WASHINGTON — A historic meeting scheduled for Wednesday between top leaders of Russia and Poland is expected to provide new details about Russia's mass execution of 22,000 Polish officers in the Katyn forest in 1940 and may pave the way toward improved relations between the two countries.
The mass slaying of the Polish prisoners of war by the Soviet secret police is one of the darker and less known chapters of World War II, said Kyle Parker, a Russian expert and policy adviser to the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe, an independent U.S. agency that helps formulate American policy for the Organization for Security and Co-operation in Europe.
Vladimir Putin and Donald Tusk — the Russian and Polish prime ministers — will meet at the execution site in Smolensk, Russia, to mark the 70th anniversary of the massacre, which Russia blamed on Germany until 1990.
There's no longer any question about who did it. However, experts say that some important questions remain about the cover-up. Russia's answers to those questions at the meeting could help determine the future course of the key strategic relationship between the two countries.
Putin's presence at the ceremony is particularly significant, Parker said.
"There are incredible possibilities for forward movement and reconciliation in what he may say," Parker said. "Sincere, heartfelt, unequivocal remarks by Putin would mean even more . . . because Putin was the head of the successor agency of the NKVD," or the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs, the agency that killed the Polish officers in 1940. Putin headed the KGB before becoming Russian president and then prime minister.
"I understand that Russia will be turning over new documents and will be releasing some new information" that could shed light on the massacre's cover-up, Parker said.
In March 1940, Joseph Stalin signed an order for the mass execution of more than 22,000 Polish officers being held as prisoners of war. The April 1940 executions were systematic: Each officer's hands were tied behind his back, and each was shot with a single bullet through the base of the skull.
According to Poland's conscription system, the Polish officer corps included anyone with a university degree — Poland's intelligentsia.
"By murdering these people, the Russians created a leadership vacuum," said Alex Storozynski, the president of the Kosciuszko Foundation.
The mass graves were discovered in 1943 by the Wehrmacht, the German armed forces, after their defeat at Stalingrad.
The discovery caused a diplomatic crisis, Storozynski said: The U.S. was allied with Russia against Germany. When Russia blamed Germany for the massacre, the U.S. stayed silent, Parker said.
"There are certainly good reasons one could argue for keeping a certain prudent silence on Katyn at the time," Parker said. "Certainly, the defeat of Nazism in Europe was a very important goal."
In 1990, Mikhail Gorbachev, the president of the Soviet Union prior to its breakup, admitted that it was the Soviet secret police who executed the officers.
"Was Gorbachev's admission in 1990 enough? No," Parker said.
It was, however, a good start: Memorials to the victims were laid, some archives were opened, and the Russians opened their own internal investigation into the initial cover-up. In 1994, the archives were closed, Parker said, and the internal investigation was closed a decade later, its documents classified.
Releasing those archives and documents from the internal investigation would shed new light on the Katyn massacre, Parker said.
In the U.S., Parker said he is working to find the few remaining American documents about Katyn that haven't yet been released, largely because of the difficulty of locating them. Those documents show "clear official efforts" to suppress that the U.S. knew the Soviets were to blame, he said.
"Does America owe Poland something?" Parker said. "That could be argued."
Allen Paul, the author of "Katyn: Stalin's Massacre and the Triumph of Truth," said the U.S. owes Poland an apology for its role in the cover-up.
Paul's book was re-issued March 15 with new details of the extreme measures taken by the Russians to cover up the Katyn killings, and he was invited to attend the 70th anniversary ceremonies by the Polish government.
He'll be part of the official delegation that accompanies Tusk, the Polish prime minister, to the ceremony, and was told by the Russian Foreign Ministry that he'll be the only American to attend, he wrote in an e-mail from Warsaw Tuesday.
"My new edition calls on the Russians to reveal all remaining facts to the Poles and issue a profound apology for the Katyn massacre," Paul wrote, adding that he's also called on the U.S. to release any remaining documents on Katyn.
Paul, Parker and Storozynski will take part in an international conference on Katyn scheduled for May 5.
Paul, the conference organizer, said it's "not so much about archival footage of bodies being exhumed," but about improving Russian-Polish relations in terms of cultural ties and political security.
The conference will take place in Washington at the Library of Congress. Scheduled speakers include Sen. Ben Cardin, D-Md., chairman of the Commission on Security and Cooperation in Europe; Zbigniew Brzezinski, the national security adviser to former President Jimmy Carter; House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer, D-Md.; Librarian of Congress James Billington; and Victor Ashe, U.S. ambassador to Poland under former President George W. Bush.
(The Medill News Service is a Washington program of the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University. Jablonska, a graduate student in journalism from Chicago, covers foreign policy.)
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