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.
“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.
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. “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.