As birds drowned out the M4 with their own evensong, a young Polish couple walked up the path where tulips stood to attention and laid yet another new candle at the foot of the west London monument that commemorates Katyń’s dead. Barely 10 minutes walk away, in the Russian Orthodox Church by the busy road, a lone priest chanted before an image of the Madonna. Even in exile, Poland and Russia cannot escape each other; so where now for the quarrelling neighbours who share such a difficult past?
Gunnersbury Cemetery seemed the obvious place to come at the end of this strange week when aeroplanes dominated the news. Thanks to Icelandic ash, the sky lacked the usual conveyor belt of airliners on final approach to Heathrow. While back in town, Poles were still making their way home from the giant screen in Trafalgar Square where they had watched the state funeral that followed the Smolensk air crash. They stood silently, watching as their President was laid to rest in Wawel Castle, Kraków.
A compassionate response from Russia’s government and also its people had been duly logged by commentators who wondered if this might not mark a new phase in the countries’ troubled relationship. On April 10 Dmitry Medvedev, the President of Russia, had been quick to say that “All Russians share the grief and sorrow with you”, and even made it to Kraków one week later for the funeral.
At the live relay broadcast, Barbara TugeErecińska, Poland’s Ambassador to the United Kingdom, was visibly emotional.
Commenting on the outpouring of sympathy towards Poland, she had said: “I trust that thanks to them there is true hope to overcome the demons of Polish-Russian historical relations.” “Yes, there must be some hope,” conceded the woman leaving the candle at Gunnersbury, but the accompanying ambivalent hand gesture said: “But, let’s not get carried away.” After only a week, Poland was still processing this latest dramatic twist in the World War II legacy that still casts a shadow over relations with Moscow. Vladimir Putin was undoubtedly moving in the right direction when he took part in a joint ceremony on April 7 with Polish prime minister Donald Tusk, stating that Katyń was a crime that could not be justified. But it has been noted that the President, politicians, clergy and activists who died at Smolensk had been making their way to a different, more Polish, ceremony.
One of them was the Shepherds Bush-based Mgr Bronisław Gostomski. Anna Gebska, who spoke at last Sunday’s Trafalgar Square ceremony, knew him. But she was chosen to speak in her capacity as chief guide commissioner of the Polish Scouting Association.
“President Kaczyński was first and foremost a Scout,” she said, explaining that the Polish Church and Scouts have close links and both preserve Polish culture abroad. She agreed that the door was open, but wanted to see more from Russia.
“It’s an opportunity. But Katyń needs to be recognised as a war crime and the archives need to be opened,” she said.
According to the Foreign and Commonwealth Office the 1973 private initiative to build a Katyń monu ment, just off London’s King’s Road in the grounds of St Luke’s (CofE), drew protests from both Moscow and Warsaw. The British government was also wary of rocking the Cold War boat. The plan was rejected by the diocesan advisory committee because of disruption to existing tombs, and because the project was “not in keeping with the Church’s principle of reconciliation”.
But without a full confession and a show of penitence, can such a symbolic sin ever be forgiven? Russia has stopped short of an apology or a condemnation of those responsible. Durcharbeiten is a German word which means “working through” something; Germans, in particular West Germans, experienced a prolonged period of postwar self-reflection. When, in 1970, their Chancellor Willy Brandt famously dropped to his knees in the Warsaw Ghetto, it was seen as a major step forward in the healing process.
London finally got its Katyń memorial in 1976, but it was not until 1990 that Gorbachev’s Russia finally admitted responsibility for the killing. In the speech that President Kaczyński never got to deliver, he was to have explained why Poland and Russia need to “work through” Katyń before they can move on. Domestically “for the sake of the memory of the victims and respect for their families’ suffering” and geopolitically “in the name of common values, which are necessary to form a foundation of trust and partnership between the neighbouring nations in Europe”.
Jonathan Murphy is a student at Cork University, writing a PhD on Second World War Anglo-Polish diplomatic relations. Like the Polish historian Janusz Kurtyka who died in the crash, he was hoping for more access to archives.
“Putin has made a gesture, but now needs to make a complete move to help both nations. Poles and historians were holding our breaths to see if further lists of victims would be presented – so relatives of the victims would have some closure.” Fr Dariusz Kwiatkowski, from Ealing, was also on the Trafalgar Square podium.
He said: “It would be very healing to have the Russian government acknowledge the massacre in Katyń and take the blame. If, and when, we start that sort of dialogue it’s definitely a way to improve our relationship.” He added: “Polish and Russian people are very similar. We’ve got the same Slavic souls. We know each other better than any other nation; our weaknesses, our strengths.” Perhaps, he suggested, this could be the start of a different dialogue.
“It is in our own interest to live in peace, and have good relationships with our neighbours. We don’t know what the consequences are going to be [of Smolensk]. But I feel it’s a very good beginning.” Sitting alone at the back of Trafalgar Square, with a small flag, was a lady who had every right to bear a grudge. Jadwiga Sawicka, 80, told me that not only had her brother, a young officer of 23 years, been shot at Katyń, but that she had spent two-and-a-half years as a child in a Soviet work camp after being deported from what is now Belarus.
“They took everyone – came in the middle of the night and arrested us,” she said. It was cold and her father died in the first week. Others followed. She escaped with her mother and had ended up here eventually.
Could someone who had suffered so much envisage reconciliation? “There should be, yes. We can’t blame the Russian people. It was Stalin and the Communists. They suffered as well under the regime. Most of them are good people; we should be friends.” As I sat on a bench by the immaculately tended memorial in Gunnersbury, watching the shadows lengthen, I thought about another part of President Kaczyński’s undelivered speech. It was certainly a call to action; but not one of aggression.
“Let’s make the Katyń wound finally heal and cicatrise,” he said. “We are already on the way to do it. We Poles appreciate what Russians have done in the past years. We should follow the path which brings our nations closer, we should not stop or go back.” The young couple leaving the candle would have come here to work, using their options as members of a country that is not just free but a thriving part of modern Europe. Perhaps the best tribute to the Katyń dead would be to take any opportunity that presents itself for a brighter and more peaceful future, and build on it.