Katyn: An Unresolved Truth

By Sergei Tereshenkov

The Moscow District Military Court Ruled to End the Investigation of the "Katyn Case"

Although the Russian people have themselves suffered under the oppressive Soviet regime, the contemporary Russian leadership seems reluctant to condemn the crimes committed by its Soviet predecessor.

There is hardly a Polish family which had not been affected by the Katyn tragedy. In September of 1939, two and a half weeks after the Nazi troops invaded Polish territory, the Soviet army entered West Ukraine and Belarus under the pretext of protecting the people living there. Somewhere between a quarter and half a million Polish citizens were taken captive, including more than 14 thousand career officers, as well as lawyers, journalists, doctors, teachers, and other representatives of the intelligentsia.

The officers and their families were sent to three different concentration camps-Kozelsk, outside of Kaluga, Ostashkov, outside of Kalinin (now Tver), and Starobelsk in the Lugansk Region of Ukraine. In March of 1940, the wives and children of the interned were deported to Northern Kazakhstan and Siberia, and the People's Commissar of Domestic Affairs Lavrentiy Beria submitted his proposal for consideration by the Political Bureau: to execute, without trial, 14,736 officers (97 percent of them of Polish origin) and another 11,000 prisoners from Ukraine and Belarus who were listed in his memo as "hardened, incorrigible enemies of the Soviet regime." The proposal was approved unanimously, and in April of the same year the prisoners were taken to the execution site.

In the wide sense, the Katyn crime includes the firing-squad executions in the Katyn forest outside of Smolensk and in the Smolensk headquarters of the NKVD, where a total of over 4,000 officers were murdered, in Kalinin, and also in Kharkov, Kiev, Kherson and Minsk. According to a memo the KGB chief Alexander Shelepin prepared for the first secretary of the Soviet Union Communist Party's Central Committee Nikita Khrushchev in 1959, a total of 21,857 prisoners of war perished in this manner.

The lies about Katyn

For a long time, the Katyn tragedy was hushed up and used for propaganda purposes. In February of 1943, a German investigation of the mass burial sites began on the territory occupied by the fascists. The case was made public; the Polish Red Cross and 12 international experts were brought in to participate in the investigation.

Both committees confirmed the hypothesis that the murders were committed in April and May of 1940 by NKVD functionaries. However, the Nazis distorted these events in a manner that was very convenient for the Fuhrer, who pointed to a Jewish trace in these executions.

After the liberation of Smolensk in September of the same year, the Soviet government started actively searching for "proof" that the Third Reich had something to do with the Katyn execution. Fake documents and witnesses were prepared in advance, and the evidence incriminating the NKVD was destroyed. In January of 1944 a group of eminent Soviet personalities, headed by the Red Army's head surgeon Nikolai Burdenko, "moved" the date of the execution to August and September of 1941.

After the end of the war, during the hearings of the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, representatives of the Soviet Union intended to include a mention of the crime in the Katyn forest in Hermann Goering's sentence; one of the grounds for this was the witness testimony of a German officer named Arno Duhre, who had earlier "confessed" to participation in the executions. Nevertheless, this matter was not included in the final text of the verdict.

Later the subject of Katyn and the NKVD's accountability repeatedly surfaced in the West, while the countries of the Warsaw Pact officially recognized the theory that the crimes had been committed by the Nazis. The truth was partly revealed only at the inception of Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika. It became known that the majority of the documents, and in particular the individual files of the prisoners of war, were burned on Nikita Khrushchev's orders in 1959. However, the so-called Packet Number 1 was preserved in the Soviet archives. The Polish investigative authorities were given a chance to study it only in the 1990s.

Out with the skeleton

May of 1987 was marked by the creation of a Soviet-Polish Committee on the History of State-to-State Relations. The joint efforts resulted in corroboration of the NKVD's responsibility for the executions, and the First Secretary of the Polish United Workers' Party Wojciech Jaruzelski acknowledged the fact that the Soviet regime was responsible for the Katyn tragedy. A year later, the President of the Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, repeated Jaruzelski's words and gave him access to the NKVD's transportation records from Kozelsk, Ostashkov and Starobelsk.

In September of 1990, the Chief Military Prosecutor's Office of the Soviet Union launched Case Number 159 on the mass murders of Polish officers. At first the investigation, which was later carried on by the analogous agency of the Russian Federation, advanced rapidly. This offered hope that the truth about the executions would be made public, and encouraged a significant improvement in the relations between Poland and Russia. In 1992, President of Russia Boris Yeltsin handed the documents from Packet Number 1 to his Polish counterpart, Lech Walesa. A year later, Yeltsin kneeled in front of the memorial for Katyn officers at the Warsaw cemetery of Powazki; the memorial had been installed by the Polish authorities in 1985, and with the words "Forgive us!" publicly apologized for the executions.

Nevertheless, since 1994 the investigation of the case has been regularly delayed; and in 2004 the case was finally closed. Alexander Guryanov, the head of the Polish project of the "Memorial" International Society, believes that the principal decision on the conclusion of the investigation was made during Yeltsin's era: "In 1994, the prosecutor put in charge of the investigation group was a person who followed the orders of the prosecutor's office bosses. Nothing is known about the results of the investigation in 1994 through 2004. Apparently, it was 1994 when the investigation was actually stopped."

As the Chief Military Prosecutor Alexander Savenkov explained in March of 2005, this happened due to the death of the accused. At the same time, the Polish side's access to the materials was limited to 67 volumes of the 183; the rest of the documents were classified as "top secret" or "for official use only." Moreover, the prosecutor's office did not permit the relatives of the Katyn victims to qualify the case as genocide.

A state in denial

The 2000s continue the era of complicated relations between the contemporary Russian society and Soviet history, and the Katyn tragedy in particular. On the one hand, the topic of Katyn is openly discussed at the official level (thus, during his visit to Warsaw in 2002 President Vladimir Putin yet again promised to get to the bottom of the case of prisoner-of-war executions); a cemetery in Mednoye was opened in 2000, as was a restored memorial in Katyn, which, similarly to the Powazki memorial, had been dedicated to the "victims of fascism;" and the representatives of the victims' relatives, who had filed a lawsuit with the Moscow District Military Court, were given access to some materials that constitute a "state secret."

On the other hand, the prosecutor's office concluded the investigation, and, despite repeated appeals from human rights advocacy organizations, the office has no intention of reconsidering this decision. Thus, the demands of Director of the Katyn Memorial Complex Igor Grigoryev are still relevant: "It is necessary to recommence and to carry through the investigation of Case Number 159; to publicize the names of all the culprits, to declassify and make public all the investigation materials, to determine the names and burial locations for all executed Polish citizens, to recognize them as victims of political repressions and to rehabilitate them in accordance with Russia's law 'On rehabilitation of the victims of political repressions'."

This is where another stumbling block appears. "What we have is a change in the evaluation and opinion of the Soviet past, and, primarily, in the interpretation of Soviet political terror, which is now depicted as an inevitable and effective instrument of governing a country that needed to be modernized as soon as possible," Guryanov noted. "The authorities are trying to justify political repressions."

However, the distortion of the concept of crimes at the state level affects not just the authorities, but also the common citizens. For example, school textbooks portray Joseph Stalin as a "talented manager" who, just like any normal person, could not avoid making some lamentable mistakes. According to the results of a survey conducted by the Public Opinion Foundation in 2006, 64 percent of the respondents complained that the mass media was devoting too much attention to the topic; and 12 percent recognized that the convicted individuals were de facto, and not formally, guilty.

A paradoxical situation is developing: Russia is zealously protecting the Soviet Union and thus taking on the responsibility for the repressions, although Russians suffered from the authorities' arbitrary actions just as much as other peoples, and thus Russians cannot be condemned as a nation because the crimes were committed by the system. It is quite natural that the West does not always accept this thesis as the truth: it is much easier to accuse a specific nation than a more or less abstract regime. But the Russian persistence is beyond comprehension. It is this persistence that conceals the main problem that prevents the Russian authorities from bringing the investigation to a logical conclusion.

The Polish response

Until the end, the Polish side hoped for an objective verdict from the Russian courts; only in November of 2004 did they create their own committee to investigate the events in Katyn. The committee consists of representatives of the Polish prosecutor's office and the Institute of National Remembrance. According to the Institute's press secretary, Andrzej Arseniuk, the committee "collects witness testimony, and also searches for archive materials, not only on the territory of Poland, but also abroad. In the process of investigation we propose finding documents and other evidence that might be of crucial importance for the advancement of the case."

At the same time, the victims' relatives, despite the Moscow City Court and the Moscow District Military Court's refusal to satisfy their petitions, plan to appeal this decision in the Military Board of the Supreme Court of the Russian Federation. Also, the corresponding suit against Russia had been filed with and accepted by the Strasbourg Human Rights Court in 2006. At the same time, the Poles continue to collaborate with Russia's non-governmental organizations: for example, the "Katyn Families" society is closely tied to the Katyn Memorial Complex, and another Polish-Russian committee aimed at forming a common position on the Katyn crime started its operations in March of this year.

Despite having received mixed reviews, Polish Director Andrzej Wajda's film "Katyn" was an important step in bringing the issue back in the spotlightThe film "Katyn," shot by Polish director Andrzej Wajda in 2007, was an important step in highlighting this topic. The Katyn execution was a personal tragedy for the director: one of the men murdered in Kharkov was his father, Officer Jakub Wajda. According to the director, he "was trying to waive any help from the organizations, which might have been interested in the [unilateral interpretation] of the Katyn crime and shooting 'Katyn' at his own risk."

Perhaps that was why the reaction to the film in Poland and beyond was ambiguous: some unconditionally accepted or rejected the director's views while others accused Wajda of being too prejudiced. Yet others accused him of defaming the German occupation. "Some viewers declared that the film 'does not teach kindness'," Grigoryev said. "As the ancients used to say, by empathizing with other people's pain, we become purer and more humane. We believe that Wajda's film did not succeed in achieving this." Nevertheless, it seems that the director succeeded in attracting attention back to the issue.

Apart from the Katyn Memorial Complex, other public associations both in Poland and Russia participated in the popularization of the topic. Arseniuk mentioned that the Institute of National Remembrance had published "informational leaflets aimed primarily at the youth, telling about the Katyn crime, and organized meetings with teachers." Guryanov confirmed that the "Memorial" International Society "together with the Polish cultural center organized two public demonstrations of the film. For the screenings, 'Memorial' prepared an illustrated brochure with historical information, titled 'Katyn: a Chronicle of Events,' to be handed out to each viewer."

Pinpointing the culprit

In modern Russia there is a dangerous tendency to forget and misinterpret the historical past. This seems to be the main reason behind the closing of the "Katyn case." Moreover, while Russia's population has at least a minimal understanding of Stalin's repressions of the peoples of the Soviet Union, many people simply do not know about Katyn, or often confuse the name with that of the Belarusian village of Khatyn, which was burned to the ground, together with its residents, by German troops in 1943.

The shooing of the topic and, consequently, the self-identification of the renewed Russian society with the Soviet regime give rise to much speculation in the West. The latter often accuses not the totalitarian order but Russia as the legal successor of the Soviet Union, and even Russians as a nation. This is where Russia has a unique chance to liberate itself from the ghosts of the past, but doing so would require confronting the truth and bringing the Katyn investigation to a logical conclusion. And Russians don't seem too keen on the idea.

Yet some relatives of the murdered officers, including Wajda, keep hoping that Russia will someday arrive at a just view of the common history: "I think that my film was only the first one about Katyn. The next episode should be set in the Kremlin and in the NKVD quarters, and based on Stalin's conversations with Winston Churchill and Wladyslaw Sikorski. But this film would have to be shot by a Russian director," he said.



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