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Katyn: painful wound that has yet to heal

Could this disaster help rebuild relations with Russia, destroyed by a 1940 massacre of Poles? Shaun Walker reports

"It is a damned place. It sends shivers down my spine". Poland's former president, Aleksander Kwasniewski, spoke for many Poles when he summed up his feelings about Katyn this weekend. "First the flower of the Second Polish Republic is murdered in the forests around Smolensk, now the intellectual elite of the Third Polish Republic die in this tragic plane crash."

The place where so many of Poland's leading lights died on Saturday morning could not be more gruesomely ironic. Underneath the birch trees in the quiet forests at Katyn lie the remains of thousands of Polish officers and intellectuals murdered there exactly 70 years ago. The massacre, carried out by agents of the KGB's precursor, the NKVD, has been a stumbling block to good relations between Moscow and Poland ever since. The killing of around 22,000 members of the Polish professional elite was ordered by Joseph Stalin, and occurred after the Nazi-Soviet pact was signed in 1939, a secret clause of which allowed the two countries to carve up Poland and share its spoils. Adding to Polish anger about the crime, Moscow insisted on blaming the Nazis for the Katyn massacre throughout the Soviet period. As Poland was part of the Communist bloc, information about who was really responsible for the crime had to be kept quiet there after the war.

It was only in 1990 that Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged the responsibility of Stalin's NKVD. "It was not only an act of genocide, but also a big historical lie," said Wojciech Roszkowski, a Polish historian and politician.

Poland wants Russia to recognise the massacre as a war crime, to declassify archival material about the killings, and offer an official apology. Russia has been unwilling to do so, and while Prime Minister Vladimir Putin condemned the long Soviet cover-up during a memorial service at the site with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk last week, he also said Russia could not be blamed for a massacre carried out by Stalin's secret police.

This strikes many as a somewhat disingenuous position, given that during Mr Putin's reign the Kremlin has sought to glorify Russia's victory in the Second World War. Russia is happy to trumpet the achievements of Stalin's Soviet Union, it seems, but is reluctant to dwell on the crimes. In coverage of Saturday's crash on Russian state-controlled television, reporters repeatedly referred to the fact that the Polish delegation had been travelling to Katyn, "the site where thousands of Poles died", but never stated who was responsible for the killings. Russia is gearing up for major celebrations on 9 May to mark 65 years since victory in the Second World War, and Russian and foreign historians who attempt to dwell on Stalin's crimes are regularly accused by the authorities of "historical revisionism".

Nevertheless, Russia had recently embarked on a policy of compromise over Katyn. While Mr Putin did not apologise at last week's ceremony, his presence was a step forward, and drew praise in Poland. The memorial site was erected in 2000, but last week's visit was the first by a Russian leader.

In another goodwill gesture from the Russian government, the state-controlled Culture Channel showed a Polish film about the massacre and subsequent cover-up, for the first time. The film, Katyn, nominated for an Oscar in 2007, never went on general release in Russia. "I never anticipated this day," said director Andrzej Wajda, of the decision to screen the movie in Russia. Mr Wajda's father was one of the Polish officers killed at Katyn.

Lech Kaczynski had been accused on many occasions of playing the anti-Russian card to gain domestic political support. He was not a liked figure in Moscow, and it was no accident that Mr Putin invited Poland's Prime Minister to the service last week but not Mr Kaczynski himself.

His death, however, appears to have genuinely shocked both Mr Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev both of whom looked moved. "This is our tragedy as well. We are grieving with you, our hearts go out to you," Mr Putin told Polish television.

Many Poles were also deeply touched by television images of the former KGB man's sympathetic embrace of a tearful Mr Tusk in Smolensk on Saturday. As Jerzy Bahr, Poland's ambassador to Russia put it: "We can sense Russian solidarity at every step of the way (since the crash)".

Russians last night had another chance to see Mr Wajda's film this time on one of the main Russian TV channels. The memories of the first Katyn tragedy did much to destroy relations between Russia and Poland, but the early signs are that the second tragedy, for all its horrible symbolism, may help mend them.