If you are not Polish and are too young to remember World War II, it is difficult to grasp the full horror of Saturday’s aviation disaster without seeing the film “Katyn.”
The 2007 film by Polish director Andrzej Wajda depicts the murders in April 1940 of 15,000 captured Polish officers and intellectuals in the forest outside Smolensk, Russia, where they were taken by Stalin’s secret police. The Katyn shootings were part of a wave of executions that were carried out in several locations overseen by Lavrenti Beria, Stalin’s security chief. An estimated 22,000 Polish leaders lost their lives in the course of a few weeks. Stalin was looking ahead to a postwar era in which he planned to hold former Polish territory and to impose a compliant government on the Poles, and he wanted to eliminate as much potential opposition as he could.
On Saturday, more than 90 prominent citizens of today’s free Poland, including President Lech Kaczynski, perished when their Soviet-designed Tupolev-154 jet crashed in fog less than a mile short of the runway at Smolensk’s military airfield. They were en route to a memorial at the nearby mass grave site. Some of the dead were children and grandchildren of the earlier victims at Katyn.
Exactly 67 years ago today, on April 13, 1943, Radio Berlin broadcast news of the executions to the world. Nazi soldiers, who had invaded Russia two years earlier, had uncovered the graves in the woods. The skeletons wore Polish officer uniforms and carried Poland’s prewar currency in their pockets, along with diaries and other documents dating their deaths to 1940, when the area was still in Soviet hands.
The Nazis were eager to use the killings for propaganda, to drive a wedge between Soviet forces and their Western allies as well as the Polish partisans who were harassing the Germans behind the lines. In some ways the strategy worked. U.S. President Franklin D. Roosevelt and British Prime Minister Winston Churchill downplayed the news to preserve Allied harmony, but relations between the Soviets and the Polish government-in-exile broke down. Two months later, the exiled Polish leader Wladislaw Sikorski and his entourage died in a mysterious plane crash as they left British-held Gibraltar.
Katyn was banned from all public discussion in Poland during the Communist era, but the bitterness lingered all the way to this weekend. Kaczynski, an enthusiastic booster of Wajda’s film whom the Kremlin saw as an anti-Russian hardliner, was not invited to last week’s joint memorial with Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin. Instead, his delegation was going to hold its own memorial when their plane crashed.
Given the testy relationship between Kaczynski’s faction and the Russians, my first reaction to Saturday’s news was to predict that the conspiracy theorists would soon be out in force — and that they could not be dismissed out of hand. The fact that the crash happened at a Russian military airstrip and that Putin immediately put himself in charge of the investigation was not comforting. Putin’s Russia is a place where politically convenient deaths, many of which appear on the surface to be accidents or random killings, happen all too often, and where investigations almost always lead nowhere.
But the initial reports at least seem to credibly point to an innocent tragedy rather than a conspiracy. Weather conditions in the area were verifiably bad. The Associated Press, citing Russian officials, reported yesterday that the Polish presidential jet was making its fifth attempt to land in the fog when it crashed. It could have diverted to another airport, but that would have delayed the planned ceremony and would have inconvenienced the many VIPs on board. In these circumstances, an experienced flight crew might, foolishly but understandably, try to force a landing in conditions where even a novice pilot would know to break off the approach.
The Russians won Polish good will by their rapid response to the crash site, their dignified and courteous repatriation of the president’s body, and the declaration of a national day of mourning across Russia. Russia also aired Wajda’s film on state-controlled television Saturday night, after a news announcer attributed the events depicted in the film to a “totalitarian regime.”
The apparently constructive Russian response to Saturday’s tragedy is a welcome bright spot in the darkness of that Eastern European forest. Poland’s former President Aleksander Kwasniewski aptly called it “a damned place,” in an interview after the accident with Polish broadcaster TVN24.
Were those who died there this weekend truly the last victims of Katyn? I fervently hope so.