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No more unpunished crimes: from the Katyń genocide to the war in Ukraine.


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The Conversation

Anna K. Dulska |

Historian, researcher at Institute for Culture and Society, University of Navarra, Spain.

In the spring of 1940, in various parts of the former Soviet Union (USSR), Polish prisoners of war detained since September 1939 in internment camps were executed without trial in compliance with the decision of the Soviet Politburo. They were shot in the back of the head and buried in mass graves in Katyń, near Smolensk, in Miednoye - near Tver, in present-day Russia - and in Kharkov and Bykovnia - near Kiev, in present-day Ukraine.

It is said that they were officers, but in addition to military personnel from degree program, including several generals, among the victims were representatives of the Polish elite mobilized in the army at the beginning of the war: civil servants, teachers, doctors, academics, engineers, artists, sportsmen and businessmen; also officers of other uniformed services, chaplains of different denominations, women and teenagers. Approximately 22,000 lives vanished and their trail disappeared.

The lie
At the outbreak of the war between Germany and the USSR in 1941, Stalin decided to use Polish troops in the USSR in his fight against the Germans. When it was time to form the ranks, the idea arose among Poles to call those of their compatriots who they knew had been prisoners of war. In response, the Soviet authorities replied that they had dispersed and did not know where they were.

The graves were discovered in 1943 by the Germans, who immediately used their finding for propaganda purposes against the USSR. They even called in the experts of the International Red Cross to investigate the crime. It was not that the Germans felt a moral need to do so - they themselves were responsible for the genocide being committed in their own concentration and extermination camps - but that, by proving Soviet guilt, they would undermine the support Stalin counted on in the West.

For its part, the USSR denied everything and accused the Germans of having committed the massacres. Soviet propaganda called it "the German-Fascist lie".

As the conversion into the Soviet sphere of influence of Polish territory progressed, part of which was directly annexed to the USSR and the other kept as its quasi-independent satellite, the Katyń question - the gloomy forest is used as a synecdoche to designate the whole of that genocide - became for the following decades a strict taboo.

At the same time, facing the West, Soviet propaganda launched a campaign about Nazi crimes committed on its territory, using for this purpose the case of the Belarusian village of Chatyń, sometimes transcribed as Khatyń. The resemblance of the two place names helped to manipulate public opinion, in whose ears the two names and thus both crimes were merged. The report of Katyń was preserved thanks to relatives demanding to know what happened to their loved ones and numerous patriots.

The disintegration of the Soviet bloc in the late 1980s and the collapse of the USSR in the early 1990s brought some change, but it soon became clear that this was a facelift.

In 1992, Boris Yeltsin apologized for the Katyń massacre, but then disowned it, noting that democratic Russia cannot be held responsible for the crimes of its predecessor. The research was closed and, in 2004, already during Vladimir Putin's term of office, dismissed and classified.

The Russian Federation acknowledged fewer than 2,000 killings, blaming second-rate officials of the People's Commissariat for Internal Affairs (NKWD). Of course, it refused to qualify it as genocide. At the same time, Russia created an alternative speech called anti-Katyń which reproaches Poland for the attention received by Russian prisoners of war during the Polish-Bolshevik war of 1919-1920, going so far as to present the Katyń massacre as a just historical revenge.

The truth
For Poland, Katyń, Kharkov and Miednoye are places of report tragic. The necropolises serve as the setting for commemorations, both private and public. Such was the case with the events planned for April 2010, on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the massacre. On the 7th, the then Prime Minister of Russia, Vladimir Putin, and his Polish counterpart, Donald Tusk, met there.

Three days later the committee for the Protection of the report of Struggle and Martyrdom, a Polish governmental entity, organized another ceremony, to which Polish personalities from the world of politics, culture, the military and the Church were invited. The delegation was headed by the President of the Republic, Lech Kaczyński. They never reached their destination alive. As revealed by the latest report, the presidential plane crashed due to two explosions on board.

In thenever uttered speech , Kaczyński was going to say that the Poles were killed in Katyń because they did not subjugate themselves.

Comparisons of the crimes committed by the USSR with those committed by Russia in Ukraine are quite frequent. Ukrainians are being killed because they do not subjugate themselves. They choose freedom and stand up for the truth. Since history has a bad habit of tending to repeat itself, hopefully 80 years from now the Ukrainian case will not serve as a comparison for some new unpunished crime.

This article was originally published in The Conversation. Read the original.The Conversation