The news lately has been filled with strange and disturbing events occurring behind what we used to call the Iron Curtain. Kyrgyzstan (the Kyrgyz Republic), that little dirt-poor, Central Asian country with the unpronounceable name that seems to lack important vowels, fell recently to protesters, amid charges that we backed the wrong horse (some would sarcastically say: again!) and reportedly drowning in corruption – all of which would not matter much to us 10,000+ miles away, except that the US maintains a critical military base there that supplies our stepped-up war efforts today in Afghanistan, and has had the immediate effect of halting our military flights out of there of late..

Then, terrorists blew up Moscow subways, striking terror into the hearts of rapid transit commuters the world over. But, last weekend’s news was the strangest of all – like something out of a ‘B’ movie script, dripping with irony and stamping a big “Huh?!?” on the sometimes frail distinction between reality and imagination.

It seems that the topmost echelons of the Polish government and military, all crowded aboard a creaky, notoriously unreliable, Russian-built commercial plane, were flying to Smolensk, in Russia, to commemorate, and most importantly, to finally (after so many decades) come to modern terms with, and understanding of, the horrific massacre of some 20,000 Polish military officers by Russian forces that happened 70-odd years ago.

The plane, carrying so many of Poland’s leaders, including President Lech Kaczynski, while groping its way through pea-soup fog, lost bearings and any idea of where the runway was, snapped off some tree tops and other foliage perhaps half a mile out from the airport, and crashed, leaving only smoldering hunks of destroyed aircraft in suitcase-sized hunks lying all around in the grim winter forest. It also left a whole lot of Polish citizenry without the top end of their ruling elites of government and military, wondering how this could happen, not to mention why, and emotionally blown away by the irony of such a tragic ending to this now-destroyed mission of understanding and forgiveness, and their hopes for warming what had been an icy relationship between Poland and Russia for so many decades.
The dead included no less than 97 unfortunate (to put it mildly) souls, including the Polish President, Deputy Foreign Minister, a dozen Parliament members, army and navy chief officers, and the president of the national bank, a national hero: eighty-year-old Anna Walentynowicz, a fired dockworker who lit the match in 1980 that ignited the overthrow of Communism in Poland, as well as relatives of the victims of the horrific massacre itself.

These luminaries and historical figures were traveling to where the Katyn Forest massacre had occurred (known in Polish as the “’Katy? crime’) courtesy of that Soviet rogues gallery from their old NKVD (The People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs) Stalin’s favorite HitMen, responsible for massive political repression during WWII and after the Iron Curtain fell, run by that charmer, Lavrentiy Beria, who some credit with dispatching Stalin himself (courtesy of some poisoned food and drink) to the Happy Hunting Ground where unspeakable dictators go after they leave this mortal coil.

Some 21,768 were killed in that forest and in prisons and other places, comprised of some 8,000 officers taken prisoner when the Soviets invaded Poland in 1939 (devouring Poland’s Eastern portion, while the Blitzkrieg took care of the West); Poles framed as “intelligence agents, gendarmes, saboteurs . . . ;“ with landowners, factory owners, lawyers, priests and other officials thrown in, just to make sure they didn’t miss anybody important. One hardly needs to question why the Polish people were not enthralled with the Soviets who then proceeded to rule their country with an iron hand until the 1980’s when freedom and democracy again punched through against all odds to see the light of day.

All of this would be enough irony and weird news for a whole year and yet it has all been compressed into a matter of weeks. I would imagine the average Pole or Russian would be reeling, afraid to read any more news for a while. It is comforting to remember that the Cold War ended over 20 years ago (yes, we won), but less so to realize the kind of instability that is still possible to blast forth from behind the old Iron Curtain to shock and stun the world. Those Central Asian Republics, now loosely wrapped up in a Russian Federation, each have their own story, each have their own distinctly unhappy ethnic group(s) and home-grown as well as carpetbagger terrorists. And, Lord only knows which ones have managed to grab a few of those old Soviet nukes just for safekeeping.

As for Poland and Russia, the historically dark and tragic history just keeps coming back like another Freddy Kruger movie, just when you thought it was safely a matter for the history books. The latest news is that Putin will spearhead the investigation of the crash – as a show of just how seriously Russia is taking this most bizarre turn of events.

Lest we forget, WWI began with the assassination of a bit player, Archduke Ferdinand (Franz Ferdinand -18 December 1863 – 28 June 1914), obsessed more with journaling his hunting exploits (in diaries he tracked some 300,000 game kills, 5,000 of which were deer) than much else. It historically has not taken much to upset the delicate balance, which is Europe including Eastern Europe – not that anybody, me included, expects any war to come of this plane crash.

But, we are kidding ourselves if we think that life is just merrily going forward two decades after the fall of the Iron Curtain in those countries which used to languish behind it. The kind of instability that we are seeing of late – just what we do not need on the already crowded world stage of flashpoints and emergencies right now, overlain by the dreadful economic depression that just won’t quit – bears very close watching.