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The Curse of Katyn

It is a damned place,” commented Aleksander Kwasniewski, the former Polish president and communist-turned-social democrat.

It’s difficult to disagree.

Katyn, the forest near the western border of Russia, which in 1940 became a mass grave for some 4,000 Polish Army officers and community leaders out of 20,000 first interned by the Soviet government following the 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov carve-up of Poland and then subsequently murdered by the KGB’s predecessor on Stalin’s orders, has tragically claimed more Polish victims almost exactly seventy years later.

In news that sent shockwaves through Poland and the rest of Europe, the plane carrying Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 130 (88 according to Polish media) other senior government and military officials as well as family members of original Katyn victims has crashed on approach to the Smolensk airport, according to the latest reports killing everyone on board.

The Polish delegation was flying in to take part in joint Polish-Russian commemorations of the Katyn Massacre. The visit, following the participation of Russia’s Prime Minister Putin in an earlier commemorative ceremony, was widely seen as an encouraging first sign of a thaw between the two countries. Relations have been strained both by centuries’ worth of bad blood and conflict, as well as a more recent determination of post-communist Polish governments to chart a pre-European and pro-American course, outside of Russia’s sphere of influence.

The death of the president, together with so many key officials and guests, is not simply a tragedy in itself, but it throws the whole region into a sea of uncertainty of the kind not experienced since the fall of Communism.