Anne Applebaum

A flicker of light in a dark Russian forest

Anne Applebaum says the catastrophic plane crash near Smolensk, which killed so many of Poland’s leading figures, may hasten a rapprochement between Warsaw and Moscow

Text settings

Anne Applebaum says the catastrophic plane crash near Smolensk, which killed so many of Poland’s leading figures, may hasten a rapprochement between Warsaw and Moscow

The President, the First Lady, the chairman of the National Bank. Fifteen members of parliament. Ten generals. Anna Walentynowicz, 80-year-old heroine of the Solidarity strike of 1980. Ryszard Kaczorowski, the 91-year-old former president-in-exile. The list of Polish dignitaries who died in the tragic plane crash in the forest near Smolensk, Russia, not far from where 20,000 Polish officers were secretly murdered by Stalin 70 years ago, is extraordinarily long. Yet this time around, nobody suspects a Russian conspiracy.

Or almost nobody: a handful of fringe websites and cranky newspapers have of course discovered one, and there is still plenty of time for the odd politician to join them. Some of the British press jumped the gun and started speculating too (see the Times and the Telegraph). But so far, the Russian and Polish governments, the Russian and Polish media, and the vast majority of Russians and Poles believe the culprits to be pilot error, bungled landing instructions, and fog. More to the point, discussion of these potential causes has been open and frank. The Polish prime minister, Donald Tusk, immediately flew to the crash site, accompanied by his Russian counterpart, Vladimir Putin. Polish forensic investigators were on the ground within hours. The Russian government is offering assistance and waiving visa requirements for all families who want to travel to Russia. There are television cameras everywhere. Russian airport officials have been speaking in public, answering questions, talking to journalists.

To the British reader, none of this will seem unusual. Those kinds of things are expected to take place after plane crashes, especially after a disaster involving prominent public officials. But in this part of the world — and especially in this particular piece of haunted forest — the open discussion of a tragedy represents a revolutionary change. After all, the woods around Smolensk are filled with unmarked graves. These contain not only the bodies of the Polish officers, murdered at Katyn and other sites nearby, but also victims of Joseph Stalin’s purges, as well as the bodies of long-forgotten partisans and soldiers. Nobody knows for certain who is there or why. For decades, the history of these grave sites has been concealed, denied or deliberately manipulated for political purposes. At times, Western leaders went along with these lies too. Although they knew the truth, British and American officials allowed Soviet prosecutors to list the Katyn massacre among the crimes of Hitler at the Nuremberg trials. The British Foreign Office fought doggedly against the construction of a monument to the Katyn victims in London well through the 1970s.

If they were just bones of contention for cranks and historians, these secrets and distortions might not matter. But they are more than that. Among other things, they explain why the sudden death of a politician in this part of the world has almost always provoked a tidal wave of conspiracy theories. Poland’s wartime leader, General Wladyslaw Sikorski, also perished in a plane crash. His death in Gibraltar, in 1943, removed Poland’s most trusted and competent leader at a crucial moment, easing the way for the Soviet takeover of the country. Some have blamed Stalin for the crash. Others blamed Churchill. The lack of a proper investigation at the time and the sinister course of subsequent events mean that, rightly or wrongly, an air of mystery hangs over the incident even now. Two years ago his body was exhumed, to see if he had in fact been poisoned before the flight. He had not, but not everyone is satisfied.

Of course these distortions of the past have a political impact as well. For half a century, the failure to tell the truth about Katyn created a profound lack of trust between Poland and Russia, one that continues to hamper political, economic and cultural ties between the neighbouring countries even today. Within Russia itself, the ongoing distortions of Russian history have helped create a climate of public apathy and cynicism. The official lack of frankness in the past and about the past helps explain, for example, why so many Russians doubt that their government has told them the truth about the terrorist attacks that periodically shatter the peace. In some ways Russian officials are, so far, showing more transparency in the wake of this tragedy than they have shown in the wake of some of their own.

And yet there is no law that says the past has to strangle the present: countries can develop, political cultures can grow more open, politicians can learn not to shroud difficult events in mystery and deceit. Over the past 20 years, both Russian and Polish officials have begun to acquire the art of speaking frankly with the public, even if they don’t always choose to do so. This would not have been possible — in either country — when the communist regimes were still in power. Change comes slowly in this part of the world. But that does not mean nothing ever changes at all. Poland and Germany, once bitter enemies, now co-operate in all sorts of surprising ways. There is no reason why, in some distant future, the Poles and the Russians should not co-operate too.

We haven’t arrived at that stage yet. The current Russian government has wasted much time with its grandiose rehabilitations, its imperial aspirations, its one-sided celebrations of the second world war — celebrations which have left out the invasion of Poland in 1939 and the Katyn massacre, among other things. But the transparency they have striven to promote in the wake of this catastrophe is certainly a step in a new direction. Although there is not much to be grateful for this week, I am thankful, at least, that the families of the dedicated public servants who died on that plane will not have to wait 70 years to learn what really happened.

This terrible disaster, in that strange and bloody forest, contains eerie echoes of the past. But it is not destined to become yet another ‘blank spot’ in this region’s dark history.

Anne Applebaum is a contributing editor of The Spectator.