Russia Opens Its Files on the Katyn Massacre

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Michal Grocholski / Agencja Gazeta / Reuters

Lit candles are arranged to form the words Katyn 1940-2010 in Opole, Poland, on April 13, 2010

In a move that takes it one step closer to easing its long-running tensions with Poland, Russia on Wednesday, April 28, posted online for the first time its files on the Soviet Union's World War II massacre of thousands of Polish officers in the Katyn forest.

The documents — which were once classified — were opened to the public in 1992 but have mainly been read only by researchers and historians. Now, for the first time, anyone with a computer can see the files that prove Soviet dictator Josef Stalin and his aides were responsible for the killings of 22,000 Polish officers in the forest in western Russia. "Let people see [the files]. Let them know who made the decision to kill the Polish officers," said Russian President Dmitri Medvedev, who ordered that the files be published online. "It's all there in the documents. All signatures are there. All the faces are known."

The mass murder of thousands of Polish prisoners of war and intellectuals at Katyn in April 1940 — just months after Nazi Germany and Stalin carved up Poland — is an enduring symbol for Poles of their suffering under totalitarian Soviet rule. For 50 years, the Soviet Union blamed the massacre on Nazi German forces, until Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev acknowledged Moscow's responsibility in 1990. On April 7, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his Polish counterpart Donald Tusk for the first time jointly observed its 70th anniversary.

It was while flying into Russia a few days later to attend a separate memorial ceremony that Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife and 94 others were killed in a plane crash, a tragedy that sparked the warming of relations between the two countries. Poles were impressed by how Moscow handled the aftermath of the crash, as Medvedev braved the travel chaos caused by volcanic ash to attend Kaczynski's funeral in Krakow and told Poles he hoped the sad event could bring the two nations closer.

But the Katyn massacre remains a source of tension, with speculation persisting in some circles in Russia that the killings were in fact committed by the Nazi German troops who uncovered the first mass grave in the forest in 1943. For its part, Poland has long felt that Russia shied away from accepting full responsibility for the killings. Russia hopes that by making the files freely available to the general public, it will finally put the issue to rest. "Given that historians have already had access to the files, [the documents] do not shed new light on what happened at Katyn," says Slawomir Debski, analyst at the Polish International Affairs Institute. "But it's proof that Russia wants to cut speculations that the documents were falsified."

By the end of Wednesday, 2 million people had viewed the files at, the website of Russia's federal archive service, Rosarkhiv. "This is a positive decision," Pawel Zalewski, Polish MEP and former chief of the Foreign Affairs Committee, told the daily Gazeta Wyborcza. "Russian people will be able to see the documents for themselves. [In the past,] the actions of the Russian authorities have not been so straightforward."

But in Warsaw, Prime Minister Tusk was more cautiously optimistic, saying he welcomed the gesture but would await Russia's next step. There are still many more documents on the Katyn massacre that remain classified, despite Polish appeals for the archives to be opened. They include materials from an investigation into the killings by Russian military prosecutors that was dropped in 2004. Those documents are believed to bear the names of the soldiers who carried out the executions.

Russia still won't reveal the reasons behind dropping the investigation. It also refuses to recognize the killings as war crimes or acts of genocide. The human-rights group Memorial, which focuses on crimes of the Soviet period, welcomed the posting of some of the Katyn files on the government website but said more action is needed. "There is no reason for euphoria," said Nikita Pietrov, a historian and Memorial leader, according to Polish news agency PAP. "Everybody is waiting for the actions of the prosecutors, not of the state archives." Medvedev promised that more documents would be released but did not specify which ones.

For now, Poles and Russians will have to get what closure they can from the documents that Russia has put online. Those include the March 1940 letter written by Lavrenty Beria, then head of the secret police, and signed by Stalin and three other members of the Politburo, in which Beria recommends the execution of Polish prisoners of war. And there are the minutes of the Politburo meeting on March 5, 1940, at which Beria's proposal was approved. Perhaps most chilling of all is the note from the head of the Soviet secret police in 1959 to Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev — advising that the Katyn files be destroyed.