Poland buried its late President Lech Kaczynski and his wife yesterday in a solemn yet politically charged ceremony in which the Catholic Church made an unprecedented direct appeal to Russia's President for a new era of reconciliation between the two countries, following the devastating air crash almost 10 days ago.
In bright spring sunshine, a crowd of over 60,000 people gathered in the former Polish capital, the ancient city of Krakow, to witness the memorial service for the President and his wife, Maria Kaczynska, held in the city's ornate St Mary's Basilica. The couple's bodies were then carried on gun carriages to the historic Wawel Castle, where they were interred.
The funeral marked the end of a week of national mourning in Poland following the air disaster in which the President, his wife, and 94 other senior political and military figures were killed, when their plane crashed and exploded near Smolensk airport in western Russia.
The party had been on its way to a service in memory of the 22,000 Polish officers murdered by Stalin's secret police in the Katyn massacre of 1940. The massacre has been a major obstacle to Polish-Russian relations since the fall of Communism. Poland has demanded a complete apology from the Kremlin for the killings, which were blamed, during the Soviet era, on Nazi Germany.
Dozens of world leaders had been scheduled to attend the state funeral – the largest in Poland's post-war history – but the air lockdown in Europe after the volcanic eruption in Iceland forced many, including US President Barack Obama and Prince Charles, to cancel their travel plans.
In a gesture clearly welcomed by Poland, Russian President Dmitry Medvedev managed to fly in from Moscow despite the ban. Clad in a sombre black suit and tie, Mr Medvedev, took his place among mourners in the lavishly decorated Krakow Basilica.
He heard a direct personal appeal for Russian Polish reconciliation from Cardinal Stalislaw Dzwisz, a senior Catholic Church leader and former secretary to the late Pope John Paul II.
"President Medvedev," the Cardinal said, "the tragedy has generated a lot of good and a lot of compassion and a lot of hope for reconciliation. The crime of Katyn can no longer divide us. Both countries must stay on the road to reconciliation. We should not turn back."
Factory hooters and air-raid sirens wailed over Krakow as the ceremony began. Thousands who had arrived from across Poland stood on Krakow's main square brandishing red and white Polish flags draped with black sashes and banners of the once-banned trade union Solidarity. Thousands more watched the funeral on video screens erected in parks surrounding the city.
Maria Kurowska, mayor of the Polish town of Jaslo, said her office had paid for three coaches to bring townspeople to Krakow: "It is an exceptional moment. Poles have to be here," she said.
The two black Mercedes hearses carrying the bodies of the presidential pair were showered with daffodils as they wound through Krakow's narrow streets. An elite ceremonial military guard escorted the two coffins draped with Polish national flags as they were taken through Krakow at walking pace on green gun carriages. They were followed by a long cortège that included virtually all of Poland's surviving political, religious and military leaders. Former president and Solidarity leader Lech Walesa did not attend, in an apparent snub to the memory of President Kaczynski, with whom he had quarrelled.
The late President's twin brother, the former prime minister Jaroslaw Kaczynski, and Marta Kaczynska, the President's only daughter, clad in black, walked directly behind the coffins.
The presidential couple were laid to rest in a crypt beneath Wawel Castle – the burial place of two saints, 17 Polish kings and the country's inter-war leader Marshal Pilsudski, whose forces defeated an invading Soviet army in 1920.
The choice of the Wawel as a final resting place provoked a wave of protest in Poland. There were two demonstrations against the plan in Krakow and Warsaw in the run-up to yesterday's funeral, and more than 40,000 joined a Facebook campaign entitled "No to the Wawel". Many felt the choice was inappropriate. "Kaczynski was a controversial President. He was not a king," one of the protesters told The Independent.
Vladmir Putin, the Russian Prime Minister, flew to Smolensk after the 10 April, crash, in a move that heralded a thaw in Russian-Polish relations.
But Polish commentators said Mr Medvedev's decision to attend the funeral, and the Cardinal's appeal for reconciliation, have opened the way for a dramatic improvement in relations between the two countries which have been uneasy since the fall of Communism two decades ago.
"Its importance should not be underestimated," said Krzysztof Bobinski, a Polish political analyst.
Kaczynski funeral: Guest list
*The dignitaries who made it...
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev
Ukrainian President Viktor Yanukovych
Czech President Vaclav Klaus
Latvian President Valdis Zatlers
Slovak President Ivan Gasparovic
Romanian President Traian Basescu
*And those who did not...
German Chancellor Angela Merkel
US President Barack Obama
French President Nicolas Sarkozy
Canadian Prime Minister Stephen Harper
Icelandic President Olafur Ragnar GrimssonReuse content