the Katyn observances
Professor Aleksandr Guryanov's presentation [translated from Russian] from
the Katyn observances at the Coolidge Auditorium of the Library of Congress,
May 5, 2010. This is sent with permission of Professor Mark Kramer
[translator] and the Harvard University Cold War Archives. It can be
reprinted or reposted with acknowledgment.

The Katyn Problem in Contemporary Russia

Aleksandr Guryanov, ³Memorial² Society

Esteemed Mr. Chairman and Ladies and Gentlemen:

First of all I would like to offer my sincere thanks to the organizers for
inviting me to this conference marking the seventieth anniversary of the
Katyn crime and for giving me the honor of speaking to you as a
representative of the Russian ³Memorial² Society.

The Memorial Society, in addition to its work in defending human rights in
Russia in our own time, pursues the study of the history of political
repression in the Soviet Union, documenting the fate of repressed people and
assisting their moral and legal rehabilitation.

Among the millions who were repressed in the USSR from the 1930s to the
1950s for political reasons, one of the national groups most heavily
affected were the hundreds of thousands of ethnic Poles and Polish citizens
of other ethnic backgrounds who were subjected in the USSR to various types
of repression: mass deportations to special relocation camps in the far
north and eastern regions, confinement in prisons and Gulag camps and POW
camps, or the supreme punishment ‹ being shot.

The postwar Polish historiography, which for a long while had to be based on
very rough and unreliable sources, estimated the total number of repressed
Polish citizens in the USSR at around 1-2 million. Although the real number
turned out to be 2-3 times smaller, it still is such a large number that
even now the Stalinist mass repressions evoke mistrust and even hostility
among Poles toward Russia.

On the basis of Soviet archival sources, above all NKVD documents to which
access became possible after 1991, we acquired a solidly based tabulation of
Polish citizens who were subjected in the USSR to various types of
repression for political reasons ‹ as many as 590,000 people in total in the
period from 1939 to 1956, including up to 490,000 who were repressed in the
period from 17 September 1939 to August 1941, bearing in mind that during
these two years more than 25,000 of them died in camps and in exile and more
than 33 thousand were shot.

Among those who were shot are the 22,000 victims of the Katyn crime, who
became one of the symbols not only of Soviet repressions against Poles but
also of the whole Stalinist political terror in the USSR. Memorial believes
that Katyn is not only a problem in Russia¹s relations with Poland but also
an internal problem in Russia itself, where the task of overcoming Stalinism
is a vital necessity.

My remarks will focus on sentiments toward the Katyn crime in current-day
Russia, including certain legal aspects.

Although the moral aspects are also part of the theme of our session, I will
not go deeply into them because I believe they are deeply personal. Each of
us decides individually and independently whether we should be seen as part
of something that our country perpetrated before we were born. My own view
is that if a citizen of Russia who was born after the war believes that he
has the right to be proud of the USSR¹s victory over fascism, then he also
should feel responsibility for Soviet atrocities. But I do not here
denigrate those who have decided on some other approach for themselves.

The majority of people in Russia have very confused impressions about the
Katyn crime. According to the sociological survey carried out in March 2010
by the highly respected Levada Center, only 43 percent of the respondents
had ever heard anything about Katyn. Only 19 percent of those who had heard
of it realized that the Polish prisoners of war were shot by Soviet forces,
and 28 percent of them believed that the Germans did it. The remaining 53
percent were unable to give an answer. Up to now, the ideas that most
Russians have about Katyn have been shaped mainly by a lack of knowledge of
basic facts pertaining to the Katyn crime and by the many years of Soviet
propagandistic lies about Katyn.

After the Germans discovered the graves in the Katyn Forest in 1943, for a
stretch of 47 years the official position of the USSR was the deliberately
false assertion that the Polish prisoners were shot by Hitler¹s forces. This
position served as the basis of the conclusion of the specially formed
commission headed by academician Nikolai Burdenko. Today we know that the
essential evidence and eyewitness testimony used by the Burdenko Commission
were fabricated by officers of the NKVD and NKGB.

Not until 1990 under President Gorbachev did the Soviet Union acknowledge
its guilt in perpetrating the Katyn crime and transfer to Poland lists of
prisoners of war who were executed. In 1992, at the directive of President
Yeltsin, documents were turned over proving that the extralegal shootings of
Polish citizens were perpetrated at the direct order of the leadership of
the USSR. These materials included:

-- a memorandum from the minister of internal affairs Beria with
the proposal to shoot Polish prisoners of war and regular prisoners, a
document bearing the handwritten signatures of Stalin, Voroshilov, Molotov,
and Mikoyan as well as a notation regarding a vote in favor by Kalinin and

-- a decision taken by the VKP(b) Politburo on 5 March 1940
regarding this memorandum;

-- a very important later memorandum from 1959 from the KGB
chairman Shelepin to the CPSU First Secretary Khrushchev

and other documents.

Starting in 1990 an investigation of the Katyn crime was carried out first
by the Soviet and then by the Russian Main Military Procuracy.

In 1993 President Yeltsin uttered the words ³Forgive us . . .² when laying a
wreath in Warsaw at the monument to the victims of Katyn. In 2000 at the
site of the graves of the Polish POWs who were shot in Katyn Forest and near
the village of Mednoe, a Russian-Polish memorial cemetery was officially
opened. A memorial cemetery was also opened in the Kharkiv region in

But it turned out that the Katyn lie in Russia had not been fully overcome.

Almost as soon as Gorbachev turned around in 1990 in acknowledging that the
Polissh POWs were shot by the Soviet authorities, Gorbachev himself
initiated an ³anti-Katyn² ­ putting forth the accusation against Poland of
having destroyed several tens of thousands of Red Army soldiers who were in
Polish captivity during the Soviet-Polish war of 1919-1920.

Although afterward as a result of joint archival research by Polish and
Russian historians it was shown that in the Polish camps no more than
18,000-20,000 Red Army prisoners perished and although their deaths resulted
from malnutrition and mass disease rather than the purposeful destruction by
the Polish authorities, attempts to diminish Soviet guilt for the Katyn
crime by invoking the guilt of Poland for ³anti-Katyn² continue in Russia to
this very day.

Soon after documents were brought to light showing that the Stalinist
leadership of the USSR perpetrated the Katyn crime, current-day Russian
Stalinists ­ the ³patriot-great power advocates² and Communist deputies of
parliament began and even now continue their attempts to revive the old
Soviet lie about German guilt and to mislead society into believing that the
documents that came to light were forgeries and were fabricated by a
worldwide conspiracy of enemies of Russia. For some 15 years, except over
the past few weeks, this went on with the tacit complicity of the Russian
state authorities.

In September 2004 the ³Katyn affair² investigation being carried out by the
Main Military Procuracy was halted ³on account of the death of the guilty.²
In this connection, the main materials of the case were reclassified by one
of the highest government organs ­ the Interdepartmental Commission on the
Protection of State Secrets, the activity of which is supervised by the
President of the Russian Federation.

The reclassification of the ³Katyn case² materials flagrantly violates the
existing Russian Law on State Secrets, which does not permit one to make a
state secret and classify information about facts pertaining to violations
of human rights and freedoms and also facts pertaining to violations of the
law by state organs and their employees.

Despite this, the Main Military Procuracy and the Interdepartmental
Commission on the Protection of State Secrets to this day refuse to rescind
their decision about reclassification. For the past two years the Memorial
Society has been trying through judicial means to get them to reconsider it.
Currently the examination by the Russian authorities of our statement about
declassification has not been completed.

Up to now, the Main Military Procuracy has refused to carry out the existing
Russian Law on the Rehabilitation of Victims of Political Repression,
asserting that the political motive and even the facts of the shootings
concerning individual POWs cannot be established because individual
documents about the shootings were not preserved.

They stated this even in relation to those who were identified in Katyn
during the German exhumations in 1943 and also those who were identified
during the sporadic exhumations carried out in 1991 by the Main Military
Procuracy itself.

The monuments at the memorial cemeteries in Katyn and Mednoe feature more
than 4,400 and more than 6,300 personal tablets of executed POWs. Their
names and surnames have been authoritatively established on the basis of
NKVD documents that were brought to light in 1990 by the Soviet Union. On 7
April 2010 Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin laid a wreath at the Katyn
memorial cemetery, honoring in this manner each person whose name is
inscribed on the monument. It is paradoxical that despite this the Russian
procuracy regards all those who were shot as anonymous statistics of a
multitude of nameless victims!

The Memorial Society over the past four years has been trying to achieve
official acknowledgment of the names of the concrete Polish prisoners as
victims of political repression ­ for the past three years by judicial
means, bearing in mind that judicial recourse inside Russia is now nearly
exhausted and we are now awaiting examination of our complaint in the
European Court on Human Rights in Strasbourg.

The Main Military Procuracy, citing the secrecy it itself established,
refuses to provide the names of those whom it identified as guilty, having
said only that this includes ³individuals from the leadership of the USSR
NKVD,² the actions of whom were characterized by point b of Article 193-17
of the Criminal Code of the RSFSR (1926) as ³an excess of authority that had
adverse consequences in the presence of specially aggravating

Thus, Stalin and the members of the Politburo, having adopted the decision
about the mass shooting of Polish citizens, are not acknowledged by the
procuracy to be guilty of the Katyn crime, which previously in the TASS
statement of 13 April 1990 was called ³one of the most odious crimes of

The crime itself, carried out at the orders of the USSR leadership and being
a genuine act of state terrorism, is now characterized as an excess of
authority by individual supervisory officials at the department level, in
other words as their willfulness ­ that is, as a general criminal act to
which the procuracy and the Russian courts apply the ten-year statute of
limitations, refusing to resume the stalled investigation.

From our point of view, the extralegal shootings of POWs and regular
prisoners must be characterized in accordance with Points b and c of Article
6 of the Statute of the International Military Tribunal that judged the main
Nazi criminals at Nuremberg, namely, as a war crime and a crime against
humanity having no statute of limitations.

The Memorial Society in its recent appeal to the president of Russia,
Dmitrii Medvedev, insists on the resumption of the investigation of the
Katyn case on the ground that numerous tasks obligatory for any
investigation remain unfulfilled. The investigation is obliged to:

-- to establish a full legal register of the names of personnel
who were shot,

-- to establish a full legal register of the names of those who
were guilty of inspiring the crime and of carrying it out at all levels, and

-- to establish a full legal characterization of the crime in
accordance with the norms of Russian and international law.

In recent weeks we have observed a definite change of position of the
Russian authorities toward the Katyn affair, something that began even
before the tragic catastrophe involving the Polish presidential plane.

Prime Minister Putin took part in the commemorative ceremony in Katyn
together with Polish Prime Minister Tusk and described the shootings of the
Polish prisoners of war as a crime of totalitarianism. President Medvedev
publicly and even more decisively identified the perpetrators as Stalin and
the Stalinist leadership.

Andrzej Wajda¹s moving film was twice shown on Russian nationwide television

On the official website of the Russian state archival service, the main
Soviet archival documents have been posted for general viewing, including
the Beria memorandum bearing the signatures of Stalin and other members of
the Politburo and the decision taken by the Politburo on 5 March 1940. This
amounts to an official public attestation of the authenticity and
genuineness of these documents.

In this manner the 15-year curtain of official silence around the Katyn
crime is being drawn back, which is absolutely essential to educate Russian
society about the matter.

However, the Russian Main Military Procuracy continues to adhere to its
former position, which contradicts the April 2010 speeches by Prime Minister
Putin and President Medvedev and also contradicts the efforts being made in
the mass media to inform society about the Katyn case. In the view of
Memorial, what is key here are the legal steps about which I spoke and which
we will achieve.

Polish Media Watch

Polish Media Watch

Polish Happy Hour


Newletter Signup

Follow Us Here

Support Us