The general reader attempting to understand the issue of Katyn may well be confused – victim totals ranging from a little over 4,000 to 25,000; multiple locations and burial sites are mentioned; various investigations –German, Soviet and US are mentioned; reports from forensic specialists, journalists, soldiers and civilians; all these and other factors serve to make the issue complex. Additionally, the factor that responsibility for the crime was repeatedly disputed; that both the US and Great Britain refused to publicize the truth about Soviet guilt, and the fact that Great Britain persisted and still persists in refusing to open certain files and denies the existence of materials produced by its Foreign and War Offices, serves to mystify those persons who, in contrast, have been able to read about the Nazi death camps in great and (generally) uncontested detail.
Finally and most importantly, the consistent Soviet denial of the crime, as well as the denial of the Soviet imposed government of Poland (beginning with the Lublin government of 1944) meant that an Orwellian newspeak possessed and manipulated the massacre for its own purposes. In a Poland under Soviet domination (through the early 1950s one could say occupation), families were forbidden to speak of the crime and the children of the victims were punished by being denied higher education and or employment – yet Polish historians in the West and victim’s families persisted in maintaining the truth.
But what is Katyn – aside from a community outside of Smolensk? The simplest way to define the matter, is to state that the Katyn Massacre, also simply referred to as Katyn, is the generic name given to a series of massacres of Polish citizens (with only one known female victim), of various ethnicities and religions by the NKVD of the Soviet government. The first location where mass graves were discovered was the forest of Kozie Gory, located inside an NKVD complex, which lies between Gniezdowo and Katyn. Because it was the first to be discovered (it took some four decades for the others to become studied) and because its exhumation was so well publicized by the Germans, it served as the symbolic name for the entirety of the crime. It is for that reason that the name of Katyn has become affixed to the various murders, the majority of which occurred over a two month period in 1940.
The multiple massacres of Polish citizens in at least three locations in USSR occurred almost concurrently, starting approximately in late April and ending in late May of 1940 – these were Katyn (4,421 victims) near Smolensk in the Russian SSR, of officers who had been held in Kozielsk; victims from Starobielsk were killed in Kharkiv (3,820 victims) in the Ukrainian SSR; and those from Ostashkov were killed in Kalinin (now Tver) (6,311 victims) also in the Russian SSR. Grave sites and name lists of the victims exist for these three locations and cemeteries have been erected by the Polish government. In those sites, where the corpses have been exhumed and subject to analysis, the form of execution was the same. Even if there were more victims in these other sites the crime would always remain Katyn.
Although earlier referred to as a personalized form of murder, a shot in the head with the victim’s hands bound in back, was in fact less brutal than the tortures inflicted on Polish soldiers during the Polish-Bolshevik War of 1919-20 and which were recorded in photographs printed in the French press. This may have been one of the first cases of photo-journalists being imbedded with army units – and surprisingly, despite the image of Soviet censorship – clearly, the Bolsheviks were not able to censor the images sent to the west. Perhaps this lesson in lack of image control helped form later censorship policies. Images of Red Army soldiers proudly positioned next to the impaled corpse of a Polish officer (identified by name) represent not only a much more personal form of execution, but also given their willingness to pose for photographs with the body, an accepted form of dealing with captured soldiers. Thus the murdering of Polish POWs had an earlier history under the Soviets.
The fourth set of executions occurred primarily in the Belarusian SSR (with a smaller number in Ukraine), although not necessarily in one location – it is believed that the executions also occurred in a number of prisons located throughout Belarus and totaled some 7,300 victims. Thus there are no grave sites, no cemetery(ies), no possible way to for victim’s families to reconcile their grief and mourn their loss – for even if a cemetery is distant – the knowledge that there is some form of physical commemoration aids in the grieving process. Since the Soviet NKVD did have name lists of their victims, and those have become public for the other sites, it would be expected that the former Soviet NKVD headquarters in Minsk would contain the records. However, the current Belarusian NKVD and the Belarusian government deny the existence of such a list – and so for all the family members this issue remains unresolved.
However, based on the extant name lists as well as the submitted list of missing individuals – the total does rise to almost 25,000. When realizes how large a number that is – then it is not surprising that it appears that almost every Pole has menfolk “killed in Katyn”. Thus an entire nation was aware of the Soviet lie, forced to silence about it and to a concurrent silence about the mass deportations of Polish citizens by the Soviet invaders in 1940 and 1941. As an example, in the 1970’s when writing about public figures who had been arrested or deported, the standard phrase used was “znalazł(a) się na terenie Związku Radzieckiego” i.e. he/she found him/herself in the Soviet Union – gracefully avoiding the issue.
The Soviet Union denied its guilt for years, then for a short moment it revealed certain documents and acknowledged culpability. That short moment has long passed and the confirmation of that fact is apparent in the Foreign Policy Concept presented by Russia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in early 2013. The inability of the USSR and now Russia to admit and teach its citizens about its own complicity in starting World War II, and in the NKVD’s war crimes against other nations, means that Russians continue to not understand or know the truth about their own history. . .
So then what is Katyn for Poland? It is the loss of thousands of educated men, the professional cadre of a nation – be it professors and teachers, artists and writers, lawyers and judges, constabulary and merchants, an entire generation of experience and knowledge. Linked together with those who were lost to the GULAG, the families who never returned from exile, those who made it out of the USSR with Anders’ Army and decided not to return – this victim loss when linked with the decimations of Nazi Germany, placed Poland in the position of a second class nation – with its natural leaders killed, exiled or fearful (with good reason) of returning from the West. It is also the betrayal – most painfully by the Western Allies – who expected the Poles to fight faithfully and maintain silence about their losses – and who allowed them to then lose their freedom for an additional 45 years.