After Tragedy, Can Russia and Poland Reconcile?

Why the shocking death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski may have changed everything


If last week's plane crash in Russia that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 others—including some of Poland's top government officials and military leaders—had been a fictional event, it would have seemed a far-fetched, heavy-handed plot twist. Consider that the crash happened near the site of the Katyn massacre, a horror that remains a source of Polish grief and Russian-Polish tension, and that the Polish victims were going to a memorial ceremony for Katyn's dead. What's more, this happened just as, after years of denial, lies and excuses, Russia started making apparent steps toward contrition and reconciliation. Some hope the new tragedy will bring further healing. But the entrenched habits of arrogance on one side and wariness on the other may yet prove stronger.

Even in the grisly annals of World War II, Katyn is memorable. Over four weeks, Stalin's secret police, the NKVD, methodically executed nearly 22,000 Polish men (and one woman) taken prisoner during the Soviet invasion of Poland—about 8,000 military officers as well as doctors, university professors, and public officials.

For decades, the big lie of Katyn as a Nazi crime (initially abetted by the Soviets' British and American allies) remained official dogma in both the Soviet Union and Communist Poland. An admission of Soviet responsibility finally came from Mikhail Gorbachev in 1990, as the USSR neared its end. In the next several years, under Boris Yeltsin, Soviet Russia released some key documents on the killings and took steps to commemorate the victims.

Yet, even then, Polish-Russian tensions over Katyn began to rise. With the growth of nationalist sentiment in Russia in the mid-1990s, calls for Russian contrition and apology met with growing hostility; Yeltsin abandoned his earlier pledge to punish still-living perpetrators and pay reparations to victims' families, and his public statements began to stress that the Poles were no more victims of Stalinism than Russians. Meanwhile, some in the Russian media started to talk about the deaths of Soviet POWs in Polish internment camps during the Polish-Soviet war of 1919-1921 as a counterpart to Katyn. In 1998, Russian Prosecutor General Yuri Chaika wrote to the Polish Minister of Justice demanding an investigation of this "genocide" and compared the Polish government's refusal to admit guilt to Soviet stalling on Katyn.

There was further retrenchment under Vladimir Putin, who was inclined to portray the Soviet era in a more positive light. As relations with Poland soured, Russian authorities rebuffed all requests to open the archives, permit independent investigations, or even recognize individual murdered Poles as victims. In 2007-2008, a few Russian papers—including Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the government's newspaper of record—ran stories questioning Soviet responsibility for the slaughter and dusting off the version of Nazi culpability. Meanwhile, the idea that Katyn was motivated partly by vengeance for the deaths of Red Army soldiers found its way into a manual for history teachers. (The repugnance of this reasoning aside, the Soviet deaths in 1920-21 were due to outbreaks of disease which were common in those years, not only among POWs on both sides but among active troops.)

In April, there was a sudden shift on Russia's part. First, on April 2, Andrzej Wajda's 2007 film Katyn, which focuses on the dead officers' families—previously unseen in Russia except in a few small screenings—aired on Russian television, albeit on a niche channel for cultural programming. Then, on April 7, Vladimir Putin and Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk jointly attended a memorial ceremony in Katyn. It was a remarkable event: Putin, the former KGB officer who has once angrily lashed out at those who would make Russians "feel guilty" about Stalinism, knelt and bowed his head to honor the victims. In his speech, he condemned the "inhuman totalitarianism" of the Stalin regime.

Yet how meaningful was Putin's gesture? He did not offer an apology, or relent on opening the archives. Most Western coverage failed to mention that his speech contained some self-serving staples of Russian propaganda—from the claim that Stalin may have sought revenge for the Red Army POWs to the assertion that the terror at Katyn was not directed specifically at Poles but knew no national or ethnic bounds. (While Stalin's butchery crossed all lines, declassified documents on the massacre show that the Kremlin was specifically concerned about "Polish nationalism" as a source of resistance to Soviet power.)

On the independent website, Russian journalist Yulia Latynina argues that the friendly overtures to Poland had to do with the recent discovery of large shale gas reserves in Poland, and Western corporations' plans to explore them; if Poland were to emerge as a major gas exporter, it would severely erode Russia's influence. Hence, Latynina writes, the attempt to cultivate the pragmatic and liberal Tusk in preference to Kaczynski, an assertive nationalist for whom Katyn was a personal crusade. Latynina believes that Putin's joint appearance with Tusk at Katyn was likely meant to undermine Kaczynski by stealing the spotlight from his planned visit to Katyn three days later—and that Kaczynski may have ordered his pilot to land despite fog warnings because he believed those warnings were an attempt to thwart his visit altogether.

The plane crash has changed everything. Kaczynski, whose popularity in Poland had been low recently, is now a martyr. His death, which has already sparked far-fetched but inevitable conspiracy theories of Russian malfeasance, may yet be seen as magnifying the tragedy of Katyn—and may make many Poles more determined to pursue the questions to which Kaczynski demanded an answer from the Russians.

In Russia, the new tragedy has ironically led to more exposure for Katyn—including the re-airing of Wajda's film on a major national channel. But only time can tell whether this will bring about more sympathy for Poland's claims, or an eventual backlash based on resentment against foreign-imposed guilt.

Cathy Young writes a weekly column for RealClearPolitics and is also a contributing editor at Reason magazine. She blogs at This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.