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Nina Khrushcheva, author of Imagining Nabokov: Russia Between Art and Politics, teaches international affairs at The New School and is senior fellow at the World Policy Institute in New York.
MOSCOW – In Russia, somewhere behind every event lurks the question: Who is to blame? In the tragedy that claimed the lives of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 95 other Polish leaders, we can answer that question with certainty in at least one respect: history is to blame.
The event is so hideous that it seems like a bad joke, or an evil KGB plot, a mad conspiracy out of James Bond – or some combination of all three. Yet the crash that has sent all of Poland into mourning was none of these things. A tragedy that defies any logical explanation confirms only one thing: the cruelty of chance.
What if no fog prevented the safe landing at Smolensk airport? What if the plane was not a 20-year-old, Russian-made Tupolev-154, but a newer and safer model? What if the Polish pilot had obeyed the Russian air traffic controller who tried to divert the plane to Moscow or Minsk?
Unfortunately, the cruelty of chance also lies at the heart of the centuries of mistrust between Poland and Russia. The irony (if there is an irony at all) is that this tragedy came at a time when mistrust seemed, at long last, to be giving way to better, more businesslike relations and greater understanding between the two countries.
After 70 years of denial, Russia’s leadership (if not yet ordinary Russians) were ready to admit that Joseph Stalin’s NKVD (precursor to the KGB) slaughtered more than 20,000 Polish officers, intellectuals, and clergy in the nearby Katyn forest in 1940. Indeed, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, a former KGB officer himself, invited his Polish counterpart, Donald Tusk, to commemorate that tragedy together.
But Kaczynski, a member of Solidarity in the 1980’s who was eager to overthrow the communist regime, was more mistrustful of the Russians than Tusk. He put together his own delegation to visit Katyn, and wondered aloud if the Russians would give him a visa. Certainly, no Russians were invited.
When the pilot of the presidential plane (ironically, again, Soviet made) was advised not to land in the thick fog, either he, or perhaps even the president himself, may have mistrusted the Russians’ willingness to give honest advice. Indeed, they may well have wondered if the cunning ex-KGB men around Putin simply wanted to make Kaczynski’s Katyn commemoration a mockery?
Russian-Polish suspicions and disagreements date back to the sixteenth century, when Poland was the far greater power; indeed, the Grand Duchy of Moscow was a backwater. Across the centuries, there have been wars, started by both sides, and partitions of Poland executed by the Russians, followed by attempts at “Russification,” with the Russian Christian Orthodox Empire trying to control the “silver-tongued,” “deceptive,” West European-oriented Catholic Poland.
Then there was the 1917 Bolshevik Revolution, which the Poles refused to join, and Marshal Jozef Pilsudski’s miraculous victory over the Red Army at the gates of Warsaw in 1920. Throughout the interwar years, Poland and the nascent Soviet regime were at daggers drawn almost without interruption.
When Stalin signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact with Nazi Germany in 1939, it gave him an opportunity to invade Poland. The Katyn massacre was a direct result, with Stalin ordering the mass murder of Poland’s elite in order to decapitate Polish society and thus make it more pliable.
Katyn was also the occasion for the Soviets to break off relations with Poland’s wartime government-in-exile in London. Because the Polish leaders refused to exonerate the Russians, Stalin accused the Poles of collaborating with the Germans in trying to shift the blame for Nazi crimes onto Russians. Soon after, the idea of establishing a puppet regime in Warsaw took root.
Although the Nazi-Soviet Pact did not last long – Germany invaded Russia in 1941 – for Poland there was no way out. With Hitler’s defeat, it once again became part of the Russian sphere, this time of Soviet Russia.
But Poland never stopped striding – and striking – for independence. The rise of Solidarity in the 1980’s was the earliest and most severe blow to the stagnating Soviet system. The Polish-born Pope John Paul II crystallized the anti-communist “threat” that Poland now posed to the Soviet Union. The Pope’s call for religious freedom around the world, including in the socialist countries, rubbed the atheistic Soviets – and Orthodox Russians – the wrong way.
Indeed, throughout the twentieth century, animosity between Poland and Russia remained at fever pitch, manifested not only in politics but also culturally. This, of course, continued an old pattern, too. Alexander Pushkin, Nicolai Gogol, and Fyodor Dostoyevsky were all suspicious of the Poles, calling them “cold,” “distant,” and “manipulative,” and seeing Poland as always on the side of the West, rather than standing with its Slavic brothers.Indeed, Pushkin’s friendship with Adam Mickiewicz ended in acrimony over the 1830 Polish insurrection against Tsarist rule.
In fact, the animosity ran so deep that when both countries were no longer communist, and Russia was looking to replace its November 7 Bolshevik Revolution holiday, it came up with November 4, the anniversary of the Russian boyars’ victory in 1612 over Polish King Sigismund’s short-lived occupation of Moscow.
Now there is talk, in both Warsaw and Moscow, that the second tragedy of Katyn might usher in a new era in bilateral relations. Perhaps so, but as the Polish essayist Stanislaw Jerzy Lec said: “You can close your eyes to reality, but not to memories.”