2010 Vol. 2 No. 2 — Summer / Features

Poland, Russia, and Katyń – Is Reconciliation Possible?


Polish flag by Kpalion

Developments in Polish-Russian relations over the last few months may indicate a final resolution of the Katyń question. This originated with the German discovery of the well preserved remains of about 4,000 Polish military, mostly officers, in Katyń Forest near Smoleńsk in spring 1943. Evidence gathered on the site clearly showed the massacre was committed by the Soviets in spring 1940, over a year before the German attack on the USSR. However, the Soviet government accused the Germans of the crime and this remained the official communist line until April 13, 1990. At that time, Soviet President Mikhail S. Gorbachev ordered the publication of a press communiqué admitting Soviet guilt, and gave NKVD files concerning the massacres to Poland’s then president, General Wojciech  Jaruzelski. On October 14 1992, Russian President Boris N. Yeltsin allowed the publication of key documents, including the Politburo decision of March 5 1940 to shoot the prisoners of war as well as the prisoners held in NKVD jails. Yeltsin also turned over to President Lech Walesa verified copies of many other Russian documents on the Katyń case through September 1991, which were published in Poland in late 1992.

In summer 2000, three Polish war cemeteries were opened – at Katyń, Kharkiv and Mednoye (near Tver). Alongside them were cemeteries of Soviet victims of Stalin, expressing the Russian view that all were the victims of totalitarianism.  Meanwhile, the Polish and Russian national archives agreed on the publication of Polish and Russian language volumes of Katyń documents (four Polish volumes, 1995-2006, and two Russian, 1997, 2001). It should be noted, however, that the Katyń Families and Polish public opinion demanded the crime be recognized as genocide; that all the circumstances of the crime be revealed; that all the perpetrators be named and condemned, also all those participating in the cover-up; that all documents be opened up, and that all the victims be rehabilitated. These demands angered many Russians who believed the Poles should be grateful for being liberated from Nazi occupation by the Red Army in 1944-45. For most Russians, the “Great Fatherland War,” with its enormous loss of Soviet life and property, obliterated all former and later Soviet misdeeds. Furthermore, under President Vladimir Putin (Dec. 1999- 2008), Stalin’s memory underwent a process of whitewashing; he was praised as a great manager and war leader, who made some mistakes along the way.

According to an unconfirmed Polish press report, negotiations between prosecutors of the Polish Institute of National Memory (Instytut Pamięci Narodowej, IPN) Warsaw, and the Russian Military Prosecutor’s Office, broke down in summer 2004 over the IPN demand that the Katyń crime be classified as genocide. Whatever the case may be, in September 2004, the official Russian investigation – ongoing since 1990 – was closed down, the IPN opened its own investigation, and a joint Polish-Russian Committee on Difficult Problems in Polish-Russian Relations – set up in 2002 – suspended its work. In October-November 2004, Poland gave its enthusiastic support to the Ukrainian “Orange Revolution,” which angered Moscow. On March 11, 2005, the chief Russian Military Prosecutor, Aleksandr Savenkov, confirmed the closing of the official investigation and stated the reasons at a press conference. He said no evidence of genocide had been found; individuals from the NKVD leadership had exceeded their authority, which was a crime subject to the statute of limitations; finally, all those involved in committing the crime had died, so they could not be tried. The Russian Memorial Society – which has worked for years to expose and publicize Stalinist crimes, including Katyń, and classifies it as a war crime and a crime against humanity – protested the closing and challenged Savenkov’s statements. It demanded the classification of the crime, the naming of all participants in the crime, and the individual rehabilitation (legal verdict of innocence) of all the victims. Memorial has fought for the rehabilitation of several Katyń victims their descendents in Moscow law courts, but like other families doing so through Russian lawyers, without success. On March 22, 2005, the Polish Sejm (lower house) reacted to Savenkov’s statements by voting a resolution that the Katyń crime constituted genocide, and repeating the other standard demands (as listed above).

Polish-Russian relations grew even worse after the elections of 2005, which brought to power the Party of Law and Justice, (Prawo i Sprawiedliwość – PiS) headed by Jarosław Kaczyński – who soon became Premier – while his brother Lech was elected president for five years. PiS lost the parliamentary elections of 2007, but Lech remained president. He pursued the policy of openly supporting Ukraine and Georgia against Russia. When, however, Donald Tusk leader of the Civic Platform (Platforma Obywatelska – PO) became the Premier of a new government in fall 2007, he set out to improve relations with Moscow, which welcomed this policy. On September 1, 2009, Putin came to Gdańsk for the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the German attack on Poland, which set off World War II. He even condemned the Secret Protocol to the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact, dividing Poland between Germany and the USSR. (It had been condemned by the freely elected Supreme Soviet in December 1989.)  President Kaczyński, for his part, did not support the inclusion of Putin in the ceremonies.

Indeed, under Putin’s Presidency, then Premiership, articles and books appeared in Russia claiming that Katyń was the work of the Germans and all the documents published to the contrary were fakes.  A new history textbook for schools, approved in 2008, admitted Soviet guilt for Katyń, but presented it as “justified revenge” for the death of some 60,000 Red Army men in Polish POW camps in 1920. This claim ignored the fact that Russian and Polish scholars had published a book in 2004 showing that 16-18,000 of these prisoners had died in Polish captivity – not due to a Polish death order but from hunger and disease, which also affected most of the Polish population at this time. The rest of the 60,000 listed as missing by Soviet authorities, either enlisted in anti-Bolshevik units formed in Belarus, or faded into the Polish countryside, or moved to other countries.* In early 2010, a film showing the Germans had murdered the Polish prisoners of war was shown on Russian TV, and Russian Communist Party deputies in the Duma demanded a new investigation of Katyń that would show German guilt. Clearly, the Communists and the Nationalists were opposed to any official concessions to Poland on Katyń. The communist deputies repeated this demand in mid-June this year.

In contrast to the above, the spring of 2010 saw an extraordinary display of official Russian good will toward Poland. First of all, Russian Premier Putin invited Polish Premier Tusk to meet with him at Katyń on April 7 to honor the 70th anniversary of the massacre of thousands of Polish prisoners of war executed at three sites in spring 1940: at Katyń, Kalinin (now Tver) and Kharkov (now Kharkiv), as well as several thousand prisoners taken from NKVD jails in Belarus and Ukraine for execution at sites unknown. (All these massacres are now subsumed under Katyń.)  On April 2, Andrzej Wajda’s film Katyń was shown on the Culture channel of Russian TV and on April 6, it was shown again on a popular channel. The next day, Putin knelt down to lay flowers by the altar at the Polish War cemetery at Katyń, and Tusk accompanied him in laying the cornerstone of a Russian orthodox church on the Soviet cemetery that lies alongside the Polish resting place. In his speech, Putin said that both Polish and Soviet citizens were victims of totalitarianism, while Tusk appealed for uncovering of the whole truth about Katyń. He did not make other demands or speak of genocide.

The tragic crash of the plane bearing the late Polish President Lech Kaczynski, his wife, and 94 other prominent Poles to a Polish ceremony at Katyń on April 10, led to an outpouring of sympathy both from the Russian government and ordinary Russians who brought flowers to the Polish embassy in Moscow. On April 14, Russian President Dmitri A Medvedev stated at a televised press conference that it was clear Stalin and his collaborators had ordered the shooting of the Polish officers. Five days later, he attended the Kaczyński funeral in Kraków, in the absence of many other leaders because of the volcanic ash from Iceland.  On April 28, the official Russian government website displayed seven key documents showing Soviet guilt for Katyń, including the 5 March 1940 Politburo approval of NKVD chief Beria’s resolution  to shoot, without trial,  all Polish prisoners in the three special camps as well as those held in NKVD prisons in western Ukraine and Belorussia. (The final number of all those shot in spring 1940 is 21,857.)  It is true that the same documents had been published in several Moscow newspapers on October 14 1992, and had been printed in both Russian and Polish documents on Katyń, but this time they were much more widely accessible – although the website soon collapsed under thousands of hits by interested readers. It is clear that Medvedev was openly contradicting the Communists and Nationalists who were now cooperating against the government. Thus, Katyń is not only the key issue in Polish-Russian relations, but also an issue in internal Russian politics.

In view of all the Russian gestures to Poland, it is not surprising that some speakers at the conference held on 5 May this year in the Library of Congress, Washington, D.C., to honor the 70th anniversary of Katyń, saw possibilities for a Polish-Russian reconciliation. Indeed, the Russian President also made some important statements that same day in Moscow. In a long interview published in the Izvestiia newspaper on 5 May, Medvedev condemned Stalinism. He also denied communist and nationalist claims that Stalin had won the war with Hitler, saying it had been won not by Stalin but by the people, who suffered enormous losses. At the end of the interview, he also said some people were still questioning who decided to liquidate the Polish military, and stated he had ordered that the materials already public be more widely available. Four days later, in the great military parade to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the victory over Germany on May 9, Polish troops marched right behind Russian units, while other Allied units also marched through Red Square for the first time. On May 10, Medvedev gave acting Polish President Bronisław Komorowski 67 declassified volumes of the official Russian Katyń investigation. They had been open to Polish scholars on site, though without copying rights, since fall 2004, but now they would be in Polish hands. Medvedev also promised to have the rest of the 183 volumes declassified. Finally, on June 1, the chair of the Duma Committee for International Affairs, Konstantin Kosachev, stated that the Duma would work out and pass a resolution on the “moral rehabilitation” of the Katyń victims.

What might be the motive behind all these friendly Russian gestures toward Poland on Katyń, and what are the chances for a final reconciliation? It is clear that Moscow wants to improve its image in the West for both economic (investment and trade) and political reasons (less western opposition to its policies toward Ukraine and Georgia, and less opposition to its  unspoken aim of re-establishing Russian influence in the formerly Soviet-dominated part of Central Europe.) There is also no doubt that Medvedev sees the survival of Stalinism as the chief obstacle to the modernization of Russia, which he considers absolutely necessary. Putin, for his part, is reluctant to condemn Stalin, seeing him and his deeds as an integral part of Russian history, but he also seems to support a resolution of the Katyń question.  In any case, both Russian leaders have nothing to lose by extending the hand of friendship to Poland. They have already done much to show they condemn the Katyń crime. They could go on to officially condemn Katyń as a Stalinist crime, or/and a war crime and a crime against humanity, and then perhaps proceed to the “moral rehabilitation” of the victims by the Duma, or by a high Russian court of law.

While the present Polish government is gingerly moving away from classifying Katyń as a crime of genocide – a view still adhered to by the majority of Poles – it is unlikely that any Polish government can, at least in the near future, give up all the standard demands and stay in power. At the same time, all Russian governments must have regard for national pride and avoid loss of face, both with their own people and elsewhere in the world. Thus it will likely take some time to educate public opinion in each country, as well as great statesmanship on both sides, to find a compromise acceptable to both Poland, and Russia.

* see V.P.Kozlov, D. Nałęcz et all, eds, Krasnoarmietsy v Pol’skom Plenu v 1919-1922 rr (Red Army Soldiers in Polish Captivity in 1919-1922), Moscow, 2004.

[Main sources used for this article: Anna M. Cienciala, Natalia S. Lebedeva, Wojciech Materski, eds., Katyń. A Crime Without Punishment, Yale University Press, New Haven,Conn. 2007; 2nd printing, 2009:Rosja a Katyń (Russia and Katyń) KARTA, Warsaw, 2010 (reprint, with new additions, of 1994 book), which includes an updated chapter on Memorial by the head of its Polish section, Aleksandr Guryanov, also same, “The Katyń Problem in Contemporary Russia,” paper read at the Katyń Conference, Washington, D.C., 5 May 2010: http://www.govoritamerika.us/rus/?p=11748; Polish newspaper, Gazeta Wyborcza, selected Russian and Western press, February – June 2010.]

Anna Cienciala
Anna Cienciala, Professor Emeritus of History and Russian and East European Studies at the University of Kansas, Lawrence, KS, is a leading authority on 20th Century Polish, European and Soviet diplomacy, 1919-1945. She has authored or edited six books and published about 100 academic articles and longer book reviews in U.S., Polish and German historical journals. She also writes for the Przeglad Polski (New York) the Polish weekly cultural supplement to the Nowy Dziennik. Her most recent major work was co-editing translations of selected Russian documents in Katyn: A Crime Without Punishment . Since her retirement in 2002, Professor Cienciala continues to work as an independent scholar; she also remains involved with the History Department and the Center for Russian, East European and Eurasian Studies at K.U.
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