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Premiers meet to honour Katyn massacre victims

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is meeting his Polish counterpart, Donald Tusk, Wednesday to jointly pay homage to the victims of the World War Two Katyn massacre, in a gathering that marks a diplomatic breakthrough between Moscow and Warsaw.


Russian and Polish leaders will for the first time on Wednesday join in honouring some 22,000 Polish soldiers and citizens murdered 70 years ago by the Russian army in what is known as the Katyn massacre of World War Two.

Russia's Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Polish premier Donald Tusk will attend a commemoration of the killings in the Katyn Forest, as well as pay their respects to the Russian casualties of Stalin-era campaigns who are interred near the Polish victims at Katyn.

A 5 March 1940 secret order signed by the Soviet central committee, including then-leader Joseph Stalin, called for the execution of Polish prisoners of war it said were enemies of the state planning “to actively participate in a fight against the Soviet government”. The Red Army had taken some 230,000 Polish POWs after its mid-September 1939 invasion of Poland, which followed the Nazi invasion of September 1.

Between the March 5 order and May of 1940 the Soviet secret police, or NKVD, killed almost 22,000 Poles, mostly military officers but also civil servants, artists, teachers and diplomats.

Official denial

Wednesday’s commemoration marks a departure from decades of denial on the part of the Kremlin, which for more than 50 years blamed the deaths on the Nazis. Russian courts made most files on the affair classified.

It was only in 1990 that then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev admitted that Russian troops were responsible, and even today many Russians are unaware of what happened at Katyn.

In a sign of Russia’s new willingness to discuss the events of 1940, Polish director Andrzej Wajda’s film “Katyn” about the massacre was shown last week on Russia's Kultura television channel.

But not all of Russian society is open to admitting the Kremlin’s responsibility. Russia's Communist Party this week urged a parliamentary investigation of the massacre and suggested that Russia was not to blame. Party secretary Sergei Obukhov on Tuesday criticised “the anti-Russian interpretation of the Katyn massacre” and called for the application of modern criminology methods to determine what really happened. He also said Russia should bear in mind “the deaths of 60,000 Russian war prisoners in Polish prisons after Poland's attack on the Soviet state in 1920”.

Troubled relations

Following the memorial service at Katyn, Putin and Tusk will head to nearby Smolensk in western Russia to discuss bilateral relations, which remain divisive more than two decades after Poland declared independence from the Soviet Union in 1989.

Since that time, Poland’s growing alliance with the West – notably by joining NATO in 1999 and then the European Union in 2004 – has unnerved Russia on several occasions, which sees western influence encroaching on its traditional sphere of influence. Poland’s willingness to host missiles as part of plans for a new US missile shield has also angered the Kremlin and remains one of the most contentious issues between Moscow and Warsaw.


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