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Russo-Polish Relations: From Tragedy to Forgiveness

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Message Nicolai Petro
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This comment also appears in the Russia Profile Weekly Experts Panel (April 23, 2010)

One of my favorite historians, Sir Herbert Butterfield, wrote of historical judgment that "here is the great opportunity for Christian charity in history--here is why the Christian has to go over the past making no end of allowances for people--no end of explanations--we might almost say that he cannot read history without being a little sorry for everybody."

The death of Poland's leadership as it was on its way to commemorate the massacres in the Katyn forest, near Smolensk, seems only to senselessly pile more sorrow onto this tragedy. But out of this latest calamity has come an opportunity for just the sort of charity Butterfield wrote about.

The Polish people were deeply moved by the depth and sincerity of the condolences shared by the Russian government, and by the fact that many Russians reached out to Poles personally to express their grief. How can this good will now be sustained and not be drowned out by the ghosts of the past?

Polish officials have focused on the need for "full disclosure" regarding the Katyn massacres. Indeed, history must be made whole. Reinstating the July 13, 1994 finding of the head of the Military Prosecutor's investigative group on Katyn, Anatoly Yablokov, that names top Soviet leaders responsible for crimes against humanity would be a step in this direction. Moreover, the classification of the 116 volumes of secret materials collected by that office ought to be reviewed. Prime Minister Putin is on record as saying this can be done on the basis of reciprocity with Polish archives, but it should be a matter of principle for Russia to do it unilaterally.

But dwelling on the past alone cannot lead to a better future. As valuable as the work of historians is, they do not determine the value to society of what they uncover. That moral assessment properly falls to another very important societal actor--the Church.

Back in September 2009 the leadership of the Russian Orthodox Church (ROC) sent a delegation of seven priests to initiate a dialog with the Roman Catholic Church of Poland. They were warmly received and this past February another delegation, headed by the deputy head of foreign affairs for the ROC, abbott Phillip (Ryabykh) met with Archbishop Henryk Muszyński, the primate of Poland.

As a result of those meetings, both sides declared their intention to compose a document of reconciliation between the peoples of Russia and Poland, modeled on the 1965 letter of German and Polish bishops ("We forgive and ask forgiveness"). In a particularly poignant gestures, both sides decided that the working group would also include members of the Polish Orthodox Church and the Catholic Church in Russia.

One does not have to be a believer to see the hand of Providence at work here. After all, the current Patriarch of Moscow, Kirill was, prior to his elevation, the reigning bishop of Smolensk--the very region where the martyrs of Katyn lie buried. As primate there in the early 1990s he not only authorized prayers for the victims, back when the details of the massacres were still hotly contested, but blessed further investigation into the fate of all the victims found there. The day can surely not be far off when the Patriarch travels to Poland to cement what will be a truly historic reconciliation between Russians and Poles.

Katyn is a place where tragedy has struck both Poles and Russians repeatedly. Upon his return from Warsaw earlier this year, however, abbott Phillip reflected on the blessings that can sometimes flow from shared tragedy. "Katyn," he said, "is a sort of Gordian Knot of all the problems in Russia's relations with the countries of Eastern Europe. This knot, however, can be severed through simple human compassion, a common respect for the memory of those who suffered."
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Nicolai N. Petro is professor of political science at the University of Rhode Island. He has served as special assistant for policy in the U.S. State Department and as civic affairs advisor to the mayor of the Russian city of Novgorod the Great. His books include: The Rebirth of Russian Democracy (Harvard,1995), Russian Foreign Policy (Longman, 1997), and (more...)

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