By Paul Goble
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin has received enormous and largely uncritical international praise for taking part in the commemoration of the Katyn tragedy and for allowing Andrzej Wajda’s film about the Soviet execution of 22,000 Polish officers there in 1940 to be shown on Russian television.
But a careful reading of his remarks, Boris Sokolov suggests in an essay posted on Grani.ru today, shows that Putin not only was unprepared to acknowledge many aspects of that horrific act but openly lied about it to bring pressure on Poland to stop raising the issue either bilaterally or internationally (grani.ru/opinion/sokolov/m.176846.html).
In his speech, the Grani.ru commentator notes, Putin spoke about “the joint path to making sense of national memory and historical wounds” as being a means to allowing Russians and Poles to “avoid the dead-end of a lack of understanding and eternal settling of scores, the primitive division of peoples into right and guilty, as some dirty politicians sometimes try to do.”
The Russian prime minister added that “in our country has been given a clear political, legal and moral assessment of the misdeeds of the totalitarian regime, and such assessment is not subject to any revisions.” His Polish counterpart Donald Tusk agreed that “the truth about Katyn must not divide the Russian and Polish peoples.”
Such words sound entirely correct, and compared to earlier statements by Russian officials, they represent a significant step forward. But one cannot fail to be struck, Sokolov says, that “the Russian premier spoke more about his sympathy to the victims and said almost nothing about the responsibility of [their] executioners.”
Moreover, Putin declared that for decades, people had attempted to distort “the truth about the Katyn shootings” and to “lay the blame [for them] on the Russian people.” Such a formulation misstates the case of all those who have examined the Katyn murders: those who do hold responsible for them “not the Russian people but the Russian state.”
That of course is a problem for Putin: Not only has the Russian government “declared itself to be the legal successor of the USSR,” but it could eventually face calls to accept “moral responsibility for Katyn” and even “to pay compensation” to the relatives of those who were massacred there.
But there were other parts of Putin’s remarks that were even more cynical and duplicitous, Sokolov suggests. Putin specifically said that “the only thing that can limit access to information about the Katyn tragedy are considerations of a humanitarian character.” Apparently, he fears that relatives of the victims might engage in violence to get it.
“In fact,” the most commentator continues, “these ‘humanitarian reflects’ are called upon only to justify the lack of a desire by the Russian military prosecutor to declassify the accusatory conclusion about the Katyn case where all the supposedly guilty are listed by name. And the concern here,” Sokolov notes, “is not about Polish but about Russian society.”
That is because the Polish Institute of National Memory already has them, but if these documents were declassified, then they would be “no obstacles” to their publication in Russia, and “the country at last would find out the names of its heroes from the punitive organs.” And that, Sokolov point out, is something the Russian powers that be “do not want.”
Equally offensive were Putin’s efforts to link Katyn to the deaths of Soviet soldiers in 1920 at the hands of the Poles. While saying he was “ashamed” that he didn’t know before about Stalin’s role in the Red Army’s drive on Warsaw, Putin nonetheless said that “32,000” Red Army soldiers had died as Polish prisoners “from hunger and disease.”
Both the number Putin cites and the way he uses it are of interest. Polish sources speak about 18-20,000 Red Army soldiers who died in captivity, while certain Russian “hurrah-patriots” give a number of 60,000 or more. Putin clearly chose one that had this virtue: “it exceeds the number of Poles shot by the NKVD in the spring of 1940.”
The Russian prime minister then implied not only that deaths from illness and starvation were equivalent to shootings but that Stalin had remembered the situation in 1920 and in 1940 was simply taking revenge against the Poles. Given what is known about Stalin, Sokolov suggests, that is highly improbable.
On the one hand, Stalin at all times treated those Soviet soldiers who were taken prisoner as enemies of the state. He would hardly have taken revenge on anyone for how they were treated. And on the other hand, Putin’s suggestion that there is “no rational explanation” for why Stalin killed some Poles and exiled others is simply absurd.
As Sokolov notes, the Polish officers were shot because their continued survival was a threat to Moscow’s interests, and only their relatives of the few Polish officers prepared to cooperate with Stalin, like Vladislav Anders and Zygmund Bering, were sent to the Siberian and Central Asian camps.
As Sokolov notes, Stalin wanted to completely control the Polish army and the Polish state, and the continued existence of an anti-Soviet Polish officer corps was not in his interest. Stalin expected, Sokolov says, that Hitler would be stopped at the Maginot Line and that France and England along with the Polish government in exile would ally themselves with him.
Further, in the course of his speech, Putin could not restrain himself from suggesting that Soviet prisoners of war, executed by the Nazis, lie alongside the executed Polish officers and Soviet citizens who were repressed in 1937-38 by the NKVD – even though research has shown that the Nazis did not shoot Soviet POWs at Katyn.
And in a related effort, Putin tried to suggest that “the shooting of almost 22,000 Poles in the spring of 1940 was part of the crimes of Stalin against Soviet citizens.” Specifically, the Russian premier, said that “the repressions destroyed people regardless of nationality, convictions or religions.”
The “logic” of Stalin’s actions was simply “to sow fear, to awaken in men the most base instincts, to set people one against another, and to force them blindly and insanely to admit their guilt.” Thus, Putin attempted in a “not too elegant” way to block any accusations of genocide regarding what happened in Katyn.
But that too is a lie. Stalin focused on nationality: “Not long before Katyn, in 1937-38, the NKVD conducted an operation on ‘national contingents,’ in the frameworks of which were short or thrown into the camps hundreds of thousands of Poles, Germans, Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, and representatives of other ‘ill-intentioned’ nationalities.”
The “entire guilt” of these whole peoples as research by Russian and Western historians has repeatedly shown “consisted in the fact that they had their own states beyond the borders of the USSR” and thus could not be assumed to be totally loyal to Stalin and his regime, Sokolov notes.
Consequently, Sokolov concludes, “in the course of the memorial ceremonies, no historic breakthrough on the Katyn question in which Polish politicians and society had placed so much hope in fact took place. Putin did not even hand over any new declassified documents or declare that investigations would be re-started.
Instead, even as Putin received plaudits from the international media about his appearance, Russian officials refused to hand over materials to Strasbourg, never once using the words “crime” or “murder” to describe Katyn but preferring to talk about the shooting there as “a case” or “the events in Katyn.”
The showing of Wajda’s film on Russian television was important and a positive step, “although if the film had been shown on one of the two main television channels [and not on a lesser one as was in fact the case, although seldom reported], a great deal more people would have learned the truth about Katyn.”