Tuesday, April 13, 2010

In which the tragedy of Polish history is borne out

Seventy years ago this spring, the Soviet secret police murdered more than 20,000 Polish officers and intellectuals that had been made prisoners in the previous year's offensive. More than 4,000 of those Poles were shot in the head or neck and dumped into a mass grave in the Katyn Forest, just west of the city of Smolensk in what is now the Russian Federation. For half a century, the Soviet Union denied responsibility for what would come to be called in Poland the zbrodnia katynska -- the "Katyn crime" -- only acknowledging in 1990 that it had not, in fact, as Soviet propaganda insisted, been perpetrated by the Nazis after the invasion of Russia.

On Saturday, a Tu-154 airplane carrying 96 people -- including Polish president Lech Kaczynski, his wife, his national security adviser, the chief of the Polish general staff, the commander of the Polish land forces, and nearly a score of MPs -- crashed on approach to Smolensk airport. All aboard were killed. From Smolensk the delegation was meant to have made the 12-mile journey to Katyn to commemorate the 70th anniversary of Russian mass murder, and President Kaczynski was to have delivered a speech later that day. (If you speak Polish, or if you just want to hear how beautiful the language is, you can listen to a narrator reading the text here.)

Poland has suffered through a tortured existence -- and for a time, even non-existence. After two partitions had failed to completely dismember the state in the latter portion of the 18th century, Poland's greedy neighbors finally consumed her in 1795: Russia bit off the east, Prussia the west, Austria-Hungary the south, and Poland ceased to be. Not until Versailles would Europe's first modern democracy again rule its own territory... at which time the newly constituted republic went immediately to war with the Bolshevik behemoth on the frontier.

I won't belabor the well-publicized suffering of the Second World War and the communist People's Republic of Poland, though most will surely know of Oswiecim/Auschwitz, the Warsaw ghetto and its uprising, and of martial law in the 1980s. Suffice it to say that it's been a rough go, and Katyn was among the low points.

The great irony of all this is that the compassionate and sympathetic response of the Russian government and people to President Kaczynski's death -- a reaction perhaps as unexpected as the tragedy itself -- may foretell a thaw in Polish-Russian relations. Irony abounds not only in the surreal symbolism of Katyn, but in the identity of the most celebrated victim: Lech Kaczynski, conservative, patriotic, perhaps even nationalist, prone to strident assertion of Poland's uniquely besieged sense of self... and erstwhile thorn in the Russian diplomatic side. To see Vladimir Putin embracing Jaroslaw Kaczynski, the late president's twin brother and a former prime minister, was a really, really surreal moment.

As you may have worked out by now, I have a special place in my heart for Poland and Poles. I lived there for two years and went to grad school there, speak the language (if only very occasionally now, and quite poorly), and really enjoy the people and the culture. Defense Minister Bogdan Klich, one of the only senior defense officials not to have been aboard the plane, was a grad school professor of mine and something of a mentor. President Kaczynski and First Lady Kaczynska will be buried this weekend at Wawel Castle, less than a mile from my old apartment in Krakow, home to the tombs of Polish royalty. (The White House announced today that President Obama will attend.) And on top of all that, I'm a twin, so I feel a special horror at how Jaroslaw Kaczynski must feel mourning not only his president, but his brother.

The Kaczynskis aren't exactly my cup of tea from a political perspective, and they've been wildly controversial as leaders of Poland. (The article linked above about the burial at Wawel alludes to some of that controversy.) As might be clear by now, Lech in particular stepped on quite a few toes -- including those of Russia.

The text prepared for delivery by President Kaczynski frankly stated (in the English construction of an Australian translator named Kilroy, apparently) that
Katyn became a painful wound in Polish history, and has for many decades poisoned the relations between Poles and Russians. May this wound fully and finally heal. We are already on this path. We Poles acknowledge and value the actions of Russians of recent years. This path, which is bringing our nations together, we should continue to travel, not halting on the way or retreating back.
Let's hope the two countries stay on that path. And let's spare a thought today for the Polish people, who have suffered just about enough loss by now.

*Apologies to Polish speakers for the lack of correct spelling (by which I mean diacritical marks, really), but you don't even want to think about the fiasco that it is to try to accurately render Polish typography on blogspot.

13 comments:

  1. Gulliver,

    "Poland has suffered through a tortured existence -- and for a time, even non-existence. After two partitions had failed to completely dismember the state in the latter portion of the 18th century, Poland's greedy neighbors finally consumed her in 1795: Russia bit off the east, Prussia the west, Austria-Hungary the south, and Poland ceased to be."

    What impact has the continual external changes had on the Polish's perception of culture, nation, and state? I realize that's a weighty question worthy of a thesis topic, but I am curious to hear your opinion after living there. Many of us have become amateur anthropologists lately :).

    Last year, I spent some time with Vietnam Veterans that were Native Americans. It was interesting to see how they balanced their service to their country and cultural heritage. We had some serious disagreements over the presidency of Andrew Jackson.

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  2. What impact has the continual external changes had on the Polish's perception of culture, nation, and state? I realize that's a weighty question worthy of a thesis topic, but I am curious to hear your opinion after living there.

    As you noted, this is a pretty big question. What I'd say is that a sense of being besieged on all sides is definitely formative in Poles' self-conception, and that's obviously informed by their history. It's taken for granted that Poles were sort of forsaken by God to be given their own state (and even, for a time, empire), but one that's located between Germany and Russia. As I'm sure you know, Poland's faith in NATO and interest in the Alliance's expansion is generally not a matter of enthusiasm about out-of-area operations or even being a part of the world's pre-eminent security institution... but rather a good-old fashioned anxiety about Russian revisionism and encroachment.

    Poles have never had an identity crisis, despite partition and dramatically shifting borders (much of what is now western Ukraine and western Belarus is historically ethnically and linguistically Polish, and the western part of what is now Poland is of course historically German: Poznan/Posen, Wroclaw/Breslau, Gdansk/Danzig, etc.). Poland has always been the Polish-speaking, Catholic space between the Germans and the Orthodox Slavs. And in that sense, they've never had a particularly difficult time with their conception of "state"; though Polish lands were part of a vast Polish-Lithuanian (/Ukrainian/Belarusian) commonwealth in the 17th century, Poland in the Westphalian era has really been a national state (when it has been at all, that is).

    Does that sort of answer your question?

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  3. I liked this op-ed on the topic:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/13/opinion/13iht-edcohen.html

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  4. I liked this op-ed on the topic:
    http://www.nytimes.com/2010/04/13/opinion/13iht-edcohen.html


    Damn it, Positroll, if you'd shown me that link yesterday I could've saved the time it took to write my inferior version!

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  5. Gulliver- thanks for the response. Some of that was new for me, and it's always interesting to hear other's viewpoints. I continue to find it intriguing learning about how different individuals and groups either collapse, survive, adapt, and/or thrive given external actions.

    The same is seen in nature as described by John Maynard Smith's Evolutionary Stable Strategy using mathematics and game theory to describe how different animals react given limited food supplies.

    Sometime in the next year, I'm gonna have to dust-off Samual Huntington's Clash of Civilizations for a reread.

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  6. Sometime in the next year, I'm gonna have to dust-off Samual Huntington's Clash of Civilizations for a reread.

    Unless you're into futurist, apocalyptic fiction, please don't.

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  7. Yeah--if you're going to be reading Huntington (which I wouldn't but there you go),I'd go all the way back to Political Order in Changing Societies...

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  8. Mike F. and Lil:

    DO: Read Political Order in Changing Societies
    DON'T: Read Clash of Civilizations

    ADTS

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  9. All:

    Of course, my curt admonition on what, and what not, to read was directed toward Gulliver, too. Apologies.

    ADTS

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  10. ADTS--I agree with you. Also, no need for an apology.

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  11. "Damn it, Positroll, if you'd shown me that link yesterday I could've saved the time it took to write my inferior version!"
    Sorry, will try to read faster next time ... ;-)

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  12. Good post on a very sad topic....

    As you probably already know, Gulliver, there are a lot of Polish immigrants around these parts. One in particular, very fashionable and always beautifully dressed, told me the other day that she had lived in a refugee camp during the 80s and made her way through Germany (?) to the West.

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