Katyn Tragedy Redux: Aircrash May Also Have Buried Russian-Polish Reconciliation

By Nicholas Dima l April 20, 2010

Mass Graves at Katyn                           Route of Polish President’s Plane            Crash of Tu-154M (Photo-AFP)


Background to an Old Tragedy:

The aircrash that killed Poland’s president, Lech Kaczynski, is set in a background of tragedy dating back to the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 23, 1939, when the German Army invaded western Poland. Two weeks later, the Soviet Army invaded the eastern part of Poland, and France and Great Britain, which had given security guarantees to Poland, declared war on Germany, leading to the beginning of World War II. The Polish Army fought against the Germans, but not against the Soviet Union. Numerous Polish officers surrendered to the Russians hoping to be well received and together to fight against the Germans. At the time, however, the Soviet Union and Germany were allies; therefore, the Polish officers were placed in concentrations camps. Shortly thereafter, in 1940, the Soviet Union decided to execute them. Some 50,000 young, educated and well-trained Polish officers — Poland’s best and brightest – were shot individually KGB-style in the back of the head. The best known case is the massacre in Katyn, a forest in present day Belarus, a former Soviet Socialist Republic, where over 20,000 Polish officers were murdered and interred in a common pit.

For decades, Moscow claimed that the Polish officers were killed by the Germans, but the evidence proved otherwise. Finally, after launching perestroika and glasnost in the late 1980s, President Mikhail Gorbachev admitted on April 13, 1990 this horrific genocide, which was committed in the spring of 1940 by the Soviet secret police in the Katyn Forest. Gorbachev did so when he handed over to then-Polish President Wojciech Jaruzelski boxes of documents proving Soviet involvement in the massacre. Poland accepted with dignity and resignation Moscow’s admission of guilt and began to put the abominable act behind it. Poland also built a memorial at Katyn and the Polish people began a tradition of pilgrimage to the place where their sons were murdered. Ever since the fall of the Soviet empire, Polish officials and private citizens have visited the Katyn memorial.

Reality of a New Tragedy:

The U.S. Department of State issued the following statement on April 7, 2010, in anticipation of Katyn commemoration ceremonies:

“On April 7 and 10, senior Polish and Russian leaders are participating together in ceremonies commemorating the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre. The mass murder in the Katyn forest 70 years ago is a tragic stain on Europe’s past. This meeting of the current generation of Polish and Russian leaders is a sign of a much better present and of the hope for an increasingly bright and peaceful future. We welcome the strengthening of the Russian-Polish relationship this mutual tribute symbolizes, and hope that it promises the continued growth of cooperation in Europe. The United States joins Poland and Russia in remembering those who lost their lives in the Katyn forest seventy years ago.”

Saturday, April 10, 2010, on the 70th commemoration of the Katyn massacre, Polish President Lech Kaczynski with his wife and First Lady, Mrs. Maria Kaczynska, led a large delegation for a special ceremony at that memorial. Along with his wife, he was accompanied by 94 Polish high-ranking civilian and military officials, including a dozen members of parliament, the president of the national bank, all the heads of Poland’s armed services and the head of the national security bureau. They were supposed to attend a second memorial service. A first one had been held three days earlier, but President Kaczynski was irritated because Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had invited only the Polish Prime Minister, Donald Tusk, and the Russian leader had not mentioned the Polish officers massacred by the KGB. Consequently, Kaczynski wanted a proper ceremony held at Katyn and was on his way to attend it. At the first ceremony Vladimir Putin, himself a former KGB colonel, admitted the Russian hand in the tragic event, which was a step in the right direction. However, he then gave an interview justifying the massacre. As reported by the UK newspaper, The Independent, Vladimir Putin said that Soviet dictator Josef Stalin personally wanted revenge for the alleged deaths in 1920 of about 32,000 Soviet soldiers in Polish prisons and war camps following World War I.

Ironically, President Lech Kaczynski wanted to set the record straight. For the new commemoration, he and his delegation were traveling to Katyn aboard a Soviet-built airplane, a Tupolev-154M, but the plane crashed killing the entire Polish delegation. Later, it was revealed that Moscow had wanted to divert the plane’s route, allegedly due to bad weather. The Polish delegation insisted, however, to fly a more direct route to arrive at the ceremony as scheduled, but they never made it, with the plane crashing just 1000 feet short of the runway at Smolensk North Airport, once a Soviet military airbase. It was apparently a grim accident, which instead of helping the reconciliation process reminded the Poles of the other huge tragedy that had split Moscow and Warsaw decades earlier. The terrible accident stunned Poland and raised many eyebrows in Eastern Europe. Most papers admitted that it was an accident, but many people remembered quickly that it was an accident “typical of Russia.” Some papers even pointed out what President Franklin Delano Roosevelt once said: “Nothing happens by accident in politics. And if it does, you can bet that it was planned to happen.” What can one say when such a tragic accident decimates an entire governmental delegation led by the very president of that nation when visiting a not so friendly country?

President Kaczynski was a Polish patriot and a staunch critic of Vladimir Putin and Russia’s efforts to regain control over the former Soviet sphere. As elaborated by Stratfor-Global Intelligence, among others, Mr. Kaczynski even proposed that the EU “impose sanctions on Russia for its economic bullying in Eastern Europe.” Also, in a public speech given in June of last year he proposed that the EU show “energetic solidarity” in order to protect the country against “international blackmailing,” obviously referring to Moscow. When Russia invaded Georgia and flexed its muscles in Ukraine, he also expressed vigorous support for the integrity of Georgia and for the independence of Ukraine. Moscow was irritated by his statements and attitude. But following the April accident, the Kremlin became more cautious regarding its relations with Warsaw.

To limit any further damage, Moscow ordered a full investigation of the accident. However, the investigation was mostly conducted by the Russians. It revealed that weather conditions were indeed very poor, that the plane flew through dense fog, and that visibility was limited. According to the same Russian sources, the air controllers also complained that the Polish pilots could not express themselves properly in Russian and could not understand good Russian either, which contributed to the problem. The Polish investigators in their turn complained that they did not have immediate access to the scene of the accident and in addition they found some contradictions in the Russian official investigation. Adding to this complex puzzle, it was pointed out that the Tu-154M was not only Soviet-built, but it had been inspected and modernized also by Russia in December 2009. Yet, Moscow blamed the entire accident on the Polish pilots, although they were among the best Polish military pilots.

Furthermore, the Polish Defense Ministry announced that in the past Russia organized military maneuvers with new electromagnetic weapons in the area of the accident and alluded that those weapons could have damaged the jet’s electronic equipment. Then, Artur Gorski, a member of the Polish Parliament, accused Russia of direct involvement. As reported by the Associated Press, Mr. Gorski accused Moscow of denying the Poles access to the scene of the crash as well as to the transcript of conversations from the cockpit voice recorder detailing events before the fatal accident.

A huge funeral service was held Sunday, April 18, in Warsaw and later the bodies of the president and his wife were flown to Krakow for burial. As reported by the Associated Press, the interim President, Bronislaw Komorowski, stated at the funeral service that “Our world was crushed down for the second time in the same place,” near the forest of Katyn. It seems indeed that not only some of the most prominent members of the Polish elite were buried on that sad Sunday, but also the much needed Russian-Polish reconciliation. In Eastern Europe, for example, as reported by the Romanian press, including the widely circulated daily Romania Libera, the recent resurgence of Russia is not only a fact, but it is a real menace. And all that occurs in a new international climate in which the United States seems to have adopted a policy of accommodation.

Nicholas Dima, Ph.D., is a former professor and author of numerous books and articles including the autobiographical memoir, Journey to Freedom, a description of the effects of communist dictatorship on a nation, a family and an individual. (Refer to updated editions). He is currently a contributor to

SFPPR News & Analysis.