Page last updated at 14:35 GMT, Monday, 12 April 2010 15:35 UK

Russia-Poland thaw grows from tragedy

By Adam Easton
BBC News, Warsaw

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (right) hugs his Polish counterpart Donald Tusk at crash site, 10 Apr 10
Mr Putin has reached out to Poles at a time of national grief

Russian-Polish relations have often been difficult, but Moscow's dignified handling of the aftermath of the tragic plane crash which killed Polish President Lech Kaczynski has been well received by Poles.

Poles have been somewhat taken aback by Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's decision to personally oversee the investigation of the crash which killed all 96 people on board, tearing a hole in the Polish political, military and social elite.

The image of Mr Putin giving his Polish counterpart, Donald Tusk, a hug amid the debris of the wreckage has been replayed many times on Poland's news channels.

Hours later Mr Putin was back at Smolensk airport, head bowed, as he bade farewell to Mr Kaczynski's coffin before it was flown back to Warsaw.

Newspapers reprinted the text of President Dmitry Medvedev's televised address to Poles and noted Moscow's preparations to accommodate the families of the victims as they arrived in the city to carry out the gruesome task of helping to identify their loved ones.

"It's a paradox but the tragedy in Smolensk is a chance to connect our nations like never before," Marcin Wojciechowski wrote in a column in the leading daily, Gazeta Wyborzca.

"Russia's behaviour after the tragedy in Smolensk totally contradicts the thesis of those who claim that closer relations between Russia and Poland are impossible," he said.

Scar of Katyn

Of course there is still a long way to go down that road. The two governments disagree over issues ranging from energy, foreign policy and historical issues which sometimes date back centuries.

Warsaw poster showing the late Polish President Lech Kaczynski and his wife Maria
The memory of Katyn had helped shape Mr Kaczynski's politics

One of those historical issues paved the way for this latest tragedy. President Kaczynski's delegation was on its way to Smolensk to take part in the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre - the murder of more than 20,000 Polish officers by the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, in the forests of nearby Katyn and elsewhere, in 1940.

That tragedy has divided the nations ever since, particularly as the Soviet Union blamed the massacre on Nazi Germany for 50 years and Poland's post-war communist authorities forbade any discussion on the topic, preventing the families of the victims from finding out anything about the fate of their loved ones.

Mikhail Gorbachev only admitted Soviet responsibility in 1990. President Kaczynski took a tough line towards Russia and its historical responsibilities. Perhaps that is why Moscow did not invite him to take part in the first joint commemoration, held by Mr Putin and Mr Tusk at the Katyn cemetery just three days before the crash.

That event was viewed by many in Poland as a significant step on the road to improved relations that Mr Tusk's government has been pursuing.

A decision was even made that the film Katyn, by Poland's celebrated director Andrzej Wajda, which documents the Soviet lie, should be shown by Russian state TV, not just a peripheral channel.

But Mr Kaczynski was prepared to publicly acknowledge Russia's recent attempts to heal the pain caused by Katyn.

"Katyn has been a painful wound in Polish history and has poisoned relations between Poles and Russians for many decades," Mr Kaczynski wrote in a speech he was to deliver at the anniversary memorial service. "We Poles appreciate Russia's activities in recent years," he wrote.

It is something of a paradox that this latest tragedy to befall the Polish nation may actually prove to help the process of reconciliation between the two nations.

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