The Unfinished Business of Katyn

Monday, January 23, 2012

As befits a crime shrouded in so much deception and political intrigue, the so-called Katyn massacre even today is not a closed case. The execution of more than twenty thousand Polish prisoners by Soviet secret police in 1940 is still a thorn in the side of Russian-Polish relations because of Russian reluctance to help answer lingering questions about documents, potential compensation, the fate of other Polish prisoners held by the USSR, and even what to call the massacre—which for half a century Moscow officially denied, blaming Hitler.

The Katyn crime made an indelible stamp on the history of Poland and its international relations. It was a brutal attempt to eliminate the elite of the Polish nation and impose a communist system on the country, which at the time the USSR was occupying in partnership with Nazi Germany. Today the legal legacy of the mass murders is a court case in the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg, where relatives of the slain Poles seek to have their deaths defined as genocide and a war crime, and to have the victims posthumously rehabilitated. They claim that Russia, which closed the books on its own investigation in 2004, failed to investigate the killings fully and never brought the perpetrators to justice.

The massacre was a taboo topic in postwar Poland, and the Soviet Union did not admit responsibility until 1990, during the perestroika era. Thus for fifty years no one knew, for instance, when most of its victims had been buried or the exact locations of the mass graves. The sites of graves of many of the Polish citizens who were murdered during the same operation but elsewhere, in prisons in Ukraine and Belarus, remain unknown to this day.

The unanswered questions of the Katyn massacre are closely tied to documentation.

On March 5, 1940, the Politburo, the leading organ of the Soviet Communist Party, no doubt inspired by Stalin, decided to order the murders of thousands of Polish citizens being held in three main camps (Kozielsk, Starobielsk, and Ostashkov) and in prisons in eastern Poland. The Soviets had invaded Poland under the terms of the Stalin-Hitler Pact of 1939, euphemistically known as the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact, under which Moscow agreed to carve up Eastern Europe with the Third Reich.

The head of the secret police, Lavrenty Beria (1899–1953), proposed to liquidate 25,700 people: military and police officers, administration officials, intellectuals, professors, doctors, teachers, and others. His figure was an estimate; the eventual Katyn toll was 21,857. The victims were buried in unmarked graves near the village of Katyn, eleven miles west of Smolensk in central Russia; near Piatikhatki, on the outskirts of Kharkov in contemporary Ukraine; and near Mednoye in the Tver (then Kalinin) region, one hundred and twenty miles northwest of Moscow. The German government discovered the mass graves near Katyn in 1943, after the Third Reich had turned against its former Soviet ally, and announced them to the world as evidence of Soviet brutality. The Soviet cover-up began immediately and continued through the postwar Nuremberg war-crimes trials—where Moscow produced falsified evidence blaming Katyn on the Germans—and into the Cold War era.

The unanswered questions of the Katyn massacre are closely tied to documentation. Many of the files touching on Katyn can be studied in the Hoover Archives, which keeps copies of Soviet-era intelligence documents, including the “smoking gun” memorandum on which Stalin scrawled his approval of the mass murders. Details of the crime began to emerge in 1992, when the first president of post-communist Russia, Boris Yeltsin, presented documents about Katyn to Polish President Lech Walesa. This was when the world learned that the crime resulted from a decision by the Politburo, signed by a majority of its members and confirmed by two more (others must have been absent). The documents were said by Russia to flesh out the work of the General Procuracy of the Russian Federation, which was investigating Katyn but had not had access to the Politburo documents. The documents did not describe all the circumstances of the crime, but a final explanation was closer than ever before.

The documents Yeltsin delivered can be divided in two groups: the first containing files about the committing of the massacre, and the second holding documents about its concealment. Interestingly, the two were often contradictory. The Soviet organs that attempted to hide the crime seemed unaware, at least officially, that it had been committed by the NKVD.

The sites of many Poles’ graves remain unknown to this day.

Two of the documents were of utmost importance: the statement ordering the murder of the prisoners, directed by Beria to Stalin on March 5, 1940, and confirmed by the Politburo, and a document created nineteen years later by the chairman of the Committee for State Security of the USSR (KGB), Aleksandr Shelepin (1918–1994), to Nikita Khrushchev, first secretary of the Central Committee of the Communist Party. This memorandum suggested destroying the individual files of murdered Katyn prisoners and summed up the crime. Shelepin’s letter contained several important facts: first, the number of victims; second, the existence of individual files; third, the role of special NKVD troikas, known to Soviet history as committees of three, that condemned the men without trial. (The last fact is significant in the current Strasbourg hearings, in which Russia maintains that because the Katyn victims were executed without trial, they cannot legally be exonerated.)

Khrushchev’s decision about whether to destroy the files was not disclosed in these documents. If he decided against such an action, he must have had important security considerations of which even Shelepin was unaware.

The matter of the individual files leads to a major obstacle to resolving the Katyn case: Russia’s continuing refusal to release all of its information. The files of the victims were not, of course, presented to the Polish government in 1992. Why? And why has Russia neither confirmed their destruction nor since released them? Even if the files contained discredited or sensitive information about victims, perpetrators, or people who remained alive, their release would not trouble present-day Russia. The documents need not be made public: it would be enough to deliver them to Polish legal authorities.

Beyond withholding its investigative materials, Russia refuses to acknowledge the Katyn massacre as genocide.

Meanwhile, the non-delivery of the documents feeds legal challenges, international scrutiny, and friction between Russia and Poland. The General Procuracy of the Russian Federation has so far given Polish authorities sixty-seven volumes of material while withholding one hundred and sixteen. It is difficult to say what all the secret material consists of. It certainly includes testimony of witnesses, which, for some unknown reasons, the Russians do not want to reveal. The existence of such testimony can be deduced from a January 1991 letter the general prosecutor of the USSR wrote to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev, saying that accounts of witnesses concerning “the tragic fate of the Polish war prisoners had been collected from all around the country.” A copy of that letter was delivered to President Walesa in 1992 among the other documents.

Beyond withholding its investigative materials, Russia refuses to acknowledge the Katyn massacre as genocide. Yet the USSR had no trouble labeling it as such in 1946, when it accused Nazi officials of the crime at Nuremberg. (Moscow failed to make its case for Nazi involvement then and the court dismissed the charge.)

Thus Katyn casts its shadow on Polish and, to some extent, international public opinion. The current legal dispute at Strasbourg shows this climate of mistrust and frustration. The plaintiffs demand that the massacre be treated as genocide and that Russia disclose the secret part of its investigation. Irrespective of any verdict, ill will toward Russia will be difficult to erase.

Sooner or later, these questions must be answered:

1. What happened to the victims’ personal files? If they survive, their publication would not create problems. Even facts that might be “inconvenient” for the victims or their families, not to mention data about Soviet special agents, would pose no obstacle for modern Russia. Negative facts, if any, would reflect mainly on Poles.

2. How did the victims spend their last moments? The testimonies of witnesses to or participants in the crime are a major missing piece. Again, exposing the identities of witnesses or participants would not create any legal consequences for them. Authorities would use the information to establish either that such persons were dead, or, if they were still alive, that they bear no criminal responsibility.

3. How many victims were shot in the territories of the so-called Western Ukraine and Western Belarus, and where? After the massacre, the so-called Ukrainian and Belarus lists of victims were delivered to Moscow. Current archaeological investigations, such as one being performed in Bykivnia near Kiev, are yielding some information about graves, but the complete list of victims from Belarus and Ukraine cannot be compiled without the support of the Moscow archives. Once more, it is difficult to imagine how exposure of these materials would create any political or historical complications.

Clearing the air on the legal issues of Katyn does not seem impossible. True, if Russia condemned the Katyn crime as genocide, complications could result. Descendants of the victims could claim compensation, for instance, although the plaintiffs in Strasbourg have said they seek only moral compensation. An international agreement could settle the matter.

For the Russian side in the Strasbourg hearings, the motives for the massacre have a bearing on whether it could be considered genocide. Beria argued for murdering the prisoners by stating that all of them were “obdurate . . . enemies of the Soviet power.” These individuals would be hostile to a Soviet system: captured soldiers, naturally, dream of escape and fighting to liberate their homeland. Without exception, Polish public opinion sees the motives as clearly genocidal: certain social groups were to be murdered, among whom 97 percent were Poles. But what wider motives Stalin had for killing these people is unknown. Another group of similar prisoners, also held in the Kozielsk camp only three months after the Katyn killings, was not massacred. The Soviets, in fact, probably planned to use them in a common Polish-Soviet struggle against the Nazis.

At any rate, the Russian nation, the countries of the former USSR, and the Russian authorities should not, in fact, feel linked with the Stalinist and communist period, treating it somehow as their heritage. The perpetrators are long dead, and any question of compensation could be solved. The remaining questions about Katyn are, in fact, few, and a full accounting of the notorious event is not out of reach. Resolving the unfinished business would improve relations between Poland and Russia and perhaps, after more than seventy years, lay the memory of Katyn to rest.