I’ve taken some time to read through the various commentaries and introspections following the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacre, and it’s come time for the promised rundown.
The by-far most frustrating op-ed comes to us via the Washington Post from Anne Applebaum. Wife of Polish foreign minister Radoslaw Sikorski, Mrs. Applebaum approaches the debate over Katyn’s legacy on the grounds that “this is not […] an argument about history but, rather, an argument about contemporary politics, conducted in the form of a historical debate.” While I think she has a point (we’re always debating from “contemporary” perspectives, after all), Applebaum totally ignores that fact that today’s politics are the result of yesterday’s history. “An interpretation of history” isn’t the doppelganger enemy of “real history” – the most scholars and citizens can do to understand history is to familiarize themselves with the various competing perspectives and biases surrounding any particular event.
At any rate, Applebaum seems to think, rather simplistically, that Russians will come around to Western/Polish thinking once they stop lying: “perhaps the Russian elite has finally worked out that their country cannot be modernized if Russia’s citizens maintain a Stalinist mentality and a Stalinist interpretation of history.” But recognizing the mass murder at Katyn hardly resolves the issue. The Russian government did this almost twenty years ago, and look what little serenity it brought to relations between Warsaw and Moscow. Indeed, this foolish line of reasoning dates back to 1992, when the Kremlin first confessed Soviet guilt. Celestine Bohlen, reporting for the NYT, said the following on October 14, 1992: “The documents, handed over by Russia’s chief archivist to President Lech Walesa in Warsaw, appear to end a grisly mystery that has long haunted Russian-Polish relations.”
The really annoying thing about Applebaum’s article, though, is her obtuse refusal to admit that Putin is not a Stalinist. Baltic spy Mark Adomanis has already raged quite convincingly against this neocon meme, but it’s worth drawing additional attention to Applebaum’s conclusion, which demonstrates the fundamental insincerity of her assault on Vladimir Putin:
Perhaps Putin, having more difficult issues to worry about, has tired of this ancient quarrel. Perhaps he wants something — oil and gas concessions — from the Polish government. Or perhaps the Russian elite has finally worked out that their country cannot be modernized if Russia’s citizens maintain a Stalinist mentality and a Stalinist interpretation of history. If that is the case, then this will be the first of many such ghosts that will need to be laid to rest. But maybe, just maybe, a different Russian foreign policy would follow.
Here we’re treated to an ugly marriage of conspiracy theory and plain ole dismissiveness. The oil conspiracy is plain enough (and never mind that it runs in the face of other theories about Nord Stream, which Moscow is building supposedly to choke off the freedom of Poland and company), but what about her comment that Putin has “more difficult issues to worry about”? I thought Russia couldn’t “modernize” until it shed its “Stalinist mentality”? If that were true, shouldn’t reconciliation and historical honesty be at the top of the priority list for the Kremlin?
Unfortunately for neoconservatives, they can’t have it both ways. Ill fated are moments like these, when ideological objections to certain leaders produce such embarrassingly silly and self-contradictory revelations.
With far greater sophistication, Graham Stack at Russia Profile explains Russia’s newly emerged “Kremlin-backed conservative anti-Stalinism.” It seeks, he explains, “to de-Stalinize the memory of the victory over Nazi Germany — retaining the glory of victory for Russia and other former Soviet countries, while attributing blame for the negative aspects, such as Katyn, to Stalin and the communist regime.” The alternative, I suppose, is the “liberal anti-Stalinism” popular in the 1990s, which (conservatives would complain) taught Russians to hate their own history. I don’t see anything incorrect in either analysis, though reading moral superiority into either the liberal or conservative variant of anti-Stalinism – something ideologues inevitably do — constitutes the kind of shifty manipulation popular with neocons and communists.
Reports from the NYT, Washington Post, Moscow Times, and other outlets were all careful to remind their audiences that Russian national television recently broadcasted (for the first time) the Oscar-nominated feature film “Katyn,” followed even by a panel of prestigious figures, such as director Nikita Mikhalkov and chairman of the Duma’s Foreign Affairs Committee Konstantin Kosachev. This bit of news has been employed to produce a “wow factor” along the lines of: ‘gee wiz, I guess the Putinist Iron Curtain really is lifting.’ As impressive as this movie premiere was, I found myself caught more off guard by the following statement from “Katyn” director Andzhei Baida, delivered in an interview with Novaya Gazeta:
I am in complete agreement with Prime Minister Putin, who said yesterday that this monstrous crime was committed not by the Russian people, but by the inhuman machine of totalitarianism. With this idea, I made the film.
The Polish director of “Katyn” is in complete agreement with Vladimir Putin? Clearly, Mrs. Applebaum underestimated the scope of this conspiracy, if Poland’s own modern Solzhenitsyn has gone over to the Dark Side!
Speaking of the Dark Side, it’s also worth mentioning that Katyn-deniers are far from extinct in Russia today. Maksim Kononenko, whom I’ve cited on this blog repeatedly and enthusiastically, appears to sympathize with those who question Soviet responsibility for the atrocity. “Why has the investigation into Katyn stopped?” he asks. “Because they couldn’t just quit and say that the USSR had nothing to do with it. That would be a huge scandal. But the facts say that the USSR really did have nothing to do with it.” On his blog, Idiot.fm, he links to a series of articles that dispute the NKVD’s role, questioning the now infamous proofs of Soviet guilt. Writing in Novaya Gazeta, Anatoly Yablokov responds to such conspiracy theories, taking special aim at the debate over bullet types and the origins and incriminations therein. (Spoiler alert: the NKVD apparently carried German firearms.) Yablokov also makes the amusing observation that the Soviet Chief Prosecutor at the main trial of the major Nazi war criminals at the Nuremberg Trials, Roman Rudenko, proposed treating the Katyn massacre as a crime against humanity (an Article VI offense). This was, of course, when the Soviets still claimed the Germans were responsible.
Memorial published a list of requests, addressed to President Medvedev, asking for the following:
1) Overturning the Mezhvedomstvennaia Commission’s December 2004 decision to reclassify the materials relevant to the investigation of Katyn
2) Restarting the investigation, including:
- A complete a list of every individual victim and prisoner,
- A formal burial site for the Ukrainian and Belarussian victims,
- A complete a list of all individuals at all levels guilty of any involvement, and
- A specific and complete list of charges against all perpetrators, according to Russian and international law.
3) Rehabilitation for all victims, in accordance with Victims of the Political Repressions legal statutes.
Memorial is rightly a respected organization, and this appeal to Medvedev is certainly appropriate, given the organization’s commitment to unearthing the entirety of Soviet atrocities. That said, the USSR was a WWII victor, and I expect official tribunals and government apologies to arrive about the same time as when America starts investigating and indicting for the countless criminal acts carried out over the course of 20th century U.S. history. That is to say, dream on, dudes.
In the words of Kathy Bates’ character from Primary Colors, “It’s never the cheater that goes to hell: it’s always the person they cheated.” She may not have had World War II in mind in that movie, but, well, that sounds about right to me.
Update (4/10/2010): On his way to a separate Katyn memorial service in Smolensk, Russia, Polish president, Lech Kaczynski, has died in a plane crash. (He was not invited to the Tusk-Putin event.)
Among those on board the plane were Mr. Kaczynski; his wife, Maria; former Polish president-in-exile Ryszard Kaczorowski; the deputy speaker of Poland’s parliament, Jerzy Szmajdzin’ski; the head of the president’s chancellery, Wladyslaw Stasiak; and the head of the National Security Bureau, Aleksander Szczygo.
While the death toll included much of the government, several of Warsaw’s paramount leaders were not on board — notably Prime Minister Donald Tusk, Foreign Minister Radoslaw Sikorski and Mr. Komorowski, the head of the lower house of parliament.