As Poland is gripped by national mourning, Poles are taking some comfort from an unexpected quarter. No one could foresee such depth from the Russian response.
Russian President Dmitry Medvedev Saturday appointed Prime Minister Vladimir Putin to oversee the investigation of the plane crash that killed the Polish president in Smolensk, Russia. Putin immediately flew to Smolensk, where he met Polish PM Donald Tusk. The fatal plane crash Saturday carried President Lech Kaczynski and 95 other top Polish government officials, military and religious leaders.
"It is the first time I saw Putin truly moved and upset as he hugged Tusk," says Krystyna Kurczab-Redlich, a longtime correspondent of Polish media in Russia and an author of many books on contemporary Russia. "This is a real turning point."
Putin told Russian TV: "This is first and foremost Poland's tragedy and that of the Polish people -- but this is also our tragedy, and we mourn with you and grieve with you."
A clearly upset Medvedev made a televised address Saturday, saying the Smolensk tragedy was "unprecedented" and ordered a national day of mourning in Russia Monday.
A survey published several weeks ago in Moscow showed that only 18 percent of Russians interviewed knew the truth about the massacre at Katyn. The Katyn Forest is where 22,000 of Poland's best and brightest were executed in a WWII massacre in the spring of 1940 carried out by NVDK, the forerunner of the KGB, Joseph Stalin's secret police.
That is probable to change Sunday night, when the film "Katyn," by well-known Polish director Andrzej Wajda, will air on Russian state TV, another step seen as significant effort of New Kremlin sympathies to Poles.
Wajda's father, a Polish cavalry officer, was killed at Katyn.
Katyn stands out as Poland's darkest event entrenched in national psychology for three generations. During the communist regime, which lasted for 45 years, Poles were only allowed to whisper about it. In schoolbooks the slaughter was attributed to Germans.
Saturday's crash of a plane carrying Poland's President Lech Kaczynski, first lady, and dozens of the country's political and military leaders to a Katyn memorial near the western Russian city of Smolensk has torn open a wound that had only just begun to heal.
"Instead of trying to consign the Katyn saga to the history books whenever Katyn is mentioned in [the] future we will be reminded of the plane crash that claimed the lives of our president and his entourage," says Kuba Suszczewski, an artist from Warsaw, Poland.
"This tragic, cursed Katyn," former Polish President Aleksander Kwasniewski told reporters Saturday. "It sent shivers down my spine.
"First the flower of the Second Polish Republic is murdered in the forests around Smolensk," Kwasniewski said. "Now the intellectual elite of the Third Polish Republic die in this tragic plane crash when approaching Smolensk airport."
Former Polish President Lech Walesa described the crash as the "second disaster after Katyn."
"They wanted to cut off our head there, and here the flower of our nation has also perished," said Walesa, who, along with Lech Kaczynski, the president killed in the air crash, led Poland to independence from the Soviet Union.
The symbolism of the tragedy to many Poles is almost unbearable.