“It was a moment of complete emptiness. A bottomless despair.” The Smolensk air disaster 10 years on

PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński whose brother Lech, then president of Poland, was killed in the crash, attends the graves of the victims of the Smolensk catastrophe at the Powązki Military Cemetery in Warsaw. Mateusz Marek/PAP

On Sunday 10 April ten years ago, Poland woke to its 9/11.

The shocking news that started to filter back from Smolensk that morning, a small Russian city 220 km south-west of Moscow and 900 km east of Warsaw, was hard to accept.

A government Tupolev Tu-154 carrying President Lech Kaczyński, his wife and 94 other passengers and crew to commemorate the victims of the Katyn crime had crashed trying to land at a decommissioned military airbase north of the city.

Prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki pays his respects to those that died 10 years ago today.Mateusz Marek/PAP

The pilots had approached the landing strip in dense fog, with visibility reduced to almost zero. At 10:41 local time, as safety devices screamed at the crew to increase altitude, the plane clipped a birch tree, rolled over and hit the ground. Nobody survived.

It was the second largest disaster in Polish aviation history and the largest in terms of victims suffered by the Polish Air Force.

However, those grim facts do not come close to describing the tragedy and loss that the Polish nation suffered that day.

In a tragedy unparalleled anywhere in modern history, Poland lost a significant proportion of its political and military elite.

A government Tupolev Tu-154 carrying President Lech Kaczyński, his wife and 94 other passengers and crew to commemorate the victims of the Katyn crime had crashed trying to land at a decommissioned military airbase north of Smolensk.CC BY-SA 3.0

The smouldering wreckage included not only the bodies of President Lech Kaczyński and his wife Maria, but also the last president-in-exile, the head of the Polish National Bank, the head of the Institute of National Remembrance, the head of the National Security Bureau, undersecretaries in the defence, foreign and culture ministries, the human rights ombudsman and deputy speakers of the Sejm and the Senate.

Losses among senior military staff were unprecedented in peacetime or war. At a single stroke, the country lost its chief of the general staff, the head of the army, the head of the navy, the head of the air force and the head of special forces.

The list of victims also included members of parliament, representatives of Katyn families, members of the clergy, government protection offices, pilots and cabin crew.

Russia continues to refuse Polish demands to return the black boxes and the wreckage of the plane, which has sat in a hangar not far from the memorial site for the last ten years.CC BY-SA 2.5

The youngest victim was Natalia Januszko, a stewardess, who was just 22.

The president and his entourage flew to Smolensk to mark the 70th anniversary of the Katyn crime, in which Stalin ordered the execution of around 22,000 Polish military officers and intelligentsia.

Although the killings were carried out by the NKVD in several places, 4,421 of the murdered Poles were buried in pits in Katyn forest near Smolensk and it is at the Katyn massacre memorial complex where official commemorations take place.

Separated by 70 years and 20 kilometres, the two tragedies melded in the minds of Poles, for whom Katyn is a symbol of Poland’s suffering at Soviet hands.

Poland was plunged into grief unmatched since the death of Pope John Paul II. Yet, while the pontiff’s passing was expected, the sense of shock in 2010 was palpable among stunned Poles as they gathered in grief and mourning.CC BY-SA 3.0

Poland was plunged into grief unmatched since the death of Pope John Paul II. Yet, while the pontiff’s passing was expected, the sense of shock in 2010 was palpable among stunned Poles as they gathered in grief and mourning.

Speaking on television on Thursday, Polish president Andrzej Duda summarised the mood throughout the country: “It was a moment of complete emptiness, a bottomless despair that makes you feel as if you were hollowed out inside”.

In Warsaw, thousands lined the streets when the bodies of the president and first lady arrived back in sealed metal coffins.

President Duda said: “It was a moment of complete emptiness, a bottomless despair that makes you feel as if you were hollowed out inside.”Łukasz Gągulski/PAP

For a week, the street outside the Presidential Palace became a huge shrine as people gathered to lay flowers and light remembrance candles.

In the first hours and days after the tragedy, as the country slowly digested what had happened, Poles were grateful for the warm response from the Russian authorities, and from ordinary Russian people, who were also shocked by the disaster.

Mindful of the tortured history between the two nations, which has seen 123 years of the partitions, war crimes and 44 years of Communist suppression, Poles felt a sense of validation when Andrzej Wajda’s 2007 film Katyn was shown on Russian state television on 11 April during the popular evening slot.

Russian president Vladimir Putin at the site of the presidential plane crash. He was the country’s prime minister at the time.Jacek Turczyk/PAP

This continued when a day of mourning across Russia was announced and the Russian parliament passed a motion admitting that Joseph Stalin had personally approved the Katyn murders.

However, any sense of unity between the two countries soon evaporated when Russia published the results of its crash investigation.

The report blamed the pilots, claiming that they ignored instructions to divert to a second airport because of the poor landing conditions.

The Russian investigation also suggested that the pilots were pressured into landing the plane against their judgment by someone who had entered the cockpit at the critical moment.

The Russian investigation suggested that the pilots were pressured into landing the plane against their judgment by someone who had entered the cockpit at the critical moment.CC BY-SA 3.0

Polish pain was compounded by Russia’s insistence that no blame rested with air traffic controllers at Smolensk.

On the 10th anniversary of the disaster, bitterness and suspicion still linger. Russia continues to refuse Polish demands to return the black boxes and the wreckage of the plane, which has sat in a hangar not far from the memorial site for the last ten years.

Relations between Moscow and Warsaw have soured recently as Putin has cranked up rhetoric trying to deflect its responsibility for starting World War Two and even inexplicably trying to shunt blame for the conflagration on Poland.

In a tragedy unparalleled anywhere in modern history, Poland lost a significant proportion of its political and military elite.MFA/Twitter

A planned visit to the Katyn memorial this year by prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki was cancelled due to the Coronavirus pandemic.

However, preparations for the visit were marred by distrust and wrangling.

A scaled-back commemoration service took place this morning when Jarosław Kaczyński lead a delegation that laid wreaths at the monument to the victims of the disaster on Warsaw’s Piłsudski square.