Roman Catholic leaders in Poland have welcomed a "Letter to Poles" from Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin that was published to coincide with 1 September commemorations of the outbreak of the Second World War.
"This is an extremely important step towards overcoming our past and building mutual closeness," said Archbishop Henryk Muszynski, who takes over as Poland’s Roman Catholic primate in December.
Putin in his letter said the "immorality" of the Nazi-Soviet non-aggression pact which preceded the twin invasions had been condemned by his country’s State Duma in 1989, and should be deplored, in what were seen as ground-breaking remarks.
However, the Russian prime minister noted that Poland, Hungary and other countries also took part "in the territorial repartition of Europe" including over disputed territory in Czechoslovakia before the Second World War.
Putin published his letter one day before joining Polish and German leaders to mark the 70th anniversary of the German attack which sparked the war. The German attack was followed on 17 September 1939 by the Soviet Union invading of Poland from the east.
"The Russian prime minister is trying to understand Polish sensitivities," Archbishop Muszynski said. "We won the war together, and now it’s time to win the battle of memories together. This is very difficult when, for 70 years, one-sided conceptions have been formed on both sides."
Polish politicians and historians have frequently accused Russia of showing a lack of regret for mass deportations and executions that followed the occupation of their country by the Soviet army, and for the later decades of communist oppression.
Another Catholic archbishop said he was also pleased with "many formulations" in Putin’s letter, saying he believes closer ties are now possible between Polish and Russian church leaders, similar to the breakthrough which followed a conciliatory letter by Poland’s bishops to their German counterparts in 1965.
"It was much easier to condemn the terrible work of Nazis during the Second World War – Polish-Russian ties have been shaped by a long history of wounds," Archbishop Jozef Zycinski was quoted as saying by KAI, a Catholic news agency in Poland.
Zycinski said he believed that the rapprochement achieved through Polish-German church relations, "is also possible in co-operation between the Catholic Church in Poland and the Orthodox church in Russia".