Opinion, Poland

What would Poland be like without the Smolensk plane crash?


On April 10th 2010 a Polish government Tupolev aircraft crashed on approach to a fog covered airport in Smolensk, Russia – an airport unprepared for such visits furnished with dated equipment for years avoided by Russian planes. However this particular airport has been used for many years for such visits by official Polish government delegations as it has one particular advantage: it’s situated close to Katyn, where in April 1940 Stalin had murdered several thousand (and along with a few neighbouring execution sites – several dozens of thousands) Polish military officers. Not just professional officers but also conscripted personnel of the 1939 campaign who were the intellectual elite of Poland, with remarkable writers, scientists, and politicians among them.

The Presidential Pair were on board the plane as well as many MPs, members of the government, and presidential cabinet officials. They represented all the political parties although the majority came from the right wing populist party of Kaczyński twins – Right and Justice party (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość – PiS). The passengers of the ill-fated flight, who all have lost their lives, were heading for celebrations commemorating the next anniversary of the Katyn massacre. For president Lech Kaczyński the visit to Katyn – were scouts, veterans, bishops, and Polish TV cameras were already awaiting him – was to be an opening for the upcoming presidential elections campaign. The incumbent wasn’t the favourite to win the re-election. Two and a half years earlier his brother – Jarosław Kaczyński – had lost the office of Prime Minister in early elections to Donald Tusk of the liberal Civic Platform party (Platforma Obywatelska – PO).

Now all the polls indicated defeat for Lech Kaczyński. Coming late to the inauguration of his campaign would be the final blow. Hence the time and again confirmed, by subsequent investigations and final minutes recordings, “aversion” of the presidential aircraft to head for a backup airport in Minsk or Moscow despite the multiple reports of ‘no landing conditions’ by Russian air traffic controllers. However both the ATC and their supervisors were afraid to make the decision to forbid the landing. The anti-Russian political milieu of the Kaczyński twins would consider a formal landing ban as interfering in Polish presidential campaign. Especially given that president Kaczyński was indeed publicly criticized by Russians after he unequivocally supported president Saakashvili of Georgia during the short Russian-Georgian war of 2008.

The disaster has changed the dynamics of not just politics but also of society and culture

Still in the very first opinion polls after the catastrophe support for Jarosław Kaczyński as a replacement for the tragically perished president in the upcoming elections oscillated around few percent – within the statistical error. And even his own party was wondering whether to appoint him a candidate for his deceased brother. However he finished the campaign with close to 50 percent support losing the elections by a slight margin to Bronisław Komorowski a rather bland candidate who nevertheless in the second round of elections received support, against Kaczyński, by nearly the whole liberal side of political scene. This way mourning after the disaster became for Jarosław Kaczyński – as a brother of the tragically deceased president – a new start of his political career.Let us start with politics however. At the beginning of April 2010 Lech Kaczyński was losing in polls with virtually every candidate fielded by the liberal PO and could even feel the strengthening of the, feeble at the time, left. His twin brother, the former Prime Minister Jarosław Kaczyński, in Poland was a commonly disliked character. His party had lost not only the parliamentary elections of 2007 but continually lost subsequent local and by-elections. It was facing losing the position of a right wing substitute of the liberal PO, marginalization and finally disbanding. Jarosław Kaczyński was being attacked for his political incompetence by other politicians of the right and even media sympathizing with his own group.

The Smolensk crash happened in the second year of the global financial crisis which was already strongly felt in Europe and in Poland. However before April 10th 2010 the pro-Western direction elected by Poland after 1989 was accepted by a significant majority of Polish society. Even Jarosław Kaczyński, as the leader of PiS, wasn’t that radical European sceptic as he is (or pretends to be) today. Everyone remembered that as the prime minister he feebly negotiated the conditions of accepting the Lisbon Treaty by Poland. Today however he along with many politicians of his party speaks of the European Union not only sceptically but with an outright anti-European language. Describing Polish EU membership in terms of ‘losing sovereignty’, ‘foreign domination’, and ‘stripping Poles of their wealth, dignity and work’. One of the key arguments in right wing anti-EU propaganda was the fact that no EU institution deemed the crash in Smolensk as an assassination accusing Russia as a perpetrator.

A prominent Polish religion academic professor Zbigniew Mikołejko was the first one to define political activities of PiS around the Smolensk tragedy as a consciously implemented semi-religious cult. According to him:

There is a whole archive of religious traditions in use to execute certain political goals. Symbolism, method of narration, prophetic style of Jarosław Kaczyński, recurring rituals in front of the Presidential Palace, idea of the supposed martyrdom of the victims of the crash. For a political party to work with religious methods it requires a founding martyr.

However for the Smolensk crash to move from a propaganda subject of a single party to an ever wider reaching cult in a country such as Poland one requires the acceptance of the Catholic Church. The Church in Poland quickly divided on the matter. Stanisław Dziwisz, a cardinal of Krakow, hardly a PiS sympathiser during the countrywide mourning of the first days after the crash agreed to lay the bodies of the presidential pair at the Wawel crypt – the place of rest of Polish kings a counterpart of the Saint-Denis basilica. The cardinal later on rejected the authorship of that decision saying he ‘was persuaded by family members of Lech Kaczyński’. At the same time in Warsaw underneath a cross erected by scouts to commemorate the victims in front of the Presidential Palace Jarosław Kaczyński was quick to start organizing anti-government demonstrations accusing Donald Tusk and Bronisław Komorowski of ‘being culprit in a crime’ and ‘power stealing’. When a moderate cardinal Kazimierz Nycz decided to move the cross to a nearby church riots took place and loyal to Nycz priests were chased away by PiS supporters who accused them of ‘national treason’ and ‘serving the Jewish lobby’.

Many other more conservative bishops and priests did openly support the Smolensk cult. For three years now many Polish churches adorn the Holy Tombs during the Resurrection celebrations and nativity scenes during Christmas with crashed models of the presidential plane next to photos of the presidential pair as martyrs and sometimes even with Red Army soldiers, who according to the legend were executing the survivors, who in this new cult take over the role of Romans or king Herod’s butchers.

The Smolensk cult is regarded a convenient tool to fight secularization “coming from Brussels” by the conservative part of the Polish Church. It was clearly stated in the first days after the crash by a young charismatic catholic advocate Tomasz Terlikowski considered by many conservative bishops and priests a representative voice of the new more traditional and anti-European Polish Catholicism. Terlikowski wrote: ‘we tried to escape the mission set for us by God into “normality” of the West. If that was the case this tragedy is a clear reminder that we are not to be a “normal” nation that can exist in peacefulness. That God sometimes requires a toll of blood from us’.

The Smolensk cult is regarded a convenient tool to fight secularization “coming from Brussels” by the conservative part of the Polish Church.

Over the five years since the Smolensk crash anytime a new paedophile scandal erupts in the Polish Church, anytime an argument over church tax replacing the huge budget subsidies starts between the government and the Conference of Bishops, when the Polish Sejm starts discussing marriage equality, when finally discussion commences among Polish Catholics about the reforming declarations of Pope Francis the conservative clergy revert to assassination theories. Both to mobilize in defensive positions millions of right wing supporters of the Smolensk cult as well as to further undermine legitimacy of the faltering power of liberal PO. Huge passion was stirred by sermon of bishop Józef Zawitkowski who said: ‘We flew to tell the world about Katyn, to reveal to the world the truth about the deadly lie. And we became the victim and the executioners are now judging us’. Conservative bishop Wiesław Mering told his parishioners: ‘This reminds me of the situation we as young people lived through when it comes to Katyn. Back then we couldn’t discuss the truth about Katyn in the open. Now we are being deceived about Smolensk’. Stanisław Małkowski, a well-known Warsaw priest, put it even more bluntly with no reaction from the bishops: ‘The Smolensk tragedy is a cold blooded crime planned for months with the cooperation of Russian intelligence and some crucial partners in the West’. Finally one of the strongest individuals of the Polish Church Gdansk archbishop Leszek Sławoj Głódź when he himself became the target of criticism for financial misappropriation and mobbing of subordinate priests attacked the government: ‘How much snickering of the “Smolensk cult” of the “Smolensk religion”. Those who remember of the fallen seek the truth – with no manipulation or deceptions. They walk down Krakowskie Przedmieście Street in Warsaw each month in the reverent march of remembrance’.

That way with pragmatic or outright cynical support of the conservative section of the Polish Church the “Smolensk religion” was born – the myth of Lech Kaczyński as the greatest leader in Polish history who died a martyr at the hands of Putin and Tusk and his political resurrection will dawn the moment his brother takes over the power in Poland to ‘fulfil the will of Polish elites slain in Smolensk’. An ambiguous attitude of many of the Polish priests and bishops towards the cult also seems understandable in a way. Poland is currently the last “faithful daughter of the Church” in Europe a country where Catholicism remains universal strongly influencing the public sphere, state, legislation. Once “the most faithful daughter of the Church” was considered France but that is past. Today Poland delivers over half the European missionaries and over half the European priests. After the crisis of Catholicism in Ireland the Church judges, rightly so, that even the lunacy of the faithful daughter has to be approached with caution if you don’t want to offend and lose that potential. Conservative clergy believe that harsh pacifying of the “Smolensk religion” will weaken the religion in general while an alliance with the European right will enable the conservative wing of the Church not only to push back the “Brussel secularization” but also to divert interest of Polish Catholics from the reforming message of Pope Francis.

To respond directly to the titular question: What would Poland be like without Smolensk? It would be better – infinitely so.

The conservative-liberal right would be PO – the way it is today – and the opposition would be some centre-left party. There wouldn’t be such a powerful and such a grotesque version of Polish right as we have now because without Smolensk neither PiS neither Kaczyński brothers would be able to thrive politically. They were kept alive – both as real entities and as classically Polish romantic “spectres” – only by the extraordinary injection of Smolensk martyrdom. In that sense Smolensk indeed became “fate” of the Poles.



Studied Polish Literature and Philosophy at the Jagiellonian University in Krakow and Slavic Studies at the University of Paris-Sorbonne. He was a member of the editorial board of literary quarterly "brulion", "Tygodnik Literacki", as well as social and political magazines: "Debata" and "Europa". He served as a columnist and deputy editor-in-chief of the daily newspaper "Dziennik". From 1994 to 1996 he was the head of the Culture Department of the Programme 1 TVP S.A. and from 1996 to 1997 deputy director of the radio network "Plus". Currently, he works as a columnist and member of the team of "Krytyka Polityczna", and regularly publishes in "Tygodnik Powszechny". He is the author of two volumes of essays: "Powrót człowieka bez właściwości" (Return of a Man without Qualities) and "Ćwiczenia z bezstronności" (Excersises in Impartiality); two novels: "Siła odpychania" (The Power of Repulsion) and "Jezioro radykałów" (The Sea of Radicals); the volume of short stories "Gorsze światy" (Lesser Worlds); and two book-length interviews with the well-known polish sociologist Jadwiga Staniszkis and the politician Janusz Palikot.