Conspiracy theories surrounding the Polish presidential plane crash near Smolensk, Russia

The first theories about alleged Russian involvement in the deadly crash of the Polish presidential plane near Smolensk appeared in public discourse just two days after the accident. Right-wing journalists quickly began using the term “assassination” to describe what had happened. While the mainstream media did not initially follow up on this and consistently used the word “disaster” instead, theories about a possible sabotage of the aircraft started spreading far and wide on the internet. Thus, they became part of the accepted canon of an increasingly defined Smolensk myth. The term “myth” is used here very purposefully because the conspiracy narrative about what happened and how it was interpreted thereafter quite perfectly fits the definition of a myth as a story “which uses symbols and images, ignores the rules of formal logic, is absolutely true for the tellers and receivers, employs a specific kind of sense of time and space, speaks about matters of great (subjective and objective)  importance for the individual and the community, [and] ignores the problems of communities of ‘others’”[1]. The starting point for this particular myth is the plane crash which took place on the 10th of April, 2010 in combination with the meaning-laden occasion that had brought the Polish officials to Smolensk in the first place. They were on their way to an official visit in honor of the 70th anniversary of the Katyn Forest massacre during which some 22,000 Polish citizens (army and police officers, and intellectuals) were executed by the People’s Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKVD). The historical parallels here are generally quite self-explanatory for Poles, of course, even if they do not adhere to the myth as a whole.

As it were, multiple conspiracy theories were created in an aim to provide causal explanations for the plane crash. They can be roughly divided into three categories: technological, political, or metaphysical paradigms for rationalizing this event. Two hypotheses emerged to become two of the most popular ones among the technologically-focused theories: the idea that Russian authorities may have used a strong electromagnetic impuls to switch off the electronic systems in the plane, and that they artificially created an unnaturally dense fog at the Smolensk airfield.[2] The political conspiracy theories that gained the most popularity revolved around an alleged Russian-Polish cooperative scheme in bringing the plane down, i.e. forcing the pilots to land against their will or the possibility that Russian ground control purposefully misled the Polish crew.  The methaphysical theory was based on a story about a picture of Joseph Stalin and Lavrentiy Beria planting a tree in Smolensk (which is dated April 10th, 1940), which was supposed to be the tree that caused the Tu-154 airplane to lose one of its wings.

The abundance of conspiracy theories present in the media and in Polish politics beg the question: who actually believes in them? Who exactly are the people convinced that president Lech Kaczynski and the other 95 state officials on board were assassinated and how numerous are they?

According to a recent survey conducted by CBOS (Public Opinion Research Center, 2012), 25% of Poles believe that the Polish president was assassinated. As it turns out, the readiness to accept conspiracy beliefs about the presidential plane crash in Smolensk is strongly connected with political preferences. Among PiS (Law and Justice, voters, 60% adhere to the belief that the plane crash was an assassination rather than a catastrophic accident. It should be noted here that the former Polish President Lech Kaczynski, together with his brother, Jaroslaw, were the founders of PiS. In sharp contrast to that, only 5% of PO (Platforma Obywatelska – Civic Platform) supporters, which is the currently ruling, liberal party in Poland, believe in the assassination theory. Respondents who identify with the political left were the least prone to believe in conspiracy theories. Only about 14% of them agreed that there is a possibility that an assassination transpired in Smolensk and as many as 81% disagreed with such a statement while among the political right 29% agreed with this possibility and only 59% disagreed (CBOS, 2012).

Right-wing extremism tends to be a particularly attractive ideology for people who are influenced by a high level of right-wing authoritarianism. The resultant personality-type trait consists of three elements: authoritarian aggression, authoritarian submission and conventionalism. People characterised by conventionalism display a very strong belief in and the adherence to perceivedly traditional social norms. Any deviation from those (e.g. homosexualism or feminism) meet with strongly negative reactions of high-authoritarians which is commonly referred to as authoritarian aggression. Authoritarian submission encompasses a great respect for and a strong obedience towards people in power.

The results from a study (n = 423) conducted at the University of Warsaw confirmed that right-wing authoritarianism is an important predictor of conspiracy beliefs about the presidential plane crash in Smolensk. Further analyses showed that all the components of right wing authoritarianism were significant predictors of conspiracy beliefs with regard to the accident. Higher authoritarian aggression and conventionalism were associated with a greater intensity of conspiracy thinking while higher authoritarian submission was linked with lower conspiracy thinking about the plane crash. The need for submission to authorities appears to be associated with a readiness to accept the official explanations of the Smolensk crash and thus contributes to a diminished propensity to buy into conspiracy theories. Apart from right-wing authoritarianism, we identified three other significant predictors of conspiracy beliefs surrounding the plane crash in Smolensk:  prejudice towards Russians and conspiracy stereotyping of Russians and conspiracy stereotyping of Jews.

Religiosity is another factor associated with conspiracy thinking about the plane crash. According to the survey data (CBOS, 2012), 40% of respondents who regularly (several times a week) attended worship agree that it is possible that the catastrophe was orchestrated. Among people who never or seldom (a few times a year) attend church only 18% agree with such a statement. Another study conducted at the University of Warsaw (n=232) showed a significant relationship between religious orientations and conspiracy beliefs surrounding the incident. There was a significant correlation (r = .34, p < .01) between intrinsic religious orientation and the belief in the Smolensk conspiracy as well as between extrinsic religious orientation and believing in the Smolensk conspiracy (r = .21, p <.01). A quest religious orientation did not correlate significantly with conspiracy thinking.

Monika Grzesiak-Feldman, Agnieszka Haska


Centrum Badania Opinii Społecznej. (June, 2012). Katastrofa pod Smoleńskiem – Kto wierzy w teorię zamachu. [The Smolensk plane crash - Who believes in assassination] Warsaw: CBOS.



[1] Ewa Nowicka, Sporne problemy w badaniach nad mitem, „Kultura i Społeczeństwo”, 1984, nr 3, s. 88

Categories Analyses, News, Poland | Tags: | Posted on November 22, 2012

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