Katyn Tragedy

By Vasil Shparluk

Russia and Poland have to build their futures together

The death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski and 97 more people in a plane crash caused a universal shock. And it may seem that this tragedy has overshadowed the issues of the Second World War history. But the cruel irony of history is that the Polish delegation was flying to the commemoration ceremony in Katyn to pay tribute to Polish officers who were the prisoners of war and whom the NKVD executed there in 1940. One may involuntary perceive the current Smolensk tragedy as some continuation of the horrific war time events. Katyn events haven’t been fully comprehended yet – at least, not in contemporary Russia. But they are important for the present day.

As you know, on April 7 – three days before the disaster – a meeting between Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and Polish Prime Minister Tusk took place in Katyn in connection with the 70th anniversary of the execution of Polish war prisoners. Besides the regular officers, the dead included teachers, doctors, actors and artists – the elite of the Polish intelligentsia.

The two leaders laid wreaths to the mass graves of victims of Stalin's NKVD.

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This meeting was planned last year during Putin's visit to Poland on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the Second World War. By the way, Russian Prime Minister has mentioned the meeting in his brief statement in Katyn. Once again he was saying that the Red Army and the Poles fought together against German fascism, and that Russia and Poland have to build their futures together. Poles, for whom the Katyn tragedy and the truth about it are of national importance (Tusk called Poles “a one big Katyn family”), didn't hear an apology from the Russian leader now or back then in Gdansk.

Putin mentioned Polish officers executed on some “secret order” and the Red Army men killed in Katyn Forest by Hitler’s forces. He also spoke about the totalitarian system and the repressions of the 1930s, which, according to him, got clear legal assessment, but he didn’t mention Stalin and the NKVD. According to Putin, a “cynical lie” about Katyn and manipulations to accuse Russians of this atrocity to the benefit of “certain political groups” are equally unacceptable. (Perhaps he said that having Kaczynski in mind.)

200803kotynEven the compositions of two delegations at the commemorative event show that the countries have different approach to the Katyn tragedy. Former Polish President Lech Walesa, former Prime Minister Tadeusz Mazowiecki, film director Andrzej Wajda (prior to the event his film “Katyn” was shown for the fist time on one of Russian TV channels) and other representatives of Polish culture and clergy came to Russia together with Polish Prime Minister. As to Polish President Lech Kaczynski, he decided to visit Katyn a few days later then Prime Minister.

But the Russian delegation was much smaller. The ceremony itself consisted of two parts – one took place on the Polish side of the memorial, and another – on the Russian side. Ecumenical prayers of Polish priests of different religions – Orthodox, Catholic, Jewish and Muslim (representatives of all these religions are among those executed; Belarusians, Russians, Ukrainians and Jews are buried in Katyn) – sounded before the wreaths were laid to the graves of Poles.

On the Russian side of the memorial, where the dead Soviet citizens are buried, only an Orthodox prayer service was held. The live broadcast went only on Polish television. Though TV channel “Russia 24” announced live transmission, it showed a ceremony later as a short story. At the time when the mourning ceremonies began in Katyn, this channel was broadcasting a news conference of Russian and Slovak Presidents Dmitry Medvedev and Ivan Gasparovic in Bratislava. (The question arises: wasn’t it possible arranging the trips of the two Russian statesmen in such a way that there’s no information overlap?)

Of course, the very fact that Putin visited Katyn – for the first time since he came to power in the year 2000 – means much. Still, the Polish public was disappointed. The main disappointment was the fact that Putin, contrary to expectations, didn’t pass any documents to his Polish counterpart.

A few days before the meeting in Katyn information appeared in Polish press that Putin has reportedly promised to “fasten the search” of important tragedy-related materials in the archives of the FSB. The talk was about the so-called Belarusian list.

As early as in 1994, when President Yeltsin declassified presidential archive, it became known that after the Soviet Union accessed the eastern provinces of Poland, not only Polish prisoners of war where killed or sent to camps in Kozelsk, Ostashkov and Starobelsk – there were about 16 thousand people. A number of Polish officers who where not captured in 1939 remained living in the western regions of BSSR and USSR, i.e. in eastern regions of Poland occupied by the Soviet troops in accordance with the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact.

On practice, those people were civilians. This didn’t prevent the NKVD from arresting them, and then shooting them in prison facilities without charge or trial – the same way as it happened in Katyn.

The same year, in 1994, the list of those who were shot in Ukraine was published by the SBU. The list numbers about three and a half thousand people. About as many people, according to Polish and Russian historians, were executed in prisons of Belarus.

Russian-Prime-Minister-Vladimir-Putin-has-invited-his-Polish-counterpart-Donald-Tusk-to-jointly-visit-KatynLiterally a day before Putin’s visit to Katyn his spokesman said that Russian Prime Minister won’t transfer any documents to the Polish side there.

But did Putin have such a possibility at all? The fact is that the original Belarusian list must be sought in the KGB archives in Minsk, not in Moscow. (Looking back, the Ukrainian list was found in Kiev.) It’s hard to imagine that Belarusian Committee for State Security declassified its archive and gave its part to the FSB. If the Russian leadership is inclined to at least verbally recognize Stalin’s crimes (though trying to diminish their scope and consequences for the country,) in Belarus they knowingly conceal these crimes. There is even a tourist attraction operating not far from Minsk, which is called the Historical and Cultural Complex “Stalin Line”; the attraction is dedicated to WWII and has the monument to the leader at its entrance.

On the official KGB website the names of the security officers who became the victims of the “offences against the socialist law” are published. But there’s no place to find the names of tens of thousands innocently shot in the wooden area of Kurapaty near Minsk, while as long as twenty years ago a state committee concluded that the NKVD carried out mass shootings (including of those who were Poles by nationality) on that place in 1940 – early 1941. The current Belarusian authorities don’t want to give the memorial status to the burial place in Kurapaty. Of course, all of this bothers the leadership of Russia least of all. They are much more concerned about making their ally Belarus more compliant: Belarus’s sole head Alexander Lukashenko these days allows himself criticizing Russian leaders and even blackmailing them by flirting with the European Union. Moscow’s pressure is expressed in tightening of credit and energy policies, as well as in political and even psychological effects. The unfriendly personal relations between Lukashenko and Putin are well known. So it may be that the leak of “The Belarusian List” to the press and its possible publication without the knowledge of Belarusian “comrades” is just an attempt to friendly hint them that the FSB has its own archives. And that one may find compromising documents in these archives if he wants to. For example, the press has repeatedly mentioned earlier that Russian secret services have documents about the missing of several opposition members in Belarus in 1999 – 2000.

Russia is also trying to put different kinds of pressure on its other neighbors – such as Ukraine and Moldova. At the same time, Moscow doesn’t give up the attempts to return to the sphere of influence not only the former Soviet republics, but also their former “fraternal” republics, which are now the members of NATO and EU.

It is true that for quite some time now this is done more accurately than before. For example, earlier there were almost constant provocations against the embassies of Estonia and Latvia in Moscow, while Nashi movement and the other pro-Kremlin youth organizations were engaged in the harassment of ambassadors. Also there were the boycott campaigns against Moldovan and Georgian wines and mineral water (as we know, in the latter case the trade war became the real one.) They regularly sparked passions among the Russian minority in the Baltic States – think at least about the unrest in Tallinn over the removal of the Bronze Soldier.

And almost always the topic of the Great Patriotic War served as a convenient excuse for that kind of disorders and provocations. Russia has solely usurped victory over Nazi Germany and intensely speculated on the topic each time a new anniversary approached. The State Duma passed a whole number of laws to protect the historical truth about the war (i.e. to protect the interpretation officially adopted in Russia) from unspecified “falsifications” and to denounce the attempts to rehabilitate fascism. At the same time, different things are being mixed together: Latvian SS legions, Bandera and ... condemnation of the massive deportations in the Baltic States after the war, as well as the other Stalin’s crimes against different nations, including Poles. So far the Katyn tragedy was seen precisely from that point of view – as an attempt to discredit the great Soviet Union, to diminish its role in the victory over fascism. Some polls show that about 70 percent of Russians believe that the Poles in Katyn where shot by the Germans in 1941, as it was claimed by Soviet propaganda.

Victory-paradeHowever, in the most recent time, in connection with the 65th anniversary of the Victory, there were some adjustments in Kremlin’s behavior. The heads of the neighboring states including those perceived as hostile before – Poland and the Baltic states – were invited to the Victory Parade in Moscow. It is known that Latvian President Valdis Zatlers will visit Moscow. (His predecessor, Vaira Vike-Freiberga has already stood on the platform of the mausoleum to mark the 60th anniversary of the Victory.) Only President of Georgia, for obvious reasons, wasn’t invited. Meanwhile, Moscow Mayor Luzhkov has ordered to urgently build up in the capital the copy of the memorial to Georgian soldiers, which was recently destroyed by the authorities in the city of Kutaisi.

It was announced that the troops from Western countries, who were the allies of the Soviet Union during the war, are to march in a military parade on Red Square. On this occasion Moscow communists are already having their protest rallies. They saw this invitation to the parade as ... an indulgence to NATO aggression.

On the other hand, on May 9 the Russian forces are going to take part in the military parades in Ukraine and in the capital of the allied Belarus. This looks quiet unusual in itself. A particular importance is attached to the joint celebration of Victory Day in Sevastopol with the participation of the Russian Navy’s warships. No doubt, it is perceived as a pleasant fact in Moscow, because for many Russians the very thought that the Russian naval base should be removed from Sevastopol according to bilateral international agreements seems unbearable. The fact that Ukraine (together with the Crimea) is a sovereign state that aspires to join the united Europe seems intolerable to Russians as well.

A military parade with the participation of some foreign countries, the abolition of the decree on awarding the title of Hero of Ukraine to Bandera and some similar things can obviously amuse pride in Moscow. Someone may even gain an illusion that the past geopolitical power of the USSR is being restored. But speculations around the parade in honor of the 65th anniversary of the Victory are in no way able to change the historical tendency, which more and more pushes the countries of the former Soviet Union towards independence from Moscow and makes them more and more oriented in their policies towards the West.

There is also a certain symbolism in the fact that after a trip to Katyn on April 8 Polish Prime Minister Tusk arrived to Prague. Right after the American-Russian Strategic Arms Reduction Treaty (START III) was signed in the US embassy in Prague on April 8, the meeting of President Barrack Obama with the heads of the governments of a number of Central European countries took place. Of course, Donald Tusk was present at the event. After the meeting Polish Prime Minister said that despite Washington’s refusal to place the elements of American missile defense in Poland, the American side will keep paying attention to safety of its allies in Europe, including Poland.


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