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.
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.
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.
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.
- 1952: The Katyn Forest Massacre, Select House Committee Final Report (digitized from 1988 reprint)
- NARA’s guide to House documents on Katyn
- CIA report: The Katyn Controversy: Stalin’s Killing Field
- 2011 Congressional Research Service (CRS) Report: The United States and Europe: Current Issues (Katyn Massacre briefly referenced)
- another 2011 (CRS) Report: Russian Political, Economic, and Security Issues and U.S. Interests (Katyn Massacre briefly referenced)
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.
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.