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Russia is Still Burying the Truth about the Katyn Massacre

Last week the European Court of Human Rights ruled that the Russian government had failed to meet its obligations to properly investigate the Katyn massacre.

In 1940 the secret police of the Soviet Union (the NKVD, forerunner of the KGB), acting on Stalin’s orders and at NKVD head Lavrenty Beria’s urging, shot 20,000 Polish war prisoners, including 5,000 Polish officers, and buried them in mass graves at Katyn. For 50 years they pretended it was the Nazis who had been the perpetrators. Only in 1990 did the Soviet Union admit the truth and open a criminal investigation. A year later, there was no Soviet Union, and a year after that, the new Russian president, Boris Yeltsin, laid a wreath on the monument to the Katyn victims and said, “Forgive us, if you can.”

However, in 2004, in a move that disclosed the meaning of Putinism, the military court of the Russian Federation closed the investigation, classified its findings, and found no one responsible. When Andrzej Wadja’s film Katyn came out in 2007, Rossiyskaya Gazeta, the official Kremlin newspaper, ran a piece by Alexander Sabov denying Russian responsibility. In the same year, 15 Polish citizens complained about this to the European Court of Human Rights.

Since 1940, three forces have combined to deny truth and justice to the Katyn victims and their families.

First, Moscow ran a long international campaign of denial. This involved barefaced lying on a grand scale, the destruction of some documents, the hiding of other documents under lock and key, and the barring of access to the site. This “vast campaign of falsification and deception” has been summarized in Victor Zaslavsky’s excellent 2008 book Class Cleansing: The Massacre at Katyn. (See an interview with Zaslavsky here.)

It was a campaign that did not balk at murder, according to Zaslavsky. When Nikolai Zorya, a member of the Soviet delegation to the Nuremberg trials, would not participate in the Kremlins falsification of history, he was found dead in his room at Nuremburg, murdered by Beria’s agents, according to Tatyana Stupnikova, a translator for the Soviet delegation. When Stalin heard of the death he said “Bury him like a dog.”

Second, Western Communist parties and fellow travelers often acted as Moscow’s partners in this campaign of Katyn denial, discrediting anyone who tried to expose the truth. As late as 1990, editions of Giuseppe Boffa’s two-volume Storia dell’Unione Sovietica, first published in the late 1970s, claimed that “The truth about the tragedy of Katyn could never be investigated objectively and remains controversial to this day. Thus whether one advocates one version of events or another depends more on ones personal political convictions than on sound research.”

Third, appeasing Western governments played along with Katyn denial. According to Zaslavsky, “The Soviet leadership could not have covered up its responsibility for the Katyn massacre for 50 years if Western governments had not played along and done all they could to withhold information, allowing various investigations to run aground.”

The dynamic was set early on. In April 1943, General Wladyslaw Sikorski of the Polish government in exile told Churchill of “proofs that the Soviet government had murdered 15,000 Polish officers and … buried in vast graves in forests, mainly around Katyn.” Churchill told the Soviet ambassador a few days later: “We’ve got to beat Hitler … this is not time for quarrels and charges.” On April 28th, the British Political Warfare Executive issued a directive: “It is our job to help to ensure that history will record the Katyn Forest incident as a futile attempt by Germany to postpone defeat by political methods.” And by June, Sikorski himself was dead in a mysterious plane crash. Zaslavsky notes that the English double agent Kim Philby had the task of informing the Soviet Secret Service of Sikorski’s movements. (To this day, many intellectuals in Britain romanticize “the Cambridge Spies” as just over-enthusiastic anti-fascists.)

British government complicity in the cover-up did not stop when the war ended. Zaslavsky notes that as late as 1972, when Polish émigrés tried to erect a memorial in the center of London to the victims of Katyn, the British government, at Soviet urging, prevented this. When the émigrés found a private site, the government stopped any official British participation at the unveiling.

All this matters for three reasons.

First, and obviously so, it matters for the victims’ families. For some glimpse of the human impact of the crime on the families, see this clip from the British historian Lawrence Rees’s powerful television series, WWII Behind Closed: Stalin, the Nazis and the West.

“Scandalous” was the reaction of Andrzej Melak, president of the Association of the Families of Katyn Victims, to the ECHR decision not to proceed. As he pointed out, when we allow immunity to perpetrators, we help to prepare the next enormity. While Melak called the judgment “incomprehensible” the court claimed, perhaps reasonably, that it had no jurisdiction to examine the complaints submitted to it because the massacre took place 10 years before the rights convention was codified in international law and over a half century before Russia acceded to that convention in 1998.

Second, the obstructionism about Katyn matters for Russia. Zaslavsky points out in his book Class Cleansing that the failure to confront the past is central to Putinism’s drive to “abandon democratization and open dealing with historical facts” and replace both with “the propagandistic elevation of the Russian Empire, the glorification of Soviet history, and the Stalinist politics of expansion once again dominate history books in schools and universities.”

Third, it matters for the rest of us. As Anne Applebaum wrote in a 1998 column, “Many in the West still seem unaware that we defeated one murderous regime with the help of another … whatever the reasons, our inability to condemn left-wing acts of terror as forcefully as right-wing acts of terror does leave open a continued source of moral confusion in the West.”

The pattern established by Katyn denial should be recognizable to us today. An authoritarian state commits a heinous act, denies the truth, and obstructs justice. Useful idiots with access to the media in the West are found to back up the authoritarians. And the response from democratic Western governments is weak and appeasing. Mutatis mutandis, isn’t that what just happened over Syria?

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