Remembering the Katyn Massacre and Stalinist crimes in Poland


In April and May of 1940, 22 000 Polish army officers and civilians were murdered by Stalin’s NKVD. This year marks the 81st anniversary of what for a long time has been one of the many forgotten crimes of Stalin’s oligarchy. Remembering the Katyn Massacre today defies decades of denialism and renewed attempts to obscure the truth. With each year of remembrance, space is given to a national trauma, the legacy of which lives on in Polish society today.

The Katyn Massacre was the mass execution of Polish prisoners by Stalin’s secret police, the NKVD. Nearly 22 000 Polish officers and intelligentsia were murdered between the months of April and May 1940. The officers were mainly prisoners of war from the Soviet invasion of September 1939. However, the prisoners also included recently captured Polish intelligentsia, deemed by the NKVD to be potential foreign spies and saboteurs. 

The massacre was targeted at the Polish civil and military elite. The murdered army officers were representative of the multi-ethnic and multi-faith Poland at the time. Among those executed was the chief Rabbi of the Polish army, as well as other religious leaders. Officers included Catholics, Orthodox Christians, Polish Jews, Ukrainians and Belorussians. It was a prelude to what was to come. The multicultural soul of Poland would be destroyed first by the Nazis in the lead up and during the Holocaust and then, after the war ended, by the Soviet Union through Stalin’s programme of mass deportation. 

In 1943 the German army discovered the first mass graves of Polish officers in Katyn Forest. The massacre is named after Katyn though the killings took place in a number of different locations in Western Russia. For decades the Soviet Union denied perpetrating the massacre, instead placing the blame on Nazi Germany. 

In communist Poland the topic was also taboo. The officially-accepted version was the ‘Katyn lie’ propagated by the Soviets: the massacre was committed by the Nazis in 1941. This version went unchallenged until Gorbachev’s glasnost allowed for independent research into the topic. It was only in 1990 that the USSR officially acknowledged its responsibility for the massacre. That same year Boris Yeltsin handed over to then Polish president, Lech Wałęsa, the execution order signed by Stalin himself. 

The importance of Soviet acknowledgement of the Katyn Massacre cannot be understated. In Poland it was ultimately a small but crucial victory for the families of those killed. For decades they had fought for the recognition of truth, so that remembrance could be validated. In Russia the Katyn revelation came at a time when an unprecedented level of information about the Soviet regimes was being revealed to Soviet citizens. The countless admittances of crimes, corruption and wrongdoing from Soviet leaders contributed to a general loss of faith in the Union among the Soviet people, which preceded its eventual collapse. Ion an international level, glasnost and the overdue recognition of the Katyn Massacre as a Soviet crime sparked renewed research into Stalinist atrocities. But truth’s victory would be short-lived as today a growing number of voices in Russia seek to obscure the facts of history once more.

The Katyn Massacre casts long shadows over Polish-Russian relations today. Though Russian officials have joined their Polish counterparts in commemoration, and in 2010 the Russian Duma passed a resolution condemning Stalin, the issue remains a point of contention. Russian politicians, including those close to the Kremlin, continue to diminish the executions and try to shift blame by drawing false equivalences between the Katyn Massacre and the persecution of Russian POWs in the Polish-Soviet War (1919-1921). During a visit to Warsaw in 2010, then President Medvedev infamously made this move.

Between 16 000 and 20 000 Soviet POWs died in Polish camps from infectious diseases, including influenza which was ravaging Europe at the time. Though this remains a tragic fact of the war, drawing an equivalence between this and the Katyn Massacre obscures the fact that Katyn was deliberate mass murder aimed at destroying Poland’s military and civil elite.

Successive Polish governments and citizens have campaigned for Russia to acknowledge Katyn as an act of genocide and to release all classified documents. Although a number of important documents have been declassified and released to the public, many still remain hidden or lost in the archives. A 2005 Russian investigation into the Katyn Massacre refused to acknowledge it as a genocide.

The notion of untainted Soviet heroism during the Second World War has become a key part of socio-political discourse in Russia, which looks back proudly on this aspect of a Soviet legacy otherwise marred by terror and oligarchy. It is in this context that we should understand Russia’s reluctance to be transparent about Stalin’s role in the horrors of Katyn.

Meanwhile, to Poles Katyn is but a part of the unsung national struggle against Soviet aggression, which in the Second World War culminated in the ethnic cleansing of their people, committed in tandem with Nazi Germany. Following the 1939 Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, the Soviets invaded Poland from the East on 17 September (Germany had invaded on the 1st, triggering the Second World War). After invading, the Soviets deported Poles to Eastern territories of the USSR, mainly Siberia and Kazakhstan. Roughly a million Poles were deported between 1940 and 1941, many of whom perished. According to the Polish Institute of National Remembrance 150 000 Polish citizens died under the Soviet occupation of Poland.

Soviet aggression towards Poland would continue for decades after. Following the Yalta Conference of 1945, Poland effectively fell under the Soviet sphere of influence. The country’s borders were redrawn so that Poland lost its Eastern territories in exchange for former German territories to its West. To make the country ethnically homogenous, Stalin deported millions of people. Poles from the Eastern half of the country were forced to resettle in the West, replacing the Germans who had been deported to what now remained of Germany. Minorities in the East of Poland, such as Ukrainians, Belorussians, Lithuanians, were deported to the Soviet Union.

The majority of the Jewish population who had survived the Holocaust (90% perished during the genocide) left the country following the university strikes of March 1968, which demanded an end to state censorship. To crush the strikes, the Soviet puppet government decided to intensify its ongoing antisemitic campaign. The government labelled all protestors ‘Zionists’ and mobilised antisemitism among the proletariat to convince them to denounce the protests, which they did. It also had the effect of removing dissident students and professors of Jewish descent, including famous sociologist Zygmunt Bauman, from universities. Thousands of other Polish Jews, mostly intellectuals, were forced to emigrate due to government-led persecution.

The state’s antisemitic campaign had initially begun following the 1967 Six-Day War. The Eastern Bloc, including Poland, supported the Arab states but Polish society was initially favourable to Israel. In order to gain public support for its international policy, the government began discrediting and denouncing Polish Jews.

Katyn remains an important symbol of the Stalinist persecution of various sections of Polish society that began after the 1939 Soviet invasion. In the USSR, the revelation of the Katyn Massacre had marked a crucial moment in uncovering the extent of long-buried Stalinist crimes. Now, it has become a thorn in the side of revisionists and Stalin apologists. This is reflected in efforts by a worrying number of Russian politicians, journalists and academics to exonerate Soviet regimes of their crimes, including the Katyn Massacre. 

The threat of historical revisionism has been compounded by recent attempts from none other than Vladimir Putin to rewrite the history of the Second World War. In December 2019 he caused an uproar by suggesting that Poland carries the brunt of responsibility for the outbreak of the war, whilst omitting Stalin’s invasion of Poland altogether. 

Remembering the Katyn Massacre unites Poles from all political strands, and shutting down denialism is essential to moving forward. Today, Poland carries the signs and memories of trauma from the Nazi Holocaust and Soviet ethnic cleansing. Warsaw’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier testifies to this legacy, as do the memories of those who lived through the horrors of the war, or who carry the burden of intergenerational trauma.

Katyn was one of many war crimes committed against Polish citizens by their occupiers.The Second World War ultimately changed Poland from an independent state with a multicultural society into an ethnically homogenous state struggling under a puppet government. Up until that point, throughout the twentieth century, Poland’s policy of religious tolerance acted as a notable exception in a continent bent on persecuting Jews and other minorities. While the Catholicism that has come to define much of Polish affairs played an important role in national identity, so too did Judaism, Orthodox Christianity, Protestantism, and Islam. The composition of the victims of Katyn reflect the diversity that was crushed under both Nazi and Soviet rule. In our remembrance of this crime, we can both mourn what was attacked then, and look forward to rebuilding the Poland that is still possible.

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Article Image Source: Wikimedia Commons

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