Andrei Kolesnikov: Russia-Poland: A History Too Terrible

Roundup: Talking About History

[Andrei Kolesnikov is an independent journalist and regular contributor to Russia’s leading online newspapers, and]

The reactions of the Russian Internet to the anniversary of the Katyn tragedy, and then the air catastrophe, swung in one of two diametrically opposite ways. Either waves of sympathy and anti-Stalin emotions; or an irony shocking in its cynicism and an ignorance of many-times established historical facts.

There was the same determined proliferation of myths that somehow the Germans were responsible for Katyn. The same attempts to justify Stalinist cruelty. The same irony around subjects one should never ironise about: “What was the President of Poland flying on such an old plane? Couldn’t his friend Obama find him a new Boeing?”.

And yet, as many noticed, there was also a real and human reaction to the events, including, most notably, sincere and emotional outpourings from both Dmitry Medvedev and Vladimir Putin. Marcin Wojciechowski, columnist for Gazeta Wyborcza, even suggested that these awful events could serve as the catalyst for joining together our two very disconnected nations....

Katyn has become an eternal and accursed question for Russians, joining the ranks of “Who is to blame?”, “What is to be done?”, and the even more painful “What’s the score?”. In its proper transcription, the Katyn question reads as follows: “Does contemporary Russia and its present-day leadership carry responsibility for the darkest pages of the Stalinist past?”

The undeniably difficult soul-searching around this question has caused real problems for Russians. To some extent, it accounts for the decision by military prosecutors to close a criminal case and deny posthumous rehabilitation to the victims of the tragedy. That said, there were also the same doubts about attempts to put the record straight over the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. In the Russian mass consciousness — as in the minds of the political elite — this Pact is still considered to have given the Soviet Union time to better prepare for war, by introducing the maximum delay to its start. Any official recognition that in September 1939, the Soviet Union went into war on the side of Hitler’s Germany still appears flatly impossible.

The decision of Vladmir Putin to participate in the memorial events was a huge step forward (after several steps back). The Katyn tragedy was recognised even by the last Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev (though not immediately). We know, for example, of memoranda between Gorbachev and Valentina Falina, head of the International Department of the Central Committee, in which she makes clear that covering up the truth was no longer possible: “The Katyn affair is stirring up Polish public opinion. This is being manipulated by opposition forces in an attempt to raise doubts about Jaruzelski’s course and decision to keep close relations with the Soviet Union”; “until the Katyn tragedy is fully exposed, there cannot be normal relations between Poland and the Soviet Union.... Clearly, we cannot avoid giving the Polish leadership an explanation ... Perhaps it would be more expedient to say what actually happened, who specifically is to blame about what happened, and with this, to close the affair”....

...Putin’s acknowledgement of the Katyn crime – even in such accented form – is critical when considering Russian mass consciousness and public opinion. It is one thing for the “anti-patriotic” Mikhail Gorbachev and Boris Yeltsin to acknowledge a crime; quite another thing when the popular “bearer of law and order” Vladimir Putin does so. You trust Putin. For many, what he said was a real revelation, and was given extra colour by Wajda’s powerful and impressive film, which finally found wide audience thanks to its TV broadcast. Still, pollsters Levada-Centre continue to report that as many as 47% of respondents have not heard about the Katyn tragedy, with a further 10% having difficulty answering. 28% are still convinced that the shooting was organised by Nazi leaders. Just 19% consider it Stalin’s crime. 14% suggest the killings were the result of war-time conditions and therefore can not be considered a crime as such....

Does an improvement in relations await Russia and Poland? The majority of factors would point to such a scenario. On the other hand, Katyn has for the second time in history become the site of a huge loss of Polish life. Since Katyn is located in Russia, Poles will once again come to associate Russia with the death of fellow citizens. Moreover, not everyone was quite as sobered by last week’s events as they might have been. One only has to read internet comments such as “What do they want now? Are we now expected to apologize for the mist?” to understand we should not harbour any illusions. “Resetting” Russian-Polish relations is a difficult and long road. We are only at its beginning.

comments powered by Disqus

More Comments:

Arnold Shcherban - 4/18/2010

German's current generation as far as I know (and I know it well enough) does not carry any sense of guilt for Nazi
much greater than Katyn's crimes, why should Russian do?