Poland's Bitter Spring

The April 10 crash of the plane carrying President Lech Kaczynski and scores of other Polish dignitaries shook Poland to its core. Professor John Micgiel looks at the aftermath—and the significance of the plane's destination.

by John Micgiel Published Summer 2010
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It has been a dreadful spring here in Poland.

The country was barely coming to grips with the death of its president and other leaders near Katyn in April when intense rains in May and again in early June caused the worst flooding in more than a century — what the prime minister called the worst natural disaster in Polish history. Twenty people died, thousands more had to be evacuated, crops were wiped out, and damages totaled more than $3 billion. Entire towns remain off-limits. Here in Warsaw, residents nervously eyed the rising Vistula River, which slices through the city on its way north toward the Baltic.

Some people I talk to blame the government for not having strengthened defenses after the terrible 1997 floods. The major political parties, weeks before the June elections, make promises and counterpromises to flood victims. In the midst of all this, the average Pole is mostly worried about how he’s going to pay his bills.

If there is one hopeful development this spring, it may be the promise of a thaw in the icy relations between Poland and Russia.

My graduate students at Warsaw University’s Eastern Studies Center, where I taught a course this May on the recent history of East Central Europe since the fall of the Soviet Union, have surprising things to say about ongoing events. They are a diverse group. There are Poles, of course, and also Azerbaijanis, Belarusians, Georgians, Hungarians, Ukrainians, and Russians. I ask them what they make of the apparent rapprochement from Moscow, which seems to be the warmest since the days of Boris Yeltsin. Closer relations are a good thing, they tell me; no one could object to that. But, they warn me, Poland needs to be cautious. They ask me if I have seen the article in Rzeczpospolita, a Warsaw daily newspaper. I haven’t. One of them shows me the paper. Five Russian dissidents have published an open letter warning Poland not to trust Moscow in connection with the Katyn crash: “It seems that the Polish friends are demonstrating some naïveté, forgetting that the interests of the current Kremlin leadership and those of Russia’s neighbors do not converge.”

My class agrees. One Russian student remarks, “The Russian government’s current policy toward Poland can be characterized as one of soft power, which can quickly change and have an impact on the life of a ‘partner.’”

After class, walking along Ulica Krolewska, past the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, toward the subway that will take me home, I am reminded that that kind of exchange is what makes being here from time to time so valuable.

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