Leaders eye reconciliation at Katyn ceremony
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In an unprecedented diplomatic show, the Russian and Polish prime ministers on Wednesday honoured 22,000 Poles murdered 70 years ago by Soviet forces in the Katyn Forest, vowing to overcome historical memories that have hampered their relations.
REUTERS - The leaders of Russia and Poland paid tribute on Wednesday to Russian and Polish victims of Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and vowed to overcome painful historic memories that still hamper their bilateral relations.
At a sombre ceremony in Katyn forest, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin urged Poles not to blame the Russian people for the murder of 22,000 Polish officers by Stalin’s NKVD secret police in 1940 and to look to the future, not just the past.
“We cannot change the past but we can establish and preserve the truth and that means historical justice. Polish and Russian historians are now working to uncover this truth and to allow an opening between our countries,” said Putin.
The mass murder of thousands of Polish prisoners of war and intellectuals at Katyn in spring 1940 -- just months after Nazi Germany and Stalin carved up Poland is an enduring symbol for Poles of their suffering under totalitarian Soviet rule.
For many decades Moscow blamed the Nazis for the deaths and only acknowledged its responsibility in 1990, a year after the fall of communism in Poland. The Kremlin has resisted Polish calls to brand the Katyn massacre a “genocide”.
The tranquil site, set among pine and birch trees in western Russia, also contains the graves of many Russians executed on Stalin’s orders, including during the Great Terror of the 1930s.
As expected, Putin, a former agent in the KGB, a successor organisation to Stalin’s NKVD, did not apologise for the Katyn murders, and he stressed the common suffering of Russians, Poles and other ethnic groups under Stalin’s rule.
“With decades of cynical lies, they tried to blot out the truth about the Katyn shootings. It would be a similar kind of falsehood to ... place the blame for these crimes on the Russian people,” Putin said.
“However hard it may be, we must try to ... come to terms with a common historical truth and realise that we cannot go on living in the past alone.”
Wednesday’s commemoration crowns a steady improvement in relations between Russia and Poland, though differences remain over natural gas, missile defence and NATO enlargement.
Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk, a pragmatist who wants to build closer economic ties with energy-rich Russia, called for reconciliation on the basis of honesty about past crimes.
“Prime Minister Putin, the eye sockets of those killed here by a shot to the back of the head are looking at us today and waiting to see whether we are ready to turn this lie into reconciliation,” Tusk told the hundreds-strong gathering.
A commission of Russian and Polish historians is due to publish a book this year on the neighbours’ difficult shared history. It is expected to include a common position on Katyn. Polish authorities also plan a new museum in Warsaw dedicated to Katyn, which is due to open in 2012.
Putin and Tusk, both wearing black ties, laid wreaths in both the Russian and Polish cemeteries and heard prayers offered by Russian Orthodox, Roman Catholic, Jewish and Muslim clergy.
Among those attending the ceremony were former Polish president Lech Walesa, who as leader of the Solidarity trade union helped topple communism in 1989, and Andrzej Wajda, the octogenarian Polish film director whose movie “Katyn” was recently aired on Russian television.
Polish officials, who have been irked by some recent attempts in Moscow to whitewash aspects of the Soviet past and to present Stalin as a heroic figure, welcomed Putin’s conciliatory tone on Wednesday.
“This is a step in the right direction, though not yet a breakthrough,” said Bronislaw Komorowski, who is the candidate of Tusk’s ruling Civic Platform in Poland’s presidential election due later this year.
“I hope Prime Minister Putin’s words about the Russian victims mark an era of coming to terms with Russia’s Stalinist past. That would help democratisation in Russia and also help our bilateral relations,” Komorowksi told Polish television.