Putin Marks Soviet Massacre of Polish Officers
By MICHAEL SCHWIRTZ
Published: April 7, 2010 NY Times
MOSCOW — Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin on Wednesday became the first Russian or Soviet leader to join Polish officials in commemorating the anniversary of the murder of thousands of Polish officers by the Soviet Union at the beginning of World War II.
Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin of Russia, center, took part in a wreath-laying ceremony in the Katyn forest on Wednesday.
Mr. Putin cast the executions as one tragedy out of many wrought by what he called the Soviet Union’s “totalitarian regime.”
“We bow our heads to those who bravely met death here,” Mr. Putin said at a site in the Katyn forest close to the Russian city of Smolensk, where 70 years ago members of the Soviet secret police executed more than 20,000 Polish officers captured after the Soviet Army invaded Poland in 1939.
“In this ground lay Soviet citizens, burnt in the fire of the Stalinist repression of the 1930s; Polish officers, shot on secret orders; soldiers of the Red Army, executed by the Nazis.”
The circumstances surrounding the massacre have long been a major source of tension between Poland and Russia, and Wednesday’s tribute, held jointly with Donald Tusk, Poland’s prime minister, appears to be the latest step in an effort by both countries to patch up relations.
Germany and the Soviet Union had effectively divided Poland between them as part of the Hitler-Stalin nonaggression pact just before the war began. Only in the waning days of the Soviet Union, half a century later, did Moscow officially acknowledge the country’s role in the Katyn massacre. Earlier, the Soviet government had suppressed all information about the shootings, placing blame on Nazi soldiers.
Mr. Tusk said he hoped the ceremony on Wednesday would be a first step toward reconciling the conflict over the massacre. “I want to believe that the word of truth can bring together two great nations, which have been painfully separated by history,” he said.
Some Russian leaders have continued to deny Soviet responsibility for the murders, even though Russia released archival documents in 1992 showing that Stalin’s Politburo ordered the massacre in March 1940.
Russia’s Communist Party chastised Mr. Putin on Wednesday for “going to Katyn to apologize.” In a statement on its Web site, the party said, “You can apologize as much as you want about the so-called Soviet guilt, but no one can hide the fact of German responsibility for the shootings of Polish soldiers.”
In his remarks on Wednesday, Mr. Putin fell short of issuing an official apology, as some in Poland had hoped. Russia’s failure to declare the killings war crimes and allow Polish historians access to all the documents on the massacre has also rankled many Poles. Mr. Putin did condemn the “cynical lies that have blurred the truth about the Katyn shootings,” adding, however, that “it would also be a lie and manipulation to place the blame for these crimes on the Russian people.”
Russians have been angered by Polish attempts to equate the Katyn murders and other atrocities carried out by Red Army soldiers in Poland during World War II with Nazi crimes.
Russian officials, including Mr. Putin and President Dmitri A. Medvedev, have lashed out at what they consider falsifications of history meant to denigrate the Soviet Union’s role in World War II. Many Russians consider the war a defining moment in their history, in which as many as 25 million Soviet citizens died, according to some estimates.
Still, after years of back-and-forth diplomatic sniping, relations between the erstwhile cold war allies have warmed of late.
Last August in Poland, at an anniversary observing the start of World War II, Mr. Putin praised Polish soldiers and citizens for their bravery in resisting the Nazis. And for the first time Russia has invited Poland to take part in the Victory Day parade on Red Square this year for the 65th anniversary of Nazi Germany’s defeat. Last week, a government-owned television channel showed “Katyn,” an Oscar-nominated film by the Polish director Andrzej Wajda that portrays the massacre and the Soviet cover-up. The film had been screened only a few times in Russia.
Wednesday’s ceremony, held amid the birch and pine trees of the Katyn forest, was pregnant with symbolism and not a little irony. Russian state television showed Mr. Putin, a former K.G.B. officer, standing beside his Polish colleague as Russian Orthodox priests intoned prayers for the dead. Russian and Polish soldiers laid wreaths at the base of a towering red Orthodox cross. The short service ended with the playing of the Russian national anthem which, aside from the lyrics, differs little from the former Soviet one.