Katyn War Cemetery

Wandering at the silent Katyn War Cemetery

The Katyn War Cemetery is a Polish war cemetery near Smolensk, Russia. Opened in 2000, the Katyn War Cemetery contains the remnants of the Katyn massacre victims and victims of the Soviet Great Purges in the 1930’s.

The Katyn massacre was a series of mass executions of Polish intelligentsia carried out by the NKVD in April and May of 1940. Though the killings took place at several places, the massacre is named after the Katyn Forest, where some of the mass graves were first discovered. Two years ago, I also visited the village of Mednoye in the Tver oblast, which is near the site of the burial of Polish military members together with Soviet citizens, all shot during the repressions of 1937-1938.

The Katyn massacre was prompted by NKVD chief Lavrentiy Beria’s proposal to execute all captive members of the Polish officer corps, dated 5 March 1940, approved by the Politburo of the Communist Party of the USSR, including its leader, Joseph Stalin. The number of victims is estimated at about 22,000. The victims were executed in the Katyn Forest in Russia, the Kalinin and Kharkiv prisons, and elsewhere. Of the total killed, about 8,000 were officers imprisoned during the 1939 Soviet invasion of Poland, another 6,000 were police officers, and the rest were Polish intelligentsia the Soviets deemed to be “intelligence agents, gendarmes, landowners, saboteurs, factory owners, lawyers, officials, and priests”.

The government of Germany announced the discovery of mass graves in the Katyn Forest in April 1943. When the London-based Polish government-in-exile asked for an investigation by the International Committee of the Red Cross, Stalin immediately severed diplomatic relations with it. The USSR claimed the Germans had murdered the victims in 1941 and it continued to deny responsibility for the massacres until 1990, when it officially acknowledged and condemned the perpetration of the killings by the NKVD, as well as the subsequent cover-up by the Soviet government.

An investigation conducted by the office of the Prosecutors General of the Soviet Union (1990–1991) and the Russian Federation (1991–2004) confirmed Soviet responsibility for the massacres but refused to classify this action as a war crime or an act of genocide. The investigation was closed on the grounds the perpetrators were dead, and since the Russian government would not classify the dead as victims of the Great Purge, formal posthumous rehabilitation was deemed inapplicable.

But there are still many followers of the Soviet version of the situation. Their argument is that Stalin didn’t shoot the Poles, but if by some chance he did then it had been justified.  Communism is a religion, and like any other religion it doesn’t need to offer proof – it just requires blind belief and obedience.

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The first structure near the Katyn War Cemetery, which is seen from Vitebsk road, is a Russian Orthodox church built several years ago. Poles weren’t the first people to die there. At the beginning of the 20th century the forest belonged to two Polish families, the Lednitskys and Kozlinskys. According to local residents, executions in the forest were carried out soon after the revolution. Later, the forest passed to the Department of GPU-NKVD. In the early 1930s, the so-called “NKVD dacha” was built here for employees of that organization. The forest was fenced off, and the entrance to it was strictly forbidden.

According to The Russian researcher M. I. Semiryaga, “during the preparation of mass executions, the Katyn forest, previously open to the local population, was fenced by a fence with barbed wire with a height of 2m.” According to the testimony of local residents, recorded by Yuzef Matskevich, however, the fence was built earlier – soon after 1929. Since February 1940, the territory was guarded by guards with dogs.

The entrance to the territory of memorial.The entrance to the territory of the Katyn War Cemetery.

The left walkway leads to the graves of Soviet repressed citizens and the right one leads to the Polish cemetery.

Freight cars were the standard way to transport the prisoners.

Russian Orthodox cross.

This is how the Russian graves look like. Some of them were found by Polish experts who searched the burials of Polish citizens.  Many of the graves were found by the members of a “Memorial” historical and civil rights society that operates in a number of post-Soviet states. At the moment, 150 Soviet graves are known.

This structure looks like an amphitheater, I think it’s for public events. You need insect repellant to keep the mosquitoes at bay if you want to sit her for any length of time in the summer.

The monument to the murdered Soviet citizens. I think that it was erected not long ago. For a long time the Russian part of the memorial didn’t receive much care, but now it has come to look as good as the Polish one.

The names of victims of the big terror.

The place of death of a churchman from Vitebsk, who later was declared a new martyr. New martyr in the Russian Orthodox tradition is a rank given to victims of repressions during Soviet time. As I said before, communism is a religion and it didn’t want competition, so it persecuted all other religions.

Polish military cemetery. The total number of victims is estimated at about 22,000, with a lower limit of confirmed dead of 21,768. According to Soviet documents declassified in 1990, 21,857 Polish internees and prisoners were executed after April 3, 1940–14,552 prisoners of war (most or all of them from the three camps) and 7,305 prisoners in western parts of the Byelorussian and Ukrainian SSRs. Of them, 4,421 were from Kozelsk, 3,820 from Starobelsk, 6,311 from Ostashkov, and 7,305 from Byelorussian and Ukrainian prisons.

Those who died at Katyn included soldiers (an admiral, two generals, 24 colonels, 79 lieutenant colonels, 258 majors, 654 captains, 17 naval captains, 85 privates, 3,420 non-commissioned officers, and seven chaplains), 200 pilots, government representatives and royalty (a prince and 43 officials), and civilians (3 landowners, 131 refugees, 20 university professors, 300 physicians; several hundred lawyers, engineers, and teachers; and more than 100 writers and journalists). 395 prisoners were spared from the slaughter.

Up to 99% of the remaining prisoners were murdered. People from the Kozelsk camp were executed in Katyn Forest; people from the Starobelsk camp were murdered in the inner NKVD prison of Kharkiv and the bodies were buried near the village of Piatykhatky; and police officers from the Ostashkov camp were murdered in the internal NKVD prison of Kalinin (Tver) and buried in Mednoye.

I think that this place is frequently visited by Poles, since I saw many flowers, Polish flags and photos of victims placed there.

The bell. This part of the memorial is very similar to the memorial in Mednoye.

The cross above.

I’ve heard that this part of the memorial was created first.

To summarize, I spent about an hour and a half walking throughout the entire area of the Katyn War Cemetery. I was the only one person there, as I arrived early morning, when my train from Moscow arrived at Smolensk. The first other visitors were arriving as I left the memorial. It was eerie to think that this quiet place was once the scene of so much horror.