BELGRADE, Serbia, April 11, 2010 -- 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.
Katyn Massacre Still Weighs Heavily Among Poles
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.
In 1943, General Wladyslaw Sikorski, the leader of the Polish wartime government, died in a plane crash in Gibraltar. No foul play was proved there, but many Poles believe that he was murdered because of his resolute determination to expose the Katyn massacre -- which the Soviet Union blamed on the Germans.
Now another Polish president, closely involved in the same issue, has died in an all-too similar manner.
History Recalled 70 Years After Katyn Massacre
In April 1940, when Soviet secret police took Polish officers, professors, priests, doctors and writers and shot them, leaving some 22,000 from the top level of society in mass graves, they blighted Poland's history and its immediate future.
The massacre has been a thorn in Polish-Soviet relations for decades.
For 50 years, the Soviets attempted to cover up the crime, blaming it on the Nazis, and the authorities in Moscow did not accept responsibility until 1990, when President Mikhail Gorbachev said the Soviet Union carried out the killings.
On Wednesday, April 7, 2010, Prime Minister Putin stood shoulder to shoulder with Polish PM Donald Tusk and became the first Russian or Soviet leader to attend a memorial for the massacre.
Putin said, "We bow our heads to those who bravely met death here," and admitted that the Katyn victims were "burnt in the fire of the Stalinist repression."
Tusk said to the Russian PM, "Prime Minister Putin, the eye sockets of those killed here by a shot to the back of the head are looking at us today and waiting to see whether we are ready to turn this lie into reconciliation."
President Kaczynski, whose policies often clashed with Russian officials, was not invited to participate. Instead, he was leading a separate memorial on Saturday to mark the 70th anniversary.
But unlike Tusk's visit, which had a lot of coverage in Russian media, Kaczynski's plans to attend Saturday's commemoration were all but unmentioned. A few weeks ago, the Russian foreign ministry publicly griped that Kaczynski had not sent official word of his planned visit. The ministry had heard of his arrival from press reports, officials said.
The two PMs were both eager to make sure the tragedy does nothing to extend decades of animosity between their nations.
Tusk said condolences were pouring in from around the world but noted that "the first came from Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and President Dmitry Medvedev."
In spite of widespread grief on Polish streets after Saturday's disaster, few predict a national breakdown after 20 years of Democratic rule.
Journalist Says Polish-Soviet Ties Could Improve After Recent Tragedy
"Poland has strong institutions," says Jerzy Pomianowski, a prominent expert on Polish politics and Russo-Polish relations. "It is the most resilient country in Europe's post-communist sphere."
In an ironic twist, Polish journalist Kurczab-Redlich says that the tragic loss of Kaczynski, seen as a Polish nationalist, is likely to improve the country's political prospects with Russia.
"The value of this tragedy is that both sides will recognize this moment as an opportunity to move ahead. It's a great opportunity for both Russia and Poland to go beyond the rapprochement that existed yesterday,". Kurczab-Redlich said in a telephone interview from Warsaw. "And the outpouring of sympathy from Russians about what happened is sincere and may actually help."
Dragana Jovanovic is an ABC News reporter living in Belgrade, Serbia. Since 1992, she covered the breakup of former Yugoslavia, the war in Chechnia, and other current events in Central and Easter Europe for ABC News. She grew up in Poland and Soviet Union during the Communist era.