President of Poland Lech Kaczynski, and 96 others died in a plane crash in heavy fog in western Russia near Smolensk on Saturday morning. There were no survivors. The plane was a Tupolev Tu-154, a Soviet jet designed in the mid-1960s. Several news outlets reported that air traffic control recommended the plane land in Minsk, but the crew decided to land in Smolensk anyway.
The symbolism of the crash is beyond tragic. President Kacyzinski was flying to Smolensk to commemorate the Katyn massacre, where the NKVD murdered over 20,000 Polish officers in spring 1940 at direct orders from Josef Stalin. The Soviet Union blamed Nazi Germany for the massacre until Mikhail Gorbachev admitted Soviet responsibility in 1990. Now President Kacyzinski, and 96 others, including many other senior Polish politicians, died near that very location.
The tragedy happened just when perennially frosty Russian-Polish relations seemed to be getting better. Prime Minister Putin on Wednesday became the first Russian leader to join Polish officials at the memorial of the Katyn massacre. He did not make a full apology--he called the executions a consequence of the "totalitarian regime" of the Soviet Union, but said that "it would be a lie and manipulation to place the blame for these crimes on the Russian people." Last week, Russian state-owned television showed the 2007 film Katyn--Russian cinemas had previously refused to screen the film, ostensibly because it showed the historical truth that the Red Army executed tens of thousands of Poles.
The largest paper in Poland, Gazeta Wyborcza, has full coverage of the crash. Its editor-in-chief, Adam Michnik, was a dissident in Communist Poland. He said this (translated roughly from the Polish using Google) on his website:
Lech Kaczynski, Polish history has marked his entire biography. Historians draw up a balance sheet of his accomplishments. Today there is no time for a balanced assessment. Today is a time for grief and a good memory. Lech Kaczynski served Polish independence, freedom from March 1968 is often said that if he chose the path of opposition against the dictatorship and that his decision will always be remembered with great respect and fondness.
(Photo: Mourners gather in Warsaw, AP: Alik Keplicz)