Posted by: Hackney Tours | April 10, 2010

Katyn: Polish President’s plane crash renews national tragedy

Of all the state visits, on all the dates, it had to be this one. En route to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn Massacre, the plane carrying the Polish President and some of the country’s highest ranking politicians crashes into the forest around Smolensk.

Plane crashes involving famous people, from Glenn Miller to John Denver and the Pakistani General Zia-ul-Haq, often invite speculation and conspiracy theories. And today’s incident could not have happened in a more contentious location.

Katyn is where the Soviet NKVD continued their assault on anyone who might lead an independent Poland by killing 15-20,000 of their officers during 1940. A wicked web was subsequently woven by Stalin; the Kremlin made a concerted – and four decade-long – effort to pin the blame on the Germans.

As exiled Polish generals in London asked where all their men had gone, Churchill attempted to play down their fears and keep them on side, whilst – it would appear – having a reasonably good idea exactly what had happened to them. This, along with the even bigger ‘betrayal’ that was the Yalta Conference ‘carve-up’ of postwar Europe, still rankles with some older Poles today.

And it was not until the post-Perestroika 90s that Russia finally admitted what many already knew. An official apology is still awaited, though some in Moscow accuse Warsaw of using this issue as a political football.

History in this part of the world is always selective, as a brief dip into any forum discussing Polish/Russian/Ukrainian relations quickly testifies. ‘What about the Russian and Ukrainian POWs who died in Polish camps,’ counter Poland’s neighbours?

But to the families – those tiny pixels that comprise the big picture – of the Katyn dead, this notorious obscenity still carries enough emotional and historical weight for them to fill trains heading east to a special service to remember the dead.

The invitation from Putin to the Polish leadership to this weekend’s commemoration ceremony was seen as a step in the right direction to finally healing this wound.

Today’s plane crash seems initially to be an accident – the importance of the occasion to the national memory may have encouraged the pilots to push their luck in bad weather instead of diverting – but the image of Putin’s Russia abroad means that any incident on its soil is automatically examined for the hidden hand of the security services.

Statisticians would doubtless be able to explain how the chances of this crash occurring on such a portentous date and in such a controversial location are not as remote as we might think.

But as the names of the politicial and intellectual elite who died are confirmed, once again Poland has lost a good chunk of its leadership in a lonely forest in Western Russia.

And after 70 years, as a Radio Poland survey shows the younger generation’s interest in an official Russian apology waning, Katyn has reasserted itself as a place to be forever associated with Polish national tragedy.

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