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MOSCOW (Reuters) - Russia on Friday directly blamed Josef Stalin for the 1940 massacre of 22,000 Polish officers at Katyn in a rare condemnation of the dictator, in a vote widely seen as an attempt by Moscow to improve ties with Poland.
Russia's lower house of parliament, the State Duma, voted in favor of a resolution saying documents in secret archives showed Stalin directly ordered the massacre, it said on its site duma.gov.ru. The resolution was backed by 342 of 450 members.
"Material, kept for many years in secret archives ... bears witness to the fact that the Katyn crime was carried out under Stalin's direct orders," the resolution said.
"The State Duma deputies extend a hand of friendship to the Polish people and hope this will mark a new era of relations between our countries," it added.
Russian rights campaigners have been alarmed by what they see as an attempt by some officials -- especially during Prime Minister Vladimir Putin's years as president from 2000-08 -- to play down Stalinist atrocities by focusing on his achievements.
While the original 1940 execution order signed by Stalin was declassified by Russia's first President Boris Yeltsin, Friday's resolution is one of the strongest official censures of the wartime leader since the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991.
"This is really a question of conscience, after so many years of negation and silence, to make a declaration that would close this chapter of our history," said Konstatin Kosachyov, head of the Duma committee on foreign affairs.
Poland welcomed the decision, which comes after the April plane crash of its President Lech Kaczynski in Russia.
Kaczynski, his wife and 94 officials were all killed en route to a ceremony commemorating the Katyn massacre near the city of Smolensk in western Russia.
Analysts viewed Friday's resolution as a bid to boost ties with Poland, with whom Moscow is remedying a rapprochement after decades of tension.
"If 10 years ago there were a lot of survivors, I mean from the side of those who participated in the repressions, now it's more like distant history," Nikolai Petrov, an analyst with the Moscow Carnegie Center, told Reuters.
"So to come forward with this now means to improve the image of the country at a very low political cost."
Poland's foreign ministry said it was an important step toward full reconciliation between the Polish and Russian nations.
"This gesture confirms that there is no way back from the road of a truth-based Polish-Russian dialogue," the ministry said in a statement, adding it hoped the decision would be followed by a rehabilitation of the Polish victims.
Poland's center-right government also expects Russian President Dmitry Medvedev to hand more declassified files of the Katyn massacre over to Warsaw during his visit on December 6. Medvedev handed some of the original files in April.
For nearly half a century, Moscow blamed Nazi Germany for killing the Polish officers.
It was not until 1990 that the last Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev, admitted Stalin's NKVD secret police, precursor to the KGB, was responsible -- but stopped short of directly accusing the dictator.
Virulent opposition to the resolution was voiced by Russia's Communist Party -- many of whose leaders still deny the NKVD's involvement in the massacre and admire Stalin for his role in leading Soviet troops to victory in World War Two.
"How can we apologize for the Katyn tragedy when it wasn't our fault," Communist Party member Viktor Ilyukhin said.
Rights group Memorial, which wages an often lonely battle to document Soviet-era repressions, hailed the move as a "serious step forward" but called for it to be followed by action.
Additional reporting by Gabriela Baczynska in Warsaw, writing by Alissa de Carbonnel, editing by Amie Ferris-Rotman and Myra MacDonald