Russia’s Reckoning with Katy?

Why does it matter that the Russian parliament has just declared the Katy? mass murder of 1940 to be a Stalinist crime? Seventy years on, no one doubts the responsibility of Stalin, Beria, and the Soviet NKVD for the murder of about 21,892 Polish citizens in the Katy? Forest and four other sites. Yet, according to an opinion poll, more than 80 percent of Poles believe that the gesture, which confirms something that in effect all Poles already know, will improve relations between the two countries. Moscow understands that better relations with Warsaw will remove an obstacle to closer ties with the EU, and that for Poles history can be central to diplomacy.

As Russian leaders have come to understand, for Poles Katy? is a special wound. Although discussions of Katy? usually refer to the Polish officers who were killed in the massacre, most of the victims were in fact reserve officers who as civilians worked as economists, doctors, lawyers, veterinarians and botanists and the like. The Katy? shootings were part of a Soviet attempt to reduce the Polish nation to a malleable social group by eliminating the upper classes. Between 1939 and 1941, when the USSR and Nazi Germany had jointly occupied Poland, Nazi Germany was pursuing a similar policy. German police forces sought, much like the Soviet NKVD, to destroy the Polish nation as a political entity.

Once Germany betrayed its Soviet ally in 1941, the war as most of us remember it began. That the true beginning of the war involved Soviet murder of men who had fought the Germans was awkward for all concerned. In 1943 the Germans uncovered the burial sites at Katy?. They immediately, and rightly in this one case, blamed the Soviets for the crime. The Soviets of course blamed the Germans, and expected their allies—the United States, Great Britain, the Polish government in exile—to go along. The Americans and the British, not wanting to antagonize their ally, preferred to accept the Soviet lie, and urged the Poles to do the same. This was too much for the Polish government to accept. Stalin then used Polish demands for a full accounting of the mass murder to break diplomatic relations.

The end of diplomatic relations between the USSR and Poland (both fighting together against Nazi Germany!) was a step towards the communist takeover of Poland. The Poles’ questioning of Stalin’s lie was used in Soviet propaganda to spread the idea that Polish émigré politicians were little better than fascists. The provisional government of Poland appointed by the Soviets naturally endorsed the Soviet version. For more than forty years thereafter, Poland’s communist regime upheld the falsehood that Katy? had been a German crime. This lie was told by the people who ruled, on behalf of the people in Moscow who ruled them. One of the great hopes of many of the men and women who led the peaceful Polish opposition to communism in the 1970s and 1980s was that the truth about Katy? might one day be told.

Since the fall of communism in 1989, Poles have been able to say what they like about Katy?, and now the basic facts of the matter are no longer in doubt. Yet many Poles believed that even after Poland joined the European Union in 2004, western allies failed to understand the particular cruelty of Katy?, and the more complex history of wartime suffering that it illustrates. The point is not just that Poles suffered more than most others during the war, although of course they did. The Holocaust, an event on an entirely different scale, often obscures this. A Polish Jew was fifteen times more likely to die during the war than was a non-Jewish Pole—but the latter was still about twenty times more likely to die than an American. The point is that acknowledgment of Katy? has not so far led to a reconsideration of the history of the war which would permit the observation that the Soviets were aggressors before they were liberators.

Any need, even the need for truth, is a vulnerability. Earlier this year, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin showed that he understood how a neighbor’s desire for historical reckoning can serve one’s own foreign policy. He began discussions about the massacre with Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk. Polish President Lech Kaczy?ski was preoccupied with historical memory, and perhaps concerned that Tusk, a political rival, was gaining an advantage by discussing Katy?. This led to his ill-fated flight from Warsaw on April 10, 2010 to commemorate the Polish dead at Katy?. Kaczy?ski’s plane crashed over a foggy military airport at Smolensk, killing him and the 95 others on board (including a dear friend of mine). This catastrophe reminded some of the Katy? crime: it killed members of the political elite, as well as family members of the victims of the mass murder of 1940.

Yet the Polish political class absorbed the blow, and a certain rapprochement with Russia continued. After the crash, Russian authorities published archival documents about Katy? on the internet and saw to it that Andrzej Wajda’s powerful film about Katy? was shown on Russian television. This was not only an expression of sympathy, it was the exploitation of an opportunity. Putin and Medvedev understand that Poland, acting within the European Union, can hinder Russian foreign policy. They also know that the discovery of vast shale gas reserves in Poland mean that Russia’s tried-and-true method of intimidating east Europeans by denying them gas supplies might no longer work in the near future.

The declaration of the Russian parliament deserves great praise, and the political acknowledgment of Katy? might affect Russia’s own discussions of Stalinism. It invites Poles into a conversation about history that heretofore has focused on Russia’s own wartime heroism and martyrology. Presumably, it won’t be long before a Russian or Polish historian points out that Stalin’s Great Terror, remembered as the great crime against Russians, in fact specifically targeted ethnic minorities such as Poles. However that may be, the declaration confirms a basic reality of our age of globalized commemoration: national history is becoming inseparable from foreign policy.

Tr@nsit online, 2010
This piece originally appeared in The New York Review of Books blog, NYRblog
(blogs.nybooks.com) Copyright © 2010
NYREV, Inc. This work may be used for private purposes only. No copies of
this work may be reprinted or distributed electronically, in whole or in
part, without written permission from The New York Review of Books.

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    Paul Starr ist Professor für Soziologie an der Princeton University und Mitherausgeber von The American Prospect. Er ist Pulitzer-Preisträger.   Print

  • Martina Steer

    ÖAW APART Fellow (History)
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  • Kristina Stoeckl

    Research Director
    APART Fellow, Austrian Academy of Sciences; Department of Political Sciences, University of Vienna
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  • Roman Szporluk

    Roman Szporluk is Professor em. of Ukrainian History at Harvard and Professor em. of History at the University of Michigan. He is a foreign member of the National Academy of Sciences in Kiev, Ukraine. His research focuses on modern Ukrainian, Russian, and Polish history, and on Marxism and nationalism in Eastern Europe.   Print

  • Charles Taylor

    IWM Permanent Fellow
    Professor em. of Philosophy, McGill University, Montréal
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  • Maria Teteriuk

    PhD candidate in Mass Communications and senior lecturer in Media Studies, National University of 'Kyiv-Mohyla Academy', Ukraine
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  • Philipp Ther

    Junior Professor of Polish and Ukrainian Studies, Europa-Universität Frankfurt / Oder
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  • Maria Todorova

    Professor of History, University of Illinois at Urbana Champaign
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  • Balázs Trencsényi

    Balázs Trencsényi, Ph.D., is Associate Professor at the Department of History, CEU. His research focuses on the comparative history of political thought in East Central Europe and the history of historiography. He is co-director of Pasts, Inc., Center for Historical Studies at CEU and Associate Editor of the periodical East Central Europe (Brill). He was …
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  • Stefan Troebst

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  • Marius Turda

    Lecturer in the Education Abroad Program, Eötvös Lorand University, Faculty of Humanities, Budapest
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  • Andreas Umland

    Andreas Umland ist Wissenschaftlicher Mitarbeiter am Institut für Euro-Atlantische Kooperation Kiew sowie Herausgeber der Buchreihe Soviet and Post-Soviet Politics and Society, ibidem-Verlag Stuttgart. Print

  • Victoria Vasilenko

    Assistant Professor of Contemporary History and International Relations, Belgorod National Research University
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  • David G. Victor

    David G. Victor is a Professor at the School of International Relations and Pacific Studies at the University of California, San Diego, where he directs the Laboratory on International Law and Regulation.   Print

  • Harald Welzer

    Harald Welzer ist Forschungsprofessor für Sozialpsychologie an der Universität Witten/Herdecke und Direktor des Center for Interdisciplinary Memory Research am Kulturwissenschaftlichen Instituts Essen.   Print

  • Karolina Wigura

    Adjunct of the History of Ideas, University of Warsaw; Co-Editor of Kultura Liberalna
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  • Volodymyr Yermolenko

    Volodymyr Yermolenko is a Ukrainian philosopher and essayist. He has a degree in Political Science from the EHESS, Paris, and teaches at Kyiv Mohyla Academy in Kyiv. He is the author of the book Narrator and Philosopher: Walter Benjamin and his time (2011, in Ukrainian). Print

  • Oksana Zabuzhko

    Free-lance writer, Kiev
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  • Tatiana Zhurzhenko

    Research Director, Russia in Global Dialogue / Ukraine in European Dialogue
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