Imagine a country's commander-in-chief killed in a plane crash. Add to this generals, party leaders and advisors killed in the same crash. This is what befell the Polish Republic last Saturday. An ostensibly anti-Communist formation, painstakingly built in the face of Soviet and post-Soviet pressure, suffered a crippling blow. Polish conservatives and patriots, including President Lech Kaczynski, were killed en route to a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the Soviet massacre of more than 21,000 Polish military officers near a town located between Minsk and Moscow.
It is horrifying that an event marking Stalin's decapitation of Poland in 1940, is now associated with yet another decapitation. How much Poland has suffered! And could this event have happened anywhere, but in Russia? At such a moment it is essential for Russia's leaders to show sympathy for Polish national feeling. Writing on a Ukrainian Web site the other day, former KGB Lt. Col. Viktor Kalashnikov wrote, "Europe becomes a place where everything is possible."
The story has circulated that the FSB (KGB) descended upon the crash site, if only to recover the cell phones and computer hard-drives of the dead Polish leaders; but also, it is said, to learn the reasons for the crash; and heading up the crash investigation is none other than Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, eminently qualified to investigate, and to assure -- as with the Kursk tragedy in 2000 -- an official outburst of heartfelt sympathy. It is an opportunity, after all, to form a new and stronger bond between Poland and Russia. Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski spoke Monday about "an emotional breakthrough" in Russian-Polish relations. "I must emphasize," he explained, "that the Russian side is behaving with extraordinary openness, with a Slavic openness and kindness."
It is said that the Polish Foreign Ministry was approached by a Russian airport official who said, "We are all guilty with regard to what happened. We should have closed that airport due to the weather, but it would have been perceived as an affront, and we were afraid."
So you see, the crash was caused by a misunderstanding between Russians and Poles. The Russians had slaughtered 21,000 Poles, as the history books now admit, and any attempt to close the Smolensk airport would have been perceived as a Soviet-style attempt to interfere with the commemoration which, in the words of one anti-Soviet activist, "would have been a political blow to Russia worse than a nuclear blast in Moscow." But you see how unprofitable it is to hold a grudge for 70 years, and what it costs -- even in the present. As the Gazeta Wyborcza put it, "If our two countries cannot forgive each other at such a moment, will they ever forgive each other?"
But then, I am forgetting why Poland should want Russia's forgiveness. And why would a Polish publication -- or any publication outside Russia -- suggest that Russia has something to forgive on the side of Poland? There is something in the mutual forgiveness remark that craves wary watching. But who can resist the television images of Vladimir Putin putting his arms around the Polish prime minister in a magnificent display of sympathy? These are played over and over again by the Polish media. It is all so unexpected, one has to be grateful. Decent behavior from an old enemy, or an old oppressor, is a powerful elixir. On some level, everyone wants peace and reconciliation.
On Sunday I spoke with Polish journalist Tomasz Pompowski, who was quite dispirited. "I personally knew some of those people [on the crashed plane], like the [army] chief of staff. On this same plane, with the president of Poland, was Anna Walentynowicz, who was fired by the director of the Gdansk shipyard, one of the reasons the workers started to strike [in 1980]. She was a religious person. When the director of the Gdansk shipyards was opposing raises for the workers, and the workers broke into his office and threatened him, and started to pick up stones, she told them to set down the stones and leave the office peacefully, and give him a chance to fulfill his promise. The workers listened to her, and of course they gave this director three days. And what happened when the workers left him? He fired Walentynowicz from the shipyard. This was when the strikes of 1980 started, and this is when Lech Walesa came into it. He was the nominal leader, but she was the moral leader, the moral strength of the workers. I met her two weeks ago, and I heard her saying that when the Communists became capitalists, only President Kaczynski gave them support."
President Kaczynski, of course, is yet criticized in the press as a "Russophobe." But in reality President Kaczynski was not sufficiently fearful -- otherwise he would still be alive. After all, Kaczynski was anti-Communist, which is hardly a safe occupation for an East European politician. This was underscored in 1984 by KGB defector Anatoliy Golitsyn who wrote that a leader "who is involved in furthering an effective counterstrategy against the communists should not visit communist countries or take part in any summit meetings with their leaders." He warned that such visits were opportunities for assassination.
Of course, the Soviet Union and its Communist Party no longer exists. Right?