After the plane crash: Russian attitudes to Katyn

The NKVD’s mass execution in 1940 of Polish officers in Katyn Forest has complicated the often tense relations between Russia and Poland. But the plane crash on 10 April 2010 brought the countries closer together. Russia’s Levada Center has recently carried out a survey into Russian attitudes to Poland and Katyn in particular. The results were sometimes startling, as Alexei Levinson recounts.
Alexei Levinson
28 April 2010

Russia’s attitude to Poland is first and foremost defined by the key questions of its historical choice.  This is evident from the slogan of the Russian liberals, possibly their best ever: “Our freedom and yours!”  Poland’s tragedy is that her freedom was bound up with freedom in Russia.  Russia’s drama was that any hope of freedom for her was linked to that freedom in Poland.  The drama lies also in the fact that more than once Russians have approved their government’s punitive moves against Poland for daring to aspire to freedom.  Why drama?  Because in giving their approval they understood that they were doing wrong.  The ensuing tension could well erupt in a violent outburst of bad, sometimes even good, feelings.

On 16-19 April Levada Center carried out a survey where interviewers asked respondents what they considered the main problems underlying Russo-Polish relations.  On offer were several cliché answers laying the blame on one or other side.  We could start with the answer that the problem is “modern Russia’s imperial ambitions and unwillingness to consider the interests of neighbouring states”.  For many people in Poland and the rest of the world this is the chief explanation for the situation between Russia and her neighbours, but Russians rejected it out of hand.  This answer was the last of 10 on offer and was selected by only 1% of respondents.  Seventh down the list there was a similar answer, but referring to the past: the Soviet Union’s imposition of socialism on Poland.  This was selected by 17%.

 Russia's human rights group Memorial has been working to get the Katyn documents declassified.  In 2004 Russian military prosecutors stopped investigating the executions and closed their files. But on 21 April the détente between Russia and Poland prompted Russia’s Supreme Court to order Moscow City Court to consider Memorial’s appeal

In Russia today social surveys often acquire a function more serious than simply representing current points of view.  In the absence of public politics and any tradition of public debate (the internet is available to only a small percentage of the population), these surveys give people who want to express themselves the opportunity to do so and to take up positions.  For example, choosing the answer which states that it’s a question of “Russia’s unwillingness to accept responsibility for the crimes of the Stalinist era[1]” means taking on oneself – in the place of the state – this responsibility.  This may make things easier for your civic conscience, but it creates a burden for your conscience as a Russian.  This requires courage and the fact that 25% of the men who took part in the survey did it is worthy of note.

For others the “easing” afforded by the survey was the opportunity to lay the blame for the problematic relationship with Poland at the door of the other side.  More than 25% of those asked considered the main problem to be the “recent US plans to deploy the ABM system in Poland”.  But however much the Americans stressed that the complex was a defence against Iraq or Iran, rather than Russia, very few Russians actually believe this.  The results of another survey make it clear that they considered locating the weapons in Poland and the Czech Republic to be more of a threat to their own security, than the nuclear missile programmes of these eastern countries or China.

This category of “we too are to blame” includes the explanation of the unfriendly relations between Russia and Poland which was in 2nd place (22%).  This section of respondents considers that “in her desire to move away from Russia towards Europe, Poland has created obstacles to Russia’s rapprochement with the EU”.

The survey was an opportunity for a considerable number of Russians to express other grievances about Poland at the same time.  18% pointed out the “the lack of gratitude on the Polish side for being liberated from fascism” and for “the economic support in the years after the war”. 

Later on the interview moved on to Katyn.  Why the Russian leadership made the admissions that it did was not within the survey’s remit.  But it threw light on the social context, which had been formed by changing attitudes to the interpretation of these events in history books, publicity and the media.  In the twists and turns of the arguments the subject of the death of people and even of the guilt for it was replaced by something completely different – the recognition/non-recognition of this guilt. 

You might think that over the years one of the most difficult moral questions of the day could have been addressed – that of collective responsibility and the guilt of nations for the actions of their leaders and the people that carried out the orders.  But this has not happened.  Russian – and evidently Polish – society considers that there can be no doubt.  The question to be addressed is another one – whether to accept the blame or lay it on someone else, in this case the Germans.  Or to accept it secretly and deny it in public, or, again, the other way round.

As of the middle of April 2010 approximately 25% of adult Russians have never heard of Katyn and have no opinion on it.  But almost twice as many (47%) have no opinion on what is now the main question – who were the killers? 

In the under-25 age bracket 56% were unable to make up their minds which version to choose.  In this group 37% have never heard of Katyn and 19% found out about it after 2000 – 15% when Putin went to Katyn and 19% after the plane crash.  The way they found out about Katyn should perhaps have meant that these young people would be unable to believe the Stalinist lie.  But something seems to give it historical credibility.  As a result, among the young people who have an opinion about who organised the executions in the Katyn forest, 21% name “the Stalinist leadership of the USSR”, but slightly more, 23%, “Hitler’s government in Germany”.  Two thirds of young people “have no idea” that “there is documentary evidence that the Polish officers were shot by the NKVD”.    But among the others 13% answered that they knew and had no doubts on the subject, whereas 22% that they knew, but had doubts.

Why these young people thought as they did is another subject and should be examined separately.  The distribution in all other age groups was different: slightly less than half were “don’t knows”.  The rest were divided, with 2:1 believing that the killing had been on Stalin’s orders.   In the age group 25 and above the proportions were roughly the same: the majority consider that there can be doubt of NKVD involvement in the Katyn affair.

Among those surveyed only 24% knew that in 1990 the Soviet leadership had accepted responsibility for the Soviet government’s part in the executions.  76% of Russians said it “was the first they’d heard of it”.  You could put this lack of knowledge down to the fact that it was a long time ago, big political changes etc.  But what is the explanation for the 65%, and of young people 83%, who said they didn’t know that the last time Putin went to Poland he accepted responsibility for our part in the Katyn tragedy?  Putin is obviously is not the kind of person whose words are not listened to, or refuted.  It should not be forgotten that «on the whole Putin's actions as head of the Russian government» were endorsed in this survey – by 78%, and among young people the same 83%.

It will be a long explanation.  Taking all the above into account, it would be fair to say that a leader with a political profile like Putin's was in a very complicated position.  For the success of his foreign policy he was obviously going to have to acknowledge Russia's guilt in the Katyn affair.  But this would be completely at odds with continuing his domestic policies. For his foreign policy to succeed he had to break with his image and surprise the world.  But for his domestic policy he had to stick to his guns. 

The survey shows that he was successful in solving the problem.  Perhaps the virtuosi of the Russian mass media had something to do with that: the words and gestures of their prime minister were relayed in such a way that his confessions didn't reach two thirds of his Russian audience.  But it's probably not about that.   Putin has excellent relations with a significant part of Russian society, which understands when something is not destined for it and simply doesn't hear it.  But it identifies and understands those messages which are addressed to it and expressed in a language it understands.  For the world Putin called the executions at Katyn «a crime which cannot be justified».  For the Russian audience he let slip that Stalin was avenging the 30,000 Red Army soldiers who had been taken prisoner by the Poles during the unsuccessful Warsaw campaign in 1920.  Vengence is not a justification and 30,000 is more than 20,000.  But the 1920 «Soviet-Polish war», which hadn't figured before at all, became for more than 10% (among Putin supporters 15%) one of the main problem areas of Russo-Polish relations.

It's hard work protecting «your own» people for decades by denying evil.  People have good instincts.  On hearing about the death of the Polish president in the plane crash two thirds of Russians said they felt «sympathy» (another 24% were «horrified»). What we have seen in this article means we can be confident that in this they were absolutely sincere.




[1] The question made clear that the crimes referred to were the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and the ensuing occupation of Polish territory

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