The Russian and Polish Prime Ministers attended a memorial service yesterday to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre near the modern-day Russian city of Smolensk. Polish PM Donald Tusk accompanied Vladimir Putin to a memorial at the site where 4,500 Polish prisoners of war were killed by Soviet security forces during World War II. Putin admitted the Soviets told cynical lies for 50 years about what happened at Katyn while Tusk urged Putin to ensure all Soviet-era archives related to the massacre are open to researchers. It was the first time leaders of both countries attended the service. (photo: Reuters)
The massacre remains a deeply troubling event for Polish-Russian relations. In 1940 Poland had temporarily ceased to exist (not for the first time) as the Nazis and the Soviets carved it up under the terms of their Non-Aggression Pact. The NKVD interned about 125,000 Polish prisoners of which 40,000 were still in their hands in early 1940 and these were held at various camps across the west of the Soviet Union. The internees underwent a lengthy interrogation to weed out those who had no Communist sympathies.
On 5 March 1940 Stalin’s head of the NKVD secret police (which would eventually become the KGB after Stalin’s death) Lavrentiy Beria wrote a letter to his boss. The letter stated a large number of former officers of the Polish Army, Police, political groups and intelligence services were held in NKVD prisoner-of-war camps in Ukraine and Belarus. They were all, he wrote, “sworn enemies of Soviet authority full of hatred for the Soviet system.” Beria accused them of counter-revolutionary activities and “anti-Soviet agitation”. He urged 25,000 of them be tried before special tribunals and be applied the “supreme penalty: shooting”.
Stalin was one of six other Politburo leaders who signed off on Beria’s letter. The 25,000 on Beria’s list were deemed enemies of the state. Stalin knew exactly what he was doing. If Poland ever became independent again, its leaders would not forgive the Soviets for their treachery in attacking in unison with the Nazis. The obvious solution in his eyes was to eliminate those leaders. The three main camps where they were held were Kolezsk, Starobielsk and Ostashtov. Kolezsk camp housed about 5,000 Polish military officers and was close to Katyn Forest, about 20km from the city of Smolensk. Between April and May 1940, the NKVD transferred about 4,500 prisoners to the forest to be executed one by one, all under the cover of darkness. Similar numbers died at the two other camps and more still died in Belarus and Ukraine. The final death toll was in excess of 22,000.
What made Katyn special was that it was found out. Polish workers found mass graves there as early as 1942 but no one would believe their claims. The official Russian story (now that they had switched sides after the German Barbarossa invasion) was that Polish officers were released in the east and went missing in Manchuria. In April 1943, retreating Wehrmacht soldiers found a mass grave at Katyn and Goebbels used it as a propaganda weapon to sow discord between the USSR and Poland. It very nearly worked with Free Polish leader General Sikorski threatening to break off the alliance. His unexplained death two months later proved very convenient for Stalin.
When the Russians re-took Katyn they destroyed the cemetery Polish Red Cross had put in place. They held a commission which whitewashed the incident and blamed the Nazies. With bigger fish to fry, the Western Alliance overlooked the matter and resisted internal pressure to investigate the matter further. The Russians tried to include it as a German war crime in the Nuremburg trials but had to drop it due to lack of evidence. In Communist Poland it was dangerous to mention Katyn, but that very danger meant the memory remained cherished through the years. As the Warsaw Pact collapsed in 1989, Russian scholars admitted the truth about Katyn and a year later President Gorbachev finally publicly stated the NKVD had executed the Poles, and confirmed there were two other burial sites similar to the one at Katyn.
In his speech yesterday at Katyn, Putin firmly put the blame on the Soviet Union’s totalitarian regime. This is part of Putin’s agenda to placate the Poles. Last August Putin praised Polish soldiers and citizens for their bravery in resisting the Nazis at an anniversary ceremony in Poland observing the start of World War II. Russia has also invited Poland to take part in the WWII Victory Day parade on Red Square this year for the first time. And last week, a Kremlin-run television channel showed “Katyn,” an Oscar-nominated film by the Polish director Andrzej Wajda which had screened only a few times in Russia. With Poland encouraging the US to host its missile shield, it is likely all be part of a grand Faustian bargain. But for now we may enjoy a rare Putin truth while it lasts.
UPDATE Saturday, 10 April.
The anniversary ceremony has been completely overshadowed by the shocking plane crash which killed the Polish president and many of the country's elite on the way to Katyn.