Thursday, June 19, 2008


Poland, Russia and history

Dead leaves in the wind

Jun 19th 2008 | WARSAW
From The Economist print edition

Russia inches towards reconciliation with Poland over the Katyn massacre

FEW things symbolised the Soviet attitude to truth more than the Katyn massacre: having shot 20,000 Polish officers in cold blood, the Kremlin then blamed it on the Nazis. And few things symbolise better modern Russia's lingering clinch with the Soviet past than the failure by relatives of the victims to get justice from the Russian legal system.

Last month a court in Moscow rejected a request to hear a case on two issues: the declassification of documents about Katyn and the judicial rehabilitation of the victims. That was shocking (imagine a German court telling Holocaust survivors that Auschwitz files were a military secret). But the Katyn relatives want to take their case to the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, and for that other legal avenues must be exhausted first.

Last week, however, an appeal court overturned the lower court's ruling and ordered it to hear the case. Other signals coming from the top, including an interview given to a Polish newspaper by an adviser to former President Vladimir Putin who called Katyn a “political crime”, suggest that the Russians are changing their attitude. One risk for them is a defeat at Strasbourg. Another is the effect on public opinion of a new film, “Katyn”, by Andrzej Wajda, Poland's best-known director, that is filling cinemas in the West and in Russia.

Yet the signals remain mixed. Plenty of Russians still argue that Katyn has been exaggerated by the Poles. Some mainstream media have resurrected Soviet-era falsifications. In Russia's ally, Belarus, the defence ministry's magazine says that the whole thing is a slanderous plot to defame the heroic anti-fascist struggle. Another Moscow court recently brushed aside an attempt by Memorial, a Russian human-rights group, to declassify the Katyn files.

The relatives pursuing cases over Katyn insist that they do not want financial compensation from the Russians. “It is about honour and justice,” says Ireneusz Kaminski, a Cracow law professor who has masterminded their campaign. If Russia's new leadership wants to distance itself from the revisionist Soviet nostalgia of recent times, coming clean about Katyn would be a good start.

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