07 August 2004
More than 60 years after 22,000 unarmed Polish soldiers were murdered by the Soviet secret police in one of the Second World War's most infamous massacres, Russia has infuriated Poland by refusing to prosecute the surviving suspects.
The so-called Katyn atrocities, which were personally ordered by Stalin in 1940, saw the NKVD (the forerunner of the KGB) kill 21,587 Polish Army reservists in cold blood on the spurious grounds that they were "hardened and uncompromising enemies of Soviet authority".
The killings took place at three different locations but the massacre took its name from just one, the Katyn Forest near Smolensk in western Russia. The murders decimated Poland's intelligentsia; among the dead were officers, chaplains, writers, professors, journalists, engineers, lawyers, aristocrats and teachers.
The event has soured Russo-Polish relations for the past six decades with Warsaw accusing Moscow of deceit, a lack of remorse and brutal indifference. It was only in 1989 that the then President Mikhail Gorbachev admitted that the killings had been perpetrated by Stalin's secret police.
Before that the then USSR blamed the atrocities on the Nazis, even going to the trouble of reburying bodies and bulldozing evidence in an elaborate attempt to deflect the blame. Poland, which regards the killings as a crime against humanity, has long been pressing for a proper investigation and wants the surviving suspects prosecuted.
Professor Leon Kieres, head of Poland's Institute for National Remembrance of the War, came to Moscow this week with Polish war crimes prosecutors. He was cruelly disappointed. Russian prosecutors told him that the crimes took place too long ago to be acted upon and refused to even divulge how many of the suspects were still alive. While promising to share some information with Warsaw, the Russians insisted that the crime could not be classified as genocide, a move that would allow prosecutions to go ahead.
The Polish side was furious. "This was genocide, whether they want to call it that or not. That is the reality, the painful reality for us and for them," Anna Wolinska, who lost her father and uncle in the massacres, told TV Polonia.
Professor Kieres said Poland may now begin its own inquiry.
The incident is the second serious blow to Russo-Polish relations in as many weeks. On the recent 60th anniversary of the 1944 Warsaw Uprising in which 200,000 civilians and 10,000 soldiers were massacred by the Nazis, Poland's Foreign Minister demanded an apology from Russia. The Red Army, close to Warsaw, halted its advance and did not help the Poles.
The Russian Foreign Ministry said, however, that there would be no apology. "We consider it inappropriate and blasphemous to the memory of the fallen to get into public polemics on this score," it said.