Katyn, Konev and the battle for memory

Katyn-Kharkiv-Mednoje memorial, photo: Goku122, CC BY-SA 3.0

The row over the recent removal of a statue of the Soviet Marshall Ivan Konev in Prague reminded us that the legacy of the recent past remains highly sensitive. Add to this the Russian-Polish debate over this month’s 80th anniversary of the Katyn massacre and you might be forgiven for thinking that Second World War never really ended. David Vaughan spoke to the Swedish-based Czech historian, Tomáš Sniegoň, who has made a close study of Katyn and other sites of Stalinist atrocities in the former Soviet Union. The example of Katyn, he says, reminds us just how hard it is to memorialize the traumatic and complex legacy of the war and the period of Stalinism.

Katyn-Kharkiv-Mednoje memorial, photo: Goku122, CC BY-SA 3.0
In April and May 1940 the Soviet secret police, the NKVD, ordered the mass murder of 22 000 Polish military officers and other representatives of Poland’s elite. They had been taken prisoner in autumn 1939, when the Soviet Union matched Germany’s invasion of Poland from the west with its own invasion from the east. The mass graves of many of the victims in Katyn near the western Russian city of Smolensk were discovered by the Germans in 1943 during their invasion of the Soviet Union. They launched an investigation which they used for their own propaganda purposes. Stalin promptly denied any connection with the massacre and immediately Katyn became a propaganda battlefield.

It also has a Czech connection, as research has shown that among the victims there were former Czechoslovak citizens, mainly from ethnically mixed areas in the Czech-Polish borderlands.

There were also two Czechs involved in the 1943 Nazi investigation. One was the pathologist František Hájek, sent as part of a German-led international delegation, and the other was the writer and poet František Kožík, who was sent to the site with other writers and journalists from across Nazi-occupied Europe. In a radio talk after his return, he described the scenes, including the sickly-sweet smell of decomposing corpses. The Nazis calculated that such vivid accounts of Soviet atrocities would make people conclude that communism would be still worse than what they were experiencing under German occupation. Tomáš Sniegoň began our interview by telling me that in the long run this propaganda campaign proved totally counterproductive.

“The fact that the Germans used Katyn in their propaganda actually helped the Soviets to deny it, because, after 1945 whatever was German was considered very questionable and very negative. And that is why they could even start blaming Germans instead of themselves. The crime was committed in April 1940 but according to the Soviet propaganda from the end of the war it was committed in 1941 after Nazi Germany started to occupy Soviet territory, which means that they wanted to claim that this was a German crime.”

So how has the site been memorialised, both during the communist period, later under Gorbachev, and then since the fall of communism?

“Up to the period of perestroika is was really more or less taboo in the Soviet bloc, but then during perestroika the pressure was increasing, not only from Poland and the international community, but from the relatives and from the victims themselves within the Soviet Union. But thanks to the fairly liberal attitude of Gorbachev the authorities did not stop this initiative.”

Then, in the course of the 1990s there were plenty of signs that Russia and Poland were beginning to find a common language, a way of talking about Katyn that would be in some way acceptable to both sides. President Yeltsin himself was part of that process. He visited Warsaw – the memorial to the victims of the Katyn massacre. It seemed that there was a process of reconciliation, but that has since changed, hasn’t it?

Katyn mass graves, photo: Public Domain
“Until 2010 there were indications that both countries were on the way to a certain reconciliation. In 1996 a decent memorial started to be built and later the Polish part was declared a Polish military cemetery. Another important thing is that, in Katyn particularly, together with 4,000 Polish victims, there were also some Soviet victims of Stalinism, whose fates were unknown. Before they started digging in the 1990s, before they started really to study the history of the place, they did not know all that much about the Soviet victims of Stalinism here. They were not victims of the Second World War or the period after 1939, but of the so-called Great Terror of 1937-38. And these people had remained totally unknown. So, in 1936 they started to build a decent memorial, and this process took many years.

“In 2010 this memorial, including both the Russian and the Polish side, were opened. First the prime ministers of the Russian Federation and Poland met in Katyn – at that time it was Vladimir Putin and Donald Tusk – and then the presidents were supposed to meet in April 2010. It that time it was Dmitry Medvedev and Lech Kaczynski, but what happened was that there was a terrible air crash. All the Polish delegation, trying to land in Smolensk in bad weather, were killed. That’s why it increased the tension, because part of Polish society started immediately to blame the Russians for that accident, that tragedy…”

But there was not any evidence for this, was there?

“International investigations did not support that conspiracy theory. There were certainly some mistakes from the Russian side which are known, but there is also a time factor. These people from Poland, especially the president, wanted to land in time, the weather was very bad, and that’s why they wanted to attend the ceremony at any price, which unfortunately proved to be catastrophic.”

You have visited the site. Now, ten years later, is there any attempt to find a common narrative?

“I have visited the site several times and I am still working with my research there. I would be sceptical about future hope, even though it can quickly change if needed, because what is problematic are political attitudes, especially the attitude of the Russian leadership. Why? Because, since the death of Lech Kaczynski Russia started a war against Ukraine and annexed Crimea in 2014. At the same time a new political party, a right-wing conservative nationalist party, came to power in Poland. So, the will to compromise is very low, if any, at the moment. Also, Putin started to adjust the memorial site in Katyn to what I would call the ‘patriotization of the gulag memory’ in order, first, to make it the site of Soviet suffering and therefore Russian suffering predominantly, not Polish suffering.”

Russia does have a particularly complex legacy with its Stalinist past, because as a nation it is in the position of both victim and perpetrator. It is a very difficult legacy from which to draw some kind of contemporary patriotic narrative.

“Yes, and if you study these sites of memory, you see a certain difference between those sites where foreigners were murdered by the Stalinist regime and where Soviet citizens were murdered. In cases where the victims were foreign, as in Katyn, this process of dealing with the past is not only an internal issue of the Russian Federation, it is also an international affair – part of diplomacy. And therefore it’s a weapon, a way of using the past against the other side.

“At the same time, we have in Poland since 2016 the law about the so-called ‘de-communization’, where symbols of the communist past are being removed, and this has been matched in Russia. It challenged Russian self-perception and that is why Katyn became a place of a kind of Russian revenge against Poland. They want to adjust the place in order to prove the Polish guilt in removing the symbols of the Soviet liberation – even though for the Poles it was not a clear liberation – of Poland by the Soviet Union in 1945.”

Marshall Konev and layers of post-war Czechoslovak history

Removal of Marshall Konev statue in Prague 6, photo: Michaela Danelová / Czech Radio
The debate about Katyn is also relevant in the Czech context, because we have had a debate about the removal just a few days ago of a statue of Marshall Konev, who led the army that liberated Prague in May 1945. Later he was also involved in crushing the Hungarian Uprising in 1956 and in the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968, so he is a deeply ambivalent figure. But the statue that until a few days ago stood in Prague 6 was commemorating his role in the liberation of Prague in May 1945, which is undisputed.

“It’s an interesting process, because if you think about memorials, they are expressions of some current atmosphere in order to evaluate history, in order to choose which history is worth forgetting and which history is worth remembering. If you think about who built Soviet monuments in Prague and why, then there were different periods. There is a period in 1945-48 when people were building these monuments in order to express – still rather freely – their gratitude to the Soviet army. They were grateful for the liberation. But that particular statue of Konev from 1980 was the expression of the so-called ‘normalisation’ period. It was the period when Czechoslovakia was occupied by Soviet troops. They were not invited. It was legitimised later on, but it was a period when these monuments were not expressing the free will of the people. So it is a very problematic period as well and that is why I would also call for a little bit deeper research from the point of view of historians or memory scholars of this question.”

You have given a lot of thought to how traumatic events in history are memorialised. Do you have some kind of recipe for an approach that would enable us all to focus on the key issue, which is: how can we prevent these tragedies happening again?

“I don’t have any recipe unfortunately. If I had I would be very happy. On the other hand, all these debates about memorials, all the debates about history, are actually useful, I would say, because, if they are at a certain level, if they are civilised and if they are focusing on arguments, and if the sides of the conflict really think about each other’s argumentation, they can contribute to society’s development and also to our understanding of our values, and especially our democratic values. And this historical culture of every society is a communicative process which never ends. We never reach a situation where we can say: I have finally come to terms with the past.

“So this is an ongoing process and I think this pluralistic character is especially extremely important. We have to pay attention to details, to facts, and so on, but we also have to respect each other’s arguments, which I think is very positive in the long run.”

And I think there is another important aspect, which is to put focus on the victims – the fact that we are not just talking about numbers. That is often neglected, isn’t it – the human side of the story.

“Absolutely, because lack of empathy toward individual victims sometimes develops into what I call a kind of ‘morbid mathematics’ of victimisation. To go back to Katyn, for example – what happened there during recent years is that the Russian authorities suddenly made it, as I already mentioned, a place of predominantly Soviet suffering. Why? Because they now claim that in Katyn itself, the site of memory, there are 8,000 victims of Stalinism buried, but ‘only’ 4,000 Poles. Earlier it was a site connected with Polish suffering, without any doubt. Now, they want to connect it with Soviet suffering and also Polish suffering. And therefore you have this mathematics. The numbers, however, are not true, because these 8,000 people are not buried on the territory of the Katyn memorial. These are victims of Stalinism from the entire area of the Smolensk region. This means that people murdered elsewhere and buried elsewhere are also brought symbolically to Katyn, in order to ‘beat’ the memory of the Polish victims. And that’s why you see this pragmatic, bureaucratic and very emotionless attitude in order to achieve ‘our’ political goals against ‘them’.

“History approached this way is always a means to future conflict, not to reconciliation, not to understanding and not to education, something that will be more tolerant and more democratic.”