President Obama didn’t make it to Krakow the other day for the funeral of Polish President Lech Kaczynski. And so passed my one chance to have something in common with our president. This would have been his first time in Poland, and Krakow the first city in Poland he would have visited. My first time in Poland, shortly after high school, also had Krakow as its first stop. Obama planned to stay all of three and half hours. I stayed considerably longer, though that’s neither here nor there. What matters is that Krakow — like Poland — is a very different place today from the drab, gray victim of communism I first encountered. It’s attractive enough that on a happier occasion Obama probably would want to take his wife out to dinner there.
Poland’s recent unspeakable tragedy will take many months and years to play out, but there’s no reason to expect the country’s performance will be any less impressive in the long term than it has been since April 10. That said, so much has happened in the wake of the trauma that one doesn’t exactly know where to begin — at least if one is Polish or interested in things Polish. Let me sort a few of them out.
Are better relations with Russia really in the offing? Many people I spoke with immediately smelled the dirty hand of Moscow in the Smolensk crash, no present evidence required. The great historian Richard Pipes was quoted in the Polish press predicting a worsening of Polish-Russian relations, mainly because of the Poles’ historically grounded distrust. Instead, we’ve seen just the opposite, noble gestures toward one another on both the Polish and Russian side and genuine talk of reconciliation and Slavic brotherhood, all this without any soft-pedaling at all regarding Stalinist Russian responsibility for the Katyn massacres. If even the likes of Putin and Medvedev subscribe to the notion that the truth shall set you free, who knows what good things lie in store.
Of course, there’s no reason to get carried away. As Poland’s formidable foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski noted, Russia’s human reaction to the Smolensk tragedy shouldn’t obscure the fact that Poland and Russia have different interests. In that respect, I was happy to see a resort to that old standby of Russia watching, tea-leaf reading, as revealed in Cathy Young’s fine column on the Polish-Russian situation. According to a independent Russian website cited by Young, recent discovery of large shale gas reserves in Poland has given energy giant Russia a reason to treat the Polish government with greater respect.
Polish-Russian reconciliation — an issue raised most pointedly by Cardinal Dziwisz at Kaczynski’s funeral — was not the only healing under discussion. There were also calls for “Polish-Polish reconciliation,” a formulation that sounds even odder if one considers that Poland is currently as center-right a society as any in Europe. I hope it’s not simplifying matters too much to argue that the main political division in Poland of late has been between the paleoconservative Law and Justice party of the Kaczynski brothers and current prime-minister Donald Tusk’s Reaganite-free market Civic Platform. The former has stressed social conservatism, nationalism, and anti-Communism, the latter privatization, tax cuts, and economic growth (without abandoning its own Christian Democratic tendencies) — by now surely everyone knows that Poland is the one European country whose economy continued to grow during the recent great recession, to the point that the country has had to take steps to devalue its strong currency. The head of the Polish national bank responsible for that measure was one of the 96 fatalities in Smolensk.
Meanwhile, in the wake of the crash one had to wonder why Tusk and Kaczynski had each scheduled different Katyn commemoration events, with each side striking its own deal of sorts with Russians. At its worst, it’s the kind of behavior that helped bring about the partitions and disappearance of the Polish state in the 18th century.
Having experienced only short periods of political independence ever since, Poles are understandably jumpy at any threat to their statehood and thus politically more intense than most. But there was no panic after April 10, and the displays of genuine national unity and mourning were a victory for civilization. To be sure, in a matter of days there was strong revulsion in many quarters at news that Kaczynski would be encrypted in Krakow’s Wawel Cathedral, amid the truly great figures of Polish history. A country that takes its history very seriously doesn’t like to see it cheapened.
Most unusual in this jaded age were the many young people who came to pay tribute to the late president even if they had strongly opposed him and even if they weren’t particularly pleased about where he finally would be laid to rest. They respected both his final sacrifice and his role as head of state. A polity that can rise above personal likes and dislikes to do the right thing is one that intends to stick around.