By Edward Cody
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 12, 2010; A08
WARSAW -- Poland's strong mix of patriotism and grief was on display Sunday for the second day in a row, with a nation united in sorrow and pride mourning the death of President Lech Kaczynski and hailing him as a champion of their national identity.
Warsaw, the capital, fell silent at noon, when sirens wailed and a moment of national reflection was observed. Later, tens of thousands of people, some weeping, lined the streets from the airport and crowded the city center to view Kaczynski's body being returned to the presidential palace, where it will lie pending funeral arrangements.
An elegant esplanade in front of the palace was so jammed that many could not move; police and girl scouts had to lock arms to prevent the crowd from destroying islands of votive lamps that have been flickering green, red and yellow since news of Kaczynski's death in a plane crash broke Saturday morning.
"Before the crash, there was a lot of talk against the president, and now this," said one of those in the crowd, a middle-aged man with a gray mustache and a black ribbon of mourning, affixed to a pin representing Poland's red and white flag. "It's because of Katyn. This is a human and historical tragedy."
Kaczynski and his delegation were traveling to that Russian village to commemorate a World War II tragedy when their plane crashed in Smolensk, Russia. The reminder of Katyn, where more than 20,000 Polish officers and intellectuals were massacred by Russian forces, caught Poland's imagination and drew people into the streets on a sunny but crisp April afternoon. But Kaczynski's reputation as a fierce champion of Polish nationalism -- and a relentless critic of German and Russian wrongs against his country -- also played a major role in the outpouring of feelings.
In interviews, people pushing for room in the jammed streets said that they did not support all of Kaczynski's often abrasive policies but that they were drawn together to honor a man who symbolized their national pride and willingness to challenge Russia.
"He was a true president who stood up for his country," Yacek Ploniecki said as the crowd jostled around him.
Kaczynski at times seemed so stiff as to be out of sync with efforts in Russia and Poland to put the past behind them. On Wednesday, for instance, Polish man Witold Liliental and several dozen others who were invited heard Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin acknowledge the massacre that Stalin's secret police carried out at Katyn in the spring of 1940.
"Putin's speech was in many ways very conciliatory," recalled Liliental, whose father, 2nd Lt. Antoni Liliental, was among the 2,000 executed, perishing at age 31 with a bullet in his head. "Although it was not considered a breakthrough, it was a very good sign."
Three days later, Kaczynski was in the air on the way to Katyn for a second commemoration, this one on his own invitation. An unbending Polish nationalist, Kaczynski had just repeated his controversial contention that the massacre had amounted to genocide; Putin was not planning to be on hand at Saturday's ceremony.
Based on his past, Kaczynski's remarks were likely to be less than conciliatory. But no one can know for sure. His presidential aircraft, a Soviet-era Tupolev Tu-154, never made it to Katyn, which lies in a wooded stretch of western Russia near Smolensk. Trying to land in heavy fog, it crashed in a grove of trees, killing all 67 people aboard.
The show of emotion in the streets of Warsaw was in part the result of shock -- an entire delegation of senior government officials died in the crash. It was also seen as a reflection of lingering resentment against 45 years of postwar Russian domination here, particularly given the incident's connection to the tragedy at Katyn.
During that postwar period, what happened at Katyn was never part of the Polish school curriculum, and authorities made sure no books or articles were published to spread the memories that circulated quietly among families and intellectuals. That all changed in 1989, and Kaczynski, 60, was at the forefront of the shift. When Georgia fought a brief and one-sided war with Russia in the summer of 2008, for instance, Kaczynski was quick to visit Georgia and offer Poland's moral support.
"Obviously, Kaczynski was a patriot," said Liliental, 71, who opposes his Law and Justice Party but credited the president with several wise overtures since being elected in 2005. "He was one of those inflexible type of patriots who will not bow to anything."
Reports circulating in Warsaw said that Russian officials last week passed on a request to Kaczynski hoping to avoid his sometimes-hard-edged rhetoric at Katyn, seeking to keep the bloom on the efforts to improve bilateral relations. In return for a soft approach, the reports said, Kaczynski was promised a prominent place in celebrations planned May 9 in Moscow commemorating the end of World War II.
"On the one hand, it is annoying to have such a bargain proposed: a prestigious status for Poland on the ninth in return for having Kaczynski keep his mouth shut," wrote Macin Wojciechowski in Gazeta Wyborcza on the day of Kaczysnki's death.
"On the other hand," he continued, "it is worth repeating that the politics of compromise and little steps has been more effective in the dialogue with Russia than the harsh words that the president and Law and Justice Party officials have wielded up to now."
Because of Kaczynski's reputation, some Warsaw residents speculated -- with no evidence -- that the Russian government must have been behind the crash.
"We still don't know what really happened, whether someone did it on purpose or whether it was an accident," said a woman who identified herself only as Barbara. "He said clearly that Katyn was a murder committed on Poles, and they didn't like that to the east. Make sure to write that down."
James Sherr, head of the Russia and Eurasia program at Chatham House, the London-based research institute, said such suspicions should push Russian authorities to conduct a transparent crash investigation, involving Polish experts as much as possible to deflect any doubts.
"Because of the memories at stake, and the trauma and depth of suspicion, obviously it is essential that the Polish government be in a position to say the crash investigation is immaculately open and conclusive," he said. "This part of the world doesn't need evidence to revive suspicion."
Special correspondent Karla Adam in London contributed to this report.