately resolved and supported further, more independent investigation into events. An alternative Polish-led investigation is currently underway, but the investigators say they are still waiting to receive important documentation from Russia.


Papering Over the Cracks?

One year on, the organisation of commemorative events to mark the first anniversary of the Smolensk crash have highlighted deep divisions within Poland and cast a shadow over recent attempts to improve Polish-Russian relations. Official commemoration of the anniversary began at 08.41am on 10 April, as Polish politicians, flanked by crowds, gathered at Warsaw cathedral to mark the time that the plane crashed in Smolensk. However, Jaroslaw Kaczynski, (the late Lech Kaczynski’s twin-brother and current leader of the main opposition ‘Law and Justice Party’), who has declared that Russia are ‘directly responsible’ for the crash and that the victims have been ‘betrayed’ by the current Polish government, boycotted the official ceremonies, choosing instead to hold his own ‘unofficial’ ceremony, laying a wreath outside Warsaw’s Presidential Palace, in a gesture of defiance that was supported by a 3000 strong crowd holding nationalist banners and shouting “Here is Poland!”. The weekend before the official commemoration a 2000 strong protest also took place in Warsaw, with one Polish man arrested after burning an effigy of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin in front of the Russian embassy. This has fuelled fears that the ‘politicisation’ of the Smolensk tragedy in Poland is reawakening traditional suspicions of Russia and undermining still fragile attempts to build closer relations between the two states.

When in power, Lech Kaczysnski was a divisive political figure due to his conservative nationalist agenda and despite a genuine outpouring of grief in the aftermath of the fateful crash, controversial proposals to bury Kaczynski and his wife in Wawel Cathedral in Krakow soon split popular opinion. His death, particularly under such tragic circumstances, has also proved divisive, leading to charges that some parties in Poland are using the tragedy for their own political ends. Jaroslaw Kaczynski, in particular, has been accused of using the death of his brother to exploit ‘Russophobia’ in Poland and gain political leverage. The imminent prospect of an election by October 2011 – and a recent poll putting Kaczynski’s opposition Law and Justice party just 4% behind Donald Tusk’s ruling Civic Platform in the polls, gaining 28% and 32% respectively – have led to charges that Jaroslaw was effectively using this week’s commemorations to launch his own election campaign.

Now, a new squabble has broken out over the Smolensk crash site, after Russian authorities replaced a Polish plaque placed by relatives of the victims in November 2010 which referred to the 1940 deaths as a ‘genocide’ with a dual-language plaque that omits any mention of Katyn. Russian authorities have since claimed the original plaque was replaced because Russian law prohibits memorials written solely in a foreign language and in an attempt to quell rising tensions Medvedev and Komorowski have announced that a joint Russian-Polish panel will be set up to design a mutually acceptable commemorative plaque which will permanently mark the site.

April 13, 2011 - Posted by | Uncategorized | , , , , ,


  1. […] The immense pride in Soviet victory during the Second World War thus provides one of the most important bases for contemporary support for Stalin, particulalry amongst the older generations, effectively marginalising the darker aspects of Stalinist rule. The drive for truth and reconciliation, which constitutes a key part of the memory of Stalinist-era repression and terror, comes into direct conflict with this heroic ‘war narrative’. Some steps have been taken to revise elements of the Russian ‘war myth’ in light of new evidence available in the post-Soviet period, such as the 2009 publication of formerly secret documents relating to the Nazi-Soviet Pact of 1939, which Prime Minister Vladimir Putin condemned as ‘immoral’. In April 2010 the Russian Federation also published documents relating to the true nature of the Soviet role in the massacre of 20,000 Polish Army officers in the Katyn forest. When the mass graves were uncovered in 1943 the Soviet Union blamed the murders on the Nazis, and it was only in 1990 that Mikhail Gorbachev admitted Soviet guilt. The recent publication of these documents confirmed that the massacre was designed by Beria (head of the NKVD) and directly approved by Stalin. This was followed in November 2010 by the Russian Parliament’s adoption of a statement recognising Soviet responsibility for the massacre and condemning Katyn as ‘an act of lawlessness of a totalitarian regime’. Public acknowledgment of this crime may serve as indication of a renewed policy towards popular national memory, however it may be seen as an act of appeasement towards the west – and more specifically the Poles, especially in light of the recent death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski (for more on Katyn see the previous blog  post HERE). […]

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  2. […] and in relation to continuing efforts to commemorate contested aspects of modern history including Katyn; the construction of the Berlin Wall, German reunification, Stalin’s legacy and the […]

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  3. […] 5th March 1940 – Stalin signed the order authorising NKVD officers to commence the execution and burial of over 20,000 captured Polish Army Officers who were being held in the Katyn Forest, near Smolensk in Poland. Responsibility for the Katyn Massacre was subsequently denied by Soviet officials, who blamed the Germans right up until the dying days of the USSR, when Mikhail Gorbachev finally admitted Soviet responsibility. However, Katyn has continued to cast a dark shadow over Russian-Polish relations in the post-Cold War period, as discussed in more detail in my previous blog post HERE. […]

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  4. […] 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 […]

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  5. […] II (for more details see my previous blog post about the Katyn massacre and its historical legacy HERE). However, the recent release of over 1000 pages of documentation held by the US National Archives […]

    Pingback by US Documents Provide New Perspectives on Katyn ‘Cover Up’ « The View East | September 12, 2012 | Reply

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