THE statement by Jerzy Urban, the Polish government's spokesman, that the Soviets were responsible for the mass murder of some 4,000 captive Polish officers in the Katyn forest during World War II, not only contradicts Moscow's version - which pins the crime on the German armies - it also highlights an unintended outcome of recent official efforts to improve Soviet-Polish relations by clearing up some sources of mistrust and friction. In April 1987, Mikhail Gorbachev and Wojciech Jaruzelski agreed to set up a joint commission to address and clarify the ``blank spots'' - the taboo or falsified subjects in the common history of their two countries. Blank spots include such sensitive topics concerning past Soviet policies as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact of August 1939, which gave Hitler free reign to invade Poland; or the Red Army's inactivity during the Warsaw uprising in 1944, which let the Nazis crush the pro-Western resistance.
To most Poles the blank spots are a grating reminder that the imposition of communist rule was reinforced by the crude rewriting of history that whitewashed every Soviet action.
The creation of the commission was greeted with confidence in the party press of both countries, and was accompanied by vigorous steps to have the media propagandize the start of a new era.
For the Soviets, the move embodied Gorbachev's efforts to refashion intra-bloc relations on the basis of openness and equality. For the Polish regime, it was a welcome boost to its efforts to win public confidence by finally producing a truer version of relations with the big neighbor.
The work of the commission has not fulfilled these expectations, however. Instead of healing old wounds, it has produced further popular pressure on the Jaruzelski government and strained relations between Warsaw and Moscow.
In the eyes of Poles the commission is flawed by its membership (largely party and army historians), its manner of operation (behind closed doors with occasional communiqu'es), and its agenda. It did not propose to deal with Katyn, which is for most Poles the prime symbol of their subjugation to the USSR, the first step in Moscow's design to weaken and dominate Poland.
Rather than let the commission produce a set of ``grey spots'' (word-play on ``white spots,'' the Polish term for sensitive topics), the opposition, independent historians, and liberal party journalists have been pressing the government to open up Soviet-Polish relations to public discussion.
The most dramatic gesture was the open letter of February 1988 sent by leading Polish intellectuals to their Soviet counterparts, asking for a genuine breakthrough in relations between the two nations through a public dialogue that would, among other things, take up the Katyn matter. The two governments responded in unison. They denounced the letter as a misguided gesture by ``specialists in breaking down open doors.''
BUT mounting pressures in Poland were forcing the Jaruzelski regime to review its stance. In March, during a parliamentary debate on Poland's foreign policy, Ryczard Bender, an independent delegate and history professor at the autonomous Catholic University in Lublin, pleaded for a ``serious'' and ``truthful'' study of Katyn as prerequisite for improved Soviet-Polish relations.
The press was doing its share insofar as possible, given the censors. In April, for example, ``Konfrontacje,'' the monthly magazine of the pro-regime Patriotic Movement for National Rebirth (PRON) published on its front page a photo-montage of a grave monument with the word Katyn chiseled on the cross. It was an eloquent expression of what practically every Pole knows, namely, that the officers were executed in the spring of 1940 and not in late 1941 (when Nazi troops occupied the region), as Moscow would have it.
On the eve of Gorbachev's arrival for a state visit in July, there was a pointed nudge from the Polish Communist Party. Its Center for Public Opinion Studies released the results of a poll which revealed that 82 percent of the adult population knew about the ``crime,'' and 68.4 percent of high school students held the USSR responsible.
Despite such pointed reminders about the mood of the nation, Gorbachev chose not to address the issue. But he could not avoid it altogether, and continued his unsatisfactory dialog with Polish intellectuals at Warsaw's Royal Castle by publishing in November 1988 ``fuller'' answers to their questions. He conceded that ``many Poles are convinced that Katyn is a work of Stalin and Beria'' but went on to present an unchanged Soviet version, seeking to mollify Polish sensibilities with a description of how monuments to Polish and Soviet military prisoners ``executed there by the Fascists'' had been erected in Katyn to symbolize ``the common suffering ... of our two nations.''
Given the evolution of the Polish party's stance on this most sensitive blank spot, Jerzy Urban's recent statement that ``everything indicates the crime was committed by the Stalinist NKVD'' should come as no surprise. Nor is it surprising that in reporting Urban's press conference the Russian news agency TASS excised all references to Katyn.
Clearly, matters are at an impasse. The tacit agreement to disagree is an imperfect solution. Jaruselski's search for legitimacy as he negotiates for the survival of the Communist Party in a more democratic system requires that he press Moscow for the truth about Katyn to prove that reforms in Poland have an underpinning in intra-bloc relations.
The establishment of the joint commission has opened up a Pandora's box. The Soviet leadership and Soviet scholars must provide more forthright answers to Katyn and other ``delicate'' issues in Soviet-Polish relations if the memory of past wrong-doings is to be assuaged and the widespread suspicion about present-day Soviet intentions dispelled.
The degree to which Moscow faces up to these problems will indicate how it proposes to go about democratizing intra-bloc relations, as well as encouraging the formation of a more popular, broadly representative regime in Poland.