While American newspaper columnists and cable TV talking heads will spend the next few days talking about President Obama's nuclear arms reduction treaty with Moscow, in Poland, media pundits are focused on Russian Premier Vladimir Putin's visit to the Katyn Forest, where 70 years ago, the Soviet Union's secret police murdered 22,000 Polish prisoners of war. Back then, the stench of dead bodies was so strong, that wolves scampering through the forest caught the scent and began digging through the ice and snow to dig up the bones. Later when Adolf Hitler turned on his Soviet allies and invaded Russia, German Lieutenant Friedrich noticed the paw prints in the snow. By the spring thaw of 1943, the Nazis realized they were sitting on a mass grave of Polish officers murdered by the Soviet Union's secret police, the NKVD. Ahrens revealed these details at a hearing of the U.S. Congress in 1952. But by then, the Soviet cover-up was complete, and Soviet Dictator Jozef Stalin had propagated a tale that Polish prisoners of war held by his army had escaped to Japanese-occupied Manchuria. The truth was that the NKVD had taken 22,000 Polish POWs into the woods, tied their arms behind their backs, and one by one, shot them in the back of the head. These men were reserve officers whose day jobs were as doctors, lawyers, professors, priests and professionals. Stalin's goal was to kill off Poland's intelligentsia so that there would be no leaders to organize resistance to his plan to impose communism over Poland. Ultimately, Stalin succeeded in invading all of Eastern Europe and installing puppet Communist regimes in the capitals of these countries. To add insult to injury, he called his new Iron Curtain alliance the Warsaw Pact. It was not until 1990 that then Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev admitted that the Katyn murders were perpetrated the NKVD. After the collapse of the Soviet Union, Boris Yeltsin, the first President of the Russian Federation, released some archival documents about Katyn, including Stalin's orders to murder the Polish officers.
Yesterday, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin joined his Polish counterpart Donald Tusk in the Katyn Forest at a ceremony commemorating the murdered officers. It was to be a noble gesture on Mr. Putin's part. But while it was supposed to be the next step in setting the record straight on the murders, it was a baby step at best. Mr. Putin offered no apology for the murder of prisoners of war, no release of new Russian archives, and not even an olive twig to the families and descendants of the murdered Polish officers.
Instead, Putin was defensive, saying that "suggesting that the Russian people are to blame for this is a lie and fabrication." Putin then lumped in this mass murder with all the horrors of Soviet Communism as if it were just another tragedy.
In a well-intentioned, but clumsy attempt to link Poles and Russians as brothers, Mr. Putin said, "Poland and Russia experienced all of the tragedies of the 20th century, more than any other countries and nations in Europe, two World Wars, fratricidal battles, and inhuman totalitarian crimes." And because there are other victims of Stalinism entombed in that forest, Putin said that buried in those mass graves were "brother with brother."
Mr. Putin's take on this was bizarre to say the least. It was the Russian Soviet regime that invaded Poland and then perpetrated fratricidal battles and inhuman totalitarian crimes on the Poles. This is not a case of brother with brother. This is a case like Cain and Abel, where one brother murdered the other.
For centuries, Poland had been invaded and occupied by Russian czars and Communist dictators. The Katyn Forest Massacre remains the most malevolent symbol of that subjugation. It is a wound that must be healed before Poland and Russia can live side by side as good neighbors. But rather than pulling the Band-Aid off that wound in one fell swoop, Mr. Putin went half-way, exposing part of scab without giving it a chance to breathe and properly heal. Before yesterday's ceremonies, rumors in the European press abounded that Putin might actually apologize, or open the rest of the Soviet archives to expose the full truth about Katyn.
Mr. Putin did none of that.
More than one million Poles were sent to Siberia by Stalin during World War II. Many were never heard from again. The families of the Polish officers murdered at Katyn have hoped for years that those who carried out these war crimes would be brought to justice. That is why Putin walked a tightrope, more concerned about legal ramifications and how his Russian constituency, which had been lied to for decades, would view his remarks.
Putin hoped that pictures of him laying a wreath at Katyn would speak a thousand words to Poles, instead, his silence about the truth of the massacre broke a million hearts.