A land too acquainted with grief

Paul Wells on the death of controversial Polish president Lech Kaczynski

The Gazeta Wyborcza “turns the rules” in mourning, publishing its website only in black to chronicle the astonishing death of the country’s president Lech Kaczynski and dozens of others in a plane crash in Russia. The great newspaper’s founder Adam Michnik, who came from the Catholic reform left and disagreed with most of everything Kaczynski was in politics to accomplish, prints a short and dignified appreciation (I’m linking to Google translations; Polish doesn’t robo-translate well to English, but you can get the gist).

Kaczynski was a controversial figure who put a broadly-brushed xenophobia at the centre of his politics. In a country with a long history of violent dismemberment at the hands of its neighbours, most recently by the parties to the Molotov-Ribbentropp pact, xenophobia can at times be forgiven and often politically profitable. But most recent accounts suggest Poland was tiring of Kaczynski’s  assorted resentments and that he’d have trouble winning re-election this autumn. Still, Michnik gets it right: Kaczynski was courtly and warm in his personal relations with friend and foe, and his constant motive was patriotism. A cornerstone of his personal legacy is the Warsaw Rising Museum, to which Kaczynski gave the green light and his strong support while he was the city’s mayor. (In a city full of museums, if you get into a cab and say “take me to the museum,” this is where they take you.)

On the accident itself, it’s worth pointing out that for any politician, a decision about whether to land an airplane in inclement weather is an inherently political call and I’m a little surprised something like today’s tragedy doesn’t happen more often. To pick a relatively trivial example, during the stormy autumn of 1998, I rode in Quebec Liberal leader Jean Charest’s campaign plane as it made more than one reckless descent through freezing rain and high winds to get to campaign events.

Prime Minister Donald Tusk will surely cancel an Ottawa visit that was to happen this week. He and Kaczynski barely got along and had used airplanes as instruments to express stark disagreements over foreign policy before (I’m trying to track down an account of an airborne dispute between them that played out during the 2008 Georgia-Russia unpleasantness.) With a passenger list that included the country’s entire military command, its Olympic chairman, relatives of the Katyn murder victims and many politicians, the destruction of Kaczynski’s plane is tragedy on a scale Canadians can barely imagine. What makes this such a Polish catastrophe is that to many of the country’s older residents, it will all feel so familiar.

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