Well, that was a hell of a year. I hope this isn’t the pattern for the rest of the decade because, if it is, I’ll be needing to take an extended sabbatical sometime around 2014. This is only writing, so you’ll just have to imagine the wobbly flashback fade to January for yourself…
It all began quietly enough, or at least as quietly as it could over the sound of chattering teeth and birds falling dead from the sky in daytime temperatures that stubbornly refused to shift from minus double figures. Spring was late and timid. We were just getting used to the idea when we woke up one unremarkable Saturday morning in April to find that the sky had fallen — the president and 95 other prominent Poles had died in a plane crash near Smolensk. They were on their way to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyń massacre just a few kilometres from where their plane struck trees and disintegrated. It was a shock like a shot in a dark room and the consequences have been profound and unexpected.
The announcement was made that Lech Kaczyński was to be interred beneath Wawel Cathedral and Krakow braced to play its age-old role as Poland’s ceremonial heart. Streets that have seen the funerals of the great and the legendary were prepared for the famed and the photogenic of our times, but none of them came because a volcano with a name nobody could pronounce fouled the skies of Europe like a distant and malevolent Mordor. Very quietly, and without anyone really noticing, it began to rain.
By the middle of May people had started to worry that it was still raining. Here in Krakow the river had been rising slowly but inexorably for weeks. A sudden rush of melt-water from the mountains transformed it into a vast Silurian monster. Thousands gathered in the still teeming rain to watch it edge towards the untested flood barriers. The long-awaited pedestrian bridge, lying half completed on the northern bank, came perilously close to being swept away, but the city escaped almost untouched. Other parts of Poland were not so lucky. Day after day on the evening news we watched sandbags being piled and houses up to their eaves in muddy disaster.
The presidential election, already on the cards but hastened by Lech Kaczyński’s death, was a limp and bloodless affair. Primordial fears and passions unearthed by the Smolensk tragedy were carefully skirted by the candidates. Bronisław Komorowski took the Belvedere Palace in a competent but unedifying second-round victory over Jarosław Kaczyński, who had to live with having stepped into his dead twin brother’s shoes and failed. Conspiracy theories about Russian complicity in the crash were everywhere and the close association between the accident and Katyń, one of the defining tragedies of Poland’s history, meant that passions did not remain buried for long.
In August the deep cracks that had been inflicted on the nation’s psyche by the shock of Smolensk began to show. A hybrid crowd of nationalists, Catholic fanatics and opponents of the ruling Civic Platform party gathered in Warsaw to protest the removal of a wooden cross that had been set up outside the Presidential Palace in the emotional days immediately after the crash. The rest of Poland looked on and wondered how it felt about the spectacle. For some it became a symbol for defenders of traditional values resisting a liberal tide of change, for others it was a glaring symptom of a country too in thrall to the Church and a paradigm of Polish martyrdom that was holding the country back. The cross itself became almost irrelevant in a national debate that went to the heart of how Poles saw themselves and the future of their still young republic. It was not something anybody could have predicted or wished for, but maybe it did the country good.
Meanwhile, in a field outside the obscure Polish town of Świebodzin, somebody started building a 50-metre tall statue of Jesus. Whatever you say about Poland, it can never be accused of being boring.
Jamie Stokes also writes for Polandian.