Friday, March 7, 2008

Window on Eurasia: Katyn Only ‘Tip of the Iceberg’ of Stalin’s Repression of Poles

Paul Goble

Baku, March 7 – Stalin’s murder of some 22,000 Polish officers at Katyn is only the “tip of the iceberg” of his repression of more than half a million Poles in the 1930s and 1940s, a crime whose immensity diminishes the value of Moscow’s long-delayed admissions on Katyn while highlighting the xenophobia behind many of Stalin’s actions.
Katyn, Memorial human rights activist Tatyana Kosinova writes in an essay posted online yesterday, became “a metaphor” for the NKVD’s shooting at Stalin’s order of 21,857 Polish uniformed personnel not only in Katyn itself but in prisons and camps in Ukraine and Belarus (
But because the Soviet authorities denied for so long that any such crime had occurred and because Polish, Russian and Western human rights activists focused on this incident so intently, many lost sight of the far broader scope of Stalin’s crimes at that time against Poles as Poles.
Kosinova’s article represents an important contribution to describing just how enormous those crimes were and why it is inevitable that these long ago actions, which Moscow took such pains to deny, continue to cast a shadow on relations between Russians and Poles and between Moscow and Warsaw.
She began her research on this question three years ago as part of Memorial’s efforts to compile a list of victims for the Virtual Museum of GULAG that organization has begun. (Its site was opened in October 2005.) And in the course of her work, she unearthed far more than she expected.
What is impressive about her study is not just the enormous amount of information she mined from Russian and Polish sources published in the 1990s but also the kind of detail that appears likely to be available at least up to now to anyone prepared to make the necessary effort.
Her summary figures, which show that the Katyn tragedy was, in the words of her colleague Aleksandr Gur’yanov, only “the tip of the iceberg of Soviet mass repressions against Poles and Polish citizens, are so devastating in their implications that they merit quotation in full.
“Today,” she writes, the figure for the total number of Poles repressed in the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s “can be named – it is approximately 566,000. Not all of them died, but their fates and their families were forever disfigured” as a result of what the Stalinist government did.
“From 1939 to 1941,” she continues, “320,000 people, whole families, together with newborn children and old people were deported and sent into exile in Siberia and the Far East. Another 110,000 were arrested and confined in the jails and camps of the GULAG.”
“And still another 35,000 soldiers of the Polish Army, on top of the officers who were shot, were held completely illegally as POWs until 1941. Then, in 1944, a new wave of repressions began on the territories, liberated from the Germans, a wave that was directed primarily against the members of the anti-Hitler underground.”
“More than 60,000 people, mostly members of the [Polish army] were arrested, of whom more than 40,000 were seized on the territory of Poland itself and dispatched to Soviet camps. Then, after the war, the families of those in Anders’ army who returned to the motherland in Western Ukraine and Belarus were subjected to exile and deportation.”
As a result, “this figure – 566,000 who suffered as a result of Soviet repressions could not fail to become the defining factor in defining the relationship of Polish consciousness toward Russia and toward Russians,” all the more so because most Russian officials refuse even now to acknowledge just how many Poles suffered.
But as disturbing as these numbers necessarily are, Kosinova’s three broader conclusions are even more so. First, she notes that Stalin and his regime killed, incarcerated, or exiled these people not because of what they had done or because of the social class they occupied but because they were Poles.
Such killings thus undercut a key distinction defenders of the Soviet system, Russian and Western, make between Stalin and Hitler. The former, they insist, killed people primarily because of their social class, while the latter killed them because of their ethnicity and religion. In fact, Stalin sometimes killed people for the same reason Hitler did.
Second, Kosinova points out, “history even earlier had known cases of [such] mass political murders organized as secret state operations. But only the 20th century made mass murders the norm of political life, and the term, ‘the grave as a state secret,’ became the norm of memory.”
Like so many others killed by the Soviet system, the Poles murdered in the 1930s and 1940s were buried in mass, unmarked graves. Not only were their bodies not treated with the respect all human beings deserve, but their families and their nation were deprived of any chance to visit their final resting places and honor them.
And third, despite the revelations of the 1990s and the continuing efforts of the Polish government and Russian groups like Memorial, most of these graves remain unmarked, and many Russian officials and others as well appear committed to ensuring that this part of the past will remain buried in an unmarked grave as well.
Only three of the 800 places where Polish victims of the Soviet state are known to be interred currently have “official status” as cemeteries. The rest, Kosinova says, are “on the whole in pathetic condition.” Given the current Russian government’s views on Stalin and Poland, that unpardonable offense against memory appears likely to continue.

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