“The sum of evidence points to the responsibility for the crime resting on the then-leadership of the NKVD department. The Soviet side expresses deep regret over the tragedy, and assesses it as one of the worst Stalinist outrages.”
This statement was broadcast for the first time by the Telegraph Agency of the Soviet Union on 13 April 2010, on the 47th anniversary of the discovery of the Katyn mass graves. It took the Soviet Union 47 years to admit to the guilt of a series of mass executions of 22,000 Polish military officers and intelligentsia in the Russian forest in 1940. But with his recent comments about Poland’s complicity in the start of the Second World War, Russian president Vladimir Putin is harking back to the USSR’s false wartime narrative and unfairly turning perpetrators into victims.
In a series of statements made in December 2019, Putin accused Poland of collaboration with Hitler and of antisemitism. He did so at some of the most important meetings held in Russia: the Commonwealth of Independent States summit, the annual board meeting of the Defence Ministry of Russia, the traditional end-of-year meeting with Russia’s key businesspeople, and a meeting with parliamentary leaders, which even resulted in State Duma speaker Vyacheslav Volodin’s call for Poland to apologise for starting the war.
All these were part of Russia’s continuous efforts to divert attention from its dark wartime past and reinforce Putin’s narrative of a strong, faultless country which is a natural successor to war-winning USSR.
President Putin’s criticism of Poland was partly sparked by a recent European Parliament resolution, which blames both the Soviet Union and Nazi Germany for the outbreak of the Second World War. The resolution confirms that 80 years ago, on 23 August 1939, the Soviets and the Germans signed the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, and its secret protocol, dividing Europe and the territories of independent states between the two totalitarian regimes. It states that as a direct consequence of the pact, followed by the Nazi-Soviet Boundary and Friendship Treaty of 28 September 1939, Poland was invaded by Nazi Germany and two weeks later by the Soviet Union.
Later, the USSR ferociously attacked Finland and occupied and annexed parts of Romania as well as Lithuania, Latvia and Estonia. These are undeniable facts, the truth, and, unfortunately for Putin, they come from one of the world’s most important and reputable institutions.
The denial of responsibility for the Nazi-Soviet pact currently being propagated by the Russian authorities must be continuously met with a firm response from the custodians of the truth. It must be opposed so that the 150,000 Poles who died at the hands of the Soviets did not die in vain. I am therefore glad that Poland has strongly opposed Putin’s words, with prime minister Mateusz Morawiecki emphasising that without Stalin’s complicity in the partition of Poland, and without the natural resources that Stalin supplied to Hitler, the Nazi German crime machine would not have taken control of Europe. Thanks to Stalin, Hitler could conquer new countries and prepare Holocaust, one of the worst crimes in the history of humankind. His statement has gathered international support, including from German Ambassador to Poland Rolf Nikel, who said: “The USSR together with Germany participated in this brutal division of Poland.”
Russian statements contradict not only fundamental historical facts but they are above all dangerous, reducing the Soviet responsibility for destroying peace in Europe and shifting the blame for the outbreak of the Second World War onto France, United Kingdom and Poland. President Putin’s words sound especially threatening and damaging in the context of the upcoming International Holocaust Remembrance Day, marked on 27 January, the day of the anniversary of the liberation of the Auschwitz-Birkenau concentration camp by the Red Army. It is a day when we should remember those who suffered and the people responsible for it, not bow to historical revisionism.
This Holocaust Memorial Day, then, is perhaps the best opportunity to highlight the tragic events of the past and the reasons for them. This way we honour the victims, condemn the perpetrators and lay ground for reconciliation based on truth and remembrance.
Remembering the victims of totalitarian regimes as well as recognising and raising awareness of the shared European legacy of crimes committed by Soviet, Nazi and other regimes is of vital importance for the unity of Europe and for marking sure that a tragedy like the Second World War never happens again. For that, we must stand strong together and give no consent to turning perpetrators into victims.
Arkady Rzegocki is Polish Ambassador to the UK