A plane carrying the political and military elite of Polish society crashes, killing everybody aboard, while bringing them to Katyn forest to commemorate the murder of a previous generation of the same elite by Stalin’s secret police in 1940. Then the Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, whose early career was spent in a later, tamer version of that same secret police force, does something remarkable. He tells one of the main Russian TV channels to show Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s 2007 film Katyn on prime time. It’s more than an apology. It’s a national act of penance.
And after that, the speculation starts about whether this tragedy might be the way that the two great Slavic nations, Russians and Poles, are finally reconciled.
Poland’s historic tragedy was to be located between Germany and Russia. Twice the country vanished entirely, partitioned between its more powerful neighbours — and the enduring symbol of the latter partition is the Katyn massacre of 1940.
When Adolf Hitler and Joseph Stalin invaded Poland in 1939, dividing Poland between them, 22 000 Polish officers fell into the hands of the Soviet Union. Some were professional soldiers, but most were reserve officers who in civilian life had been lawyers, doctors, university professors: the country’s intellectual elite. Stalin had them all murdered in 1940, one at a time, by a bullet in the back of the head. That’s what happened in Katyn forest.
Stalin’s aim was to “decapitate” the Polish intelligentsia and make the absorption of eastern Poland into the Soviet Union easier, but Hitler betrayed and attacked his ally in 1941. When the invading German troops reached Katyn, they found the mass graves of the Polish officers and invited international observers to examine the site. That was when the Great Lie was launched.
Moscow insisted that it was the Germans, not the Russians, who had massacred the Polish officers. The US and British governments backed the Soviet story (though they suspected it was a lie), because Stalin was now their ally in the war against Hitler. Only after 1945 did they question it.
In the Soviet Union and communist-ruled Poland, The Lie was the only permitted version of the story until 1989. Only in 1990 did Mikhail Gorbachev, the last Soviet leader, finally admit that the murders were done by the Soviet secret police, but the Russian public never really had their noses rubbed in the truth.
Whereas for Poles, Katyn is the central symbol of how the country was attacked by its neighbours and then betrayed by its allies. Since it was Russians who committed the actual crime, and Russian communists who still kept Poland in semi-colonial subjection until 1989, Russians were seen as the worst enemy of all.
So the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre this month was a fraught event. Putin invited his Polish equivalent, Prime Minister Donald Tusk, to attend a memorial ceremony there, but President Lech Kaczynski was not invited. Tusk would settle for a vague expression of regret, whereas Kaczynski was an old-fashioned nationalist who wanted the Russians to apologise on their knees.
Tusk came, and Putin duly expressed his sorrow for the “victims of Stalinist terror,” but he didn’t even mention the word “Poles”. Great states never really apologise, you know. Kaczynski, enraged, basically invited himself to another ceremony three days later, and brought half of Poland’s political, military and journalistic elite with him.
Putin realised that something more was required, and showed up at Katyn again to meet him. When the news came through that Kaczynski’s plane had crashed, he looked utterly stricken. Finally, the grim reality of the place and the occasion got through to him.
Now the apology was real and specific. Now Wajda’s harrowing film on Katyn, previously only seen on a specialty channel, got a prime-time broadcast on Russian TV. Now Russians finally get why the Poles don’t trust them — and most of them have responded with regret, not denial.
The wave of sympathy in Russia for Poles past and present is genuine, and they can even feel it (with some astonishment) in Poland. These moments are rare, and they don’t last long. If you want to make the future different from the past, you have to act fast.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev attended Kaczynski’s funeral. Before he went, he should have looked at one photograph. It was taken in 1984 on the First World War battlefield of Verdun, where a quarter-million French and German soldiers died in 1916. By 1984 France and Germany were in the European Union and Nato together, but after three wars in 100 years they were still not really friends.
Then President Francois Mitterand of France and Chancellor Helmut Kohl of Germany went there to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the First World War. Looking out over the killing fields torn up by forty million artillery shells, they did the only thing they could. They held hands — and Franco-German relations were changed for good.
If Medvedev can find a way to do something as simple but as powerful as that, he could turn the page and start a new chapter in Russian-Polish history. Right now, people are ready for that.
Gwynne Dyer is a London-based independent.