- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2007


Notwithstanding that a Memorial to the Victims of Communism was unveiled in Washington, DC, in June 2007, the Gulag is fast slipping into oblivion. The Russians have destroyed all but one of the Gulag Archipelago camps, of which there had been hundreds, including the most barbarous ones in Kolyma and Solovki.

The only camp that still stands in all its infamous glory is located in the Urals. It survived almost by accident. In the 1990s, when the momentum of perestroika was still on, a museum commemorating the victims was built on camp grounds. In Vladimir Putin’s Russia, it seemed awkward to destroy the camp that included a museum; and thus the Perm labor camp No. 35 remained a lonely monument to communism’s way of dealing with dissent. But who goes to see Perm? Who knows about Perm except a few academic specialists?

The forest of Katyn in western Russia resonates better with world memory than Perm, though it devoured fewer victims: “only” 20,000 Polish officers, all prisoners of war, brought there surreptitiously at night, truckload after truckload, and shot in the back of the head as they were marched toward the carefully hidden ditches that became their graves.

Katyn was one of three places where these murders took place. It gained notoriety owing to one of history’s bitter ironies. The Katyn graves were discovered by the Germans in 1942, during their occupation of western portions of Soviet Russia. The Germans, ever eager to score propaganda points, waited to announce the discovery until April 1943, when the “liquidation” of the Warsaw Ghetto was to begin and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising broke out. At that point, the Germans brought to the Katyn mass graves the International Red Cross and the world press. Many pictures were taken and published worldwide. The Nazis hoped to divert the world’s attention from what they were about to do in Warsaw.

Amid all this stood the Poles, whose country had to endure Nazi death camps in the west, and the Soviet Gulag in the east. Katyn was just an episode in this grim competition of atrocities.

It was an episode, but it has remained an indelible part of Polish memory. On Sept. 17, or the 68th anniversary of the Soviet invasion of Poland, Polish President Lech Kaczynski visited Katyn with pomp and ceremony. For the first time, the Russian government agreed to such a public manifestation of grief by the Polish head of state accompanied by many descendants of the victims.

Coincidentally, the Oscar-winning Polish film director Andrzej Wajda made a film about Katyn. The film premiered the same day, Sept. 17, in Warsaw’s Grand Theater. Mr. Wajda’s father was among the officers shot by the Soviets in 1940. Mr. Wajda dedicated his film to his father and his mother, who for years hoped against hope her husband would return from Soviet captivity. The final scene of the movie lasts 20 minutes, and it depicts the laborious process of killing the Polish captives.

There is a positive lesson in all this. At the Katyn cemetery, President Kaczynski made an appeal for Polish-Russian reconciliation. From his speech, it became apparent he did not go to Katyn to complain but to reconcile. Much bad blood exists between Poles and Russians, and it will take patience, forgiveness and wisdom to lay the past to rest. Mr. Kaczynski made the first step.

Russia has been friendly with very few of its neighbors. In fact, over the last century Russia has been at knife’s end with virtually all of them, though at different times. It is in Russia’s and the world’s interest to seize the opportunities, however small, to achieve genuine reconciliation with the countries that border Russia and to place grievances in history books instead of government portals such as inosmi.ru.

In European history, Polish-Russian relations have mattered more than Poland’s relative weakness might suggest. If the two countries follow up on Mr. Kaczynski’s initiative, their relations may begin a psychological peace in the region.

The Gulag and Katyn should not be forgotten, but they should not remain potential brush fires. It is a measure of maturity of a great power like Russia to be able to live with its neighbors by means other than intimidation. It remains to be seen whether Russian statecraft will rise to the task.


Ewa Thompson wrote “The Katyn Massacre and the Warsaw Ghetto Uprising in the Soviet-Nazi Propaganda War” for “World War II and the Soviet People,” edited by John Garrard (St. Martin’s, 1993).

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