George Gasyna (pronounced guh-SEEN-uh), a professor in the department of Slavic languages and literatures and in the program in comparative and world literature, coordinates the Polish language program at Illinois. He shares his thoughts about the repercussions of the April 10 air disaster near Smolensk, Russia, which killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife, along with a number of Poland's top military and political leaders.
Beyond the obvious concerns about leadership succession, what other issues does this event portend for Poland?
The disaster had the initial effect of uniting the Polish people in a shared expression of shock and grief. The normally fractious political landscape quieted down, and the visibly partisan media turned down the volume of their discourse markedly. One heard voices urging Poles to rethink the way political debate is carried out in the national media (in the extreme, it is perhaps more vicious and "personal" than what one witnessed in the U.S. at the nadir of the past presidential electoral campaign). However, no matter how one looks at what happened at Smolensk, the political capital - as well as the mythic value - of these events is enormous, and will not remain inert for long; once activated, this mythic/political capital will likely transform the Polish cultural space and "national memory" for decades to come. As the beginning of this new game of national symbols and icons for political use (and misuse) we can pinpoint the controversial decision to allow the president and the first lady to be interred in the crypt of the Wawel Cathedral in Krakow's Royal Castle, an honor that in the era of the modern Polish republic has been granted exclusively to the nation's greatest statesmen, artists and intellectuals (This is without precedent in the case of a political figure as fractious, and indeed unpopular, as Lech Kaczynski in the months prior to his death).
Has the Smolensk tragedy already become a part of the Polish national mythology?
The president and his delegation were on their way to a forest site near the small western Russian town of Katyn to mark the 70th anniversary of a massacre of some 20,000 Polish POWs there by the Soviet secret police during World War II. Now, the very word Katyn is synonymous for Poles with the exceptionally tragic Polish experience of the war, and the Katyn forest monument is without a doubt the single most important place of memory in the modern Polish national imagination.
More monuments to Katyn have been built by the Polish expatriate community (the Polonia) - be it in the U.S., Canada, South America, Australia, or South Africa - than to any other event in the nation's modern history or to any national hero. There are, of course, many good reasons for the persistence of the memory of this particular wartime trauma, and for its centrality in the symbolic repertoire of Polish national icons. For one thing - perhaps the most important: The event itself is uncontested - a forest near the Russian town of Smolensk was the site of the systematic murder of Polish army officers, by special dispensation of Joseph Stalin, during the spring of 1940, almost exactly 70 years ago today. The Katyn massacre was part of a calculated strategy of decapitating the Polish professional and military elite in order to forestall and complicate any future insurrectionary activity against the planned Soviet Communist consolidation of power in Poland. Thus we can think of the Katyn massacre as an instance of ethnic and class cleansing and, therefore, an act of genocide. The fact that another "decapitation" of the Polish heads of state and leaders of the military occurred almost at the same location (and for reasons that are overtly linked to the initial tragedy) is extraordinarily symbolic - in the Polish media the air crash has been described as everything from an incredibly cruel joke of history to proof positive that Katyn is a curse.
Some analysts said the president was not particularly popular and not likely to win re-election. Is his death likely to shift the course of Polish politics?
This is correct. President Kaczynski was clearly languishing in the polls, especially those conducted in the weeks prior to his death. It is difficult to say how the death may affect the Polish right or, for that matter, the political landscape as a whole. In the last few days, the party that had been led by Kaczynski, the conservative Law and Justice party, registered a slight uptick in polls; however, it still is clearly in second place, behind the more centrist Civic Platform party. Now, Polish law calls for a general election to be held within two months of the death of an incumbent president. With the date of the new elections now set for June 20, we may expect many changes in mood and a lot of intense politics between now and then.
Is there any way to gauge how these changes will affect U.S.-Polish relations or Polish-Russian relations?
I do not believe that we will see any significant change in U.S.-Polish relations; one notes that members of the Obama administration including the president himself were planning to attend the state funeral last Sunday, and had to change plans seemingly at the last minute because of the atmospheric disturbances in the skies all over Europe caused by the volcano explosion in Iceland. On the symbolic level, I think for most Poles, Obama's willingness to pay his respects in Warsaw was very welcome. The more interesting case - really, the one to watch - is that of Poland's relationship with Russia. There were many signs indicating that the Russian people responded with genuine solidarity to this Polish tragedy; on the level of high politics, meanwhile, we have witnessed a moment of rare rapprochement between the Polish Premier Donald Tusk, and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin: The two met in Katyn for a separate commemoration several days prior to the crash, and then again in Smolensk the day after the crash. Indeed, according to a major poll released on April 15, 75 percent of Poles stated that in their view, Polish-Russian relations have taken a turn for the better since the Smolensk disaster, with a full 91 percent indicating that the Russian people's response to the tragedy has been "appropriate," that is, characterized by fraternity and sensitivity.
One hopes that the good will and cooperation displayed in recent days are not merely pro forma, but will continue in the months ahead.
There are reasons to be optimistic: For instance, in a recent official statement, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev unequivocally admitted the Soviets' responsibility for the 1940 Katyn crime, and called for a way forward toward renewed peace and good will between the two Slavic peoples at this moment of Poland's mourning. Again, it is important to note that from the Polish perspective, utterances such as this tend to be analyzed very closely; in this case, my sense is that more people than not feel that the Russian side is offering gestures of genuine reconciliation.