The airplane crash in western Russia last Saturday, which killed the Polish president and much of that country's senior civilian and military leadership, was a reminder that dark events are never that far distant.
The crash, ironically, took place at a time when Poles and Russians were attempting to put to rest a dreadful episode of 70 years before — that is, the massacre by Soviet secret police, at Josef Stalin's order, of some 25,700 members of the Polish intelligentsia and officer corps in the Katyn Forest. The Poles killed in the air crash were traveling to an observance relating to the massacre.
When the massacre took place in 1940, German forces had invaded Poland from the West and Russian forces from the East. Under the Hitler-Stalin Pact, Adolf Hitler and Stalin had made peace between themselves and were dividing their spoils in Poland.
A bit more than a year later, German forces invaded the Soviet Union and millions would die not only in battle but in atrocities against civilians. An estimated 7 million Red Army soldiers and 20 million Soviet civilians died in the war. Nazi doctrine decreed that Jewish, Slavic, and other ethnic groups were subhuman" and thus could be disposed of at will.
Stalin, before the war, had undertaken massive political purges within the USSR, effectively wiping out in the 1930s much of the original Communist leadership. At the end of the decade he purged senior military ranks. He expected eventual war with Germany, but not as soon as 1941. He thought the Hitler-Stalin Pact had bought him more time.
At the war's height, in 1942, Stalin issued his famous Order No. 227, ordering that all soldiers who left their positions or retreated be summarily shot. The order was enforced by special-unit machine gunners, positioned behind front lines, who shot down their own retreating troops.
When mass graves were discovered at Katyn, after World War II, the Soviets charged that Nazi forces had done it. Denials continued until 1992, when released Russian archival documents showed resposibility lay with Stalin and his Politbureau.
The Katyn wound has not yet healed. A few days before the airplane crash, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin commemorated the Katyn anniverary but characterized the executions as one of many tragedies of the time. Standing near the site, he said that "in this ground lay Soviet citizens, burnt in the fire of the Stalinist repressions of the 1930s; Polish officers, shot on secret orders; soldiers of the Red Army, executed by the Nazis." Poles were offended that no direct apology had been offered. The Russian Communist Party, on the other hand, denounced Putin's statement.
Americans, as citizens of a relatively new country, often express wonder at the centuries-long grievances held by one country or ethnic group against another in other parts of the world. But the Katyn massacre, only 70 years ago (a brief time in history), coming as it did during the early stages of monstrous global murder, should serve as a reminder that barbarism is never that distant from our comfortable daily lives.
Not suprisingly, suggestions are being made in Poland that Putin, a former Soviet KGB officer, might have engineered last Saturday's plane crash just as Stalin ordered the Katyn massacre. Many of the Polish leaders on the flight were known to be hostile to Russia.
Is there a basis for such conspiracy theories? I doubt that Putin or Russian security forces had the plane sabotaged or bad landing instructions transmitted. By all accounts, Russian air controllers warned the Polish pilot not to land in foggy weather but he tried to do so anyway.
Could a Katyn happen again? Unreasoning murder and violence are still happening, on a somewhat smaller scale, in many parts of the world. No one, anywhere, is truly safe from them.