The Truth about Katyń

The Soviet Union will always exist in the Polish national memory as a harsh historical experience. There is no doubt that the loss of independence was a tragic event for Poland, however, the country lost not only its sovereignty but also 22,000 officers and at the same time the vanguard of the society. Who was behind these events? The Soviet Union: “If only one man dies, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics”, this statement of Stalin perfectly illustrates how the “Evil Empire” was operating – committing the most heinous crimes and blaming others.

The article also deals with the tragic events about which the truth has been hidden for a long time. Before answering the question of what happened in Katyń, we need to go back to the 1930s and learn the premise of this crime.

Late 1930s in Poland:

If we consider the period of the 1930s, it was not the best time for the Western democratic countries. Nationalism flourished on the eve of economic crises caused by the crash of Wall Street. European democratic countries were in a trap. While Germany was violating the treaty of Versailles step by step, on the eastern flank the Soviet Union was transforming the economy based on Stalinist views. The great threat of polish security aroused after the Munich agreement. To remind you, the consequence of that agreement was the full annexation of Czechoslovakia by Hitler’s Germany. The next victim of the Reich should have been Poland. By the way, despite having an army of 3.5 million soldiers, in order to deter possible aggressions, Poland signed security treaties with France and Great Britain. However, it turned out that Hitler had had other thoughts.

The Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which had been signed before the war broke out in 1939, became the fundamental threat to the security of Poland.  In a secret protocol, the two countries agreed to divide Poland and set a new sphere of influence in Eastern Europe. It should be noted that until September 1, western powers mistakenly believed that Hitler would not dare to start a war as he was aware of the mutual treaties. But it was not the only unexpected event for Poland in September. Nearly two weeks after Germans crossed the Polish border from the west, on the 17th of September, the Soviet Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov decided that the Polish government ceased to exist, and the Soviets were coming to “rescue” blood brothers – the Ukrainians and Belarussians – who resided in Poland. It should be noted that the Soviets were acting according to the secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, which had already been mentioned above. Although Poland and the USSR had already signed a Non-aggression agreement, the protest by the Polish government was futile to try. Consequently, thousands of Polish troops who were retreating to the east, near Lviv, surrendered to the Soviets with shared reason to avoid being captured by the Germans. Finally, as we know now, it was a fatal decision.

The Katyn Massacre:

Certainly, it was Stalin who finally decided the fate of Polish officer.. However, it was Beria’s letter which suggested that Polish prisoners who were kept in camps, were former workers of Polish intelligence organs, members of Polish counter-revolutionary parties. People who had already tried to violate the state frontier. “They are all sworn enemies of Soviet rule, filled with hatred for the Soviet system,” he wrote. The conclusion was as follows: “Based on the fact that they are all hardened, irremediable enemies of Soviet power, the NKVD USSR believes it is essential to examine the cases of those who have been arrested and are in the prisons and using the special procedure, apply to them the supreme punishment, execution by shooting“. On the first page of the resolution, there are signatures of Stalin, Voroshilov, Mikoyan and Molotov.

On the other hand status of captured Polish officers was unclear. Yet, it was considered as a POW but legally the Soviet Union did not declare war on Poland. However, officers were sent to the three special camps of Ostashkov, Starobelsk, and Kozelsk. Furthermore, nearly 25,000 families were deported to Kazakhstan. The final decision about the fate of remaining ones in special camps was decided on the 5th of March. Executions began in early April and continued until late May. It should be noted that the extermination mechanism was well documented. NKVD reported the number sent to death and therefore reports called “implementations” were sent to Beria’s deputy Merkulov. Kozelsk prisoners were forced to travel in railway prison cars from Kozelsk through Smolensk to Gnezdovo station, which was located just 6.5 kilometers from the town of Katyń. It is also important to mention the technique which was used by NKVD, verdicts even were not pronounced.

It was only on 11 April 1943, when the Katyń graves were publicly mentioned for the first time by the German news agency -“Trans-Ocean”. Ironically, once allies, after 1941 turned to the enemies, and it was the Germans who discovered a mass grave in Katyń forest. Goebbels decided in his usual manner to exploit the information. In order to secure the support of Poles against the Soviets, neutral journalists were permitted to visit Katyń. On 13 April, Berlin radio communique was reported in world media. The Soviets denied and blamed Germans calling news as another Goebbels slanderers”. When Polish request for IRC was submitted, in response Stalin decided to break off relations with the Polish government. Although, the international Medical Commission investigated the Katyń area and concluded that the massacre took place in spring 1940.  

When the Soviets liberated the Smolensk region, they set up a commission which was headed by Nikolai Burdenco. It concluded that Germans had committed crime. Alas, according to the report it was 1940 when Polish officers were executed.

Only during the Perestroika, the Soviet elite allowed public discussions about the Katyn Massacre. For example, a committee of Polish and Soviet party historians was established in 1987. After three years, researchers could query the files of the Special archive and in the Central State Archives of the Supreme Archives board at the Council of Ministers of the USSR.  Furthermore, the Kremlin issued a statement saying the government “declares that this tragedy is one of the gravest crimes of Stalinism”. Gorbachev made an apology to Jaruzelski. (Not to Wałęsa)

Even though Putin calls a demise of the Soviet Union the biggest geopolitical catastrophe, the Russian parliament condemned Joseph Stalin for the execution of Polish officers. According to the declaration of Duma: “Published documents, kept in classified archives for many years, not only revealed the scale of this horrific tragedy but also showed the Katyń crime was carried out on direct orders of Stalin and other Soviet criminals“. Even Putin joined the Polish officials in commemorating the anniversary of the Katyn massacre – becoming the first Russian leader to do so.

On the other hand, when Polish-Russian relations became tense, Russian officials removed plaques commemorating victims of the Katyn Massacre. Nowadays, it is still a popular documental movie, directed by Yuri Mukhin who is the main proponent of the denial of the Soviet’s responsibility. In 3.5-hour documentary he tells how Stalin was trying to save Poland, while its government pursued the way of betrayal.

Finally, why should we always remember such atrocities? The answer to the question lies in George Santayana’s quote: “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it.”

Shota Mgeladze

Research Fellow

The opinions and conclusions expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of The Embassy of the Republic of Poland in Tbilisi or The Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the Republic of Poland.

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