On April 13, we celebrate the Day of Remembrance of the Victims of the Katyn Massacre. About 22,000 Poles – uniformed and civilians – were murdered in April and May 1940 by NKVD officers. Among them were 14.5 thousand prisoners of war – officers and policemen – from the camps in Kozielsk, Starobielsk and Ostashkov, and 7.3 thousand prisoners arrested in the territories occupied by the USSR. The bodies were buried namelessly in the pits of death so that they would never be found.
The Katyn massacre is a crime against the Polish intelligentsia, which the Soviets perceived as the main enemy. The decision of the Politburo of the Central Committee of the Communist Party (b) of March 5, 1940 to liquidate Polish prisoners of war without summoning the arrested, without presenting charges to them, without a decision to end the investigation or the indictment, still raises horror. It was a violation of all the norms of the civilized world, even in times of war. The bestial, “bulk” shooting of Polish officers and other representatives of the Polish elite was aimed at destroying the best fabric of our nation in order to create a field for the future installation of “new Soviet elites” in Poland, which will sow death and terror among these Polish patriots who survived the war.
The liquidation of the Kozelsk camp began on April 3, 1940. The prisoners gathered there were killed in the Katyn forest. Over the next six weeks, more Polish officers were taken out of the camps and shot: soldiers from Starobielsk – in Kharkov, and policemen from Ostashkov – in Kalinin. Further murders were carried out by the NKVD in Kherson, Kiev and Minsk.
On April 13, 1943, the world was informed about the discovery by the Germans of mass graves of Polish officers murdered by the Soviets in Katyn. In 1943 – parallel to the disclosure of the crime, the falsification of the past began, and the Katyn lie became part of the crime and one of the founding myths of the Polish People’s Republic and the foundation of the post-Yalta system.
After on September 17, 1939, Poland, defending itself against the German attack, was treacherously attacked by Soviet Russia. Over 200,000 people were taken into Soviet captivity. The privates were released after a relatively short time, because the Soviets did not see them as a threat to their plans towards Poland. Some were sent to labor camps. The Soviets locked Polish officers in special NKVD camps in Kozielsk, Starobielsk and Ostashkov. Among the inmates were many generals, including Mieczysław Smorawiński, Bronisław Bohaterewicz, Stanisław Haller, Franciszek Sikorski, as well as uniformed officers of other formations, especially the State Police.
Initially, the NKVD tried to persuade the prisoners to join the communists through propaganda and agitation. Unsuccessfully. All methods and attempts at recruitment proved futile. The vast majority of POWs did not want to be brainwashed or betray their country. The few officers who agreed to the Soviet conditions were to be used in the camps as agents, and in the future in the creation of units cooperating with the Soviets. One of such people was Colonel Zygmunt Berling, later the commander of the 1st Infantry Division named after Kościuszko and the 1st People’s Army of the Polish Army.
The decision to murder Polish prisoners of war was made at the beginning of 1940. On March 2, 1940, Lavrentiy Beria sent a note to Joseph Stalin in which the prisoners were described as “enemies of the USSR”. The head of the NKVD proposed to shoot them.
Beria’s plan was approved by the Politburo of the VKP(b). The document was signed by Stalin, Vyacheslav Molotov, Anastas Mikoyan and Kliment Voroshilov. Mikhail Kalinin and Lazar Kaganovich were also accepters. Three days later, the Politburo issued a secret decision regarding the murder of Polish officers. For many years, this document rested in the top-secret Kremlin archives. On its basis, on March 22, Beria issued an order “on the unloading of NKVD prisons in the USSR and BSRS”. Piotr Soprunienko, head of the NKVD Prisoners of War Board, was responsible for its implementation. He signed letters containing the details of prisoners who were to be shot. The first three such letters were delivered on April 1.
Prisoners of the Kozielsk camp were transported in cattle cars through Smolensk and Gniezdovo, and then in trucks to the Katyn Forest, where NKVD officers shot them in the back of the head. Bodies were buried in pits – nameless common graves. By May 11, 1940, 4,421 Polish citizens were murdered and buried in the Katyn death pits. There is an assumption that some of the officers died earlier in Smolensk.
People imprisoned in the Starobelsk camp were murdered in the headquarters of the NKVD in the Kharkiv region. Every night, in the basement of the building on Dzerzhinsky Street, the executioners took the lives of the prisoners with a shot in the neck, and trucks took the bodies to the pits in the Kharkov Forest Park, one and a half kilometers from the village of Pyatichatki. By May 12, 3,820 Polish citizens had been killed in Kharkiv.
On the other hand, those imprisoned in Ostashkov were transported to the seat of the NKVD board of the Kalinin region (today the city of Tver). Executions took place in the basement, the same method as in Kharkiv was used: a shot in the neck. In the morning, trucks transported the corpses to the pits located in the village of Miednoje, about 30 kilometers away. By May 22, 1940, 6,311 Polish citizens were killed by the NKVD in Kalinin.
In addition to the officers, people detained in the so-called prisons also lost their lives. Western Ukraine and Western Belarus. Among them were officers, policemen, political and social activists, employees of the judiciary, and state officials. From archival documents handed over to Poland in the 1990s – the so-called Belarusian and Ukrainian lists – we know that 7,305 people were murdered. At least 1,980 of them were buried in the village of Bykownia. Of these, only a few have been identified.
The crime of the spring of 1940 was carefully thought out and organized. The aim of the communist party was the physical extermination of those social groups which, from the mid-nineteenth century, with the efforts of several generations, had been building the foundations of the modern Polish nation. Thanks to the work of the intelligentsia on raising the standard of living and education among the peasantry, industrial workers and craftsmen, and the efforts of educated people to include the poorest strata in social life, a common national consciousness was shaped. Thanks to the landed gentry and the intelligentsia, care for, and sometimes a fight for, the preservation of Polish tradition and culture became a matter of ever-widening circles of Poles. The growing bourgeoisie developed modern industry, creating economic structures on which the later reborn Republic built its economy. Social groups that previously, during the uprisings in the 19th century, remained mostly passive took part in the act of independence. After regaining independence in 1918, the next generation of the intelligentsia created the structures of an independent and independently developing state in all areas of social life. By carrying out the Katyn massacre, the Soviets got rid of a huge number of teachers, doctors, industrialists, engineers, humanists, writers, scientists, as well as many professional officers – elites capable of rebuilding the state. In the hands of the NKVD there were people posing a threat to the implementation of plans to conquer Poland, determined to oppose the annexation of the country by Moscow and experienced in conspiracy. More than half of the victims were mobilized reserve officers – not only Poles, but also Ukrainians, Belarusians, Jews, Tatars and members of other nationalities living in the Second Polish Republic.
On April 13, 1943, the Germans announced the discovery of the graves of Polish officers in Katyn. They invited representatives of the International Red Cross to the exhumation work. Regardless of these actions, the Polish Government-in-Exile also appealed to the IRC, which served as a pretext for the Soviet authorities to accuse Poles of collaborating with the Germans. According to eminent independent experts and a group of Poles who stayed in Katyn with the consent of the emigration authorities, there was no doubt who was responsible for the murder. Also the American report from 1952 clearly pointed to the USSR.
The Soviets, however, went into denial and did not stop trying to falsify the crime. Falsification of history was served by the works of the so-called the Burdenko Commission. In 1946, in Nuremberg, they tried to attribute the Katyn massacre to the Germans. For the long post-war years, the authorities in Moscow, as well as the communists in Poland, hid the truth.
In the People’s Republic of Poland, censorship blocked any attempts to identify the actual perpetrators, and information about the crime itself was passed on in family homes in conspiracy. People telling the truth about the Katyn massacre were repressed. Despite harassment in the 1970s, the classified Katyn Institute was established in Krakow. On March 21, 1980, in Krakow’s Main Market Square, Walenty Badylak, in a gesture of opposition to the concealment of the truth about Katyn, set himself on fire. The Katyn Cross was placed at the Powązki Cemetery in Warsaw.
The Russians recognized their responsibility for the crime only in April 1990. Two years later, on the order of the then Russian president Boris Yeltsin, the Polish side received copies of documents regarding the crime, including the above-mentioned secret decision of the Politburo of March 5, 1940. Russia even launched an investigation, which, however, ended in 2005, recognizing that the murder of Polish prisoners of war was not it was genocide, but an “ordinary” crime, which was statute-barred.