Case Studies
General topics
Post-Communism problems

The Memory of Stalinist Crimes and Russian "Patriotism" Today: Katyn as a site of memory of the Second World War and the Gulag

Tomas Sniegon, historian (University of Lund), 20. November 2019

Since 1945, the Soviet and later Russian post-Soviet official memory of the Second World War has been predominantly focused on the Great Patriotic War. Reducing the Second World War to the Great Patriotic War has meant stressing the suffering of the Soviet state and its people in the period between the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 and the final Soviet victory in May 1945, and, at the same time, downplaying the previous developments between September 1939 and May 1941.

Tomas Sniegon
Tomas Sniegon. Picture:

Using the term Second World War would namely make it necessary to include those first two wartime years, when Stalin’s Soviet Union had profited from its pragmatic alliance with Nazi Germany, started a war against Finland and annexed the territories of neighbouring Poland, Lithuania, Latvia, Estonia and Romania. Moreover, a focus solely on Soviet suffering during the Great Patriotic War excludes the non-European events of the Second World War, especially the battles in China and the Pacific.

This has avoided the need for the Soviet Union and subsequently post-Soviet Russia to share the status of war victim with two other great powers of the Cold War, China and the United States. In other words, the narrower focus on the memory of the Soviet suffering during the Great Patriotic War has served the leaders of both the post-war Soviet Union and post-communist Russia, enabling a patriotic continuity and the connection of the Soviet and Russian patriotic identities.

In this context, a 22-hectare section of the memorial cemetery in Katyn, near the Russian town of Smolensk, is a very special site of memory. It not only inseparably binds Hitler’s Nazism with Stalin’s Communism, but also – equally closely – connects the two most brutal catastrophes that took place on Russian territory: the Second World War and the Stalinist terror known as the Gulag. In this paper, I would like to point out some essential problems and paradoxes concerning the site of memory in Katyn.

The Russian development of the memory of Katyn’s central event, the so-called Katyn massacre of 1940, has been already analysed, particularly in the collective volume Remembering Katyn from 2012. However, these analyses primarily cover the period until 2010. Therefore, I would like to pay special attention to those things that, in my opinion, have not yet been analysed sufficiently or have not been analysed at all. This concerns particularly the recent development in Katyn since the Russian annexation of Crimea in 2014, as related to the political changes in Poland since 2015, when the national conservative party Law and Justice started to dominate the politics in Poland.

The saddest history of this site of memory took place already before the Second World War, during the so-called Great Terror in the Soviet Union. However, the history of the killings during the years 1937 and 1938 was deliberately ignored by the Soviet and, later, Russian authorities. It started to play a more important role only recently; therefore, I will return to it further on.

In the spring of 1940, 4415 Polish army officers were killed near the Russian city of Smolensk by the NKVD, the Soviet state security and political police that owned the forest territory where the killings took place. The officers were brought there from a rather distant Soviet concentration camp after having been captured following the Soviet annexation of Poland in 1939. The crime was supposed to remain secret. However, the German attack on the Soviet Union in June 1941, which for the Soviet state meant the beginning of the Great Patriotic War, completely changed the situation.

The dead bodies in Polish military uniforms were accidentally discovered by the advancing German army. As the Russian historian Oksana Kornilova has recently shown, the original German documents did not place the crime at Katyn, but rather at the village of Kozi Gory, the Goat’s Hills. However, Goebels’ propaganda machine changed the name when it found out that the name of the nearby Russian village Katyn, originally derived from the Russian word katiť, to roll, actually resembled the Polish word kat, which means executioner or killer. Thus Katyn started to play a significant role in German propaganda. After the end of the Second World War, it became one of the main symbols – or perhaps even the main symbol – of Stalin’s terror during the war.

The Soviet Union was unable to deny the fact that Polish officers had been killed on Soviet territory, but until 1990 it kept blaming Nazi Germany for the crime. It even attempted to include the Katyn mass murder on the list of Nazi crimes for the Nuremberg Tribunal, where prominent leaders of Hitler’s Third Reich were prosecuted, but its request was denied by the prosecutors. After the death of Joseph Stalin, in 1959, the chairman of the Soviet KGB Alexander Shelepin suggested that all files of Polish victims should be destroyed, since they could otherwise disturb the relationship between the Soviet Union and communist Poland. Finally, however, Mikhail Gorbachev disclosed the truth in 1990, exactly 50 years after the crime, and handed over important documentation to his Polish counterparts.

After the dissolution of the Soviet Union in 1991, the Russian Federation and Poland signed an agreement about mutual care for the burial sites of victims of wars and repressions – and for the sites of memory dedicated to such victims. While the term ‘burial site’ was quite clear, the agreement did not specify the exact meanings of the terms ‘repressions’ and ‘sites of memory’. This problem has gained in significance since 2010, when the president of Poland Lech Kaczynski, his wife and almost 100 top Polish officials died in a plane crash in Smolensk while on their way to commemorate the 70th anniversary of the mass murder of Polish officers in Katyn.

In 1996, the process of constructing a memorial complex finally started in Katyn. In a decree concerning the topic, the Russian government referred to Katyn as a memorial complex honouring “those Soviet and Polish citizens who became victims of totalitarian repressions”. Thus, the Polish officers murdered in Polish military uniforms were defined not as victims of the Second World War but as victims of Stalinist terror. It is necessary to point out that these Polish officers were not prisoners of war, because the Soviet Union did not officially declare war on Poland when it attacked and occupied Polish territory between September 1939 and the mass murder in Katyn.

Polish authorities decided to give the site of memory in Katyn the status of Polish Military Cemetery. This meant that the site of memory of the soldiers killed on Russian territory by the Soviet NKVD as a consequence of the Hitler-Stalin pact now had the same status as the sites of memory of more than 600,000 Soviet soldiers killed on Polish soil by German troops while liberating Poland from Nazi Germany in 1944 and 1945.

x. x. x.

It is with this background in mind that the current development concerning the site of memory in Katyn can be understood. It combines, on the one hand, a long-lasting Soviet and Russian unwillingness to incorporate the Soviet crimes committed against Polish officers and against the Soviet Union’s own population into the countries’ own official narratives about the Second World War and the Soviet system in general with, on the other hand, the contemporary development of Russian-Polish relations.

The 2010 tragedy involving former Polish president Lech Kaczynski and his delegation in Smolensk and the recent Russian effort to make patriotism the main official ideology of the Putin regime – and in this way to legitimise Russian policy after the annexation of the Crimean peninsula in 2014 – have brought new tension into the mutual relationship between the two countries.

Since 2010, the Polish conservative right has been blaming Russia for a conspiracy against former president Kaczynski and for insufficient investigation of the tragedy that has been described as ‘Katyn Two’. Moreover, since the party Law and Justice came to power in 2015, it has developed a new law for the ‘de-communisation of Poland’ that has cleared the way for the removal of old communist monuments and memorials, including those dedicated to the soldiers of the Soviet Red Army.

Russia, on the other hand, has intensified its own nationalism, including the ‘Russianisation’ of the site of memory in Katyn. Instead of support for Russian-Polish reconciliation, which was, despite all underlying problems, a prevailing tendency of the 1990s that lasted even through the first two terms of Putin presidency and the presidency of Dmitry Medvedev, the current form of the memorial complex in Katyn represents a contest of conflicting radical memories.

Last year, a large monument dedicated to the victims of the Great Terror of 1937 and 1938 was built next to Katyn’s Polish War Cemetery. Through this effort, some 8000 Russian victims of Stalinism, mainly from the Smolensk region, finally received an official recognition. After being totally ignored during the communist and early post-communist eras, they now have their names inscribed on the several dozen panels that are part of this monument, which, compared with many other monuments to the victims of the Great Terror, is quite impressive. However, in the context of the Katyn memorial complex, the monument’s goal is not only to pay tribute to the victims it has been dedicated to.

Accentuating total numbers – 8000 Russian victims, compared with 4000 Polish victims – at the entrance to the memorial complex makes Katyn a place of predominantly Russian, rather than Polish, suffering. This supremacy is strengthened by the Church of the Resurrection of Christ, an Orthodox church that dominates the entrance area. The foundation stone of the church was laid by then Russian and Polish Prime Ministers Vladimir Putin and Donald Tusk on 7 April 2010, only three days before the aforementioned air crash in Smolensk. Building the church was originally supposed to strengthen the reconciliation project, as illustrated by the fact that a copy of the Polish icon of Madonna of Czestochowa has been placed within it.

However, in its rather ambivalent stance to the memory of the victims in Katyn, the Russian Orthodox Church has declared Katyn a Russian Golgotha, not only stressing Russian ethnicity but also detaching a group of victims consisting of Russian clergy from the other Russian victims. Therefore, the church in Katyn has become a part of the process that I have described as a patriotisation of the Gulag memory in my ongoing project about sites of memory of Stalinist terror in present-day Russia.

The climax of the current Russian confrontation with Poland has become clearly visible in a new museum that opened in Katyn in April 2018. The museum was created under the supervision of the Ministry of Culture of the Russian Federation and under strong influence from the Russian Military-Historical Society, an organisation chaired by Minister of Culture Vladimir Medinsky himself. The Society also built the memorial to the Victims of the Great Terror in Katyn, but the memorial and the museum are only barely interconnected. The narrative of the museum does not focus on the individual suffering of victims of the Soviet terror or on condemning its perpetrators. Instead, exclusive focus is given to Russia’s suffering in a long history of Russian-Polish and Soviet-Polish relations.

The museum’s narrative begins in the early 17th Century, stressing the aggressiveness of that time’s Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth in the so-called Time of Troubles, during which the Commonwealth troops entered Russia, conquered Moscow and managed to hold it in the years 1610-1612. Another Polish invasion of Russia – against the communist state soon after the end of the First World War – is also paid great attention.

By contrast, the Russian Empire’s occupation of Eastern Poland between 1795 and 1918 or the period of the pact between Stalin and Hitler are strongly downplayed. Instead, there are photographs showing the population in Eastern Poland giving a warm welcome to Stalin’s troops in September 1939, and the annexation of Polish territories is explained as follows: since Poland in fact ceased to exist after the German invasion on 1 September 1939, there was no one protecting members of the Polish Ukrainian and Belarusian minorities, thus necessitating such protection by the Red Army. In the overall context, the mass murder of Polish officers in Katyn looks more like an act of ‘historical justice’ that balances out previous moments of injustice against the Russian state than it does an act of immense brutality on the part of the Soviet communist dictatorship. A whole section is dedicated to allegedly very successful co-operation between the Soviet Union and Poland after the end of the Second World War.

Perhaps needless to say, the liberation of Poland from Nazi Germany is the central point of the exhibition, which ends by stressing the huge difference between the ways contemporary Russia and Poland care for war monuments commemorating the counterpart’s war victims. While, on the Russian side, both Vladimir Putin and the Patriarch of the Russian Orthodox Church are shown to pay tribute to Polish victims, the Polish side is presented as destroying Soviet war memorials and ignoring the fact that without Soviet help, Poland could no longer exist.

All explanatory texts in the museum are written only in Russian, which makes it clear whom the message is intended for. Conversely, this fact makes it more difficult for foreigners who do not speak Russian to criticise the new concept of the museum and the Russian patriotic interpretation of the Katyn massacre in general.

To conclude:

After the decades of Soviet lies and systematic deception, in the 1990s the Katyn memorial complex experienced a slow process of gradual improvement of the memory of the victims of both mass murders committed there by the Soviet system. Even though this improvement was not problem-free, it reflected some serious attempts to reach mutual reconciliation between the Russian Federation and Poland. However, the anti-liberal turn in recent years has changed this trend and introduced a very controversial effort to use the murder of the Polish officers in 1940 as a weapon in the current disputes between these two countries.

The current form of the memorial complex, and especially the new museum, proves that the Russian state still lacks a consistent official commemoration policy for the crimes committed by the communist regime, especially during the Stalin period. Moreover, the Russian state is still not willing to critically revise the foreign policy of the Soviet state, in this case especially during the first two years of the Second World War. Instead, the Katyn memorial now reflects the new Russian trend of ‘patriotisation’ and de-traumatisation of Soviet crimes, a trend in which positive achievements of the Soviet Union, in this case the victory over Nazi Germany in particular, are ‘Russianised’ and politically traumatised at the same time as killings and violence against human rights are banalised and marginalised. The current form of the Second World War memory in Katyn expresses an increasingly top-steered convergence between Russian nationalism, Orthodox belief and communist sentiment where the memory of terror finds a place only if politically needed.

On the other hand, a comparison of the last three decades suggests that the main narrative of the Katyn memorial complex can change relatively quickly in the event of a changing political situation. This means that if the relationship between Russia and Poland should improve again in the future, and if the now prevailing anti-western discourse in Russian foreign policy should need to be modified, the complex could quite quickly be adapted and modified again. However, there are very few signs of any such change right now.

The text was written as a conference paper for the international conference "Necropolis of Communist Terror" and it is based on following articles: