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Russia Opens Some Katyn Documents To Public


Poles in the Luhansk region commemorate the Katyn victims in Starobilsk on April 19.
Russia has made available to the public for the first time some files on the World War II-era Katyn massacre, when thousands of Polish officers and others were killed on the orders of Soviet leader Josef Stalin.

Today's announcement by the head of the state archive comes amid a tentative warming of Russian-Polish ties in the wake of the air crash earlier this month that killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski, who was himself on the way to a Katyn 70th-anniversary commemoration.

Until now, Rosarkhiv chief Andrei Artizov said, the original documents from "Special File No. 1" had been made available only to a select group of researchers. But following an order by Russian President Dmitry Medvedev they were posted online at the Rosarkhiv website.

The move, Artizov said, is a demonstration by Russia of "absolute openness" in telling what happened at Katyn.

Speaking in Denmark, Medvedev said more documents would be released. "Lessons must be learned from history," he said. "So in my view it's not a bad thing that these [documents] have been made available in this summarized format. We will continue to focus on this. I think that's our duty."

Today's move is far short of the full opening of all Katyn files long demanded by Poland. Many files remain classified.

As Yan Rachinsky of the Russian rights group Memorial tells RFE/RL's Russian Service, the contents of the documents posted today have long been known, since they were declassified at the beginning of the 1990s.

Fragment of a Katyn document open to public access
"The main documents that expose the fundamental role of Stalin and the Politburo in this war crime were published in 1992 -- at the time when [then-Russian President Boris] Yeltsin gave them over to Poland -- and since then they have not been a secret," Rachinsky says.

Around 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals were executed by Soviet secret police at Katyn Forest and other locations in western Russia in April-May 1940, following the Soviet invasion of eastern Poland the previous year.

The Katyn massacre has long been a major factor straining relations between Poland and Russia, with Moscow until 1990 blaming the killings on Nazi Germany,

Artizov said the documents posted today on the Internet include one from March 1940 where Stalin's secret police chief Lavrenty Beria proposes shooting the captured Polish officers -- and a Politburo resolution giving the go-ahead to Beria's proposal.

"Here is the document with the authentic signatures of Stalin and the Politburo members, and here are remarks, on the left side, stating that comrades Kalinin and Kaganovich are in favor," Artizov said.

Mikhail Kalinin was a Bolshevik revolutionary and head of the Soviet government from 1919 to 1946, while Lazar Kaganovich was a Bolshevik leader and a close associate of Stalin.

Today's move comes a week after the rights group Memorial claimed a partial victory in an ongoing court battle to force the release of classified data on the Katyn killings.

The group wants prosecutors to release their 2004 order closing an investigation into Katyn, and the Supreme Court last week said the case should go back to a local court.

"It's about the results of an investigation done in the 1990s by the chief Soviet, then Russian, military prosecutor's office," Rachinsky says. "The problem is that in 2004 this investigation was closed and the decision to close the case was classified, as were about two-thirds of the case files. And the decision to declassify these would be up to the chief military prosecutor's office or the commission on state secrets, not the state archive."

Slawomir Debski, the head of Poland's Institute of International Affairs, is quoted on the website of the Polish daily "Gazeta Wyborcza" as suggesting that even if today's move won't shed any new light on Katyn, it might result in some good.

"The [documents'] publication on the Internet shows that Russia wants to end the speculation and myths that have been operating on the margins of the public debate," he says. "Russia wants to stop those who say that the documents were falsified or manipulated."

Kaczynski, his wife, and his delegation of senior Polish officials and prominent figures were on their way to Katyn to commemorate the massacre when the presidential jet, an older Soviet Tupolev Tu-154, clipped the tops of trees, crashed, and broke up in flames as it approached the runway at the Smolensk airport on April 10. The crash killed all 97 people aboard.

compiled from RFE/RL Russian Service and agency reports