Russia-Poland: a history too terrible

The plane crash at Smolensk which Poland’s president has provoked an outpouring of Russian sympathy, from Putin down. It has helped many Russians identify their country’s responsibility for the Katyn massacre in 1940. But it has left many others unmoved, even cynical. ‘Re-setting’ Russian-Polish relations is not going to be easy.

The reactions of the Russian Internet to the anniversary of the Katyn tragedy, and then the air catastrophe, swung in one of two diametrically opposite ways. Either waves of sympathy and anti-Stalin emotions; or an irony shocking in its cynicism and an ignorance of many-times established historical facts.

There was the same determined proliferation of myths that somehow the Germans were responsible for Katyn. The same attempts to justify Stalinist cruelty. The same irony around subjects one should never ironise about: “What was the President of Poland flying on such an old plane? Couldn’t his friend Obama find him a new Boeing?”.

And yet, as many noticed, there was also a real and human reaction to the events, including, most notably, sincere and emotional outpourings from both Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin. Marcin Wojciechowski, columnist for Gazeta Wyborcza, even suggested that these awful events could serve as the catalyst for joining together our two very disconnected nations.

Perhaps. Only the events of 11 September 2001 also for one moment brought out an adequate reaction to tragedy from Vladimir Putin; and that did not stop Russian-American relations moving to standstill.

Katyn has become an eternal and accursed question for Russians, joining the ranks of  “Who is to blame?”, “What is to be done?”, and the even more painful “What’s the score?”. In its proper transcription, the Katyn question reads as follows: “Does contemporary Russia and its present-day leadership carry responsibility for the darkest pages of the Stalinist past?”

Memorial Katyn Forest

After several years of construction Katyn War Cemetery was opened to the public on July 28, 2000

The undeniably difficult soul-searching around this question has caused real problems for Russians. To some extent, it accounts for the decision by military prosecutors to close a criminal case and deny posthumous rehabilitation to the victims of the tragedy. That said, there were also the same doubts about attempts to put the record straight over the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In the Russian mass consciousness — as in the minds of the political elite — this Pact is still considered to have given the Soviet Union time to better prepare for war, by introducing the maximum delay to its start. Any official recognition that in September 1939, the Soviet Union went into war on the side of Hitler’s Germany still appears flatly impossible.

The decision of Vladmir Putin to participate in the memorial events was a huge step forward (after several steps back). The Katyn tragedy was recognised even by the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (though not immediately). We know, for example, of memoranda between Gorbachev and Valentina Falina, head of the International Department of the Central Committee, in which she makes clear that covering up the truth was no longer possible: “The Katyn affair is stirring up Polish public opinion. This is being manipulated by opposition forces in an attempt to raise doubts about Jaruzelski’s course and decision to keep close relations with the Soviet Union”; “until the Katyn tragedy is fully exposed, there cannot be normal relations between Poland and the Soviet Union.... Clearly, we cannot avoid giving the Polish leadership an explanation ... Perhaps it would be more expedient to say what actually happened, who specifically is to blame about what happened, and with this, to close the affair”.

Boris Yeltsin was admirably transparent and honest in his dealings, passing classified materials to the Polish side (in those years, of course, he had little reason to identify himself with the Soviet Union, let alone Stalinist crimes). Under Putin, the situation became much more complicated. It was also at this time that from the depths of national mythology came an image of a “good” Stalin: a Stalin who brought order to the country and defended the national interest. In this context, Andrzej Wajda’s film Katyn was unable to secure a wide release, though it would undoubtedly have played an an important educative role and help to divorce the responsibility of Russians today from that of the Stalinist leadership.

In these new times, Poland was invariably placed on the Russian “axis of evil”, alongside Georgia, USA and the Baltic states. A string of disputes, ranging from a supposedly low quality of Polish meat exports to the routing of the Nord Stream gas pipeline around Poland, only served to intensify negative relations between the two countries. In the mindset of the Russian establishment, Lech Kaczyński had become near-equal to Ukraine’s Viktor Yuschenko.

Thanks in large part to Prime Minister Donald Tusk, relations between political elites – if not between countries – began to to improve. Russia began to show a hitherto absent side for negotiations. Attendance at the memorial at Katyn was to become – and, in principle, did become – the logical next step in improving relations. Putin, it should be clear, did not explictly apologise to the Poles. The passage of his speech where he spoke of an “unambiguous legal and moral assessment” of a “crime committed by a totalitarian regime”, which had “already been given”, was in itself only justification for the lack of an apology. He used this same hedging logic a few months earlier about the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, noting it had already been condemned by the USSR Congress of Peoples’ Deputies in 1989.

For some, these formulations spoke of a new-found generosity; others saw them as a diplomatic trap. There is certainly no escaping the fact that tomes of evidence from the Katyn criminal case are still classified. The Katyn killers likewise have not been named, and the case itself was investigated out under the pretext of “exceeding official jurisdiction”.  Neither Stalin nor Beria, nor the rank-and-file NKVD officers went beyond their jurisdiction. Their direct jurisdiction was to kill. And we are still none the wiser about the so-called Belarusian list of almost 4000 Poles officers arrested and killed in Belarus.

Nonetheless, Putin’s acknowledgement of the Katyn crime – even in such accented form – is critical when considering Russian mass consciousness and public opinion. It is one thing for the “anti-patriotic” Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin to acknowledge a crime; quite another thing when the popular “bearer of law and order” Vladimir Putin does so. You trust Putin. For many, what he said was a real revelation, and was given extra colour by Wajda’s powerful and impressive film, which finally found wide audience thanks to its TV broadcast. Still, pollsters Levada-Centre continue to report that as many as 47% of respondents have not heard about the Katyn tragedy, with a further 10% having difficulty answering. 28% are still convinced that the shooting was organised by Nazi leaders. Just 19% consider it Stalin’s crime. 14% suggest the killings were the result of war-time conditions and therefore can not be considered a crime as such.

People mourn president Kaczynski in Warsaw

People gather in front of the Presidential Palace in Warsaw to pay tribute to victims of the air-crash in which President Lech Kaczynski was killed on April 10th  

The events of Putin and Tusk’s meeting in Katyn, and the air accident that followed, mean that history can no longer be disputed according to a Russian logic formulated as far back as Alexander Pushkin — “leave it: it’s an argument between Slavs”. It is much more serious than that now. The air catastrophe has with its demonic logic helped even the stupid and heartless recognise the tragedy of events. Though they came at an enormously high cost, the events of the last week undoubtedly carried out an educative mission.

Does an improvement in relations await Russia and Poland? The majority of factors would point to such a scenario. On the other hand, Katyn has for the second time in history become the site of a huge loss of Polish life. Since Katyn is located in Russia, Poles will once again come to associate Russia with the death of fellow citizens. Moreover, not everyone was quite as sobered by last week’s events as they might have been. One only has to read internet comments such as “What do they want now? Are we now expected to apologize for the mist?” to understand we should not harbour any illusions. “Resetting” Russian-Polish relations is a difficult and long road. We are only at its beginning.

Andrei Kolesnikov is an independent journalist and regular contributor to Russia’s leading online newspapers, gazeta.ru and slon.ru

About the author

Moscow based journalist, editor of the op-ed section of Novaya Gazyeta, columnist of the Vedomosti daily and www.gazeta.ru web magazine. Author of six books, including biography of controversial politician Anatoly Chubais

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Read On

Katyn: A Crime Without Punishment (Annals of Communism Series), Wojciech Materski (Author), Anna M. Cienciala (Editor), Natalia S. Lebedeva (Editor), Yale University Press (January 28, 2008), 624 pages

Katyn: Stalin's Massacre and the Triumph of Truth (Paperback), by Allen Paul, Northern Illinois University Press; 1 edition (March 15, 2010), 430 pages

White Eagle, Red Star: The Polish-Soviet War 1919-1920 and "The Miracle on the Vistula" (Paperback), by Norman Davies, Random House 2003, 336 pages

Russian-Polish Relations: A Long Way From Stereotypes to Reconciliation, by Peter Cheremushkin, Moscow State University, Intermarium, vol. 5, no. 3. (2003), School of International and Public Affairs, Columbia University

Tragic Reconciliation, by Tom Balmforth, Russia Profile, April 2010