When, in 1934, Stalin had a Leningrad party boss killed—and then wept at the man’s funeral, railing at the enemies of Russia—a uniquely modern phenomenon, which I shall call state vendetta, was born. State vendetta is somewhere between conventional warfare and mafia violence. Where the narrow aim of the former is to suppress a specific enemy, and the indiscriminate aim of the latter is to terrorize all rivals, state vendetta is closer to ritual assassination. Blending secrecy with rumor, death with propaganda, the totalitarian chieftain or oligarchic group aims above all to manipulate public opinion, terrifying the populace into submission. The elimination of a specific opponent is never the issue.
In this sense the assassination of John F. Kennedy by person or persons unknown was a counterpart to the assassination of Sergei Kirov by the secret police. In both cases the identity of the victim was not the issue. In both cases a majority of the population knew that the official version of the crime was untrue, but to say so in the former case was to risk death and to say so in the latter was to risk social ostracism. More recently, circumstances surrounding the events of September 11, 2001, have been interpreted by a majority of the population in ways that differ markedly from the official version, yet the fear of being branded a conspiracy monger effectively deters the average citizen from delving too deeply into the controversy. This is precisely the sort of emasculation of public opinion that state vendetta aims to achieve.
These reflections have been occasioned by the airplane crash over Smolensk, in which leaders of the Polish party favoring the dislocation of American ABM systems in Eastern Europe have perished. I have been monitoring the reaction of the public on Snob.ru, the Russian “oligarch club” cum news and entertainment portal, to which I contribute a weekly column. The dissent from the official version of the crash as pilot error has been limited to cui bono questions, to highlighting inconsistencies in the official story, and to pointing out the incongruousness of Putin’s becoming the head of the investigating commission.
The dissenters were missing the point. If the crash was brought about on purpose, which none of us will be able to claim with any degree of certainty for another hundred years, then the whole point of it would have been state vendetta, signaling to the political decisionmakers of all Eastern European countries that the Kremlin is not averse to committing crimes in the open in order to have its way.
As President Kaczynski’s plane had been bound for ceremonies commemorating Stalin’s secret crime at Katyn, where tens of thousands of Polish officers were slaughtered on Stalin’s orders and the slaughter pinned on the Nazis, inevitably the crash acquired the name Katyn 2. Other parallels have been drawn, notably with the 1943 crash over Gibraltar of the plane bearing the head of the Polish government-in-exile, Sikorski, widely believed to have been the work of Stalin’s secret police.
These parallels are misleading. The Polish officers were slaughtered in absolute secrecy, and it was not until 1951, when Józef Mackiewicz published The Katyn Wood Murders and was subsequently called to testify before the U.S. Congress in the dual capacity of witness and expert, that even the Poles suspected Stalin of the crime. Similarly, the assassination of Sikorski by Stalin’s agents was the secret elimination of an individual opponent, and all traces leading to Stalin were carefully camouflaged. I have been told that the files relating to the affair, scheduled to be made public in 1993, were sealed in Britain for another 50 years during the thaw in relations with Russia under Thatcher.
By contrast, the crash of President Kaczynski’s plane had all the hallmarks of state vendetta. Putin’s advisors from the state security establishment could not have not known and not understood that in the circumstances he would be thought by many in Poland to have engineered the catastrophe, yet instead of creating a fiction of an ostensibly independent inquiry, Putin had himself appointed head of the commission. It is as though the Russian state wanted to say of Eastern Europe, “People over there will talk? So much the better!”
The parallel with Katyn is accurate in one respect. The history of the 20th, and now the 21st, century is shaping up as the history of conspiracy. Not surprisingly so, as in this era principally new players, totalitarian regimes, appeared on the world stage and began acting their parts side by side with established actors. As the play unfolded, not only did the brash newcomers learn statecraft and stagecraft from those experienced old hands, they taught the old dogs some new tricks. Given such symbiosis, any observer of the epoch who is not a conspiracy theorist is not deserving of the name of historian, while any citizen of democracy who is afraid to read his books is not deserving of the name of citizen.