Monday, April 12, 2010

News from Katyn--and continuing shame of place and name in Belorus

The following article was written by Olivia Ward after the deaths in the plane crash that decapitated some of Polands best leaders.

Analysis: Once again, Katyn claims nation's best and brightest
The loss of dozens of Poland's elite near 'cursed' massacre site reopens psychic wound

The forest of Katyn occupies the darkest niche of Poland's psyche, a sinister spot where the soil is nourished by the bones of the country's best and brightest – tens of thousands of whom were methodically executed in a World War II massacre carried out by Joseph Stalin's secret police.

But Saturday's crash of a plane carrying Poland's president and dozens of the country's political and military leaders to a Katyn memorial near the Russian city of Smolensk has torn open a wound that had only just begun to heal.

It has not only shaken the Polish establishment to the core, but jarred the minds and memories of ordinary people, for whom Katyn is an almost mythological symbol.

"This tragic, cursed Katyn," former president Aleksander Kwasniewski told reporters. "It sent shivers down my spine.

"First the flower of the Second Polish Republic is murdered in the forests around Smolensk," said Kwasniewski. "Now the intellectual elite of the Third Polish Republic die in this tragic plane crash when approaching Smolensk airport."

Former president Lech Walesa described the crash as the "second disaster after Katyn."

"They wanted to cut off our head there, and here the flower of our nation has also perished," said Walesa, who, along with Lech Kaczynski, the president killed in the air crash, led Poland to independence from the Soviet Union.

In April 1940, when Soviet secret police took Polish officers, professors, priests, rabbis, doctors and writers and put bullets through their necks, leaving some 22,000 in mass graves, they blighted Poland's history and its immediate future.

But in spite of widespread grief on Polish streets after Saturday's disaster, few predict a national breakdown in a country that has built on 20 years of democratic rule.

"Poland doesn't have fragile institutions," says Zsuzsa Csergo of Queen's University, an expert on Polish politics. "It's one of the most strong and resilient countries in Europe's post-communist sphere."

It was one of the first to struggle out of the global financial meltdown, boasting 1.7 per cent economic growth while other European economies were shrinking.

The loss of Kaczynski, seen as an ultra-patriot, is unlikely to change the country's financial or political prospects, says Waldemar Skrobacki of the University of Toronto.

"His strong point was ideology, not reality," Skrobacki said. "He brought back nationalism with a great deal of force, and polarized the country into left versus right. But many Poles, especially younger people, weren't impressed."

Kaczynski was elected president in 2005 as his right-wing Law and Justice party swept to power. His twin brother, Jaroslaw, became prime minister. But an election two years later handed victory to the centrist Civic Platform, and Donald Tusk became prime minister.

After Saturday's plane crash, Bronislaw Komorowski, the Speaker of the lower house of parliament, became acting president. He is expected to win an early presidential poll to be held within three months.

"There could be a sympathy vote for Law and Justice, but Tusk's party is twice as popular," said Skrobacki.

Kaczynski's two-fisted approach appealed to plain-speaking rural patriots, far-right groups and religious Poles, who shun abortion and gay rights. Some likened him to George W. Bush.

But his term saw relations sour with both Germany and Russia, and his views made him the odd man out in a generally liberal Europe.

While Tusk struggled to repair ties with Moscow, Kaczynski accused it of trying to pull its former Soviet-era satellites back into the fold.

In a bitter irony, Kaczynski's nationalism was to be his undoing.

In spite of his long campaign for recognition of the Katyn massacre – the emotional rallying point of Poland's drive for independence – his stormy relations with Russian leader Vladimir Putin took him off the guest list for last week's historic ceremony to mark the 70th anniversary.

On Wednesday, Putin, standing shoulder to shoulder with Tusk, who had worked to gain a landmark agreement in which Russia acknowledged the killings, admitted the Katyn victims were "burnt in the fire of the Stalinist repression."

Kaczynski, meanwhile, said that he, as the "highest representative" of Poland, would lead a later ceremony with the families of victims and senior officials. Three days later he boarded the fateful flight.

With his plane now a smoking wreck, rumours and conspiracy theories are swirling.

Some shocked Poles have suggested the crash – of an aging Russian plane whose pilot apparently refused instructions not to land in heavy fog – was Russia's revenge for Kaczynski's backing of a U.S. missile defence system based in Poland. Or even a Kremlin attempt to sabotage a leader who had loosened its iron grasp on their country.

Kaczynski's death may actually help repair the Moscow-Warsaw relationship.

"Putin more or less acknowledged Stalin's responsibility for the (Katyn) crime," former U.S. National Security Adviser Zbigniew Brzezinski told MSNBC.

"But he was a little reticent. This creates a further opportunity for the reconciliation to become deeper and a little warmer."

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Anonymous Anonymous said...

Comment Columnists / Peter Worthington
Polish president was to visit war memorial


In a curious way, the destination of Poland’s President Lech Kaczynski and some 88 high-level generals and officials, dominates the crash of the Tupolev-154 jet that killed them all.

Whenever the symbolic leader of a country and his entourage die suddenly and somewhat mysteriously, it shocks the world and rattles the dynamics of the country in question.

And so it is with Poland today — and Polish people scattered throughout the world.

But almost overriding the tragedy, is the destination President Kaczynski and his group were intending to visit — the memorial of Katyn Forest, one of the most sinister and infamous legacies of the Second World War.

It was here that more than 20,000 Polish officers and potential leaders were methodically and deliberately massacred in 1940 — most of them with bullets to the head by NKVD assassins, on the order of Josef Stalin.

It should be remembered — and all Poles remember — that when Hitler invaded Poland to start the Second World War, the Soviet Union invaded from the east. In those days, Stalin was Hitler’s greatest ally.

Katyn Forest was a crime beyond compare in the war. So cynical and brutal that we — our side in that war — chose to blame it on the Nazis. The massacre site was discovered by German forces near Smolensk when Hitler attacked his erstwhile ally in 1941.

For a couple of years in the mid-1960s I was based in Moscow for the old Toronto Telegram — the end of the Khrushchev era, and the first couple of years of the Brezhnev-Kosygin regime. Even then, 20 years after the Second World War, the Soviets were still “officially” denying culpability for Katyn Forest, and blaming the Germans.

Even our side, Ottawa for example, refused to publicly acknowledge Katyn was a Soviet atrocity, not a Nazi one. Even at the height of the Cold War, we were reluctant to unnecessarily accuse or rile the Soviets.

I wrote about Katyn a lot — everything about it was obscene.

In those days, the Soviets had only recently publicized Babi Yar — the massacre of some 30,000 Jews at Kiev by the SS. Yevgeny Yevtushenko’s famous poem Babi Yar had been published, and Anatoly Kuznetsov’s book, highly censored until he defected and published an un-expurgated version, would soon be published.

Nazi responsibility for Babi Yar reinforced the conviction of many that the Nazis were also responsible for Katyn Forest. People who should have known better ignored evidence of the bodies exhumed that had copies of Pravda and Russian newspapers in their boots for warmth, or in their pockets.

The NKVD even executed local peasants who might have witnessed their deed — just as the SS exhumed and burned bodies at Babi Yar to destroy evidence of their evil.

Ironically, President Kuczynski and entourage were en route to pay homage to the victims of Katyn, in response to the visit to the site by Vladimir Putin, who more or less acknowledged Soviet responsibility.

Putin’s gesture, in itself, is significant. His democratic instincts are questionable, but at least he acknowledges history. Putin sees Poland’s acceptance of American defensive missiles as threatening — which from his viewpoint they are.

Kuczynski’s support of missile defence has sparked conspiracy theories that his plane was sabotaged — unlikely, since the black box apparently shows the pilot of the doomed Tu-154 ignored ground control orders that he not try to land in a heavy fog, and hit the tops of trees and crashed.

5:39 PM  

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