THE tragedy occurred 4 decades ago, and, by the standards of World War II, it wasn't particularly grisly: Some 4,500 people lost their lives. But to most Poles, the murder of Polish officers at the forest of Katyn near the Soviet city of Smolensk still represents front-page news.
Just last month, the ruling Polish communist government spokesman, Jerzy Urban, and the official weekly Odrodzenie admitted that the Soviet secret police, not the Nazis as previously claimed, were responsible.
The admission marked a dramatic effort by the ruling communists to fill in the most sensitive of the ``blank spots'' in Polish-Soviet affairs - and legitimize themselves to a skeptical Polish public. It represents part of a larger revolution which includes the dramatic relegalization last week of Solidarity. Only a few years ago, the regime had jailed leaders of the independent trade union. Similarly, it denied the truth about Katyn for four decades before making the recent shift.
``Katyn to Poles is what Auschwitz is to Jews, the ultimate all-important of the atrocities committed against our nation,'' says Krzysztof Sliwinski, leader of Solidarity's international department. ``It poisoned our attitudes toward the Soviet Union and our own rulers.''
Similar delicate historical issues are being raised throughout the East bloc. Hungary's liberal ruling communists recently reevaluated the 1956 revolt which was crushed by Soviet tanks. They concluded that the uprising was not, as previously maintained, a ``counterrevolution,'' but a ``popular uprising.''
By contrast, hard-line Czechoslovak and East German regimes refuse any reevaluation. Prague's rulers, put in power following the 1968 Soviet-led invasion, continue to justify the intervention as necessary to put down a ``bourgeois counterrevolution.'' East Berlin's hard-liners, who base their rule on Stalin's decision to install a communist regime on German soil, avoid joining any anti-Stalinist move.
``In this part of the world, history is not a simple search for the truth,'' notes Krysztina Kersten, a historian at the Academy of Sciences. ``It is a weapon in the fight for national identity.''
Katyn raises questions about the legitimacy of Poland's ruling communist regime. After Nazi troops uncovered the bodies in 1943, Stalin accused the Germans of executing the officers. But investigative teams sent by the Polish government-in-exile in London concluded that the officers had been killed by Soviet troops who had taken them prisoner in 1939.
The Polish government demanded an explanation. Stalin used the affair to sever ties with the London-based leaders and establish a new communist regime - from which today's Warsaw rulers draw their roots.
While Polish communists continued to insist on Nazi guilt, ordinary Poles kept alive the truth about Katyn, in homes, in churches, and cemeteries. During Solidarity's first legal period, a monument to Katyn's murdered was erected in Warsaw's main cemetery. Police removed it after declaring martial law in 1981.
``Katyn cuts to heart of the `Myth of the Beginning,''' comments historian Kersten. ``It's easy to criticize Stalin ... but much more difficult to suggest that the communist takeover here in Poland happened only after an unspeakable crime.''
Even in the age of glasnost (openness), concessions about Katyn proved hard to obtain. Two years ago, a joint Polish-Soviet commission was named to fill in the ``blank spots'' in the two countries' history, but the panel so far has not come up with concrete conclusions.
When Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev visited Warsaw last July and was asked about Katyn in a meeting with Polish intellectuals, he ignored the question. Polish officials involved with the historical commission blame the disarray of the Moscow archives for the delays. In addition, independent Polish investigators have encountered difficulties.
``I was in the Soviet Union in December and asked to visit the Katyn grave site,'' recalls Andrzej Stelmachowski, president of the Warsaw Catholic Intellectual Club. ``My Soviet guide contacted the police for permission, but the answer was `no.'''
The obstruction infuriates Poles.
``Everyone knows that the Soviets did it. The facts are not seriously in dispute. So why are they having such a hard time admitting it?'' asks Andrzej Drawicz, a Soviet specialist at the Jagellonian University in Krakow. ``Apparently, they're still not ready to revise their relations with the other peoples' democracies.''
Under public pressure, the Polish government decided to declare Soviet guilt.
``It's a fascinating example of how the Polish regime felt it could get out in front of Moscow on a hypersensitive issue,'' says one Western diplomat. ``They must feel they have a lot of room for maneuver.''
Mr. Gorbachev may have learned the lesson. Since the Polish move, he has mentioned Katyn for the first time to say that the issue must be ``studied.'' And in a meeting with Hungarian leader Karoly Grosz, the Soviet leader reportedly criticized both the 1956 Soviet invasion of Hungary and the 1968 invasion of Czechoslovakia.
These are important first steps which set the stage for a new healthier relationship between East Europeans and the Soviets, Poles say.