On April 10th 2010, Polish President Lech Kaczyński and his wife Maria boarded a Soviet-made Tupolev Tu-154 jet bound for Smolensk, Russia. They were joined by the heads of the army and navy, the president of the national bank, prominent members of parliament, ex-president Ryszard Kaczorowski, and an 80-year-old Anna Walentynowicz. The reason for the trip was a memorial for the slaughter of 22,000 Polish officers in the Katyn forest during World War II. Around the time they boarded that plane, my wife and I were in Santiago, Chile, trying to bring our first child to term, and into the world. With help from Clínica Alemana and a few of their doctors, including three delicate surgeries by Drs. Donoso and Cunill, we were finally successful—times two—with twins. Not long after, my wife Sonia was taken to the hospital for hemorrhaging. She thought at first we had lost both, but we had lost one. A couple months or so later, on July 2nd (my brother’s birthday), we heard our daughter’s heart beat for the first time. Then on February 11th 2011, Isabel was born, healthy and screaming with life.
But back to that trip to Smolensk. Like many I’m sure, when I read about the crash I was stunned—my first absurd and grotesque response was to wonder if that cursed place hadn’t somehow pulled on the plane. I rejected the thought as soon as it came, and I reject it whenever it comes back. But I wonder how it crossed my mind in the first place, and why it must be impossible. In The Poetics of Space, Gaston Bachelard extols the imagination, tells how it “augments the values of reality” and how “one must be receptive, receptive to the image at the moment it appears.” He shows, too, how “inhabited space transcends geometrical space.” In one way or another, we sense that a meta-physical wave exists, and even try to bend it to fit our practical aims, like that clever inspirational line, “the harder I work, the luckier I get” (which really depends on the work, and on your luck in the first place). In Chile, I hear the phrase “buena onda,” or its opposite, “mala onda” (good wave or bad wave—between people, in the air, or in a place). And we have apparently made serious space for Marie Kondo’s peaceful salutations to a physical house, or clothes, or boxes, that have been a hit on Netflix. We have mantras like “Om, Shanti, Shanti, Shanti” which, as Christopher Wallis describes, work to help us use “our consciousness to shape reality…to manifest intention.” We knock on wood; we don’t say the ‘M’ word before the Scottish play. And then there’s God, who Marilynne Robinson thinks and writes about because, as she says, “only theology supports an ultimate coherency that can embrace equally the true, the tentative, and the flawed, as reality itself embraces them.” If there is real room for any or all of these, then my initial response to Anna’s plane crash would remain hideous (like the all-too-real carnage on that spot in 1940), but should be rendered something less than absurd.
There was also the question of sabotage, or foul play, though this has largely been a storyline pushed (without evidence) by the late president’s brother for political gain. It’s not a great stretch, of course, to see how such an event might be the product of a proud Putin, whose motherland was forced to admit that it had lied about the Katyn massacre. But it was probably one of those accidents that reality just has a hard time explaining. It was also, then, an opportunity for propaganda. There were loud and bizarre accusations by the Law and Justice party, investigations, bodies exhumed, theories, and more theories. Evidence for one proposition about manufactured fog involved the demonstration of steam from the boiling of sausages (which neutral observers found unconvincing). This was mostly the work of Jarosław Kaczyński, Lech’s twin brother and the leader of Law and Justice which now controls Poland. Jarosław’s spin (including a movie entitled Smolensk) was made easier because the plausible explanation at hand wasn’t itself quite convincing—that the pilots simply ignored warnings not to land in that weather, and then dropped too low in their approach, clipping trees and rolling, before hitting ground.
The twins once worked with Anna, Lech Wałęsa, and Solidarity (6). In the 70s and 80s, they were part of that movement that changed much of the world. But like Viktor Orbán in Hungary, who also used to fight for liberal democracy, they made some adjustments (7). When he won the presidency in 2005, Lech looked at his brother and declared, in front of the nation, “Mr. Chairman, I report: Mission accomplished” (an infamous phrase from a U.S. president at about the same time). Jarosław then began to push for full power, starting with spreading the notion that the liberal Civic Platform (more center-right, in fact, than liberal) had worked with and allowed too many ex-communists to stay in power. He claimed Wałęsa and others from Solidarity were actually in cahoots with the communists (8), and his Law and Justice party was in fact the true revolution that Poland needed. When Lech Kaczyński was president and the Civic Platform wielded power in parliament, Poland’s economy grew faster than that of almost any other country in Europe. But like Republicans in the U.S., Jarosław fed and tapped into an angry desire for historical meaning, pride, religious roots, and patriotism. It worked (and it didn’t help that the Civic Platform mostly ignored Poland’s rural areas). When Law and Justice took full power in 2015, Jarosław looked to Orbán’s Hungary as “the example.” (9) He moved to control and censor state television, which has been described as “Fox News on steroids.” He oversaw an overtly hostile and accusatory approach to governing, mostly without any details or evidence. He has repeatedly accused the Civic Platform of betraying Poland and siding with the EU, Putin, communists, and whoever else might serve his political interests.
In 2015, Jarosław’s party only won 38% of the popular vote, but the lack of a mandate hasn’t mattered. When they took control of Poland’s public television and radio stations that were previously run by apolitical bodies (at least since 1989) and promised to ensure that “unbiased, objective, and credible” news reached the masses (10), it was one step among many that drew scrutiny from the EU. Poland has been warned repeatedly about the need to follow the rule of law; the EU has come close to taking the unprecedented action of essentially expelling the country from the Union (something Poland cannot afford, as it has reaped so much since it joined in 2004—a vote to expel, though, has to be unanimous, and Hungary would never go along). Poland, in fact, became the first country in the history of the EU to ever be told it may lose its voting rights. Jarosław’s party has snarled in response, and repeatedly told Brussels to mind its own business.
President Duda, who was chosen by Jarosław and works mostly at his behest, has called the EU an “imaginary community,” though the economic advantage Poland receives from this community is quite real. Soon after Donald Trump’s visit to Warsaw in July of 2017 (11), Duda sent him a “Thank-You Tweet” for pointing out “the relentless flow of fake news” that we confront today. “Thank you,” he told his U.S. counterpart. “We must continue to fight that phenomenon.” (12) Duda was up for re-election in 2020, though there was some question as to whether Jarosław would allow him to run (13). He did, and in July Duda won by the slightest margin for a presidential election since 1989 (51.2%). Jarosław remains in charge.
Poland’s constitutional democracy, with its separation of powers and its bill of rights, has now been under sustained attack for years: “a process of death by a thousand cuts,” as Venice Commission member Sarah Cleveland has put it. The end game for what’s happening, according to Judge Markiewicz, is that “there’ll be no trust in law anymore.” Investments have recently slacked from legal concerns. The European Network of Councils of Judiciary suspended Poland’s membership, as it found Poland’s courts no longer independent but now political arms of the ruling party. Law and Justice seized control of the Constitutional Tribunal, and in the lower courts, a party affiliate can now fire prosecutors and judges at will. The National Judiciary Council, which picks the country’s judges, is at the governing party’s mercy as well. In addition, Jarosław’s party created two disciplinary boards, one to determine if elections were fair or not, and the other to fire judges, prosecutors, or lawyers deemed to be “unruly.” Judges who have criticized these creations have, in fact, been disciplined or dismissed for their words. The efforts of Law and Justice included too a “purge of the Supreme Court through the forced retirements of one-third of the justices.” Judges who refused to step down, including the top Supreme Court justice Małgorzata Gersdorf, have been threatened with violence. The European Parliament declared that Jarosław’s actions were “a risk to constitutional democracy” and may be breaching “European law and fundamental rights.” In December of 2018, the EU ordered Poland to rescind the forced-retirement law “immediately.” It did. Duda backed off the confrontation, and he reinstated the judges. If he hadn’t, though, it’s not entirely clear which would have governed—the Polish courts and constitution, or the EU’s proclamations.
Adam Michnik has said that “the great objective of this government is to reorganize Poland into a Putin-like system.” Some of Anna’s words do now seem prophetic. “I don’t see much of a future for a Poland where my idea of Solidarity could blossom,” she said as she watched the aftermath of their victory. She felt Solidarity had become a “fiction” and ended up “appeasing the communist regime…. Unfortunately and much too often,” she said, “they are going about things in ways it was done in the past. No responsibility to people because for them people don’t exist. There may come a time when the workers may have to straighten out the elites again.”
Some thought that Law and Justice would finally pay a price when they sought to rewrite and muzzle memory itself. Poland’s so-called Memory Law (or Death Camp Law) reads like something out of Orwell’s 1984. The law makes it a crime to tell the truth, to speak or write about sins and betrayals by Poles during WWII. Before signing it, Duda said we “have a right to defend ourselves from an evident slander, an evident falsification of historical truth.” Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki said the law was meant to safeguard Poland’s “true history.” Israel, and others, objected. Prime Minister Netanyahu said “The law is baseless; I strongly oppose it. One cannot change history” (though he has made his own nefarious attempts to bend it his way). Former U.S. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson put it mildly, saying it “adversely affects freedom of speech and academic inquiry.” Jan Gross, whose book Neighbors is but one example of Poles betraying and murdering their Jewish compatriots during WWII, said it worked to “falsify the history of the Holocaust.” But as of 6 February 2018, you could go to prison for up to three years if you were caught speaking “publicly and against the facts” about “the Polish nation or the Polish state’s responsibility or co-responsibility for Nazi crimes.” One wondered, of course, if books like Gross’ would be banned (or burned). Would the authors be arrested? Protests were powerful enough to remove the teeth of this law, at least for now. With its teeth, it’s like Putin’s memory law (signed in 2014) that makes illegal any comparison of Nazi crimes with Soviet activities, or any insinuation that the two ever colluded together, or, effectively, any reference whatsoever to war crimes committed by the Soviet Union. But memory can put up a fight. It can draft and enact its own legislation apart from decrees by powerful men.
Jarosław’s party has drawn recent attention too when it comes to climate change. In Poland, coal is king, as they say, and its crown seems secure in a country that, after Russia, produces the most coal in Europe and relies on it for much of its own energy (which may explain why of the 50 most polluted cities in the European Union, 33 are in Poland). In 2018, Poland hosted the 24th United Nations annual climate change conference, and took the opportunity to let everyone know—with a Coal Miners’ Band, and coal featured everywhere, from display cases to jewelry and cosmetics—that coal is going nowhere for as long as its supply holds out (about 200 years or so). They are, in fact, investing in new ways to exploit it. As the conference took place in Katowice, Duda left to attend a mining celebration in another city, where he declared that as a “strategic industry” and “the foundation of our economy” there was no need to worry. “As long as I am president,” he assured, “I won’t allow anyone to murder the Polish mining.” He made another point as well: if polluters like the U.S. aren’t going to do anything, why should Poland? (14)
In Katowice, the United States joined Russia, Saudi Arabia, and Kuwait in officially rejecting the U.N.’s Climate Report. The United Nations Secretary General António Guterres said that “to waste this opportunity in Katowice would compromise our last best chance to stop runaway climate change…. It would not only be immoral, it would be suicidal.” Thanks in no small part to the U.S. and Poland, that chance was certainly squandered. And there are others of course—leaders like Scott Morrison in Australia and Jair Bolsonaro in Brazil have championed this amoral suicide, and we have watched their countries burn on the news. Like the U.S. and Poland, those two men have mocked a place like Bolivia and its 2010 Law of Mother Earth, which gives nature some of the same basic rights as people. My guess is that Bolivia mocks and laments America’s Citizens United ruling from that very same year, which gives corporations some of the same basic rights as people.
I have wondered what my old friend Rafał now thinks of all this (I can only assume he is still in Poland). Will a change come when Jarosław goes? Or, will the direction he has set carry on? I’d like to know his thoughts, for instance, on what happened to Paweł Adamowicz, the mayor of Gdańsk, where Anna lived and lit the strike. On Sunday January 13th 2019, Paweł was at the country’s biggest charity event, which included a concert. He was on stage introducing the show when a young, angry man jumped up and stabbed him three or four times in the chest. The man stood triumphant, arms in the air, still clutching the knife. He then walked around the stage, knife in hand, blaming the mayor and the Civic Platform for his troubles. The mayor died the next day.
Paweł Adamowicz, who had been mayor of Gdańsk for 20 years, was an outspoken critic of Law and Justice. He defended the rights of immigrants, Jews, and same-sex couples. His murder was shocking, but not surprising. In recent years, a steady wave of intolerance and violence has spread over the country (and Europe in general, with the murder of Jo Cox in England and the “far-right political assassination” of Walter Lübcke in Germany in June 2019). A couple months before he was killed, a far-right youth organization published fake death certificates for almost a dozen politicians connected to the Civic Platform, including one for Paweł. The government declined to investigate, calling it free speech and nothing more. A week before he was killed, the mayor criticized the government’s decision, saying that such publications, such calls to violence, cannot be protected or ignored. Threats against anyone who opposes Law and Justice have, in fact, become common, but Poland’s ruling party has not been bothered (15). After the attack on Paweł, demands and outrage came from his caucus. Officials from Law and Justice bowed their heads for a moment, made some vacant remarks, and sent a plane to London to get the mayor’s wife.
Isabel’s maternal grandfather was among those who resisted the coup by General Pinochet in 1973. He was not disappeared, but he was taken to Estadio Nacional, put through mock executions like Dostoevsky, and aware of what was happening to fellow Chileans like the teacher/poet/musician Víctor Jara (whose hands were smashed before he was killed). That same year Henry Kissinger—who said the Chilean people couldn’t be trusted to elect their own president and helped orchestrate the coup—won the Nobel Prize for Peace. Pablo Neruda, who had called for Nixon’s head, died of prostate cancer that year as well (he may have been poisoned, but my wife doesn’t believe it). As Szymborska would write in “Tortures” about a decade later,
Nothing has changed.
Except perhaps the manners, ceremonies, dances.
The gesture of the hands shielding the head
has nonetheless remained the same.
As compensation from the state, when she is ready, our Isabel will have her tuition waived at any university she wants to attend in Chile.
It’s been more than forty years since Anna got fired and I entertained my Polish classmates with sandwich bags. More than ten years since the crash of that jet which took her life. Isabel will surely know of her grandpa’s fight in Chile—she has some of that mettle in her blood, and may well need to call upon it in the future. One day soon, we hope to bring her to Warsaw and Gdańsk, expose her to Mother Courage, as Anna was called, and see if she can catch a scent of that 1980 Polish August in the Baltic sea air. Maybe even get a puppy.
(6) During the revolution, Lech Kaczyński was Anna’s friend and lawyer (she needed a lawyer as she was in and out of prison).
(7) Given his past, many wonder why Jarosław is doing what he’s doing. One answer has been that he did not feel he received his due credit in the 80s and 90s (Lech Wałęsa has suggested that Jarosław’s about-face comes from “an inferiority complex” and from feeling slighted).
(8) In February of 2016, they accused Wałęsa of spying for the communists. Wałęsa said this was ludicrous and that the documents were a “forgery.”
(9) Jarosław has, for instance, conjured a fear of diseased and dangerous immigrants about to contaminate Poland (once in power, Law and Justice voided an agreement made by the Civic Platform to welcome 7000 refugees—Poland would take no one).
(10) One tangible result of this change was the following: in 2015, 75% of the population was open to accepting refugees from the Middle East. After two years of the new news, 75% were against the idea.
(11) In front of great bussed-in fanfare, Trump asked if the West had the “will to survive,” i.e., survive the current existential threat from immigrants and liberal fake news. Jarosław was emboldened by the visit.
(12) Indeed a phenomenon that, from my recent perspective, descends directly from swift-boating and the smearing of John McCain in South Carolina, among other Republican tactics from the George W. Bush era—Trump likely saw those as an open invitation.
(13) In July of 2017, Duda angered Jarosław by vetoing two bills (aimed at the courts) that drew serious threats from the EU and huge protests on the streets in Poland. These vetoes were unexpected, and Jarosław’s office issued a statement that they have “slowed down the proceedings on reform” but the party would not “back down from the path of repairing the state.” Some thought Duda’s days were numbered.
(14) A big part of why the U.S. hasn’t done much is the astounding success Republicans have had in persuading people that climate change isn’t real: As of April 2019, only 17% of Americans “understand that almost all climate scientists think global warming is happening” (Yale Program on Climate Change Communication). Global warming. Climate change. Anthropocene. What is the magic phrase? What’s our best available means of persuasion?
(15) A year before it hosted the climate conference, for example, Katowice was the site of a “political demonstration” that displayed six effigies of Civic Platform politicians hanging from gallows in a public square. In November of 2017 in Warsaw, some 60 thousand took to the streets in what looked like a neo-Nazi rally, with “White Power” and “Pure Blood” signs, chants of “Ku Klux Klan,” “Death to enemies of the homeland!” and “Refugees get out!” (though as I mentioned above, there are next to no refugees now in Poland). A small group of women who protested this march were assaulted and beaten.