I spent 20 years researching the Katyn massacre, and this year will mark 20 years since the Soviet authorities admitted that the victims were executed by the NKVD secret police. This is a good time to pause and reflect on how far we’ve come.
Did we start our research from scratch? No, because people never stopped mulling over the tragedy in Russia. But the official policy before Mikhail Gorbachev was to forget that it had ever happened. Articles on the Katyn massacre were removed from encyclopedias, even those describing it as “a fabrication of Goebbels’s propaganda”.
I believe that Khatyn, a village in Belarus, was chosen as the site of a memorial to the thousands of Belarusians executed by Nazis because it sounded very much like Katyn. The authorities’ intention was to confuse people and make them forget.
By no means am I trying to minimize the tragedy of Khatyn, but there are many other villages in Belarus that were wiped out. Yet the authorities deliberately chose Khatyn, and many confuse it with Katyn to this day.
The mysterious disappearance of thousands of Polish officers was never completely forgotten. Although the Soviet people were not told the truth, the Soviet and Polish foreign ministries maintained an active correspondence on the issue in the 1970s. When Sweden considered erecting a monument to the victims, the Soviet and the Polish foreign ministries considered protesting.
The Soviet side of that correspondence has recently been published in a joint Russian-Polish book, but the archives of the Polish Foreign Ministry are still out of bounds.
The first publication on the Katyn massacre was made possible by a series of efforts in the early 1990s. The historian Valentina Parsadanova questioned the official version in an article she submitted to the journal Modern and Recent History. Yury Zorya attempted to publish a similar article in the Military Historical Journal, and I submitted an article to the journal International Life.
None of these articles were published. We were summoned before the Soviet Communist Party Central Committee, where we were ordered not to publish anything about Katyn.
However, Sergei Stankevich, then deputy mayor of Moscow, a prominent figure in the democratic movement, and my colleague at the Institute of General History, knew about my article. He said, “Let’s publish your article in Moskovskiye Novosti [a Russian-language weekly].”
I told him that the Central Committee banned it, but Stankevich said, “Why do you care about minor officials from one of the parties?”
I laughed and said, “First remove that party from power, then you can be lighthearted about it.”
I gave him the article to publish in Moskovskiye Novosti on the condition that he get a permit from Alexander Yakovlev, the Politburo member responsible for party ideology. He did, and the newspaper published my interview with journalist Gennady Zhavoronkov on March 25, 1990, 51 years after the massacre.
From that interview Russians learned that the Polish officers were killed by the NKVD, not the Nazis.
Things were happening very fast in Russia at that time, and on April 13, 1990, the massacre was officially denounced as “one of the gravest crimes of the Stalinist era.” The articles by Parsadanova and myself -- in which we presented our version of the tragedy supported by archival documents -- were published in the summer.
Work on this topic began in earnest soon after that. I know that the Polish press wrote that we did not publish all of the relevant documents, and that we were not allowed to see the most “explosive” documents. This is not true. The publication of relevant documents has not stopped for a single day in the 20 years since then.
In 1991, the Soviet publisher Politizdat released the book “The Katyn Drama”, which details the imprisonment and execution of the Polish officers. It includes relevant letters written by Lavrenty Beria, head of the secret police under Stalin, and Pyotr Soprunenko, head of the NKVD Directorate for Prisoners of War and Internees.
In the book, Polish historian Czeslaw Madajczyk included all the sources of information about the massacre he had access to, from the Polish emigration archives to the testimony of inmates of the Kozelsk, Starobelsk and Ostashkov camps who had managed to escape from Katyn.
Documents from the Politburo’s Special File on Katyn were made available in 1992. (“Special files” were secret decisions made by the Politburo.) One of them was a note from Beria dated early March 1940, proposing that the “hardened” enemies of the Soviet Union from these three camps be executed after a special tribunal hears their case.
The new Russian authorities used those documents as evidence in the case against the Soviet Communist Party in 1992. Later that year, Rudolf Pikhoya, special representative of the Russian president, delivered the documents to the Polish president.
My book, “Katyn: A Crime Against Humanity”, was published in 1994.
At that time, we were also busy working on a four-volume collection of documents on the Katyn massacre. The first volume concerns the events between the deployment of Soviet troops in Poland on September 17, 1939, and the Politburo decision of March 5, 1940 to execute the camps’ inmates. It was published in Russia in 1997 under the title, “Katyn: Prisoners of an Undeclared War”, and presented at the Cinema House in downtown Moscow.
A second edition of the book was printed in 1999. It is often referred to as “the Yakovlev volume” because Alexander Yakovlev and his Democracy Foundation were closely involved.
Next I had the idea to write a big book, a consolidated volume, which would include the three remaining volumes, each with a separate introduction and commentaries.
The consolidated volume, “Katyn: Execution, Survivors, Repercussions”, covers the period from March 5, 1940 to September 2000, when the memorial cemetery was commemorated in the village of Mednoye in the Tver Region. The bulk of the Ostashkov camp inmates buried there were Polish policemen and border guards.
The first part of the volume (“Execution”) deals with the preparations for the execution and the massacre itself; the second part (“Survivors”) discusses those who were sent to prison camps or deported; and the third part (“Repercussions”) traces the difficult road to the truth.
In total, we released two books containing four volumes of documents.
Many other books were published later, which Russian readers can find on the Internet. They are all available at the click of a button. There is nothing stopping Russian readers from learning the whole truth about the Katyn massacre.
One of these later books was “The Katyn Syndrome” (“The Katyn Syndrome in Soviet-Polish and Russian-Polish Relations” in Russian), co-authored by Anatoly Yablokov, the prosecutor in charge of the Soviet, and then Russian, Katyn investigation from August 1990 to June 1994.
His group classified the Katyn execution as a crime against peace, a war crime and a crime against humanity, in accordance with Clauses A, B and C of Article 6 of the Charter of the International Military Tribunal for the Nuremberg Trials.
However, the Military Prosecutor’s Office later reversed the ruling, calling the tragedy an “abuse of power that resulted in grave consequences,” if we are to believe the press. I consider this definition inadequate and have openly expressed my disagreement, including in my book, “Katyn: A Crime Against Humanity.”
To prove my point, I suggest that you read the December 12, 1940 letter from Beria to Stalin on the number of people persecuted as of December 1. Beria writes that 407,000 people living in Western Ukraine and Western Belarus had been arrested and 275,000 deported by that date. Taken together with the 21,000 executed, the number of persecuted people, most of them Poles, was nearly 700,000.
I don’t think these crimes were motivated by ethnic hatred, however. The Bolsheviks primarily executed and expelled “social enemies,” most of them well-to-do people. And a majority of the wealthy people in Western Belarus and Western Ukraine were Poles. Ukrainians and Belarusians were still mired in poverty by 1939.
I am not always happy when I see Katyn bandied about as a political issue. Nor do I support the classification of the Katyn massacre as “a crime with elements of genocide.” But then Russia is partly to blame for that classification. If we had classified Katyn as a crime against humanity in the 1990s, as Yablokov did, Poland would not have insisted on the term genocide. I don’t like how the Poles sometimes exploit this sacred issue for political gain.
Likewise, it is unfair to accuse Russia of concealing archival documents. We invited Poles to copy about a million pages of archive documents in the early 1990s. They must have misread some of them for some reason. They now have access to “special files” and related materials as well. The Molotov archive, a large part of the Stalin archive, the archive of the Nikolai Burdenko commission on the Katyn massacre, and the archive of the Nuremberg Trials have been transferred from the presidential archives to open-access files.
The prosecutor’s office is taking part in the declassification of these materials, and the FSB Central Archive has supplied materials for our four-volume book. I acknowledge the contribution from both the FSB and the presidential archives in the book.
I am sure that the future will bring new discoveries, new versions, and new research. Right now everyone is debating why Stalin did it. While working with the documents, I noticed that execution was not suggested until February 20, 1940. In fact, it was proposed that elderly prisoners and those without evidence against them be released. Cases were prepared against the policemen from the Ostashkov camp, but the proposed punishment was deportation to Kamchatka.
Then a sudden shift occurred. Beria met with Stalin on February 27, and two days later he proposed shooting the “malicious anti-Soviet elements.” This could mean that Stalin ordered Beria to execute the prisoners, or that Beria somehow convinced Stalin it was necessary. For some reason they decided that the prisoners were dangerous.
Why? This is the most interesting piece. At that time, the Soviet Union was fighting the Winter War against Finland. Britain and France responded by denouncing the Soviet Union. One of the reasons for their hostile stance was the Soviet Union’s refusal to join the economic blockade of Germany, which the two countries hoped would put an end to Hitler’s aggression.
Although Britain and France declared war on Germany on September 3, 1939, two days after Hitler invaded Poland, they did not take any military action, instead hoping to bleed Germany dry economically.
On December 14, 1939, the Soviet Union was expelled from the League of Nations at the request of Britain and France, supported by the Polish government in exile under General Wladyslaw Sikorski.
Britain and France decided to dispatch an expedition corps to Finland to help it in its war against Stalin. The Sikorski government made sure a Polish unit was included in that corps. Moreover, the general said on January 24, 1940 that sending the corps to Finland would draw France and Britain into a “de-facto war against Russia, which would be a welcome outcome for us.”
Soviet intelligence agents informed Stalin of these plans and statements. For Stalin, the news probably brought the events of 1918-1919 to mind, when Britain and FranceRussia provided the pretext for the invasion. In 1940, Stalin probably thought it extremely dangerous to have tens of thousands of sympathizers of potential interventionist forces in the country in the event of an invasion. invaded Soviet Russia, which was embroiled in a civil war at the time. The revolt staged by the Czech and Slovak prisoners of war in
Worse still, all those potential sympathizers were military officers who knew how to handle themselves in combat. They were not dangerous in a country that did not fear an attack, for they had nowhere to run. But what would happen in war conditions? What if they disarm the guards and take over?
This version is backed up by some foreign policy documents from that time. The Soviet ambassador in London, Ivan Maisky, whose diaries have been published, writes in horror that war with Britain was imminent unless the Soviet Union signs a peace treaty with Finland. August Zaleski, a foreign minister in Sikorski's government, said that if the Allies declare war on Russia, the Poles should join in the fight.
This hardened Stalin’s anti-Polish sentiments, especially since he had been preparing for a war against Britain and Poland for years, not Germany.
There were also open plans for a military attack against the Soviet Union, which were drawn up in the first months of 1940. This also could have incited Stalin’s wrath. On January 19, 1940, France presented a plan to attack the Soviet Union in the Caucasus and the Caspian region at a meeting of the Allied Supreme Council in Paris. The plan called for bombing Soviet oil facilities near Baku to cut off the Red Army supply of gasoline, rendering it immobile.
The Allied Supreme Council discussed the plan again in February 1940 and on March 22, 1940.
Stalin was aware of this and decided to “neutralize” the Polish officers.
By May 1940, the threat of an Anglo-French intervention had receded, and Stalin changed his position on the Polish prisoners. Execution of the new internees sent from Lithuania was not even proposed.
Why? Hitler’s rapid defeat of France in May-June 1940 shocked Stalin, who expected a long confrontation between the “imperialist blocs”. He realized then that the next target of German aggression could be the Soviet Union, and that he could use the Polish officers who were eager to fight Hitler.
This is probably why Lt. Col. Zygmunt Berling and Col. Eustachy Gorczynski were told in October 1940 during their meeting with Lavrenty Beria and his first deputy, Vsevolod Merkulov, that executing the inmates of the three camps was a big mistake.
I think the man who said this was sincere.
Natalia Lebedeva, a leading Russian historian of Katyn, is a senior researcher at the Institute of General History (Russian Academy of Sciences), an editor and contributor to twenty three volumes of documents on the Nuremberg Trials and a four-volume collection of documents on the Katyn massacre. She has been awarded the Officer’s Cross and the Commander’s Cross of the Order of Merit of Poland.
The opinions expressed in this article are the author’s and do not necessarily represent those of RIA Novosti.
MOSCOW. (Natalia Lebedeva for RIA Novosti)