A Polish writer looks back on the contributions of the late president.
It was supposed to be the 70th anniversary of the massacre of Poland’s military elite, which were murdered in cold blood by the Soviet People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs, or the NKVD, in April 1940. The late Polish president, Lech Kaczyński, along with a delegation of generals and government officials, was set to land in Smolensk, Russia, on April 10 near a spot where more than 20,000 Polish officers were thrown into a mass grave in the ground.
President Kaczyński was scheduled to speak of this World War II atrocity and the falsity of it. For 50 years, the incident had poisoned relations between the Poles and the Russians.
For 50 years, the circumstances of the mass murder of Polish officers were masked. The officers were killed in the Katyń Forest, and their families were left without any answers regarding their whereabouts. Three years later, in 1943, the Nazis revealed the mass grave and blamed the Soviets. But for 50 years, the Soviets stuck to their story that the Nazis were at fault.
Polish families of the victims were deprived of the right to give their loved ones an honorable burial and were forbidden from publicly grieving their loss. It wasn’t until 1990 when then-President of the Soviet Union Mikhail Gorbachev finally publicly admitted the Soviet NKVD committed the atrocity.
Like my fellow Poles, I lost my head of state, along with other government and historical figures, in a split second and now am left to ask why. Why did such a tragedy occur over that particular area at such a time? But, looking at events that have taken place since April 10, I can’t help but think that even in his death, Kaczyński is accomplishing his agenda through others preserving and maintaining the memory of the Katyń Forest Massacre and by improving Russo-Polish relations.
“His role was to remind the Poles of their victimization in the past – how they were betrayed,” history professor Dr. Vlad Zubok said.
During his political career, Kaczyński fought in the Solidarity movement against communism. When the battle was won, he moved on to become the mayor of Warsaw. He finally opened the Warsaw Uprising Museum on July 31, 2004.
“It’s like the dead were dragging people to them,” Zubok said of the president’s death.
These words spoke so true to me. Zubok has a point that is even bigger than I think he intentionally meant it to be.
Kaczyński was a huge proponent of keeping the memory of the Katyń victims alive, and he was on his way to help do so when his plane crashed. He fought for the disclosure of documents regarding the Katyń Massacre that had been classified by the Russian government. General Władysław Sikorski, the Polish prime minister in exile during WWII, happened to die just as Kaczyński was about to make the Katyń documents public, which at that time, had only been fully revealed to a handful of people.
The connection between the voices Kaczyński and Sikorski were about to lend to history right before their deaths seems haunting. It almost seems like a cycle of the victims waiting to be recognized is coming to an end due to a tragic catalyst. A day after the president’s body was sent back to Poland, Andrzej Wajda’s film, Katyń, was rebroadcast on national Russian television. More Russians are being educated about their past through the president’s death.
Zubok agreed that, under the pressures from the public sphere of Russia, its government might be forced to declassify the Katyń documents, which would mean the end of an open wound that has kept tensions high between two nations playing a never-ending blame game.
President Kaczyński’s sudden death was not in vain: Anyone who researches him will know of Katyń. Now all I can do is wait for Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to finally put an end to this cycle of hate by declassifying the Katyń Forest Massacre documents.
Anna Berezowska can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.