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Soviets and Poles agree to take unblinkered look at their history

By Eric BourneSpecial to The Christian Science Monitor / May 29, 1987



Warsaw

Soviet and Polish historians are about to open long-secret files on what Mikhail Gorbachev and Gen. Wojciech Jaruzelski recently termed ``white gaps'' in the history of the often-troubled relations between the two countries. ``It will be the first time anything like this has happened,'' a senior foreign affairs official said. The historians are expected to work together in both capitals, he said.

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Academics here welcome the plan - guardedly: Many lost their jobs for courageously demanding that they be allowed to treat history ``as it was,'' without ignoring its dark moments.

The ``white gaps,'' or half-truths and outright omissions, in the Soviet rendering of its relations with Poland include:

The August 1939 pact between Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov and German Foreign Minister Joachim von Ribbentrop. Attached to the pact was a secret protocol about German and Soviet interests in Eastern Europe, making the concept of an independent Poland subject to their future decision. For almost 40 years, the inside story of pact and protocol has been a ``no go'' area for debate here.

The Sept. 17, 1939, entrance of Soviet forces, following Adolf Hitler's Sept. 1 blitzkrieg from the west, and the prolonged joint-occupation partition of Poland that followed.

The massive deportations of Poles - including the Jaruzelski family - that came a few weeks later.

The wartime fate of some 10,000 Polish Army personnel, whose bodies were found in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk in western Russia in April 1943. Germany and the Soviet Union accused each other of being responsible for the killings. There was considerable controversy at the time, but paranoic Soviet secrecy then and ever since World War II, as much as any evidence, convinced Poles at large that the Soviets were guilty.

The Soviet role during the Warsaw uprising in the summer of 1944, when the advancing Russians halted in the city's eastern approaches and made no move to aid the beleaguered insurgents. (There were political animosities at the time between the Polish government-in-exile in London and resistance forces in Poland. But no single act by Joseph Stalin in relation to Poland did more to fuel lasting antipathies than this ``betrayal,'' as most Poles still call it.)

Mr. Gorbachev and General Jaruzelski agreed to a truthful and ``thorough'' examination of their bilateral history when they met in Moscow last month. ``Judgment must be passed,'' their joint declaration said, on issues that had ``damaged friendship.'' It seems at least a tacit Soviet admission that the record calls for correction.

For years Polish academics, backed by their students, have demanded such action - in vain. Many Polish Communists privately agreed with the demands, but had no option but to remain silent.

``Our tutors,'' a former Warsaw University student recalls, ``had to teach as though certain things never happened. We still, for example, do not know everything about Sept. 17, 1939.''

From Jaruzelski down, senior officials profess confidence in Gorbachev's sincerity and believe the new Soviet thinking goes well beyond military issues with the United States. The promised ``restructuring'' of Soviet life, they say, means not only more radical domestic de-Stalinization than Nikita Khrushchev's, but openness about the Soviet Union's external behavior with the Poles in the Stalin years as well.

For ordinary Poles, the first reflection of Gorbachev's policy of openness (known as glasnost) came with the unprecedented, immediate, and dramatic coverage the news media gave the crash of a Polish airliner outside Warsaw on May 9.

Although Jaruzelski is clearly Gorbachev's most committed supporter in Eastern Europe, popular feeling about the permanence or ultimate depth of Kremlin policy changes remains reserved. ``We wish Gorbachev well,'' says a Communist Party member and former member of the now-banned Solidarity trade union, ``but we will wait to see how far he can go.''

Today, many Poles are more concerned with immediate human problems than with the past.

``Glasnost,'' says a friend, ``must apply to people as well as to history. For example, so that Poles might keep up family links in the Ukraine [in areas that Poland ceded to the Soviet Union in postwar frontier adjustments].

``Only when a Pole can visit Lvov as easily as a West German can visit his birthplace in western [prewar German] Poland can we talk about friendship between ordinary Russians and Poles.

``Right now we have only official friendship - between parties, governments, and establishments. Gorbachev should let people come into it.''