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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Putin Expresses His Shame for Russia

APPresident Putin placing a candle on a memorial during a ceremony commemorating the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz concentration camp on Thursday.
KRAKOW, Poland -- As world leaders and death camp survivors mourned victims of the Holocaust on the 60th anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz death camp, President Vladimir Putin acknowledged Thursday that anti-Semitism and xenophobia had surfaced in Russia, tackling an issue that the Kremlin had long failed to confront directly.

Putin also signaled that Moscow would not revise its view that the Soviet Union was solely a victim of World War II -- refusing to accept arguments that it, too, held some responsibility for the conflict, due to the signing of a secret Soviet-Nazi pact that divided up Eastern Europe.

"Even in our country, in Russia, which did more than any to combat fascism, for the victory over fascism, which did most to save the Jewish people, even in our country we sometimes unfortunately see manifestations of this problem and I, too, am ashamed of that," Putin said at a forum near Krakow, to long applause.

Russian Jews earlier had expressed hope that Putin would use the occasion to address the issue of anti-Semitism. Earlier this month, 19 Communist and Rodina deputies from the State Duma called for an investigation aimed at outlawing all Jewish organizations and punishing officials who support them, accusing Jews of fomenting ethnic hatred and saying they provoke anti-Semitism.

The Foreign Ministry and the prosecutor general have condemned the letter, but the Kremlin had yet to react. Isaak Sloutzker, a 77-year-old Russian Jew who traveled to Poland from Novgorod to attend the commemorations, said: "I'd like to hear a condemnation of xenophobia by the Russian president."

Putin joined other world leaders and other dignitaries later Thursday at the commemoration of the liberation of the death camp in Brzezinka, part of the Auschwitz complex where some 1.5 million people, most of them Jews from across Europe, perished.

The camp was liberated by Soviet troops, and Putin paid tribute to the 600,000 Soviet soldiers who died fighting Nazi troops in Poland.

Putin used his speech at the ceremony to respond to calls by leaders in the Baltic states for Moscow to renounce the secret addendum to the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact, known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, which Nazi and Soviet leaders concluded in 1939 to divide up much of Eastern Europe, including Poland, in case war broke out.

Shortly after German troops entered Poland in September 1939, Soviet troops occupied the country's east. Soviet forces then occupied the Baltic States of Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia in June 1940 but were driven out by the Germans a year later. The Red Army retook the Baltics in 1944, and reincorporated them into the Soviet Union. The Baltic states gained independence only after the 1991 breakup of the Soviet Union.

If Russia were to renounce the secret pact, it would tacitly be acknowledging some responsibility for World War II -- a stance seen as sacrilege in a country that lost some 27 million people during the conflict.

"Standing on this tormented soil, we should firmly and unequivocally say that any attempts to rewrite history and put victims and their killers, liberators and occupiers on an equal footing are immoral and unacceptable for those people who consider themselves Europeans," Putin said, referring to the Baltic states' recent entry into the European Union.

The ceremony began with the recorded rumble of a train at the place where new arrivals stumbled out of cattle cars and were met by Nazi doctors who chose a few to be worked to death, and had the rest sent immediately to the gas chambers. Those not gassed died of starvation, exhaustion, beatings by guards and disease.

At nightfall, the ceremony ended with a recorded train whistle sounding over loudspeakers. Fire was lit atop the rails, creating two burning lines in the darkness. The leaders, including presidents Putin, Aleksander Kwasniewski of Poland and France's Jacques Chirac, filed out placing candles, shielded in blue lanterns against the freezing wind, on a low stone memorial.

At the forum earlier, participants applauded several surviving Soviet liberators and saw a video message from Major Anatoly Shapiro, who commanded the Soviet unit that captured Auschwitz.

"I would like to say to all the people on the earth: Unite, and do not permit this evil that was committed," said Shapiro, 92, who lives in New York and was too ill to travel. "This should never be repeated, ever."

Jockel Finck / AP

German President Horst Koehler carrying a candle Thursday as Britain's Prince Edward, Chirac, Putin and Kwasniewski look on.

Kwasniewski awarded medals to three Red Army veterans who helped liberate Auschwitz, Yakov Vinnichenko, Genri Koptev-Gomolov and Nikolai Chertkov.

New Ukrainian President Viktor Yushchenko, greeted with a standing ovation when he entered the hall, said he brought his children to the occasion and spoke of his father, a wounded Soviet prisoner of war who survived imprisonment in Auschwitz. "This is a sacred place for me and my family. This is a place where Andrei Yushchenko, my father, suffered," he said. "There will never be a Jewish question in my country, I vow that."

In Moscow, Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov echoed Putin's remarks that ethnic and religious hatred must be combated. "We must do everything to eradicate anti-Semitism, xenophobia of all kinds, racial discrimination and chauvinism," Lavrov said.

The Communist Party, however, stopped short of criticizing its deputies who signed the letter to ban Jewish organizations, saying it was a personal decision and did not reflect the party line.

Ivan Melnikov, deputy head of the party's central committee, said Communist deputies are "sufficiently" loyal to the party "but are not, after all, a United Russia and able to have all our deputies' positions coincide on all issues."

The letter's 19 signatories included senior Communist members Vladimir Kashin, a deputy head of the party's central committee, and General Albert Makashov, a reputed anti-Semite.

Rodina leader Dmitry Rogozin said the faction's leadership will consider what measures, if any, to take against its deputies on Friday, Interfax reported.