MOSCOW — The plane crash in Russia that killed the Polish president and a long list of notable Poles has brought a sudden rush of warm feelings between two nations whose relations have been fraught with historical hatreds.
In Russia, the normally stoic Vladimir Putin has set the tone with an outpouring of emotion, while Poland has been deeply moved by the gestures of sympathy from a country that had long tried to subjugate it.
In a significant step, a Russian state television network on Sunday night aired Katyn, a celebrated Polish film about a Second World War-era Soviet massacre that looms large in Polish memory. For decades the Soviet Union denied responsibility, and even today many Russians know little about the killings.
Closer political ties still seem far off, but Poland’s foreign minister, long suspicious of Russia’s intentions, made clear the tragic plane crash also offers an opportunity.
“I don’t know if there is a political breakthrough because we have many contradictory issues with Russia, but we have an emotional breakthrough,” Radoslaw Sikorski said Monday on Radio TOK FM.
“It seems that the personal reaction of Prime Minister Vladimir Putin is the result of his realization of what Soviet Russia had done to Poland. Therefore, he felt our pain when another tragedy took place.”
The presidential plane crashed Saturday while bringing President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, lawmakers, military commanders, priests and historical figures to a ceremony in memory of the 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals executed in 1940 by Soviet secret police in the Katyn forest and elsewhere.
Relatives of victims of the massacre were among the 96 people who died when the plane went down.
Putin flew immediately to the crash site in western Russia, where he embraced Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk. On Sunday, holding a bouquet of red roses, Putin appeared genuinely shaken as he escorted Kaczynski’s body to a plane to be flown to Warsaw.
“This is of course first and foremost Poland’s tragedy and that of the Polish people, but it is also our tragedy. We mourn with you,” he said in an interview with Polish television.
His words clearly touched a chord with ordinary Poles.
“Putin’s gestures are striking. He’s not a soft kind of person but I get a positive impression,” said Slawomir Pawelski, 88. “It’s sad the reconciliation is happening under such painful circumstances and not on the normal diplomatic or political level, but let’s be happy with what we have because it opens the door to friendship.”
Russia declared Monday a national day of mourning, an unusual and possibly unprecedented step in honouring citizens of another country. President Dmitry Medvedev and former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev went to the Polish Embassy in Moscow to pay their respects and write in a book of condolences.
It was under Gorbachev in 1990 that the Soviet Union first acknowledged responsibility for the Katyn massacre, which until then the Soviets had blamed on Nazi forces that invaded Russia in 1941.
That was also the official line in Poland until the fall of communism in 1989, but Poles had always known the truth and the coverup only fed animosity toward Russia.
To this day, many Russians know little or nothing about Katyn. In a poll conducted March 10 by the respected Levada Center, only 19 per cent said the Polish officers were shot on dictator Josef Stalin’s orders. Twenty-eight per cent said Nazi Germany had ordered the executions, while 53 per cent said they could not answer. The poll of 1,600 Russians nationwide had a margin of error of 3.4 per centage points.
That could change after the nationwide broadcast of Andrzej Wajda’s film Katyn on Sunday evening.