By Leonidas Donskis
The Polish President Lech Kaczynski’s plane crash on April 10, 2010, on the day marking the 70th anniversary of one of the worst war crimes of the twentieth century, in the unholy Katyn, a tragedy that cost Poland no less than the loss of the country’s elite, left quite a rich soil for speculation and conspiracy theories. In contrast with the pragmatic prime minister of Poland, Donald Tusk, the fiercely nationalistic and conservative Lech Kaczynski was intensely hated by the Kremlin.
This is why the tragedy at the Smolensk military airport fueled our troubled historical, moral and political imaginations. That Katyn became the most potent symbol of Poland’s sufferings and its cri du coeur was obvious long before the tragedy that claimed the lives of 96 people, including Poland’s president and First Lady. Something else happened there as well.
As we all remember, in the final act of Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet, Prince of Verona Escalus addresses the crowd of townsmen of Verona, drawing their attention to how hatred punished the entire town. The Montagues lose Romeo and Lady Montague, who dies at night just before the gathering, while the Capulets lose Juliet and Tybalt. Escalus himself is left in this world without his beloved kinsmen Mercutio and Paris.
Yet there is room for hope. Although the outcry “a plague unto your houses” becomes the mortally wounded Mercutio’s prophecy, it does not prevent Verona from the brighter side of the tragic story. Escalus implies that they were all punished, as if to say that from now on the town has no other option than to live in peace. The heads of the warring households, the old Montague and the old Capulet, pledge brotherhood to each other. The tragedy becomes the highest price of peace. The modern social and moral order based on the rule of law and moral individualism prevails over the logic of blind revenge and the metaphysics of blood.
Needless to say, no symmetry of guilt and hatred exists between Russia and Poland, as there can be no moral equivalency between the hangman and the victim. Yet the question arises here as to whether Poland and Russia can close the doors on the twentieth century and open a new page of their dramatic history. Yes, they can. I realize that the hug of condolences that Vladimir Putin gave to Donald Tusk, when the latter was moved to tears upon viewing of the remnants of the crashed plane, does not promise any miraculous breakthrough in the difficult relations of the two Slavic nations.
There is much political calculation and ambivalence here, including the gas and oil supply games between Putin and Tusk, as the brilliant and fearless Russian journalist Yulia Latynina, one of the most irreconcilable and uncompromising critics of the Kremlin, suggested in her recent publication (for more on this, see: http://www.ej.ru/?a=note&id=10021). However, hope does exist, but it lies elsewhere.
The fact that Russia had finally agreed to the Polish President Lech Kaczynski’s visit on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of a horrible crime against Poland shows that the time has come to allow such things to happen. The Russian political elite could not be so naive as to expect to hear only politically correct and comforting words in this gathering of sorrow, memory and pain.
Vladimir Putin and Dmitry Medvedev knew quite well that the massacre of twenty-two thousand Polish high-ranking officers (with some Lithuanians among them), if exposed as a vicious crime against humanity and as a testimony to the ugly lies of Soviet propaganda, which did not bother to portray the Katyn massacre as an alleged war crime committed by the Nazis, would deal a blow to the recent attempts of the Kremlin to rehabilitate Stalin and to rewrite history textbooks.
Moreover, they perfectly understood that the Katyn massacre, cynically withheld from the list of Stalin’s crimes against Eastern and Central European nations, will sooner or later remind people of those Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact’s aspects that concerned the Soviet invasion of Poland as part of that Pact, and of the military and political cooperation of both totalitarian regimes.
Whatever its intentions and stratagems, present Russia clearly decided to assume at least part of the responsibility for the crimes of Stalin and of its predecessor state, the Soviet Union. Otherwise it would be impossible to explain why Russia’s state TV channel showed Andrzej Wajda’s film Katyn, which should have been a shock to the Russian audience.
The fact is that the Katyn massacre was inseparable from the beginning of WWII. The Second World War started with the invasion of Poland in 1939 by both allies, the Soviets and the Nazis. By agreeing to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre, Russia sent a strong signal to the world that it is no longer interested in seeing a foe in Poland and that it is prepared to reset its foreign policies in Eastern and Central Europe.
If this assumption is correct, such a breakthrough may have critical political implications for the Baltic States, Ukraine, and, perhaps, even for Georgia. In fact, it happened for the first time over the long decades that after a tragedy of another country the Kremlin, instead of paying lip service that it had nothing to do with the incident and that the whole thing may have been but a sinister provocation of the ideological and political adversaries, showed sincere sympathy for the mourning country.
If that was not an outbreak of temporary sentiment or cynical acting, then it may signify the arrival of a new period in the relations between Russia and Central Europe.
Leonidas Donskis, Ph.D., is a Lithuanian Member of the European Parliament.
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