Foreign Policy

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 EJ.ru, 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 http://cathyyoung.wordpress.com/. This article originally appeared at RealClearPolitics.

Advertisement

NEXT: Dump the House, Take a Vacation, Just Treat Yourself...

Editor's Note: We invite comments and request that they be civil and on-topic. We do not moderate or assume any responsibility for comments, which are owned by the readers who post them. Comments do not represent the views of Reason.com or Reason Foundation. We reserve the right to delete any comment for any reason at any time. Report abuses.

  1. the NKVD methodically executed nearly 22,000 Polish men

    Yeah, well, American SWAT teams kill house pets!

  2. When do I get MY country back?

    1. If you are a troll: +100

      If you are serious: O for fucks sake, stop whinning already. If you want East-Prussia back so badly just move there, buy a house & live there. Nobody’s gonna stop you as an EU-citizen.

      1. Well, yes. Russians don’t let EU citizens move in. Most of East Prussia is in Russian hands, not Polish. But as far as Danzig or Silesia is concerned – you make a good point. Time for Germans to move back.

        1. LOL, Germans can’t even hold what they have in East Germany ;))

  3. Why should Russia apologize, shouldn’t it be Georgia apologizing since the Soviet Union was ruled by Stalin and Stalin was a Georgian

    1. Shouldn’t God be apologizing, since He made everyone?

      1. (The original GODwin)

        1. Speaking of Godwin, Hitler was from Austria. Should Austria apologize because Germany elected an Austria? Perhaps Austria should apologize for Arnold Schwarzenegger in Cali-forn-ia as well?

          1. AHHH- I hate it when I notice a mistake RIGHT AFTER POSTING. Make that “because Germany elected an Austrian”

            1. You know who else hated mistakes?

            2. 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.

              I love it when Ms. Young bravely goes out on a limb like this.

  4. The article does indeed raise some very interesting points!

    Lou
    http://www.security-tools.us.tc

  5. Hmmmm,

    I wonder what else the victors of WWII lied about???

    In a court room setting ONE lie from a witness is interpreted as “falsehood in one, falsehood in all”.

    Just think, German officers were judged guilty and executed for the Katyn Forest massacre.

    1. Truth is always the first casualty of war. Historians have the difficult task of uncovering it although sometimes the lies go undetected for decades. Sometimes forever.

    2. I assume the insinuation here is that the holocaust never happened? You fucking bastard?

      1. Dunno how you made that mistaken leap from a simple observation about truth, war and propoganda. The Nazis kept records with tuetonic efficiency, those who deny the holocaust occurred are like those who think the Civil War was primarily about tariffs and “states rights”.

        The Boston Massacre on the other hand was about troops in genuine fear for their own safety firing on a crowd of drunken hooligans, i.e. not a massacre.

        Remember the Maine!

        1. J sub D, Jorgen is referring to H.F. Wolff’s comment not yours and I thought his insinuation was pretty obvious as well. I agree with your comment but I think you missed what Wolff was really saying.

    3. The Soviet Union tried to make allegations against Germans for the Katyn massacre at the Nuremberg Trials. But the Western allies didn’t let the Soviets do it. Therefore, I don’t believe that German officers were found guilty and executed for Katyn.

      1. One of the Soviet generals responsible for executing the Katyn massacre sat in judgement at Nuremberg.

        Sure looks, sounds, and reeks of allied complicity.

      2. One of the Soviet generals responsible for executing the Katyn massacre sat in judgement at Nuremberg.

        Sure looks, sounds, and reeks of allied complicity.

  6. Cathy Young fails to mention that the Poles gave False Dmitry to the Russians during Smutnoye Vremya.

    1. 3 of them, 17th century rocks 😀

  7. Maybe Russia and Poland can become friends and then agree how to carve up Ukraine. I’m not sure Russian-Poland friendship is in everyone’s best interest.

  8. Just one step closer to my dream of rebuilding the Soviet Union… and teaching those fucking Poles a lesson.

    1. We’re doing our part to help!

      1. So is the commenter who uses the handle “boomshanka”.

  9. Jorgen: Ad hominem attacks are the final refuge of the out-argued.

    Since you raised the topic, here are some FACTS for your tiny mind to chew on:

    Governments of Israel, Poland, and Germany, published information refuting holocaust!

    For decades the commemorative plaques at the Auschwitz concentration camp in Poland proclaimed that the number of Jews murdered in that camp was 4 million; consequently 2 million must have been murdered elsewhere to arrive at the historic figure of 6 million Jews gassed and cremated by the Nazis.

    In 1990 the Polish government, after years of study and research concluded that the number of Jews murdered in Auschwitz had been exaggerated by the communists who had liberated this concentration camp, and that 1.5 million was a more realistic number. The commemorative plaques were replaced with new ones acknowledging this reduced estimate.

    Subsequently this lower figure was further reduced to a generally accepted number of 1.1 million (as per Wikipidia) for a revised total claim of 3.1 million murdered Jews.

    In 2002 the Israeli government is on record as stating that in the year 2000 about 1.1 million holocaust survivors were still alive.

    In 2005 the German government is on record as stating that it was still paying compensation to about 1.5 million holocaust survivors.

    The conflicting data from Israel and Germany may be averaged: (1.1 m + 1.5 m) / 2 = 1.3 million survivers in 2003, to establish a point half-way between the two data points. That puts the number of survivors at 1.3 million 58 years after liberation of the camps.

    The American Journal of Public Health, Dec. 1949, pg 1582, published the mortality rates for various European countries, varying from a low of 8 per thousand to almost 15 per thousand population. Since the camp survivors had been subjected to deprivations, disease, starvation, physical abuse, freezing cold, medical experiments, etc. it is reasonable to conclude that the camp survivors as a group would have a mortality rate at least at the higher level of 15 per thousand, certainly not less or the claims of deprivations would then sound hollow.

    The mortality rate of 15 per thousand may be applied as a multiplier to the Jewish survivor population as follows: P x .985**58 = 1.3 m, where P is the number of survivors in 1945, .985 is the multiplier for a mortality rate of 15 per thousand, meaning that 1000 people x .985 = (1000 – 15) = 985 people survive after one year. After 58 years the original population will have decreased by .985 raised to the 58th power, ie. .985 x .985 x .985 x …. for 58 terms. Then, solving the equation for P, and using the known information as published by the above governments, the calculation shows that: P = (1.3 m / .985**58) = (1.3 m / .416) = 3.124 million survivors in 1945, ie. slightly more than the number claimed as murdered.

    As author and professor Norman Finkelstein so aptly put it in his book: “With all these holocaust survivors, who did the Nazis kill”? Now we know: NOT ONE, as affirmed by those questioning the veracity of the premise of the holocaust.

    HdC

    1. There is an idiotic denial of the reality of the Holocaust for you, Jorgen.

      1. Yeah! And even if the Holohoax were true, the Jews deserved to die!

        1. We agree on the Jews, white devils!

          1. Why do you hate us?

      2. J sub D, H.F. Wolff is the same guy Jorgen was referring to in his first post. He was obviously right about the clear implication of Wolff’s first post. See my comment in that thread (hate these threaded comments).

    2. H.F. Wolff|4.17.10 @ 3:09PM|#
      “….here are some FACTS….”

      Here’s a FACT: It’s sunny today here.
      Similarly, your FACTS in no way ‘disprove’ the holocaust. And your ‘survival equation’ is one of the silliest claims I’ve seen in this regard. FACTS it ain’t.
      You are beneath contempt; go away.

      1. I’m always willing to be corrected…

        What, then, ARE the facts regarding the survival equation?

        Seems like pretty simple algebra to me, and the numbers given in the essay are easily verifiable.

        1. H.F. Wolff|4.17.10 @ 10:51PM|#
          “I’m always willing to be corrected…”
          Right.

          “What, then, ARE the facts regarding the survival equation?”
          I don’t know and I’m not willing to spend the time to show how and where your horseshit is horseshit.
          Suffice to say, if your algebra was correct, there would have been no deaths from the Nazi death-camps. So it’s a lie. That’s all; it’s a lie, which means you’re a liar.
          Is that enough?

          1. Riiiiight, when scientific facts fly in the face of popular thought, throw out the science.

            1. H.F. Wolff|4.18.10 @ 10:56PM|#
              “Riiiiight, when scientific facts fly in the face of popular thought, throw out the science.”

              You have no facts; you have a theory supposedly ‘illustrated’ by bogus math.
              The “scientific facts” are that millions of people died from Nazi intent.
              Again, you’re a liar and it’s looking like a sleazy liar, unworthy of attention by reasonable people.
              Are you either:
              1) a total ignoramus?
              or
              2) some sort of Nazi apologist?
              One or the other asshole.

    3. What a surprise this holocaust denier posting at the same time as Libertmike.

      Oh well, i’m sure they are two different people…

      1. The name is Libertymike, not Libertmike.

        No, I am not H.F. Wolfe, you intellectually dishonest piece of garbage.

    4. You utter moron. Many, many Jews died of starvation and disease in the ghettos. Hundreds of thousands were killed (simply shot and/or beaten to death) and thrown in ditches in the occupied USSR. Auschwitz was a drop in the bucket.

  10. Around Polacks,
    Never relax!

    1. Jew Jewenstein|4.17.10 @ 3:16PM|#
      “Around Polacks,
      Never relax!”

      The Nazis attempted to reduce the Jewish/Polish population to zero. As much as the tried, they didn’t do it.
      OTOH, after killing what they presumed to be the cream of the Polish population at Katyn while allied with the Nazis, the Red Army held back during their advance against Germany in 1944, allowing the the Nazis to massacre the (non-commy) resistance in Warsaw, saving the Red Army some ammunition.
      When the remaining Jewish/Polish tried to re-claim their homes in Poland after the German surrender, they were driven off to DP camps by rioters.
      I can’t find a hero here.

      1. I can’t find a hero here.

        I don’t think you are supposed to. A classic example of why Joshua said, “A strange game. The only winning move is not to play.”

        1. When another does play and is arrested, prosecuted and incarcerated for so playing, liberty demands that those doing the arresting, prosecuting and incarcerating should be condemned and not the one who plays.

          1. True enough.
            The Germans killed the Jews, the Poles and the Russians.
            The Russians killed the Jews, the Poles and the Germans.
            The Germans, Russians and Poles killed the Jews.
            Unfortunately, only the Germans were condemned in the event, more’s the pity.

            1. Wow you make it sound as if Poles killed as many Jews as Tsarist/Commie pogroms and the Nazis. However, what about the Jews who joined the Reds (in response to the Russian Tsarist pogroms) and being happily Bolshevik were complicit in killing hundreds of thousands of Poles? What about the fact that Poland for centuries was the safest place for Jews in Europe where they were protected by law, not forgetting that during WW2 many Poles hid Jews (penalty was death for whole family), and that the Polish AK was the first organisation to provide the allies evidence of the Holocaust which the allies pretty much ignored?
              Yeah – obviously the Poles were also guilty of killing Jews and only Jews died in WW2 and we’re all anti-semites.
              Go away.

              1. Just to add, if you’re gonna say Poles killed Jews in significant numbers than you must add USA, UK and France as complicit because they knew about the holocaust and didn’t even bomb Aushwitz, meanwhile at least many Poles helped the Jews in uprisings and saved Jews – guys like Roman Polanski meanwhile the West took Nazi psychopaths to help work on the NASA space/ICBM Program.

  11. As author and professor Norman Finkelstein so aptly put it in his book: “With all these holocaust survivors, who did the Nazis kill”? Now we know: NOT ONE, as affirmed by those questioning the veracity of the premise of the holocaust.

    +100 trollpoints. This is performance art at it’s finest. Everyone assumes that there are people really this stupid out there, but even Finklestein doesn’t really believe it, he was simple selling books to mouth breathers. It is widely known that few who quote this book have not read it because you would have to be illiterate to believe a word of it.

    So when someone comes along and parodies some of the most imbecilic human beings on the Earth, and really nails it too, you just have to +100.

    1. +100

  12. I’ve never run across a conspiracy theory that I could embrace but when word of this crash came, several immediately came to mind. The only reason I don’t embrace any of those is my belief that the Russians are too incompetent to pull anything of any sophistication off. But it is disconcerting to realize that in this time, with the seeming incompetence and lack of backbone of our current administration and the emboldening of Putin et al, something like this could shift everything dramatically.

    Didn’t know about the shale gas discoveries in Poland. Very interesting.

  13. “Putin, the former KGB officer who has once angrily lashed out at those who would make Russians “feel guilty” about Stalinism”

    Why, the horror!
    How could anyone feel ‘guilty’ about supporting a national leader who murdered some 30 million of his population?

    1. Yeah but they were his own people so it was ok.

  14. For gods sake, wake up you goddamn sheeple and stop believing what the media tells you.

    How does a plane magically fall to the ground without a human doing something?

    I’ve seen lots of planes flying overhead, and they don’t just fall to the earth without human intervention…

    sheesh.

    1. -5

      1. So they’ve gotten to *you* too…

        1. Ugh, please learn basic HTML and quite with the asterisks.

          1. Stop censoring me!

  15. Since when has Reason become The Economist?

    This article is distasteful for so many reasons.

  16. Wolff the deathrate is not constant across all age groups. I’m trained in epidemiology and your equations are totally muddled.

    1. Please clarify, then.

      In the Public Health publication the death rate for the various countries in Europe was given as varying from 8 to 15 per thousand, with no qualifiers as to the age, or how age might affect the death rate.

      How do you propose to adjust the given statistics to reflect your understanding of the situation?

      1. Either
        1) an ignoramus?
        or
        2) some sort of Nazi apologist?
        Which is it, asshole?

        1. You cannot produce verifiable facts to support your argument, as I have done. My facts ARE verifiable as they were obtained from publicly available documentation.

          Hence your arm-waving, synthetic outrage, and crocodile tears, and ad-infenitum repetition of the “official story” as propagated by comic books, hollywood, and politically correct history books.

          But then ignorance is bliss.

  17. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IxXn9xfTNaQ

    Why could this jet climb over the brushy field before it finally hit the big tree that took off its wing?

  18. Previous comment should be “Why couldnt the jet climb over the brushy field…”

    Also, why are shots being fired by the First Responders?

    http://cybercossack.com/?p=1889

  19. We provide the cheap ghd online. We have the best price and free shipping for the ghd straighteners.

  20. My daughter now lives with me.

    Enjoy hell.

    We did not

  21. But while such rules may be preferable, legislators will always find loopholes. The only long-term solution is to get the government out of more areas of our lives, rather than pretending to limit the rate at which it can increase spending.

  22. My father (a polish non jewish holocaust survivor), didn’t trust russians for a reason. Call it what you want, but this makes for a very interesting coincidence. The russians lied about everything, just like the germans in wwII – the only difference is that russia is STILL lying – at least germany manned up (for the most part) and owned it.

  23. Most of East Prussia is in Russian hands, not Polish. But as far as Danzig or Silesia is concerned

  24. Of course they can, it was clearly proved that it was a bad accident.

  25. The only long-term solution is to get the government out of more areas of our lives. | ran ??? |

  26. Hi from California New

  27. New owner CZ, CZ85 Combat New

  28. CZ newbie in TX New

  29. Another 40B owner New

  30. hank you, my dear on this important topic You can also browse my site and I am honored to do this site for songs
    http://www.xn—-ymcbk0bld8nta.com
    This website is for travel to Malaysia
    http://www.xn—-ymcbk0bld8nta.com

  31. Thank you for your comments and good information. Useful to me.

  32. The Boston Massacre on the other hand was about troops in genuine fear for their own safety firing on a crowd of drunken hooligans, i.e. not a massacre.

  33. By means of the IMF (the film’s most visible villain), the US is able to surreptitiously exert the might of predatory capitalism against the noble inhabitants mbt shoes sale of Latin America, robbing them of the fruits of their labor while keeping the American people mbt shoes clearance ignorant of this theft by means of?again?the sinister corporate media establishment,

  34. By means of the IMF (the film’s most visible villain), the US is able to surreptitiously exert the might of predatory capitalism against the noble inhabitants mbt shoes sale of Latin America, robbing them of the fruits of their labor while keeping the American people mbt shoes clearance ignorant of this theft by means of?again?the sinister corporate media establishment,

Please to post comments

Comments are closed.