MOSCOW (AFP) – Russia's parliament on Friday declared Stalin responsible for ordering the Katyn massacre of Polish officers in World War II, a crime Moscow spent decades blaming on the Nazis to the fury of Poland.
The resolution came amid reports that President Dmitry Medvedev intended to launch a major new "de-Stalinisation" drive that reminded Russians of the Soviet dictator's crimes and declassified once-secret information.
The resolution of the State Duma lower house of parliament broke more than half a century of official reluctance to admit that the Soviet leadership under Joseph Stalin ordered the killing of thousands of Polish officers in 1940.
The document conceded that history could no longer be ignored and that it was time to lay waste to the myths spread by "official Soviet propaganda".
"Materials that for many years have been kept in secret archives and have now been published not only show the extent of this terrible tragedy but show that that Katyn crime was carried out on the direct orders of Stalin and other Soviet leaders," the declaration said.
The statement was agreed at an unusually stormy two-hour session that featured virulent opposition from the minority Communist Party -- whose leaders still say the massacre could have been committed by the Nazis.
"I do not understand how we can make conclusions ... based on German evidence and (Joseph) Goebbels's claims," said a furious top Communist Party official, Viktor Ilyukhin.
But pro-Kremlin lawmakers hailed the "historic" outcome and Polish officials welcomed the vote as a vital first step in advance of the Russian leader's bridge-building visit to Warsaw next month.
"This is an important political step," said Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk.
"But the Polish government can't hide the fact that we are waiting for this gesture to be followed by more forthright (Russian) government steps," he was quoted as saying by Poland's news agency PAP.
President Bronislaw Komorowski, a close Tusk ally, echoed his premier's remarks.
"I consider this to be a positive signal sent by Moscow shortly before the visit of Russia's President Dmitry Medvedev to Warsaw," on December 6, Komorowski told PAP.
"I hope this vote will serve as a milestone for the Russian state," he added.
Polish Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski hailed a "new step towards Polish-Russian reconciliation based on truth".
"I hope this political gesture will have legal consequences and allow light to be shed on all the cogs of this crime," he added.
Poland's opposition icon Lech Walesa said his country "should welcome the fact that, little by little, these painful, difficult issues between Poland and Russia are being sorted out".
"It's moving forward slowly, but it's moving forward," Poland's PAP news agency quoted the country's first post-Soviet leader as saying.
About 22,000 Polish officers were executed by the NKVD secret police around the Katyn forest of western Russia one year after Soviet troops invaded Poland under a secret pact with Germany.
The Soviet Union initially blamed the massacre on the Nazis and Moscow's guilt was only admitted by Mikhail Gorbachev just before the Soviet Union collapsed in 1990.
The crime was rarely again acknowledged in public until April 10 when a plane carrying Polish president Lech Kaczynski and a Polish official delegation, who were on their way to a memorial ceremony at Katyn, crashed and killed all on board. The tragedy brought a new rapprochement in Warsaw-Moscow ties.
Kaczynski's twin Jaroslaw Kaczynski, a former prime minister and leader of Poland's conservative opposition known for mistrusting Russia, gave a cautious welcome.
"It's a question of drawing the final conclusions, recognising guilt, asking for forgiveness and paying reparations," he said.
Russia has since handed over 20 volumes of Katyn documents to Poland and officials said Medvedev would highlight the deadly role played by the NKVD when he launches a new drive to debunk the Soviet version of history next year.
"Will this project give an evaluation of specific organisations? Yes, I think so," the Kremlin's human rights envoy Yury Fedotov told Interfax.
Medvedev's campaign bears similarities to one launched in the 1950s by Soviet leader Nikita Khrushchev -- who not only denounced Stalin's cult of personality but even removed his body from Lenin's Mausoleum on Red Square.
News reports said that Medvedev would declassify all secret Soviet archives and the millions of case files compiled on regular civilians by the police.
But Katyn remains a particularly sensitive subject in Russia and the Duma took pains Friday to adopt language that also acknowledged the Soviet losses.
"Thousands of Soviet citizens destroyed by the Stalin regime in 1936-38 remain buried in the ditches of Katyn," said the Duma document.
"The technology of conducting mass murders was perfected on these people and then applied against the Polish servicemen at the same place," the statement added.