The Ultimate Crime

Katyn & the Invention of Genocide

Recent months have seen remarkable events and developments in the legacy of Katyn, the village in the woods of western Russia where, in April 1940, Stalin’s secret police shot some twenty-two thousand Polish military officers. Those killings have bedeviled relations between the two countries ever since.

Most of the officers killed at Katyn were not career military but reservists who, in their everyday lives, worked as lawyers, doctors, writers, or businessmen. Poles, who look back on a history full of invasions from east and west, have seen the Katyn executions as yet one more attempt to rob Poland of the intellectual and cultural elites crucial to self-government. Russians, for their part—and especially during the Soviet era—have routinely denied responsibility for the massacre, blaming the Nazis. Moreover, they wonder why—from the catastrophe of a war that consumed tens of millions of lives, including 6 million citizens of Poland—Poles insist on keeping the memory of Katyn alive. Why not focus instead on the hundreds of thousands of Red Army soldiers who died liberating Poland from Nazi rule in the endgame of World War II?

Since assuming power in 1999, Vladimir Putin has grounded his regime’s legitimacy in Russian achievements of the past, above all in the victory over Nazi Germany. He has argued that his countrymen cannot be blamed for Katyn because the killings did not reflect their will; in 2005, Russian prosecutors concluded an investigation of the executions with the assertion that they constituted a legal act at the time of their commission and could not be construed as genocide. Authorities sealed the Katyn archives to independent researchers, and the case seemed closed. Poles expecting a Russian apology were disappointed.

Thus it was a genuine surprise when Putin decided to host a seventieth anniversary commemoration at Katyn this past April, and invited Polish Prime Minster Donald Tusk to attend. Describing the Katyn executions as “atrocities of a totalitarian regime,” Putin knelt alongside Tusk before a memorial cross at the mass graves. To the amazement of onlookers, each man blessed himself—the onetime Solidarity activist and the former KGB officer crossing themselves side by side. Political analysts have attributed the gesture, and Putin’s new tone, to Russia’s desire for better relations with a prosperous Poland, a country with gas resources waiting to be exploited, and also a gateway to Western Europe, where Russia hopes to gain credits to modernize its energy industries. The Russian edition of Newsweek obtained documents showing that Putin ordered a 180-degree shift toward Poland months before the Katyn commemoration, after learning from his ambassador in Warsaw that Polish grumbling over Katyn would frustrate closer ties to the European Union.

Then the story of reconciliation took an unexpected and tragic turn. Four days after Tusk returned to Poland, Polish President Lech Kaczyński, who was famous for anti-Russian diatribes and had not been invited to the event hosted by Putin, embarked on his own Katyn commemoration. Traveling in the same Soviet-made jet that had carried Tusk, he took along a large delegation that included top state officials, historians, military commanders, and representatives of every political party. The plane crashed in thick fog just short of the airport at Smolensk, killing everyone on board.

Putin and Tusk rushed from their respective capital cities to this newest site of Polish tragedy, and as Tusk arose from quiet prayer, Putin embraced him, helping him to his feet while once again making a sign of the cross. These images, shown repeatedly on Polish television, left a deep impression. So too did the solicitude shown in the days that followed by thousands of Russians, who spontaneously placed flowers and candles at the Polish embassy in Moscow. Russian President Dmitry Medvedev announced a national day of mourning. And Russia’s leaders permitted Andrzej Wajda’s film Katyn to be shown on state television in prime time.

The 2007 film by the acclaimed Polish director had been kept out of movie theaters in Russia; suppressing such perspectives was one of the ways both Soviet and post-Soviet Russian governments propagated the fable of Nazi culpability for Katyn. In Wajda’s account, viewers learn that the execution of twenty thousand soldiers was only one blow against Poland aimed by Germany and the Soviet Union. Andrzej, the young officer who is the film’s protagonist, has a father-in-law who teaches at Jagiellonian University in Krakow. On November 6, 1939, he loyally responds to a summons to attend a lecture by a Nazi official. But instead of a lecture, the professors arrive to find themselves placed under arrest, loaded onto waiting trucks, and hauled off to the concentration camp at Sachsenhausen. Meanwhile, other members of Andrzej’s family, stuck in eastern Poland, are arrested by the Soviet secret police and sent to join the three hundred thousand Polish political leaders, businessmen, and teachers shipped off to exile in the Soviet far east, where many died of hunger and disease. Later, friends of the family take part in the Warsaw Uprising of 1944, where some two hundred thousand died when the city rose against the Nazi occupiers, as the Red Army waited across the river, providing no assistance. Depicting these baleful events, Wajda gives human dimension to the nature and consequences of the Hitler-Stalin Pact—and in the process implicates both the Nazis and the Soviets in the long-term project of wiping out the Polish nation.

Given the Putin government’s unwillingness to ask tough questions about Russian history, showing this film was perhaps the most impressive of all the gestures registered in these days of sudden thaw. For the time being, we cannot know what conclusions Russians drew from Wajda’s extraordinary drama, but it must have been bitter medicine. Disagreement has long surrounded the question of whether Katyn can be described as genocide. The definitions adopted by the UN in 1948 would seem to suggest that it qualifies. The Convention described as genocidal “acts committed with intent to destroy, in whole or in part, a national, ethnical, racial, or religious group,” among them “killing members of the group.” Arguably, Wajda’s film depicts Nazis and Soviets as partners in genocide. Thanks in part to Putin’s unexpected overture, the idea was at least, and at last, on the table.

Last year, as Poles prepared to commemorate the seventieth anniversary of the 1939 Nazi-Soviet nonaggression pact by which Hitler and Stalin secretly agreed to divide and rule Poland, some in Poland, mostly on the right, insisted on calling the Katyn murders “genocide,” while others, mostly on the left, argued that the Soviets had not intended to destroy Poles as a national or ethnic group. In their view, Stalin killed the Polish officers in order to eliminate political enemies, the same way he killed millions of Soviet citizens. In the end, a compromise statement issued by the Polish parliament condemned the mass executions at Katyn as a crime with “characteristics of genocide.”

The man who coined the word “genocide,” a Polish-Jewish lawyer named Raphael Lemkin (1900–59), believed that violence against civilians attained a new character in World War II. The desire to eradicate a nation was not in itself new. The Tsarist regime, after all, had cooperated with Bismarck’s Germany in denying Poles the schools, libraries, newspapers, economic associations, religious institutions, and leaders through which they might live a national life. The hope was that Poles would gradually assimilate, becoming Russians and Germans.

What made the acts of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia revolutionary, on the other hand, was the willingness to erase nations by destroying the “essential foundations of the life of national groups,” as Lemkin wrote in 1943, “with the aim of annihilating the groups themselves.”

The same year, Lemkin (who was wounded while fighting against the German invasion and eventually made his way to the United States, where he became a law professor) produced a draft law for the Polish government-in-exile using the word ludobójstwo—literally, the killing of a people—to describe Nazi crimes in Poland. This word, Anglicized by Lemkin in the neologism “genocide,” was subsequently defined as a crime by the UN Convention on the Prevention and Punishment of the Crime of Genocide, with “nation” understood in the broad sense of a homeland population, meaning a group with common ethnic, cultural, religious, or racial characteristics. The Convention was signed on December 9, 1948, and the UN Declaration of Universal Human Rights the following day.

The word and concept are used more and more often. In 2001, the International Criminal Tribunal for the former Yugoslavia judged the mass killing of Bosnian Muslim prisoners of war in 1995 an act of genocide because the killers “targeted for extinction the forty thousand Bosnian Muslims living in Srebrenica, a group which was emblematic of the Bosnian Muslims in general.” The murderers had “deliberately and methodically killed [the prisoners] solely on the basis of their identity.” The same can be said of the Polish soldiers at Katyn. Yes, they were killed as political enemies; but they were enemies because they were Poles. In Soviet eyes, ethnic Poles—regardless of political or social background—constituted an implacable threat to Soviet power. That explains why Stalin took the unique step in 1938 of liquidating the Polish Communist Party, first killing its leaders, then disbanding the party. A nation slated for disappearance did not need its own organizations, even if they were Communist. If the Nazis had not turned on the Soviets with their attack of June 1941, that is how things would have stayed.

Why is recognizing an event as genocidal so important? One reason is that unlike other war crimes, genocide is not subject to a statute of limitations. If Katyn was genocide, some of its perpetrators might still be brought to justice, and restitution might be claimed by families of the victims. Beyond these material considerations, genocide as the ultimate crime has a rare claim on a people’s self-understanding, whether they are the victims or the perpetrators. Polish insistence that the world know about Katyn grew with each year that Communist governments insisted the Nazis were guilty. Other groups around the world have clamored for recognition as victims of genocide: Chinese and Koreans incensed that the Japanese have done little to recognize the atrocities of Nanking or rape camps, or Native Americans and African Americans who fear their own national tragedies will end up forever buried in the deep past. And what about Cambodians? Is killing millions of one’s own people an act of genocide?

In all these cases, groups fear their victimhood will be passed over and ultimately forgotten if it is not stamped with the label of this ultimate crime. Conversely, perpetrators hope to keep their nation from acquiring an indelible moral stain. Why does Turkey refuse to acknowledge the indisputable fact of genocide carried out by a Turkish state almost a century ago? Recognition could potentially involve massive reparations. But there’s also the awkward fact that Turkish governments have lied about the event for ninety years, which makes speaking the truth difficult now. Most important, genocide is thought to be radically at odds with Turkish national character. Prime Minster Recep Tayyip Erdoğan insisted last year that “it is not possible for those who belong to the Muslim faith to carry out genocide.” Even President Barack Obama, who during his candidacy said that “America deserves a leader who speaks truthfully about the Armenian genocide,” chose on this year’s Armenian Remembrance Day to refer to the murders as “massacres,” “inhumanity,” and “Meds Yeghern” (Armenian for “the Crime”)—but conspicuously not as genocide.

Seen against this background, the willingness of the Russian regime to confront Katyn has been extraordinary. A few days after the crash at Smolensk, President Medvedev astounded Poles by admitting—and not merely to them, but to the Russian people—that “Polish officers were shot by the will of the leaders of the USSR, among them Joseph Stalin.” In the weeks that followed, Medvedev placed online facsimiles of the 1940 documents, bearing Stalin’s signature, that ordered the Katyn murders. The Web site crashed repeatedly from the deluge of traffic. Finally, the Russian president turned sixty-seven boxes of documents on the crime over to Polish authorities. Soon Russian anti-Stalinists took their cue. War veterans began collecting signatures opposing the display of images of Stalin during May 9 celebrations of the end of World War II, while young socialists demanded the removal from all public places of the name Mikhail Kalinin—chair of the Supreme Soviet in 1940, who approved the Katyn executions. On May 11, Russian members of the EU-Russia Parliamentary Cooperation Committee of the European Parliament approved a resolution proclaiming that “Katyn was a war crime bearing traits of genocide”—precisely the understanding of the Polish parliament.

The new approach goes against Prime Minister Putin’s longstanding political strategy of crafting a cleaned-up version of Russia’s past. As leader during the “Great Fatherland War” (World War II), Stalin has remained central to that heritage—and even now, Putin has not personally denounced the Soviet leader. Perhaps he embraces the sentiments of the Soviet-era dissident Mikhail Gefter, who said in 1988 that every time Russians try to deal with their past they discover Stalin in themselves. They fear that in the end, attempts to master this past will lead to the edge of an abyss, discrediting any justification for their imperial state. Because they cannot rationally account for the limitless crimes of Stalin’s regime, they try to “tame” him. In any case, Putin’s pro-Russian campaign, supported by the Russian Orthodox hierarchy, has yielded results over the years: in a recent vote in which over 5 million Russians took part, Stalin—an ethnic Georgian—placed as the third most popular figure in Russia’s past, ahead of Pushkin, Lenin, and Dostoyevsky.

But with the release of the Katyn documents bearing Stalin’s signature, and with repeated references by both Medvedev and Putin to the “totalitarian” regime and its crime, attitudes may have begun to change. Russian authorities forbade the carrying of Stalin posters on May 9—though in some provincial towns, far from the international press, the generalissimus still smiled upon parades of veterans. Central authorities closed the Lenin Mausoleum for the duration of the festivities and, for the first time, invited active-duty troops from the United States, France, Great Britain, and Poland to take part. Closing a door to Stalin means opening one to the West.

How will Russians deal with the deep and abiding contradictions of their modern history? The dismantling of the Stalin myth, which began with Khrushchev, continues apace, with some historians today arguing, for example, that World War II would not have occurred without Stalin’s enabling Hitler’s aggression, or that Russia could have modernized without starving millions of peasants. Yet completely removing Stalin from Russia’s achievements will never be possible. Stalin undeniably led Russia to victory, and his “modernization” prepared Russia for war. Nikita Mikhalkov, who directed the Oscar-winning drama Burnt by the Sun about a Bolshevik general purged by the Soviet leader, recently explained to Reuters the deep split in Russians’ view of Stalin. “For the veterans, he is a saint,” Mikhalov said; “for those and their relatives who were in gulags, he is evil, a tyrant.” He went further, adding a warning: “If you don’t control this and balance the two sides out, an unimaginable metamorphosis could happen.”

Such a predicament may indeed be unimaginable for Americans, who have neither suffered like the Russians nor worshiped a leader as fervently as the Russians did Stalin. Imagine our reactions to news that Abraham Lincoln not only liberated, but also murdered millions of slaves; not only saved the Union, but provoked an unnecessary war. What to do with the idea that great good might be inseparable from great evil? The occasional heretic who claims Hitler did something good lets us imagine how disoriented Russians might feel if they try to “balance the two sides out.” When the German historian Götz Aly brought evidence several years ago showing that Hitler had created the modern German welfare state, many Germans assumed he must be condemning welfare as such.

Russia faces historical trials more complex than those that challenged Germany in the 1950s. Perhaps we are witnessing stage one, when blame is placed largely on the leader, with the population portrayed as having behaved decently. With his personal guilt for crimes becoming established beyond doubt, questions will emerge about Stalin’s support within Russian society. In the German case, penetrating questions were initially asked by outsiders like the young American William Sheridan Allen, who in the late 1950s hit upon the revolutionary idea of asking Germans what precisely they had done to bring Hitler to power. The Nazi Seizure of Power, his study of the nondescript town of Nordheim, tells college students to this day how ordinary Germans helped bring Hitler to power. (Significantly, the German publishers titled the book’s translation Das haben wir nicht gewollt, or “That Is Not What We Wanted.”)

For the moment we don’t know what Russians did and did not want as far as Stalinism was concerned. Western authors have been probing these shadows of Russian social history, but most Russians are not eager to disturb the past. Changing minds will not be easy. In the Katyn commemoration, Putin said that “for decades, attempts have been made to cover up the truth about the Katyn executions with cynical lies”—but he went on to add that “suggesting that the Russian people are to blame for that is the same kind of lie and fabrication.” And while Medvedev has talked of Stalin’s “mass crimes against the people,” he has done so in language that makes the dictator appear to have acted alone: “what was done to his own people cannot be forgiven.” Genocide implies a dimension of violence impossible to pin simply on one leader. Yet in Germany, almost half a century went by before detailed studies of everyday life and of everyday perpetrators appeared—in part because of the impact of scenes from the 1979 U.S. TV miniseries Holocaust.

The effects of film are unpredictable. Wajda’s Katyn challenged Russian viewers with a new vision of their past. Nikita Mikhalkov, meanwhile, has just released a sequel to Burnt by the Sun covering the war years—a film that attempts to fill the yawning post-Stalinist identity gap with a concoction that includes religious faith. The film’s title, Predstoyanie, means standing before God to be tested or to pray, and the war it presents is full of miraculous coincidences, Orthodox Christian symbolism, and Red Army soldiers dying with prayers on their lips—a war, Mikhalov has said, of “biblical dimensions.” Veterans have disparaged the film as untruthful because in fact soldiers were unbelievers. But if Mikhalkov turns atheists into believers, he does so to give their grandchildren something to hold onto amid the collapse of anti-Western Great Russian patriotism.

As for Russian moviegoers, they voted with their feet in a resounding nyet, and went en masse to see Iron Man 2 instead. Perhaps this is a hopeful sign. After all, far from suggesting a challenging metamorphosis, Mikhalkov’s sequel repeats a tired plot line of heroic victory over Nazi barbarism. And because the state funded a propagandistic ad campaign for it, and Mikhalkov is now the director of the Cinematographer’s Union, people saw the film not as art but as the ideologically correct work of a state bureaucrat. (Tellingly, the premiere took place inside the Kremlin.)

What better harbinger of an evolving open society than a dusted-off ideology that will not sell? Russians can no longer be ordered to attend films and festivals, and gestures like offering flowers or genuflecting or making the sign of the cross have an effect only when they seem spontaneous. Perhaps the lesson of this year’s events at Katyn is that the circumstances in which people say and do what was previously unthinkable are no longer ordered from above. Ksenia Larina, a critic at the independent radio station Echo Moskwy, said that the crash of Kaczyński’s plane “changed the course of history,” providing an extended moment in which state-run television stations, previously resistant to criticism, suddenly “dropped their plaster masks, revealing human traits.” It turned out, Larina continued, that “showing compassion and saying human words before the camera were not so difficult. All the more so if one knows that one risks no danger by doing so.”


Related: Survivor Stories: The Bosnian Memory Project, by Randall S. Rosenberg
Margaret Lavinia Anderson reviews Taner Akçam's book on the Armenian genocide
What about Darfur? by the Editors

Published in the 2010-08-13 issue: 

John Connelly teaches the history of East Central Europe at the University of California, Berkeley, and is the author of From Peoples into Nations: A History of Eastern Europe (Princeton, 2020).

Also by this author
Hitler’s Gospel

Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.

Must Reads