26 September 2007
In his first visit to Russia as head of state, President Lech Kaczyński Sept. 17 paid homage to some 22,500 Polish servicemen massacred by the Soviet secret police in World War II, urging that the atrocity must never be forgotten.
While Kaczyński's tone was softer than many of his recent remarks directed at Moscow, and a senior Russian politician voiced hope the visit would ease tense relations between Warsaw and Moscow, the Polish president did not hold talks with any top-ranking Russian officials.
Kaczyński's trip to a cemetery in Katyn in western Russia that holds the remains of thousands of Polish officers massacred in the spring of 1940 came on the 68th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland on Sept. 17, 1939.
While paying homage to the victims of the 1940 massacre, Kaczyński said, "Let us live with the future in mind, but let us also remember the past and look at it in peace, prudence and respect for the truth." He described the massacre as "an act of genocide committed against officers of a foreign army."
The president's speech followed prayers by Polish Catholic bishop for the armed forces Tadeusz Płoski; the Polish armed forces' Orthodox bishop Miron; the Protestant dean of the air force, Fr. Col. Wiesław Żydel; the chief rabbi of Poland Michael Schudrich; and the Islamic Mufti Tomasz Miśkiewicz. Members of all these faiths were among the victims who today rest in both real and symbolic graves in the Katyn Forest.
Kaczyński's visit to Katyn received much media attention in Russia and was widely commented by local politicians.
Konstantin Kosachov, chairman of the foreign affairs committee of the Russian Duma, said the visit could become a prelude to normalized relations between Russia and Poland. "The more openly we speak about that tragedy, without turning it to a political affair, the less it disturbs our relations," Kosachov said.
Meanwhile, a new movie about the Katyn massacre by the Academy Award winning Polish director Andrzej Wajda had its grand opening in Warsaw Sept. 17. This was the most awaited Polish movie for years.
Wajda has for decades been popular in the Soviet Union and then Russia. Commentators say his new movie may help reopen the debate about Katyn between Poland and Russia. While Katyn is unlikely to get a wider theatrical release in Russia, Wajda says the film will be shown in a series of special presentations. Some of them will be organized by the Memorial association, which for years has been struggling to present what it says is a truthful version of episodes of Russian history that were distorted by the former communist authorities. This does not seem to be an easy task, however, as even today some Russian media question the truth about the events in the Katyn Forest.
In the national consciousness of Poles, the Katyn massacre stands as one of the most tragic episodes of World War II. What made it particularly painful was that it was kept hidden from the public eye as a taboo subject when Poland was under communism from the end of World War II until 1989. At the time, Poland was formally an independent country, but in reality it was part of the Soviet zone of influence in Europe.
The tragedy of the Katyn victims began Aug. 23, 1939, when the foreign minister of the German Third Reich, Joachim von Ribbentrop, and the Soviet Commissar for Foreign Affairs Vyacheslav Molotov signed the infamous Ribbentrop-Molotov pact, which marked out the zones of Nazi and Soviet influence in a conquered Europe. Following Hitler's invasion of Poland Sept. 1, 1939, the Red Army on Sept. 17 invaded the eastern territories of Poland under the excuse of "protecting the safety of the local Russian-speaking population confronted with an impending end of the Polish state." Polish commanders ordered their troops to refrain from armed combat, deeming it a hopeless struggle. Tens of thousands of Polish soldiers and officers were disarmed and taken prisoner.
The officers were at first interned in camps set up in Kozelsk, Ostashkov and Starobelsk in western Russia. Following orders from the highest state authorities, the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, started to look for prisoners that would collaborate. Some of the prisoners agreed to work with the Soviets and later joined a pro-communist Polish army that was established in the Soviet Union after Hitler attacked the latter June 22, 1941. It turned out that collaboration with the Soviets was the only chance for the Polish officers to survive and regain freedom. Few managed to escape.
The fate of the others was sealed March 5, 1940, when NKVD chief Lavrenti Beria sent a memo (pictured above) to Josef Stalin in which he wrote that 14,700 Polish captives were "self-declared enemies of the Soviet authorities beyond hope of improvement," and therefore "it was recommended" that the convicts be shot and killed "without being summoned and presented with charges and bills of indictment." Stalin and a few other high-ranking Soviet officials approved the memo, putting their signatures on it.
Most historians agree that the decision to murder the prisoners was a result of the policy the Kremlin had laid out for the future Polish state. The Soviets wanted to deprive the country of its intellectual leaders, including military officers. Some also say the communists were taking revenge for the defeat of the Red Army when the Polish military had stopped a Soviet march on western Europe during the Polish-Soviet war of 1920.
The executions started in early April and continued through mid-May 1940. The prisoners had their hands bound and were killed with a shot to the back of the head. The killings took place in Smolensk, Kharkov, Kalinin, Kiev and Minsk, all in the western part of the former Soviet Union. The bodies were then taken to nearby forests and buried in shallow graves. Some officers were shot on site after being made to kneel on the edges of their graves.
The disappearance of over 10,000 officers was a mystery at first. The families, who had been receiving letters from the imprisoned soldiers, were unable to obtain any information as to why the correspondence had stopped abruptly. Western diplomats tried to learn something in Moscow, but to no avail.
The news of the tragedy saw the light of day only in the spring of 1943, after the Nazis invaded the Soviet Union and discovered mass graves of Polish officers. An international Red Cross committee came to the site and confirmed the horrible truth after exhumation. The Soviet Union said the news was a propaganda lie and blamed the crime on the Nazis. Moscow even tried to push its version through during the Nuremberg Trials, but it failed to do so. Moscow's version, however, was the official interpretation of the events in all the countries of the Soviet bloc until the collapse of communism. It was only on April 14, 1990, during the last months of the Soviet Union under Mikhail Gorbachev, that the Kremlin officially confessed to the crime. Two-and-a-half years later, Russian President Boris Yeltsin ordered Rudolf Pikhoya, the chief state archivist of Russia, to submit documents on the massacre to the Polish government in Warsaw. The documents included the infamous memo which had doomed the Polish officers.
Even though the Kremlin accepted responsibility for killing the Polish officers, the Russians have repeatedly refused Poland's demands to acknowledge the Katyn massacre as genocide. Experts in international law say this stance mainly results from the fact that recognizing the massacre as genocide would pave the way to claims of compensation, and the crime would no longer fall under the statute of limitations.