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17 Sep, 2007 01:58

War legacy continues to hurt Russo-Polish relations

Lech Kaczynski has arrived in Russia on his first official visit as President of Poland. He's planning to visit Katyn in the west of the country. In 1940 thousands of Polish officers, taken prisoner during the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland, were executed

The Katyn massacre is one of the great tragedies of the 20th century. The mass execution of Polish officers was ordered by Josef Stalin. Between 15,000 and 20,000 were killed.

The mass killings were discovered by Nazi Germany and used in the propaganda war against the Soviet Union during World War Two, while the Soviets were quick to put the blame for the crimes on the Germans themselves.


We got to know about my father from the postcards he sent us from Starobelsk, where they kept him. He was a teacher. The last one was sent in April 1940. We never saw him again. The same with my uncle, Tadeusz. He was a lawyer – his letters came from Kozelsk. His life ended in the burial pits of Katyn.

Gzegoz Hofman
Katyn victims relative

After the war the incident was generally hushed up in Warsaw Pact countries, including Poland itself. Only in 1990 did Mikhail Gorbachev, the first president of the USSR, acknowledge the massacre and hand over the confidential files to Poland.

In 1993 Boris Yeltsin, the first president of the Russian Federation apologized and publicly repented before the monument of Katyn’s victims in Warsaw.

The Katyn memorial was built by order of the Russian government. The mass graves scattered around the site bear the remains of 4,421 Polish officers. In order to hide the graves, those who carried out the executions planted pine trees. So this forest forms an integral part of the memorial and bears witness to the tragic events.

Elena Khachaturova, a member of staff at the memorial museum says the site wasn’t chosen by accident: “This forest was already an immense burial site for Soviet citizens, executed during Stalin’s repressions. There are up to 9,000 Soviet people buried on the territory of this memorial. Unlike the records and possessions of Polish officers, the NKVD destroyed all their personal files and personal belongings, therefore we might never know their names,” she explains.

More than 60 years have passed, but Katyn forest still casts its dark shadow over Russian-Polish relations. The Polish authorities blame Russia for failing to classify the events as war crimes, which have no statute of limitation.


We should remember this tragedy. It has been acknowledged by Russia and politically and morally condemned. It is now a part of the historical legacy. This shouldn’t be a reason for inflating distrust between nations.

Aleksandr Chubaryan

Meanwhile Russia points out that both countries have commited deeds against each other – deeds that might be better left in the past. Aleksandr Chubaryan, a historian from the Russian Academy of Sciences explains this position: “If they want the to the truth, then they should stick to  it too. Tens of thousands of Soviet citizens, including soldiers, were killed in Polish concentration camps after the Soviet-Polish war. They died of illness or starvation. Our Polish colleagues still refuse to form a commission and let us investigate the causes of their deaths,” he says.

Between 16,000 and 20,000 Soviet POWs died in Polish concentration camps in the early 1920s.

Both Katyn and the fate of the Soviet POWs have often been stumbling blocks in relations between the countries.

Katyn is one of the darkest parts of Russian history, causing painful memories all round.