On the seventeenth day of the Polish-German war in September 1939, as Poland was mounting stiff resistance against the invading German troops, it was attacked from the rear by the Red Army. This was a consequence of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact signed on 23 August 1939 under which the Republic of Poland was to be partitioned between Germany and the Soviet Union. The Soviets captured a large number of Polish prisoners of war (POWs), estimated at 240,000, including some 10,000 officers.(1) They were put at the disposal of the NKVD, the Soviet secret police, in flagrant violation of the laws and customs of armed conflicts whereby the lives and health of enemy combatants were the sole responsibility of the government and military command of the state that held them captive.
The situation presented the Soviets with an enormous organisational problem of what to do with such a mass of people in the absence of the most rudimentary conditions to house them (lodging, food). It was decided that some of the prisoners – mainly privates from the seized eastern Polish provinces referred to by the Soviet authorities as Western Belarus and Western Ukraine – would be released, 25,000 of their number being kept as forced labour. Over 42,000 privates from the areas that had not been annexed by the USSR were handed over to the Germans. As regards officers, policemen and some civilians, they were isolated in three special NKVD camps in Kozelsk, Ostashkov and Starobelsk. Of the three, the Ostashkov camp, where policemen were sent, was the biggest, numbering about 6,000 prisoners. Around 4,500 prisoners were held in Kozelsk and some 4,000 in Starobelsk.(2)
Conditions in the camps where rough. Prisoners were housed in extremely crowded rooms most of which were utterly unfit to be inhabited. Food was in drastically short supply and healthcare usually provided by fellow inmates who were doctors. Soldiers and policemen interned in September had to weather the harsh winter of 1939/1940 in their summer uniforms. POWs were put under constant surveillance, interrogated about their ‘hostile activities against the working classes in Poland of the masters’ and subjected to intensive ideological indoctrination in a primitive communist fashion. These efforts yielded very poor results as we can learn from internal NKVD reports.
The fate of the thousands of Polish POWs as well as those Polish citizens – some of whom were also military men – imprisoned in ‘Western Belarus’ and ‘Western Ukraine’ was debated during high-level meetings in Moscow. At the request of Beria, on 5 March 1940, the Political Bureau of the Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party (Bolsheviks), the highest decision-making body in the Soviet party-state, agreed to murder ‘14,700 people held captive in prisoner-of-war camps: former Polish officers, civil servants, landowners, policemen, intelligence agents, gendarmes, settlers and prison guards’ and ‘11,000 people held in prisons in the western provinces of Ukraine and Belarus: members of various counter-revolutionary organisations, former landowners, factory owners, former Polish officers, civil servants and fugitives.’(3) The 11,000 prisoners mentioned in Beria’s request and then later in the decision taken by the Political Bureau turned out to be overestimated. Eventually, the Katyn Massacre, which involved several locations beside the Katyn Forest, probably claimed the lives of 21,857 people, including 7,305 prison inmates. The genocidal decree of the Political Bureau followed the logic of other mass crimes perpetrated by the communist system, such as the ‘Polish operation’ of the NKVD in 1937-1938 when at least 110,000 Polish Soviet citizens were murdered.(4)
A special body of the NKVD – the Special Council (Osoboje Sowieszczanije) – was set up to manage the organisation of the genocide and ensure that, in spite of its enormous scale, it remained hidden from the public both home and abroad. Groups of henchmen, who were professional executioners, were recruited to murder captive soldiers and prisoners in facilities that belonged to the Regional Branches of the NKVD and other places prepared for that purpose.
The Special Council divided soldiers and prisoners into batches of about 100 people, drawing up what is known in historiography as ‘death lists’. It was on the basis of those lists that camp commanders would hand over a batch of POWs to NKVD Convoy Troops to be transported to internal prisons of designated Regional Branches of the NKVD accompanied by an order for the prison commanders to murder all the people on the list. As Russia has not yet released all supporting documents, we may only surmise that a similar procedure was followed in the case of prison inmates whose death transports were part of the same schedule as those of POWs.
POWs from Starobelsk were murdered in the Regional Branch of the NKVD in Kharkov and buried in mass graves in the ‘park zone’ outside the city. Those from Ostashkov were murdered in Kalinin (previously, and today, known as Tver) and buried in nearby Mednoye. POWs from Kozelsk were murdered over death pits in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk.
So far, it has not been possible to establish the location of the murder and burial sites of over 7,300 prisoners. Those from the still missing Belarusian list most probably lie buried in Kurapaty near Minsk whilst those from the already declassified Ukrainian list are buried in different locations of which we only know Bykivnia near Kiev (currently a district of the city).
The murder was kept secret until the spring of 1943. On 13 April, Radio Berlin broadcast a message announcing the discovery of mass graves in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk with the bodies of murdered Polish officers. Moscow immediately accused Germany of the crime.
Soviet efforts to blame the Katyn Massacre on the Germans were scuppered during the Nuremberg Trials. Nonetheless, what is known as ‘Katyn denial’ persisted for dozens of years to come and any attempts to challenge it were met with knee-jerk diplomatic protests from the USSR. Such was the case with the report drafted by the US Congress Select Committee chaired by Senator Ray Madden, official publications devoted to the subject or the first monuments commemorating the victims.
In Poland, even though the communist government spread lies about the perpetration of the crime for decades, the truth about the massacre was common knowledge among members of the general public. This was evident during the first wave of Solidarity protests when the topic came to the fore in the form of openly organised lectures and artistic events, samizdat publications, many small objects commemorating the massacre (e.g. badges, key fobs, pins), clandestine postage stamps or the Katyn Cross at the Powązki Military Cemetery. Despite the limited scope of samizdat publishing, the theme of the Katyn Massacre entered Polish culture, becoming a source of inspiration for writers and poets (e.g. Zbigniew Herbert, Włodzimierz Odojewski).
The introduction of martial law did little to stop popular calls to disclose the true nature of the Katyn Massacre. The government of the Polish People’s Republic was finally forced to bow to the pressure and initiate a dialogue with the Soviets about the ‘blank spots’ in this history of the two countries. However, it was only in the late 1980s, when perestroika and glastnost were launched, that the string of Katyn lies could be broken at long last. The final step was taken in April 1990 as the Soviets officially acknowledged that the crime of genocide against Polish POWs and prison inmates was perpetrated by the NKVD in the spring of 1940.(5)
Even though the responsibility for the Katyn Massacre was officially admitted, the fact has been virtually absent first in the Soviet and then Russian memory politics. The reason is that it does not fit in the myth of the great victory in the Second World War and the self-sacrificing struggle to save the world from fascism – just like Hitler and Stalin’s collusion in 1939, mass deportations, the enslavement of the Baltic states or the huge scale of marauding in the Red Army in 1944–1945. The tendency is well-illustrated by a judgement of Russia’s Supreme Military Prosecution Office declaring the Katyn Massacre a common crime falling under the statute of limitations.
In other countries, however, knowledge about Katyn is more or less common, in large measure thanks to the declassification of documents kept in British and American archives, but above all the widely distributed film Katyn by Andrzej Wajda and the growing number of monuments commemorating the victims of the genocide.
1. S. Ciesielski, W. Materski, A. Paczkowski, Represje sowieckie wobec Polaków i obywateli polskich, Warsaw 2002, p. 7.
2.For information about the life in the camps and their criminal liquidation supported by extensive documents, see Katyń. Dokumenty zbrodni, Vol. 1: Jeńcy nie wypowiedzianej wojny, Warsaw 1995; Vol. 2: Zagłada, Warsaw 1998.
3.Katyń. Dokumenty zbrodni, Vol. 1, doc. 217, p. 476.
4. For extensive information about the topic, see: T. Sommer, Operacja antypolska NKWD. Geneza i przebieg ludobójstwa popełnionego na Polakach w Związku Sowieckim, Warsaw 2014.
5. Katyń. Dokumenty zbrodni, Vol. 4: Echa Katynia, Warsaw 2006, doc. 123, p. 506.