Warsaw, Poland — He died en route to the most sensitive mission possible — a visit to the place that has driven a wedge between Poles and Russians for three generations.
The death of Lech Kaczynski, Poland’s president and dozens of his high-level countrymen in a plane crash, and the purpose behind the journey, laid bare the deep divisions that remain between two nations still struggling to be more than uneasy neighbors who watch each other with skepticism and suspicion.
Saturday’s planned visit to the Katyn forest was somber in purpose but underscored his suspicious eye of the massive neighbor and former taskmaster to the east. The memorial service was to mark the 70th anniversary of the killing of thousands of Polish officers and intellectuals by the Soviet secret security during World War II.
Katyn. The site of the massacre of Polish military officers, priests, shopkeepers. Men shot in the back of the head by Josef Stalin’s NKVD, the precursor of the KGB.
“It is an accursed place,” former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski told TVN24 after the crash.
Janusz Bugajski of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said that Saturday’s crash has put Katyn at the center of Polish-Russian relations.
“It brought to the forefront again an event that Moscow would like to forget or, if not to forget, to sideline,” he said, noting that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin took a significant step by attending the Katyn commemorations last Wednesday with Polish counterpart Donald Tusk.
The ancient city of Smolensk has long played a significant and somewhat symbolic role in Russian-Polish relations.
Russian and Polish rulers fiercely fought over it for centuries, as well as over other contested territories in today’s Ukraine and Belarus, and the Russian takeover of the city in the mid-17th century preceded Moscow’s takeover of eastern Polish lands.
Earlier this week, Poles took deep satisfaction in Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s presence at the memorial for the 22,000 killed there.
Putin was the first Russian leader to commemorate the Katyn massacres with a Polish leader and noted that both nations’ “fates had been inexorably joined” by the atrocities that saw 22,000 Polish officers, prisoners and intellectuals massacred by Stalin’s secret police in 1940 in and around Katyn, a village near Russia’s border with Belarus.
“In our country there has been a clear political, legal and moral judgment made of the evil acts of this totalitarian regime, and this judgment cannot be revised,” he said, but he did not apologize or call it a war crime.
Listening to the remarks was the Polish prime minister, Tusk, not Kaczynski who, as president, was not invited to the event.
“It was a step forward. He could have not shown up, he could have not invited Tusk,” Bugajski said.
Instead Kaczynski, along with others, made their own trip Saturday for Polish-only commemorations.
“I think in a way this is a God-given opportunity to really talk honestly about Katyn and what led to Katyn,” Bugajski said. “We know who killed these people.”
For half a century, Soviet officials claimed that the mass executions had been carried out by Nazi occupiers during the Second World War. But the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev’s rule admitted in 1990 that the crimes had been committed by Stalin’s NKVD secret police.
“Without a doubt, there is evident symbolism in this tragedy that we cannot even grasp now,” Slawomir Debski, the head of Poland’s Institute of International Affairs, said. “At a time when it seemed we were reaching a conclusion of the Katyn issue between Poland and Russia, after the ceremonies and good gestures, we have another tragedy.”
Fyodor Lukyanov, editor of the journal Russia in Global Affairs, said Kaczynski’s death could fuel anti-Russian sentiments among some Poles.
“There will be certain people who’ll say, ‘It was Russians who organized the whole thing,”’ Lukyanov was quoted by the gazeta.ru news portal as saying.
He said only an open investigation by the Russian authorities could put to rest any suspicion but there was optimism, too.
“But we may also look for a grain of hope in that it can mend our relations because it is such a tragedy that we may see a kind of catharsis,” Anna Materska-Sosnowska, a political scientist with Warsaw University.