David Satter: Russia’s Missing Apology for Katyn

A pall of death still hangs over the beautiful Katyn Forest in Western Russia where, in the spring of 1940, thousands of Polish officers were shot to death on orders of Stalin and his principal henchmen. The crime of these Polish officers, in the words of Soviet secret police chief Lavrenti Beria was that they were “sworn enemies of Soviet power, full of hatred for the Soviet system.” In all, during seven weeks in April and May (some 8 months after the Soviet invasion of Poland), more than 14,000 Polish prisoners of war were taken to three killing sites, two in Russia and one in Ukraine, and executed one by one. In addition, more than 7,000 Poles in Soviet prisons in Ukraine and Belorussia were executed.

The mass killing of helpless prisoners was intended to destroy the leadership of a possible independent Poland. In the words of a Polish Senate resolution adopted April 1, 2005, it was an attempt to destroy Poland by means of the “liquidation of the most valuable of its citizens."

On Saturday, April 10, the world received another grim reminder of Katyn as a plane carrying Polish president Lech Kaczynski and dozens of other Polish leaders traveling to Russia to mark the seventieth anniversary of the tragedy crashed in heavy fog, killing all aboard. Russian president Dmitry Medvedev called for the unity of the Russian and Polish peoples and made Monday a day of mourning for the victims. Moscow vowed full cooperation with the Poles on the crash investigation.

Many ordinary Russians left flowers at the Polish embassy and the crash site. None of this, however, changed a basic reality that continues to affect the Russian attitude to Katyn today—the determination of the Putin government to treat the communist past as a worthy part of Soviet history. To this end, Russia continues to promote a false interpretation of Katyn, declines to apologize for it, and refuses to release the results of a 14-year investigation that includes the names of all of the presumed parties to the massacre.

The false official explanation for Katyn was on display during Putin’s speech at Katyn last week, before the plane crash. Putin said that Katyn was an act of “revenge” by Stalin for the deaths of “32,000 Red Army prisoners” in Polish prisoner of war camps in 1920. In fact, there is no evidence for any revenge or support for Putin’s figure of 32,000 dead. According to Polish figures, 18,000 to 20,000 Red Army prisoners died, mostly from typhus. The purpose of the semi-official Russian version of Katyn as “revenge,” is to confuse public opinion—particularly, Russian opinion—by suggesting Soviet and Polish acts were equivalent.

Besides the intentional misinterpretation of the Katyn massacre, the Russian regime refuses to apologize for it.

Putin’s visit to Katyn was the first by a Russian prime minister. “We bow our heads before those who died a courageous death here,” said Putin. But he made no apology. He also denounced attempts to blame Katyn on the Russian people—but, bizarrely, this question has never been raised. The issue is the responsibility of the Russian state as the legal successor to the Soviet Union.

Moreover, the Putin regime has refused to release the results of Russia’s investigation into Katyn, which was closed in 2005. Of 183 volumes of collected material, 116 were declared state secrets. Yet under Russian law, information about the violation of rights cannot be treated as a secret. The Poles estimate that 2,200 persons bore guilt for their participation in the Katyn crime. Under Polish law, those who carry out criminal orders are guilty and so are those who cover up these crimes. To make their case against those involved in the crimes, if only for the historical record (since virtually all the offenders would now be deceased), the Poles need documents. There are undoubtedly such documents in the record of the Russian investigation, which is believed to contain information not presently known, including details of the fates of individuals.

Attempts to seek justice in the Russian courts have been futile. Relatives of ten murdered Polish officers appealed against the closing of the investigation, but the court ruled there was no proof that the Polish victims were really killed in Katyn—thus, the relatives could not be considered to be injured parties and cannot file a case. However, the relatives’ lawyer, Anna Stavitskaya, argued that the ten officers were on the lists of persons to be executed and there is no evidence that anyone on those lists survived. The Russian court’s reply: they might have escaped.

This fits with a long pattern of obfuscation. For 50 years, the Soviet government insisted that the Polish officers were killed at Katyn by Nazis. In 1990, Gorbachev finally admitted Soviet guilt and put the blame on “Stalinism.” But, since then, years of obstruction have had their effect. Today, a majority of Russians are opposed to an apology for the massacre. Worse, in one survey, 54 percent of the respondents said they knew nothing about it.

The reaction of the Russian government to the air disaster and the compassionate acts of ordinary Russian citizens has inspired hope in Poland that Russia is now ready to deal honestly with the question of Katyn. Adam Rotfeld, the former Polish foreign minister, has hoped that many of the outstanding issues could be resolved on the back of the current wave of Russian empathy. Unfortunately, what matters in this situation is not compassion but a commitment to historical truth. In this regard, despite the recent tragic events, nothing has changed.

David Satter is a senior fellow of the Hudson Institute and a fellow of the Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies (SAIS). He is completing a book on the Russian attitude to the Soviet past. 

Related posts