At first, Marcin Wierzchowski didn’t realise anything was wrong. Waiting with other Polish officials on a chilly airfield near Smolensk one morning in April 2010, he heard the distinctive whoosh of the Tupolev Tu-154 air force jet bringing President Lech Kaczynski and a host of other state officials to the Russian city. Then there was silence.
The Tu-154 never came into view. Instead, in thick fog, it crashed into woodland short of the airfield, killing Kaczynski and all 95 others on board.
When Wierzchowski reached the site minutes later, all that remained was devastation. “Two people in white coats jumped out of [an ambulance] and ran into the forest. I ran after them. And after around 100 metres I saw the crash site.
“The wrecked plane, scattered bodies. Total pulp,” he recalls. “It was in a grove, not a dense forest but sort of a thicket. There were some bigger trees but mostly bushes.
“I saw the scale of the tragedy. It was horrible. The plane was split into shreds . . . I saw one bigger engine and wheels upside down.” Wierzchowski, a presidential staffer, was required to identify Kaczynski’s body.
Within minutes, news of the tragedy had been relayed to Radoslaw Sikorski, the foreign minister, at his home near Bydgoszcz in north-west Poland.
“As always in such cases, it wasn’t entirely clear at first what happened,” he says. “But then literally five minutes later the ambassador who was waiting for the delegation was on the spot among the charred remains of the plane, and seeing the bodies of victims.
“I was connected to him, and I asked him: could anybody have survived? No. And the Russian controllers said that the plane hit a tree. So I started raising alarms.”
The crash in Smolensk was Poland’s worst national disaster since the second world war. At a stroke, the country lost its president, the commanders of its ground, sea, air and special forces, senior priests, its central bank chief and other dignitaries.
For many Poles, April 10 will forever be their 9/11: a moment of deep shock and mourning that left an indelible imprint on the national psyche.
Ten years on, the disaster has left other lasting scars. It hardened bitter partisan divisions between liberals and conservatives in Poland that continue to shape the country’s politics.
And it cast Russia, for centuries Poland’s most dangerous and disruptive neighbour, as Warsaw’s untrustworthy adversary once more, scuppering a tentative detente with Moscow and plunging Poland back into a deep suspicion of the Kremlin that has only strengthened in the decade since the crash.
As Wierzchowski stood amid the wreckage of the Tupolev, the wheels of succession of the Polish state had already started turning. Sikorski called the speaker of Poland’s parliament Bronislaw Komorowski, who, according to the constitution, would have to take on the president’s duties.
Komorowski jumped in a car to race back to Warsaw. But when one of his aides called Andrzej Duda, Kaczynski’s top legal adviser, to say that Komorowski would take over, Duda initially refused to accept it.
“I asked: ‘On what basis?’” says Duda, who today is Poland’s president. The answer came that it was stipulated in the constitution. “I asked them: ‘Do you have evidence that the president is dead?’
“And they answered, ‘We do not have evidence, but it is obvious.’ And I said, ‘It is not obvious. As long as there is no evidence of the death of the president, nothing is obvious at all.’ ”
That skirmish was a harbinger of the battles that would engulf Polish politics for most of the next decade. Even before the catastrophe, the conservative-nationalist Law and Justice (PiS) party founded by Lech Kaczynski and his twin Jaroslaw, and Civic Platform, the centre-right party led by Donald Tusk (and home to Sikorski and Komorowski) were on opposite sides of a visceral divide that had emerged during the early years of Poland’s transition to democracy.
With Lech Kaczynski as president and Tusk as prime minister, the parties had spent the previous three years sparring over everything from Poland’s complicated communist legacy to foreign policy.
After Smolensk, the divide became all-consuming. Polish and Russian investigations both concluded that the crash was caused by human error in bad flying conditions.
But Jaroslaw Kaczynski and other PiS politicians never accepted this explanation. After PiS defeated Civic Platform in elections in 2015, it commissioned its own report into the tragedy, which claimed that the cause of the disaster had been an explosion and incorrect information from Russian air traffic controllers.
This in turn gave rise to numerous conspiracy theories. Kaczynski himself claimed that Tusk was responsible “in a political sense”. Smolensk became Poland’s primary political fault line.
“Polish politics became deadly serious,” says Lukasz Lipinski, a political commentator with Polityka, a liberal Polish magazine. “Before Smolensk, politicians from both sides of the political barricades were opponents. But now they became enemies, and enemies for life and death . . . It was something that was not possible to overcome for the next decade.”
Even before the crash, Smolensk was a city scarred by bloodshed. On Russia’s western frontier, 350km from Moscow on the highway to the capital, it has, with unnerving regularity, been the scene of some of Europe’s most brutal battles.
In August 1812, 30,000 people were killed there in a crucial clash between Napoleon’s Grande Armée and Russian soldiers, a bloody fight for control of the city that was featured in Leo Tolstoy’s War and Peace. More than 90 per cent of Smolensk was destroyed during the second world war. Captured in 1941 during the Nazi advance into the Soviet Union, it was retaken in 1943 amid the Red Army’s counter-offensive.
But in Poland, it has long been associated with something even darker: in 1940, in the forests of Katyn, 20km outside the city, Soviet secret police shot 22,000 Polish officers, clergy, lawyers and doctors in a systematic attempt to destroy the occupied country’s intelligentsia.
For five decades Moscow claimed the massacre was perpetrated by the Nazis, only admitting it was behind the war crime in 1990.
It was to finally commemorate that tragedy, in a memorial event with Russian politicians, that Kaczynski and dozens of the country’s leaders made their own doomed journey in April 2010 — a fact that magnified the force of what had happened for many Poles.
“It had a very strong symbolic impact,” says Igor Janke, a Polish political commentator. “Seventy years after Katyn, the leaders of the country went to Russia and died unexpectedly. The shock on both sides [of the political spectrum] for all Poles was enormous.”
Today, a 6m-tall tree trunk, almost a metre wide, with its top sheared off, is the only remaining visible evidence of the events of that morning a decade ago.
Tucked off a dirt track on the edge of a patch of unkempt, rubbish-strewn scrubland, it would go unnoticed were it not for the simple wooden orthodox cross leant against it. A tattered plastic white ribbon knotted around the trunk flutters in the chilly breeze.
“The tops of all these trees were all broken off by the plane too,” recalls Vladimir, a 43-year-old handyman and driver from Smolensk who arrived at the site about an hour after the crash.
“I could touch the tops of all of them,” he continues, gesturing across now regrown bushes and trees with his hand to imitate the swoop of the plane. “I am still so surprised. The conditions were crazy . . . any sane person would not attempt to fly through that fog, would not risk the lives of the leadership of Poland or any state.”
For a few brief days, it seemed as if the disaster might unite rather than divide Poland. Komorowski remembers going to one of Warsaw’s main squares with his wife, and a group of scouts spontaneously breaking into song.
Duda recalls hundreds of thousands of people waiting to pay their last respects to Kaczynski and his wife Maria, the queue snaking half a kilometre from Warsaw’s Presidential Palace to the Royal Castle.
“I saw thousands of people in the streets, all dressed in black, all crying, all absolutely devastated. There was silence, just people crying and walking in the direction of the Presidential Palace, because the president was the most recognised victim,” says Barbara Nowacka, a leftwing politician and activist whose mother, Izabela, a former deputy prime minister, died in the crash.
“I think those days were the days that everyone felt like they lost someone close, or a relative.”
The tragedy also initially seemed to strengthen a cautious detente between Poland and Russia. The two countries have a tortured history. Imperial Russia, together with Prussia and Austria, wiped Poland off the map for 123 years after partitioning it in 1795. Two decades after Poland regained independence in 1918, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union carved it up again at the start of the second world war. Then Moscow reduced it to a Soviet satellite for four decades during the cold war.
But in the years before the Smolensk disaster, Tusk’s government had attempted a reset of ties with Moscow. Trade restrictions were eased, a commission to deal with contested historical issues was revived and Vladimir Putin, then prime minister, even took part in Poland’s commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the start of the second world war in 2009.
This milder atmosphere continued in the days after the crash. Putin quickly flew to Smolensk, and photographs of him consoling Tusk were praised by political figures who hitherto had viewed the Russian leader as lacking warmth and affection.
“We did not expect this gentle, kind approach, this personal involvement from Putin,” Witold Waszczykowski, deputy head of Poland’s National Security Bureau, said at the time. “Naturally it will have a positive impact on the relationship between our countries.”
Russia declared an official day of mourning, a decision typically only taken for the death of its own citizens, and Katyn, a 2007 Polish film about the massacre, was screened on Russia’s main television channel at prime time. Months later, Russia’s parliament passed a watershed resolution that admitted Soviet leader Joseph Stalin had personally approved the executions.
“We can sense Russian solidarity at every step of the way,” Jerzy Bahr, then Poland’s ambassador in Moscow, said in the days after the accident. But the goodwill soon turned sour. And in Poland the biggest fight was over the cause of the crash.
Both the Polish and the Russian official investigations blamed human errors in thick fog, which led to the plane diverging from the correct approach path, clipping a tree with its left wing and, fatally stricken, careering into the scrubland.
In cockpit recordings obtained by Polish media, the Tupolev’s systems can be heard repeatedly warning the pilots to pull up for the final 25 seconds of the flight. Officials from PiS, however, dismiss these reports as false and claim they were influenced by the Kremlin.
In the years following the crash, figures on the Polish right put forward a variety of theories for the cause of the tragedy, ranging from artificial fog to a thermobaric bomb. Some hinted that Tusk’s government was to blame; others that Moscow’s hand lay behind the catastrophe.
And when, after a brief period of co-operation with Poland, it became clear Russia would not return the wreckage of the Tupolev, their suspicions that the crash was no accident were only magnified.
Duda say: “In this part of the world, due to our historical experiences with the Soviet Union and later with Russia, we are used to a situation where Moscow tends to put the blame on the people whenever a tragedy occurs, rather than on the authorities . . . We can say that accusing the pilots for this disaster is almost a proverbial [explanation].
“It is never the result of an attack, it is never the result of a technical defect, or an instrument that is produced within a certain country, it is always the fault of the pilots. And actually the [dissemination of the] information that it was the fault of the pilots before any sort of verification procedure took place, before any kind of investigation was conducted, is really something that is frightening.”
Over the next few years, the claim that Smolensk was no accident became a core tenet of PiS’s message. One of the most visible manifestations was monthly commemorations that began to take place outside the Presidential Palace on Krakowskie Przedmiescie, an elegant boulevard running through the heart of Warsaw.
Initially spontaneous expressions of grief, the gatherings became increasingly political, with Kaczynski’s speeches acting as a rallying call to the party faithful — and attracting noisy counter-protests.
For many observers, these monthly rituals played a key role in keeping PiS’s supporters united during the party’s years in the political wilderness, and helped pave the way for its return to power in 2015, when Duda beat Komorowski in the presidential election, before PiS ousted Civic Platform in a parliamentary vote five months later.
Polityka’s Lipinski believes the party built “sort of a religion” around Smolensk. “They created something that is more than politics, which is rooted very deeply in the identity of many people.
“Many people voted for them not because of the social programmes but because they identify with those who died in Smolensk.”
After PiS returned to power, it launched its own investigation and shut down the website with the findings of the investigations under the previous government. Within months it had decided to charge five officials from the previous government with negligence in the arrangements for the doomed flight.
It also ordered the exhumation of the bodies of all those who perished in Smolensk in an effort to shed further light on the disaster. Some of the victims’ families welcomed the moves as a chance to gain closure, and were appalled when it emerged that in some coffins, body parts from different corpses had been mixed up.
In one particularly shocking case, body parts from seven other people were found in the coffin of Admiral Andrzej Karweta. “I have huge bitterness towards the [previous] government, which did not look out for the safety of someone who was taking care of their safety,” his widow Maria said in an emotional press conference in 2017.
Despite the horror, the exhumations did not conclusively prove the plane had been brought down by an explosion. And other families fiercely objected to having their loved ones’ graves disturbed.
Among them was Malgorzata Rybicka, whose husband Arkadiusz, a conservative MP who had been a pro-democracy activist during Poland’s time under communism, perished on the flight. Together with 15 other families, she protested against the exhumations.
After her complaints in Poland fell on deaf ears, together with Ewa Solska, the widow of Leszek Solski, who also died in Smolensk, she took the case to the European Court of Human Rights and won — but it was too late. Rybicka’s husband was exhumed in May 2018, one of the final graves to be reopened.
“The time before it was awful, because it was mourning forced on us,” she says. “It was really a violation of the family’s will. I had the impression that, no matter what they say, the whole brutality of this government came out. That they are ready for everything. One can beg, ask . . . I mentioned my husband’s merits, my religious world view, everything. It brought no results at all.”
In response to the ECHR ruling, Poland’s justice minister Zbigniew Ziobro maintained the exhumations were necessary because no autopsies were carried out when the bodies were brought back to Poland.
The detente in Polish-Russian relations proved no more durable than the fleeting moment of Polish unity. For Komorowski, who did take over as president, the turning point came a few months after the crash, when the Russian report sought to put the blame squarely on the Poles.
“This report was difficult to accept for the Polish side because it completely ignored the problem of the shared responsibility of the Russian side,” he says.“The Russians wanted to close the case on the responsibility of the Polish pilots, wanted to omit issues related to the poor preparation of their own services, the malfunctioning of the airport, which would compromise . . . them.”
Relations between Russia and the EU’s most important eastern member state deteriorated further, as it became clear that Russia had no intention of returning the wreckage of the Tu-154 — provoking accusations that it was playing politics with its neighbour’s national tragedy.
“The Russians . . . aren’t giving it back because it’s a great tool to irritate the Poles and to provoke political conflict in Poland,” claims Komorowski.
When Russia annexed Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, the door to rapprochement, which Tusk’s government had been inching open before Smolensk, finally slammed shut. Poland was one of the foremost advocates of tough sanctions by the international community on Moscow.
Moscow’s counter-sanctions hit Polish farmers hard. At the 80th anniversary of the start of the second world war last year, the contrast with the 70th could not have been starker. Unlike in 2009, Putin was not invited, and in the following months he launched repeated jibes at Poland, falsely claiming that the country was partly responsible for the outbreak of the conflict.
A decade on, Sikorski believes that Russia and Poland’s interests are now so opposed that all that can be done is to minimise clashes.
“Russia wants to get the US out of Europe; we want to keep them. Russia wants the EU to disintegrate; we want it to flourish. Russia wants Ukraine to be disorganised and corrupt and integrated into their multinational scheme; we want it to be European,” he says.
“The relationship with Russia consists in managing the differences and finding some marginal areas of collaboration.” (The Russian government declined to comment for this article.)
While animosity towards Moscow has endured, the political heirs of Lech Kaczynski have in recent years sought finally to move on from the tragedy. In April 2018, Jaroslaw Kaczynski called time on the monthly gatherings. The event that April was the 96th, meaning that there had been one for each of the victims.
And Kaczynski’s government had finally won a long-running battle over their desire to build a monument to the crash’s victims in the centre of Warsaw.
“The life of the topic ended,” says Nowacka, the leftwing politician. “You cannot [extract] passionate emotions from a topic, constantly for 10 years. And [PiS] realised that . . . it’s easier to be a responsible party that distributes 500+ [a generous child benefit programme] than a party based on the emotion of a plane crash.”
As the 10th anniversary of the disaster looms, however, the ghosts of Smolensk still linger. The remains of the plane lie in a hangar behind a grey, barbed wire-topped wall not far from the memorial site, as they have for almost a decade.
The long-promised final report into the crash by Antoni Macierewicz, a close ally of Jaroslaw Kaczynski, is still unpublished.
And before the coronavirus outbreak closed borders across the world, a group of Polish officials and relatives of the victims had once again been due to make their way to the Russian city to pay tribute to those who died.
Poland’s government confirmed this week that it would postpone the visit until a later date. Nowacka, however, had already decided that she would not be going.
“I think my place is here in Warsaw, because my mother is here,” she says, before adding: “And I don’t want to have Smolensk as part of the political campaign again. I believe this is a memory that belongs to every one of us, and not to one political group or another.”
James Shotter is the FT’s central Europe correspondent. Henry Foy is FT Moscow bureau chief. Additional reporting by Agata Majos
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