Today marks the 1-year anniversary since the tragic plane crash that killed Polish President Lech Kaczyński, his wife and 94 others who were on their way to commemorate the Katyń massacre of 1940 when approximately 22,000 Polish prisoners of war were executed on command by the Soviet NKVD. Ceremonies and commemorations are being held throughout Poland – the largest ones in Warsaw under the Presidential Palace and at Wawel Castle in Kraków, where the presidential couple were buried almost a year ago.

In an earlier post, I expressed hesitation about accepting the ‘grand reconciliation’ that has been anticipated after the tragic events of April 10, 2010 – specifically citing Polish discontent with Russian handling of the crash investigation. However, it is true that since the crash, Polish-Russian relations have undergone a thaw, with increased dialogue, state visits, and cooperation between the two sides. Presidents Medvedev and Komorowski even signed a letter of intent on establishing a Center for Polish-Russian Dialogue back in December 2010. Medvedev also presented Katyń director Andrzej Wajda with the Order of Friendship of the Russian Federation. However, despite symbolic gestures, concrete joint efforts at investigating the causes of the crash have all but crumbled. Russian strong-arming and Polish paranoia have clouded conclusive results and thrust hopes of any long-term rapprochement through cooperation back into the ether.

I didn’t mean to be a doubting Tom, but I still believe my comments were not so far off the mark – then or now. In fact, just yesterday, a commemorative plaque was unveiled in Smolensk featuring last-minute changes made by the Russian side.
The reference to the purpose of the visit – to commemorate “the 70th anniversary of Soviet genocide in the Katyń forest performed on prisoners of war and the officers of the Polish Army in 1940” – was removed without any prior consultation with the Polish side. The new plaque features a Russian translation of the Polish text and is anonymous. The original plaque, which Governor of Smolensk District, Andrei Yevseienkov says will be transferred to the museum in Katyń, was funded by the Katyń Families Association.

The original version:

„Pamięci 96 Polaków na czele z prezydentem Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej Lechem Kaczyńskim, którzy 10 kwietnia 2010 r. zginęli w katastrofie lotniczej pod Smoleńskiem, w drodze na uroczystości upamiętnienia 70. rocznicy sowieckiej zbrodni ludobójstwa w Lesie Katyńskim dokonanej na jeńcach wojennych, na oficerach Wojska Polskiego w 1940 r.”.

(In Memoriam of 96 Poles led by President Lech Kaczyński, who died in a plane crash near Smolensk on the way to the ceremony commemorating the 70th anniversary of Soviet genocide in the Katyn forest performed on prisoners of war and the officers of the Polish Army in 1940.)

The substituted version:

„Pamięci 96 Polaków na czele z prezydentem Rzeczypospolitej Polskiej Lechem Kaczyńskim, którzy zginęli w katastrofie lotniczej pod Smoleńskiem 10 kwietnia 2010 roku”.

(In Memoriam of 96 Poles led by the President Lech Kaczyński who died in a plane crash near Smolensk 10 April 2010.)

Unsurprisingly, the change (which happened the night before a delegation from the Katyń Families Association along with First Lady Anna Komorowska arrived to mark the anniversary of the crash)  has been met with uproar from the Polish side.

“Zamiana przez Rosjan tablic na kamieniu upamiętniającym miejsce katastrofy smoleńskiej w takim momencie i w taki sposób to brak szacunku zarówno dla jej ofiar, jak i dla ich rodzin... To bardzo znamienne, w jaki sposób Rosja traktuje nas, Polaków i rodziny ofiar katastrofy. To brak szacunku… Fakt, że stało się to dziś w nocy, kiedy do Smoleńska jechała polska delegacja, gdy przygotowujemy się do obchodów pierwszej rocznicy katastrofy, to upokorzenie i policzek dla Polaków i Polski. To pokazuje, jak Rosjanie wyobrażają sobie polsko-rosyjskie pojednanie.”

(The replacement by the Russians of the plaque on the stone commemorating the Smolensk crash site at such a time and in such a way is disrespectful to both the victims and their families… This is very revealing of how Russia treats us Poles and family members of the victims of the disaster. It’s a lack of respect…The fact that it happened tonight, before the Polish delegation was coming to Smolensk in preparation to celebrate the first anniversary of the disaster, is a humiliation and insult to Poles and Poland. It shows how Russians imagine the Polish-Russian reconciliation.)

-Susan Kurtyka, widow of the President of the IPN (The Institute of National Remembrance) and chairman of Association of  Katyń 2010, Janusz Kurtyka. (Taken from

The question is: was the decision to swap the plaque a local initiative, within the Katyn District itself, or was it done with the knowledge and support of Moscow? Poland’s Foreign Ministry has yet to receive a response from the Russian side in this matter, perhaps because the answer could have wide-ranging implications for Polish-Russian relations.

Polish President Bronisław Komorowski will be traveling to Russia tomorrow, April 11th, 2011, to meet with Russian President Medvedev. On their itinerary is a visit to the Katyń Memorial. Recent events should make for an interesting conversation…