Time to abandon black-and-white approach to difficult problems

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People ask me questions about Katyn warily, as it is believed that Katyn is one of the most complicated issues being considered by the intergovernmental group on difficult problems in the history of Russian and Polish relations.

People ask me questions about Katyn warily, as it is believed that Katyn is one of the most complicated issues being considered by the intergovernmental group on difficult problems in the history of Russian and Polish relations.
(The Katyn massacre, also known as the Katyn Forest massacre, was the mass murder of thousands of Polish prisoners of war, primarily military officers, as well as intellectuals, policemen and other public servants, by the Soviet secret police, NKVD, in 1940.)
The fact of the massacre cannot be contested, and so the problem is not factual but psychological.
Katyn is a high-profile issue politically and emotionally, above all in Poland. But although it may sound cynical, it is not a difficult problem for historians.
For several decades now, the reality of the tragedy that took place at Katyn has been clear to anyone interested in history, rather than political speculation. The goal of our group is to encourage a unity of views of historical problems. I would say that we have achieved this with regard to Katyn: the upcoming meeting of the Russian and Polish prime ministers in early April can be seen as the result of the group’s success in the de-politicization of history.
The prime ministers’ attendance of remembrance ceremonies held to honour the memory of the victims of Stalin’s persecution campaigns is part of the solution of the Katyn problem. I also think that changing the political atmosphere surrounding that event will also influence the legal consideration of Katyn.
After all, judges and prosecutors involved in the case do not live in isolation; they too are influenced by the public mood.
In general, I would like to emphasize in particular, that the intergovernmental group on difficult problems in the history of Russian and Polish relations, set up in the early 2000s, did not so much try to solve the Katyn problem as elaborate a conceptual approach to this and other such problems.
For the past two years we have been working to create a model for dealing with difficult, controversial issues which can then be viewed differently, and to popularize our experience among the public, politicians, journalists, and foreign policy departments.
We used different instruments to achieve this goal, from public statements to closed appeals made by the group’s co-chairmen. But our main achievement is a jointly prepared book on the most important, but disputed, events in the 20th-century history of Russia and Poland, comprising contributions from both Russian and Polish historians on events from 1939 to 1941.
It will be published in summer 2010, but its forerunner, “The International Crisis of 1939,” was published in Russian and Polish in late 2009 by Russia’s State University of International Relations (MGIMO) and the Polish Institute of International Affairs (PISM).
The group’s members are often asked to denounce the secret protocols to the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and Stalin’s post-war persecution campaigns in Poland. When we give people the harsh assessment made in Russia of those events, they are surprised and say that they thought Russia still adhered to the old, Soviet, view of history.
It is a paradox of the public discourse in Russia and Poland that an adequate and mutually acceptable assessment of past events, including the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, is often marred by subsequent discussion, propaganda tricks, and the media hype raised by under-qualified people who have access to the press.
The group’s objective is not to find new facts, although many historians in the group have made sensational factual discoveries in their time, but to accumulate views and approaches that can boost rapprochement between Poland and Russia. Only the truth can help with this, while lies are no use. Therefore, free access to archives is of fundamental importance, and it is something people often ask us about.
The group did not focus on the declassification of documents on Polish-Russian relations. In principle, there are no major documentary gaps regarding our relations. Historians are well informed about the huge amount of documents relating to the history of our two countries and the international problems in which Russia and Poland were involved. Our archives are in regular contact.
Even such widely different agencies as Russia’s Federal Security Service (FSB) and Poland’s Institute of National Remembrance (IPN) have jointly published several collections of documents. One of their recent projects concerned the Warsaw ghetto uprising.
But I think that archive policy must be overhauled. Countries may refer to national legislation, exceptions, archive traditions and the like, but there is no logical reason for keeping archive materials confidential 70 years after an event.
Archives cannot be expected to change their policy willingly, as there is an internal logic to their operation which can be overcome only by a political decision taken simultaneously by the heads of the world’s leading powers.
Another question the group members are often asked is whether we plan to move from events without living witnesses to more recent problems. For example, what inspired Wojciech Jaruzelski to introduce martial law in Poland in 1981?
It should be said that in the early 1990s Russian newspapers published protocols of meetings of the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee’s Politburo held in the early 1980s to discuss “assistance to fraternal Poland.” The book I mentioned above, which is to be published in summer, also has special chapters devoted to that period.
However, no protocol can provide a clear picture of the situation or the large number of pros and cons regarding the introduction of martial law in Poland which Jaruzelski and his colleagues had to consider. Jaruzelski said on more than one occasion that the situation was highly contradictory. The absence of any consensus in modern Polish society is another indicator of the complexity of the situation in 1981.
I would also like to say that it is absurd to bring a person like Jaruzelski to court. Born into a family of patriotic nobles in 1923, he and his family were deported and thrown into a Soviet prison camp during the war, where his father died. He did almost the only thing he could do in that situation: he joined the Polish army units formed under Soviet command to fight for his country’s liberation.
After the war, he graduated from a military school and later became Poland’s leader at a time when his homeland was experiencing very difficult collision with the Soviet Union’s involvement
At the end of his political career, Jaruzelski could be considered, alongside Solidarity’s Tadeusz Mazowiecki and Lech Walesa, a founding father of a new democratic Poland, which has since won its rightful place in the new Europe.
Only very arrogant, crude people who see the world entirely in black and white would have the gall to denounce such a man as Jaruzelski.
Anatoly Torkunov is rector of the Moscow State Institute of International Relations (University) and co-chair of the intergovernmental group on difficult problems in the history of Russian and Polish relations.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.


MOSCOW (Anatoly Torkunov for RIA Novosti)

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