The Katyn Massacre

You might have read the AP News story about recently de-classified documents revealing that the U.S. government knew about Soviet Russia’s Katyn Massacre of 22,000 Polish officers as early as 1943. As a former government documents librarian, anything in the news about “govdocs” catches my eye. However this particular story is close to home, literally: I live near one of the massacre sites.

map of Katyn massacre

Map showing Katyn Massacre sites. We live in Kharkov, circled in purple.

Here’s a timeline related to Katyn, pulled together from several sources, including this AP story:

  • September 1939: Germany invades Poland, starting WWII; USSR and Germany secretly agree to divide Poland; Soviets capture thousands of Polish officers and citizens and deport them to the USSR (internment camps in Russia, Belarus, and Ukraine)
  • March 1940: in a letter, Stalin approves NKVD (Soviet secret police) order to “liquidate” all Polish POWs
  • April-May 1940: the Katyn Massacre: Soviet secret police kill 22,000 Polish POWs and dump their bodies in mass graves in multiple locations, Katyn Forest being one of the largest
  • Summer-Fall 1941: Germany invades the Soviet Union, overtaking the area around Katyn Forest in September (see map); Russia joins the Allies
  • April 1943: Nazi Germany announces finding mass graves at Katyn and blames Russia, hoping to weaken agreement between the Allies
  • May 1943: Germans bring American and British POWs to see the advanced decomposition of Polish victims at Katyn and other evidence that they were killed in 1940, proving they were killed by the Soviets before Germany invaded in 1941; soon after, the American send coded messages to the U.S. government indicating that they believed the Nazis and had seen proof that the USSR was at fault
  • May 1945: World War II ends, American POWs file written report on Katyn (which is lost)
  • 1951-1952: U.S. Congressional Committee investigates the Katyn Massacre (including more testimony from the POWs); it concludes Soviet guilt
  • April 1990: Mikhail Gorbachev publicly admits Soviet guilt for Katyn and releases related documents
  • September 10, 2012: NARA (National Archives and Records Administration) releases declassified Katyn-related documents that show the Roosevelt administration knew of Soviet guilt as early as 1943, but ignored this information to preserve the alliance with Stalin

The main site of the Katyn Massacre took place at Smolensk (Russia), near the Katyn forest. The other locations of simultaneous Polish mass murders in the USSR were Tver (Russia), Minsk (Belarus), three cities in Ukraine: Kiev, Kherson, and where we now live: Kharkov. (Kharkov is 460 miles south of the Katyn area.) Below is a map showing the mass grave sites in Kharkov relative to the memorial, and where we live (click to enlarge). The mass grave sites are marked A, B, and E. In red text, I added the location of the memorial, our apartment, Alex’s office, and the main square.

Kharkov map with Katyn memorial

Kharkov map from the book God’s Eye.

This is what happened at Kharkov. Under orders from Stalin, the NKVD brought 4,300 Polish people from a Soviet internment camp in Ukraine called Starobielsk and killed them in Piatykhatky. At the time, Piatykhatky was a village 8 miles north of Kharkov; it’s now a suburb within the Kharkov city limits. The victims (3,820 soldiers and 480 civilians) were originally buried there, and were rediscovered by children playing in the woods during the 1950s and 1960s. The site is now a Katyn memorial; I visited it shortly after moving to Kharkov last November. The memorial also honors 2,100 Ukrainian victims of Stalin’s purges, primarily intellectuals killed there during 1937-38. The memorial is moving and inclusive; sculptures there represent the various faiths of all buried there: a Western cross, an Eastern Orthodox cross, a star of David, and a crescent moon. The name of each Polish victim is engraved on a separate plaque set in the ground.

Katyn memorial

Just one small section of Kharkov’s Katyn Memorial. This wall is devoted to the 2,100 murdered Ukrainians, with an Orthodox cross. The rusting wall symbolizes the blood shed there.

The National Archives and Records Administration (NARA) has recently made a huge effort to find and make public all documents related to the Katyn Massacre, including declassifying many documents previously unseen by the public. Many of these were released this Monday; there is a NARA webpage devoted to Katyn as well as a documents finding aid. NARA has also uploaded an old documentary on Katyn to YouTube (see video below). It centers around the “mystery” of Katyn, when Russia was still blaming Nazi Germany for the massacre. (Here’s a 1979 article from the Journal of Historical Review examining the mystery of what happened to the 10,000 Polish citizens not found at the Katyn site.) The truth was only made public in 1990 when Mikhail Gorbachev officially admitted Russian guilt for Katyn.

Related Documents:

What’s notable about the NARA record release is that it proves that the U.S. government was aware during the war that Russia, not Germany, was responsible for the Katyn Massacre. In 1943, two American prisoners of war were taken by their German captors into the Russian forest to see the bodies of the Polish victims. Their advanced state of decomposition, and artifacts accompanying the bodies that were clearly dated from 1940, indicated to the POWs that the Nazis were in fact telling the truth, that the Katyn massacre had occurred before Germany had invaded this part of Russia. The POWs accounts were sent to the U.S. via code in 1943. But the U.S. claimed ignorance to preserve its alliance with Stalin, in order to win World War II. Descendants of the victims have attempted to prove this for years, and the NARA document release finally proves them correct.

In a related tragedy, do you remember the April 2010 plane crash that killed the president of Poland and his cabinet? Sadly, they were on their way to Russia for a commemoration of the 70th anniversary of the Katyn Massacre. The US made a resolution to commemorate this event. As a diplomatic show of solidarity with Poland, Russia published documents related to the Katyn Massacre online. The archive includes the letter (see first page below) detailing the plan to “liquidate” Soviet internment camps, which was signed by high-ranking Soviet officials, including Stalin. You can see Stalin’s signature on the left, I believe it’s the top one: И.В. Сталину in Cyrillic.

Katyn letter

Letter indicating plan to dispense with all Polish citizens held at Russian internment camps.

So that’s the long, sad tale. It’s grimmer fare than I usually write, but I wanted to share because I was impressed by the memorial last year, but didn’t really understand the story behind it. Now that it’s been in the news, and I’ve spent a few days researching the history and finding related government documents from both sides, I wanted to put the story out there. It’s different being here, where something of this magnitude happened, different than reading in a book. Just like our visit to Chernobyl this summer, which I’ve yet to write about. History isn’t some dry list of facts and dates in a dusty old book, history is life that happened to real people.


9 thoughts on “The Katyn Massacre

  1. Serg says:

    Excellent post.
    I leave in the same city. I heard and read a lot about this tragedy online and from mass-media. I knew that a lot of Polish officers were killed near Katyn but I didn’t know the background either.

    The last document which is attached to article (from Russian archive) was created by Lavrentii Beria, Stalin’s right hand and the second person of the USSR. He was executed right after Stalin’s death by the order of Nikita Khrushev.

    By the way we haven’t been told anything about this tragedy when I was at school even Soviet Union didn’t exist anymore.

  2. kaykando says:

    You summed it up nicely, Starr. It IS different being there. Pictures and stories relate the events, but being there gives the opportunity to appreciate and understand what we have heard, read, and seen in pictures. It reveals a whole new level of understanding that a person doesn’t even realize they could achieve.

    This is just another reminder of the dark times of war. The periods of WWI and WWII have not yet revealed the atrocities that went on, yet what we have seen and heard was horrendous. We can be thankful that we haven’t had any major wars since then, and continue to hope and pray for peace.

    • Starr Hoffman says:

      Thanks. It’s amazing that pictures tend to be more effective than words, yet an experience can trump even pictures.

      I, too, pray for peace.

  3. Kathy says:

    What fascinating stuff! I was also somewhat familiar with the name “Katyn” but learned a lot of new details from your post. What strikes me is the lengths that the Allies were willing to go thru to defeat the Nazis. Which we probably wouldn’t have done without the Soviets. So, what to think about this? All you can really conclude is that the world is ALWAYS more complicated than you think, no matter how closely you look. Thanks for pulling this material together. I want to spend some time studying the NARA webpage, which looks really, really cool for docs-geeks and non-docs-geeks alike.

    • Starr Hoffman says:

      Yeah, I’m really glad that NARA didn’t just make the material available, but took the time to craft a really nice introduction and portal to the info. Then again, it’s NARA, so it’s hardly surprising, right? They do such an awesome job again and again–I LOVE LOVE LOVE their “charter documents” pages on the U.S. Constitution and Declaration of Independence. ❤

    • Starr Hoffman says:

      Absolutely! I’m not exactly sure on the directions myself, but I think it’s pretty easy. I think the children’s train near Gorky Park stops (or used to?) at the Memorial. Between that and the map, looks like all we need to do is keep walking north on Cymskaya after Gorky. Should be a little north of there, on the west/left.

  4. Sergey Kemskiy says:

    Kharkiv is considered to be a Ukrainian city with a very developed industry. Moreover, it is a beautiful city, really worth to see it. That is why there are lots of vacationers and business tourists. It makes hotel rooms prices to grow up. I create a directory of Kharkiv apartments to rent People can find there cinviniant flats for reasonable prices. If you know other good Kharkiv apartments, you can submit their contacts to this directory.

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