The Historical Colors of Tragedy

Today, both Russia and Poland are colored by tragedy. At the end of March, a terrorist bombing in the Moscow metro killed 39 innocent people and injured many more. At the beginning of April—the first Sunday after Easter—a plane crash killed the cream of the Polish political elite: President Lech Kaczynski, the chief of the general staff, senior members of the government, members of Parliament, generals, intellectuals. The president’s delegation was travelling to Katyn, where, 70 years ago, Stalin massacred more than 20,000 of Poland’s best and brightest officers, professors, and doctors in an attempt to break the Polish nation. The plane crash in Smolensk is one of those events that is best reported by poets, not by journalists.

The difference in the public response to the two tragedies, however, stands as a strong narrative on the state of the two nations: The reaction of the Russians showed that Russia is a society shaped by mistrust and lack of solidarity; the reaction in Poland was the triumph of national unity.

On the day of the blast in Moscow, Prime Minister Putin and the Russian patriarch denounced the taxi drivers who were cashing in on human grief. “I have just been told,” said the patriarch, “that taxi drivers have raised their prices several times just because people are unable to use the metro. This money will not make you any good.” In the day after the tragedy in Smolensk, Poland proved to be a nation of solidarity. While President Kaczynski was a divisive figure in Polish politics when he was alive, at the moment his plane crashed, the nation united and mourned. It was the eternal Poland that filled the streets of Warsaw to greet Kaczynski’s coffin.

It is now difficult to predict what effect the president’s death will have on Polish politics and on Polish-Russian relations. The symbolism of this death is so big that conspiracy theories are doomed to flourish. One of Russia’s sharpest critics and his most able generals died at the very place where the Polish elite was slaughtered 70 years ago. The KGB looms in Polish public imagination, and it will be difficult to bury the suspicions. But not every tragedy is a crime, and not every death is a murder.

The tragedy in Smolensk is a great opportunity for Russia and Poland to start at the beginning and strive for a genuine and deep reconciliation. It is one of those pivotal moments that can bring out the best or worst in a national leader.

Two people today can make Russian-Polish reconciliation a reality—Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (the ex-KGB colonel who should not only find the courage to tell the whole truth about Katyn, but should also apologize to the Polish people) and Joroslaw Kaczynski (the brother of the perished president and his political successor who should find the wisdom to accept the apology). Russian-Polish relations can be saved or buried in Katyn—it is up to these two men to decide.

One cannot easily imagine Putin playing the role that Willy Brandt played in the post-war reconciliation of Europe, but now is his moment to try.

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