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Russians Mourn Poles Lost In Plane Crash

  • Kevin O'Flynn

People lay flowers in front of the Polish Embassy in Moscow on April 12.

People lay flowers in front of the Polish Embassy in Moscow on April 12.

MOSCOW -- Two dozen men in plainclothes stood outside the Polish Embassy, each clutching a red carnation in their hand, waiting for something.

A few minutes went by and a man with gray hair took charge and the group began placing their flowers on the pavement among the many others that have been laid outside the embassy since the plane crash in Smolensk that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 96 others on April 10.

Just inside the embassy walls, half the group stopped and began to softly sing Rachmaninov's "We Praise You." The group was the Aleksandrov Ensemble, the official choir of the Russian armed forces.

"We are very often on tour in Poland and that's why we are not indifferent. Nobody is indifferent to the tragedy," said the head of the ensemble, Igor Rayevsky.

A steady stream of people came to the embassy entrance on April 12, carrying red and white carnations, the colors of the Polish flag, and placing them by the wall. A photo of the Polish president and his wife hung with a black cloth stripe in one corner, a mourning tradition in Russia, and nearby Russian flags on buildings had a similar black ribbon attached.

Some people crossed themselves, some simply bowed their heads and others looked visibly upset or shed tears. Galina Starostina, 59, a federal bureaucrat, was one of those who looked emotional as she walked away after placing flowers.

"It is such a tragedy that it doesn't leave anyone indifferent," she said. "That is why I came. I am grieving greatly with the people of Poland. It is а great sadness that it happened."

Embassy vehicles drove in all morning as the diplomatic community came to pay their respects and sign the book of condolences.

'Emotional Breakthrough'

Russia was marking a day of mourning and the outpouring of sympathy and grief in Russia as well as the way Russian leaders have conducted themselves have been appreciated in Poland and raised hopes of a new chapter in Polish-Russian relations.

Vladimir Putin (right) and Donald Tusk visit the Katyn memorial on April 7.
Soon after the crash, President Dmitry Medvedev made a personal address to the Polish people and Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's embrace of Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk on his arrival in Russia was noted gratefully in Warsaw.

Speaking on Polish radio, Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski said it was too early to say if there would be any political breakthrough in relations between the two countries, but he said a certain "emotional breakthrough" had already been achieved and Poles appreciated this.

Kaczynski and his delegation died in a plane crash in the Smolensk region as they flew in for a memorial service in Katyn Forest for the massacre of thousands of Polish officers and troops in 1940 by the Soviet NKVD, the precursor to the KGB.

The trip was set to have marked a reconciliation in Polish-Russian relations, but ended in the loss of a generation of the Polish elite.

'Not Just Neighbors, But Brothers'

Mikhail Gorbachev, who was Soviet leader when Moscow admitted for the first time that it was the Soviets rather than the Germans who killed thousands at Katyn in 1940, was one of those who came to the Polish Embassy to pay his respects today.

He said that he hoped that the two countries could start a new relationship. "Our people are very close, we are Slavs, neighbors. What haven't we been through together in our common history?" Gorbachev said. "Now we need to not only turn over a new page but a new book. I really hope that will happen."

In an article titled "We are Brothers" published in "Novaya gazeta," the newspaper he partly owns, Gorbachev called for the investigation into the Katyn massacre to be finished.

He wrote of how on his last day in office he was given a file that showed how then-Soviet leader Josef Stalin and other Politburo leaders signed the document ordering the execution of the Polish officers and Soviet citizens.

President Dmitry Medvedev lays flowers at the Polish Embassy in Moscow.
"They ended the lives of thousands with a pencil," Gorbachev writes. "They all supported Stalin. All of them. And gave the order to have them killed."

Gorbachev says that he passed on the file to Russian President Boris Yeltsin, who then passed it on to the Polish government. Speaking to reporters at the Polish Embassy today, Gorbachev emphasized the need for closure over Katyn and for Poland and Russia to draw closer.

"For reconciliation over Katyn, we need to bury, to have a list of the dead and to remember," Gorbachev said. "I said that the best monument to President [Kaczynski] would be our cooperation. I finished [in my article] by saying that we should live not just as neighbors, but as brothers."

Not long after Gorbachev was driven off, the Russian president's motorcade came to the embassy. Dmitry Medvedev, who is expected to attend Kaczynski's funeral in Warsaw at the end of this week, came to pay his respects.

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