11 May 2023
Every April we try to go to the Katyn memorial complex in Smolensk Oblast to remember the Polish prisoners of war executed by the NKVD. The Katyn massacre is the collective name for the mass murder of Polish citizens in the Katyn forest, Kalinin, and Kharkov in spring 1940. 13 April is the International Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Katyn Massacre. We will try to resurrect those events and also recount how the understanding of this crime is changing in contemporary Russia.
The decision to execute Polish officers and police from three special camps and prisoners in the prisons of western Ukraine and western Belarus was made by the Politburo of the VKP(b) [All-Russia Communist Party (Bolshevik)] on 5 March 1940. The proposal to kill Polish prisoners of war was approved by Stalin personally. As a result, more than 22,000 people were executed.
This is the Gnezdovo station. Polish officers were brought here in freight trains from the Kozelsk prison camp. From here they were taken to the forest near the village of Kozya Gora. Later they would choose a more resonant name for this execution forest—from another village, Katyn, located off to one side.
Freight trains carrying prisoners would arrive at this siding.
More than likely, the executions were carried out not directly above the pits where the burials were discovered but at the NKVD’s dachas, possibly in the cellars, to muffle the sounds. Attesting to this, for example, is the too small number of casings found in the pits. The NKVD’s dachas, located quite close to the burial sites, burned down in the war. Other dachas stand in their place now.
Right at the edge of the memorial complex we come across this scene: part of the forest is marked off by a ribbon that says “Entry forbidden. Investigative Committee of the Russian Federation.” Is this connected with the “new discoveries” attesting to the fact that the execution of the Polish prisoners of war was supposedly carried out by the Nazis? The state media wrote about this again recently. Might a new attempt be under way to deny the Soviet Union’s responsibility for the Katyn massacre? Or, on the contrary, has the Investigative Committee finally decided to study the ninth execution pit, which was found later than the other eight?
The memorial complex at Katyn is divided into two parts: the Polish memorial to the victims of the Katyn massacre; and the recently opened memorial in memory of Soviet citizens who were victims of political repression in the 1920s and 1930s.
In the “Soviet part” there is a wall where the last names and initials of the people executed in Smolensk Oblast are listed. However, nowhere is it written what their cause of death was.
And this is the Polish cemetery. Listed on the wall are 4421 names of executed Polish prisoners of war. There are photographs on some of the plaques, evidently brought by relatives.
Testimony as to how people were taken away for execution was left by the Polish scholar Stanisław Swianiewicz, who was “pardoned” at the last moment. Swianiewicz had already been brought to the Gnezdovo station, but he was left on the train and then sent back. Through an opening in the train car paneling he was able to observe a bus collecting a new group of prisoners of war and taking them to the forest every half-hour.
He wrote in his memoirs: “I admit that on that sunny spring day, the thought of reprisals simply did not occur to me.”
The documents found in the graves included diaries. The final entry in the diary of Major Adam Solski, dated 9 June 1940, says:
“A few minutes before 5 reveille was announced, they put us in automobiles like criminals, and guards sat with us. We arrived in woods that looked like a dacha area. Here they took away our wedding rings, our watches, which said 6:30 in the morning, and our penknives. What’s going to happen to us?…”
Here the diary breaks off.
In the photo below is execution pit no. 5. In it they discovered the remains of people who had been tied up in an especially cruel way. Their hands were tied behind their back and the rope was wound around their neck so that at any attempt to free themselves the noose only tightened harder on their neck. Everyone’s hands were tied, but this sophisticated method was used only for one group of people buried in one pit. Evidently, this speaks to the fact that this group of prisoners of war had tried to resist the carnage actively.
Historian Aleksandr Guryanov had shown us this pit in April 2022. Although he was talking about Katyn, everyone saw before them the frames from Bucha that the whole world had only just seen at the time. These parallels are hard to ignore.
Buried in the largest execution pit were about 2400 people. The boundaries of these pits are now marked off by metal plates. The remains themselves have been exhumed and buried in graves nearby.
Every year we leave red and white flowers here.
This time, though, we are leaving something else—a piece from our (now seized) office with the Memorial logo. By the way, we are still sending out these pieces to our subscribers in gratitude for their donations.
For decades, the Soviet leadership pushed the story that the Polish officers in the Katyn forest were shot by Germans in fall 1941 (this is reminiscent of something…). The Burdenko Commission, which was specially created to investigate the Katyn massacre, used any means: concealment and disinformation, falsification of evidence, false testimony, and an unsuccessful attempt to legitimize this version of the story through the Nuremberg tribunal. Only in 1990 was the Katyn massacre finally officially recognized by the Soviet side.
The admission that the Soviet Union was responsible for the Katyn massacre was reinforced by a specially approved statement from the State Duma on 26 November 2010. Despite this fact, in recent years the Russian state media have been actively promoting the story that the Soviet Union was not involved in the massacre. This year, on the eve of the Katyn massacre anniversary, statements have once again come out saying that the execution of Polish officers was “in fact” committed by the Nazis. Generally speaking, the tradition of covering up war crimes and state crimes and shifting responsibility onto others has evidently not changed particularly in our country.
*The International historical-educational, philanthropic, and human rights society Memorial, an international public organization, has been liquidated by decision of the Russian Supreme Court. Previously, it had been declared a “foreign agent” in Russia.
Translated by Marian Schwartz