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Russian, Polish Leaders To Mark Katyn Anniversary

A Polish woman mourns during a ceremony in Katyn in 1989.
A Polish woman mourns during a ceremony in Katyn in 1989.
(RFE/RL) -- Seven decades ago, Soviet secret police executed thousands of Polish military officers in a forest in western Russia. On April 7, Russian and Polish leaders will meet to officially commemorate the massacre's anniversary together for the first time.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his Polish counterpart, Donald Tusk, are due to attend a memorial ceremony in the village of Katyn honoring the more than 20,000 officers, policemen, and intellectuals who were killed on Soviet leader Josef Stalin's orders during World War II.

The two men will also pay tribute to Soviet victims of the Stalinist terror.

Marek Lasota, a Polish historian with the Institute of National Remembrance in Krakow, says Putin's attendance at the ceremony, and the Kremlin’s decision to extend an official invitation to Tusk, are signs that Russia's attitudes toward what has become known as the "Katyn Forest massacre" are changing.

"I would like to believe that if Prime Minister Putin is really going to take part in the...ceremonies, then it means that the Russian side is not avoiding responsibility for the historical heritage that it's taken, that in this way it wants to emphasize and articulate its emotions and feelings about this crime," Lasota said.

In what was seen as a political watershed, Putin extended an official invitation to Tusk in February to attend the 70th anniversary commemorations of the massacre. In the past, visits by Polish leaders to Katyn to honor the dead were unofficial, semi-private affairs.

According to media reports, Tusk saw the invitation as an important step in improving relations between Poland and Russia, and said Putin's decision to honor the Katyn victims was symbolically "very important."

Suppression And Denial

The Katyn massacre has long been one of the key sore points in the troubled Russian-Polish relationship. For nearly 50 years, the Soviet Union claimed that it was Nazi troops who had committed the murders and suppressed historical evidence to the contrary. The pro-Kremlin communist regime in Poland at the time dutifully toed the Moscow line.

Andrzej Skapski, who lost a parent in the massacre, says the families of the victims were treated like outcasts by Poland's communist-era rulers. "The mothers, a generation of mothers, were denied the right of existence," Skapski says. "They couldn't find a job, and if they found one and somebody found out that they were the widows of officers or Katyn victims, they were fired. Young people, the sons and daughters, were in fact cut off from higher education."

Soldiers exhume the bodies of victims of the Katyn massacre in 1943.
In 1989, when communism fell in Poland and across Eastern Europe, Moscow came under pressure to acknowledge the truth. In 1990, Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev admitted that it was in fact the NKVD, the precursor to the Soviet KGB, which carried out the killings.

Russian historian Natalia Lebedeva says resolving the Katyn issue will go a long way toward improving relations between Moscow and Warsaw.

"It is one of the obstacles to improving relations not only between the governments but the people as well," Lebedeva says. The Poles "are deeply hurt that we don't share their pain, that we are hiding the truth. As soon as they feel that their pain is close to us too, that we share their pain, and we want to know the truth about it, people in Poland will welcome it very much."

In the 1990s, Russian President Boris Yeltsin released previously classified documents to the Polish authorities, including an order dated March 5, 1940, from NKVD chief Lavrenty Beria, signed by Stalin, to execute the Polish POWs.

During former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski's visit to Russia in September 2004, the Kremlin said they would to turn over all their information on the Katyn massacre to Warsaw as soon as it was declassified.

Months later, in March 2005, the Russian Prosecutor-General's Office concluded a decade-long investigation of the massacre. Prosecutors announced that they had been able to confirm the deaths of fewer than 2,000 Polish citizens; that the killings did not constitute genocide; and that since the perpetrators were dead, there was no reason to pursue the matter further.

The vast majority of the files gathered during the investigation were deemed to contain state secrets and were thus classified. Russian courts have refused to declassify them, making it impossible for relatives to access information that would help them find the remains of those still missing.

On March 5, the Russian human rights group Memorial called on President Dmitry Medvedev to reopen the investigation into what it called a "war crime and a crime against humanity."

Changing Attitudes

Despite the continuing state secrecy, the April 7 commemorations are also taking place as society seems to be embracing a new willingness to talk about the tragedy.

On April 2, the Oscar-nominated 2007 film "Katyn," by Polish director Andrzej Wajda -- whose father was a Katyn massacre victim -- premiered on Russia's "Kultura" television channel.

The official Russian government newspaper "Rossiiskaya gazeta," which in the past had published articles casting doubt on Soviet responsibility for the Katyn massacre, opined that the screening "shows our society's serious progress on the path toward restoring historic truth about the tragedy of World War II."

Historian Lebedeva says it's in Russia's interest for the truth about Katyn to be fully aired. "When people tell me that I work in the interests of another country, I say that we are the ones interested in the truth about Katyn before anyone else, because this crime was committed in our land," she says. "Unless we uncover the whole truth about the actions of Stalinism, then sooner or later we will end up in the same situation."

Polish President Lech Kaczynski did not receive an invitation to the April 7 ceremonies, leading to speculation that Russia was punishing him for his outspoken criticism of Moscow. Kaczynski says he plans to lead a separate ceremony in Katyn forest on April 10, joining Polish veterans organizations and victims' relatives.