The Polish Catastrophe

The Polish Catastrophe

Poland’s president and dozens of its political leaders died Saturday in a plane crash en route to a commemoration of the World War II massacre of Polish soldiers in Katyn, Russia.


Did what happened today really happen? The Polish president dead in a plane crash, together with his wife, dozens of parliamentary deputies and dozens more political dignitaries, party officials, military leaders? A crash in Russia–a place to where Polish politicians never travel en masse, indeed rarely travel at all–but where they were going today to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn forest mass murder of thousands of Polish reserve officers by Stalinist Russia.

I knew Lech Kaczynski, the deceased president. Met him en route to a conference in Ann Arbor, Michigan, in 1999 marking the tenth anniversary of the Round Table accords that brought the old system to an end. What was so striking is that he seemed so shy, so reticent, so insecure. That is not something one hears often in recollections of future presidents. But Kaczynski seemed more to want to be a quiet, unassuming representative of the marginalized than a big political leader. He had been a child movie star, a tough anti-communist oppositionist, and then a Solidarity trade union official in the 1980s, serving even as the union’s de facto president in 1990 when others in the union turned to politics. But then he allowed himself to get drawn to politics, perhaps under the pressure of his twin brother, Jaroslaw, a loner by personality who committed his life to politics but who seemed to be unable to do it happily without having his brother do it with him.

If President Kaczynski in fact got into politics out of sympathy with his brother, it would be consistent with his personality. For he maintained a social sensitivity his entire life. He looked out for people who didn’t always seem able to do it themselves. In fact, he might well have been one of those people himself.

When I met Lech in 1999, he kept a distance from the more colorful politicians at the conference with him. I remember walking with a group of them to a bar after the evening panel. Lech was walking alone, about five paces behind. As the others were about to go inside–superstar dissident theorist Adam Michnik, famous underground journalist Dawid Warszawski, former prime minister Mieczyslaw Rakowski leading the way–one of them turned to Kaczynski and gestured for him to come inside too. "May I?," sheepishly asked the future president.

So Kaczynski’s sympathy with the little guy seemed to come from the fact that he felt like one himself. It’s not surprising that even when he became president, he didn’t particularly seem to like the job. His body language oozed discomfort at state functions, foreign visits, or on TV. This contributed to the bad press he got in the West: foreign leaders thought he was trying to send a message that he would not deliver straightforwardly. But Kaczynski was uncomfortable with all government officials, laying back only in private conversations with those not in the elite. I remember conversations with him in Poland’s parliamentary cafeteria in 1999, his broad smile and big laugh, which dropped from his face only when some parliamentarian or government official noticed him and came by to share a few words.

Why then did he run for president? Weirdly, this too sometimes seemed to be a favor for his brother. At campaign headquarters when news came in of his victory, he turned to his brother and, with his first words as president-elect, said, "Mr. Prime Minister, mission accomplished!" He was a self-effacing president during the two years when his brother served as prime minister. But when the opposition party Civic Platform won elections in 2007, President Kaczynski became more active–too often in a shrill and strident way, though this too seemed to result from his own discomfort in the role, his inability to inhabit it fully. He really didn’t seem to care for elites–even when he became one of them.

True, aside from a couple of timely vetoes, he didn’t do much for common people during his presidency. And he could be mean and dismissive to those who didn’t share his view of what Polishness entailed, as he showed in his nasty policies toward gays. Still, just like with Lech Walesa before him, there was something oddly radical–populist in the best sense of the term–in having someone so ill at ease with officialdom serving as the president.

It’s not surprising that he was likely to lose the presidential elections that were scheduled for later this year. An introspective personality and awkward public presence do not inspire confidence in media-age electorates, and his cantankerous quarrels with the popular prime minister had alienated many, particularly young voters. Now, elections will be held in about a month and everything is up for grabs. The candidate who was going to run against him, Parliamentary Speaker Bronislaw Komorowski, has himself just been sworn in as president due to constitutional rules of succession. Who will he run against now? Kaczynski’s Law and Justice party does not have a "natural" replacement. His brother is too divisive a personality to be elected. The party’s second-most-popular leader, however, is even more divisive. The party’s vice-chairman, meanwhile, also died in the plane crash.

What a tragic irony that this happened in Russia! Yet the only "good" that might come out of this is a thaw in Polish-Russian relations, something that in fact began when Polish Prime Minister Tusk and Vladimir Putin met in Katyn to commemorate the massacre just a couple of days ago. Kaczynski was traveling today both because he did not want to appear with Putin, and because he and others wanted a uniquely Polish commemoration of the 1940 events.

Putin has announced he will chair the official investigation into the causes of the crash, and it is likely that it will be a fully open investigation, particularly since all signs are that the Russian side actually tried to avert the impending disaster: the president and his crew tried to land the plane against the advice of Russian air traffic controllers, who had turned other planes away but who lacked the authority to do so with Poland’s Air Force One.

Moscow residents are now laying flowers at the Polish embassy in Moscow, and Polish officials and family survivors who now begin to travel to the crash site will likely find themselves experiencing an unexpected bond with the Russian officials arranging accommodations for their grief, with the emergency workers excavating the wreck in the forest. Poles who have not often known the nurturing side of Russian nature will come face to face with it now. Of all the unexpected developments we might imagine, how unimaginable remains this possibility that the site of the horrific war crime of 1940 might be where a reconciliation begins today.

Meanwhile, the staggering death toll boggles the imagination. It was only in the third article I read in the Polish press that I learned of the death of Izabela Jaruga-Nowacka, Poland’s leading parliamentary feminist. And only in the fourth did I learn of the one truly legendary person who died, and about whom the world press still says almost nothing: Anna Walentynowicz, 80 years old, the unassuming yet inspiring Gdansk shipyard worker whose dismissal led to the formation of Solidarity in 1980. Her death alone would have triggered national mourning in Poland. Today, one learns of it only in passing, after reading about those in the political class who died with her.

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Katrina vanden Heuvel
Editorial Director and Publisher, The Nation

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