Seventy-five years ago today, the fate of thousands Polish officers and civil servants, prisoners of war in the Soviet Union, was sealed. These Poles had been taken prisoner in September and October 1939, following the joint, Nazi-Soviet invasion of Poland.
In a memorandum from Lavrentiy Beria, head of the infamous NKVD, the suggestion was made to liquidate these prisoners. Stalin approved the order with his signature. The executions were carried out in March and April of 1940, and the bodies were buried in mass graves, one of which, in the Katyń Forest, was discovered by the Germans in 1943. The ensuing outrage on the part of the Polish Government in Exile in London, and the Soviet Union’s denials and coverup, revealed the true face of Stalin’s intentions for Poland.
The murders of these thousands of Poles was not a decision made on a whim, but systematic form of genocide that began with the Polish Operation of the NKVD in 1937-1938, which resulted in the killing of over 100,000 people, the 1940 executions and the Stalinist reign of terror from 1944-1953 where officially about 6,000 death sentences were issued, though historians estimate that tens of thousands more were killed. It is probably very conservative to estimate that at least 180,000 Poles were targeted and killed by the Soviets as a matter of state policy from 1937-1953. Many more Poles died as the result of disease and starvation in prison camps and as soldiers illegally drafted into the Red Army and forced into suicidal battles.
Given the scale of these killings and the deep legacy of pain and anguish that they caused, its no wonder that Polish animosity towards the Russian government persists to this day, not out of a knee-jerk Russophobia, but because of persistent deflections and distortions of the truth of history. To this day, many documents related to the killings in Russian archives have not been released and attempts to seek legal vindication in Russian courts has been rebuffed with explanations that the statute of limitations for these crimes has expired, the perpetrators are all dead, or any number of other excuses.
The bitter irony of the Smolensk tragedy, where many of Poland’s most prominent citizens died en route to the 70th anniversary commemorations of the Katyń massacre, reopened the wound that had only begun to heal by the passage of time.
Though President Lech Kaczyński wasn’t able to deliver his final speech at Katyń, its text is a poignant reflection on that terrible evil, and a hopeful appeal for good and truth to one day triumph over it.
“Exhuming Secrets” by Paul R. Gregory and Maciej Siekierski