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After 80 Years, The 'Katyn Lie' Lives On In Russia

Wooden crosses with Polish national flags fill the Polish military cemetery in Mednoye, in Russia's Tver region north of Moscow.
Wooden crosses with Polish national flags fill the Polish military cemetery in Mednoye, in Russia's Tver region north of Moscow.

In November 2010, the Russian State Duma took a big step toward healing a decades-old rift with Poland by officially accepting Soviet responsibility for the Katyn massacre -- the mass killing of some 22,000 Polish military officers, religious figures, and intelligentsia in 1940.

"Published documents, kept in classified archives for many years, not only revealed the scale of this horrific tragedy, but also showed that the Katyn crime was carried out on direct orders of Stalin and other Soviet officials," the declaration read, adding that Moscow's long-standing argument that the executions were carried out by Nazi Germany had "unfailingly provoked the wrath, grievance, and mistrust of the Polish people."

The declaration was warmly received in Warsaw, which had long sought answers and soon afterward heard Russia's president, Dmitry Medvedev, pledge during a visit that his country was committed to determining the truth about Katyn and would continue "clearing up the legacy of the past."

But fast forward nearly a decade -- and 80 years to the day when Stalin and his Politburo signed off on a proposal to execute thousands of "enemy" Poles rounded up by the Soviet secret police after their country was divvied up between the U.S.S.R. and Nazi Germany before World War II -- and the legacy of the war is again haunting the relationship between Warsaw and Moscow.

Moscow's official line is unchanged since the 2010 declaration, which was the culmination of baby steps the Kremlin took toward reconciliation for the wartime crime as communism crumbled. But what is widely known as the "Katyn lie" lives on as online sleuths embrace and embellish the old Soviet argument denying any part in the massacre, and fringe politicians and media figures take a decidedly unapologetic stance on the massacre, even if they accept that Stalin ordered it.

Bloody History

Hundreds of thousands of Polish soldiers stationed in eastern Poland were among those captured when Soviet forces invaded in September 1939, just two weeks after Nazi forces invaded from the west in keeping with a secret protocol of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact -- a nonaggression agreement signed by the foreign ministers of Stalin's Soviet Union and Hitler's Germany.

By December, after eastern Poland had been annexed by the Soviet Union, most had been either released or handed over to the Germans in the west. But thousands were kept as prisoners of war at three camps maintained by the Soviet secret police, or NKVD: Kozelsk in Russia's Smolensk region, Ostashkov in Kalinin (now called Tver) near Moscow, and Starobelsk in Voroshilovgrad (now called Luhansk) in Ukraine.

Six months after World War II started with the two-pronged partition of Poland, Stalin was facing how to deal with the potential obstacles to Kremlin rule when the Politburo -- the chief policymaking body of the ruling Communist Party -- received a proposal known as memorandum 794/B from the head of the NKVD.

Historian Andrzej Nowak, a Jagiellonian University professor and member of Poland's Academy of Sciences, summed up the results while speaking at a commemoration of the Katyn anniversary at the Wilson Center think tank in Washington, D.C., on February 25.

"Stalin decided that the best way to solve the Polish problem was to behead it [...] Lavrenty Beria, head of the NKVD, sent a memorandum to the Politburo on March 2, 1940, in which he enumerated 14,736 officers from three camps and suggested also killing 11,000 inmates held in different political prisons in Lviv, Minsk, and cities in occupied Poland," Nowak said. "On March 5...they signed the final decision to do what Beria proposed. They decided to shoot 22,000 people."

The Poles were executed in the Katyn Forest outside Smolensk, and at NKVD prisons in Smolensk, Kharkiv, and Tver, according to Aleksandr Guryanov, a prominent Katyn researcher and Polish program coordinator for the Russian human rights group Memorial who also spoke at the event.

In April 1943, just less than two years after it broke the nonaggression pact by invading the Soviet Union, Nazi Germany announced the discovery of a mass grave in the Katyn Forest that held some of the bodies of the executed Poles.

An International Committee of the Red Cross commission established to investigate the site determined that the Soviet Union was responsible for the massacre, an allegation denied by the Kremlin.

In 1943, after Smolensk was liberated by Red Army forces pushing back the Nazi invasion, the Soviet Union set up its own investigative body, which concluded that the massacre was carried out by Nazi forces.

This is the position that would become known as the Katyn lie.

Keeping The Lie Alive

Speaking at the Wilson Center commemoration, Memorial's Guryanov explained that the Katyn massacre was not only the lawless murder of prisoners of war and prisoners, "it was also a 50-year-long campaign of disinformation and lies that the Soviet Union was disseminating around the country and around the world."

Moscow would not begin to change its position until April 1990, when Soviet President Mikhail Gorbachev admitted guilt and the official news agency ITAR-TASS attributed direct responsibility for the Katyn Forest executions to the Soviet Union.

That move was followed up by an investigation by the Main Military Prosecutor's Office, which had early success but was abruptly halted in 2004, and the declassification of Katyn documents in 1992 by the president of newly independent Russia, Boris Yeltsin.

In 2010, when the Duma adopted the statement pinning the blame for the massacre on Stalin, the head of the lower house of parliament's Foreign Affairs Committee expressed hope that the sides had finally settled the matter. "We do not want to raise the Katyn issue to a new level of internal or international discussions," Konstantin Kosachyov said. "We want to close this issue."

The Duma statement came amid a thaw in Russian-Polish relations that unexpectedly took hold after the plane carrying the Polish president and several other high officials to a ceremony marking the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre crashed in western Russia, killing all 96 people on board.

Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (right) hugs Polish counterpart Donald Tusk as they visit the site of a Polish government air crash near Smolensk on April 10, 2010.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin (right) hugs Polish counterpart Donald Tusk as they visit the site of a Polish government air crash near Smolensk on April 10, 2010.

But as wrangling between Russia and Poland over Moscow's World War II narrative has intensified in recent years, the old wounds have reopened.

In the days leading up to the 80th anniversary of the Politburo signing off on Beria's memorandum 794/B on March 5, 1940, Russian social media was filled with posts denying any Soviet role in the massacre.

One widely distributed post highlighted a version of a clip in which Polish Prime Minister Mateusz Morawiecki, who has openly accused Russia of rewriting World War II history, purportedly blames Nazi Germany for Katyn. In the official version of the same remarks, made in 2018, Morawiecki does not say that Germany was responsible.

Others falsely claimed that the European Court of Human Rights -- which in 2012 found that Russia had violated the rights of Katyn victims' relatives by refusing to hand over documents related to its 1990-2004 investigation
-- had determined that the Katyn documents released by Gorbachev and Yeltsin were fake.

Still other posts sought to build on old Soviet arguments blaming Nazi Germany for the crimes by claiming that the caliber of ammunition used in the killings could not have been used by the NKVD.

Sorry Not Sorry

Other arguments -- including from politicians and media figures seen as close to the Kremlin -- harkened back to the sentiments expressed by the late Communist Party deputy, Viktor Ilyukhin, in 1990, when he reacted to the Duma's Katyn statement by saying: "I am troubled that over the past few decades the Russians have been put on their knees and forced to apologize for everything, including things they have never done."

Communist Duma lawmaker Leonid Kalashinikov reportedly claimed in January that Soviet responsibility for the Katyn massacre had never been proven and that the Beria letter was an "obvious fake."

Highlighting the losses Soviet forces incurred in liberating the Poles during World War II, Kalashnikov also repeated a popular argument that Poland should be the one apologizing for Soviet POWs who died in captivity during the 1919-1920 Polish-Soviet War.

Pro-Kremlin journalist Vladimir Solovyov, meanwhile, shared a comment titled Once Again About Katyn that argued that the Katyn massacre was generally on par with the "annihilation of prisoners of war in Poland" during the Polish-Soviet War, and that "if Poland has nothing to apologize for to us, then we have nothing to apologize for."

Such arguments remain outliers. But many liberal Russians say they reflect a widespread reluctance to accept responsibility for Soviet-era crimes, undermining the prospects for the country to shed the negative aspects of its Soviet legacy.

Yabloko party leader Grigory Yavlinsky wrote on Telegram that the "attempt to build a supposedly post-Soviet Russia based on a sense of continuity and incorporating the lies of the previous 75 years make it impossible to move forward qualitatively in state building, in the economy, or in determining the role and place of Russia in the world."

Yavlinsky called for "a comprehensive assessment of the Soviet period and the crimes of Bolshevism (the Red Terror, forced collectivization and its tragic consequences, mass repressions, Katyn, and much more)" and suggested the constitution should include wording on "the absolute unacceptability of the use of terror, lies, and violence in the state policy of modern Russia."

In his speech to the Wilson Center, Memorial's Guryanov reminded the audience that when it came to Katyn, "Russian courts and prosecutors still refuse to recognize individual Polish POWs as victims" and still do not acknowledge any political motivations for the killings.

"It is important to recognize Stalin and other members of the Politburo as guilty of this crime, together with those who carried out these orders," he said. "Their names need to be published...all those who were executed need to be proclaimed rehabilitated in accordance with the law."

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