Russia Opens File of Stalin’s Order to Massacre Poles

Russia's president Dmitry Medvedev
Russia's president Dmitry Medvedev speaks at an EU-Russia summit in Stockholm on Nov. 18, 2009. Photographer: Casper Hedberg/Bloomberg

Russia declassified files on a Soviet massacre of Polish officers in a gesture of goodwill following the death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski.

Special File No. 1 shows that Soviet leader Josef Stalin personally signed off on the shooting of more than 4,000 Polish prisoners of war in the Katyn forest in 1940, as well as thousands more held in other camps, state broadcaster Rossiya-24 reported.

President Dmitry Medvedev ordered the publication of the file today, according to his Web site. The decision follows the April 10 plane crash in western Russia that killed Kaczynski and a delegation of senior Polish officials traveling to mark the 70th anniversary of the massacre. Three days earlier, Prime Minister Vladimir Putin became the first Russian leader to pay tribute to the victims after decades of denial by the Kremlin.

“We have to draw lessons from history,” Medvedev said during a visit to Copenhagen today. “We will continue doing this. I believe it’s our duty.”

Dispel Claims

The publication of Stalin’s orders should dispel claims by those in Russia who still deny the Soviets’ responsibility, Andrei Artizov, head of the Federal Archives Agency, told Rossiya-24.

The KGB destroyed its Katyn files after Stalin’s death to cover up the massacre and support the official version that Nazi Germany was responsible for the shootings, Rossiya-24 said. The files documenting the Soviet leadership’s orders survived only because they were stored in the Communist Party’s archives, the broadcaster reported.

Russian human rights activists and Polish historians have wanted the Kremlin to declassify documents to help bring closure to the shootings. The Russian government’s reluctance to discuss them strained ties between the former Communist allies.

Additional materials will be handed over to Polish researchers in the future, Medvedev said today.

Katyn has its roots in Poland’s partition in World War II. After Nazi Germany invaded Poland in 1939, the Soviets marched into eastern Poland in accordance with a secret treaty between Adolf Hitler and Stalin. The officers killed in Katyn were among more than 20,000 Polish prisoners who vanished in the Soviet Union. Hitler abandoned the pact when he invaded the Soviet Union in 1941.

Mikhail Gorbachev broke with his Soviet predecessors in 1990 when he acknowledged the responsibility of Stalin’s secret police. While the memorial site in western Russia was founded in 2000, no high-ranking Russian leader went there before Putin’s visit this month.

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