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Katyn massacre

April 6, 2010

Russia and Poland are jointly commemorating the thousands of Poles slaughtered by Soviet secret police in 1940. But it's only recently that Russia has confronted one of the darkest chapters in its history.

Two German officers over a partly-emptied mass grave in the Katyn Forest
German troops discovered the mass grave in Katyn forest in 1943Image: AP

One by one, anxious-looking men in long army coats are taken from trucks and forced to stand near the edge of a trench filled with bodies. The movements are quick and mechanical. A pistol is aimed and the sound of a shot echoes against the pine trees.

It is a powerful scene from the movie ‘Katyn’ made by Polish director Andrzej Wajda. The film was aired on Russian TV for the first time this week, marking the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre.

scene from the film Katyn by Andrzei Wajda
The film Katyn was shown on Russian TV for the first time this weekImage: Pandastorm Pictures

"I was very impressed. All of a sudden you understand that the children of the people who did this are among us today," said Anatoly, a caller to a Moscow radio station after the movie aired.

Facing up to the past

On Wednesday, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his Polish counterpart, Donald Tusk, are to attend a ceremony at the village of Katyn in Russia, to commemorate the more than 14,000 Poles who were killed there by the Soviet secret police in 1940.

It will be the first time that Poland and Russia have jointly marked the massacre.

memorial in Katyn
The commemoration at Katyn could improve Russian-Polish tiesImage: DW

The mass grave at Katyn contains the bodies of more than 4,000 victims, including officers and policemen, civil servants and intellectuals. They are just a fraction of the more than 300,000 Poles deported from Poland after the Red Army occupied the eastern part of the country in 1939.

The occupation was a result of the Molotov-Ribbentrop-pact with Hitler-Germany, in which the two countries agreed on the division of Poland.

Shifting the blame

For 70 years, the Katyn massacre has provided Soviet and Russian governments with a political and diplomatic headache. Until the late 1980s, the official version was that German troops had killed the Poles in 1941, in the wake of the German attack on the Soviet Union. But the Germans uncovered the mass graves at Katyn in 1943 and shifted the blame towards the Soviets.

The Communist propaganda machine was swift to reply. "The whole world must know about the monstrous crimes of the fascist German butchers," cried a Soviet war time movie, a slogan that was repeated time and again in the following decades.

The truth emerged almost half a century later. The then Russian president Boris Yeltsin opened the archives in 1992 and released documents carrying the signature of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. It was the first piece of irrefutable proof that Soviet death squads, not German soldiers, were the perpetrators.

"I did it right away," said Yeltsin. "Every secretary-general of the Communist Party handed these documents to his successor, who put them in his personal safe and kept silent."

Yeltsin offered his apologies to Poland, according to witnesses, with tears in his eyes.

Slowly moving to reconciliation

In the eighteen years that have passed since, access to many archives has still been restricted. Poland wants Russia to release all available documents, start a criminal investigation and officially apologise for what happened in 1940.

The joint commemoration in Katyn and the recent broadcast of Wajda’s movie have been well-received in Warsaw, even though only 4 percent of Russians can receive the cultural channel where the movie was shown.

For Russians, the Katyn massacre is a painful chapter from recent history. It confronts them with the harsh reality of Stalin’s Russia, and also with the darker pages of Soviet history from World War II.

the uncovering of the Katyn mass grave by civilians
The Soviet Union blamed Germany for the massacre for decadesImage: picture alliance/dpa

It is all the more painful at a time when Russia is preparing to celebrate the 65th anniversary of the victory over Nazi Germany, and attempts to 'rewrite history' are severely condemned by the Kremlin.

Film raises uncomfortable questions

Participants in a televised discussion following the showing of Wajda’s movie on Katyn did their best to avoid awkward questions.

"I disagree with Mr Wajda, who says that our Soviet-Polish friendship was founded on the lie of Katyn," said Konstantin Kosachev, a member of Russia’s lower house of parliament. "After all, the Soviet Union forced the Germans out of Poland in 1945, and 600,000 of our soldiers were killed there."

Russian filmmaker Nikita Mikhalkov praised Wajda’s film, but called upon Poles to bury the past and concentrate on the future. He stressed that many more Russians than Poles had suffered under Stalin.

"In Katyn alone, 4,000 Poles and 8,000 of our own people are buried, though of course that cannot excuse us for what we have done," he said.

Andrzej Wajda
Andrzej Wajda received a number of awards for his filmImage: AP

In a televised commentary aired during the discussion, Andrzej Wajda said he was satisfied that Russian viewers could finally acquaint themselves with the facts of the Katyn massacre.

"I would like to see the day when the Katyn crime no longer stands between us and we no longer hide what happened in reality," he said. "That this film today has been shown on Russian television confirms my expectations."

Author: Geert Groot Koerkamp
Editor: Rob Turner

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