This past weekend’s fatal crash of Poland’s presidential aircraft, a Russian-made Tupolev Tu-154M, has had cataclysmic affects on the country’s national leadership. Among the 97 victims were the Polish president, Lech Kaczyński, and virtually the entire Polish armed forces’ leadership – the senior commanders of each branch of the service. Ironically, they were all on their way to a ceremony to commemorate the 1940 execution of 22,000 Polish officers and intelligentsia in the Katyń forest by the USSR secret police.
The Katyń executions were a cynical and ruthless act of genocide by the Soviet dictator, Joseph Stalin. The idea was to make sure that post-war Poland would be short of military leadership and other educated individuals who might fight for a Poland free from Soviet domination. Without them, Stalin reasoned, the Red Army could just walk in and take over. The killings carried out by the Soviet-era secret police, the NKVD, liquidated half of the Polish officer corps – including 14 generals – and thousands of other professors, lawyers, doctors, priests, police officers, and intellectuals.
For decades the Soviet Union not only denied its responsibility for the executions, but when the mass graves of victims were first discovered in 1943 by the German Wehrmacht, Stalin claimed that the Nazis were responsible for the killings. The USSR continued this denial of involvement until 1990 when then-Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev finally admitted the crimes committed by the NKVD under Stalin. However, to this day there are still Russian politicians and newspapers that maintain that the Nazis were responsible and not the Soviets, and Polish authorities are still awaiting Russian declassification of some of the wartime documentation of the massacre.
Memories run long in Poland, which is why today’s population holds the same low level of trust and congeniality for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitri Medvedev that Poles in the 1940s had for Stalin. While I was in Krakow last September the country was holding ceremonies to mark 70 years since the Nazi and Soviet invasions of Poland that began the Second World War. One of the many posters displayed on the walls of the old city was a call for an anti-Russian demonstration in the old city’s market square that showed the figures of Stalin and Putin almost interposed with one another. The message: One is the live leader of today’s Russia and the other is an evil spirit that is guiding his movements.
It is a cruel twist of fate that the death of Poland’s president, first lady, and all others were on board an airplane manufactured in Russia. More than one leading figure in the country has stated that everything associated with Katyń, which is about 12 miles west of the Russian city of Smolensk, carries an evil curse that is unexplainable in the physical world. “It is a damned place,” said Aleksander Kwasniewski, the former Polish president who was a communist-era functionary and later a social democratic politician in the new, independent Poland. “It sends shivers down my spine. This is a wound which will be very difficult to heal,” he said.
Another former Polish president, Solidarity founder Lech Walesa, said that “this is the second disaster after Katyń. They [the Russians] wanted to cut off our head there, and here the flower of our nation has also perished. Regardless of the differences, the intellectual class of those on the plane was truly great.”
The good news for Russia is that it appears there was nothing wrong with the Tu-154M presidential aircraft that was carrying the delegation to the Katyń ceremony. The first Tu-154 models were designed in the mid-1960s, but the airplane underwent several design modifications over the years – the last of which were the M-series models. Kaczyński’s aircraft was originally manufactured in late June 1990 for the Polish Air Force and had just been overhauled at the Aviakor plant in Samara, Russia in December 2009, and had no mechanical problems.
There have been a number of Tu-154 models that have crashed over the years, but not at a rate higher than that of any other aircraft that has been produced in similar numbers. The aircraft has been a workhorse of both Russian and other international airlines, and is still in service with 22 different operators. It has also been used as a testbed aircraft and in special mission configurations for the Russian air force and space program.
Polish leaders had been discussing replacing these Soviet-era Tupolevs with western aircrafts, but no allocations had yet been made in the Polish Air Force budget to do so. The former Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller, himself a survivor of a helicopter crash in 2003, told Polish news services that he had been predicting just this type of catastrophe for as long as the presidential fleet continued to operate these older-model planes. “I once said that we will one day meet in a funeral procession, and that is when we will take the decision to replace the aircraft fleet,” he was quoted as saying.
The culprit in this case, however, is not the aircraft but the civil aviation infrastructure that still has not decided to link up with the rest of the world. The Polish aircraft was equipped with the western standard Instrument Landing System (ILS), but the Russian aerodrome - a former military airbase that now services a mix of civilian and air force traffic – had no ILS ground system or other landing aids. In the heavy fog (and probably under pressure from the Polish president who did not want to divert to Minsk, Belarus, or Moscow as was recommended by Russian air traffic controllers), the pilot made three unsuccessful approaches and then a fourth attempt that resulted in the crash of the aircraft.
The greatest irony of all, however, is that this tragedy need not have occurred if the Russians had not succeeded in – as they have done so well throughout history – exploiting differences among the Poles. The commemoration of this 70th year since the massacre was held as two separate events because of the divisions between Polish Primr Minister Donald Tusk’s more liberal Platforma Obywatelska (Civic Platform) party and president Kaczyński’s Prawo i Sprawiedliwość (Law and Order) party. Tusk had already taken a delegation to a joint Russian-Polish ceremony at Katyń on 7 April at the invitation of Putin. The Polish Council organized the official commemoration that Kaczyński was to attend on April 10 for the Protection of Struggle and Martyrdom Sites.
It would be easy to assign some blame to Russia for this crash, but the simple fact is that tragedy seems to be the common denominator in relations between Moscow and Warsaw despite all attempts to the contrary. Now for another generation of Poles the name Katyń will be once again associated with one of the saddest chapters in the history of these two nations.