“The Katyn Problem in Contemporary Russia”

Professor Aleksandr Guryanov’s presentation [translated from Russian] from the Katyn observances at the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress, May 5, 2010.

This is sent with permission of Professor Mark Kramer [translator] and the Harvard University Cold War Archives. It can be reprinted or reposted with acknowledgment.

“The Katyn Problem in Contemporary Russia”

Aleksandr Guryanov, “Memorial” Society

Esteemed Mr. Chairman and Ladies and Gentlemen:

First of all I would like to offer my sincere thanks to the organizers for
inviting me to this conference marking the seventieth anniversary of the Katyn crime and for giving me the honor of speaking to you as a
representative of the Russian “Memorial” Society.

The Memorial Society, in addition to its work in defending human rights in Russia in our own time, pursues the study of the history of political repression in the Soviet Union, documenting the fate of repressed people and assisting their moral and legal rehabilitation.

Among the millions who were repressed in the USSR from the 1930s to the 1950s for political reasons, one of the national groups most heavily affected were the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Poles and Polish citizens of other ethnic backgrounds who were subjected in the USSR to various types of repression:  mass deportations to special relocation camps in the far north and eastern regions, confinement in prisons and Gulag camps and POW camps, or the supreme punishment of being shot.

The postwar Polish historiography, which for a long while had to be based on very rough and unreliable sources, estimated the total number of repressed Polish citizens in the USSR at around 1-2 million. Although the real number turned out to be 2-3 times smaller, it still is such a large number that even now the Stalinist mass repressions evoke mistrust and even hostility among Poles toward Russia.

On the basis of Soviet archival sources, above all NKVD documents to which access became possible after 1991, we acquired a solidly based tabulation of Polish citizens who were subjected in the USSR to various types of repression for political reasons, as many as 590,000 people in total in the period from 1939 to 1956, including up to 490,000 who were repressed in the period from 17 September 1939 to August 1941, bearing in mind that during these two years more than 25,000 of them died in camps and in exile and more than 33 thousand were shot.

Among those who were shot are the 22,000 victims of the Katyn crime, who became one of the symbols not only of Soviet repressions against Poles but also of the whole Stalinist political terror in the USSR.  Memorial believes that Katyn is not only a problem in Russia¹s relations with Poland but also an internal problem in Russia itself, where the task of overcoming Stalinism is a vital necessity.

My remarks will focus on sentiments toward the Katyn crime in current-day Russia, including certain legal aspects.

Although the moral aspects are also part of the theme of our session, I will not go deeply into them because I believe they are deeply personal. Each of us decides individually and independently whether we should be seen as part of something that our country perpetrated before we were born.  My own view is that if a citizen of Russia who was born after the war believes that he has the right to be proud of the USSR¹s victory over fascism, then he also should feel responsibility for Soviet atrocities. But I do not here denigrate those who have decided on some other approach for themselves.

The majority of people in Russia have very confused impressions about the Katyn crime.  According to the sociological survey carried out in March 2010 by the highly respected Levada Center, only 43 percent of the respondents had ever heard anything about Katyn.  Only 19 percent of those who had heard of it realized that the Polish prisoners of war were shot by Soviet forces, and 28 percent of them believed that the Germans did it.  The remaining 53 percent were unable to give an answer.  Up to now, the ideas that most Russians have about Katyn have been shaped mainly by a lack of knowledge of basic facts pertaining to the Katyn crime and by the many years of Soviet propagandistic lies about Katyn.

After the Germans discovered the graves in the Katyn Forest in 1943, for a stretch of 47 years the official position of the USSR was the deliberately false assertion that the Polish prisoners were shot by Hitler’s forces. This position served as the basis of the conclusion of the specially formed commission headed by academician Nikolai Burdenko.  Today we know that the essential evidence and eyewitness testimony used by the Burdenko Commission were fabricated by officers of the NKVD and NKGB.

Not until 1990 under President Gorbachev did the Soviet Union acknowledge its guilt in perpetrating the Katyn crime and transfer to Poland lists of prisoners of war who were executed.  In 1992, at the directive of President Yeltsin, documents were turned over proving that the extralegal shootings of Polish citizens were perpetrated at the direct order of the leadership of the USSR.  These materials included:

            — a memorandum from the minister of internal affairs Beria with the proposal to shoot Polish prisoners of war and regular prisoners, a document bearing the handwritten signatures of Stalin, Voroshilov, Molotov, and Mikoyan as well as a notation regarding a vote in favor by Kalinin and Kaganovich.

            — a decision taken by the VKP(b) Politburo on 5 March 1940
regarding this memorandum;

            — a very important later memorandum from 1959 from the KGB chairman Shelepin to the CPSU First Secretary Khrushchev

            and other documents.

Starting in 1990 an investigation of the Katyn crime was carried out first by the Soviet and then by the Russian Main Military Procuracy.

In 1993 President Yeltsin uttered the words “Forgive us . . .” when laying a wreath in Warsaw at the monument to the victims of Katyn. In 2000 at the site of the graves of the Polish POWs who were shot in Katyn Forest and near the village of Mednoe, a Russian-Polish memorial cemetery was officially opened.  A memorial cemetery was also opened in the Kharkiv region in Ukraine.

But it turned out that the Katyn lie in Russia had not been fully overcome.

Almost as soon as Gorbachev turned around in 1990 in acknowledging that the Polish POWs were shot by the Soviet authorities, Gorbachev himself initiated an “anti-Katyn”  putting forth the accusation against Poland of having destroyed several tens of thousands of Red Army soldiers who were in Polish captivity during the Soviet-Polish war of 1919-1920.

Although afterward as a result of joint archival research by Polish and
Russian historians it was shown that in the Polish camps no more than
18,000-20,000 Red Army prisoners perished and although their deaths resulted from malnutrition and mass disease rather than the purposeful destruction by the Polish authorities, attempts to diminish Soviet guilt for the Katyn crime by invoking the guilt of Poland for “anti-Katyn” continue in Russia to this very day.

Soon after documents were brought to light showing that the Stalinist
leadership of the USSR perpetrated the Katyn crime, current-day Russian Stalinists  the “patriot-great power advocates” and Communist deputies of parliament began and even now continue their attempts to revive the old Soviet lie about German guilt and to mislead society into believing that the documents that came to light were forgeries and were fabricated by a worldwide conspiracy of enemies of Russia.  For some 15 years, except over the past few weeks, this went on with the tacit complicity of the Russian
state authorities.

In September 2004 the “Katyn affair” investigation being carried out by the Main Military Procuracy was halted “on account of the death of the guilty.” In this connection, the main materials of the case were reclassified by one of the highest government organs  the Interdepartmental Commission on the Protection of State Secrets, the activity of which is supervised by the President of the Russian Federation.

The reclassification of the “Katyn case” materials flagrantly violates the existing Russian Law on State Secrets, which does not permit one to make a state secret and classify information about facts pertaining to violations of human rights and freedoms and also facts pertaining to violations of the law by state organs and their employees.

Despite this, the Main Military Procuracy and the Interdepartmental
Commission on the Protection of State Secrets to this day refuse to rescind their decision about reclassification.  For the past two years the Memorial Society has been trying through judicial means to get them to reconsider it. Currently the examination by the Russian authorities of our statement about declassification has not been completed.

Up to now, the Main Military Procuracy has refused to carry out the existing Russian Law on the Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression, asserting that the political motive and even the facts of the shootings concerning individual POWs cannot be established because individual documents about the shootings were not preserved.

They stated this even in relation to those who were identified in Katyn
during the German exhumations in 1943 and also those who were identified during the sporadic exhumations carried out in 1991 by the Main Military Procuracy itself.

The monuments at the memorial cemeteries in Katyn and Mednoe feature more than 4,400 and more than 6,300 personal tablets of executed POWs. Their names and surnames have been authoritatively established on the basis of NKVD documents that were brought to light in 1990 by the Soviet Union.  On 7 April 2010 Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin laid a wreath at the Katyn memorial cemetery, honoring in this manner each person whose name is inscribed on the monument.  It is paradoxical that despite this the Russian procuracy regards all those who were shot as anonymous statistics of a
multitude of nameless victims!

The Memorial Society over the past four years has been trying to achieve official acknowledgment of the names of the concrete Polish prisoners as victims of political repression  for the past three years by judicial means, bearing in mind that judicial recourse inside Russia is now nearly exhausted and we are now awaiting examination of our complaint in the European Court on Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The Main Military Procuracy, citing the secrecy it itself established,
refuses to provide the names of those whom it identified as guilty, having
said only that this includes “individuals from the leadership of the USSR NKVD,” the actions of whom were characterized by point b of Article 193-17 of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR (1926) as “an excess of authority that had adverse consequences in the presence of specially aggravating circumstances.”

Thus, Stalin and the members of the Politburo, having adopted the decision about the mass shooting of Polish citizens, are not acknowledged by the procuracy to be guilty of the Katyn crime, which previously in the TASS statement of 13 April 1990 was called “one of the most odious crimes of Stalinism.”

The crime itself, carried out at the orders of the USSR leadership and being a genuine act of state terrorism, is now characterized as an excess of authority by individual supervisory officials at the department level, in other words as their willfulness  that is, as a general criminal act to which the procuracy and the Russian courts apply the ten-year statute of limitations, refusing to resume the stalled investigation.

From our point of view, the extralegal shootings of POWs and regular
prisoners must be characterized in accordance with Points b and c of Article 6 of the Statute of the International Military Tribunal that judged the main Nazi criminals at Nuremberg, namely, as a war crime and a crime against humanity having no statute of limitations.

The Memorial Society in its recent appeal to the president of Russia,
Dmitrii Medvedev, insists on the resumption of the investigation of the
Katyn case on the ground that numerous tasks obligatory for any
investigation remain unfulfilled.  The investigation is obliged to:

            — to establish a full legal register of the names of personnel
who were shot,

            — to establish a full legal register of the names of those who
were guilty of inspiring the crime and of carrying it out at all levels, and

            — to establish a full legal characterization of the crime in
accordance with the norms of Russian and international law.

In recent weeks we have observed a definite change of position of the
Russian authorities toward the Katyn affair, something that began even before the tragic catastrophe involving the Polish presidential plane.

Prime Minister Putin took part in the commemorative ceremony in Katyn together with Polish Prime Minister Tusk and described the shootings of the Polish prisoners of war as a crime of totalitarianism.  President Medvedev publicly and even more decisively identified the perpetrators as Stalin and the Stalinist leadership.

Andrzej Wajda’s moving film was twice shown on Russian nationwide television stations.

On the official website of the Russian state archival service, the main
Soviet archival documents have been posted for general viewing, including the Beria memorandum bearing the signatures of Stalin and other members of the Politburo and the decision taken by the Politburo on 5 March 1940. This amounts to an official public attestation of the authenticity and genuineness of these documents.

In this manner the 15-year curtain of official silence around the Katyn
crime is being drawn back, which is absolutely essential to educate Russian society about the matter.

However, the Russian Main Military Procuracy continues to adhere to its former position, which contradicts the April 2010 speeches by Prime Minister Putin and President Medvedev and also contradicts the efforts being made in the mass media to inform society about the Katyn case. In the view of Memorial, what is key here are the legal steps about which I spoke and which we will achieve.

Dr. Aleksander Gurjanow, MEMORIAL (Research, Information and Public Enlightenment Center) Polish Committee of the “Memorial” Society