KATYN, Russia -- Polish President Lech Walesa led more than 1,000 Poles to a quiet pine forest yesterday, where they dedicated a memorial to the legions of Polish officers who were murdered in Katyn in 1940 by the Soviet secret police.
Visiting a country that has been reluctant to deal with its violent past, the Poles spoke forcefully and directly about such things as guilt, truth and responsibility.
"These victims even now are helping us to know the difference between what is good and what is bad," said Mr. Walesa.
But Boris N. Yeltsin, the president of Russia, refused to attend the service. In a letter he sent to Mr. Walesa last week, he complained that there were groups in Poland trying to stir up bad feelings between the two countries. He may have been irritated that Mr. Walesa had turned down an invitation to come to Moscow to help celebrate the 50th anniversary of V-E day last month.
Mr. Yeltsin did send Sergei Filatov, the head of his administrative staff and the liberal figurehead in the
Kremlin, to take his place yesterday. Mr. Filatov pointed out that far more Soviet citizens had died at the hands of Stalin's dreaded secret police than had Poles.
Until 1990, Moscow had insisted that the 15,000 Polish officers who were executed at Katyn, in western Russia, and two other places had been killed by the Nazis in 1941. It was a lie, but it was not open to dispute.
"It was prohibited even to talk about it; you could go to jail for it," said Waclaw Grigielevich, 75, resplendent in a 1940 Polish uniform, complete with spurs, sword, and an officer's hat squared off like a college mortarboard. Fourteen of his friends and relatives from the small town of Szczuczyn, in eastern
Poland, were killed in the forest.
"We had no doubt that the Russians did it," he said. "It was our dream that the time would come when we would have the opportunity to come here, to lay some flowers, to build a memorial."
"People could not even cry over the victims," said Mr. Walesa. "There was no place for the truth."
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On the Russian side, of course, the lie was equally enforced. Nina Ilyichina, 63, was born in Katyn and still lives here. Her uncle was a guard at the camp in the forest.
It was only in the late 1980s, just before he died, that he told her at least some of the truth about what went on. The Poles were brought in on trucks, 100 or 200 at a time, he had said. When they had been "cleared out," a new shipment was brought in.
This went on for two months. The victims, most shot in the back of the head, were buried in large pits.
Galina Ivanova, 50, who lives in nearby Smolensk, said she can never walk by an old man on the street without wondering if he was one of the executioners at Katyn.
"When we first heard about it," said Nadya Melnichuk, 20, "it was horrible -- horrible to think of the Russians who could do this, and of the system that could do this."
But it is the Poles who have taken the initiative and pressed Moscow for the creation of an official government memorial to the victims of Stalinist murder -- a Polish memorial to Polish victims, erected in the forest near Smolensk.
Yesterday's three-hour ceremony was held in a small clearing in the pine forest, in temperatures that reached into the high 80s. While members of the Polish Army honor guard were collapsing one by one in the heat, Cardinal Jozef Glemp, the Roman Catholic primate of Poland, led a solemn Mass.
Beside him were arrayed a handful of Polish bishops, their bright red garments looking strikingly foreign in the depths of a Russian forest.
Smoke from hundreds of votive candles helped to keep the mosqui
toes at bay.
Cardinal Glemp was followed by Archimandrate Kyrill Panteleymon, of the Russian Orthodox Church, who said that Russians today are building a new nation and that it is thanks to the Poles, who first brought down communism, that they can do so.
He called the stone that he laid in the forest "a sign of love." The stone, decorated with a simple cross, will be part of a larger memorial erected by Poland.
Mr. Walesa, who as the leader of the Solidarity trade union mounted the first successful challenge to the communist system in Eastern Europe, said Russians and Poles share a joint legacy of suffering, a legacy that brings them together.
He said telling the truth about the Soviet massacre was a step toward reconciling Russia and Poland. But Poles here yesterday couldn't help noting the absence of Mr. Yeltsin.
"I'm very unhappy," said Katarzyna Piskorska, whose father -- a major in the army reserves, a lawyer and one of the founders of the Polish Boy Scouts -- was murdered here. "I'm very angry that he's never sent a letter of apology."
She tugged at the red-and-white Polish sash she was wearing across her black suit, set off by a black beret. "I can't understand," she said, "why contacts between these friendly peoples need to be so complicated."