WARSAW, Poland (AP) — He died en route to the most sensitive mission possible — a visit to the place that has driven a wedge between Poles and Russians for three generations.
The death of Lech Kaczynski, Poland’s president and dozens of his high-level countrymen in a plane crash, and the purpose behind the journey, laid bare the deep divisions that remain between two nations still struggling to be more than uneasy neighbors who watch each other with skepticism and suspicion.
Saturday’s planned visit to the Katyn forest was somber in purpose but underscored his suspicious eye of the massive neighbor and former taskmaster to the east. The memorial service was to mark the 70th anniversary of the killing of thousands of Polish officers and intellectuals by the Soviet secret security during World War II.
Katyn. The site of the massacre of Polish military officers, priests, shopkeepers. Men shot in the back of the head by Josef Stalin’s NKVD, the precursor of the KGB.
“It is an accursed place,” former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski told TVN24 after the crash.
Janusz Bugajski of the Center for Strategic and International Studies said that Saturday’s crash has put Katyn at the center of Polish-Russian relations.
“It brought to the forefront again an event that Moscow would like to forget or, if not to forget, to sideline,” he said, noting that Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin took a significant step by attending the Katyn commemorations last Wednesday with Polish counterpart Donald Tusk.
The ancient city of Smolensk has long played a significant and somewhat symbolic role in Russian-Polish relations.
Russian and Polish rulers fiercely fought over it for centuries, as well as over other contested territories in today’s Ukraine and Belarus, and the Russian takeover of the city in the mid-17th century preceded Moscow’s takeover of eastern Polish lands.
Earlier this week, Poles took deep satisfaction in Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin’s presence at the memorial for the 22,000 killed there.