Katyn War Cemetery

[Ken Lin]

On April 10, 2010, a plane carrying a delegation of Polish officials, including Polish president Lech Kaczynski and dozens of high-ranking Polish military and civil officials, crashed in dense fog as it attempted to land at a Smolensk airport just inside Russia’s western border, killing all 97 passengers and crew. Kaczynski and his delegation were en route to the Katyn war cemetery not far from Smolensk, to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the Katyn forest massacre of thousands of Poles by Soviet secret police during World War II. Only a few days earlier, the Polish prime minister Donald Tusk had participated in a memorial ceremony alongside Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin, who, in a historic first for a Russian leader, had expressed his regret at the role the Soviet Union had played in carrying out the massacre, and who pledged to forge closer ties with Poland in the hopes of overcoming the strained relationship between the two nations. This historic tragedy, coupled with the plane crash and the loss of Poland’s top officials, seemed to be history repeating itself for many Poles, who turned out in their thousands to grieve in public for their fallen leaders. Katyn’s tragic legacy enshrined in the Katyn war cemetery, that still holds thousands of Polish victims’ remains and that President Kaczynski died trying to reach on that fateful April day, is one that is deeply intertwined with a historical lie perpetuated by the Soviets for years and only recently brought into line with historical fact (Reuters).

The Katyn war cemetery has its roots in a horrific state-sanctioned act. By the time the Soviet invasion of Poland began in mid-September 1939, the NKVD had already begun organizing its forces to receive captured Polish soldiers, including the construction of holding camps and transportation lines in between the camps and Soviet territory. Under the newly-created Directorate for Prisoners of War within the NKVD, all Polish officers were subjected to interrogations that led them to believe that they would be held and treated as traditional prisoners-of-war, when in reality they were being screened by their Soviet captors for eventual execution (CIA). Approximately 25,700 Poles were held in three large camps in the Western borderlands of the Soviet Union – most were military officers and NCOs, along with substantial numbers of policemen, civil servants, and other public officials (About Memorial).

Beria's AuthorizationDocumentation from within the highest ranks of the Soviet leadership, declassified and released to the public only with the fall of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s, revealed that the directive to execute the nearly thousands of Polish officers and assorted other prisoners came from the top. An NKVD memorandum from secret police chief Lavrenti Beria recommending the execution of Polish prisoners, and counter-signed by premier Joseph Stalin and several other high-ranking Politburo members, was just one piece of evidence that would eventually come to light. The ultimate order signed and dated by Stalin on March 5, 1940 condemned the Polish prisoners to death by shooting for being “hardened and uncompromising enemies of Soviet authority” – The easiest way for the Soviets to assert control over conquered Poland would be to ensure that the entire military leadership system and prominent public figures were dealt a serious blow from which they could not recover from sufficiently to mount any serious resistance (CIA).

The implementation of Stalin’s orders was carried out with brutal efficiency. From March to April 1940, the thousands of Polish officers held at the Kozielsk concentration camp were taken to the woods of Katyn, 12 miles from Smolensk, and systematically shot and buried in mass graves (Szacka and Castle, 9). The final list of victims included: “an admiral, two generals, 24 colonels, 79 lieutenant colonels, 258 majors, 654 captains, 17 naval captains, 3,420 NCOs, seven chaplains, three landowners, a prince, 43 officials, 85 privates, and 131 refugees. Also among the dead were 20 university professors; 300 physicians; several hundred lawyers, engineers, and teachers; and more than 100 writers and journalists as well as about 200 pilots” (CIA). Poles held at other camps were taken to separate sites in the Western borderlands and similarly disposed of, their existence and eventual fate to be denied by the Soviets following requests for information from Polish authorities in the following years (History).

The initial discovery of the massacre occurred when German military forces entered the area in the early stages of Operation Barbarossa, the invasion of the Soviet Union. A German news report on April 12, 1943 announced on the radio the discovery of mass graves at Katyn by German units, who eventually uncovered over 4,000 bodies in the mass graves. Most of the victims were Polish officers, identified by documents found on the bodies, and had been shot execution-style in the back of the neck. Soviet authorities quickly announced days later that the Poles must have been killed by the Germans, falsely claiming that German forces operating near Smolensk in 1941 had captured a number of Polish prisoners during the invasion, and that the graves contained the bodies of those prisoners. The conflicting reports in the midst of the ongoing hostilities frustrated efforts to ascertain the true story of the incident (Bell, 63-4).

When the Red Army conquest German forces in the Western borderlands was achieved in mid-1943, all efforts were made to ensure the myth that German forces had committed the massacre at Katyn, with the Soviets going so far as to form the “Special Commission for Ascertaining and Investigating the Circumstances of the Shooting of Polish Officers by the German-Fascist Invaders” – a title that pre-emptively indicted the Germans before the commission even began it’s “fact-finding” mission (Overy, 295-6). A small cemetery at Katyn constructed by the Polish Red Cross with German permission was demolished, and another commission appointed by Moscow to investigate the Katyn massacre in particular concluded that the victims had been killed in 1941 by occupying German units. U.S. military intelligence investigations, including one sponsored personally by U.S. President Franklin Roosevelt, all concluded that the Soviet Union, not Germany, was responsible for the killings; however, political considerations and the need to maintain stable relations with the Soviets outweighed these findings, and so the conclusions of these investigations were put on the backburner and ultimately faded from public interest (CIA).

The façade continued, and even intensified, with the end of hostilities. At the International Military Tribunal in Nuremberg, the Soviet prosecution team was ordered by Stalin to ensure that no mention was made of the Soviet role in the Katyn massacre and to maintain the story that Germany was responsible for the killings. The Soviet prosecutors went so far as to list the Katyn massacre as one of the war crimes Germany should be held responsible for, using the “findings” of the Special Commission for Ascertaining and Investigating the Circumstances of the Shooting of Polish Officers by the German-Fascist Invaders to try to close the issue without debate. The other prosecutors’ attempts to delve into further investigation by hearing witness testimony were rebuffed by the Soviets, and ultimately the tribunal left the matter officially unresolved (Overy, 295-6).

Soviet attempts to bury the true circumstances of the massacre did not end there, going so far as to actively suppress any public discussion or mentions of what had happened at Katyn. There were several instances in which the Poles tried to erect memorials to the victims, notably in 1981 when the Solidarity movement put up a simple memorial only to have it removed by Communist officials. This was followed by the erection of a Communist-sponsored memorial in Poland that read: “To the Polish soldiers–victims of Hitlerite fascism–reposing in the soil of Katyn”. The Soviets thus perpetuated the myth that they had taken great pains to construct and preserve for posterity, depriving the victims’ families and the Polish of knowledge of the true circumstances of the deaths of their fallen kin (CIA).

The myth collapsed with the disintegration of the Soviet Union, alongside many other historical myths that the Soviets had advanced as fact. With the rise of Mikhail Gorbachev and his implementation of policies to promote glasnost, the Russian government in 1987 agreed to work with Polish authorities to investigate historical “blank spots”, although Katyn was ostensibly excluded from the list of subjects. Public pressure began to mount in Poland over Soviet stalling on the issue, and in October 1990 Gorbachev released documents to Polish military authorities that implicated Beria and NKVD authorities as being the ones solely responsible for the Katyn massacre – insulating Party officials from blame and having the established criminals of the NKVD take the fall. But the façade could not hold out for much longer (CIA).

Any doubts of Soviet complicity ended with the administration of Gorbachev’s predecessor Boris Yeltsin. Following the discovery of the Katyn massacre orders signed by Stalin and the Politburo’s ruling members among Gorbachev’s papers, Yeltsin turned over the papers to the Polish government. In the following year Polish and Russian teams began excavating the graves at Katyn, and in April 1995 more previously declassified documents concerning Katyn were released (CIA). A spokesman for the Russian security services publicly stated that a total 21,857 Polish soldiers were shot by the NKVD at three locations. The documents showed that the Poles had been classified as “nationalists” and that the executioners had been decorated for their part (Overy, 296).

In October 1996, the Russian government formally approved the process to begin planning the construction of memorials in Katyn and Mednoye to honor the victims of Soviet premier Joseph Stalin’s terror, through the issuance of a directive entitled “On creation of the memorial complexes in the places of the mass graves of Soviet and Polish citizens – victims of totalitarian repression – Katyn (Smolensk) and Mednoye (Tver)”. Ground was broken in May 1999 and construction of the site was completed the following June. Sponsored by the Russian Ministry of Culture and the Council for the Protection of Memory, Struggle and Martyrdom of the Republic of Poland, the memorial was officially opened by the Russian government on July 28, 2000 as the first such memorial dedicated solely to recognizing the victims of Stalin’s terror (History).

Visitors passing through the main entrance walk between two large burial mounds bordered by sloping, angular walls. The gate that stands in between the two mounds is a large glass door, which the architects intended to represent “the delicate line between this world and the world of the past”. Just inside the front entrance is a recreation of one of the boxcars used to transport victims to and from their places of execution (nicknamed the “gulag on wheels), and adjacent to the boxcar is a pathway that leads to the first of the gravesites – approximately 500 Red Army soldiers, executed by the Germans in May 1942 (About Memorial). These features of the memorial spare no expense in reconstructing the experiences that the condemned prisoners faced in their final hours, as the actual memorials are rather minimal in scope and remain a simple configuration of markers and monuments that still preserve the natural aesthetics of the Katyn woods.

A walkway named the Alley of Memory, symbolizing the bonds of Slavic brotherhood, connects the gravesites of Russian victims to the section of the memorial devoted to holding the Polish remains. The Polish section consists of eight graves: six mass graves containing over 4,000 Polish officers, and two individual graves holding the remains of the two executed generals, Bogatyrevich and Smoravinsky. An altar stands at the head of the area, behind which is a wall inscribed with the names of the victims interred at the location. A large symbolic bell stands in a pit below-ground, ostensibly as a symbolic warning to the world to heed the dangers of oppression and tyranny (About Memorial). The juxtaposition of these two sets of victims, Russian and Polish, may be viewed as an attempt on the part of the Russians to emphasize the Soviet Union’s brutality towards ethnic Russians as well as Poles, perhaps to downplay any insistence that the Katyn massacre was directed at the Polish state alone.

It should be noted that the remains of the murdered Poles have remained at the site of their original burial, which speaks volumes about the greater memory-based role that the cemetery itself plays in commemorating the brutal massacres. To disturb the resting place of Poland’s elites and remove them from their present location would be to move on from the incident – an almost sacrilegious gesture. Preserving the burial site allows the memory of the massacre to live on and to ensure that its effects are never forgotten, and that those who visit and pass through the cemetery are able to witness firsthand the sheer size and scale of the mass graves that the Soviets left behind.

The fact that Poland was dominated by the Soviets during and after the war for a half-century meant that collective memory was inexplicably shaped by the need to legitimize the socialist victory over Germany. To that end, anything that would tarnish the reputation of the Soviet Union or the paternal role of the Soviets over the “liberated” Poles was expunged from the historical record and any opposition voices were stifled by authorities. Events such as the Katyn massacre did not appear in any public discourse or documentation, as the Soviets had ensured that the incident left no survivors left to pass on the memory to later generations. During the 1980s with the rise to prominence of the Solidarity movement, the “Eastern martyrdom” of Poland was pushed by resistance movements that challenged the status quo of the Soviet Union and the Red Army as the saviors of Poland and the downplaying of the Polish military role in World War II (Szacka and Castle 12-4).

The April 2010 crash of the Polish president’s aircraft not far from the hallowed grounds of the Katyn war cemetery solidified the role of Katyn in Poland’s collective, tragedy-riddled memory. A 2004 survey of the Polish public showed that of all the war’s events, Katyn was cited by the most, 30% of respondents, as requiring investigation to establish the full truth of the event (Szacka and Castle, 14). Though Russian officials have admitted responsibility for carrying out the massacres, the half-century of fictitious and distorted summary of events no doubt has grave implications for the trustworthiness of the former Soviet states, as well as the working relationship of Poland and Russia in the near-future. Any discourse between two countries cannot be received as useful if there is no trust in the relationship, and trust can only be accomplished when both sides come to a consensus on even the most troubled aspects of their shared history.


Works cited

  • Barbara Szacka and Marjorie Castle. “Polish Remembrance of World War II.” International Journal of Sociology, 36(4): 8-26.
  • Memorial Katyn. “About Memorial.” Accessed March 11, 2012. http://www.katyn-memorial.ru/en/about-memorial.html.
  • Memorial Katyn. “History.” Accessed March 11, 2012. http://www.katyn-memorial.ru/en/history.html.
  • P.M.H. Bell. “Censorship, Propaganda and Public Opinion: The Case of the Katyn Graves, 1943.” Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, Fifth Series, 39(1989 ed.): 63-83.
  • Reuters. “Poland mourns president, elite killed in crash.” Last modified April 10, 2010. http://www.reuters.com/article/2010/04/10/us-poland-president-crash-idUSTRE6390NQ20100410.
  • Richard Overy, Russia’s War, A History of the Soviet War Effort: 1941-1945. (London: Penguin Books Ltd., 1997).
  • U.S. Central Intelligence Agency. “The Katyn Controversy: Stalin’s Killing Field.” Last modified June 27, 2008. https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/csi-studies/studies/winter99-00/art6.html.