11th Anniversary of Smolensk Air Disaster

Eleven years ago, on April 10, 2010, the Polish presidential plane, carrying 96 people, crashed in Smolensk, Russia, killing everyone on board, including President Lech Kaczyński, the First Lady, and top state officials.

The commemorations of the 11th anniversary of the Smolensk tragedy began with a morning mass, followed by laying of wreaths by the President Lech Kaczynski and the Victims of the Smolensk Crash monuments at Piłusdski Square in Warsaw. Due to the pandemic restrictions the commemoration ceremonies have been modest and kept to the minimum.

The Morning of April 10, 2010

The Polish delegation was on its way to the ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre, where in 1940 the Soviet NKVD murdered many of the 22,000 Polish army and police officers arrested following the annexation of nearly half of Poland’s territory in accordance with the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, which directly preceded the outbreak of World War II. The execution of the Polish military elites was part of Stalin’s scheme to subjugate Poland to his rule.

President Kaczyński and the whole delegation, including prominent members of the government, the anti-communist resistance, and family members of the Katyn victims, were on their way to Katyn to honor the Polish POWs brutally murdered by the Soviets. However, that was never meant to be. On that fateful chilly and foggy morning, the TU 154M crashed in the forest near the Smolensk airfield, killing everyone on board.

Never before in Poland’s peacetime history has there been a disaster which made such an impact on Polish politics and statehood. The Smolensk crash – an immense tragedy from a purely human perspective – deprived Poland of a number of top officials in a matter of seconds. The tragedy claimed the life of not just the head of state, but also of the president of the country’s central bank, a number of deputy ministers, ministers of the Chancellery of the President, commanders of major military branches, Poland’s Commissioner for Human Rights, representatives of the voluntary sector, and high-ranking clergymen of different denominations.

The Investigation

The Polish government of the day, led by Donald Tusk, chose not to press for an international inquiry or to activate provisions of a joint Polish-Russian agreement on investigating military accidents. Instead, it handed the investigation over to the Russian controlled MAK and based it on the Chicago Convention which only applies to civilian flights (the Smolensk flight was a military HEAD flight).

The MAK report on the crash put the full blame on the Polish pilots and completely exonerated Russian air traffic controllers. The Russians then refused to return the wreckage of the plane to the Polish authorities and limited access of Polish prosecutors to both the crash site and to witnesses. This led to suspicions of foul play. These suspicions grew as reports leaked out that there may have been a substance resembling TNT found on parts of the wreckage. Some families of the victims were outraged when it was discovered that mismatched remains of victims were placed in coffins at random.

Over the past 11 years, despite limited access to the site of the disaster and the plane itself, Poland produced a number of reports concerning the possible causes of the Smolensk, including a study conducted by the Polish committee chaired by Minister of the Interior Jerzy Miller, the report of the Chief Military Prosecutor’s Office on the contents of the black boxes, the “White Paper of the Smolensk Tragedy” prepared by the Parliamentary Committee for the Investigation of the Tu-154M plane in Smolensk on April 10, 2010 as well as the report of the Subcommittee for the Re-examination of the Smolensk Aviation Accident appointed by Poland’s Defence Minister Antoni Macierewicz from the Law and Justice (PiS) party which won the elections in 2015.

The government reports written under the then coalition government of Civic Platform and the Polish Peoples’ Party (PSL), which remained firmly opposed to the late President Lech Kaczyński, listed pilot error and organisational issues as the main causes of the tragedy.

On the other hand, the reports produced by the committees associated with the Law and Justice party indicated the possibility of foul play while also underlining the omissions of the Russian side. However, none of these report versions earned universal acceptance or explained the causes of the tragedy beyond reasonable doubt.