Smolensk: The tragedy that defined Polish politics

Eight years ago, a plane carrying Poland’s presidential delegation crashed in Smolensk, Russia. The president’s twin brother Jaroslaw Kaczynski has used the accident to influence Polish politics ever since.

Smolensk Lech Kaczynski (Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images)
Smolensk Lech Kaczynski (Wojtek Radwanski/AFP/Getty Images)

As is the case every year, April 10, 2018 was a day of patriotic demonstrations and memorial services in Poland, commemorating a tragic plane crash eight years ago in Smolensk, Russia. This year’s events were especially important for Jaroslaw Kaczynski, leader of Poland’s ruling Law and Justice party (PiS), as a memorial plaque honoring his twin brother Lech — who was president at the time he was killed in the crash — was unveiled at the country’s parliament, the Sejm.

A national hero

Although hundreds of memorial plaques and sculptures across Poland honor Lech Kaczynski, in the Sejm he is afforded an especially prominent space — at the entrance, right next to Pope John Paul II, a man considered a national hero in Catholic Poland.

For the last eight years, Jaroslaw Kaczynski has attempted to style his dead brother as a national hero. When addressing crowds at memorial services that are held monthly, not just on April 10, Kaczynski likes to say of his brother Lech: “He rekindled Poland’s national consciousness and restored its honor.” The mourning of the victims killed in Smolensk, and especially the former president, seems to have no end.

Annual memorial for Smolensk (Reuters/K. Pempel)
Poland regularly holds memorials for the victims of the Smolensk crash

Russia conspiracy theory

The ominous dual symbolism of the tragedy lends itself to the ongoing remembrance. On April 10, 2010, the Polish president and a high-level government delegation were on route to Katyn, a village near Smolensk in western Russia. Seventy years earlier, between April 3 and May 11, 1940, 22,000 Polish officers were executed by Russian intelligence service agents at the site. That horrific event became known as the “Katyn massacre.” When an entire Polish delegation died in a plane crash near the old Russian military airbase at Smolensk, just miles from Katyn on the anniversary of the killings, many Poles had — and continue to have — great difficulty believing that it was just a tragic coincidence.

The circumstances surrounding the crash have thus given rise to numerous conspiracy theories. According to opinion polls, between 26 and 28 percent of Polish citizens believe it was not a coincidence the plane went down, but rather a Russian attack. The PiS government has consistently rejected official Polish and Russian investigations that found pilot error, misleading air traffic controller instructions and the dilapidated state of the Russian airstrip all led to the crash.

The ‘religion of Smolensk’

The incident has…

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