Wednesday, April 07, 2010

Recognizing "historic truth" - The Prime Ministers of Russia and Poland jointly commemorate the 1940 Katyn massacre

Brian Brivati, posting on Dissent's new "Arguing the World" blog, just highlighted "a simple news item" that made him do a double-take. He was right to be startled:
Seven decades ago, Soviet secret police executed thousands of Polish military officers in a forest in western Russia. On April 7, Russian and Polish leaders will meet to officially commemorate the massacre's anniversary together for the first time.
Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin and his Polish counterpart, Donald Tusk, are due to attend a memorial ceremony in the village of Katyn honoring the more than 20,000 officers, policemen, and intellectuals who were killed on Soviet leader Josef Stalin's orders during World War II.
The two men will also pay tribute to Soviet victims of the Stalinist terror.[....]

On April 2, the Oscar-nominated 2007 film "Katyn," by Polish director Andrzej Wajda -- whose father was a Katyn massacre victim -- premiered on Russia's "Kultura" television channel.
The official Russian government newspaper "Rossiiskaya gazeta," which in the past had published articles casting doubt on Soviet responsibility for the Katyn massacre, opined that the screening "shows our society's serious progress on the path toward restoring historic truth about the tragedy of World War II."
Here is a still from Wajda's film:

=> For some readers, the word Katyn may not immediately ring a bell, so it might be worth adding a few words of historical background.

It is sometimes forgotten that, during the first few years of the Second World War, Nazi Germany and the Soviet Union were allies. Part of the 1939 Hitler-Stalin Pact was a secret agreement to carve up Poland between them. A few weeks after the German invasion of Poland, the Soviet Union invaded from the east and seized roughly half of the country. Between that time and Hitler's invasion of the Soviet Union in 1941, hundreds of thousands of Poles were killed, imprisoned, or deported to Siberian camps.

Katyn figures in the most notorious incident from that period. In 1940 the Soviets decided to execute about 22,000 Polish officers and other prisoners of war under their control. In this operation, the largest single massacre was carried out in the Katyn forest, near Smolensk. It is important to emphasize that a large proportion of these murdered officers--most of them, I believe--were not professional military men. They were reserve officers, largely university graduates, called up for service at the beginning of the way. So they included doctors, lawyers, educators, and other professionals as well as civil servants, police, businessmen, journalists, intellectuals, and so on. (Also the Chief Rabbi of the Polish Army, Baruch Steinberg.) This fit into a larger pattern in which both the Nazis and the Soviets systematically targeted members of the Polish intelligentsia and other leading groups in Polish society in order to help cripple potential resistance.

One reason why the Katyn massacre, in particular, acquired such iconic place in Poland's historical memory is that this massive crime was followed up by a long-term historical lie--in which Poles themselves were forced to participate, as long as their country was under Communist rule and Soviet domination. As an article in Deutsche Welle explains:
For 70 years, the Katyn massacre has provided Soviet and Russian governments with a political and diplomatic headache. Until the late 1980s, the official version was that German troops had killed the Poles in 1941, in the wake of the German attack on the Soviet Union. But the Germans uncovered the mass graves at Katyn in 1943 and shifted the blame towards the Soviets.

The Communist propaganda machine was swift to reply. "The whole world must know about the monstrous crimes of the fascist German butchers," cried a Soviet war time movie, a slogan that was repeated time and again in the following decades.

The truth emerged almost half a century later. The then Russian president Boris Yeltsin opened the archives in 1992 and released documents carrying the signature of the Soviet dictator Joseph Stalin. It was the first piece of irrefutable proof that Soviet death squads, not German soldiers, were the perpetrators.

"I did it right away," said Yeltsin. "Every secretary-general of the Communist Party handed these documents to his successor, who put them in his personal safe and kept silent."

Yeltsin offered his apologies to Poland, according to witnesses, with tears in his eyes. [....]
That was a moving gesture, but a relatively isolated gesture. Furthermore, 2010 is not 1992, and Vladimir Putin is certainly not Boris Yeltsin. In today's Russia, Stalin and the Stalinist era are getting increasingly rehabilitated in both public opinion and official discourse.

(And some things never did change. Today's New York Times article reports that the Russian Communist Party, sounding a bit like some US Republicans complaining about Obama, "chastised Mr. Putin on Wednesday for 'going to Katyn to apologize'. In a statement on its Web site, the party said, 'You can apologize as much as you want about the so-called Soviet guilt, but no one can hide the fact of German responsibility for the shootings of Polish soldiers'.”)

Putin, for his part, is a former KGB agent who has repeatedly described the demise of the Soviet Union as "the greatest geopolitical catastrophe of the [twentieth] century"--a truly mind-boggling judgment, considering everything else that happened in the 20th century, even if one forgets for a moment that the history of the Soviet Union was itself a gigantic catastrophe. For Putin to take this step, in his official capacity as Prime Minister of the Russian Federation, is a genuinely big deal.

Quoting the New York Times article again:
Prime Minister Vladimir V. Putin on Wednesday became the first Russian or Soviet leader to join Polish officials in commemorating the anniversary of the murder of thousands of Polish officers by the Soviet Union at the beginning of World War II.

Mr. Putin cast the executions as one tragedy out of many wrought by what he called the Soviet Union’s “totalitarian regime.”
=> As Brian Brivati correctly observes, there may be a lesson here for other countries whose history includes large-scale mass murders, carried out by now-superseded political regimes, which they still cannot honestly acknowledge and confront.
Armenians and Turkey take note: the world is moving towards an understanding and reconciliation on these issues. Putin has made a move. Who will follow?
If even Putin's Russia can stop living this lie (or, at least, begin to stop living it), perhaps a democratic Turkey can begin to face up honestly to the "historic truth" of the Armenian genocide. Yes, it can take time for societies to come to terms with such things, but at this point they've had almost a century. If not now, when?

Yours for reality-based discourse,
Jeff Weintraub

P.S. Many academics in various disciplines, on the basis of conventions that are sometimes well-intentioned and superficially plausible but in fact are substantively fallacious and intellectually and morally misleading, remain allergic to the word "totalitarian." If Vladimir Putin is willing to utter it without embarrassment or circumlocution, perhaps others can follow him in that respect, too.