Can Poles, Rus­sians rec­on­cile at Katyn?

Winnipeg Free Press - Section H - - FRONT PAGE -

FIRST, a tragedy that al­most sinks be­neath the weight of a huge his­tor­i­cal co­in­ci­dence. A plane car­ry­ing the po­lit­i­cal and mil­i­tary elite of to­day’s Pol­ish so­ci­ety crashes, killing ev­ery­body aboard, while bring­ing them to Katyn for­est to com­mem­o­rate the mur­der of a pre­vi­ous gen­er­a­tion of the same elite by Stalin’s se­cret po­lice in 1940.

Then the Rus­sian prime min­is­ter, Vladimir Putin, whose early ca­reer was spent in a later, tamer ver­sion of that same se­cret po­lice force, does some­thing re­mark­able. He tells one of the main Rus­sian TV chan­nels to show Pol­ish di­rec­tor An­drzej Wa­jda’s 2007 film Katyn in prime time. It’s more than an apol­ogy. It’s a na­tional act of penance.

And af­ter that, the spec­u­la­tion starts about whether this tragedy might be the way that the two great Slavic na­tions, Rus­sians and Poles, are fi­nally rec­on­ciled.

Poland’s his­toric tragedy was to be lo­cated be­tween Ger­many and Rus­sia. Twice the coun­try van­ished en­tirely, par­ti­tioned be­tween its more pow­er­ful neigh­bours — and the en­dur­ing sym­bol of the lat­ter par­ti­tion is the Katyn mas­sacre of 1940.

When Hitler and Stalin in­vaded Poland in 1939, di­vid­ing Poland be­tween them, 22,000 Pol­ish of­fi­cers fell into the hands of the Soviet Union. Some were pro­fes­sional sol­diers, but most were re­serve of­fi­cers who, in civil­ian life, had been lawyers, doc­tors, uni­ver­sity pro­fes­sors: the coun­try’s in­tel­lec­tual elite. Stalin had them all mur­dered in 1940, one at a time, by a bul­let in the back of the head. That’s what hap­pened in Katyn for­est.

Stalin’s aim was to “de­cap­i­tate” the Pol­ish in­tel­li­gentsia and make the ab­sorp­tion of east­ern Poland into the Soviet Union eas­ier, but Hitler be­trayed and at­tacked his ally in 1941. When the in­vad­ing Ger­man troops reached Katyn, they found the mass graves of the Pol­ish of­fi­cers and in­vited in­ter­na­tional ob­servers to ex­am­ine the site. That was when the Great Lie was launched.

Moscow in­sisted that it was the Ger­mans, not the Rus­sians, who had mas­sa­cred the Pol­ish of­fi­cers. The U.S. and Bri­tish gov­ern­ments backed the Soviet story (though they sus­pected it was a lie), be­cause Stalin was now their ally in the war against Hitler. Only af­ter 1945 did they ques­tion it.

In the Soviet Union and Com­mu­nist-ruled Poland, The Lie was the only per­mit­ted ver­sion of the story un­til 1989. Only in 1990 did Mikhail Gor­bachev, the last Soviet leader, fi­nally ad­mit that the mur­ders were done by the Soviet se­cret po­lice, but the Rus­sian pub­lic never re­ally had their noses rubbed in the truth.

Whereas for Poles, Katyn is the cen­tral sym­bol of how the coun­try was at­tacked by its neigh­bours and then be­trayed by its al­lies. Since it was Rus­sians who com­mit­ted the ac­tual crime, and Rus­sian Com­mu­nists who still kept Poland in semi-colo­nial sub­jec­tion un­til 1989, Rus­sians were seen as the worst en­emy of all.

So the 70th an­niver­sary of the Katyn mas­sacre this month was a fraught event. Prime Min­is­ter Putin in­vited his Pol­ish equiv­a­lent, Prime Min­is­ter Don­ald Tusk, to at­tend a memo­rial cer­e­mony there, but Pres­i­dent Lech Kaczyn­ski was not in­vited. Tusk would set­tle for a vague ex­pres­sion of re­gret, whereas Kaczyn­ski was an old-fash­ioned na­tion­al­ist who wanted the Rus­sians to apol­o­gize on their knees.

Tusk came, and Putin duly ex­pressed his sor­row for the “vic­tims of Stal­in­ist ter­ror,” but he didn’t even men­tion the word “Poles.” Great states never re­ally apol­o­gize, you know. Kaczyn­ski, en­raged, ba­si­cally in­vited him­self to an­other cer­e­mony three days later, and brought half of Poland’s po­lit­i­cal, mil­i­tary and jour­nal­is­tic elite with him.

Putin re­al­ized that some­thing more was re­quired, and showed up at Katyn again to meet him. When the news came through that Kaczyn­ski’s plane had crashed, he looked ut­terly stricken. Fi­nally, the grim re­al­ity of the place and the oc­ca­sion got through to him.

Now the apol­ogy was real and spe­cific. Now Wa­jda’s har­row­ing film on Katyn, pre­vi­ously only seen on a spe­cialty chan­nel, got a prime-time broad­cast on Rus­sian TV. Now Rus­sians fi­nally get why the Poles don’t trust them — and most of them have re­sponded with re­gret, not de­nial.

The wave of sym­pa­thy in Rus­sia for Poles past and present is gen­uine, and they can even feel it (with some as­ton­ish­ment) in Poland. Th­ese mo­ments are rare, and they don’t last long. If you want to make the fu­ture dif­fer­ent from the past, you have to act fast.

The Rus­sian pres­i­dent, Dmitry Medvedev, has an­nounced that he is go­ing to Poland for Pres­i­dent Kaczyn­ski’s fu­neral in Krakow on Sun­day. Be­fore he goes, he should look at one pho­to­graph.

It was taken in 1984 on the First World War bat­tle­field of Ver­dun, where a quar­ter-mil­lion French and Ger­man sol­diers died in 1916. By 1984 France and Ger­many were in the Euro­pean Union and NATO to­gether, but af­ter three wars in a hun­dred years they were still not re­ally friends.

Then Pres­i­dent Fran­cois Mit­terand of France and Chan­cel­lor Hel­mut Kohl of Ger­many went there to com­mem­o­rate the 70th an­niver­sary of the First World War. Looking out over the killing fields torn up by 40 mil­lion ar­tillery shells, they did the only thing they could. They held hands — and Franco-Ger­man re­la­tions were changed for good.

If Medvedev can find a way to do some­thing as sim­ple but as pow­er­ful as that, he could turn the page and start a new chap­ter in Rus­sian-Pol­ish his­tory. Right now, peo­ple are ready for that.

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