Meeting of Russian, Polish leaders could shed light on 1940 massacre

By Justine Jablonska
Wednesday, April 7, 2010

A historic meeting scheduled for Wednesday between top leaders of Russia and Poland is expected to provide new details about Russia's mass execution of 22,000 Polish officers in the Katyn forest in 1940 and may open the way toward improved relations between the two countries.

The mass slaying of the Polish prisoners of war by the Soviet secret police is one of the darker and less known chapters of World War II, said Kyle Parker, a Russian expert and policy adviser to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, an independent U.S. agency that helps formulate American policy for the Organization for Security and Cooperation in Europe.

Vladimir Putin and Donald Tusk -- the Russian and Polish prime ministers -- will meet at the execution site in Smolensk, Russia, to mark the 70th anniversary of the massacre, which Russia blamed on Germany until 1990.

There is no longer any question about who did it. However, experts say that some important questions remain about the coverup. Russia's answers to those questions at the meeting could help determine the course of the key strategic relationship between the two countries.

Putin's presence at the ceremony is particularly significant, Parker said.

"There are incredible possibilities for forward movement and reconciliation in what he may say," Parker said. "Sincere, heartfelt, unequivocal remarks by Putin would mean even more . . . because Putin was the head of the successor agency of the NKVD," or the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, the agency that killed the Polish officers in 1940. Putin headed the KGB before becoming Russian president and then prime minister.

"I understand that Russia will be turning over new documents and will be releasing some new information" that could shed light on the massacre's coverup, Parker said.

In March 1940, Joseph Stalin signed an order for the mass execution of more than 22,000 Polish officers being held as prisoners of war. The April 1940 executions were systematic: Each officer's hands were tied behind his back, and each was shot with a single bullet through the base of the skull.

According to Poland's conscription system, the Polish officer corps included anyone with a university degree -- Poland's intelligentsia.

"By murdering these people, the Russians created a leadership vacuum," said Alex Storozynski, the president of the Kosciuszko Foundation.

The mass graves were discovered in 1943 by the Wehrmacht, the German armed forces, after their defeat at Stalingrad.

The discovery caused a diplomatic crisis, Storozynski said: The United States was allied with Russia against Germany. When Russia blamed Germany for the massacre, the United States stayed silent, Parker said.

-- Medill News Service

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