Polish-Russian Historical Commission tackles Katyn genocide 29.10.2008
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Katyn genocide victims' bodies recovered
The Polish - Russian Historical Commission concluded their two-day session
in Moscow. Historians and politicians discussed the painful history of both
nations in the period 1918 until the present times. The talks focused mainly
on the 1940 Katyn genocide, still largely denied by the Russian side.
Joanna Najfeld reports
In the Spring of 1940 in Russian forests, at Stalin's personal order, the
Soviet NKVD executed over 20 thousand Polish citizens - soldiers and
civilians, the intellectual elite of the country. Over decades of communist
domination in Eastern Europe, the massacre was denied or silenced. Russians
tried to put the blame on Germans and the families of Katyn genocide victims
were persecuted and repressed.
The issue of Katyn genocide has ever since been a burden on Polish-Russian
relations. A thaw took place in early 1990s, when Russian President Boris
Yeltsin passed to Polish authorities the copies of Soviet documents ordering
But later the policy of denial and silencing was reintroduced. Russian
leaders have made statements deemed scandalous by the Polish side. Russian
media have been notorious in Katyn genocide denial and children have for
years learned from their history textbooks that the massacre either never
took place or Soviets were not to blame.
Aleksandr Gurianov is the head of the Polish section of the Memorial
Association, fighting in Russian courts for the judicial rehabilitation of
Katyn genocide victims. He says the Russian judiciary is also very stubborn
in pushing their version of history. 'From our point of view, the court is
acting against the law. We have a long way before us,' Gurianov said.
The sessions of the Polish - Russian historical commission have not gone
very smoothly either. The commission gathered to explain all circumstances,
as the members said, of the crime committed by Stalin's regime and finally
solve the question of the Katyn genocide. However, opening the meeting,
Russian foreign minister said it was a heresy to compare Stalin's rule with
Hitler. Commentators started wondering what does each side consider as
solving the divisive issues. Examining the truth or shutting down the debate
once and for all?
Finally, after two days of discussions, the commission decided on a joint
publication. Polish and Russian historians are to describe most
controversial issues from their separate points of view and these are to be
published within one book, chapter by chapter in two voices. The book is to
be out in two languages in 2009.
One of the chapters will concern the fate of Russian POWs during the
Polish-Russian war of 1919-1921. This issue is often raised by the Russian
side as their counter argument to the Katyn massacre.
'Russia is trying to balance its responsibility for the Katyn massacre by
trying to show that Poland is not so innocent either. Such statements from
the Russian side are pure propaganda and instruments to counterbalance the
Katyn massacre,' says Wojciech Kono�czuk, a Polish expert on Russia, of the
Center for Eastern Studies. Polish historians have presented a lot of
evidence that the death of Russian POWs in 1920 in Poland was in no way
comparable to the Katyn murders. Russian captives died in an epidemic, which
killed many Polish soldiers and civilians alike, while Polish officers in
Katyn were individually shot in the head by the NKVD at Stalin's personal
order, explains Kono�czuk:
'From the beginning of 1990s, some nationalistic circles in Russia started
to claim that Poland is responsible for mass-killing of soldiers who became
POWs during the famous Polish-Soviet War. In fact, this is an attempt to
create an "anti-Katyn" to justify the real Katyn. But, the latest Polish and
Russian historical research definitely proved that such charges are
groundless. The victims among Russian captive soldiers were not a result of
planned extermination or genocide but disastrous epidemics. This Russian
attempt to revise history, although not supported officially by the Kremlin
or Russian authorities are aimed at a propaganda effect among Russians and
many simple Russians indeed believe it's true.'
With such discrepancies in the understanding of history in the public and
political spheres, is it feasible to expect Russia to admit to the genocide,
so that both countries can close the issue once and for all? Professor Jan
Malicki of Warsaw University is sceptical Russia is able and willing to do
that: 'Poland cannot resign from considering the truth about the Katyn
genocide a sacred cause. But on the other side the Russians look at it
completely different. They treat Polish officers as enemies of the Soviet
Union.' The logic of Katyn massacre denial is at the core of Russia's
political identity and we cannot realistically expect that to change anytime
soon, added Professor Malicki.
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