Putin, Katyn and the gulag
06 July 2009
Loammi Wolf on how the current Russian govt is blocking critical assessment
of the massacre
Paul Trewhela's article
135117&sn=Detail> about the massacre of Katyn and Andrzej Wajda's film
touches on a very sensitive issue, which is currently the subject of
litigation by some of the foremost Polish international lawyers. The matter
will probably end up in the European Court of Human Rights.
After the Hitler-Stalin Pact of 23 August 1939 the Polish people knew what
to expect of Nazi Germany and moved their artillery school from Zambrów to
Vlodzimierz Voly'nski north of Lemberg on 6 September 1939. They didn't have
any idea that Stalin was going to double cross them and when the Soviet
troops marched in eleven days later, they thought the Russians were their
allies and were not given orders to defend themselves. The Russians captured
some 14,000 Polish officers, and a total of 22,000 people were taken as
prisoners of war.
The decision to liquidate 25,700 Polish people, who represented the cream of
the Polish intelligentsia and officers in the Army, was taken on 5 March
1940 by the Soviet Politburo. The Kremlin referred to them as recalcitrant
foes of the Soviet power'. Their motivation was to destroy the Polish
intelligentsia so that the Polish people would never rise again.
The prisoners of war were killed one by one with a bullet in the neck, still
holding their rosary's in prayer. All the corpses were buried in shallow
mass graves in the forests of Katyn. In February 1943 the mass graves were
discovered by the Hitler's army. Goebbels turned it into a bizarre PR coup.
By autumn of that year, the Russians recaptured the area around Smolensk and
had the mass graves inspected by their own investigators, who post-dated the
murders to 1943 and claimed the German Army had killed the Polish officers.
To lend credibility to their claim, the Russians publicly hanged 15 German
prisoners of war in Leningrad and Smolensk whom they accused of
responsibility for the massacre.
In 1990 Gorbachev conceded that Russians were responsible for the massacre,
and two years later Yetsin handed over the document with the order of the
Politburo to kill the 25,700 Poles. In 1995 Russia and Poland agreed that
each would lead their own investigations to reconstruct the massacre.
Meanwhile a lot of information became available - even which executioners
were given medals in Moscow afterwards.
The Polish people wanted the officers who were massacred rehabilitated
Soviet)> , and this is when
Russian co-operation stopped. In 1998 the Russian investigators let the
Polish government know that a rehabilitation of their massacred officers
could only be considered once the investigations were concluded. Under
Putin's government, the Russians stopped the investigations and said that
there were no indications that a crime against humanity took place. Since
the decision was taken in terms of a document which is top secret, the
Russians refuse to hand that over as well.
A number of Polish families got some of the best international lawyers to
force the Russians to hand the documents explaining why the investigations
had been halted. Professor Ireneusz Kaminski from the University of Krakau
represents them together with two Polish and two Russian colleagues. From
the Polish perspective they want their names cleared and the officers
rehabilitated. The Russian government tried to wave the matter aside by
claiming that the Polish appellants are just after money and started a
rumour that they want a million dollars in reparations for each person who
was killed. Legal council for the Polish victims denied that and said that
if they make no progress in Russian Courts they are ready to take the matter
to the European Court for Human Rights. To prove that they are not
interested in money, the Poles will claim reparations for one symbolic Euro
only. Now the Russians presented the Polish side with a register of 14
polish war crimes dating back to the Russian-Polish War of 1920. Both sides
remain unyielding in their positions.
Wajda made his film, and it was even showed in Moscow for two days. But it
is obviously not welcome and the Russian government blocks off any critical
assessment of the history. In this context, it is not only Wajda's film that
is causing a stir.
The publication in Russia of the latest book of Orlando Figes, The
Whisperers, has been cancelled as well. Figes is a professor at the
University of London and one of the world's most renowned Russia experts.
This book documents how Stalinism encroached upon the sphere of privacy of
ordinary human beings in a most pervasive and inhuman way. Over a thousand
pages Figes documents a society that only dared to whisper for fear of
falling prey to the secret police of the Soviet Union. Their reign of terror
destroyed the lives of hundred thousands of families in the 1930s and 1940s.
Figes' research is based on data which he collected over many years from
private archives, newspapers and interviews. The civil rights activists of
Memorial helped him by collecting materials from these private archives and
connecting him with people who were persecuted. Memorial was founded by
Andrei Sacharov in 1988 to commemorate the victims of Stalinism.
It may therefore be no coincidence that Figes' Russian publisher cancelled
the publication of his book, which is already a big success in the UK and
the USA, at the same time as Memorial is challenging the seizure of its
databanks in a St Petersburg court.
The cause for the litigation dates back to 4 December 2008 when a masked
police unit stormed the St Petersburg offices of Memorial in Rubin Street.
For six hours they took the offices apart and then left with dozen computer
hard discs which contain an extraordinary collection of data about one of
the darkest periods in Russian history including lists of the names of the
victims and archive materials about their fate in Gulags. The police took
the fruit of twenty years' research and collected documents with them -
including about 500 private archives. This is the material upon which Figes'
book is based.
The pretext which the police used for the seizure had nothing to do with
Memorial at all. The police claimed that the newspaper New Petersburg
incited national discord and racial hatred, and that they work together with
Memorial. The latter denied that this was the case, and took the matter to
court. It won the case in the first instance on the basis that the seizure
was illegal. However, an administrative body then remedied the seizure ex
post facto and still refused to hand back the databank. Now the matter has
been taken to the court of the second instance.
Figes suspects that the reason for the seizure of the archives has to do
with memory politics practiced by the Russian government. Under Putin
Stalinism is now projected neutrally' in school books and the general tenor
is that if it were not for the collectivising and the Gulags, Russia would
never have become so strong. In this perspective of history, there is no
place for a collective memory of the human suffering of people.
Figes suspects that the cancelling of the contract to publish his book by
Atticus was due to pressure from the government. The book has been
translated into 22 languages meanwhile. The Russian one is missing, and so
it will probably remain.
Bibliography: Die Toten von Katyn, Der Spiegel, October 6 2008, p 152;
Rußland: Auf Knochen gebaut, Der Spiegel, March 16 2009, p 96; Verbotene
Erinnerung', Der Spiegel, August 4 2008 - interview with Orlando Figes.
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