Krzysztof Bobinski: Poland’s Second Katyń: Out of the Ashes





[Krzysztof Bobinski is the president of Unia & Polska, a pro-European think-tank in Warsaw. He was the Financial Times Warsaw correspondent (1976-2000) and later published Unia & Polska magazine.]

Everyone tries to behave well when confronted by tragedy. Vladimir Putin, the Russian prime minister, is proving no exception. He and the Russian authorities have behaved with notable compassion in the aftermath of the Polish plane-crash near the city of Smoleńsk on the morning of 10 April 2010 which killed ninety-seven people. These included Lech Kaczyński, the Polish president, his wife as well as numerous officials, the entire Polish military high-command, and the central-bank governor. Also on board were family members of the victims of the massacre in April 1940 by the a Soviet NKVD, when over 4,000 interned officers were murdered on Stalin’s orders in Katyń wood outside Smoleńsk. Since then the word Katyń has come to symbolise the murder of some 22,000 Polish officers, officials, policeman and landowners killed by the Soviets that spring seventy years ago....

The fact that Donald Tusk had been in Katyń two days before Lech Kaczyński was due there and attended a separate commemorative ceremony with Putin showed the gulf that existed between the two Polish leaders. In his commemorative address on 8 April, Putin referred to the other victims of “the Stalinist repressions of the 1930s” who are buried in Katyń wood. The use of this area as an NKVD killing-ground was well known to people living in the neighbourhood but it was something they only whispered about for many years after 1945....

But if the Russian prime minister set the murder of the Polish officers in the context of the massive killings in the Soviet Union at the hands of Joseph Stalin and his predecessors, he was careful not to mention Stalin directly. Behind this diplomatic caution lies another anniversary: in May 2010 the Russians will host the sixty-fifth anniversary of the end of the second world war, when Stalin completed the Soviet Union’s victory over Nazi Germany to the everlasting pride of Soviet veterans and many others in today’s Russia.

Lech Kaczyński had been planning to be in Moscow for that event, despite his lack of trust in Medvedev and Putin. But whatever he might have said there or in Katyń, the circumstances surrounding his death and the evident good relations between Vladimir Putin and Donald Tusk may combine to open a new chapter in the ways that Russia and Poland interconnect....

Now, there is evidence that the Russian and Polish prime ministers have opened the way to full disclosure. Vladimir Putin’s behaviour in the wake of the tragedy - part of a Russian response described as “impeccable” by Poland’s foreign minister, Radek Sikorski - raises hopes that the reconciliation around the Katyń anniversary could lead to a permanent improvement of relations. The showing of Andrzej Wajda’s film-drama Katyń on Russian state television on the evening of 11 April 2010 is a further symbolic sign of what may become a genuine opening.

The Poles will have to be careful that this should not entail abandoning support for the independence of states like Georgia and Ukraine, to which Lech Kaczyński paid such great attention. But it would be a singular twist of history if a disaster which took the life of a Polish politicians sceptical of Russia paves the way to closer bonds between the two countries and peoples.


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