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A Book of Memory: “The Victims of Katyn” (

18 June 2015

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Katyn – an unresolved problem?

Following the discovery in 1943 of the graves of Polish officers shot in 1940 in Katyn Forest, near Smolensk, the USSR authorities lied to the whole world and their own citizens for over 47 years, insisting that Hitler’s soldiers had shot the prisoners of war in 1941.

In 1990, official confirmation was finally released that the Katyn shootings were a crime committed by the Soviet authorities. From 1992 onwards it became known that, according to a letter by Beria dated 5 March 1940, the decision to shoot 22,000 Polish prisoners of war was taken by the Politburo (Central Committee of the All-Union Communist Party [Bolsheviks]), or in other words the USSR’s supreme governing body, whose members included Stalin, Voroshilov, Molotov, Mikoyan, Kalinin and Kaganovich. In 2010 this acknowledgement of Soviet culpability for the Katyn massacre was confirmed in a special declaration adopted by the State Duma of the Russian Federation.

Yet the Chief Military Prosecutor’s Office of the Russian Federation refuses to follow the procedure prescribed in the Law On the Rehabilitation of the Victims of Political Repression, or in other words to recognise the Polish citizens murdered during the Katyn massacre as victims of political repression, claiming that it is impossible to prove the individual deaths of the many prisoners of war who were shot, on the alleged grounds that documentary evidence is no longer available. According to the Russian government, therefore, the Katyn massacre was indeed a crime committed by the Soviet Union, but the 22,000 executed Polish citizens were merely an anonymous mass of victims.

What is the essence of the problem? The most important documents dating back to Soviet times were indeed destroyed in 1959, but others are still extant, and they include lists of the names of all the massacred prisoners of war. Examined collectively, these documents supply the evidence required to identify the Polish citizens shot by NKVD units on the orders of the Politburo. These individual victims of the Katyn massacre have still not been rehabilitated, however.

What is our goal?

This year sees the 75th anniversary of the Katyn massacre, and we would like to publish a book of memory entitled “The Victims of Katyn”, containing the names and short biographies of the 4,415 Polish prisoners of war and inmates of the Kozelsk prison camp who were shot by the Smolensk Division of the NKVD in spring 1940 and buried in Katyn Forest. This will be the first book of its kind in Russian.

A group of researchers from Memorial has gathered together a wide range of sources (Soviet, German and Polish), many of which are being used for the first time. These sources have revealed previously unknown details about the whereabouts of many Polish officers held captive in the period between the autumn of 1939 and the spring of 1940, and the dates of the shootings during April and May 1940 when all the inmates of the Kozelsk prison camp were killed. Biographical information has been gathered from printed and archival sources about the POWs’ life in captivity and sometimes about their pre-war life, even including photographs.

Who is working on this project?

A group of Memorial researchers under the leadership of Aleksandr Gyryanov, whose research focuses on repressions against Polish citizens, has been working on the “Polish programme” for many years.

Memorial is working on the book “The Victims of Katyn” together with the Polish NGO KARTA Center, which was involved in a joint project in 2013 to publish a Polish-language book of memory entitled “Zabici w Katyniu”. The names in this book will now appear in Russian for the first time, and the forthcoming Russian edition has also been expanded with the help of new sources.

The well-known graphic designer Boris Trofimov is responsible for the design of the hefty 900-page tome.

Why are we counting on funding from Russia?

We believe it is important to allow Russian citizens to take part in this project, and as Russian citizens we must bring the Russian government to fully rehabilitate by name each individual victim of the Katyn massacre. The book which will shortly be published contains all the evidence needed to rehabilitate each of the 4,415 prisoners of war.

Why do we want to publish the book of memory “The Victims of Katyn” and give a presentation on 17 September?

It was on 17 September 1939 that the Soviet state, acting on the basis of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, advanced its troops into Polish territory, a move followed by mass repressions. The Katyn shootings in 1940 were one of the core elements of the many crimes against the Polish state. We will never change what happened 75 years ago, but we can investigate the crime in order to reveal the whole truth, name the guilty parties, preserve the memory of the victims and work towards achieving their rehabilitation.

Will the project continue?

Yes. Firstly, Memorial will continue its efforts to secure the rehabilitation of the Polish citizens who were shot. Secondly, all of their names will be published on the Internet so that people all over the world can read them. Thirdly, there are plans to publish books of memory for the Polish prisoners of war shot in other camps. A certain amount of research has already been carried out into the biographies of the prisoners of war held in the Ostashkov camp.

Translated by Joanne Reynolds