27 September 2012

Understanding Katyn

Epitaph tablets honouring Katyn victims outside of Kharkiv, Ukraine

Earlier this month the National Archives of the United States released to the public a massive corpus of declassified documents related to Katyn, the massacre of nearly 22,000 unarmed Polish prisoners by Stalin's secret police in 1940. Obscured by one of the longest and most extensive cover-ups in history, Katyn has been for decades a sodden field of unanswered questions, among them: did the Allies know during the Second World War that the Soviet Union, not Nazi Germany, was responsible for the crime? 

Many of the documents made public on 10 September 2012 shed light on this question. They offer evidence that the Roosevelt Administration likely knew of Stalin's guilt as early as 1943, when the Katyn site was first discovered, and subsequently suppressed that knowledge in order to preserve a fragile wartime alliance with the Kremlin. One of the biggest revelations is a secret communiqué of September 1950 sent by US Army Intelligence to Major Donald B. Stewart, who was one of two American POWs to dispatch coded messages positing Soviet responsibility for the massacre in 1943. "Ref[erring to] Katyn massacre you are directed not to repeat, not to affirm, deny or discuss in any manner the coded report you made," the order reads. "Info pertaining to existence of such reports is highly classified."

The news about these archival disclosures has largely focussed our attention on the Katyn forest in western Russia that gives the tragedy its name. One article even implies that all of the 22,000 executed Polish prisoners are buried there. In reality, however, the majority of these victims perished far from the Katyn forest. They were shot outside of Kalinin (today's Tver) in northwestern Russia, near Kharkiv in eastern Ukraine, and in secret prisons in cities such as Minsk, the Belarusian capital. Today the remains of these victims - the pride and promise of the Polish people - are buried in mass graves throughout Russia, Ukraine and, most likely, Belarus. They lie alongside Russian, Ukrainian, and Belarusian artists and civic figures; Jews, Catholics and Orthodox; men and women known and unknown. All of them were murdered by the Stalinist regime.

Katyn, in other words, is not simply Katyn. It is Mednoe near Tver and Piatykhatky near Kharkiv, where Polish families and the Polish state have spearheaded the construction of memorials to all of Stalin's victims. It is Bykivnia, the forest on the outskirts of Kyiv where, as we now know, the Soviet secret police buried Polish Katyn victims next to unknown thousands of Ukrainian and other Soviet citizens executed during the Purges. It is likely also Kurapaty, the forest near Minsk containing the remains of tens of thousands of murdered Belarusian and other Soviet citizens that has long been suspected of concealing the remains of the Katyn dead. Today these sites are places of pilgrimage for Polish, Ukrainian, Belarusian, and Russian families alike.

The legacy of Katyn across Eastern Europe is not only material and human. It is also deeply symbolic. Katyn has become a central referential touchstone and descriptive shorthand for other, lesser-known atrocities in the region. There is the "Ukrainian Katyn" of Vinnytsia, the city in central Ukraine where in 1937-8 Stalin's secret police tortured and executed over 9,000 Ukrainians and other Soviet citizens and built a "Gorky Park of Culture and Rest" over their bodies to cover up the crime. There are also the "Lithuanian Katyns" of Kaušėnų and Ablinga, where the Nazis killed a total of nearly 2,000 Jews and other civilians during the Second World War.

As we come to know more about Katyn in the future, as new documents emerge and new theories develop, we would do well to endeavour to understand it in full. Katyn is a Polish national tragedy, but it is also a collective Eastern European tragedy, one that has literally and figuratively touched the entire region. Already observers are bracing for political fallout from this week's discoveries, which may "reignite the intense debate over historical memory and wartime allegiances in Eastern Europe". Yet to understand Katyn is to reject "intense debates" that force easy sides, sow discord, and politicise the past for present gain. Over seventy years on, its lessons remain dialogue, empathy, and solidarity.

Rory Finnin
University of Cambridge

Originally published in the Huffington Post on 12 September 2012