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Russia and Poland, Foes and Friends

Smolensk is a tragic place for Russian-Polish relations. Between 1609 and 1611, in one of the bitterest confrontations between the two nations, the city was captured by Polish forces after a 20-month-long siege. In 1940, thousands of Polish officers, taken prisoner by the Red Army after the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, were massacred at Katyn forest, 19 kilometers west of Smolensk. On April 10, 2010, the Polish Air Force Tu-154 plane crashed during an attempted descent at Smolensk-North airbase killing all 96 people on board, including President Lech Kaczynski, First Lady Maria Kaczyńska and senior members of the Polish political and military establishment and clergy.

President Kaczynski was no friend to the Kremlin. An active participant in Solidarność, he fought against Soviet rule in Poland and was interned as an “anti-socialist element.” One of his first acts as president in 2006 was to veto the launch of the EU-Russia partnership talks over a trade dispute with Moscow. Throughout his tenure, Mr. Kaczynski was an ardent supporter of NATO membership for Ukraine and Georgia, even appearing at a public rally in Tbilisi during Georgia’s war with Russia in August 2008, and he was an advocate for hosting a U.S. missile defense base in his country. Last year, President Kaczynski awarded state decorations of the Republic of Poland to two of the Kremlin’s most outspoken political opponents, writer and former presidential candidate Vladimir Bukovsky and independent journalist Alexander Podrabinek.

The Kremlin’s response to the tragedy in Smolensk surprised many. Some of Russia’s liberal journalists even commented that, for the first time in many years, and for a brief moment, they were not ashamed of their government. Formal words of condolence and offers of visa assistance would be customary during any event such as this. But President Dmitry Medvedev went further. A national day of mourning was declared across Russia—an unprecedented response to a tragedy that claimed no Russian lives. Russia’s head of state went to the Polish embassy to sign the book of sorrow and published a personal message to the Polish people in the Polish language on the Kremlin Web site. Perhaps most significantly, on April 11, during the evening prime time, Russia’s main state-run television, Rossiya-1, unexpectedly broadcast Andrzej Wajda’s Katyn. The film never reached wide cinema audiences in Russia, as it was understood in 2007 that it was “not recommended” by the authorities.

Such rapprochement at the official level was not seen since Russia’s brief period of democracy in the 1990s. In 1992, President Boris Yeltsin handed the Polish government archival documents proving the Soviet Union’s responsibility for Katyn, including the Politburo decision authorizing the killings. In 1993, Mr. Yeltsin visited the Katyn memorial in Warsaw and laid a wreath on behalf of the Russian people with the words “Forgive us…”

More important than the Kremlin’s behavior in the last few days was the reaction of thousands of Russians who brought flowers and candles to Poland’s diplomatic missions in Moscow, St. Petersburg, Kaliningrad and Irkutsk. Relations between two Slavic societies, unlike those between governments, were rarely antagonistic. Throughout the 19th century, the Russian intelligentsia, convinced that no nation that enslaves another can be truly free, sympathized with Poland’s quest for liberty. Addressing the Poles, Alexander Herzen, notable Russian writer and philosopher, coined the now-famous phrase “for your freedom and ours”, which would become a slogan of the 20th century dissident movement. The manifesto of the Constitutional Democratic Party, which won Russia’s first parliamentary elections in 1906, included the demand for Poland’s political autonomy. Today, Russia’s leading democratic opposition movement, Solidarity, draws its inspiration, as well as its name, from the legendary Polish Solidarność. Lech Wałęsa recently met with Solidarity cofounder Garry Kasparov and offered his support to Russia’s democrats.

Russia and Poland are not destined to be adversaries. “Katyn became a painful wound of Polish history, which poisoned relations between Poles and Russians for decades,” President Kaczynski wanted to say in his last, undelivered speech. “Let’s make the Katyn wound finally heal and cicatrize. We are already on the way to do it.”

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