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National Observer Home > No. 44 - Autumn 2000 > Articles

The Katyn Massacre and Beyond

Brian Crozier

For those who lived through World War II, and for many who did not, the Katyn massacre carries a sinister resonance. But how many have heard of Starobelsk or Ostashkovo, or were aware that the 4,000-plus Polish captives shot in the back of the neck at Katyn, on StalinÕs orders, into the graves they themselves had dug, were heavily outnumbered by others executed in the same way? The total came to 21,857.

The full facts came to light with the acquisition of some eight million sheets of Soviet secret documents by the Hoover Institution, known as Fond-89. This particular batch was among those made available to the writer while at work on The Rise and Fall of the Soviet Empire.1 The full story is worth telling.

The mass grave in Katyn Forest, in the Smolensk region, was discovered by the advancing Nazi forces in 1943. The disinterment of more than 4,000 corpses was an unexpected gift to Goebbels propaganda machine which broadcast the story to the outside world, to the embarrassment not only of Stalin but of his wartime allies: President Franklin D. Roosevelt and Prime Minister Winston Churchill. F.D.R. dismissed the Nazi claims as German propaganda and a German plot. Churchill was less explicit: The less said about that the better.

The executed Poles were not all army officers, as had been widely supposed in the West. They also included civil servants, landowners, policemen, intelligence officers, ordinary soldiers and prison officers. On receipt of a detailed memorandum from Lavrenti Beria, head of the N.K.V.D. (ancestor of the K.G.B.), Stalin ordered the supreme measure of punishment - shooting. The Beria-Stalin memoranda were both dated 5th March 1940.

here the matter lay for 25 years, until 3rd March 1959, when the then head of the K.G.B., Aleksandr Shelepin, in a letter to Stalins successor, Nikita Khrushchev, gave full details of the numbers executed:

421 in the Katyn Forest (Smolensk region);

820 in the Starobelsk camp near Kharkov;

311 in the Ostachkovo camp (Kalinin region); and

305 in other camps and prisons in Western Ukraine and Western Belorussia.

The total was indeed 21,857 killed.

A curious but unrelated episode deserves notice. In 1972, a private group in London resolved to build a monument to the victims of Katyn. The original plan was to place the monument in Kensington, one of Londons best-known tourist areas. At first, the Council of the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea gave permission for the plan to go ahead. However, permission was withdrawn, under pressure from the Foreign Office.

It is now known, through the Hoover Institutions Soviet archives, that the Foreign Office pressure was itself the outcome of pressure from Moscow. There was an exchange of telegrams on 7th September 1972, between the Soviet Politburo and the Soviet ambassador in London.

The outgoing message started as follows:

Reactionary circles in England are again undertaking attempts for anti-Soviet purposes to stir up the so-called Katyn Affair. To this end the campaign to collect funds for the construction of a Memorial to the Victims of Katyn in London is being made use of.

In his reply, the Soviet ambassador in London stated that the attention of the British government had already been drawn to attempts to whip up an anti-Soviet campaign based on Òthe inventions long ago exposed of the Goebbels propaganda machine concerning the so-called ÔKatyn Affair.

On the next day (8th September 1972) the Politburo drafted a further statement, which contained the following passage:

. . . the above-mentioned anti-Soviet campaign cannot but arouse justified feelings of profound indignation in the Soviet Union, whose people made enormous sacrifices for the sake of saving Europe from fascist enslavement.

Under pressure from the Foreign Office, permission to build the proposed memorial was withdrawn by the Borough of Kensington and Chelsea. Four years later in 1976 Ñ the Katyn memorial was in fact built, in the cemetery at Gunnersbury on the outskirts of London. The project was supervised by the National Association for Freedom (later, the Freedom Association) of which the writer was a founder-member. Presumably under pressure from the Foreign Office, the British Defence Ministry forbade former members of the British forces to don their uniforms for the launching ceremony. This negative order was ignored by several ex-servicemen, without further consequence.

On 13th April 1990, the Soviet authorities at last admitted Soviet responsibility for the massacres at Katyn and elsewhere, although the figure cited in the relevant statement around 15,000 fell short of the real total by more than 6,000. The admission came in a statement by the Tass news agency, with the personal authority of the then Soviet leader, Mikhail Gorbachev. The statement referred to only three of the prison camps involved: Smolensk, Voroshilovgrad and Kalinin. It claimed that the authorities had knowledge of the killings through recently discovered documents. Direct responsibility for the crime was ascribed to N.K.V.D. chief Lavrenti Beria. The statement ended with these words: The Soviet side, expressing profound regret over the Katyn tragedy, declares that this was one of the gravest crimes of Stalinism.

After a meeting in Moscow that day, Gorbachev presented the Polish President, General Wojciech Jaruzelski, with copies of the N.K.V.D.s lists of names of Polish internees in the three camps mentioned. The Polish government issued a statement declaring that the question of responsibility for the massacre had weighed particularly painfully on Polish-Soviet relations, and that the long-awaited Soviet admission made possible a relationship based on partnership and true friendship. The statement went on with these words: Reconciliation can only be built on truth. It is surely fair to add that the Tass statement, although useful for relations between the ailing Soviet Union and its Polish satellite, was true but not the whole truth. Only three of the localities involved were named, and the total fell short of the true figure.

The Polish statement was striking not only for its content but because it had been drafted under the authority of Jaruzelski a Communist leader installed under Soviet protection. In September of that year, he was forced to resign and in December he was replaced as President by the elected anti-Communist leader Lech Walesa.


 1 Prima Publishing, Rocklin, California. For an abridged account of these events, see pp. 65-67. For the full texts of documents quoted above, see Appendix A, Documents 2-14.

National Observer No. 44 - Autumn 2000