The tragic death of Polish President Lech Kaczynski, together with dozens of military commanders, politicians and top advisers, has fixed the spotlight on the Katyn massacre of 70 years ago and the context in which it occurred. This will have a sobering effect on Polish-Russian reconciliation unless all the facts about World War II are finally acknowledged by leaders of the Russian Federation – the legal inheritor of the Soviet Union.
While Russian leaders celebrate the 65th anniversary of World War II Victory Day in Moscow on May 9, awkward questions will be asked about the infamous Soviet-Nazi alliance that made World War II possible. In recent years, the Kremlin, in claiming Russia’s “great power” continuity, has sought to downplay or disguise the origins of the war. Indeed, official statements and history books continue to depict the Soviet Union as a victim and victor rather than as a co-conspirator with Hitler when it invaded Poland in September 1939, murdered tens of thousands of Polish citizens and deported more than a million into Siberian exile.
The air crash near Katyn will refocus Polish-Russian relations and give new urgency to recent moves by both capitals toward reconciliation. Indeed, Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had been lauded for inviting Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk to a commemoration ceremony in Katyn before the fatal air crash, thereby acknowledging its importance for the Polish nation.
However, Mr. Putin’s objective may not have been so clear-cut. Plainly, the Kremlin can no longer brazenly deny that the Katyn murders were perpetrated by the Soviet security services. Instead, it is seeking to contextualize them and thereby minimize their significance. Russia has avoided issuing a formal state apology to Poland; it depicts Katyn as one of several atrocities by the faceless “totalitarian regime” and refuses to call the Katyn massacres a war crime.
The reasoning is logical. If Katyn were defined as a war crime, one would need to ascertain who was at war with whom. Why did more than 20,000 Polish officers and more than a million Polish citizens find themselves in the Soviet Union in September 1939, prevented from defending Poland from the Nazi invasion? Russia’s current leaders want to avoid discussion about the Soviet invasion of Poland, the Hitler-Stalin pact and the close collaboration between the two dictators before and during World War II aimed at carving up Poland and the rest of Eastern Europe. The Soviets only became anti-Nazi when Hitler decided he no longer needed Moscow as an ally.
Instead of acknowledging facts about the origins of World War II, the Kremlin is engaged in a massive deception, seeking to convince the world that Russia was the key to victory in Europe. It fails to point out that under Josef Stalin, the Soviet Union also was the key to defeat for many Europeans. The Soviet Union enabled Hitler to launch the blitzkrieg against Poland; provided vital economic, energy and military supplies to Berlin, enabling Hitler to launch the conquest of Western Europe; and assisted in creating the conditions for the Nazi Holocaust while conducting its own mass murdersand deportations from subject nations.
It is not surprising that Mr. Putin wanted to push Katyn to the sidelines before the May 9 anniversary and calculated that Polish leaders would reciprocate for his minimal acknowledgement of Katyn by attending the celebrations and thus giving credence to Moscow’s skewered version of history. The Katyn air crash may undermine this strategy, as the mass murders of 70 years ago have become a live subject for public debate amidst calls for closer scholarly scrutiny.
Ironically, the second Katyn tragedy provides an opportunity to initiate a genuine Russian-Polish reconciliation if Russia’s leaders undertake several crucial steps. First, they will need to acknowledge publicly that the Katyn murders were a war crime perpetrated against Poland and an attempt to decapitate the leadership of a country that the Stalin regime wanted to occupy and annex, which it did after the war.
Second, all the archives sealed in Russia pertaining to the atrocity will need to be opened to historians in order to gain all pertinent facts on the precise identity of the perpetrators and how the crime was covered up for more than 50 years.
Third, the Russian authorities must begin to tell the full truth about Stalin and the Soviet role during World War II as a co-conspirator with Hitler as well as one of Hitler’s eventual victims. Without such courageous measures, the Warsaw-Moscow thaw will simply remain a layer of loose earth over the permafrost.
Janusz Bugajski, the holder of the Lavrentis Lavrentiadis Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies.