The past weekend was a bit of a traumatic one for Poland, and on the surface it’s easy to understand why: Sunday was the one-year anniversary of the catastrophic plane-crash at Smolensk airport of the Polish government airplane that was carrying President Lech Kaczynski and almost 100 other members of government or other prominent VIPs to ceremonies meant to commemorate the 1940 Katyn Massacre, in which the NKVD (predecessor to the KGB) executed in the deep woods near that city around 20,000 members of the Polish intelligentsia captured in the German/Russian invasions of the previous fall. But it’s even worse than that: whereas the tragedy understandably united the Polish nation in grief, a year later that effect has worn off and instead the deceased president’s twin brother, Jaroslaw – who happens to head the opposition political party Law and Justice – is now trying to make political capital ahead of elections later this year by hinting at a Russian conspiracy to kill his brother, and by denouncing what he sees as the current government’s subservient attitude to the Russians.
You would think that, for its part, the Russian government would welcome the improvement in relations with Poland that was the initial result of the tragedy and the common investigation both nations’ authorities then undertook, and so would try to prolong that any way possible. Or maybe not. For an article in one of the leading national newspapers Rzeczpospolita now informs us of a piece of trickery – petty trickery, at that – which would have elicited an approving nod from the likes of Lavrenty Beria, long-time head of the NKVD under Stalin.
What’s worse, it took an on-site inspection by no less than Poland’s First Lady, Anna Komorowska, to reveal the transgression. Last Saturday she led a ceremonial delegation to the Smolensk memorial site, now meant to commemorate not only last year’s crash but the Katyn atrocity that indirectly led to it. There, the delegation discovered to their horror that a change had been made to the memorial plaque that had been placed there shortly after last year’s tragedy. Those of you out there who would like to try out your Polish can click here to see the before-and-after for yourselves, otherwise let me just inform you that the original Polish-language tablet was gone and replaced by a bilingual Russian-Polish one. OK, there’s nothing wrong with that per se, except that space had been created to fit the Russian in by deleting the text in the first plaque which had mentioned the Katyn atrocity, cited as “genocide” (ludobójstwo)*, together with the Russian government’s admitted responsibility for that.
Naturally, the Polish government had never been consulted – because it would never have approved. The Russian authorities apparently just went ahead and made the change. Actually, it would have been more appropriate to consult the “Association of Katyn Families” since that was the name on the original plaque, responsible for putting it there. Instead, Polish President Bronislaw Komorowski will have a chance to “consult” with his Russian counterpart Dmitri Medvedev today on a number of things, including – one would expect – this plaque affair.
UPDATE: Poland’s other mainstream national daily, Gazeta Wyborcza, is now reporting that the two presidents have found a solution to try to tamp down the public outrage in Poland over the Smolensk memorial plaque shenanigans. A competition! There will be a competition, run by the Polish Ministry of Culture, to come up with yet another memorial plaque, to be placed at there in time for the two-year anniversary of the tragedy next year – which, we can only hope, will proceed a bit more tranquilly, in both countries.
*Of course the Katyn massacre per se was by no means “genocide.” That word unfortunately has been so overused by those out to make cheap political points that its original meaning and impact are truly under threat – and it is only roughly 67 years old!