The tragedy of the Polish air crash has formed a new bond between Europe and Russiaby Ivan Krastev / April 27, 2010 / Leave a comment
Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his Polish counterpart Donald Tusk at the crash site
On 10th April 2010, the second world war finally ended. It lasted over 70 years, killed millions of people and tortured the memories of millions more. Ironically, it ended almost exactly 20 years after its successor, the cold war. President Lech Kaczynski of Poland and 95 other members of the country’s elite were its last victims.
The Katyn massacre proved the key to the end of the war. In 1940, the Russians killed more than 22,000 Polish officers in Katyn, a small town just west of Smolensk, in Russia. Yet Katyn was not only a terrible crime: it was followed by lies and manipulation. In the words of Adam Michnik, a Polish opposition leader during communism, it “divided Poles and Russians more than any other event of the 20th century.”
Katyn was a struggle for the identity of post-communist Russia, Poland and Europe too. Russia’s post-cold war identity is made up of oil, recollections of Soviet greatness and the promise that it can once again become a great nation. Memories of the Soviet defeat of Nazism lie at the heart of Russia’s self-respect: they justify the very existence of the Soviet Union, and were so important that the Kremlin erased evidence of the pro-Nazi Molotov-Ribbentrop pact (1939-41) and actions that followed from it, such as Katyn. It has been easier for Russia’s leaders to admit Stalin’s crimes against his own people than admit that he was once Hitler’s ally.
For both Poland and eastern Europe, Katyn stands for the struggle to tell the truth about what happened in their lands between 1933 and 1953. This was the heart of darkness in Europe; Yale historian Timothy Snyder named it “the ignored Holocaust,” in which Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Poles suffered disproportionately compared to the Russians and the Germans.
Any reconciliation between Poles and Russians has always required challenging both Russian and western myths. The tragedy of Smolensk has made that easier, provoking collective empathy in Russia and Poland. President Medvedev declared a day of national mourning in Russia, and attended the funeral of the Polish president despite the transport problems caused by volcanic ash. Prime Minister Putin rushed to the scene and was warmly received by Poles.
Russia’s leaders had realised, even before the Smolensk crash, that they had little to lose by accepting Stalin’s responsibility for Katyn.…