After plane crash, Poland must remember Lech Kaczynski -- and then move ahead

The tragic loss of Lech Kaczynski and other leaders of Poland in an airplane crash also may have created momentum toward better reconciliation with Russia -- and fresh appreciation of Poland's stable democracy.

A young Polish man on a bicycle, who had followed the motorcade bearing the body of President Lech Kaczynski back to Warsaw’s presidential palace, was asked his thoughts by The New York Times: “I’m not afraid,” he said. “This is what the laws and the Constitution are for.”

Poland lost its president and his wife, and many of its top political and military leaders in an airline crash in western Russia last weekend that killed all 96 aboard. But the tragedy brought alive something else, the realization that Poland’s oppressive communist past is long gone.

Today Poland is a stable, peaceful democracy. This week the country’s stock market has remained stable. Elected officials set about planning elections, as directed by its Constitution. In coming days Poland will conduct its mourning and then, before the full warmth of summer sets in, it will elect a new president and move forward.

Mr. Kaczynski’s trip to western Russia was to attend a commemoration of the execution of more than 20,000 Polish officers and civilian leaders in the Katyn Forest by Soviet forces during the early days of World War II. The incident is one of the most painful memories in the history of Poland, whose perilous geography finds it squeezed (at times into oblivion) between two bigger, often aggressive European powers, Russia and Germany.

The Katyn massacre has chilled relations with Russia over the years. The Soviet Union blamed Katyn on the Nazis, though Poles knew better. It wasn’t until 1990 that Russia even acknowledged its own responsibility. But even now it has yet to fully open its archives on Katyn to outsiders.

This week, Russia has done much to extend a hand of friendship and sympathy to Poland. The award-winning 2008 Polish film “Katyn” has played for the first time on Russian TV, laying out the details of the massacre to a Russian public largely ignorant of it. At a ceremony last week, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin called Katyn “a crime that cannot be justified in any way.”

Poland’s foreign minister, Radoslaw Sikorski, stopped short of saying a political breakthrough with Russia may be at hand, but he did acknowledge “an emotional breakthrough,” saying that after the plane crash Mr. Putin seemed truly moved and “felt our pain.” “We mourn with you,” Putin told Polish TV. Russia also declared a national day of mourning.

Kaczynski had been a strong advocate of Polish nationalism and wary of the country’s eastern neighbor. But he apparently had headed to Russia with a conciliatory message. In his speech prepared for the 70th anniversary ceremony, he called Katyn “a painful wound of Polish history, which poisoned relations between Poles and Russians for decades.” He called for efforts to heal the wound and recognized Russian efforts at reconciliation. “We, Poles, appreciate what Russians have done in the past years,” he wrote. “We should follow the path which brings our nations closer, we should not stop or go back.”

Now is Russia’s opportunity to continue to reach out with that hand of reconciliation. Although it has shed its Stalinist past, which brought about Katyn, Russia must never forget it.

Poland is no longer a strategic front-line state in a US-Soviet cold war. But in the 21st century it has become a strong ally of the United States. President Obama’s hometown of Chicago is also home to the largest group of Poles living outside that country. Mr. Obama could honor the warm ties between the two nations by attending the Kaczynski funeral, demonstrating America’s strong support as Poland moves beyond this tragedy toward a brighter future.

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