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Home/Articles/Arts & Letters/The Lingering Relevance of the Katyn Massacre

The Lingering Relevance of the Katyn Massacre

Despite a relatively small death toll relative to contemporary events, the WWII massacre's effects are still felt.

Surviving Katyn: Stalin’s Polish Massacre and the Search for Truth  by Jane Rogoyska (Oneworld Publications: 2021), 400 pages.

Historian and filmmaker Jane Rogoyska begins her book on the April-May 1940 Katyn massacre—in which the Soviet Union massacred some 22,000 Polish intellectuals and military officers who had been POWs in its custody—with a cruel yet pertinent question: Why should we care about Katyn?

As Rogoyska writes, the death toll from Katyn is “a drop in the ocean compared to the millions of Soviet citizens murdered by Stalin.” Even if we are only discussing Poles, the Soviet dictator’s deportations of ethnic Poles caused the deaths of many tens of thousands more than died at Katyn. And, naturally, Hitler’s record as a murderer of Poles made Stalin look like a squeamish amateur in these matters; the Führer’s bureaucrats, slavers, and assassins in the Warthegau and the General Government killed 5 to 6 million Polish civilians (about 2 to 3 million of them non-Jewish) during the war.

So why, in view of the numerically far deadlier atrocities endured by the Poles and other peoples during the war, should we especially care about Katyn? And why, 80 years later, does Katyn remain a “continuing bone of contention” between Poland and Russia?

The answer, Rogoyska shows us, lies in the great deceit behind Katyn—a cover-up of extraordinary malice and discipline, in which the Soviets initially claimed they had simply lost track of the 22,000 Poles in their custody, and later, when about 4,000 of the dead officers showed up in excavated mass graves, blamed the Nazis for the massacre.

Rogoyska begins Surviving Katyn by tracking, in an almost literary fashion, the lives of Polish officers who were captured by the Soviets in 1939. She singles out a fraction of these men—the “survivors” whom the Soviets will spare—and follows them as they are eventually released from Soviet custody and (in 1941 and 1942) undertake a pointless quest to find their missing comrades.

Following the Russian invasion of eastern Poland (land that is now part of Belarus, Ukraine, and Lithuania) in 1939, the Red Army captured hundreds of thousands of Polish soldiers and sent them to camps in the USSR run by the notorious Communist secret police, or NKVD. The NCOs and common soldiers were sent back home after a brief custody—perhaps as a gesture of Bolshevik chivalry to a collection of predominantly proletariat men, more likely because they were “of no strategic or political interest to Soviet authorities.” The captured Polish officers were less fortunate. The NKVD held onto them and subjected them to months of interrogation.

These officers were the cream of Polish society; their existence posed an implicit and credible threat to the imposition of Bolshevism on Poland. Rogoyska emphasizes that most were neither seasoned soldiers nor career officers, but reservists mobilized following the German invasion of Poland on September 1, 1939. The men were engineers and poets, entrepreneurs and socialists, scientists and bohemians. An eclectic group, they were collectively distinguished by their intellect and social standing. Among these men were a couple isolated pockets of Communist sympathizers, but the overwhelming proportion of them were patriotic Poles.

Exploiting the memoirs of a number of “survivors” (i.e. the fortunate 395 Polish officers who were in Soviet custody but never deported to be killed in the Katyn Forest), Rogoyska unravels the practical and psychological experiences of the lives of these Poles in Soviet custody.

The reader sees these privileged men—bourgeois, refined, and spoiled—coping with the revolting conditions at the NKVD camps. The tale of Bronislaw Mlynarski, a businessman with the temperament of an artist, arriving at the Starobelsk camp provides a nightmarish account of sensitive and affluent men suddenly forced to sleep tightly packed onto short, thin bunks, with swarms of lice avidly burrowing into their clothes to crawl upon their flesh.

Yet the broader experience of the Polish officers provided grounds for optimism. The NKVD was committed to improving the sanitary conditions of the camps in which it held the Poles. At Starobelsk, Major Sobieslaw Zaleski, an innovative and experienced Polish engineer, was designated to lead the renovations. Zaleski used the materials provided by the Soviets and the impressive human capital of the camp—which was teeming with architects and engineers—to build baths, more spacious lodgings, properly sized bunks, and fresh mattresses.

Although the Poles in the camps were constantly interrogated by the NKVD, Rogoyska notes that there was “no violence, torture, or killing.” Food, while primitive, was certainly sufficient for survival, and rations improved with time. Any work undertaken by the prisoners was voluntary, with more generous rations promised to volunteers. With the officers enjoying abundant free time and relative freedom of movement within the camps, these rotting NKVD facilities gradually metamorphosed into centers of culture and learning.

Hoping to propagandize the officers into adopting communism, the NKVD offered them recreational instruction in Bolshevik theory—through lectures on Marx, films on the triumph of Lenin’s October Revolution, and the distribution of reading materials on the prosperity of the Soviet worker under Bolshevism. But Bolshevik pedagogy was outclassed by the more secular forms of education and diversion that the officers could provide each other.

At Starobelsk, the brilliant and gentle artist Josef Czpaski, who later in his captivity would himself offer an impromptu seminar on the works of Proust, attended a lecture series on Henryk Sienkiewicz’s famous set of Polish novels, Trilogy. The army major who led these lectures knew the novels “almost by heart and would read aloud from [them],” a fact that attests not only to the battle-worn major’s poetical disposition, but to the availability of books in the camp. For those looking for a less rigorous time, all manner of card games and gambling were at hand in the evenings.

Still, there were disturbing auguries. The NKVD lived up to anti-Communist cliché in its paranoid interrogations of prisoners. Anyone who had frequently traveled abroad was considered a likely spy, an assumption that produced not only fear but a kind of baffled amusement in the interrogated Poles. Rogoyska’s recounting of the interrogation of Bronislaw Mlynarski—the businessman who really should have become an artist—is a lucid and humorous exposé of the geo-political isolation and ideological provincialism that crippled Soviet thought. The NKVD official who interrogates Mlynarski is honestly convinced that the only reason one could have to visit foreign countries is espionage.

* * *

If the first part of Surviving Katyn is poignant—as we see the future NKVD victims, and those who will narrowly escape death, languishing in the camps, yet making the most of their situation and rationally anticipating their eventual release—the second part has a more lonely and sinister quality. This part features the 395 men we can call the survivors of Katyn.

These 395 Polish officers were taken from three camps—Starobelsk, Kozelsk, and Ostashkov—to another camp further east, Griazovets, for further interrogation. Meanwhile, their comrades met a ghastly end. These approximately 22,000 Polish officers and intellectuals were taken from the camps to the Katyn forest (near Smolensk, in the far-west of Russia) in April and May of 1940, where they were massacred by the NKVD.

Of all this, the 395 survivors remained ignorant. And even today, many of the facts concerning Katyn—especially the basic, essential question why—are exasperatingly vague. This indecipherable aspect of Katyn will continue to plague historians, so long as the documentary evidence behind the decision to murder the officers remains so frail. Rogoyska recognizes this, and portrays Katyn as a mystery, both in the human and intellectual sense of that word.

The German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941 would result in the liberation of the Katyn survivors from the Griazovets camp. Stalin, shocked by the German attack and humiliated by the extraordinary losses of manpower and material already endured by his Red Army, began to court the Western Allies. This resulted not only in the well-known alliance between Stalin, Churchill, and Roosevelt, but a rapprochement between the USSR and the Polish-government in exile, which was now based in Britain. In exchange for Polish support in the war, Stalin agreed to release almost all Polish nationals in Russian custody, including the Katyn survivors.

After gaining their freedom, the survivors immediately tried to locate their comrades. They made inquiries through the Polish embassy in Moscow—inquires which the Soviets, needing allies, were in no position to spurn. The survivors designated the aforementioned Proustian artist Czpaski to lead a diplomatic mission in Moscow, in which he would interview Soviet authorities and uncover the whereabouts of the missing officers. The poor, brave man was flailing in the dark, his comrades having been long since laid low underneath the Katyn forest.

Surviving Katyn relays a string of tantalizing conversations held between Czpaski (and other Poles investigating the disappearance of the Polish officers) and Soviet officials. The reader can take a gruesome interest in seeing Soviet diplomats, NKVD leader Lavrentiy Beria, and Stalin himself seriously attempting to explain away the outright disappearance of 22,000 people in Soviet custody. Initially, Stalin implies the men had been held in the Russian far east, yet escaped; perhaps they were in Manchuria?

At the time, the Polish investigators tragically “took Stalin’s mocking words at face value” and assumed their comrades really were languishing far to the east. But after the Germans overrun Smolensk, and thus take control of the Katyn area, Stalin revealingly changed his story, indicating the Polish officers may have actually been in the west, and thus taken into German custody.

Once the Germans uncovered some of Katyn the mass graves, the change in the Soviet alibi was complete. Now the Soviets were certain that the officers had been held in Smolensk (about 9,000 miles west of Manchuria), and blamed the Nazis for killing them. To any of the survivors who had heard Stalin’s and Beria’s contradictory allusions to the far east and Manchuria, the truth was beginning to emerge. Yet neither the United States nor the United Kingdom would accuse the Soviets of committing the massacre during the war.

Rogoyska’s skillful presentation of these conversations will convince the readers of Surviving Katyn that the Soviets did in fact carry out the massacre. And the emotional power of Rogoyska’s broader narrative regarding the survivors and their touchingly futile efforts to locate their whereabouts vindicates her claim in the preface: that the lie and the mystery behind Katyn distinguishes it from other atrocities and entitles the tragedy to a place in European political memory.

Surviving Katyn concludes an analysis of the political reactions to Katyn, both during the war (after mass graves containing over 4,000 of the Polish officers were successfully excavated by the Nazis) and through the present day. Here, Rogoyska is somewhat less compelling than in her account of the lives of the Katyn survivors, their intrepid and hopeless search for their comrades, and the Katyn lie. She is at her least persuasive when she contends that denial of the Katyn massacre is a growing, ominous political movement in the present-day Russian Federation.

It is true that some well-known Russian newspapers have run articles denying or expressing skepticism of Soviet responsibility. I have found a September 18, 2007, article in the Rossiyskaya Gazeta that expressed skepticism that the NKVD carried out the massacre, and a February 1, 2008, article by Alexander Shirokorad that outright denies Soviet responsibility. The unreconstructed Communist Leonid Kalashnikov has denied Soviet responsibility for Katyn in a speech to the Russian State Duma.

Yet when it comes to contemporary discussion (much less denial) of Katyn in Russia, the pickings are quite slim. The aforementioned articles and speech were all from over a decade ago. Today, even Vladimir Putin—who makes a point of continuing and amplifying the legacy of Russian pride for the role of the Red Army in the Great Patriotic War—acknowledges Soviet responsibility for Katyn. Putin accepts that the Soviet documentary record, declassified by Mikhail Gorbachev in 1989, decisively proves that the NKVD carried out the massacre.

But most Russian politicians and intellectuals play no role whatever in this debate. They seldom discuss the issue. Contrary to Rogoyska’s warnings about the spread of “Katyn denial,” the role of the massacre in Russian historical memory and contemporary politics is simply not salient.

Katyn is an infinitely bigger factor in Polish political discourse. The legacy of the mass murders is so pervasive that, when a Polish aircraft crashed in Smolensk in 2010, numerous prominent Poles—including Antoni Macierewicz, the current deputy leader of the ruling Law and Justice Party—compared the incident to Katyn, publicly and baselessly alleging that the Russians had shot down the plane. Rogoyska suggests that this kind of sentiment arises organically from the legacy of lies about Katyn. But do not the Poles shoulder some responsibility as well, for using the pedigree of an 80-year-old atrocity to justify anti-Russian animus and conspiracy theories today?

Notwithstanding the author’s political judgments, Surviving Katyn is a pivotal contribution. Readers seeking to understand the plight of Poles during the Second World War, or come to terms with the duplicity and cruelty of Stalin and his NKVD, or submerge themselves in a rich and humane story of hope, suffering, and deceit, will find much of value in Surviving Katyn. With the empathy of a novelist and the precision of a historian, Rogoyska unfolds the story of Katyn.

Matthew Ghobrial Cockerill (follow him on Twitter) is a doctoral student in international history at the London School of Economics.

This post has been updated.

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