WATCH: Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his Polish counterpart Donald Tusk attend a memorial service in Katyn to pay tribute to 22,000 Polish officers executed by Soviet forces during World War II. (video by Reuters)
(RFE/RL) --Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his Polish counterpart Donald Tusk have paid tribute to thousands of Polish military officers executed by the Soviet secret police seven decades ago.
As relatives of the dead looked on in brilliant spring sunshine, Putin and Tusk listened to Christian, Jewish, and Muslim prayers at a monument in Katyn forest in western Russia, honoring the estimated 22,000 Poles who were killed in April 1940 on Soviet leader Josef Stalin's orders and buried in mass graves.
The two leaders also laid the cornerstone for a new Russian Orthodox church at the site and paid respects to Soviet victims of Stalin-era terror campaigns, many of whom are buried near the executed Polish officers.
Saying that "there can be no justification for these crimes," Putin stressed that both Polish and Soviet citizens suffered under the Stalinist terror.
"Our people, who endured the horrors of the civil war, forced collectivization, and the mass repressions of the 1930s, understand very well -- perhaps better than anybody else -- what [execution sites] like Katyn, Mednaya, Pyatikhatka mean to many Polish families, because this sad list includes sites of mass executions of Soviet citizens too," Putin said.
Putin is the highest-ranking Russian official to mark the Katyn massacre and Tusk is the first Polish leader to receive an official invitation to attend. In the past, Polish officials visited Katyn to honor the dead in a private, unofficial capacity. The joint appearance appeared to signal a potential thaw in the tense relations between Warsaw and Moscow.
The NKVD, precursor to the Soviet KGB, killed the Polish military elites who had mobilized following Nazi Germany's September 1, 1939, invasion of Poland from the west. They were captured by the Red Army, which invaded Poland from the east two weeks later.
The executions were committed in several places, but Katyn has become the symbolic site of the massacre.
The Katyn massacre has long been one of the key sore points in the troubled Russian-Polish relationship. For nearly five decades, the Soviet Union claimed that it was Nazi troops who had committed the massacre, and suppressed historical evidence to the contrary. The pro-Kremlin communist regime in Poland at the time dutifully toed the Moscow line.
But when communism fell in Poland and across Eastern Europe in 1989, pressure built on Moscow to acknowledge the truth. In 1990, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev admitted that it was in fact the NKVD that killed the officers.
Opening Up The Past
In his remarks, Putin acknowledged the decades of deception, but urged Poles not to blame the crimes on the Russian people.
"For decades of cynical lies there have been attempts to cover up the truth about the Katyn killings," Putin said. "But it would also be a lie and manipulation to blame these crimes on the Russian people. History written with anger and hatred is just as false and varnished as history written in the interests of specific people or political groups."
In the 1990s, Russian President Boris Yeltsin released previously classified documents to the Polish authorities, including a proposal on March 5, 1940 by NKVD chief Lavrenty Beria, signed by Stalin, to execute the Polish prisoners.
But the vast majority of the files were deemed to contain state secrets and Russian courts have refused to declassify them, making it impossible for relatives to access information that could prove helpful in finding the remains of those still missing.
The Russian human rights group Memorial on March 5 called on President Dmitry Medvedev to reopen the investigation into what it called a "war crime and a crime against humanity."
Today's commemorations are also taking place as a new openness about the issue appears to be taking hold. On April 2, the 2007 Oscar-nominated film "Katyn," by Polish director Andrzej Wajda -- whose father was a Katyn massacre victim -- premiered on Russia's "Kultura" television channel.
But as Putin and Tusk were honoring the victims of Katyn today, Russia's Communist Party released a statement slamming "the anti-Russian interpretation of the Katyn massacre," which "showed the Russian authorities' inability to defend the country's geopolitical interests and historical truth."
Putin nevertheless urged reconciliation between Russia and Poland, which have had tense relations in the post-Soviet period over Warsaw's pro-Western foreign policy.
"No matter how difficult it is, we must move toward each other, remembering everything but understanding that we can't live only in the past," Putin said.
RFE/RL's Russian Service contributed to this report