Tuesday, April 23, 2024

The return of the Katyn lie. How Russia is lying about the monstrous crime

Exhumation of Polish victims killed by the Soviets in Katyn Massacre (Source: Muzeum Katyńskie)

Stalin’s liability for the murder of Polish officers in Russia today is either distorted or denied. And yet the Katyn lie is no less dangerous to the truth about World War II than the Auschwitz lie.

Maciej Pieczyński

The most famous and radical Katyn denier is Yury Mukhin. A Stalinist, anti-Semite, and Great Russian chauvinist all in one. A metallurgical engineer by education. However, he gained fame as a historical journalist and promoter of historical revisionism. In his opinion, the Polish officers in Katyn were murdered by the Germans. He announced this thesis for the first time to his readers in 1995 in the book “Katyn crime novel”. In it he wrote: “Polish officers were killed in the Katyn forest by a German bullet in the back of the head. It’s rather unfair. A Soviet bullet – that would not be good either. Only a Polish bullet would be the highest form of justice”. This is proof that Muchin is a Stalinist in flesh and blood. In his opinion, Polish officers deserved to be killed at the hands of their countrymen because they had been taken prisoner. And this, in Stalinist standards, is treason…

Interestingly, although Muchin’s mission is to reassign the Katyn massacre to Germany, at the same time he writes and talks about Germans with much more sympathy than Poles. He calls the Third Reich “a very serious European bandit”, while he describes the Polish Second Republic as a contemptuous “European hooligan”. The Stalinist praises Hitler for his aggressive policy. Of course, towards Poland, not towards the Soviet Union. In Muchin’s opinion, “Danzig” (i.e., Gdańsk) is an eternal German city, so the Germans had the moral right to “defend their compatriots living there against the arbitrariness of Polish extremists and bureaucrats”.

Warsaw, in refusing to meet Hitler’s demands, in fact led to the outbreak of World War II: “Dumb and evil Polish politicians, in the name of their moronic ambitions, did not allow the creation of an anti-Nazi alliance, they caused World War II, in which the Polish population suffered the greatest losses in percentage”. According to Muchin, they have themselves to blame for the fact that the Germans then murdered their officers. And now, contrary to the facts, they are trying to accuse Moscow of this crime. Scandal! Moscow, according to Muchin, also has itself to blame. In 2005, this Stalinist made a pseudo-documentary entitled “Katyn vileness”. In it, he tried to prove that the order issued by Stalin to eliminate Polish officers was a fake, fabricated by Gorbachev. He compares the last leader of the USSR with Goebbels, for whom he, however, has more respect. Gorbachev, “by lying about the Soviet liability for Katyn”, allegedly blamed his own nation in order to break up the Warsaw Pact.

Muchin himself is a caricature of the most radical, pro-stalinist sympathies of the Russians, longing for the years of geopolitical splendor of the Soviet empire. His views in the mid-nineties, on the wave of Yeltsin’s Occidentalism, perceived as extreme and marginal, are now gaining more and more supporters.

Laziness of the NKVD

Katyn deniers are also treated seriously by the state media. “In an interview with the RIA Novosti agency, Vladislavas Švedas quoted a whole series of facts, which, as he argues, testify to the fact that Katyn was the work of the Nazis, and not the Stalinist leadership of the NKVD” – one can read on the agency’s website, in an article published in March 2020. Vladislavas Švedas is a historical journalist, political scientist and politician, a prominent activist of Vladimir Zhirinovsky’s Liberal Democratic Party of Russia. In an interview with a government agency, he argued that after the defeat at Stalingrad, the “Nazis” realized that military power alone was not enough for them to defeat the USSR. Therefore, they decided to break the unity of the anti-Nazi coalition by means of provocation. That is – accusing Moscow of the crimes they committed.

He included his ahistorical theses in a book published in 2007, entitled “The Mystery of Katyn”. Three years later, the second edition, entitled “Katyn. The Contemporary History of the Problem”. The author explained the revised edition appeared due to “great interest of the readers”, but also the need to react to current events. Švedas criticized the policy of the Kremlin, which, after the Smolensk catastrophe, made a few gestures towards Poland, unequivocally emphasizing Stalin’s liability for the crime. “Contemporary anti-Stalinists are successfully using Stalin’s methods of suppressing dissent”, Švedas wrote.

The journalist cites in his books and media statements absurd-sounding, alleged “evidence” of German liability. For example, the murdered officers were to be buried in full uniform, along with military decorations prohibited by the regulations of the Soviet POW camps. Another piece of “proof”: the mass graves were very deep and filled with many layers of evenly arranged corpses, and yet it is known that only the Germans, famous for their love of order, would be capable of doing something of the sort – the NKVD would not want to put so much effort, and the Gestapo men had to care about filling the carefully dug pits as much as possible.

Moreover, the falsification of the crime was also evidenced by the fact that some of the officers whose names were on the Katyn list announced by the Germans did not actually die in the Katyn forest. There could not be a mistake, it had to be made up! – suggests the Russian columnist. He calls “blaming” the Soviets for the crime committed near the forests of Smolensk “the Nazi-Polish version”.

The Polish victims of the Katyn Massacre after exhumation, 1943 (Source: Wikimedia Commons)

Two years ago, Elena Prudnikova published a book entitled, “Katyn. A lie that became history”. Prudnikova, a journalist, like Muchin, has no historical background. She has a degree in physics. In the introduction to the book, she points out that there are two, well-documented and argued versions of what happened in Katyn: Hitler’s fault and Stalin’s fault. In the course of her considerations, she also examines the problem of liability from an “ethical” point of view. In her opinion, since the Red Army liberated Poland from Hitler, who murdered about a quarter of the Polish population, filing claims against the state “thanks to which not only Poland, but also Poles still exist on the globe”, is simply unconceivable. Ultimately, Prudnikova agrees with the first version. On the cover of the book, above the title, there is a motto, a quote from Stalin: “After my death, a mountain of garbage will spill onto my grave, but the wind of history will ruthlessly dispose of it!”.

Katyn. Speculations on tragedy”, is the title of a non-fiction story by Grigory Goriacheenkov, published in 2016. The writer introduces readers to “the history of Polish officers, prisoners of three special Gulag camps in the Smolensk region, shot by the German occupiers in the fall of 1943”. “The book unmasks the insinuations of anti-Soviet and Russo-phobic authors about the circumstances of the tragic death of Poles” – one read in a note advertising the publication.

Kremlin’s Torpedo

Mukhin, Švedas, Prudnikova, and Goryachenkov are openly spreading the Katyn lie. Without much support, but also without a word of criticism from the Russian authorities. However, the Kremlin had torpedoed the truth about this crime in a less obvious way than the publicists-deniers earlier. Virtually from the moment it officially recognized this to be truth. In an announcement by the TASS agency of April 1990, Katyn was called “one of the gravest crimes of Stalinism”. At the same time, the pro-Western liberal Gorbachev ordered his special forces to create a narrative about an analogous crime committed by Poles against Soviet citizens. The tragedy of the Red Army soldiers taken prisoner during the war of 1920 became Anti-Katyn. They died of hunger and disease. There is no evidence that this was a planned extermination. This, however, does not prevent Moscow and its acolytes from repeating lies about “Polish concentration camps” for over thirty years and thus forcing the alleged symmetry of guilt between Poles and Russians. In April 2017, just before the next anniversary of the crime, a plaque was installed at the Katyn cemetery informing about the “extermination of tens of thousands of Red Army soldiers”, “martyred” while in Polish captivity. A year later, a museum was established there, where an exhibition on Polish-Russian relations in the 20th century was presented. One could read about the “thousands of Red Army soldiers who died in Polish concentration camps”.

Thus, while the Katyn lie enjoys a tacit acceptance from the Kremlin, but still constitutes a marginal phenomenon, the Katyn manipulation is already an official, openly disseminated narrative. It can be summarized as: “Yes, our people killed yours. But before that your people killed ours”. The cause-and-effect relationship is of considerable importance here. After all, from an ethical point of view, it is important to establish who threw the stone first. Since Poles were the ones who killed first, the murder of Poles can always be presented as revenge. And revenge, though problematic, is often not only reasonable, but also justifiable.

Katyn memorial at Święty Krzyż (Source: Goku122/Wikimedia Commons)

I am ashamed to admit, but I did not know that Stalin personally commanded the Red Army in the Polish-Soviet war (…) and then, as you know, the Red Army suffered a defeat. Many Red Army soldiers were taken prisoner. According to the latest data, 32,000 of them died of hunger and disease in Polish captivity (…) I suppose, I repeat, this is my personal opinion that Stalin felt a personal responsibility for this tragedy. And, secondly, he ordered the execution (on Poles in Katyn – ed.), caused by a desire for revenge” – this is an excerpt from Vladimir Putin’s speech in Katyn on April 7th, 2010. The Russian prime minister at the time admitted that the criminal act, caused by revenge, “never ceases to be criminal”. This, however, does not change the fact that this speech became one of the foundations of the Katyn manipulation.

Meanwhile, the thesis about Stalin’s cruel but just revenge for the personal defeat and tragedy of the Red Army does not stand up to criticism. It is known that the dictator treated capitulation as betrayal. Anyway, as the historians of the “Memorial” Association prove, under the so-called “Polish operation” of the NKVD, Soviet prisoners of war, who had the misfortune to return to their homeland from Polish camps, were … accused of espionage for Poland and subjected to repression, on a par with Poles living in the USSR, murdered because of their origin. “A question may be asked: why was Stalin supposed to take revenge on the Poles for the Red Army soldiers who had been taken prisoner by Poland, since in 1937 those who survived and returned in the USSR were killed?” –Nikita Petrov, deputy chairman of “Memorial”, asked rhetorically in the pages of “Novaya Gazeta”.


As early as 2013, Petrov wrote about the “double game of the Kremlin” around Katyn. In his opinion, Moscow releases political declarations and statements for external use, recognizing the responsibility of the Stalinist leadership for the crackdown on Polish citizens in 1940. In the country, however, “it approves of the nostalgic idealization of the socialist past and does not cut off the proliferation of speculations that allegedly not everything is clear about this crime yet, that perhaps it is the Germans who are to blame”. The situation has been getting worse ever since. In 2014, Russia imposed a sentence of imprisonment for up to five years for denying Nazi crimes and spreading false information about the role of the Soviet Union in World War II. In July 2021, Putin signed a law which prohibits equating the role of the USSR and “fascist” Germany in World War II. He justified its introduction with “attempts to distort history”. A Polish historian writing about Soviet crimes may therefore be subject to criminal liability in Russia.

At the international level, there are no effective legal instruments to fight the Katyn lie. Any attempts to create such solutions are treated as an attack on freedom of speech or scientific research, even if their aim is to counteract politically controlled state propaganda, which has nothing to do with any freedom – attorney Jerzy Kwaśniewski, President of the Ordo Iuris Institute, stated in an interview for “Do Rzeczy” weekly. – The amendment to the Act on the Institute of National Remembrance, however, offers a possibility for such a legal instrument. Article 53 allows for the filing of a civil suit in a Polish court against those who defame Poland and the Polish nation. Such an action may be brought by a non-governmental organization within the scope of its statutory activities. This provision has not yet been met with a consistent line of interpretation by the Polish courts. As part of the Institute’s activity, we initiated several suits on the basis of this provision. We aimed to focus our attention on matters that are possibly the least controversial, because we are aware that historical policy is a delicate matter, and it is easy to provoke a media attack and an unfavorable attitude of the courts – he adds.

However, the President of Ordo Iuris generally believes that a judgement cannot be the only tool in the fight for the truth: – The criminalization of a lie can always be interpreted as an attack on the freedom of speech. Therefore, a dispute over the past should take place mainly in the realm of narrative. Historical policy is the most effective instrument in the fight for truth – says Kwaśniewski.

This article was published in 2020 in “Do Rzeczy” magazine.