Katyn Massacre: the Way to the Truth
Russian Academy of Sciences, Institute of World History, Moscow
This presentation is devoted to seeking the truth about one of the most monstrous crimes of the Stalinist regime – the shooting of 21,857 Polish officers, policemen and prisioners from jails in West Ukraine and West Byelorussia. It both presents and highlights the main data about this crime and the steps leading to discovery of large-scale complexes of archival documents connected with the fate of Polish prisoners of war from the Kozelsk, Starobelsk and Ostashkov camps as well as jailed prisoners. The author tells of the sinuosities accompanying the publication of her article in the newspaper Moscow News on 25th March 1990, about the circumstances of delivery of the letter from Beria to Stalin, and the decision of Politburo CK VKP(b) of 5th March 1940 to the Polish authorities, as well as investigation of the Katyn Case by the Chief Military Prosecution Office of the Russian Federation.
On 17th September 1939 the Red Army crossed the Polish frontier. Acting in close coordination with the Wehrmacht, it seized 190,000 square kilometers of territory, with a population of more than 12 million people.
By the end of September, more than 240,000 Polish soldiers became prisoners of war (POWs). On September 19 Beria signed an order, establishing a Main Administration of the NKVD USSR for Prisoners-of-War [Russian abbreviation UPV]. The new entity was led by Soprunenko. However, the camps were unable to house and feed the prisoners or even to provide them with water.
In October Politburo CK VKPB decided to release 42,500 soldiers and junior ranks of the Polish Army and to exchange Polish POWs with Germany.
Subsequently, by 1st November 1939, three special camps had been established, including two for 8,500 officers (in Kozelsk and Starobelsk) and one in Ostashkov for 6,500 policemen, gendarmes and border guards. Four labor camps were set up for 25,000 POWs.
In November several high-ranking officers of the central apparatus of the NKVD were assigned to the Kozelsk, Starobelsk and Ostashkov camps to conduct an investigation. As a result, it was clear that the Polish prisoners did not accept the four-way partition of Poland and they were ready to fight for independence.
On December 1939 Beria sent a special investigation team of the NKVD State Security Department, headed by Belolipetsky and Soprunenko, to the Ostashkov camp for the preparation of all police cases for a report to the NKVD Osoboe Soveshchanie (Special commission) (Russian abbreviation OSO), though the preparation of the cases of officers from Kozelsk and Starobelsk for submission to the Special commission had not been preplanned.
On 1 February 1940, around 6,000 cases were assigned to the OSO. At the end of the same month, the OSO delivered its sentences on 600 policemen. It sentenced the defendants to from three to eight years of labor in camps in Kamchatka. Army officers were not interrogated by OSO.
On 20th February Soprunenko sent Beria the UPV proposals regarding the army officers. He requested permission to draw up cases against the officers of the border patrol, legal personnel, landowners, activists of the POV and the Streltzy parties, and intelligence officers, about 400 men in all. He proposed that these cases be examined by the Special Commission under NKVD (OSO). The document bears the handwritten note: “C[omra]de Merkulov. Discuss this with me. Beria. 20 Feb.” As a result, USSR Deputy People’s Commissar of Internal Affairs Merkulov issued a special directive on 22nd February concerning the POWs listed above. It ordered them transferred to the prisons of the regional NKVD administration (UNKVD for short).
The Special Commission about which Soprunenko wrote to Beria didn’t figure in Merkulov’s directive of February 22. This indicates that Beria had not yet made a final decision as to which body would investigate the cases of the Poles who were being transferred to jails. It seems that he decided to discuss with Stalin the measures to be taken regarding the Polish POWs. The choice of body to investigate their cases depended on that discussion. The Special Commission had no authority to sentence people to be shot. It is clear from NKVD documents that after February 20 Beria suspended the examination of POW-police cases by the Special Commission and sending them to Kamchatka.
On 27th February, Beria met Stalin and it is evident that it was at that meeting that the decision to shoot POWs from the three special camps was taken. The first variant of his paper to Stalin was written on February 29. The final variant of Beria’s writing to Stalin was compiled on March 3. It proposed the shooting of 14,700 POWs from three camps and 11,000 prisoners jailed in western provinces of Ukraine and Belorussia. The examination of cases and the carrying out of decisions related to ‘a troika’ (three-person tribunal) consisting of Merkulov, Kobulov and Bashtakov. On 5th March Beria’s proposal was approved by the Politburo.
What were the reasons for this decision?
Stalin was piqued by defeat in 1920 and must have felt a particular dislike for Polish Army commanders. Having recognized the liquidation of the Polish State he clearly wanted to rid himself of those officers, who might subsequently join a struggle for the renewal of their country. Expulsion of the USSR on 14th December 1939 from the League of Nations at the urging of the English, French and Polish Governments immensely increased the antiwest and anti-Polish outlooks of Stalin. After adoption of the decision by the Supreme Allied Council to send an expeditionary force to Finland, the Polish government began striving to have a Polish military detachment included. On 24th January 1940 Sikorsky declared in a meeting of the Council of Ministers that sending an expeditionary force to Finland would involve France and Great Britain in a «de-facto war with Russia that is very desirable for us». The Soviet ambassadors Maisky in Great Britain and Suritz in France informed Moscow that in the British and French governments the tendencies for involvement in a Soviet-Finnish conflict were seriously strengthened, that they were ready to act «without stopping despite the risk to cancel relations and even armed conflict». In February-March 1940 the plans for bombarding the oil fields of Baku in the Caucasus were being actively elaborated in France and Great Britain. Beria and Stalin were informed about it through the infamous Cambridge Five spy network and other sources. The Soviet leaders didn’t forget the Czech POW activity in Russia in 1918-1920.
The home situation (the Polish underground, approaching March elections to the Supreme Council of the USSR) at the end of February – beginning of March also attracted the attention of the Soviet authorities to the problem of POWs (officers and police) and the jail prisoners once more.
At this time Khrushchev and Beria proposed strengthening security in an 800-metre frontier strip by deporting to Kazakhstan for a term of ten years the families of POWs – officers and police – and those who had been imprisoned on the annexed territory. This proposal was approved by the Politburo on 2 March 1940.
As a result of a decision of the Politburo on March 5, 1940, 97% of all officers, policemen and other POWs detained in the Starobelsk, Kozelsk and Ostashkov camps were included in the death lists. In reality, the question was not about whom to sentence, but about whom to leave alive after putting them on the list of those to be sent to Yukhnov camp. Only 395 POWs from Kozelsk, Starobelsk and Ostashkov camps were spared.
The POWs were transferred for the shooting from 3rd April to the end of May and the prison inmates from April 20 to the beginning of July. According to a letter from Alexander Shelepin to Khrushchev, dated 3rd March 1959, 21 857 men were shot, among them 7,305 prison inmates. On 13th April 1940 the NKVD deported the families of the victims of the Katyn massacre - about 60,000 Poles – to Northern Kazakhstan.
The purpose of these executions and mass deportations was to root out Polish statesmanship. It was a crime against humanity carried out by Stalin’s totalitarian regime.
In 1942 Germans learned from local Russians that Polish officers had been shot in Katyn Forest. But this did not attract German attention at the time. After the Soviet victory at Stalingrad the Germans decided to exploit the propaganda value of the Katyn graves to split the Grand Alliance. On April 13, 1943, Berlin Radio reported the discovery of a mass grave near Smolensk and gave the estimated total number of victims as 10 000. But the Allies understood the aim of the Germans and did everything possible to minimize resonance from the Katyn explosion.
On 24th January 1944 notes were published in a «Communication from the Special Commission to identify and investigate the circumstances of execution by German fascist invaders of Polish prisoners of war in the Katyn forest». According to the Soviet version of events, the mass murder was carried out by Germany in September 1941. During the Nuremberg Trial (1945-1946) the Soviet prosecutors unsuccessfully attempted to charge Germany with the crime.
The lie had been reiterated for half a century by Russian and Polish Communists. In Poland the truth about the Katyn massacre was disseminated by underground publications of the anticommunist opposition. The memory of the victims was invariably cultivated by Katyn families.
In the western countries, historians lacked original information of the Soviet provenance and had to base their studies on personalal reports, which could not fully replace the original materials. In 1952 a US Congressional committee concluded that the massacre had been conducted by the NKVD. This was very much a Cold War verdict, but most independent observers also agreed that the Soviets were responsible for the murders. The question remained, however, about the precise circumstances in which the Katyn massacre had taken place.
It was Mikhail Gorbachev’s campaign for ‘glasnost’ that led to research on this issue. In spring 1987, during Polish Premier Wojciech Jaruzelski’s visit to Moscow and on his initiative, the two leaders agreed to set up a Joint Commission of Soviet-Polish Party Historians to study blank spots in Polish-Soviet relations. It was duly established in May 1987. The Polish historians set themselves the goal of finding the truth about Katyn, the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact and other painful issues. But the Soviet Archives remained closed and the Soviet historians on the Joint Commission had no mandate to reveal new documents to buttress the Burdenko Commission’s report. Most of the KPSS CK Politburo members opposed changing the party line on this issue.
In May 1988 the Polish historians analyzed the Burdenko Commission report and delivered a devastating critique to their Soviet colleagues. As critical dates of the years 1939-1940 were considered, the discussions in Poland on the blank spots in Polish relations with USSR were becoming more and more strident. Many scholars and publicists stated that the Soviet Union was guilty of the deaths of the Polish officers who were shot in the spring of 1940.
On 22nd March 1989 Soviet Foreign Minister Edward Shevardnadze, Director of the International Department of the CK CPSU Valentin Falin, and Chairman of the KGB Vladimir Kriuchkov suggested admitting the truth about Katyn. They wrote: “To some extent, the pressure is directed at us, since for two years already this topic has not moved forward in the Commission of Soviet and Polish Scholars, which was established to find a solution for the ‘blank spots.’ The Soviet part of the Commission does not have at its disposal any supplementary materials to support the Burdenko version published in 1944. At the same time, our representatives do not have full powers to discuss the weighty arguments of the Polish side”. These high-level officials thought that it would more advisable to say what had really happened. “The costs of this kind of action would, in the final reckoning, be less in comparison with the losses of the present inaction,” they wrote.
Aleksandr Yakovlev, who was not only in charge of international relations in the Central Committee, but also was a close ally of Gorbachev, wrote about the Commission of Soviet and Polish Scholars: «A long-term searching campaign started on a ‘let things slide’ basis. The Polish part of the Joint Commission pressed G. Smirnov and he in turn called me asking to assist in searching for documents. Each time Mikhail Sergeevitch reacted to my numerous appeals with one word, ‘keep looking!’...It lasted so very long. But on one occasion this haze broke. Sergey Stankevitch came to me and said that the historian Natalia Lebedeva, working with convoy troops’ materials, had unexpectedly found information about Katyn».
In 1969-1970 as a post-graduate student of the Institute of History, I had been working on a dissertation about the Nuremberg Trials. In the Central State Archive of the October Revolution (nowdays the State Archive of the Russian Federation) I studied also the materials of the Burdenko Commission and German documentation of the «Katyn Case». There I found letters of Burdenko to Molotov and Shvernik dated in September 1943 which seemed to confirm that the crime had been committed by the Germans. I almost incorporated them into my book «Preparation of the Nuremberg Trials», but my scientific supervisor Arkadiy Poltorak, in the past a Secretary of the Soviet delegation at Nuremberg , stopped me. “You know, Natasha,” he said, “it is a dark case, don’t touch it until you puzzle it out.” I needed almost 20 years to find the documents that allowed me to come to an unequivocal conclusion about who was to blame for the Katyn crime and recover it in detail. A certain event helped.
In late July 1988, the journalist Vladimir Abarinov called me and told me about the letter by Alexei Lukin, a former officer of the battalion which guarded Kozelsk camp in 1939-1940 and convoyed POWs. The letter was forwarded from the Ministry of Internal Affairs to Literaturnaia Gazeta [the Literary Newspaper]. Lukin denied that the battalion had any part in the executions. Only one thing was important in his letter – the number of the battalion. I graduated from the Moscow State History-Archival Institute and knew where had to find the records of this battalion. I told Abarinov about this, but he did not go to the Central State Archive of the Soviet Army (CSASA). The journalist only wrote to CSASA. They answered that their Archive had no Katyn records.
After that I asked for and received the letter of Georgi Smirnov, the Soviet head of the Joint Commission of Soviet-Polish Party Historians, to the Central State Archive of the Soviet Army and asked for permission from the Chief of the USSR Internal Troops Staff to do research on documents of NKVD Convoy Troops. As a result I obtained access to CSASA and found the records of the 136th NKVD Convoy Battalion, which escorted the Kozelsk prisoners to Katyn in April-May 1940, and the records of the Main Administration of the NKVD Convoy Troops. There was the battalion order book with departure dates from Kozelsk to Smolensk and Gnezdovo in April-May 1940, dates that tallied with the execution dates of the Kozelsk POWs. I learned that directives for them came from the UPV (Administration for Prisoner-of-War Affairs) whose documents were in the Central Special Archive. I asked Professor Vladimir Volkov, head of the Academy’s Institute of Slavic and Balkan Studies, for authorization to work in that archive, but it was given instead to Valentina Parsadanova, an employee of that Institute and a Joint Commission of Soviet-Polish Party Historian. A little later access to these records (of whose existence he learned from me) was also obtained by Yuri Zoria and by me.
Following a study of several large bodies of archival material I could recreate in detail the terrible tragedy of Katyn – a tragedy of the Polish and Soviet people.
On 22nd February 1990, head of CK International Department Valentin Falin wrote Mikhail Gorbachev: «A number of Soviet historians (Yu. N. Zoria, V. S. Parsadanova, N. S. Lebedeva), given access to the collections of the Special Archive and the Central State Archive of the Main Archival Administration of the Council of Ministers of the USSR, also the Central State Archive of the October Revolution, have brought to light hitherto unknown materials of the Main Administration of the NKVD USSR for Prisoner-of-War and Internee Affairs [UPVI], as well as the Administration of NKVD Convoy Troops [GUKV], for the period 1939-1940 that are related to the so-called Katyn Question …On the basis of newly documented facts, Soviet historians have prepared materials for publication. Some of them have already been approved by editorial boards and accepted for publication. Their appearance is scheduled for June-July [this year]. The appearance of such publication would clearly create a new situation. Our argument – that no materials have been found in the state archives of the USSR uncovering the true underpinnings of the Katyn tragedy – would become unconvincing. The materials uncovered by the scholars will undoubtedly reveal only part of the secrets in comparison with the data on which the Polish side bases its judgments, but this will not allow us to stand by the former versions and avoid putting an end to this question. In view of the approaching fiftieth anniversary of Katyn we should define our position one way or the other».
Most of the Politburo members, however, opposed this line and Gorbachev had to take this into account. Only Alexander Yakovlev consequently yearned to make the materials discovered by the historians, known to the general public. On his request director of the Institute of World History academician Alexander Chubaryan gave him the article of Natalia Lebedeva and texts of more than 70 important archival documents recovered by her. «I shall report this», a member of Politburo said. To whom could he report? Naturally, only to Gorbachev. Stankevitch and Chubaryan were urgently detached to Poland, the former to reconnoiter the ground of possible reaction to publication among politicians, the latter among scientific circles. Soon Yakovlev called Chubaryan and said that Lebedeva could publish her article. Therefore Gorbachev didn’t object.
But in late February the Politburo voted not to allow Russian historians to publish articles based on archival documents about the murder of Polish POW officers and police in spring 1940. My colleague at the Institute of World History, Sergei Stankevich – who also happened to be a member of the Moscow City Council, sent my article to the newspaper Moscow News. On 25th March, the main results of my studies were published in the paper. It was an interview with me by Gennadi Zhavoronkov, titled “The Katyn Tragedy”. This interview – published without government permission - had the effect of a bomb exploding.
On 15th March 1990 I flew to Great Britain and worked in Oxford University for three weeks. After publishing my materials in Moscow News Valentin Falin called Aleksandr Chubarian, the director of my Institute, and threatened that I would not be allowed access to any archive, or permitted to go abroad, or allowed to publish even one line. He wanted Chubarian to phone me in England and forbid me to give any interviews. But our director said if he did so, Lebedeva would give interviews to everybody, but if he did not, she would not give any. Furthermore, I learned that Gennadi Zhavoronkov and Yegor Yakovlev almost lost their jobs.
The day after my return to Moscow, however, the whole situation changed. The publication in the Moscow Times seems to have given a push to the Politburo to reverse its earlier decision not to allow the publication of articles and documents on Katyn. On 13th April 1990 the fiftieth anniversary of the official German radio communiqué on the Katyn graves, President Jaruzelski was in Moscow on a state visit. That day, at a reception in the Polish Embassy, President Mikhail Gorbachev handed over to Jaruzelski the NKVD dispatch lists for the POWs who were executed in April-May 1940. On the same day the Soviet News Agency TASS stated: “Historians of both countries have conducted careful investigations of the Katyn tragedy, including the search for documents. Most recently, Soviets archivists and historians have discovered some documents about Polish servicemen held in the NKVD USSR camps of Kozelsk, Ostashkov and Starobelsk. These documents show that in April-May 1940, out of approximately 15,000 Polish officers held in these three camps, 394 were moved to Griazovets camp, while the majority ‘were placed at the disposal of’ the NKVD administration in the Smolensk, Voroshilovgrad, and Kalinin Oblasts and do not appear later in any NKVD statistical records”. Beria and Merkulov were named personally responsible for the evil deeds in Katyn Forest, described as one of the most heinous crimes of Stalinism.
In May 1990 my article «The Katyn Tragedy» was published in the Soviet magazine International Affairs. At that time the Progress Publishing Group concluded an agreement with me to publish the book «Кatyn: A Crime Against Humanity». By summer 1991 the manuscript of the monograph was ready and the first two chapters were sent to Warsaw to the printing house «Chitel’nik» for publication in Polish.
On August 19, 1991, the day of the putsch, through the Polish Embassy I sent the manuscript of the last chapter of my book to Warsaw. Of course I understood how its publication in Poland could turn out for me in case the putschists came to power. Fortunately, the Russians barred their way to power. In 1994 my monograph was published in Moscow. «Chitel’nik» had prepared its translation into Polish already by 1991 but because of financial difficulties it didn’t publish a book. It was released in Warsaw in 1998 by the printing house «Bellona».
On 3rd November 1990, Gorbachev ordered the Office of the Soviet Prosecutor General to speed up the investigation of the fate of Polish officers held in the three special camps. This was in connection with the visit of Polish Foreign Minister Krzysztof Skubiszewski to Moscow in early November 1990. NKVD workers involved in the Katyn crime who were still living had been questioned, including the head of the UPV, Soprunenko, and the head of the Kalinin UNKVD Tokarev. It was clear from witness depositions that there was a decision of the Central Committee signed by Stalin on the “liquidation” of the POWs held in Kozelsk, Ostashkov, and Starobelsk camps by the oblast UNKVD. The Office of the Soviet Prosecutor General agreed to the Polish request for exhumations with the participation of Polish experts at the burial sites. This began in summer 1991.
The most important documents of the Katyn massacre – Beria Memorandum N 794/B, dated 3-5 March 1940, resolution of the Politburo WKP(b) N 13/144, dated March 5 1940 and the Aleksandr Shelepin letter, dated March 3, 1959, were still hidden in the secret archive in the Kremlin more than one year and were handed over to Lech Walesa only on October 14, 1992.
On 23rd December 1991 Aleksandr Yakovlev was present in the Kremlin when Gorbachev handed over power to Boris Yeltsin. Along with other very important papers, Gorbachev handed Yeltsn the so-called “Package N 1” containing Beria’s letter to Stalin and the decision of the Politburo CK VKP(b). He said that it was necessary to discuss how to act on them and added: “I am afraid they can lead to international complications. However, it is up to you to decide.” Yeltsin read the documents and agreed that the matter would have to be seriously considered. Yakovlev was shocked – these were most secret documents on Katyn, evidence of the crimes of the Stalinist regime. He was all the more shocked because Gorbachev spoke with striking calmness, as if Yakovlev had not asked him repeatedly to instruct the Presidential Archive to look for them. Valery Boldin, head of CK General Department, wrote in his memoirs that in March 1989 Gorbachev asked him to find documents on Katyn. Boldin brought him two sealed envelopes. Gorbachev opened them, looked quickly at the documents, resealed the envelopes, and said: «One concerns the real circumstances of the shooting of the Poles at Katyn; the other contains the conclusions of the commission which studied the matter after liberation of the Smolensk region, still during the war”. He told Boldin not to show them to anyone without his knowledge, saying: “This is a hanging matter”.
Ultimately, internal Russian politics led to the public disclosure of the Politburo decision of 5th March 1940 and other hitherto secret documents concerning Katyn. When Yeltsin faced strong opposition from the Russian Communist Party, he issued a decree de-legalising it. Communist deputies in the Duma (Parliament) protested that the decree was unconstitutional. This issue was placed before the Constitutional Court. Yeltsin decided that one of the many documents to be presented as evidence of the criminal nature of the CPSU was the Politburo decision on 5th March 1940 to shoot the Polish POWs. On 14th October 1992, chief Russian archivist Rudolph Pichoia presented it, in Yeltsin’s name, to President Walesa in Warsaw. On the same day, the Politburo’s decision appeared in a news report by ITAR-TASS. Nevertheless the protocols of the NKVD Special Board, the so-called “Belorussian list” of the prisoners hold in detention in West Belorus and exterminated on the basis of the decision of 5th of March had not been found.
The Polish Military Archival Commission gained access to a large number of archival documents relating to Polish POWs held in the USSR in 1939-1941. Photocopies of 1 000 000 pages were made and deposited in the Central Military Archives in Warsaw.
On recommendation of the Presidents of the Russian Federation and Poland the two Russian-language and four Polish-language volumes of Katyn documents were published in 1995-2006, co-edited by Natalia Lebedeva and Wojciech Materski. In 2007 Yale University Press published the American edition of the documents Katyn. A Crime Without Punishment, co-edited by A. Cienciala, N. Lebedeva and W. Materski.
The three cemeteries, in Katyn, Mednoe, and Rharkov were officially opened in 2000.
After the fall of the USSR (in December 1991) the Supreme Prosecutor of the USSR was renamed the Main Military Prosecutor of RF. The investigation (N 159) into the Katyn massacre had been continuing for 14 years. On 13th June 1994 Anatoly Yablokov, then the Russian military prosecutor in charge of the Katyn case, proposed that Stalin and his close collaborators in the Politburo be judged guilty of the Katyn crime on basis of Article 6 (points a, b, c) of the Charter of the International Military Tribunal at Nuremberg, that is of crimes against peace, war crimes, and crimes against humanity aimed at Polish citizens. Yablokov’s motion was rejected by the Main Military Prosecutor’s Office. The investigation was completed in 2004, but no documentation was presented until 8 May 2010. On that day the President of the Russian Federation Dmitry Medvedev gave to the acting President of Poland Bronislav Komarovski 67 of 182 Katyn volumes.
Revealing the full details of this crime is both an act of repentance toward the people of Poland and a debt owed to the people of Russia, deeply interested that similar things never again happen on their land.