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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

Polish Leader Offers an Olive Branch

ReutersKaczynski and his wife, second left, talking to relatives of officers buried in Katyn during a visit to the site Monday.
KATYN, Smolensk Region -- Polish President Lech Kaczynski signaled on Monday that he wanted a fresh start in Warsaw's strained relations with Moscow when he visited the Russian forest where thousands of Polish officers were executed in 1940.

Kaczynski, dressed in black, laid a wreath at the site of the World War II massacre in Katyn, 20 kilometers from Smolensk, and said Poland and Russia should not dwell on past grievances.

"We have a democratic Poland and we have a new Russia -- there is no more Soviet Union, no more communist totalitarianism," the Polish president said.

The massacres at Katyn and two other sites -- in which 15,000 Polish officers were shot and thrown into pits -- are regarded by most Poles as symbols of the repression their country suffered during decades of Soviet control.

Since Kaczynski came to power two years ago, Warsaw has blocked European Union partnership talks with Moscow over a trade dispute, accused Russia of using energy as a political weapon and angered the Kremlin by offering to host elements of a U.S. missile defense shield.

On his first visit to Russia, Kaczynski said the Katyn executions were "an act of genocide," but he absolved modern-day Russia of any residual responsibility.

"Today we must commemorate [the victims], we must remember them -- and we shall remember them. Historical memory is extremely important -- both of good and of evil. But this does not mean that we intend only to live this memory," he said.

Kaczynski flew home after 1 1/2 hours at the Katyn memorial without holding any meetings with senior Russian officials.

Russia was represented by Smolensk officials and President Vladimir Putin's envoy to the Central Federal District, Georgy Poltavchenko, and a joint Russian-Polish honor guard took part in the wreath-laying ceremonies.

The visit took place on the anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland in 1939 after Hitler and Stalin partitioned the country in a short-lived pact.

Accompanied by his wife, Kaczynski stopped at a memorial to Soviet citizens also killed at Katyn.

He then walked silently around a memorial where the names of the Polish victims are engraved on metal plates.

He brought soil with him from another mass burial place for Polish soldiers in Ukraine, which had been blessed by Polish-born Pope John Paul II before his death in 2005.

Kaczynski scattered the earth on a burial mound at Katyn.

Warsaw has long pushed for Moscow to bring to account the perpetrators of the massacre. The Russians have refused to declassify many of the documents on the killings in government archives.