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March 8, 2005 by AK

Katyn’, 65 years later

Polit.ru reminds that on March 6, 1940, the Politbureau of the Bolshevik party decided to execute over 25,000 Polish prisoners of war, policemen, and government officials captured during the occupation of Eastern Poland (Western Belarus and Western Ukraine, as most of those areas are now known) in September 1939. Mass executions followed, the site of the most infamous being Katyn’, west of the ancient Russian city of Smolensk, where over 4,400 Polish POWs were shot. Although neither the only nor the largest site, “Katyn'” now refers to all those killings. According to a secret 1959 note from KGB chief Alexander Shelepin to Khruschev, a total of 21,857 people were executed. Apparently, the Communist party leadership then ordered all the case files of the POWs destroyed.

My understanding is that Soviet leaders admitted Stalin’s responsibility for the crime in the late 1980s (Moscow had previously blamed it on Nazi occupation troops). Later, Yeltsin’s government declassified the Party archives, making clear it was the Politbureau that ordered the mass executions. However, for some reason Gorbachev spoke of 15,000 dead, accounting for most but not all POW camps. (Another number I have come across is 14,000. Perhaps these are apparently the POWs whose identities could be more or less certainly traced down.)

I would stick to the Shelepin note with the 22 thousand victims. The total number of Polish soldiers and officers taken prisoner by the Soviet Army apparently exceeded 200,000, likely close to 250,000. This gives the magnitude of the killing — it was literally a decimation.

Recommended references: 1) Brian Crozier of Hoover Institution (follow the link to Hoover Archive); 2) Katyn’: a most informative Russian site that seems to have all the documents and links one needs to approach the subject (knowledge of Russian is required though).

Isn’t it remarkable that, in true Bolshevik fashion, thousands of Polish prisoners were housed in a monastery in the Optina Desert, perhaps the most revered center of Russian monastic life in the 19th and early 20th centuries? The monastery in the Nilus Desert, an island on Lake Seliger, housed another POW camp.

(To be continued)


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