The Russians admitted responsibility for the crime in Katyn and even apologized for it. However, in their admission they embedded a false picture of the symmetry of liability. The murder of Polish officers was allegedly committed in retaliation for a “genocide” that never was.
In the USSR, the version of German responsibility remained in force for half a century – until a TASS agency communiqué, published on April 13th, 1990, announced that “recently” revealed materials “allow for the attribution of direct responsibility for the Katyn massacre” to the NKVD leadership. However, the Kremlin immediately decided to minimize the PR damage. President Mikhail Gorbachev instructed the Academy of Sciences, the Prosecutor’s Office, the Defense Ministry, the NKVD, and other state institutions to conduct research in archives to find evidence of crimes committed by Poles against Soviet citizens up to April 1st, 1991. The data was to be used “if necessary” in talks with Warsaw on the problem of terra incognita.
The last leader of the USSR, winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, enjoying great respect in the West and a reputation as a democrat, liberal, and opponent of censorship, was not going to simply admit that the Soviets murdered Poles without any reservations. Gorbachev decided to build a false symmetry of blame in order to show that Poles were also criminals. It was at a time when Russia had perhaps the greatest freedom of speech in history that the falsifying propaganda concept known as “anti-Katyn” was created.
Quite quickly, it was recognized that the ideal weapon to strike at Poland in the context of historical memory could be the story of the tragedy of Soviet prisoners of war taken during the Polish-Bolshevik war. The protocols of the peace talks held in Riga were used as “proof” of the crime. At the time, the representative of the Soviet delegation, Adolf Joffe, stated that about 60,000 Red Army men had died in Polish prisoner-of-war camps. Stefania Sempołowska of the Russian Red Cross reported on their dire situation. Thus, the “anti-Katyn” disinformation operation was launched in the early 1990s. The narrative developed at the behest of the Kremlin sounded more or less as follows: Poles committed mass genocide against Soviet POWs in the war of 1919-21, while the murder in Katyn was only revenge. And it was revenge not only against the Polish state in general, but also against specific perpetrators. It has been argued that the very officers who were executed in Katyn were those who had murdered the Red Army two decades earlier. This thesis was pushed by serious historians, military experts, as well as publicists or journalists. Polish POW camps were called “concentration camps” or “death camps,” which evoked obvious associations with Nazi crimes.
Two years after the confession, Boris Yeltsin officially apologized to Poland. The Polish side, however, was not going to be satisfied with the apology, laconically expressed in a TASS agency communiqué. Warsaw sought to punish the perpetrators of the crime. And it was then that Russia, ruled by Yeltsin, who like Gorbachev mistakenly regarded by the West as a liberal democrat, used the “anti-Katyn” whip. When Poland demanded an investigation into the Katyn massacre, the Russian side responded by demanding an investigation into the fate of Soviet POWs in Polish captivity. Moscow explicitly called the Red Army tragedy “genocide,” committed at the behest of the Polish authorities. Prosecutor General Hanna Suchocka protested against such a qualification of the act. She argued that unlike the Soviets, who were guilty of the Katyn massacre, the Poles did not use any special measures to exterminate those in captivity. She also suggested to the Russians that they should conduct a search of Polish archives and see for themselves that there was no order to liquidate the Red Army men. There was no response to this proposal for several years.
However, the Russians finally decided to look for arguments for their narrative on Polish territory as well. In 2002, by the initiative of Vladimir Putin, a team of historians from both countries was formed. Russian researchers analyzed several thousand documents in Polish archives, to which they had unrestricted access. Careful, painstaking reading of the documents did not yield the propaganda results expected by the Kremlin. Russian historians found no evidence that the deaths of the Red Army soldiers were the result of a top-down, organized action by the Polish authorities. Their findings showed that of the 115,000 Soviet POWs taken into Polish captivity between 1919-20, 67,000 returned to Russia as part of a prisoner exchange, and about a thousand remained in Poland. Less than 19,000 died in Polish camps mainly of infectious diseases or from dire living conditions. The remainder enlisted in Russian, Belarusian, and Ukrainian military formations, fighting the Bolsheviks in alliance with Poland.
The lack of evidence for the alleged Polish genocide did not prevent the Russians from continuing to promote unfounded accusations. In 2005, the deputy secretary of the Security Council of the Russian Federation said that if Poland expected an apology for Katyn, it should first apologize itself for the deaths of tens of thousands of Red Army soldiers who died in Polish concentration camps. In April 2010, just before the Katyn ceremonies and the Smoleńsk catastrophe, Philip Igumen of the Russian Orthodox Church’s foreign relations department admitted that Stalin’s regime was responsible for both crimes against its own people and the murder of Polish officers. He added, however, that what Poles did to Soviet prisoners of war during the Polish-Bolshevik war should also be called a crime. When Duma deputies were discussing the text of a resolution condemning the Katyn massacre a few months later, an activist from the Communist Party of the Russian Federation suggested that then-President Dmitry Medvedev demand an explanation from the Poles about the fate of the Red Army men allegedly killed in captivity. In December 2010. Medvedev complied with this demand, speaking during a visit to Poland not only about Katyn, but also about Soviet prisoners of war who “died” in captivity.
Vladimir Putin invariably bought into this narrative. In 2001, he stated publicly that, while it was important to remember Soviet responsibility for Katyn, one should not forget “the Polish concentration camps in Tuchola and Puławy, Strzałkow, and Baranowicze, where (…) 80,000 Red Army prisoners of war were barbarously murdered and tortured on a cruelty scale surpassing that practiced by the criminals in Auschwitz.” Putin also addressed the matter during the commemoration of the 70th anniversary of Katyn on April 7th, 2010. “I am ashamed to admit it, but I did not know that in 1920 in the Polish-Soviet war Stalin personally commanded (…) And then, as you know, the Red Army suffered defeat. Many Red Army soldiers were taken prisoner. According to the latest data, 32,000 of them died of starvation and disease in Polish captivity (…) I suppose, I repeat, it is my personal opinion, that Stalin felt personal responsibility for this tragedy. And, secondly, he ordered this execution, driven by a sense of revenge,” Putin said at a joint press conference with Donald Tusk. However, he added at the same time that even if Stalin was driven by a feeling of revenge, this does not make the criminal act any less criminal. “For decades of cynical lies, attempts have been made to hide the truth about the Katyn executions, but it would be the same lie to put the responsibility for these crimes on the Russian people,” Putin noted.
“Stalin’s Katyn revenge” – an article with such a title appeared in February 2011 in the pages of Komsomolskaya Pravda, Russia’s most widely read newspaper and Putin’s favorite bulwark. The author, writer and columnist Nikolai Dobriucha, argued that Stalin perceived the defeat in the war with Poland as his personal failure. “Strictly speaking, this clash was lost by the future Marshal Tukhachevsky under Trotsky’s military authority, but politically, Lenin (as head of the Soviet government) tied his hopes for victory in this war to Stalin in the first place. Little did the Poles conquer a significant portion of Russian territory at the time. An even greater tragedy was the fact that the Polish took captive tens of thousands of the ‘Red Oprichniks’1 most loyal to Stalin (including those from Budionny’s 1st Horse Army), condemning them to a martyr’s death in concentration camps,” Dobriucha argued.
Writing about “an important part of Russian territory” conquered by the Poles, the columnist was referring to the Eastern Borderlands, which Soviet Russia treated as its property, due to it as an inheritance from the empire of the tsars. Dobriucha stated, in line with a narrative devised back in the 1990s, that “Those executed in Katyn were primarily officers and gendarmes who manifested sadism toward Soviet citizens between 1919-1922.” The NKVD, following a class key, spared ordinary soldiers instead. According to the author, “Stalin would not have been himself if he had forgotten the brutality of the Polish officers with which they abused his comrades-in-arms. It is to be understood that these fascist officers should be judged by the Polish people themselves, not the NKVD. In fact, they have every right to do so today! Especially since Russia has set an example by apologizing for its crimes by building a memorial in Katyn. Russia has already repented. And it continues to repent. Now it’s time for Poland!”
Despite attempts to relativize the crime and dilute responsibility for it, a Polish War Cemetery was established in Gnezdovo near Katyn between 1999-2000, where anniversary ceremonies were held annually with the participation of Polish government representatives. However, in 2017, the anti-Katyn narrative reached even there. Just before the next commemoration, the Russians set up “information” boards at the necropolis, dedicated to “tragic facts of the Polish-Soviet war.” “Based on the reports of the Red Cross, reports and accounts of the Polish authorities, testimonies of the American Christian Youth Association, and other documents, the conditions in the POW camps were terrifying. Damp and under-insulated barracks and semi-dormitories, poor and irregular nutrition, lack of footwear and clothing, infectious diseases, brutal and cruel treatment of POWs, unpredictability of the camp administration – all this led to the extermination of tens of thousands of Red Army POWs,” the plaques proclaimed.
In February 2018, the deputy chairman of the Duma’s foreign affairs committee, Dmitry Novikov, wrote an extensive essay proving that an independent Poland came into being thanks to Russia. He analyzed the history of both countries. Among other things, he stated that if it had not been for the “larcenous” provisions of the Riga Treaty (as a result of which Russia was “robbed” of the lands incorporated into Poland), the history of mutual relations would have turned out quite differently. Then “there would have been no need for the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact or the Red Army’s Liberation March (i.e. the USSR’s invasion of Poland on September 17th, 1939 – ed. note). The Katyn tragedy, the roots of which must be sought in the Polish Red Army death camps, would not have occurred.”
It is worth adding that outside the mainstream of public opinion in Russia, there are voices no longer even relativizing but denying Soviet guilt for Katyn. Their most prominent representative is Yuri Mukhin, a metallurgical engineer by profession, a Stalinist by avocation and author of “unmasking” pseudo-historical books in which he “proves” German responsibility for shooting Polish officers. This is a marginal phenomenon, but it’s growing. The Kremlin officially does not support the theses of the deniers, but the cult of Stalin, which has been returning in recent years and has been quietly accepted by the authorities, means that Katyn deniers are gaining ground. Some radicals, such as Stalinist Alexander Prokhanov do not so much question the guilt of the USSR as consider it a great mistake to admit it.
Either way, the dominant narrative remains the same – Katyn is a Soviet crime, but one carried out in revenge for Polish crimes. And revenge, as a rule, is just. Moscow’s official message thus suggests that the “genocide” against Soviet POWs was even morally worse than Katyn. It was the Poles who “threw the stone first,” they are the ones to blame. So much for the “anti-Katyn” story, it is not only the thesis that Poles murdered POWs that is false, but also the notion that Katyn may have been an act of retaliation. Red Army men who were captured were treated by Stalin as traitors. This was the case not only during World War II. As historians from the Memorial association found, Soviet POWs who returned from Polish “death camps” to the USSR were accused of spying for Poland. They were subjected to repression as part of the NKVD’s so-called “Polish operation.” Indeed, Stalin took revenge for the personal defeat of 1920. And not on Polish officers, but on his own.
1 a reference to the soldiers that were members of the Oprichnina, a corps established by Tsar Ivan the Terrible to govern the territory of Russia that was under his direct jurisdiction from 1565 to 1572.
This article was published in November 2022 in “Do Rzeczy” magazine.