After the Smolensk Crash: “A New Community” of Poland and Russia?

Following is a special appeal by Adam Michnik, the editor in chief of the Polish newspaper Gazeta Wyborcza, concerning the April 10 plane crash in Smolensk, Russia, in which Polish President Lech Kaczyński, his wife, and dozens of senior members of the Polish government and military perished. The 94-member Polish delegation was coming to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyń massacre, in which 22,000 Polish military officers were murdered by Soviet security forces. The massacre was named after one of the places in which it happened, the forest of Katyń, close to Smolensk. For many years, the Soviet leadership assigned blame for this crime to the Nazis and, until the recent tragedy, the leaders of post-communist Russia have been reluctant to acknowledge Russia’s responsibility for the killings.

—Irena Gross

Something touched our hearts.

Four days after the April 10 tragedy of Smolensk, the Russian President declared: “It is obvious that Polish officers were shot at the command of the then leaders of the USSR, including Joseph Stalin.”

The crime of Katyń has divided Poles and Russians more than any other event of the twentieth century. For the last twenty years in both of our countries an arduous search continued for the truth and for the remembrance of that crime of the totalitarian Stalinist regime. Right from the beginning, some of the most outstanding Russians were involved in this effort. They were statesmen, scientists, civil servants, and regular people, and to them many a time Poland expressed her gratitude and respect.

The Smolensk catastrophe broke something in our Polish and Russian hearts. In the hearts of the leaders and of regular people. It was as if a gigantic dam opened—a dam behind which unexpressed words and gestures were piled up. In the last days, the entire world learned about the Katyń crime. And, in the face of this new tragedy, Russian politicians decided to act in an unprecedented way, a way that will remain in history.

The showing of the film Katyń by Andrzej Wajda on the most viewed channel of the Russian television; the words of President Medvedev about the guilt of Stalin; the earlier gestures and words of prime minister Putin – these are the foundation for new relations between Poland and Russia. As are all the flowers and lighted candles on the site of the Smolensk tragedy, in front of the Polish embassy in Moscow, and Polish consular offices in other cities of Russia. And the openness of the Russian side in cooperating with the Polish experts in explaining the reasons of the catastrophe.

History has often separated Poles and Russians. On both sides the hearts were then filled by hatred and incomprehension. Common pain, common tears and common mourning are able to change it. Even in the most difficult moments of our common history there were on both sides people capable of rising above the resentments. In partitioned Poland, Adam Mickiewicz wrote “To Muscovite Friends.” Alexander Herzen felt compassion for the Poles suffering under the tsarist yoke. In the twentieth century we were joined by the experience of the Gulag, this “inhuman land” about which Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Gustw Herling-Grudzinski both wrote.

Today, out of the blood that was spilled seventy years ago in Katyń and again last Saturday at Smolensk, an authentic community of Polish and Russian fates is being born. We thank you, brother Muscovites, for your compassion, understanding, spontaneous acts of solidarity and all the help linked to this catastrophe.

Every death hurts and seems senseless. But from your reaction to the Smolensk tragedy a good may come for both of our nations, so bitterly marked by the past.

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