The tragedy of the Polish air crash has formed a new bond between Poland and Russia. But will they be able to do in the east what France and Germany have done in the west?
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 Poland's. 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 and Georgia 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.
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The European Council on Foreign Relations does not take collective positions. This commentary, like all publications of the European Council on Foreign Relations, represents only the views of its authors.