Ghosts of Katyn: Russia, Poland, and the Troubled Road to Reconciliation


Entrance to the Katyn Memorial.


By Harrison King

Western Russia is awash with Soviet war memorials. Virtually every inhabited area between Moscow and Belarus is home to at least one monument dedicated to Red Army soldiers or civilians who perished during the Second World War. It is a vast, bucolic landscape saturated with sculptures that attest to the mass violence that devastated the entire region and uprooted and killed millions.

Yet not all statues and plaques scattered across provincial Russia pay exclusive tribute to the tragic losses the Soviet Union suffered during the war. Not far from Smolensk—a border town destroyed during the first months of Operation Barbarossa in 1941 and immortalized as a “Hero City” alongside Leningrad and Stalingrad—and the banks of the Dnepr River lies the memorial complex of Katyn. Commemorating the more than 21,000 Polish officers and other prisoners murdered by the NKVD in 1940, it stands in stark contrast to the narrative of heroic sacrifice typical of most Soviet memorials. Though it was only one of several killing fields in the western borderlands of the Soviet Union where Poles were executed systematically, the Katyn memorial—a joint Polish-Russian project officially unveiled in 2000—is often regarded as the epicenter of the massacres.1 Alongside Polish victims, the memorial also serves as the final resting place for many Soviet prisoners killed by the Stalinist regime during the Great Terror (1937-38) and under Nazi occupation.

Like most memorials, the Katyn complex is infused with symbolism. A visitor quickly notices the oversized religious iconography that lends the wooded space an aura of sacrality. Particularly striking are the slanted crosses of Orthodox Christianity that loom over the memorial park. Upon arrival, visitors first pass an imposing Orthodox church that feels incongruous for a place so closely associated, in the Polish imagination, with Catholic martyrdom. Somewhat bizarrely, Orthodox and Catholic crosses, a Star of David, and a crescent moon adorn a sign introducing the grounds of the memorial (these emblems of multiconfessionalism also appear on four large panels inside the Polish section). Near the park entrance, a small granite slab testifies to the more than 500 Soviet POWs executed on site by German forces in May 1943, and just past the arch leading to the Russian section, a large Orthodox cross marks the area where Soviet victims lie buried in mass graves.


Katyn Memorial.  Russian Side.


Katyn Memorial  Cross.

The Polish side, unsurprisingly, is replete with Catholic imagery. A wooden cross with a crucifix stands to the left as visitors turn to proceed down an alley of common graves (also marked by large crosses), including the graves of two prominent Polish generals, to the centerpiece of the memorial: a ceremonial altar. Behind it, a metal cross hovers over two massive, rust-colored panels on which victims’ names are inscribed in seemingly random order. A nearby memorial wall containing thousands of small plaques bearing the names of 4,400 Polish officers wraps around the pits into which their corpses were initially thrown and subsequently reburied. Reminiscent of the Vietnam Memorial on the National Mall in Washington, D.C., the wall evokes the numbing scale of the atrocities that decimated Poland’s military and intellectual class.


Katyn Memorial Altar.

In addition to the main cluster of monuments, the memorial complex features roughly a dozen signboards detailing the human cost of Stalinist terror. The first panels outline the Soviet-era falsifications of the Katyn massacres as German atrocities committed in 1941, but with little critical analysis. Further down stands a train wagon resembling those used to exile political prisoners to far-flung corners of the Soviet Union, flanked by posters about forced labor camps, dekulakization, and the deportation of so-called enemy nations during the Second World War. Yet even as these posters speak openly about the Gulag and other violent episodes in Soviet history, one wonders if they actually divert attention away from the fact that Katyn is primarily a Polish cemetery. Indeed, representing Katyn as a shared tragedy recalls the Soviet government’s postwar attempts to de-emphasize the crimes committed against particular ethnic or social groups during the war. To some extent, then, one could argue that the overarching theme of collective victimhood compartmentalizes the Soviet Union’s deliberate mass murder of Poles instead of foregrounding it.2



Katyn Memorial.  Names.

Ultimately, the memorial complex at Katyn is at once an encouraging sign of historical reconciliation and a sad reminder of the antagonistic memory cultures that continue to divide Poland and Russia. As a monument to victims of totalitarianism, it is both admirable and problematic. Critics may assert that by juxtaposing Polish and Soviet tragedies side by side, the memorial’s architects have minimized the Soviet Union’s most notorious crime against Poland. Supporters may argue that by constructing a more inclusive narrative of collective suffering, the designers have managed to bring together, if only partially, conflicting perspectives on the recent past (no small feat given that Katyn was a taboo subject the Soviet government covered up for decades). At the same time, the existence of separate Polish and Russian sections suggests that the memories of these past traumas are inherently incompatible.

However one interprets the memorial, it is clear that Katyn remains a point of tension in Polish-Russian relations, especially in light of the plane crash on the outskirts of Smolensk on April 10, 2010 that claimed the lives of President Lech Kaczynski and 95 other high-ranking Polish officials—all of whom were en route to the 70th anniversary of the Katyn massacres. While the disaster prompted an outburst of sympathy from Russia, it only reinforced the idea of Katyn as a perennial Polish graveyard.3 As Poles and Russians continue to grapple with dark chapters in their troubled history, so too will Katyn persist as a contested episode subject to revisionism, mythmaking, and distortion. The days of outright denial of Soviet guilt have long since passed, but the struggle to secure Katyn’s place in popular memory is far from over.


1 For an excellent volume on the history of Katyn and politics of memory surrounding it today, see Alexander Etkind, Rory Finnin, et al., Remembering Katyn (Cambridge and Malden: Polity Press, 2012).

2 For more on the symbolism behind the memorial complex, visit the official website:

3 Polish Prime Minister Donald Tusk and Russian Prime Minister Vladimir Putin had attended a landmark commemorative service at the Katyn memorial a few days earlier on April 7.

Harrison King was a REEES and ITS double major at Miami (2011) and recently obtained his MA in Comparative History at Central European University. He is currently participating in a language and career development program in Moscow known as the Alfa Fellowship.

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