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.
Lech Kaczyński, elected president of Poland in 2005, had not been Vladimir Putin’s favourite Polish politician. The diminutive Polish leader, with his twin brother Jarosław, had run Poland from 2005-07 (with Jarosław as prime minister of the government led by their Prawo i Sprawiedliwość [Law & Justice / PiS] party); the twins pursued a tough line on Russia as well as the European Union, and showed authoritarian tendencies at home which aimed at rooting out corruption but had worryingly begun to infringe on civil liberties (see Adam Szostkiewicz, "Poland marches: the people sound the alarm", 12 October 2006).
An election in 2007 saw Jarosław voted out and replaced by the more liberal Donald Tusk and his Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform) party, but left Lech to fight the PiS corner. The consequence was that Polish foreign policy pursued a more variable course: Tusk as prime minister moved to improve relations with Moscow, while Kaczyński as president continued to stress support for Georgia and Ukraine and to demonstrate a distrust of Vladimir Putin and his successor as Russia’s president, Dmitry Medvedev.
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.
Putin here linked the fate of “Soviet citizens who burned in the fire of Stalinist repression of the 1930s, Polish officers shot according to a secret order, and Red Army soldiers shot by the Nazis during the Great Patriotic War”; thus making the point that Russia and Poland shared a common fate in the 20th century. There is a hint here of a lasting improvement in Polish-Russian relations based on a reconciliation over the issue of the 1940 massacre.
The speech which Kaczyński had prepared for his Katyń memorial, released on 12 April, can also be seen as in part conciliatory: “Let’s make the Katyń wound finally heal. We are already on the way to do it. We, Poles, appreciate what Russians have done in the past years. We should follow the path which brings our nations closer, we should not stop or go back” (see “President Kaczynski’s last speech”, PolskieRadio, 12 April 2010).
A bend in the river
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.
There are many reasons why these bilateral relations have been poor. Russia’s energy policy and its NordStream pipeline under the Baltic to bring gas to western Europe is but one. The Katyń massacre too has continued to have a large significance. The event may be small by Soviet standards in terms of numbers killed, and Russians as well as Ukrainians and others themselves suffered in some cases greater tragedies before and during the war; but Katyń has become for Poles (notwithstanding Mikhail Gorbachev’s acknowledgment in 1990 of Soviet responsibility) a symbol of Soviet brutality and duplicity, which they feel needs to be more fully accepted by Moscow as a major crime to ensure that the historical record is clear and any possibility of denial - or repeat - is excluded.
The grounds for this attitude on the Polish side include countless stories in the Russian media which continue to assert or imply that the crime was committed by the Nazis. Indeed a deposition by the families of the Katyń victims in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg was met by a Russian claim that there is no proof of any such crime. Indeed, even as the Moscow-based English-language television channel Russia Today reported on the Smoleńsk crash it would go no further than saying that the planned ceremonies were to commemorate the victims of “totalitarian repression” who had been murdered “during the war’.
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.