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The divided commemorations of a 1940 massacre underscore persistent divides between Russia and Poland.
This is where the second, fateful trip to Katyn comes in. Kaczynski represented a different approach to Russia and to the past than did the more forward-looking Tusk (of a rival political party). The Saturday commemoration was to be a counter-commemoration, one led by the president of the Polish political party that stood steadfastly by its memories of a more threatening Russia, memories that Poles — although not allowed to publicly commemorate the Katyn killings during the communist period — had kept alive in their hearts. In a way, they continued to take advice offered the nation two centuries earlier by Jean-Jacques Rousseau: He had exhorted the Poles to “establish the Republic so firmly in the hearts of Poles that she will maintain her existence there in spite of all the efforts of her oppressors." This they did, over centuries of foreign domination.
Yet times have changed — in part thanks to those who dared to remember. Poland is now a free, independent and resilient democracy, one able to survive even the decapitation of its national leadership. Russia too appears to be changing, as witnessed by the commemoration a week ago by the two countries’ prime ministers, and Putin’s weekend visit to the site of plane crash. One hopes that the active and seemingly heartfelt interest by Putin in the double Katyn tragedy will be followed by a greater understanding among all Russians of the country’s totalitarian past. Ironically, it has taken the death of Poland’s president at the site of the 1940 killings to bring this long suppressed event to the world’s attention — out from the obscurity of history into memory.
Might not some good come of this? In the last days, the Russian people have had two occasions to watch Andrzej Wajda’s 2007 film “Katyn” — previously banned — on television. The first showing of the film, prior to the Putin-Tusk commemoration, took place on a minor television station. The second was scheduled for the day after the plane crash on one of Russia's major television networks, doubtless to explain the circumstances that led Poland's president to make the ill-fated trip — and why Russia's president Dmitrii Medvedev had declared a day of national mourning. A genuine improvement in Polish-Russian relations as well as further steps on the road to coming to grips with the totalitarian past would be the best tribute to the lives lost in the forests of Smolensk.
Patrice Dabrowski is director of the Harvard Ukrainian Summer Institute and the author of "Commemorations and the Shaping of Modern Poland."