The crash of a Polish Air Force Tu-154 airliner near the Russian city of Smolensk on April 10, 2010 stands as the most momentous air disaster in modern times. Although other crashes have claimed more victims—the death toll at Smolensk came to 96, all those aboard the doomed ship plus seven crew—those lost were the elite of Poland’s government. Among the dead were President Lech Kaczyński and his wife, much of the president’s staff, 18 parliamentarians, 10 generals and admirals representing Poland’s top military leadership, and many other political notables. The disaster decapitated Warsaw.
To make matters even more painful, President Kaczyński and his entourage died en route to a commemoration at Katyń, the forest in western Russia where, in the spring of 1940, Stalin’s secret police murdered 22,000 Polish military officers captured by the Soviets when they carved up Poland with Adolf Hitler the previous September. Here Moscow murdered Poland’s elite. Covered up by the Kremlin until after the Cold War (with help from the incurious West), Katyń lingers as an unhealed wound in the Polish psyche; the sudden death of so much of the country’s leadership on the way to that site of national martyrdom was too much for some Poles to bear.
From the outset, right-wing allies of the fallen president smelled a rat—a Russian rat, that is. Poles know their neighbor well, and Kaczyński had no illusions about Vladimir Putin’s thuggish regime. It seemed beyond suspicious that Poland’s government died in a disaster on Russian soil—particularly when the Kremlin is led by a man who came of age in the KGB, the very same people who executed and covered up the Katyń massacre.
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