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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

A Monument for Katyn

Winston Churchill wrote that "Poland's fate is like a never-ending tragedy." Its history is the story of countless bloody wars and of rebellions that were put down with particular cruelty. And then came Hitler's blitzkrieg.

In 1939, 11,000 Polish officers found themselves taken prisoner by the Soviet Army which, according to the terms of the secret protocol of the Malenkov-Ribbentrop pact, had occupied eastern Poland. Stalin had by then already settled on his plan to eliminate the elite elements of Polish society in order to make it easier for him to manipulate the country from Moscow.

But Stalin's dirty secret could not remain hidden for long. On April 13, 1943, German radio announced that occupation authorities in Smolensk had discovered, in nearby Katyn forest, the graves of 10,000 Polish officers who had been executed by "Jewish commissars." The Germans organized an international investigative commission that determined the officers had been murdered in the spring of 1940.

In January 1944, a Soviet special commission was sent to investigate and it determined that the executions were carried out in the fall of 1941, after the Germans had occupied the area. This remained the official Soviet version until just a few years ago.

In 1990, Boris Yeltsin, then the president of the Russian Republic of the Soviet Union, traveled to Warsaw with a copy of a document dated March 1940 and signed by Stalin which gave the order to execute 14,736 Polish officers and other officials. There was also another order to execute an additional 10,685 Polish citizens who had been arrested by the Soviet secret police.

Yeltsin's decision to turn over the Katyn documents to Poland, though, has more than merely symbolic significance. It may well exert a positive influence on Russian-Polish relations over the long term. "Katyn is a symbol of sincerity in our relations," said Polish President Lech Walesa when the documents were handed to him. "Yesterday, crimes were followed by lies. Today, in the wake of this truth that President Yeltsin has decided to publicly disclose, will follow understanding, confidence and friendship."

After it became known that the Katyn forest held other victims -- including soldiers who died during World War I, several dozen Soviet prisoners of war who had been shot by the Germans and other victims of Stalinist terror -- it was decided to turn the area into a memorial park. Poland immediately came out in favor of this idea and expressed a willingness to actively participate in its realization. However, conflicts soon arose between the Poles and the local authorities, who accused one another of only trying to find "their own" victims.

It is, however, a national shame for Russia that half a century after winning the war, we still have not buried many thousands of our fallen soldiers and other casualties of the fighting. It is unlikely that the Smolensk authorities would have ever gotten around to searching for "our" victims, had it not been for the insistence with which the Poles were looking for "theirs."

Finally, just this September, preliminary work was begun to determine the precise locations where the bodies were buried in the forests near Katyn in the Smolensk district and near the village of Medny near Tver. Mikhail Zhuravsky, Polish consul general in Russia, reported recently that the 22 advisers who came from Poland to work on this project had met with widely varying receptions. In Tver, local authorities had greeted them warmly and provided them with everything they needed to get down to work.

In Smolensk, however, the investigators found that the local administration had done nothing to provide them with equipment, tools or labor for the project, even though everything had been precisely spelled out in writing long beforehand. It was not until Prime Minister Viktor Chernomyrdin visited the excavation site this summer that the logjam was broken. Within a few days, bulldozers and excavators appeared at the site and two detachments of soldiers were sent to assist.

The soil around Katyn is sandy and nothing remains of the bodies there except a few bones and some bits of their clothing, boots and equipment. Current plans do not call for exhumations there, especially since both the German and Soviet investigating commissions already substantially disturbed the site. In Medny, however, it would make sense to exhume the bodies. There they are protected by a thick layer of clay and the bodies are well-preserved. The Russian side, however, is opposed to exhumation and insists on building a cemetery on top of the site where more than 6,000 Polish victims are interred. The Poles have proposed that the cemetery be created in a vacant field nearby.

The exploratory work that has just begun is expensive. Chernomyrdin has already signed an order setting aside 23 billion rubles ($7.5 million) from the state budget for the project. But when Vyacheslav Bragin, the head of the Russian coordinating committee for memorials to the victims of Stalinism, was asked where the money would come from, he was unable to answer. He added hopefully, "It will be found."

Still another problem has proved particularly upsetting to the Polish side. Soviet records concerning the cases of the executed officers still have not been disclosed. A letter from a former KGB head to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev says that "all the records of the 21,857 cases have been sealed." Poles remain convinced that those records are still at Lubyanka to this day. The Russian government so far has not responded to requests for access to the records or for confirmation that they were destroyed. "This position is incomprehensible and unworthy of a government that is trying to prove itself just and democratic," said Zhuravsky.

Gennady Charodeyev is a reporter for Izvestia. He contributed this comment to The Moscow Times.