Six years ago today, a Polish military airliner crashed in Smolensk, Russia, killing the 96 souls on board. The passengers were the Polish president, his wife, senior military officers and clergy, the president of the national bank, members of Parliament and others. They were on their way to a ceremony remembering the 22,000 Polish military officers, academics, professionals, clergy and other Polish leaders slaughtered by the Russians at Katyn in 1940. It was only recently that Russia had acknowledged their role in the massacre. For the longest time, when Russia controlled what was taught in Polish schools, young Poles were taught that Nazi Germany had been responsible for the travesty.
This happen before I made the permanent move to Poland. Ed was living there on his own. The tragedy took place on a Saturday. I recall that he had been out of town, maybe visiting our daughter in Berlin, and got call from his employer in the states as he was driving back to Poznań to tell him what had happened. I remember him saying that the streets were eerily quiet that weekend.
It seemed that many people were remembering Vladimir Putin saying “Poland will pay for this.” This being wanting to host NATO missile sites. When I was visiting Poland months later, I found many Poles were sure this crash had been planned by the Russian government.
The plane was trying to land in terrible weather. I remember a few days after the crash, former Polish president, Lech Wałęsa saying that we shouldn’t jump to conclusions; hinting that when he had been president that there had been times when he had ordered his pilot to attempt landings that he shouldn’t have; landings they had been lucky to survive. It appears that was the case here, but luck was not with the pilot and his passengers. A few months before this fateful day, the presidential pilot had “gone around” when attempting to land in Tbilisi, Georgia. The president had made it clear that if the pilot couldn’t put the plane on the ground that he would find a pilot who could, that his career who be over. That may have been the message he was receiving from the Chief of Staff of the Air Force, who was in the cockpit at the time of the crash rather than strapped in his seat for landing. The plane, below glide slope, caught a wing on a wire, severing much of the wing. They didn’t stand a chance.
It was not uncommon in the days after the crash to hear speculation about the future of the country. So many in leadership were lost in one tragic event. Would the country continue? Would neighboring countries try to take advantage of the void in leadership by moving in and taking over? I was surprised by these questions, until I remembered that the current governmental structure in the Republic of Poland was relatively new, and as I learned more about Polish history (Michner’s Poland is a great source), I could see where people would worry about neighboring countries interfering.
The crash at Smolensk was a terrible loss for the country and for the Polish military. Elections were held, the government and the republic carried on, but the military has yet to recover. The Polish Air Force lost its most progressive leaders, visionaries with an eye for change. Command was returned to the old guard, those unwilling to look beyond their Soviet training and mindset. Sadly, mountains of paperwork and official stamps continue to be the order of the day at the expense of improvement.