Magazine Poland

On this Day, in 2010: Polish President Kaczyński was killed in the Smolensk air disaster

On April, 10, 2010, a Tupolev Tu-154 of the Polish Air Force crashed near the Russian city of Smolensk, killing all 96 people on board, including the Polish President, Lech Kaczyński, his wife Maria, and former President-in-exile, Ryszard Kaczorowski.

The Polish delegation, composed of President Lech Kaczyński and other high-ranking Polish officials, was headed to Smolensk in Russia to attend a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre, when their plane crashed in a wooded area, a short distance from the runway, killing Kaczyński and all 95 others on board.

Among those killed were also the President’s wife Maria Kaczyńska, former President-in-exile Ryszard Kaczorowski, Poland’s highest-ranking military officers and heads of the Polish National Bank, members of the Polish Parliament, senior members of the Polish clergy, as well as relatives of those killed in the Katyn massacre.

The Smolensk crash is arguably Poland’s worst national disaster since the Second World War. At a stroke, the country lost its president, the commanders of its ground, sea, air and special forces, senior priests, its central bank chief and other dignitaries.

More than ten years on, the disaster has left lasting scars.

The shock of the crash united Poles as every moment of national grief was televised: the coffins being repatriated, the spontaneous expressions of mourning, the state funerals. “Social unity followed, reminiscent of that following the death of Pope John Paul II,” said Michal Luczewski, a sociologist at the University of Warsaw.

Official investigations found no technical faults with the aircraft, concluding that the crew failed to conduct the approach in a safe manner in the given weather conditions.

But PiS leader Jarosław Kaczyński, Lech’s twin brother, and other PiS politicians never accepted this explanation, which gave rise to numerous conspiracy theories.

Jarosław Kaczyński himself has claimed that the crash was a political assassination, going as far as accusing then-Prime Minister Donald Tusk for being responsible “in a political sense”.

As such, the Smolensk air disaster became Poland’s primary political fault line and fueled bitter partisan divisions that continue to shape the country’s politics to this day.

In addition, it cast Russia, for centuries Poland’s most dangerous and disruptive adversary, as Warsaw’s untrustworthy neighbour once more, hampering a tentative detente with Moscow and plunging Poland back into a deep suspicion of the Kremlin.

While the PiS leadership has in recent years finally sought to move on from the tragedy, the ghosts of Smolensk still linger. Today, 26 percent of Poles still believe the crash was an assassination, according to a recent Ipsos survey.

Find out more about Central European history in our new On this Day series.

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