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06.07.10

The Kremlin's Amazing PR Turnaround

The Daily Beast has learned exclusively that Russia’s most prestigious award will go to Polish director Andrzej Wajda—whose film about the Katyn massacre was originally banned from Russian cinemas.

After Monday’s arrests of four Russian soldiers accused of looting the Polish president’s plane crash site near Smolensk, one would think that the strenuous charm offensive the Russian leadership had mounted earlier to placate mourning Poland was all for naught. In reality, though, this complication may be very temporary; in four days, Moscow is set to launch its boldest—or most desperate, if you will—empathy initiative yet.

On June 12, Russia Day, the Kremlin will announce the country’s most prestigious award, the so-called State Prize of the Russian Federation for Distinguished Humanitarian Contribution. The Daily Beast has learned through an exclusive source that this year’s winner will be Polish film director Andrzej Wajda.

The Kremlin’s response to the crash formed an exceedingly rare instance of grace and tact in Russian foreign policy; looters or no looters, handing the State Prize to Wajda will seal this narrative airtight.

Established in 2005, the award is a Russian version of the Nobel Peace Prize; it comes with a purse of roughly $200,000, and previous recipients include Alexander Solzhenitsyn and Jacques Chirac. Giving it to the 84-year-old Wajda is a move as gallant as it is shocking. Just three years ago, the director’s World War II film Katyn—based on the story of the very massacre the Polish leadership was flying to Smolensk to commemorate in April—was banned from Russian cinemas. Its portrayal of Soviet villainy was deemed too much for domestic consumption.

The weekend after the crash, Russia’s state-controlled TV finally broadcast the film, a well-considered act that got noticed in Poland and elsewhere. But bestowing one of Russia’s biggest honors on Wajda goes far beyond acceptance. It essentially uses the award as a backchannel to decisively endorse the Polish version of the Katyn events. (If there’s such thing as cynical magnanimity, this reversal is it.) It also shows, beyond any doubt, that Moscow is genuinely spooked by the tragedy of April 10 and will do just about anything to prevent it from defining the next century of Russian-Polish relations.

The Kremlin’s response to the crash formed an exceedingly rare instance of grace and tact in Russian foreign policy; looters or no looters, handing the State Prize to Wajda will seal this narrative airtight.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that June 12 was Constitution Day. It is, in fact, Russia Day.

Michael Idov is a contributing editor at New York magazine and has covered Russia for The New Republic. His debut novel, Ground Up, has just been released.