On 10th April 2010, the Second
World War finally ended. It lasted over 70 years, killed millions of people and
tortured the memories of millions more. Ironically, it ended almost exactly 20 years
after its successor, the Cold War. President Lech Kaczynski of Poland and 95
other members of the country’s elite were its last victims.
The Katyn massacre proved the key to the end of the war. In 1940, the Russians
killed more than 22,000 Polish officers in Katyn, a small town just west of Smolensk, in Russia. Yet Katyn was not only a
terrible crime: it was followed by lies and manipulation. In the words of Adam
Michnik, a Polish opposition leader during communism, it “divided Poles and
Russians more than any other event of the 20th century.”
Katyn was a struggle for the identity of post-communist Russia, Poland
and Europe too. Russia’s post-cold war identity is
made up of oil, recollections of Soviet greatness and the promise that it can
once again become a great nation. Memories of the Soviet defeat of Nazism lie
at the heart of Russia’s
self-respect: they justify the very existence of the Soviet
Union, and were so important that the Kremlin erased evidence of
the pro-Nazi Molotov-Ribbentrop pact (1939-41) and actions that followed from
it, such as Katyn. It has been easier for Russia’s leaders to admit Stalin’s
crimes against his own people than admit that he was once Hitler’s ally.
For both Poland
and eastern Europe, Katyn stands for the struggle to tell the truth about what
happened in their lands between 1933 and 1953. This was the heart of darkness
in Europe; Yale historian Timothy Snyder named
it “the ignored Holocaust,” in which Ukrainians, Belarusians, and Poles
suffered disproportionately compared to the Russians and the Germans.
Any reconciliation between Poles and Russians has always required challenging
both Russian and western myths. The tragedy of Smolensk
has made that easier, provoking collective empathy in Russia and Poland. President Medvedev declared
a day of national mourning in Russia,
and attended the funeral of the Polish president despite the transport problems
caused by volcanic ash. Prime Minister Putin rushed to the scene and was warmly
received by Poles.
Russia’s leaders had
realised, even before the Smolensk
crash, that they had little to lose by accepting Stalin’s responsibility for
Katyn. They are now confident enough to have a more nuanced view of Stalin’s
legacy, but they also think the west still downplays the suffering of the
eastern front. By recognising what happened at Katyn, the event can become part
of Russia’s agony as well as
To symbolise this shift, Russia’s
state television aired twice in a week (the second time with a huge audience)
Andrzej Wajda’s 2007 epic film Katyn, about the crime and ensuing cover-up.
Polish leaders, people on the street and the Catholic church have endorsed
reconciliation. Cardinal Stanislaw Dziwisz even declared the rejoining of Poles
and Russians as “the task of our generation.”
Of course, such an unusual outburst of sympathy has created expectations for
radical change in Russian-Polish relations. Yet this will not magically solve
all the problems that divide these two nations. History demonstrates that
emotional breakthroughs-such as the Turkish-Greek earthquake diplomacy of
1999-have limits. That said, the promised coming together of Warsaw
and Moscow also
has a bigger geostrategic context.
The 2008 war between Russia
demonstrated the fragility of the European order. But accord between Russia and Europe could help to reverse Europe’s marginalisation in a world shaped by Americans
and Asians. Just as western Europe came together against a Soviet threat, the
current reconciliation is shaped by a fear of European irrelevance. It seems Russia has lost its illusion of greatness, while
Poland has lost its illusion
that its security can come only from America. Both are being forced to
rediscover Europe, not simply as a field of
rivalry but also as a place of common interest and identity. It is hard to know
how all this will end: Russia
continues to be big, insecure and undemocratic and Poland continues to be politically
divided and nervous. But it is now up to these two countries to do in the east
what France and Germany did in
the west some 60 years ago.
This piece was first published in Prospect.
The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. ECFR publications only represent the views of their individual authors.